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The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Presiding Officer (Dame Rosemary Butler) in the Chair.
 
13:30
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Good afternoon. The National Assembly for Wales is now in session.
 
Questions to the Minister for Natural Resources
Bovine TB
 
13:30
Mick AntoniwBiography
1. Will the Minister provide an update on the progress being made in Wales to control bovine TB? OAQ(4)0189(NR)
 
13:30
Rebecca EvansBiographyThe Deputy Minister for Farming and Food
The latest figures, published on 10 September, show that we continue to make progress in tackling bovine TB in Wales. New herd incidents to July 2014 were down 18% on the previous year, and the number of cattle slaughtered as a result of TB was down 27% on the previous year.
 
13:30
Mick AntoniwBiography
Thank you for that answer. Earlier this year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ own independent assessment of its 2013 badger cull in England concluded that it had been neither effective nor humane, and a subsequent announcement that a further cull would not proceed was widely welcomed, before the Secretary of State changed his mind and postponed a cull to 2015. Would the Minister agree with me that, by bringing forward the date of the cull to before the general election, the new Secretary of State has demonstrated her enthusiasm for placating the farming lobby, rather than following the science, as is done here in Wales?
 
13:31
Rebecca EvansBiography
I thank the Member for his question. I have to say that badger culling in England is a matter for DEFRA Ministers. However, my officials are in regular contact with DEFRA officials, and we naturally take great note of what is happening there. However, the world is watching what we are doing and, make no mistake about it, Wales is at the forefront of international efforts to fight bovine TB. The British Cattle Veterinary Association recently held a prestigious international conference in Cardiff, which was the opportunity to showcase our model. Attendees included the World Health Organisation, European Governments and the European Commission, and they were all here to see what we are doing. Indeed, members of the European Commission’s food and veterinary office are here this very week, looking at what we are doing, and learning from us.
 
13:32
Russell GeorgeBiography
Back to Welsh questions, Deputy Minister, you will be aware of the pending changes to our bovine TB rules, particularly around the testing regime, which will come into force on 1 October. The issue of summer grazing has been raised with me, specifically by those farmers who have cattle on rented summer grazing land, where there may be a lack of suitable and safe cattle handling facilities to carry out TB tests. One solution could be isolating the cattle when they return to the farm and conducting a post-movement test. Can you confirm whether Welsh Government will take this commonsense approach?
 
13:32
Rebecca EvansBiography
I thank the Member for the question. He is right to say that, after the end of this month, there will be no pre-movement testing exemption for movements within sole occupancy authorities. However, there are very good reasons for this. Until now, it has been possible to have a main premises in the high-risk area of north Pembrokeshire and also an SOA on the low-risk island of Anglesey. Until now, you have been able to move cattle between those places, without testing. I think that that presents us with an unacceptable disease risk, and we are dealing with that through these changes.
 
I am grateful to farmers for their co-operation with this. You will know that this new regime coincides with the introduction of interim land association management agreements, which will allow certain movements of this type to continue in the short term. We have written to all affected farmers, and they should contact the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency for further information, if they have any concerns.
 
13:33
Rhun ap IorwerthBiography
Plaid Cymru led a successful campaign in the second Assembly against a new valuation system in terms of TB compensation. The latest Government consultation outlines a system of paying compensation according to average prices. Does the Deputy Minister appreciate that that would lead to paying too little compensation to owners of the finest cattle, and paying too much to the owners of the poorest quality cattle, and would she agree that we need greater flexibility in such a system in order to reflect the difference in the value of the stock in Wales?
 
13:34
Rebecca EvansBiography
The Member refers to the consultation document that was published earlier in the summer. On 18 July, I announced that I would ask my officials to consider all of those responses, some of which echo the arguments that you have made. It is my intention to make a statement on the next steps next month.
 
13:35
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Before we move to question 2, I remind Members that this is question time and not questions with great introductions, so please ask concise questions.
 
Farm Income Levels
 
13:35
William PowellBiography
2. Will the Minister make a statement on farm income levels in Wales? OAQ(4)0190(NR)
 
13:35
Rebecca EvansBiography
Average farm incomes in Wales have increased by around one fifth over the period 2003-04 to 2012-13. Based on the most recent forecasts, average farm incomes in Wales are estimated to increase by around 32% in 2013-14 to £37,300. Actual farm income figures are due to be published in November.
 
13:35
William PowellBiography
I am very grateful to the Minister for that detailed response. Back in the Royal Welsh Show this year, together with my friend Roger Williams, the MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, I took part in a peaceful protest at the Tesco stand. We were protesting against the marginalisation that farmers have felt that they are suffering in relation to the prices that they receive for their quality food. At that time, Deputy Minister, you gave an undertaking, which was press-released, to organise an event that would take account of this and actually engage with the supermarkets and the farming sector. Could you update us please on the progress that has been made in that regard?
 
13:36
Rebecca EvansBiography
Absolutely. We are making some very good progress towards holding that event. I will be holding it in conjunction with Hybu Cig Cymru when it publishes its report on the state of the red meat industry in Wales, and that will be in October.
 
13:36
Paul DaviesBiography
Deputy Minister, sadly, farmers across Wales are seeing substantial cuts in milk prices, which are obviously causing a huge amount of volatility in the dairy industry. Given this period of instability for milk prices, can the Minister tell us what specific action the Welsh Government is taking to protect the dairy industry in Wales and to alleviate some of these problems?
 
13:37
Rebecca EvansBiography
I am very aware that a number of buyers have announced a reduction in milk prices that will hit this autumn, and I am very conscious of the concern that that is causing within the dairy industry in Wales. Projected incomes for dairy farms are up 88% on last year to £84,700, but I realise that that is no comfort when looking ahead to price decreases. However, at the moment, favourable grazing conditions, due to the good weather that we have had, and relatively low feed cost, is holding up the margins, and the good news is that it is unlikely to be a problem getting good-quality forage on farms this winter. However, that is not to say that I do not take the challenge very seriously and I have already asked the dairy task force to inform and advise me further.
 
13:37
Simon ThomasBiography
Welcome to your post, Deputy Minister. You will of course be aware that the Government has a policy of encouraging diversification by farmers to promote farm incomes. One of those areas is renewable energy. You will be aware, as I am, I am sure, of the proposed policy in Powys of restricting on-farm renewable energy, which is an unfortunate policy in my mind. What will you do as Deputy Minister, along with your fellow Ministers, to ensure that the policies in Powys will be ones that promote diversification and increase farm incomes and do not limit farm incomes?
 
13:38
Rebecca EvansBiography
I am familiar with the Member’s concerns. I cannot comment on the individual local development plan proposal at the moment because it is at the proposal stage and due process must be allowed to take place. However, I can say that the Welsh Government is of the view that farm-based renewable energy schemes do have the potential to make a valuable contribution to the energy mix in Wales. Many of the community-led renewable energy projects being supported by the Welsh Government’s Ynni’r Fro are joint ventures between local communities and farmers, and small-scale on-farm energy production can help farmers to lower their energy costs, which can be substantial, and help them to maximise their income. So, I am actively exploring what role the next RDP can play in supporting and enabling this.
 
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
 
13:39
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
First this afternoon is the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, William Powell.
 
13:39
William PowellBiography
Will the Deputy Minister please provide an update on the progress made by Professor Wynne Jones OBE in carrying out his independent review of the learning delivered by further education colleges in Wales, with regard to the provision of skills and knowledge to the farming industry?
 
13:39
Rebecca EvansBiography
As the Member knows, Professor Wynne Jones was asked back in February to undertake an independent review of the learning that is delivered by FE colleges in Wales and to look at the relevance of that learning in supporting and developing farming businesses in Wales. I expect that report in November of this year. It has turned out to be a larger piece of work than was originally envisaged and, also, Professor Wynne Jones has other commitments, but I look forward to the report in November.
 
13:40
William PowellBiography
I thank the Deputy Minister for that response. As you will be aware, further education colleges that deliver land-based training are vital to supporting our rural Welsh economy. That is exemplified particularly by the dairy development centre at Coleg Sir Gâr’s Gelli Aur campus, to improve the dairy supply chain by assisting farmers to increase the proportion of turnover. Given this, is it not disappointing that other than this one excellent initiative, currently very little use is made of such colleges outside their core teaching remit? What proposals do you have to make greater use of this dairy development centre?
 
13:40
Rebecca EvansBiography
I think that those discussions would come about as a result of the report that we are awaiting from Professor Jones, but I would certainly be keen to explore that issue further with my colleague the Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology.
 
13:41
William PowellBiography
Thank you once again. It is a fact that the total funding available for the delivery of apprenticeships has declined to a significant extent, so that some providers, as you will be aware, are unable to take on any new apprenticeships even in the 16-plus age range. With this drastic cut to funding, how do you ensure that the number of apprenticeships available for the agriculture sector, where the age profile of farmers is so alarmingly high, is safeguarded?
 
13:41
Rebecca EvansBiography
I think that that will be a role for the agriculture sector panel, in advising me on this particular issue, when that panel is put into place. It will play an important role in looking at the skills progression of people who work in the agriculture industry and those will include apprentices, and I am keen to explore that further.
 
13:41
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Welsh Conservatives’ spokesperson, the opposition spokesperson, Antoinette Sandbach.
 
13:42
Antoinette SandbachBiography
Minister, I am sure that you are aware of the climate change conference that is happening in New York at the moment. The latest figures for greenhouse gas emissions in Wales went up by 5% between 2011 and 2012—a rise that outstripped all other areas of the UK. Your Government has targets to reduce emissions by 40% by 2020. Clearly, we are missing those. Can you say what you would be telling that conference on how you are going to achieve that target?
 
13:42
Carl SargeantBiographyThe Minister for Natural Resources
I thank the Member for her question. As she will be aware, I am not at that conference; I am here answering questions from you. However, I will take the opportunity to indicate to you and to Members in the Chamber that we are committed as a Government to meeting those challenging figures in terms of climate change and delivery. I know that the Member has a view on the 2020 target, but it is still our intention to aim for and reach that target. I know that you have a view, along with others, that that will be challenging. I recognise that. As a Government, we recognise the importance of climate change as both a significant opportunity and a headline risk to us. Action on climate change is crucial to deliver the policies of our priorities and there is a programme of change that we adopt across Government in Wales.
 
13:43
Antoinette SandbachBiography
My question to you, Minister, was, ‘How?’
 
13:43
Carl SargeantBiography
You will be aware of our climate policy refresh that we undertook. Unfortunately, I have only been in post for a week, so I have not undertaken it, but the previous Minister has actioned that. We are looking at the current climate change strategy and at how best to drive that action going forward.
 
I am surprised by the contributions from the opposition benches because when I made the decision to make amendments to our targets in the housing sector, opposition Members were very critical of that decision, but this was about a Government taking responsibility for growing the economy and balancing that in the shape of the climate agenda. So, I am sorry that the Member does not agree with me all of the time, but the public sector and the housing and building industry, now under the remit of Lesley Griffiths, certainly welcomed the decision made by this Welsh Government as a responsible Government for Wales.
 
13:44
Antoinette SandbachBiography
Minister, I am delighted that you came on to the housing sector because, in fact, most of our housing in Wales was built pre 1919 and energy-efficiency measures in relation to those properties are a large contributor to greenhouse gasses. Yesterday, you ruled out working with the fuel poverty action group, which not only addresses energy-efficiency measures, but also fuel poverty in low-income houses. Now, I appreciate that it has been critical of your Government’s actions, but what are you going to be doing to address the issues in pre-1919 housing build stock?
 
13:45
Carl SargeantBiography
We are already addressing these issues, and, again, the Member will be aware of the report that was issued yesterday, the annual report on the sustainable development programme, which is about ensuring and showing the outcomes and deliveries that we see on the ground on a daily basis. The Welsh housing quality standard is being delivered by my colleagues, and is bringing housing stock up to quality and environmental standards. We have increased our target on housing from 7,500 up to 10,000. We will take no lectures from the opposition benches on building properties in Wales. Actually, what you do not like is that we are delivering and you are clearly not.
 
13:45
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
I now move to the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd.
 
13:45
Llyr GruffyddBiography
Diolch, Lywydd. Your predecessor as Minister for natural resources wrote in August this year that whether gas from unconventional hydrocarbons that may be present in Wales can be safely extracted and bring benefits to the people of Wales requires more research. Do you, as the current Minister, subscribe to the same view that the safety of extracting unconventional gas, including through fracking, is both unproven and uncertain?
 
13:46
Carl SargeantBiography
What I do accept is that there are still unanswered questions on the opportunity for the fracking industry, and that is something that we are taking very seriously in Wales. My colleague and I—as well as the Minister for planning and the Minister who was in charge of this department before—have set about commissioning some additional work in terms of the economic value of that and the impact on Wales, and that is something on which I look forward to a response to me very shortly.
 
13:46
Llyr GruffyddBiography
Thank you for that answer. You mentioned the economic impact. Maybe you could clarify that it also looks at the environmental impact. Given that the UK Government is going gung-ho on fracking at the moment, and the clear implications for Wales, maybe you could appraise us a bit more thoroughly as to whether that research is going to be looking at all aspects of the potential impact of fracking.
 
13:47
Carl SargeantBiography
I think it is a really important point that the Member raises. I am being very open on this issue. I think it is important that we have to measure the economic and social impacts, right across Wales, that it potentially has in terms of development. We recently published a report on potential gas reserves in Wales, and it is something that needs to go hand in hand in terms of impact—opportunity even—and how that affects communities right across Wales.
 
13:47
Llyr GruffyddBiography
Your party leader, Ed Miliband, said yesterday in his speech that there is no more important issue than tackling global climate change. Now, the science tells us, of course, that we just cannot exploit a new carbon-intensive fossil fuel if we are serious about limiting climate change to 2 degrees centigrade. So, given the powers that the Welsh Government has over planning, with full powers, of course, over mineral workings, do you, Minister, now agree that it is time for a moratorium on unconventional gas and fracking in Wales until such time as the safety and climate change aspects are settled?
 
13:48
Carl SargeantBiography
Well, there are two points that I want to raise. My party leader is Carwyn Jones, and I am very proud to have a Welsh Labour leader delivering Welsh Labour policies in Wales. This is certainly important and we work very closely with our colleagues in Westminster, but not under the direction of them. The second point you raised was about a moratorium on fracking and unconventional gas exploration. As the Member is aware, most of the licensing conditions are approved by the Department of Energy and Climate Change in Westminster. There is an activity with Natural Resources Wales, the Health and Safety Commission and the Welsh Government, in terms of that. However, what we do prescribe is a very precautionary measure in delivering around the planning system in Wales. I cannot prejudge any application, but what we are doing is taking a balanced view on the distribution and opportunities that fracking may present in Wales.
 
The Extraction of Natural Resources
 
13:48
Rhodri Glyn ThomasBiography
3. Will the Minister make a statement on the extraction of Wales’s natural resources? OAQ(4)0195(NR)
 
13:49
Carl SargeantBiography
I thank the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefewr for his question. ‘Minerals Planning Policy Wales’, the minerals technical advice notes and associated minerals planning guidance notes confirm national planning policy in relation to the extraction of natural resources.
 
13:49
Rhodri Glyn ThomasBiography
Minister, may I return to the reply that you gave earlier to Llyr Huws Gruffydd, where you alluded to the fact that you are now looking at the economic impact of extracting unconventional gas? In the Welsh Affairs Committee at Westminster earlier this year, Plaid Cymru proposed an amendment talking about the fact that the resources of Wales belong to the people, and that all the revenue from the extraction of unconventional gas should be collected by Welsh Government. All the Labour MPs from Wales voted against that. Is that the policy of Welsh Government in the days when Carwyn Jones is talking about more and more powers for Welsh Government?
 
13:50
Carl SargeantBiography
I am very grateful to the Member for his question this afternoon. I think that it raises some important issues. Silk part 2, as the Member will be aware, will be about the issues around the conditions regarding energy, which are still being considered by Welsh Government. The Member raises a very interesting point with regard to the revenue provided from such activity in Wales. I would give assurance to the Member that what we are doing is making sure that the review has both an economic and social impact in terms of what the consequences of fracking are in Wales, and how that may have an impact in the communities that he and many Members in the Assembly represent.
 
13:50
Antoinette SandbachBiography
Well, Minister, I think that you left one word out of that, which was ‘environmental’: it is not only about the economic and social impact, but also about the environmental impact. How is your evaluation being carried out in the light of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill that is coming through this Assembly?
 
13:51
Carl SargeantBiography
I am very grateful that the Member gives me the opportunity to raise the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill in the Chamber today. Tomorrow morning we will be introducing first-stage scrutiny at committee on this very important Bill on cross-cutting themes right across Government. The Member is absolutely right that this Bill will be comprehensive, with economic, social and environmental impacts taken into consideration for sustainable development across Wales. What I think is really important is that sustainable development does not sit outside policy. Actually, it is fundamental to developing policy, which is what we will be looking for in the way that the Bill is drafted. I welcome the Member’s contributions through the positive engagement that she shows, certainly through the committee stages as we move forward.
 
13:52
Eluned ParrottBiography
I attended a public meeting in Llantrisant about fracking earlier this month, where a councillor from your own party said that local authorities simply do not have the tools that they need to resist planning applications for fracking and test drilling, and that, in fact, no rejected applications had been successfully defended at appeal. When are you going to issue a technical advice note on fracking to set down those environmental and safety standards to protect local communities through the planning system?
 
13:52
Carl SargeantBiography
Well, I think that what we have seen, certainly in planning across Wales, whether that would be for fracking or any other development, is about leadership. What I am surprised by in the Member’s contribution is that, sometimes, development is all right as long as it is somewhere else. What I am doing in Wales, in showing leadership through my department, is ensuring that we provide the proper guidance and proper planning regulation in order to make people feel confident with the system. The planning Bill will be introduced later this year in terms of giving people the complete tools and confidence for the industry, both customer and investor, to ensure that the planning system works appropriately. Let me just give confidence to the Member in terms of unconventional gas developments in Wales. Consideration around ‘Minerals Planning Policy Wales’ identifies many planning issues that have to be considered during the planning stages, including access and traffic generation, noise, control of dust, smoke and fumes, disposal of mineral waste, blasting controls, land drainage, and a whole host of other things that need to be considered. So, I do not accept that we do not issue enough guidance. It is about showing openness and transparency in the decision-making process around any application that includes fracking or any other application that comes through the planning system.
 
Unconventional Gas Sources
 
13:53
David ReesBiography
4. Will the Minister outline the Welsh Government’s policy in relation to energy from unconventional gas sources? OAQ(4)0194(NR)
 
13:53
Carl SargeantBiography
I thank the Member for Aberavon for his important question. ‘Energy Wales: A Low Carbon Transition’ identifies the role of gas in supporting our transition to a low-carbon energy system. There is a need to evaluate the potential unconventional hydrocarbon resource in Wales, alongside full consideration of all evidence relating to its extraction.
 
13:54
David ReesBiography
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I am pleased that so many Members are keen on asking questions on this particular issue this afternoon, because it is a very controversial issue. I concur with your predecessor, who indicated that there needs to be greater analysis as regards the evidence that needs to be provided for fracking. However, you have already identified this afternoon that licences are actually from the UK Government. What discussions have you, or your predecessors at the Welsh Government, had with the UK Government in relation to transferring the ability to issue licences to the Welsh Government so that it can be decided here in Wales? You have also talked about the minerals technical advice notes, and you believe that there is enough cover, but, in the meantime, while we await that transfer—and I hope that it will come—will you be looking at the guidance in relation to buffer zones, because it refers to buffer zones for minerals, aggregates and coal, but it does not to refer to anything for extraction?
 
13:55
Carl SargeantBiography
I know that the Member has a keen interest in this and has raised this with me and previous Ministers on several occasions, representing his constituents very well. We have not discussed licence transfer with UK Ministers, although this, I believe, is under consideration by the UK. Wales’s robust regulatory and local planning processes are designed to protect people and the environment, and I listed a few of those issues before in terms of the protection that is given through the planning system and the guidance that we give for consideration.
 
What is really important for me is ensuring that people feel that they are being listened to and ensuring that they can see a transparent process during decision making. People may not like the outcome, but, if they can be assured that their considerations have been given a full opportunity to be scrutinised, that is something that is really important going forward.
 
We do not require any amendments to the mineral TANs at this stage. A clarification letter was sent to every local planning authority in July and I expect it to be adhered to.
 
13:56
Andrew R.T. DaviesBiographyThe Leader of the Opposition
Minister, for the first time since this Government was established in 2011, planning and natural resources sit with one Minister and I think that is a welcome development, because, on this particular issue, there has always been that divide. From my understanding, from the discussions that I have had with Natural Resources Wales, there has been no ministerial direction given to it to undertake the research work that is required on this new technology and so it is really relying on quite outdated practices and research papers. Will you be instructing Natural Resources Wales to undertake the necessary work to inform and update the policy papers, so that planning authorities, when they consult them, do have the most up-to-date advice that is available to protect communities that see a real threat?
 
13:57
Carl SargeantBiography
I am grateful for the Member’s question this afternoon. As I am sure he is aware, oil and gas licensing is a reserved matter. This is something that DECC is dealing with in terms of the issue of petroleum exploration and development licences. There is a role for Natural Resources Wales in terms of the activity of exploration boreholes, which we believe is covered quite clearly in the technical advice notes and guidance that we have issued already. As I said, I updated planning members in July, with a further letter to them, to ensure that that is clear. We have commissioned additional work, as I mentioned in answer to the previous question, around the economic, social and environmental impact with regard to what fracking will mean in terms of the Wales gas fields. When I receive that, I will give the Chamber a further update on that detail.
 
13:58
Bethan JenkinsBiography
Minister, you will be aware that some kinds of unconventional gases, such as coal-bed methane, are in the areas that were heavily mined and that there are now hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of underground routes. I have asked this question in the past, but has the Welsh Government done any sort of research, or is the Government aware of any research, that considers the stability of these works, which are very often flooded?
 
13:58
Carl SargeantBiography
I will have to write to the Member with the detail on the specific question regarding the workings and any work that has been previously done on this. However, what we have to recognise in Wales is that the mix of energy opportunities that we have, be they wind, solar, gas or other opportunities in terms of developing energy to give energy security for the people of Wales, is something that we have to consider very carefully, with a careful eye on how this may impact on our communities across Wales.
 
13:59
Peter BlackBiography
Minister, you will know that there have been no applications for fracking in Wales, but, of course, there have been a number of applications for test drilling. Whereas fracking can be very disruptive, test drilling can, of course, be confined to a particular area, and, although it is disruptive, it is not as disruptive as the fracking process. Local planning authorities are not able to take the subsequent fracking application into account when considering a test drilling application. Is there any way, in terms of the guidance that you issue, that local authorities would be able to link those two together, so that they understand that, if they give permission to a test drilling application, a fracking application may follow thereafter?
 
13:59
Carl SargeantBiography
I do not actually think it is rocket science that that is the potential, actually. Investors will not come along to do test boreholes on the basis that they are not expecting to find some shale gas. I will have to give that further consideration in terms of how to link an application. I am reluctant, at this stage, to do that because I think that planning applications should be taken on their own merits, and linking the two would certainly compromise that process. As you are aware, what complicates the issue is the fact that part of it is devolved and part is not. That does not help the licensing regime and people’s understanding of actually who has responsibility for what. Local authorities have responsibility for exploration, and quite rightly so, as do Natural Resources Wales, but, ultimately, the issue of hydraulic fracking will be licensed and the conditions issued by DECC, the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
 
14:00
Mick AntoniwBiography
Minister, will you be considering issuing a statement that will set out the Government’s position on the way in which extraction of shale gas is compatible with the Government’s renewable energy targets?
 
14:01
Carl SargeantBiography
As I mentioned in response to one of my first questions, which was about climate change and what that means, we are doing a refresh of climate change policy in terms of where we are and where we need to be. I will give further consideration to issuing guidance to local authorities and to colleagues across Government in terms of the collective agenda in tackling these issues around climate change. The Member is right to raise this important issue. Alongside the future generations Bill, which I know the Member has a strong interest in, we will be introducing an environment Bill later on in the Assembly term, which will address some of the issues that the Member has raised today, and which he has raised in other opportunities with other Ministers, on the climate change agenda.
 
Anaerobic Digestion
 
14:01
William PowellBiography
5. Will the Minister make a statement on the development of anaerobic digestion in Wales? OAQ(4)0191(NR)
 
14:01
Carl SargeantBiography
I thank the Member for Mid and West Wales for his question. The Welsh Government is supporting a programme of seven local authority anaerobic digestion projects, working in regional partnerships, to help to address the affordability of sustainable food waste treatment infrastructure. Four of the partnerships have been awarded contracts, with a fifth due to be awarded early in 2015.
 
14:02
William PowellBiography
I am grateful for that answer, Minister, but, at a community meeting within my region earlier this week, which was held specifically to address concerns about the impact on residents and businesses of a nearby, recently commissioned AD plant, NRW officials repeatedly referred to the severe constraints that they face in terms of staff resource in dealing with monitoring and enforcing the conditions around that particular digestion. In this context, Minister, and given the importance of developing anaerobic digestion successfully across Wales, will you undertake to investigate these concerns so that they can be addressed and the concerns of the community alleviated?
 
14:03
Carl SargeantBiography
Anaerobic digestion plays an important part in the process, both of the recycling agenda and of the waste stream agenda. I met with NRW on Monday. I was less than a week into post, and I met with the very important arm’s-length organisation, and it did not raise at all any staffing issue with me or concerns about that. If the Member wishes to write with details of what was raised with him, I will certainly take that up with the chief executive the next time I meet with him.
 
14:03
Antoinette SandbachBiography
Minister, I know that in the Environment and Sustainability Committee’s report on energy, one of the recommendations was that Welsh Government set up a central team that has expertise on energy in order to assist bodies that do not have that in-house expertise. I know that we have a very successful project in the North Wales region, Biogen, which is one of those anaerobic food digesters, but there is also a lot of scope for on-farm digestion, particularly in relation to dairy farms where the waste from the cows can be turned into energy. I wonder what you are doing to make the planning and consenting regime easier so that advantage can be taken of this technology.
 
14:04
Carl SargeantBiography
I think that we have got to look across the whole sector for opportunities to create energy from waste, and look at the impact of that and how we can support it across Government, to aid the development of a different approach. I am not keen on giving preferential treatment to any particular planning application, as I think that it should be dealt with fairly across whatever sector, and that includes anaerobic digestion, as it plays a part in that. I will give it further consideration, but it is early days yet. I met with the energy team prior to questions today, actually, to discuss a whole host of new opportunities.
 
Anaerobic digestion has been around for a while, and we have commissioned a couple of plants. However, according to one Member, there are some concerns locally from his constituents. We have to address some of these issues that are still, possibly, of concern to people. I hope to be visiting the anaerobic digester in North Wales shortly to see how it operates. Again, I will be asking my team to see what we can do to promote new opportunities in this field.
 
14:05
Lindsay WhittleBiography
Minister, support from the Government for anaerobic digestion is, of course, to be welcomed. Only in April, the Prosiect GwyriAD facility was opened in Gwynedd, showing us what can be achieved. To what extent are you looking to develop more facilities for generating energy from food waste across Wales, and is it the view of the Government that we need to get to a position where all, or as much as possible, of our biodegradable waste can be converted for generating electricity or other purposes?
 
14:06
Carl SargeantBiography
I am grateful for the Member’s question. Again, I recognise the recent achievement of the facility at Penygroes, with regard to the accreditation of the quality of the product as well. What is really important to me is that, if we look at the whole waste-stream profile and at areas of pressure, we see that we are doing extremely well in terms of recycling in Wales compared with many parts of Europe. I think that we should be incredibly proud. That is not just delivered by local authorities and personnel, as this is about the education of individuals in the home, where people are actively engaging in recycling and in making a commitment to a sustainable future.
 
So, there are many things that we need to do, including the activity that the Member raises. Are there things that we can do more of? Indeed, there are, but, again, this is all based on the very difficult financial pressures under which we find ourselves. However, we will continue to do what we can.
 
Himalayan Balsam
 
14:06
Mike HedgesBiography
6. Will the Minister outline what progress is being made in dealing with Himalayan balsam? OAQ(4)0183(NR)
 
14:07
Carl SargeantBiography
I thank the Member for Swansea East for his question. We are supporting strategic catchment-scale control work on Himalayan balsam through action groups, and we are discussing the potential release of a new pathogenic fungus at five sites across Wales from 2015 with the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International to tackle this pest.
 
14:07
Mike HedgesBiography
I thank the Minister for his response. I have a major problem in my constituency at the Fendrod lake, which is slowly being taken over by Himalayan balsam. My constituents have contacted Natural Resources Wales and the council. Who is actually responsible for removing it?
 
14:07
Carl SargeantBiography
I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I am quite sure that Members will agree with me that Mike Hedges will go down in history as the champion of tackling Himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed at first hand. The responsibility for the control of non-native species, such as Himalayan balsam, currently rests with the landowner or tenant of the land affected. However, while the landlord or tenant is subject to controls on the spread and disposal of the plant, they are under no current legal obligation to remove the plant from their land.
 
14:08
William GrahamBiography
Members will recall that this is a very attractive-looking plant with a pink flower. Unfortunately, many of us will have probably touched that plant, because it pops rather well and then, of course, distributes the seeds almost everywhere; hence, it has grown enormously along the rivers and streams of Wales. The Minister is right to suggest that this Indian fungus might be used. It has been used successfully in Cornwall. Will the Minister undertake to report back on the success of the use of this rust fungus?
 
14:08
Carl SargeantBiography
Indeed. As the Member relates his knowledge of this problem, may I also add that we understand that this is becoming one of the United Kingdom’s most invasive weed species, particularly along riverbanks, waste grounds and damp woodlands, as referred to by the Member? This is something that we are taking very seriously, and, working with partners, we are seeking to tackle this issue, which you and Mike Hedges raise on a regular basis.
 
14:09
Jocelyn DaviesBiography
Minister, I do not know whether you are aware of the incredible work being done by volunteers to clear the balsam. At St Dogmaels, I have seen this weed being cleared by the work of a dedicated team of people who have painstakingly pulled it up. Their efforts should be recognised, and I hope that you will join with me to congratulate them. Perhaps, if you find yourself on a sunny day in the vicinity of Poppit Sands, you will take the opportunity to visit me in my caravan and see how the landowners and volunteers have worked very hard to rid the village of this scourge.
 
14:10
Carl SargeantBiography
How can I refuse that kind offer? We worked very closely on the Housing (Wales) Bill, and I am sure that I would like to come and view the non-existence of this weed, particularly with a cup of tea, at Jocelyn Davies’s caravan. [Laughter.]
 
Renewable Energy Generation
 
14:10
Mohammad AsgharBiography
7. What action is the Welsh Government taking to support renewable energy generation in Wales? OAQ(4)0184(NR)
 
14:10
Carl SargeantBiography
I thank the Member for his question. ‘Energy Wales: A Low Carbon Transition’ sets out what we are doing to encourage renewable energy projects and to maximise their economic and environmental benefits in Wales. The delivery plan published in March sets out progress made and delivery actions being taken in support of renewable energy.
 
14:10
Mohammad AsgharBiography
Thank you very much for that, Minister. Can the Minister advise what proportion of community schemes approaching the construction phase under the Ynni’r Fro programme are wind energy projects? Does he agree that more emphasis should be placed on the generation of energy from water? I mean, small hydroelectric projects should be considered seriously in Wales. What does he think about that?
 
14:11
Carl SargeantBiography
I thank the Member for his detailed question. The Member will welcome the fact that Ynni’r Fro has completed one project that is a hydro scheme, with two other schemes in construction, and another two projects are due to be completed by March of 2015. These are driven by the community and for the community. There are currently 51 other pipeline projects being supported by the programme, which are due to be completed beyond the March 2015 deadline. The next phase of support for this programme to ensure continuity of provision is currently being developed by my team. By March 2015, it is anticipated that there will be around 5 MW of installed capacity through this very innovative programme.
 
14:12
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
The Welsh Government has failed to reach its target for renewable energy generation. In fact, it missed its target by more than 60%. Does the Minister know why the Government has failed so spectacularly, and what are the new targets that have been set?
 
14:12
Carl SargeantBiography
I do not recognise that we have failed spectacularly. That is another political statement obviously used by the opposition. Actually, I am very proud of the work that goes on in communities and by this Government in terms of energy generation and opportunity. That is something that we will strive to continue to do. Again, the Member and Members across this Chamber often come to the Chamber complaining about development in their area. Actually, you want to show some leadership in the development of energy programmes across Wales and show that it is the right way to go to develop a sustainable future for Wales.
 
The Future of National Parks
 
14:13
Paul DaviesBiography
8. Will the Minister make a statement on the future of national parks? OAQ(4)0185(NR)
 
14:13
Carl SargeantBiography
I thank the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire for his question. I am committed to undertaking a governance review of Wales’s national parks. I would like to see our designated landscapes become international exemplars of sustainability, living landscapes with vibrant, resilient communities, extensive outdoor recreation opportunities, and of course rich in biodiversity.
 
14:13
Paul DaviesBiography
This review, as I understand it, is looking at the accountability and responsibility of national parks. Given this announcement, surely the future of national parks needs to be discussed alongside the backdrop of local authority reform. So, could he tell us what discussions he is having with his colleague, the Minister for Public Services? Is it his view that national park authorities should retain their current planning functions?
 
14:14
Carl SargeantBiography
I have not had any conversations with the new Minister for Public Services yet. We are a week in, in terms of the conversation with the national parks, but I have had previous discussions with Ministers in my other role on the responsibility for the planning function of national parks. The Member will be very aware of the discussions that I have had, and that is probably the reason why he is posing the question today. I still have not made a determination on the effect of the planning system for national parks.
 
There is a discussion to be had, I think, about the role and function of what national parks and the larger public sector organisations, such as local authorities, have and deliver in communities, but I have a family of 25 planning authorities across Wales, which I believe is too many. I have not decided yet on what that structure may look like in future, but it is something that I am seriously considering looking at with regard to a resilient planning service for Wales. It is really important that we link the economy and planning together. They go hand in hand, and if one breaks down, we will see failure in our communities. I know that the Member, despite our political differences, would agree with me that the economy is an important thing and we need to drive forward in Wales.
 
14:15
Alun DaviesBiography
May I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his appointment, and the Deputy Minister, and wish them well with their responsibilities? In terms of the planning function of national parks, I think that there is consensus among Members from different parts of the Chamber that the time has come to review the planning status of the national parks. The Minister will be aware that, in the previous Assembly, I represented all three—or parts of all three—national parks, and I came to the conclusion that it was time for all planning functions to rest with local authorities, in place of the current system. I hope that the Minister—and perhaps he will confirm this—during the process of the planning Bill and during the process of responding to the Williams review, will take this opportunity to reform the way in which we do planning in Wales and ensure that we have a more coherent and consistent planning system than the one we have at present.
 
14:16
Carl SargeantBiography
I am very grateful for the Member’s thoughts. Once again, I pay tribute to him for the work that he did within Government in terms of driving this agenda forward in his previous role. There were two points in his contribution. First, with regard to the Williams commission review, which is a cross-Government view about transition in local government and what should be happening there, that is a discussion that the Minister for Public Services will be leading. Aside from that, I believe that the Member is absolutely right to raise the issue of planning and whether that is led by the national parks or local authorities. I have not made a decision on who is best placed to make those decisions, but I do know that duplication or having far too many decision makers is having an impact on the way in which we can make positive interventions in relation to the growth of Wales. The planning Bill is about enablement and fairness, and that is something that I do not believe, with the current structure and approach, with 25 planning authorities operating very differently, is delivering the best for Wales, and certainly not in terms of sustainability moving forward. I thank the Member for his considered representation.
 
14:17
Kirsty WilliamsBiographyThe Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats
Minister, if you are considering moving to a single national park for Wales, surely that is incompatible with development control functions remaining with the national parks. Many of my constituents and those of us who live in the park already feel that the current structure is not accountable to local people. That accountability will be completely lost if we move to a single park structure. Will you take that into consideration when making decisions in this regard?
 
14:17
Carl SargeantBiography
Yes, of course. Once again, the complexities of the Williams commission and whatever happens in terms of national parks is an important point that the Member raises. More importantly, it is important for the people the Member represents. Once again, that feeling of closeness and representation for those particular areas are very important to me, too. I have come to the conclusion that a single national park would not be the right place to have a single planning division. There is certainly a disconnect there with public perception and public engagement. Therefore, I am probably in that space. However, there is still work to be done in terms of the planning authority provision for a national park and for local authorities, and those discussions will continue, including during discussions as the planning Bill progresses through the Assembly.
 
14:18
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Thank you, Minister.
 
Questions to the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty
Childcare (North Wales)
 
14:18
Antoinette SandbachBiography
1. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government’s policies on childcare in North Wales? OAQ(4)0226(CTP)
 
14:18
Lesley GriffithsBiographyThe Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty
Ensuring access to affordable, high-quality childcare for our most disadvantaged children and families across Wales remains a top priority. We recently published a progress report on the early years and childcare plan. In taking forward actions under the plan, consideration is given to the needs of different areas.
 
14:19
Antoinette SandbachBiography
Thank you for that answer, Minister. The annual Family and Childcare Trust survey for 2014 found that only 11% of Welsh local authorities had sufficient childcare for children aged between five and 11. With the childcare costs for two children in full-time childcare having risen by over 27% over the last five years, the financial strain on household income is becoming quite severe. Will you outline what discussions you have had with fellow Cabinet colleagues to help to ensure that there is sufficient childcare provision in Wales’s local authority areas?
 
14:19
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Similar to Carl Sargeant, I am in week 2 of the job, and I have not had specific discussions as yet. I know that discussions have gone on before, and in my previous portfolio I certainly had discussions with the relevant Minister around this issue. Obviously, local authorities have a duty to provide childcare, and, as a Government, we help and support them in doing this. The childcare sufficiency assessment, which local authorities submitted earlier this year—I think that it was in April—showed that there are significant gaps in their out-of-school childcare, so they know that this is the case because they did the work. I will be having those discussions with my ministerial colleagues going forward.
 
14:20
Llyr GruffyddBiography
A nursery in Glyn Ceiriog has contacted me this week, a nursery that has had an excellent review from Estyn recently, as it is facing the problem of maintaining a service in a rural area, with numbers varying not only from day to day, but from year to year. When numbers are small, of course, maintaining buildings and staff is a significant challenge in terms of funding, and therefore there is grave concern that this important service will have to close. What support can you give to nurseries in rural areas that are facing challenges such as this?
 
14:21
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Diolch. I am not sure whether the nursery to which you refer is private sector or public sector, as, obviously, that will make a difference as to what help and support we can give. However, it is very important that we work with local authorities. I mentioned the childcare sufficiency assessment that has been done by local authorities, and I assume that that would be Denbighshire—
 
14:21
Llyr GruffyddBiography
It is Wrexham.
 
14:21
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Sorry, Wrexham County Borough Council. I assume that it would have brought forward its assessment. So, I would be very happy to have a discussion with Wrexham if that is the case.
 
14:21
Aled RobertsBiography
Minister, you announced on Monday a draft 10-year plan on childcare, and you have said that the assessments were received earlier in the year. Yet, in areas such as Wrexham, where there is a lack of space within schools, nurseries are now being told that it is not possible for them to continue to hold meetings within those schools. So, will you have discussions with your Minister for education to discuss this situation?
 
14:22
Lesley GriffithsBiography
The two portfolios have worked very closely together in bringing forward this plan, and I will have a further discussion with the Minister for Education and Skills.
 
Gypsies and Travellers
 
14:22
Julie MorganBiography
2. What plans does the Minister have to support the needs of Gypsies and Travellers in Wales? OAQ(4)221(CTP)
 
14:22
Lesley GriffithsBiography
The Welsh Government published an update on progress towards meeting the objectives in the ‘Travelling to a Better Future’ framework for action in November 2013. Good progress has been made and we will continue to work to achieve fairness and equality for these communities.
 
14:22
Julie MorganBiography
I thank the Minister for that response. Bearing in mind that the Welsh Government has put a duty on local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers, which is a huge step forward and I congratulate the Government on doing that, what does the Minister plan to do to support the establishment of those sites, in view of the support that Gypsies and Travellers often need when sites are set up because there is often hostility from local residents? Certainly in Cardiff, there is a problem that the Cardiff Gypsy and Traveller Project is struggling to survive.
 
14:23
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I accept that there is still a lot of work ahead to address the shortfall that we have in pitches, for instance, across Wales. I think that the new duties upon local authorities are important, however I firmly believe that legislation will not solve all the problems on its own.
 
You will be aware that each local authority is required to undertake a new Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessment, and that has to be done by February 2016. Following the assessment, the local authorities themselves will have a much clearer idea of the need for the sites.
 
As a Government, we fund eight regional community cohesion co-ordinators across Wales, and they have a specific role in ensuring that these communities are engaged within local housing and planning processes. It is very important that their voices are heard and that they have somebody who will be their advocate and help them to ensure that their voices are heard.
 
Local authorities also have a duty through the Equality Act 2010 to tackle discrimination and to promote good relations. That should include providing support to local organisations, as is the case with the Cardiff Gypsy and Traveller Project.
 
14:24
Mohammad AsgharBiography
Minister, a report published earlier this year by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons revealed that around 5% of our prisoners in England and Wales considered themselves to be Gypsy, Romani or Travellers. Among the reasons stated for this over-representation were the illiteracy and innumeracy of members of these communities. What discussion have you had with ministerial colleagues to address the problem of educational underachievement among our Gypsy and Traveller community in Wales?
 
14:25
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Again, I have not had any discussions this early in the portfolio in relation to the specific group of people you refer to. However, in my previous portfolio, I was the link Minister regarding prisons and I had discussions with ministerial colleagues regarding literacy and numeracy skills for Welsh prisoners. I will undertake to have a discussion if you think it is an issue, and I will write to the Member following that discussion.
 
14:25
Jocelyn DaviesBiography
Minister, obviously, all local authorities must make a local assessment of the need for sites, but you are the only one with a national overview. So, how many new sites do you think Wales needs?
 
14:25
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I do not have a figure in my head at the moment. I had a briefing with officials this morning prior to questions and was told that my predecessor opened a site in Powys earlier this year and that that was the first one for a decade. I actually have a Gypsy and Traveller site in the ward I live in and I did not think that it had been there for that long a period of time. So, clearly, we have not had many new sites in Wales. So, that is a piece of work that I will have to undertake. There is clearly a shortfall in the number of pitches we have. Presumably then, there is a shortfall in the number of sites we have.
 
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
 
14:26
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to questions from party spokespeople. The first is from the Welsh Conservatives’ spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
 
14:26
Mark IsherwoodBiography
Diolch and welcome to my first question of you in this role. It is a decade since the housing sector in Wales warned of a forthcoming housing supply crisis. In 2008, the Sue Essex report on affordable housing referred to the ‘current crisis’. The Homes for All Cymru report six years ago stated that there was a crisis in Wales. The 2012 Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee report quoted a housing association sector saying
 
‘The housing crisis is with us now.’
 
Last year, the Country, Land and Business Association report ‘Tackling the Housing Crisis in Wales’ said,
 
‘We need more homes for rural economy workers to keep communities in the countryside viable.’
 
Do you agree that we have a housing supply crisis in Wales?
 
14:27
Lesley GriffithsBiography
That is not my take on it this early in the portfolio. I have had several discussions around different aspects of housing. I also spoke at a housing conference last week. Clearly, one of our programme for government commitments is to build 10,000 affordable homes by the end of this term. I am due an update on the number of homes within the next month, I think. However, I believe that we are on target to deliver that figure of 10,000.
 
14:27
Mark IsherwoodBiography
In fact, during the first three Assembly terms under Labour, the number of social homes in Wales fell by nearly 30,000. Given that, in the year to July, only 1,123 new homes were registered in Wales against an estimated need of 14,200 new homes in Wales annually, what dialogue will you be personally having with the construction sector in Wales, noting the comment by Construction4 Growth Wales that the cost of Wales-specific regulation in the sector means that companies, and particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, are increasingly unable to compete.
 
14:28
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I will be having several discussions with stakeholders. I think that they are incredibly important in making sure that we have the supply of homes in Wales we want to see. Clearly, you have the house builders and registered social landlords. Just on Monday, I attended the celebration of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014. Three previous Ministers for housing and I were all there to celebrate the housing Act. Clearly, the work that was undertaken by my predecessor, Carl Sargeant, will assist in that. They are a very important part of ensuring that the housing supply is what we want to see.
 
14:29
Mark IsherwoodBiography
Thank you. You refer to the housing Act, much of which focused on the way that the private rented sector can help to provide housing to people who are homeless and in desperate need. The 2011 Communities and Culture Committee report on making the most of the private rented sector quoted the National Landlords Association as saying that there should be Wales-wide private rented sector access agencies for vulnerable people based on the Agorfa Cefni Lettings model, a partnership of trust between the private sector and local authorities, with the National Landlords Association and the third sector implementing and delivering more for less rather than replicating for higher cost. Why, therefore, are we instead seeing a plethora, a sudden upsurge, of new housing companies being announced by local authorities, which seem to be replicating for higher cost, with the risk that it will deliver less for more than would be the case if it followed the good practice, and worked across the three sectors to meet this desperate need.
 
14:30
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I do not recognise that, but certainly I would not want to see duplication of any of our public services. I know that you were at the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 celebration too on Monday, and, from the discussions that I had with people there, I do not recognise your comments.
 
14:30
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Leanne Wood.
 
14:30
Leanne WoodBiographyThe Leader of Plaid Cymru
Llongyfarchiadau—congratulations on your new post, Minister.
 
Last week’s Sheffield Hallam University report on the impact of welfare reform on the Valleys makes for difficult reading. The report found that the current welfare reforms, when they come into full fruition, will take more than £1 billion every year out of the Welsh economy. That is equivalent to £550 for every working adult. We cannot afford to take this hit, Minister. So, will you join me in condemning the devastating effects that welfare reform has had, and will have—cuts that have been orchestrated by a Westminster coalition with no mandate in this country?
 
14:31
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Yes, certainly; the findings of the research that came out of Sheffield Hallam University show the devastating impact that welfare reform is having on many of our most vulnerable citizens here in Wales. Certainly, the findings, I think, that came from the university research were broadly in line with our own research, which estimated that Wales would lose around £900 million a year—so it was very similar.
 
14:31
Leanne WoodBiography
Minister, it was good to hear you joining the Party of Wales in highlighting the unfairness with which these welfare reforms will punish some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Given that these reforms will impact Wales, and the fact that they will impact Wales disproportionately, I would like to know what impact assessment you have carried out to look at the effect of these cuts. Can you also tell us what measures you intend to implement to mitigate the worst effects of these welfare cuts?
 
14:32
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Clearly, we have been doing a great deal of work. Before I came into post, my predecessor was doing the work. We have the ministerial task and finish group on welfare reform, which I attended in my previous portfolio. I think that six Ministers attended that, because we wanted to show the importance with which we viewed this work that we were doing, to mitigate the impact of the welfare reform changes coming from the UK Government. Just yesterday, we had an oral statement about the extra £2 million funding that I announced last week to support advice services, because what I would like to see is people going for advice before they get into difficulties. So, we are doing a great deal of work to mitigate the impact of welfare reform.
 
14:33
Leanne WoodBiography
Minister, one aspect of the Sheffield Hallam report, which I am sure would not have escaped your attention, was the impact of welfare reform with regard to child benefit. It has been estimated that, in the Valleys alone, £45 million in child benefit will be lost as a result of this change. Will you therefore join me in condemning the Labour Party’s plan to put a cap on child benefit, which is a real-terms cut? A child benefit cap will affect those who need the income the most, and it will hit women particularly hard, given that they tend to be the principal carers of children. So, will you this afternoon, Minister, join me in condemning this cruel policy?
 
14:33
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I was waiting for that to come along. What I would rather do is concentrate on the levers that we have in Welsh Government to help the people of Wales. I do hope that we have a Labour Government following the election next year, and one thing that the Labour Government will be doing is getting rid of the bedroom tax.
 
14:34
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Peter Black.
 
14:34
Peter BlackBiography
Minister, in his letter to me, dated 19 August, your predecessor told me that he had investigated whether the public sector broadband aggregation programme could be accessed by credit unions, so as to enable satellite working and closer co-operation between them, as well as enabling them to reduce risk in terms of securing their data in the cloud. He told me that he was considering this further, and that his officials would be discussing the matter with the relevant departments within Welsh Government. May I ask what conclusions have been reached on this issue?
 
14:34
Lesley GriffithsBiography
As far as I know, no conclusion has been reached at the moment. My officials are currently discussing this issue with the relevant departments within Welsh Government, which obviously manage the PSBA scheme. I do recognise that credit unions having access to that scheme would be very beneficial to them.
 
14:35
Peter BlackBiography
Thank you for that answer, Minister. As you know, the Welsh Government has spent £649,000 of taxpayers’ money on an advertising campaign to promote credit unions. Your predecessor told me on 11 June that a major objective of that expenditure was a 25% increase in the predicted growth acceleration of credit union membership. In his letter to the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee, dated 11 July, your predecessor said that membership fees for credit unions for the quarter April to June would be available to the Welsh Government by the end of that month. Can you tell me whether the stated objective of a 25% increase in membership was achieved and what the actual figures are?
 
14:35
Lesley GriffithsBiography
The only figure that I have in front of me is that, at the end of June 2014, adult membership for all credit unions in Wales is estimated to be 65,960. I will have to check with officials if we have a more up-to-date figure, and I will let the Member know if that is the case.
 
14:35
Peter BlackBiography
Thank you for that answer, Minister. That was the figure that was quoted by the Minister for March of this year as well, so clearly the figures for the end of June have not been available. I would be grateful if you could pass those on to us. Your predecessor told us back in May this year that he and his Cabinet colleagues would market credit unions to the public service workforce and facilitate payroll deductions. This would support credit unions to become sustainable by attracting higher earning members. To what extent have the Government’s marketing activities been directed towards attracting more tier 1 and 2 members to credit unions and persuading them to borrow?
 
14:36
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I think that that is a very important point. Certainly, I know that North Wales Credit Union Ltd is doing some really good work in promoting credit unions to the public sector workforce and having that payroll deduction, which will encourage more people to sign up to it. I want to do all that I can to support credit unions to be sustainable. I know that there are some that have been a bit more fragile. I mentioned north Wales, and I think, certainly looking at it this early in the portfolio, that it is an example of good practice. I would like to visit it quite soon to see what it is doing and what can be rolled out. I absolutely believe that good practice should be rolled out.
 
The marketing campaign did encourage people to join the credit union. People are now talking about the importance of credit unions and the way that people who are more financially stable can help some of the most vulnerable in our communities.
 
Access to Bank Accounts
 
14:37
Gwenda ThomasBiography
3. Will the Minister make a statement on the number of people in Wales who do not have access to a basic bank account? OAQ(4)0224(CTP)
 
14:37
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I thank Gwenda Thomas for that question. Living entirely within a cash economy can be expensive. Recent research estimates that 6% of people in Wales do not have a current account with a bank, building society or credit union. The Welsh Government supports credit unions to provide affordable and accessible financial services to those who are financially excluded.
 
14:37
Gwenda ThomasBiography
Thank you for that answer, Minister. While the number of households without access to any bank account has declined in recent years, there is still a significant minority of individuals who remain unbanked—to use that word. For a great many of them, being trapped in a cash- only economy exacerbates the profound problems of life on a low or unstable income. Given that a lack of banking services is frequently associated with social isolation, I am glad to hear you refer to the credit union and would support that. Perhaps you would like to say if there are any other ways that we can seek to widen the financial inclusion of these vulnerable people.
 
14:38
Lesley GriffithsBiography
As a Government, we have several initiatives to assist these people. We had the oral statement yesterday on advice services, and the extra £2 million that we are providing will help people who are financially excluded. I also want them to go along to get advice before they get into debt, to get those preventative measures in place. You will be aware that, from that funding, we fund a Communities First and Citizens Advice joint project, which delivers outreach advice on a range of issues in Communities First areas, which, of course, are some of our most deprived areas.
 
I think that everybody needs access to live in a modern society, and banking is clearly one area, so we have to do everything that we can to help people who find themselves financially excluded.
 
14:39
Darren MillarBiography
I too am a great fan of North Wales Credit Union Ltd and, in fact, met its representatives only last week. I know that it is trying to develop its online service provision in order to enable the sort of inclusion that has just been referred to by Gwenda Thomas. One thing that it has suggested is that a way of helping it would be to include it within the Welsh public sector broadband aggregation scheme. Can you tell us today, Minister, whether that is something that you will be able to extend directly to North Wales Credit Union, as indeed to others trying to develop the suite of online services that are, of course, essential for daily living these days?
 
14:40
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I am not sure whether the Member was in the Chamber when I answered Peter Black’s question on PSBA, but certainly my officials are having discussions with the relevant Government department responsible for that scheme. I can see that it would be beneficial for credit unions to have access to that service, so the discussions are ongoing.
 
14:40
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
Given that banks are now disappearing from our villages and towns, making it less likely that people will open a bank account, what discussions has the Government had with external organisations to try to create a people's bank—a bank that would serve people in all parts of Wales?
 
14:41
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I have not had any such discussions. I am not aware if ministerial colleagues have done so, but I think that it is important. As you say, we are seeing banks disappearing from our villages and towns and not everybody has access to online banking, for instance. We know that many people are, unfortunately, digitally excluded. So, I am sure that those discussions are ongoing, but I have not had any personally.
 
Credit Unions
 
14:41
William PowellBiography
4. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government’s work to promote credit unions? OAQ(4)0225(CTP)
 
14:41
Lesley GriffithsBiography
As part of Welsh Government funding awarded to credit unions in January this year, a national marketing campaign was undertaken with the aim of increasing membership by 2,000 above predicted growth rates for 2014. During this campaign, more than 2,500 new members joined credit unions, in line with the target.
 
14:41
William PowellBiography
Thank you, Minister, for that response. Endorsing the comments made by the Member for Arfon, it is obvious that the major high street banks are accelerating the pace of their branch closure programme across our country. In that context, if the banks are committed to reducing their services to principally an online service, backed up by regional hubs, is it not important and, in fact, imperative that the Welsh Government steps up a gear in developing alternative models—perhaps community banking or, indeed, further emphasis on the development of credit unions—to offer people across this country genuine inclusion, particularly those in our rural heartlands?
 
14:42
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I do not think that it is just Welsh Government’s responsibility. I think that there are other organisations that have far more responsibility than us, but I do think that we have a responsibility to support and promote the credit union project. Clearly, we have announced additional funding of £1.2 million in January of this year and then £1.9 million in April over three years. I mentioned the work that I want to do to support credit unions to become more sustainable for the very reasons that you suggest.
 
14:43
Jeff CuthbertBiography
Minister, there are two credit unions operating in my constituency: Smart Money, based in the town of Caerphilly, and the Bargoed, Aberbargoed and Gilfach Credit Union Ltd. Both do a lot of good work in the community, providing advice and support, particularly for disadvantaged people. However, would you agree with me that we need to support the credit union movement in Wales, but also challenge it in terms of providing advice on financial inclusion, offering loans to better-off customers and providing other facilities for saving, such as payroll deduction, which has been pioneered very well indeed by North Wales Credit Union?
 
14:43
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Yes, absolutely; I mentioned the good work done by North Wales Credit Union in relation to encouraging people to have payroll deduction of sums for credit unions. I think that the sustainability of credit unions is absolutely vital and I will do all that I can to continue the work that you undertook in this portfolio. I also want to promote their work to the public sector workforce. I think that I can also do that across Government, particularly with the education, health and local government portfolios. However, you are right: we do have to challenge them, to make sure that they are making provision for people who are both financially and digitally excluded.
 
14:44
Russell GeorgeBiography
Regarding the £700,000 of funding for the national campaign that you talked about for promoting credit unions, what assessment have you made of whether this campaign has had a positive impact? How many referrals and enquiries were received as a result of the project?
 
14:45
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I have not personally undertaken that piece of work, but that will be done by my officials. I mentioned in my initial answer to Bill Powell that, during the campaign, more than 2,500 new members joined credit unions in line with the target, so that is very encouraging. We want more people who are financially sustainable to join credit unions to enable them to support the more vulnerable people in our society.
 
14:45
Bethan JenkinsBiography
Minister, Swansea’s credit union, LASA, is already working with young people, but at the moment it is looking to set up a credit union for young people, so that we have a sort of trickle-up approach. Those young people are already going home to their parents and helping them with their financial education. I wonder whether the Welsh Government has done any work or research, or has any data, into the potential benefits of setting up credit unions for young people, so that they can go through life with those skills, being empowered with those skills.
 
14:46
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I think that you raise a very important point. I know that we have over 13,000 young savers within our credit unions in Wales, which is very encouraging. We need to do more work, because—you are absolutely right—if they learn those skills at a young age and take them through life, it is very good. Also, they are going back and educating their parents, where there is a need for that, unfortunately, in some cases.
 
Flying Start
 
14:46
Mike HedgesBiography
5. Will the Minister provide an update on the expansion of Flying Start? OAQ(4)0211(CTP)
 
14:46
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I am pleased to say that excellent progress is being made. The recently published statistical release showed that, at the end of 2013-14, a total of 31,322 children and their families were being supported by the Flying Start programme across Wales. This shows that we are on track to meet our commitments.
 
14:46
Mike HedgesBiography
I thank the Minister for that response. Flying Start is a very successful programme that stops some children starting school at a substantial disadvantage with a developmental age that is well below their actual age. Will the Minister, however, review areas that are not included due to the relative affluence of the overall lower super output area, such as Trallwn in my constituency?
 
14:47
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I will not be reviewing those areas that are currently not included. Obviously, Flying Start is a geographically targeted programme. However, I know that you have concerns about this issue; I have heard you mention them before. Local authorities do have some flexibility; it is not set in stone. Obviously, they have to gather evidence of need to support that. They do have some flexibility, but I will not be reviewing it.
 
14:47
William GrahamBiography
The Welsh Conservatives have supported this programme since its inception, although the Minister will well know that, sometimes, measuring the outcome is more difficult as it occurs during a child’s development. I notice that there has been a fall in the childcare take-up on an all-Wales basis from 90% last year to 86% in the current year. What are you doing now, Minister, to address this unwelcome decline?
 
14:48
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I was not aware of that figure, but I will certainly have a discussion with my officials regarding that, if it has indeed declined from 90% to 86%, because clearly it is a very successful programme. It delivers services to some of our most disadvantaged families, right across Wales, and you will be aware of our commitment to double the number of children who benefit from the programme from 18,000 to 36,000 by the end of this term.
 
14:48
Simon ThomasBiography
Minister, may I ask you exactly what flexibility local authorities have in terms of the geographical nature of Flying Start? If you look at a town such as Llanelli, which is a single community where there are many Communities First areas, councillors in that town complain to me that this geographical nature prevents co-operation across the town as a whole. Is there any way in which authorities could be more flexible? Although you say that you are not reconsidering this, could you also be flexible in this regard?
 
14:49
Lesley GriffithsBiography
We give the guidance to local authorities. The way that they can be flexible is by operating an outreach service that enables them to use the Flying Start programme to support a family with a child under the age of four that is living outside of the Flying Start area, where a clear need has been identified. So, it is up to the local authority to go out there and get the evidence to support that, if it wants to help benefit a family that is outside the Flying Start area.
 
Childcare (West Wales)
 
14:49
Paul DaviesBiography
6. Will the Minister make a statement on improving childcare across west Wales? OAQ(4)0212(CTP)
 
14:49
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Improving the quality of and access to childcare across Wales is central to our early years and childcare plan. We recently published a progress report on the plan. In taking forward actions under the plan, consideration is being given to the needs of different areas across Wales.
 
14:49
Paul DaviesBiography
Minister, I recently had the opportunity of visiting Jig-So, which is a charity that offers a range of outreach session workshops to local families, such as first aid courses and fire safety courses in north Pembrokeshire and, indeed, in west Wales. What support is the Welsh Government offering to organisations such as Jig-So, which offer crucial skills and services to families and to parents, particularly those living in rural west Wales?
 
14:50
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I am not aware of the specific organisation to which the Member refers. However, we have several grant schemes that different organisations can bid for. I am not quite sure which one that would fall under, but, for instance, we have our children and families delivery grant and our out-of-school childcare grant. If you would like to invite me to visit that scheme, certainly, I would be very happy to do so.
 
Volunteering in the South Wales Valleys
 
14:50
Gwyn R. PriceBiography
7. What action is the Welsh Government taking to encourage volunteering in the south Wales valleys? OAQ(4)0215(CTP)
 
14:50
Lesley GriffithsBiography
The Welsh Government has committed £7.192 million in 2014-15 to support an integrated infrastructure for voluntary organisations and volunteers. This includes £567,729 to the Gwent Association for Voluntary Organisations, covering Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Monmouthshire and Newport. We fund the Volunteering Wales website for those offering or seeking volunteering opportunities.
 
14:51
Gwyn R. PriceBiography
Thank you for that answer. During recess, I met with many community organisations in Islwyn, for example, Disability Can Do in Pontllanffraith, which has supported the teams of volunteers providing essential support to adults with disabilities and their carers. What more can be done to encourage volunteering in helping the most vulnerable people in our society?
 
14:51
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Thank you, Gwyn Price, for that question. It is always really good to hear about volunteering that is targeted at helping other people, particularly where it is directed at some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. We are now working with the third sector partnership council to develop a new volunteering policy for Wales and to stimulate volunteering, to find fresh ideas and ways of doing so. We all value the role of volunteers greatly and, I think that, in Wales, we are very lucky to have so many dedicated and passionate volunteers. I think that a passion for something is a good way of encouraging people to volunteer. Certainly you see in sport—how people come forward when they have a passion for a particular sport. That is something that I would like to look at. We also need to look at training needs and how we can support people to be confident and comfortable in any volunteering role that they have.
 
14:52
Mohammad AsgharBiography
Minister, many retired people have a lifetime of experience and skills that could be of great benefit to voluntary organisations in Wales. What plans does the Welsh Government have to encourage retired people to get involved in voluntary organisations, so that their experience and skills can be used to benefit their local communities?
 
14:53
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Thank you, I go back to my previous answer to Gwyn Price. I think that one thing that we can do, when a volunteer comes forward and they have had that lifetime, as you say, of experience and skills in a certain area, and they have probably retained that passion, is encourage that to come along. I also want to do more to encourage young people to volunteer, because I do not just want to rely on retired people. You will be aware of the new third sector scheme and code of practice for funding the third sector that we have brought forward, and that is an area that I want to work with to develop that new volunteering policy that I mentioned in my answer to Gwyn Price.
 
14:53
Lindsay WhittleBiography
Minister, with a large number of public facilities closing and the enormous interest in many communities in taking them over so that they can be community-led, it is important that those groups are well prepared to take over the administrative functions of the facilities, as well as the other services that they provide. You mention that adequate training is important: how will you ensure that enough finances are made available to local authorities to ensure that when the local authority closes a facility, the volunteers are genuinely adequately trained and that there is no financial comeback on those volunteers?
 
14:54
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I think that you raise a very important point and that was certainly something that I was looking at in my previous portfolio. I mentioned the new volunteering policy for Wales, and that is somewhere where we can look at the training needs and also the management needs, because people will also need to be managed if they are taking on roles such as you describe.
 
Poverty
 
14:54
Mark IsherwoodBiography
8. Will the Minister outline measures that the Welsh Government is taking to aid older people living in poverty in Wales? OAQ(4)0217(CTP)
 
14:54
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Thank you. Our tackling poverty action plan details commitments to reduce poverty for all, including older people. Relevant commitments include continued free bus travel for people over 60, funding for crucial advice services specifically targeted at older people and funding to support digital inclusion amongst the over 50s.
 
14:55
Mark IsherwoodBiography
Age Alliance Wales recently published its 2014 update on its 2012 report, ‘Wales: A Good Place to Grow Old?’ In this, among other things, it called on the Welsh Government to involve older people and the third sector in the design, planning and delivery of services for older people, and to not simply consult them after decisions had been reached. How do you respond to that call, and will you be delivering upon it?
 
14:55
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I think it is really important that as many people as possible are involved in the provision of services. I think local authorities have stepped up to the plate in their budget negotiations; I know Wrexham council is just about to start a very wide-ranging budget consultation. I know other local authorities— Monmouthshire, for instance—did a very good budget consultation. I think it is really important that everybody is involved, not just older people. Clearly, I am sure that we are all being spoken to by older people about their bus passes and about other schemes and strategies that the Welsh Government is coming forward with. We obviously have ‘The Strategy for Older People in Wales 2013-2023’, we now have phase three, and I think that is another area that older people have been very involved in—in bringing forward that strategy.
 
14:56
Rhun ap IorwerthBiography
I have a copy of a magazine here by Age Cymru Gwynedd and Anglesey, stating the following:
 
‘Unfortunately the current Tackling Poverty Action Plan makes only passing reference to older people and lacks many targeted actions to help older people living on very low incomes.’
 
Do you agree, Minister, and how should you respond?
 
14:56
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Well, I have not seen a copy of that. I am very interested to see Ynys Môn and Gwynedd putting out a joint newsletter—I would be very interested to see that. I have looked at the tackling poverty action plan coming into portfolio. It is obviously cross-cutting; the programmes and policies contained within it are aimed at all people in society affected by poverty, and that does include older people.
 
The Post Office Network
 
14:57
Julie MorganBiography
9. What plans does the Minister have to support the Post Office network? OAQ(4)0220(CTP)
 
14:57
Lesley GriffithsBiography
The Welsh Government has an excellent record of supporting Welsh post offices. We have provided capital improvement grants worth £10.7 million to Welsh post offices since 2002. The final post office diversification fund awards were announced in May 2014.
 
14:57
Julie MorganBiography
I thank the Minister for that response. As the Post Office’s policy now is to encourage supermarkets and other stores to take post offices into their existing businesses, and this can sometimes cause problems when postmistresses or postmasters give up and there is no suitable place in the area for them to go—this is actually happening on Whitchurch high street in my constituency at the moment—can the Minister suggest any ways that there could perhaps be a more flexible approach by the Post Office?
 
14:58
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Obviously, post office matters are not devolved to Welsh Ministers, it is an issue for the UK Government, but we have long recognised the importance of local post offices to the communities they serve. I mentioned the post office diversification fund, and I think the figure now is that we have given awards— grant funding—to almost half of the post offices in Wales, which I think is an incredible achievement, particularly when it is not a devolved matter. I have had issues in my own constituency where post offices have wanted to go into shops and supermarkets, and it is very difficult. Any post office matters that are discussed by the UK Government are obviously monitored by my officials, and perhaps that is somewhere where we can perhaps feed into any consultations that come forward from there.
 
14:59
Byron DaviesBiography
Minister, leading on from your response to Julie Morgan, you may well be aware of the work that local authorities in England, such as Sheffield City Council, undertook to make post offices the front office for government and public sector services in Sheffield, making better use of post offices across the city, and enabling local people and businesses to access a range of public services in the community, for example, being able to pay council tax and rent through one of the 78 post offices. I know that, in 2009, the Welsh Government sponsored a trial of the Post Office validate service with two local authorities in Wales— Cardiff and Conwy. I was wondering what other trials and opportunities you are exploring to integrate public services into our post office network here in Wales, so as to keep them alive in our communities.
 
14:59
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I was not aware of the work being undertaken by Sheffield City Council. As I said, any matters to do with the Post Office are not devolved to Welsh Ministers, but certainly officials can monitor any developments that may affect Wales.
 
15:00
Rhodri Glyn ThomasBiography
I accept, Minister, that matters appertaining to the Post Office are not devolved, but, despite the financial support that you have given to the post offices, is it not the case that post offices are still closing throughout Wales, particularly in rural areas?
 
15:00
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I think that post offices are closing in all areas of Wales, unfortunately. I mentioned that I think we have an excellent record in supporting them through the post office development and post office diversification funds. We have supported over half of post offices in Wales with a capital improvement grant, which I think is an incredible achievement.
 
15:00
Eluned ParrottBiography
I was pleased to meet local campaigners in Llandaff North last week who are hoping to bring a new post office to their community. However, obviously, to make sure that new post offices are economically viable for the postmasters in the long term, it is important to consider ways in which they can diversify. I wonder whether you have had direct discussions with the Post Office yet to discuss ways in which the Welsh Government’s own services or information on things such as organ donation or financial literacy could potentially be delivered through our post office network, which is already active in our community.
 
15:01
Lesley GriffithsBiography
No, I have not, as yet, in week 2, had conversations with the Post Office Ltd, but I am sure that it will want to meet me. I am actually meeting with Royal Mail; I know that it is a separate company, but I am actually meeting with it next month. I am certainly very happy to meet with the Post Office.
 
15:01
Mick AntoniwBiography
Minister, of course, in 2015, as the result of the Tory-Lib Dem legislation, there will be a reconsideration of the maintenance of the universal service. Of course, Ofgem will be consulting over this with regard to Wales. Will you be making efforts to consult with Ofgem Wales in order to discuss how this consultation is going to take place, and to ensure that we actually do all that we can to protect the universal service?
 
15:02
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Yes, certainly. My officials—if they have not already had a discussion—will be having a discussion on this issue.
 
Debt
 
15:02
Sandy MewiesBiography
10. Will the Minister make a statement on the scale of problem debt faced by families in Wales? OAQ(4)0222(CTP)
 
15:02
Lesley GriffithsBiography
In June 2014, the Welsh Government commissioned a report that showed that one in six families in Wales is burdened by debt. This is too many. We will continue to play our part in helping people who are affected by problem debt.
 
15:02
Sandy MewiesBiography
Thank you. I was very concerned to read that, according to the latest research from the Children’s Society, more than 150,000 children in Wales are living in families facing debt problems. In my own constituency of Delyn, 34% of families are in problem debt, with the debt owed totalling almost £6 million. Despite claims by the UK Government that its economic policies and welfare reforms are protecting families, it clearly is not working. Many families are still struggling to make ends meet. Minister, what action is the Welsh Government able to take to protect children from the effects of problem debt and to support financially vulnerable families?
 
15:03
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Tackling debt in Wales is a key part of the Welsh Government financial inclusion strategy and tackling poverty action plan. You will have been in the Chamber yesterday when we had the oral statement on advice services and the extra £2 million funding that we have put into that. I go back to what I was saying before: I want people to access these services before they get into debt, and use them as a preventative method. Clearly, we cannot fill all of the gaps that the UK Government has left us with, particularly around the welfare reform proposals, but we will continue to do everything that we can to mitigate the worst impacts, as far as we are able.
 
15:03
Janet Finch-SaundersBiography
Perhaps I can just advise the Member that, as a result of the UK Government’s welfare reforms, universal credit will see £22 million put back into our families in Wales over the next 12 months. However, according to StepChange Wales, the scale of problem debt facing families is increasing, as the Member rightly pointed out. Rent arrears and council tax arrears have gone up from 19% to 29%, and energy arrears, and an average pay-day loan for a family in Wales is £1,335. Too often, though, there is an assumption that this is largely due to a lack of income, yet many of the debt arrears are for services attracting funding provision. Sadly, not enough is done in terms of education, budget planning, financial management and