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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.
 
1. Questions to the Minister for Finance and Government Business
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
 
13:30
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
The first item this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Finance and Government Business, and question 1 is from Julie Morgan.
 
The European Union Referendum
 
13:30
Julie MorganBiography
1. What discussions has the Minister had with her counterparts in the devolved countries about the funding implications of withdrawal from the EU? OAQ(4)0684(FIN)
 
Altaf HussainBiography
4. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact that the EU referendum will have on Welsh Government funding? OAQ(4)0678(FIN)
 
Jenny RathboneBiography
10. What are the implications for structural funds in Wales if the UK decides to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum? OAQ(4)0685(FIN)
 
13:30
Jane HuttBiographyThe Minister for Finance and Government Business
Presiding Officer, I understand you have given permission for questions 1, 4 and 10 to be grouped.
 
On Monday, I attended the joint ministerial council on Europe in London, where we discussed the UK Government’s EU referendum and the damaging impact an exit would have on the economy and security of regions across the UK.
 
13:30
Julie MorganBiography
I thank the Minister for that response. One of the major concerns expressed to me in Cardiff about possible withdrawal from the EU is the huge impact this will have on university research, which, of course, adds a huge amount of value to the Welsh economy. I know Cardiff University, for example, receives funding from the EU Horizon 2020 fund, in particular. So, does the Minister share the concerns over what will happen to university research funding, and does she know whether this is shared by the other devolved bodies?
 
13:31
Jane HuttBiography
I thank Julie Morgan for that question. I totally share the concerns, and, in addition to specific EU funds allocated, worth £500 million annually, to Wales, of course, as you say, funding streams like Horizon 2020 do provide Wales with very important opportunities for research and innovation. I am attending a Horizon 2020 event tomorrow, to celebrate the success of Welsh businesses and universities, including Cardiff, securing £30 million of Horizon 2020 funds so far, to support innovative and scientific breakthroughs and to develop world-class products and services.
 
13:32
Altaf HussainBiography
Minister, the EU referendum is one of the biggest decisions the people of Wales will have to make this century. It is therefore vital that they are equipped with the facts about the impact of their decision. Will you ensure that your department, in the run-up to the referendum, publishes clear information about the impact of remaining in the EU, as well as the impact of leaving, and avoid relying on political rhetoric about the dangers of leaving or remaining in the EU? Thank you.
 
13:32
Jane HuttBiography
Can I thank the Member very much for that question? I think one of the most important points, as a pro-business Welsh Government, is that we strongly believe that leaving the EU would leave Wales worse off. By being in the EU, Wales currently has a seven-year guarantee of EU funds—from 2014 to 2020—together with income support payments to farmers, worth over £500 million annually in Wales, and it is clear that this information has to be shared. On Monday—again, to put on the record—I visited Cardiff University’s School of Engineering to announce £15 million of EU funds for the Flex-E flexible integrated systems project. That is a collaboration, involving not just Welsh universities—Cardiff University, Swansea University, the University of South Wales, Aberystwyth University, and Bangor University—but businesses as well, engaging with industry, developing world-class research that can meet modern-day and low-carbon energy opportunities.
 
But, of course, the facts are that, for example, the EU projects that have benefited include Cardiff-based TrakCel’s €420,000 investment from Horizon 2020, which I’ve just mentioned is a key source of funding particularly for our universities and business. I think we’ve got to recognise that the Welsh Government, in supporting continued membership of the EU, believes that a UK exit would leave Wales worse off and that the economic and social impact on businesses, people’s jobs, our prosperity and on our security would be absolutely devastating.
 
13:34
Jenny RathboneBiography
I recently visited the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre, which has had millions of pounds from the European Union, and it’s causing great anxiety amongst their European partners as to how this multimillion-pound, huge, worldwide, significant project is going to go forward were Britain to leave the EU. So, obviously, the quicker we get the referendum over and done with, the better.
 
I just want to reflect on a slightly different aspect of the success of the European Union, which is that it is 100 years nearly since the battle of the Somme, when a million people died for reasons that we cannot any longer remember and it is now 70 years since we’ve had no substantial war in Europe. I would have thought that this was one of the most important aspects of being part of the European Union. I just wondered if you could tell us what the Welsh Government’s intentions are in the way we’re going to celebrate Europe Day this year to highlight this point.
 
13:35
Jane HuttBiography
I’m very grateful to Jenny Rathbone for widening this discussion to important, wider impacts and devastation in terms of leaving the EU, not just in terms of the impact on single market business, universities and on our people and communities, but on the wider understanding of what it means to have been part of Europe and part of the European Union. Of course, Europe Day does provide us with that opportunity to widely recognise that cultural, as well as historical—. I think the exhibition, promoted by our Llywydd, in terms of recognising the role of our relatives across the Senedd in the two world wars—the great wars—and our impact and our relationship with Europe, of course, also recognises that those exchanges that we create with young people are so important in terms of their wider understanding.
 
13:36
Rhodri Glyn ThomasBiography
Minister, Wales has huge potential in terms of developing marine energy, and not just in the context of the current scheme in Swansea, as there are proposed schemes in Newport, in the Vale and in Colwyn Bay. Can you confirm that it would be much more difficult to develop these projects outside of the European Union than it would be within the European Union?
 
13:37
Jane HuttBiography
I certainly can confirm that, Rhodri Glyn Thomas. Of course, again, promoting marine energy, I was in Brussels only very recently, talking about the opportunities. Also, of course, we can benefit from the funding available, including £12 million for renewable energy through Deep Green in Anglesey and Wave Hub off the coast of Pembrokeshire as one example of where that links to marine energy. So, this is something where Wales would lose out, and clearly I’m very pleased that, as to the Swansea bay tidal lagoon proposition, on which we hope we will see some response from the UK Government, but I haven’t heard the whole of the budget in terms of my questions, the European Investment Bank sees that as the sort of project that they would like to support.
 
The Health and Social Services Portfolio
 
13:38
Simon ThomasBiography
2. What discussions has the Minister had regarding the budget allocation to the health and social services portfolio? OAQ(4)0676(FIN)[W]
 
13:38
Jane HuttBiography
I consulted widely in developing the budget ‘Fairer, Better Wales—Investing for the Future’, which was passed last week.
 
13:38
Simon ThomasBiography
Thank you, Minister. What provision has been made in your budget for changes by health boards? This afternoon, I presented a petition jointly with Paul Davies, with over 20,000 signatures, on restoring paediatric services to Withybush General Hospital in Pembrokeshire. Having discussed this with the chief executive of Hywel Dda Local Health Board, I have been made aware that they are keeping these services under review and are considering how they can improve the services as they are so important to the accident and emergency department within the hospital too. So, what will you do, in discussion with health boards, if they want to restore services that have been moved elsewhere?
 
13:39
Jane HuttBiography
Clearly, the final budget for next year, for 2016-17, provides for additional investment in healthcare of over £300 million—£260 million revenue and £53 million capital. The additional funding does mean that the budget is now the largest it’s ever been and will account for 48 per cent of the funding allocated to Welsh Government departments for the next financial year. Of course, if you look at that in terms of spend per head, it’s an additional £262 per head on health. But that does enable our health boards to respond to the needs of their local communities and their health populations. And, of course, it does also mean that we can invest, particularly in terms of capital, in those all-important resources, which I know you have been raising, such as the need for investment in diagnostics, linear accelerator infrastructure and cath lab replacement.
 
13:40
Darren MillarBiography
Minister, I listened to your answer very carefully. You did nothing to acknowledge that yours is the only Government that will ever be ending a term where NHS spending is lower in real terms than when you started. That is the reality of the matter. It’s an absolutely shameful record that has caused crippling problems in our health service, which are manifesting across the length and breadth of the country. Can you tell us, do you regret the record-breaking cuts that your Government has imposed on the Welsh NHS and the impact that that has had on patients and hard-working staff?
 
13:41
Jane HuttBiography
Well, I’m very surprised, Darren Millar, that you’re not prepared to look at and take account of the official figures published by your UK Government, which show that spending per head on health is higher in Wales and has increased faster than in any other part of the UK. Don’t you want the public to know that in your constituency? [Interruption.] Again, the Conservative UK Government shows that the amount of money—[Interruption.]
 
13:41
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Darren Millar.
 
13:41
Jane HuttBiography
[Continues.]—that the Welsh Government spends per head on health in Wales was 1 per cent higher than in England in 2014-15, grew faster in Wales in that year than in any other of the UK countries, and spending per head on health and social services combined is £172—7 per cent per head higher than in England. And I think it is important, again, to acknowledge the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report on health services in the UK, which said last month that—the report shows how the health services operate in the four countries in the UK and acknowledged the deeply established and widely shared commitment of the NHS in Wales to continuously improve the quality of care it provides.
 
13:42
Aled RobertsBiography
In January, Minister, your health Minister said that there was no additional funding available for health boards. Betsi Cadwaladr health board has now believes that there is an overspend of £20 million. Can you confirm whether the Government has agreed a three-year plan with Betsi Cadwaladr health board at this point, and, if they haven’t, are you content with financial management within the health board, given the fact that they refuse to refer patients to hospitals in England, such as Gobowen, because of a lack of money?
 
13:42
Jane HuttBiography
Well, it is important, Aled Roberts, that we recognise the additional allocations that I have made during this financial year to assist health boards. In September last year, I announced an additional funding package of £58.8 million to support the NHS in Wales, and funding of £45 million to drive up a number of initiatives within the service, targeted at improving performance in the service in 2015-16, and, of course, I announced an additional £45 million from reserves to address winter pressures on 8 February this year, all of which will assist health boards like Betsi Cadwaladr in meeting their needs and demands.
 
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
 
13:43
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to questions from the party spokespeople and, first this afternoon, the Welsh Conservative spokesperson, Nick Ramsay.
 
13:43
Nick RamsayBiography
Diolch. Minister, I’m sure you will join me in welcoming today’s budget, the halving of the Severn bridge tolls when they return to public ownership in a few years’ time and also, of course, the city deal funding, which was announced yesterday—a great example of a UK Conservative Government delivering for Wales and working in co-ordination with the Welsh Government. Minister, we have long called for a Barnett floor to address the problem of the fairness of funding to Wales. We know that the Chancellor and the Treasury have agreed to that now. What discussions have you had with his officials regarding the implementation of that floor?
 
13:44
Jane HuttBiography
Well, I also am very glad that the UK Government listened to my call in terms of—. I wanted to scrap, of course, the tolls on the Severn bridge. They’ve heeded my call and cut them, which of course I welcome. They’re not quite far enough, but that is a step in the right direction. I was also very pleased indeed to take part in the announcement—which was UK Government, Welsh Government and 10 local authorities coming together in partnership—to welcome the Cardiff capital region city deal. But your question is very important in terms of the long-term, robust underpinning of our finances in Wales. In terms of the funding floor and the Barnett formula, I very much welcome, I would have to say at this point, the Finance Committee’s report on future funding for Wales. In fact, I have written to the Chair of the Finance Committee—I hope she has received my letter—to say that I accept every one of your recommendations because they do reflect the challenges we are under. In terms of the floor itself, yes, of course, we have worked hard to secure that floor, but it has to be a funding floor—and you recognised this cross-party, as the Finance Committee—for the future, not just for this spending review.
 
13:45
Nick RamsayBiography
Yes, Minister, I quite agree with you that a floor is vital, as is early implementation of that floor, but also the mechanics of how you set it. I agree with you that it shouldn’t be reset; it maybe should be reviewed over years to come, but it shouldn’t be reset.
 
You mentioned the Finance Committee report, which, sadly, we have not had time to debate because of the lateness of its launch. You’ve seen the recommendations. One of those is for an independent body to determine the amount of funding that Wales gets in the future, particularly with regard to deductions to compensate for devolved taxation. Do you agree with the need for an independent body, and, again, what discussions have you had with the Treasury about how that body might be formed?
 
13:46
Jane HuttBiography
Well, again, I welcome and have accepted that recommendation, and I think it’s important that I put that on record as your finance Minister, in response to the Finance Committee’s very helpful report on future funding for Wales. In fact, I wrote to the chief secretary today, Greg Hands, who I also met yesterday afternoon, to share with him your report and to say that I agreed with all the recommendations and that I hoped that he would too, because it’s critical that the UK Government comes on board. Particularly, I mentioned the fact that we did, as I also raised with him, very much welcome your recommendation in terms of having an independent review process built in. As has been done with the Scottish fiscal framework, we expect the same independent arbitration and the same degree of independence to apply to the Welsh fiscal framework.
 
13:47
Nick RamsayBiography
Minister, this is the last time I will question you before this Assembly dissolves in a couple of weeks’ time, so can I take this opportunity to thank you and your officials for your close co-operation with me over the last couple of years on the finance brief? That has been most helpful to me and, I know, to the Finance Committee as well.
 
Minister, you fully recognise the principle of fairness in terms of funding for Wales and reviewing the Barnett formula. I have made many pleas over the last—however long it’s been—couple of years for fairness of funding within Wales. We have the public services Minister here today as well, and he will know full well that I have called for reassessment of a local government funding formula that delivers for Wales. Will you agree to look at this in the next Assembly, or your successors, and will you agree with me that it’s not fair that rural authorities within Wales don’t get that funding that they need to cope with issues such as sparsity and delivering public services over a large area? I know you’ve refused to do this in the past, but, for the sake of rural Wales, please will you look at this again?
 
13:48
Jane HuttBiography
I very much would like to thank Nick Ramsay for his kind words and to exchange those courtesies in terms of having the opportunity to work with you as well as to be scrutinised by you as the finance spokesperson for the opposition. I think it has served us well that we have worked on this cross-party basis, following on from the Holtham commission recommendations through to the Silk commission, and then on the way we have taken forward our calls for fairer funding in Wales. I would say that I would also accept and support your recommendation in terms of the Barnett formula and strengthening not just the commitment to the funding floor, but that we should look for the necessity of a needs-based formula. We very much strongly believe that in terms of the Barnett formula.
 
But, of course, in terms of the wider issues, I am sure you will take the opportunity to raise these questions with the Minister for Public Services, in relation to local government. Of course, also, the Minister has himself instigated his own independent review of finances for local government and, indeed, so has Welsh local government. So, it’s clearly very much open for discussion and debate.
 
13:49
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Peter Black.
 
13:49
Peter BlackBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, can I also echo Nick Ramsay’s words in thanking you for the work that you have done with the Finance Committee and with me as the Welsh Liberal Democrat finance spokesperson over the last five years? I think we’ve worked very well together in partnership on delivering good benefits for Wales and for parts of Wales. I think that the work we’ve done as a Finance Committee and with you has actually helped to advance the devolution process as well. So, thank you for that.
 
Minister, you’ve referred to the ‘Future Funding for Wales’ report of the Finance Committee, which, as Nick Ramsay said, we’ll not have time to debate in this Chamber. Recommendation 6 of that report says that,
 
‘as a minimum, there must be a principled decision taken on how the block grant will be reduced before taxes are devolved.’
 
I wonder if you could give us an update on the talks between the Welsh Government and the Treasury in terms of getting that mechanism in place, as it has already been put in place in Scotland.
 
13:50
Jane HuttBiography
Well, I would also like to thank Peter Black for his contribution and also for the ways in which we’ve worked together, and his responses to my requests as well as my responses to his, in terms of taking the important public finances for Wales forward on a fairer basis. I believe that will have an impact in terms of our record of this Assembly session.
 
I would say that, in terms of recommendation 6, this is critically important. This is a recommendation that there should be that principled decision taken on how the block grant will be reduced before taxes are devolved. There are a number of approaches to how the Welsh block grant could be reduced in exchange for the tax revenue that will flow to Wales following tax devolution. It would be grossly unfair if some of the suggested ways in which that could have been done with the Scottish Government would be applied to Wales, so we have to make sure that that doesn’t happen. We have said, and the First Minister has said, that we feel that we should follow the route that the discussions have taken with the Scottish Government and the Treasury of the UK Government to secure a fiscal framework that suits Wales in advance of fiscal devolution.
 
I would like to take the opportunity to say that I am disappointed that the Chief Secretary has not agreed to a meeting since I met with him in December, despite repeated requests. And I hope this Assembly today, across parties, will support me in urging that meeting before dissolution.
 
13:52
Peter BlackBiography
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Recommendation 7 starts with a marvellous piece of understatement, I think, when it says:
 
‘The Committee firmly believes the relationship between the UK Government and Welsh Government needs to improve.’
 
Would the Minister—? You’ve already referred to the failure of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to meet with you, and I understand also there have been issues around the quadrilaterals between finance Ministers not taking place as frequently as you would have liked. Can I ask, when you met with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury yesterday, whether he gave you any indication that this was likely to change and that he would now engage more vigorously with the Welsh Government in terms of putting these fiscal frameworks into place?
 
13:53
Jane HuttBiography
Well, clearly, we had a very cordial exchange yesterday, as we welcomed the groundbreaking city deal for the Cardiff capital region. As I said to him, as I wrote to him today, yesterday’s signing—this is in my letter to him today—of the Cardiff capital region city deal is an excellent demonstration of what can be achieved when Welsh Government and UK Government work together. This needs to be reflected in our continuing to make progress with the fiscal framework for Wales. So, again, on the record today, that is what I’ve called for, in acknowledgement that we can work together comprehensively and coherently.
 
13:53
Peter BlackBiography
Again, thank you for that answer, Minister. The taxes that are due to be devolved to us are due to come in 2018. Scotland effectively had their deal done almost at the last minute, although it is quite a reasonable deal for them. But I was just wondering, what’s the timetable now in terms of getting the deal together with the Treasury so that we can meet the deadline of 2018 and actually start implementing our own tax regime from that time?
 
13:54
Jane HuttBiography
We need to get on with this now—the clock is ticking. With the support, I’m sure, of the Assembly today, I anticipate that those negotiations will now proceed at speed.
 
13:54
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Alun Ffred Jones.
 
13:54
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
Thank you very much. As this is the final chance I’ll have to question you, Minister, may I thank you for your willing co-operation? I’m going to ask a number of easy questions now that are based on the committee’s report.
 
Do you agree with the committee’s recommendation that changes to the statement of funding policy between the UK Government and the devolved administrations should be agreed and that they should be recorded transparently?
 
13:55
Jane HuttBiography
I certainly do agree. We would very much welcome a more transparent approach by the UK Government to funding devolved government. I do want to repeat again, in response to your question, Alun Ffred Jones, that we should have an independent body to assess allocation, better scrutiny and an improved dispute mechanism.
 
13:55
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
Thank you very much. Do you also agree with recommendation 5 that the process to distribute the block grant should be on a statutory basis, and it shouldn’t be at the discretion of the Minister?
 
13:55
Jane HuttBiography
I do agree with that and I think that the fact that we are still calling on the UK Government to outline the details of a long-term funding floor that addresses the issue of funding actually does fall very much in line with accepting that recommendation. Can I also say how thankful I am to Alun Ffred Jones for his courtesy in engagement, and robust scrutiny, over the time in which I’ve been finance Minister and he’s been finance spokesperson for Plaid Cymru?
 
13:56
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
Thank you very much. I understand that George Osborne has announced today that he will proceed with a tax on sugary drinks—a tax originally proposed here by Plaid Cymru and which, of course, was derided, somewhat unfortunately, by the First Minister, Carwyn Jones. Do you welcome this announcement by George Osborne today?
 
13:56
Jane HuttBiography
Not only did I respond, if you recall, Alun Ffred Jones, but I actually responded to the debate that you put forward and welcomed and indeed, as you’ll recall, supported the—[Interruption.] The Welsh Government supported that debate. But, also, I do want to say that it’s very important that we recognise that work is being done by the Bevan Foundation, looking at all the opportunities for new taxes that we need to consider and at the evidence base, obviously recognising that in terms of some of those taxes, such as the sugar tax, or around the issue of sugar, we’d have to look at this in terms of a UK basis and I know that this is welcome news that this might be taken forward.
 
13:57
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move back to questions on the paper and question 3 is Rhodri Glyn Thomas.
 
Supporting National Institutions
 
13:57
Rhodri Glyn ThomasBiography
3. What additional funding will the Minister provide to support national institutions in Wales in order to secure their future? OAQ(4)0680(FIN)[R]
 
13:57
Jane HuttBiography
The 2016-17 funding allocations for Welsh Government sponsored bodies, including our national institutions, were included in the final budget on 8 March.
 
13:57
Rhodri Glyn ThomasBiography
I should declare an interest because my period as chair of the National Library of Wales starts on 6 April, but this question relates to national institutions in general in Wales. It appears to me that, over the past five years, when mentioning support from the public purse for institutions, we have been talking continuously about the cuts that have been coming from Westminster. I greatly hope that that won’t be happening for the next 10 years, but that we acknowledge the financial restrictions that we’re facing and that the Welsh Government works with national institutions in Wales to make the best use possible of the public funding that’s available, to ensure that there are partnerships and collaborations between these institutions to secure their future. Because these institutions are vitally important to the future of Wales.
 
13:58
Jane HuttBiography
Can I also declare an interest that my husband is a trustee of the National Library of Wales?
 
13:58
Rhodri Glyn ThomasBiography
Yes, I know that. [Laughter.]
 
13:58
Jane HuttBiography
I think it’s important in terms of a response to your question that free entry to the national library and National Museum Wales is a key plank of our programme for government commitments, also recognising the valuable contribution that those bodies make to much wider strategic priorities, including tackling issues relating to poverty and increasing engagement from people in disadvantaged communities, and that we see, as indeed the Deputy Minister for Culture and Sport and Tourism sees, that the sponsored bodies in his portfolio really can attract further investment from other sources in order to supplement their grant-in-aid budgets.
 
13:59
Angela BurnsBiography
Minister, while I appreciate Rhodri Glyn Thomas’s concerns for the national institutions, I’d be interested to know what you might be able to do to creatively encourage a trickle-down of funding to some of the smaller institutions throughout Wales. We do not want to be left in a situation where we have a large tree surrounded by weak saplings. A great many of these smaller organisations, such as Tenby and Narberth museums—and there are many throughout Wales—are much more able to engage effectively with their local communities because they really understand them, and really, really chime with them. The concern that I and a number of other people have is that, because times are slightly tighter, all the funding is going to the big organisations, and the smaller ones are being gently starved.
 
Jane HuttBiography
Well, I wouldn’t say that was the case, and, of course, in terms of the loan contribution of our Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources, those can assist those smaller, very important bodies and institutions, as you say, Angela Burns. But we are still facing the fact—indeed, even with this budget today—that we have suffered six years of austerity, six years of cuts to our Welsh Government budget. But I’m very proud of the fact that we were able to ameliorate and alleviate the cuts to local government substantively in my final budget for the next financial year, and, of course, that will also help our local authorities support those important local cultural bodies.
 
14:01
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Question 4 was grouped with a question earlier. We now move to question 5, which is Keith Davies.
 
European Structural Funds
 
14:01
Keith DaviesBiography
5. Will the Minister make a statement on the impact of European structural funds on the Llanelli constituency? OAQ(4)0677(FIN)[W]
 
14:01
Jane HuttBiography
EU funds have supported key multimillion-pound developments to help boost jobs and growth in Llanelli, including The Works cultural and arts centre, the Llanelly House community heritage centre, and many town-centre improvements.
 
14:01
Keith DaviesBiography
Thank you. I can see the significant difference that European funding has made within the constituency. European funding has funded a major regeneration project in the town centre, in the East Gate quarter, which includes the Ffwrnes Theatre, and has supported a number of local businesses and communities, and we also have the Millennium Coastal Park, of course. Would you agree with me that it is of benefit to the Llanelli constituency for the UK to continue to be a member state of the European Union?
 
14:02
Jane HuttBiography
Well, of course, Keith Davies, and I thank you for the question, we are strongly supporting the UK’s continuing membership of the EU—vital to our economy, jobs and security, and our town centres, like Llanelli, seeing the regeneration of those town centres. I was particularly pleased to visit the grade I listed Llanelly House—£7 million of restoration, supported by £2.5 million of EU funds. It’s now, as you of course know, the premier heritage visitor attraction in Llanelli. And also the EU-backed Theatr y Ffwrnes, The Works—creating a new multicultural and arts centre in Llanelli—those would not have happened without EU funding. And across the whole of Carmarthenshire—back to the facts and figures—EU projects since 2007 have helped 13,600 people gain qualifications and over 4,000 people into work, created over 1,800 jobs and over 500 enterprises.
 
14:03
William PowellBiography
I’m very grateful that my friend Keith Davies has raised this important issue. Carmarthenshire and Llanelli have indeed, Minister, as you’ve outlined, benefited very significantly from European investments, both through the rural development programme and the rural hinterland but also through the structural funds. Particularly, I would ask you to consider the benefits of the Bwcabus system, which has provided socialisation and support for people in the rural hinterlands, giving them access to Llanelli and further afield. Minister, do you agree with me, and indeed with the respected Conservative Member of the European Parliament Dr Kay Swinburne, that it would be a catastrophe if we were to lose our membership of the European Union in the referendum on 23 June?
 
14:04
Jane HuttBiography
I did meet with Kay Swinburne and indeed Derek Vaughan when I was in Brussels only a couple of weeks ago, and we were just sharing very much those sentiments, clearly, together. I think it is important that you draw attention to the importance of Bwcabus. I was pleased to go to the event that took stock of how Bwcabus had made a contribution to communities, enabling people to access work, training, and leisure opportunities in a rural community. But I think also it is very important to look at business as well, and, in Carmarthenshire, for example, just looking at the leading independent food wholesaler, Castell Howell, it’s setting to benefit from accredited work-based learning programmes through the EU-backed growing workforces through learning and development, GWLAD, led by the University of Wales Trinity St David.
 
European Funding Impact (Torfaen)
 
14:05
Lynne NeagleBiography
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the impact of European funding on Torfaen? OAQ(4)0682(FIN)
 
14:05
Jane HuttBiography
Since 2007, EU projects delivering in Torfaen, such as Bridges into Work and new business start-ups, have created 1,380 jobs, 430 enterprises, supported over 15,700 people to gain qualifications and 3,675 people into work.
 
14:05
Lynne NeagleBiography
Thank you, Minister, and thank you for highlighting the excellent record that European funding has for creating jobs and ensuring prosperity in my constituency. As you know, Wales is a net beneficiary of EU funding, and the Valleys have benefited from strategic regeneration and projects to get people into work. Yet, we know that the Prime Minister has said he cannot confirm that funding would be replaced if we were to leave the European Union. In this Apprenticeship Week, an area where only last year we saw £144 million-worth of Welsh Government and EU funding in south Wales, would you agree with me that these funding opportunities are absolutely vital to ensure prosperity in our communities? And will you restate your commitment to fighting to continue to keep us in the EU?
 
14:06
Jane HuttBiography
I certainly thank the Member for Torfaen for her question. In fact, I thank all Members for raising these questions today so that we have an opportunity before the end of this Assembly session to put on record our concerns at the risk that we face if we were to leave the European Union. And I think, particularly in Apprenticeship Week, if we look at the EU-backed Bridges into Work project—of course, the Member, Lynne Neagle, was at the event where we took stock of the impact on people’s lives of that project in terms of the next one for enhancing skills and job prospects—and recognise that for every apprenticeship that we funded—and, of course, over the past five years that apprenticeship has been backed by European funding—and also to recognise that this is not just about apprenticeships, it’s about traineeships, the Wales business fund, STEM Cymru and active inclusion.
 
14:07
William GrahamBiography
Though I would agree with much of what the questioner has said, what I ask the Minister today is to say when she thinks that the Valleys will no longer need to qualify for these handouts from the European Union.
 
14:07
Jane HuttBiography
Clearly, the fact that we have today some of the best figures as far as our labour markets statistics are concerned shows that Wales is making great progress, as a result of a Welsh Labour Government, of course, and membership of the European Union. If you look at today’s labour market figures, they show a sharp decline in the rate of unemployment in Wales, and employment rates at a historic record high. And the fact that the labour market in Wales continues to outperform the UK as a whole, and that the Welsh economy is going from strength to strength, I think shows the way we are heading in terms of our economic recovery. And the city deal, of course, is yet another bit of good news that I know you will share.
 
Capital Spending Budgets
 
14:08
Bethan JenkinsBiography
7. Will the Minister make a statement on future capital spending budgets? OAQ(4)0674(FIN)
 
14:08
Jane HuttBiography
Gan adeiladu ar y £4 biliwn ychwanegol o fuddsoddiad newydd yng Nghymru a ddenwyd drwy’r cynllun buddsoddi yn seilwaith Cymru, byddwn yn parhau i ddefnyddio’r cynllun fel y cyfrwng allweddol i gyflawni ein penderfyniadau buddsoddi cyfalaf strategol.
 
14:08
Bethan JenkinsBiography
Minister, I wanted to ask whether you’d had any time to think about Plaid Cymru’s proposals with regard to helping out the steel industry, notwithstanding the issues at the moment in Port Talbot where people will be finding out about the potential job losses. We’ve come up with the idea of potentially looking into funding the power plant there. I noticed that you answered my question last week, and then we had two statements on Horizon 2020 and the European fund for strategic investment, yet nothing in those statements mentioned the steel industry or anything to do with any European funding from your meetings there last week. Can you please give us an update, because we’re at a crucial time now with regard to the job prospects of the people in Port Talbot, and I’d like to see the Welsh Government act—if not now, then when?
 
14:09
Jane HuttBiography
Of course, the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport is providing regular updates in terms of the impact of her taskforce, and indeed this, of course, was a topic that I discussed with the European Commission when I attended the meetings in Brussels only a couple of weeks ago. We’re also, of course, in discussions with the UK Government with regard to the potential for enhanced capital allowances, and continuing to press the case for accessing funding through the European globalisation adjustment fund. And also, of course, in terms of my responsibilities, again, and linked to the EU, we have the ReAct project; that’s £10 million of EU funds—£16.7 million altogether—approved last April. And that is offering immediate support for people facing redundancy at Tata Steel. Of course, this is also crucial in terms of the work that I’m doing to support procurement in those opportunities.
 
14:10
Paul DaviesBiography
Minister, in her statement last year, your colleague the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport made it clear that the dualling of the A40 in Pembrokeshire could provide positive returns in the longer term. In light of that statement, could you outline what up-to-date discussions you’ve had regarding the future allocations towards the possibility of dualling the A40 in Pembrokeshire?
 
14:10
Jane HuttBiography
As you know, the Minister did provide an update on the improvement study for the A40. Of course, that was commissioned to look at potential improvement options for the A40. There is a strong case, of course, as you know, in terms of the conclusions that the dualling of the A40 would provide positive returns in the longer term. It is also recognised as an important regional, national and international link with access to not just Fishguard and Milford Haven but the Haven Waterway enterprise zone. The A40 is part of the national transport finance plan and the Wales infrastructure investment plan.
 
14:11
Kirsty WilliamsBiographyThe Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats
Minister, in the budget, you announced capital investment in the Brecon and Monmouth canal. This is a very important piece of infrastructure, vital to the local tourism economy. Could you give us an update on the nature of that project and the benefits you believe it will bring to the economy in that part of the world?
 
14:11
Jane HuttBiography
I very much welcome the fact that I was able to provide this money. It was a proposal that, of course, came to the Minister for Natural Resources—something that we would like to have done if we had the resources available. The money has just been allocated. I’m sure the Minister will be able to update you on progress.
 
The Communities and Tackling Poverty Portfolio
 
14:12
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
8. Will the Minister make a statement on the impact of the budget allocation to the communities and tackling poverty portfolio? OAQ(4)0681(FIN)[W]
 
14:12
Jane HuttBiography
The communities and tackling poverty budget for 2016-17 has been agreed at £707 million.
 
14:12
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
Thank you very much. Within the tackling poverty portfolio, the funding for Flying Start and Communities First has been maintained, which is to be welcomed, but the only scheme that’s operational in every community, which is Families First, has been cut. Why cut the only scheme that is available in every area?
 
14:12
Jane HuttBiography
Clearly, we have had a tough call in terms of this budget for 2016, and we’ve had to make decisions based on evidence of beneficial impacts. You say, and that is right, that we’ve protected funding for Flying Start. That does mean that we can continue to provide support to 36,000 children. But, clearly, local authorities have also been very much protected in terms of the allocations that we’ve made, not just in terms of the better-than-expected revenue support grant, but also the £21 million for social services. I know that there are ways in which local authorities are supporting particularly important schemes of that kind.
 
14:13
Mark IsherwoodBiography
Bodies from the Williams commission through to the Auditor General for Wales and a coalition of 130 organisations in Wales have called for services to be delivered differently, not just because of austerity but because this enables and reables individuals and communities. Yet you’ve cut the third sector supporting communities and people budget by 10 per cent. How do you therefore respond to concern that, at a time when engagement of the third sector is most needed, such cuts to ground level support will disable their ability to support the more holistic user-led and cost-effective support and services that the third sector delivers. They describe this as being ‘devastatingly compromised’.
 
14:14
Jane HuttBiography
I always find it very strange that Mark Isherwood comes up with these pleas about cuts. Of course, the cuts that are being made are the cuts by your UK Conservative Government—cuts that I had to face in terms of the most—. Six years—six years—of being finance Minister with cuts year after year—needless austerity cuts by your UK Government. And, yes, it is about priorities and the priorities that we have set do mean that we have protected Flying Start, do mean that we’re protecting the Supporting People programme, do mean that we’re continuing to protect universal benefits, but also mean that we’ve put more money into the intermediate care fund, and, of course, we’re putting £3 million into Warm Homes, which, I know, in terms of Arbed, is tackling fuel poverty, which you would support.
 
Public Sector Procurement
 
14:15
Peter BlackBiography
9. Will the Minister make a statement on the percentage of public sector procurement that is retained in Wales? OAQ(4)0671(FIN)
 
14:15
Jane HuttBiography
Suppliers in Wales now win 55 per cent of Welsh public sector procurement expenditure and the proportion of contracts awarded through Sell2Wales to Welsh business is at almost 70 per cent.
 
14:15
Peter BlackBiography
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Clearly, that is an improvement, but we still have a long way to go if we’re going to make the most of the Welsh pound. Can I ask you what action is being planned for future years in terms of trying to improve that percentage of procurement retained in Wales, particularly around local authorities and health boards?
 
14:15
Jane HuttBiography
Well, a key focus, of course, of our procurement policy is that public contracts in Wales are open and accessible to all suppliers, directly or through the supply chain. The national procurement service is particularly keen to work with organisations in terms of this round of expenditure analysis for Wales, which, I hope, will see an uplift. But we are driving up adoption of the procurement service, and I think that Welsh Government using Sell2Wales does ensure lower value opportunities and that’s a key way forward in terms of smaller suppliers and third sector firms.
 
14:16
Janet Finch-SaundersBiography
Minister, the ‘A Picture of Public Services 2015’ report by the Auditor General for Wales identified several common barriers affecting the access to public sector procurement, especially for small, local enterprises, in particular the amount of bureaucracy in local authority procurement that makes it absolutely impossible for smaller providers to compete. Minister, how can we address these barriers in the next Assembly term, so that we can all keep the Welsh pound going around in our own constituencies across Wales?
 
14:17
Jane HuttBiography
Of course, all local authorities have signed up to our Welsh procurement policy statement. And, the adoption of tools like the supplier qualification information database and the joint bidding guidance do lower barriers for Welsh business to access our contracts, but also we have invested in the home-grown project to ensure that we can improve the ability, consistency and professionalism of those in the procurement sector, particularly in local government.
 
14:17
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Thank you, Minister.
 
2. Questions to the Minister for Public Services
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
 
14:17
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to item 2, which is questions to the Minister for Public Services. Question 1 [OAQ(4)0684(PS)] is withdrawn. Question 2, John Griffiths.
 
The Armed Forces Community
 
14:17
John GriffithsBiography
2. Will the Minister make a statement on the performance of the package of support for the armed forces community in Wales? OAQ(4)0683(PS)
 
14:17
Leighton AndrewsBiographyThe Minister for Public Services
Llywydd, we’re committed to supporting both serving members and ex-members of the armed forces in Wales. Our package of support sets out how the Welsh Government supports armed forces veterans in Wales.
 
14:17
John GriffithsBiography
Minister, I recently visited the Raglan barracks in Newport to see the training provided by the military preparation college, providing training for a variety of careers. Also, of course, I was pleased to host the launch of the Royal British Legion manifesto for the Assembly elections, which you also attended, as did many other Members here today. Would you agree with me that there is a strong relationship between Welsh Government and the armed forces community in Wales, but that we do need to continue to develop that relationship to ensure that the particular needs of the armed forces community are fully understood and addressed?
 
14:18
Leighton AndrewsBiography
My colleague the Member for Newport East is absolutely right and I very much welcome the action he took in sponsoring the reception by the Royal British Legion when they launched their manifesto for the Assembly elections just a few weeks back. I think it’s fair to say that our armed forces package of support is almost unique in the United Kingdom. We’ve been highly successful in Wales in improving the take-up of the defence discount card; we’ve implemented unique national services such as the Veterans’ NHS Wales service; and, of course, we continue to maintain full entitlements in our council tax reduction scheme for the next financial year for serving members of the armed forces and ex-service personnel and their families. I agree with my colleague the Member for Newport East that we must continue to ensure that this package of support is developed in the future.
 
14:19
Mohammad AsgharBiography
Minister, leaving the military, often, after a long period of service presents former service personnel with many challenges. It often means having to relocate, move home, find new employment and undergo a change of lifestyle. Veterans can sometimes struggle to obtain information about the services available to them when returning to civilian life. What consideration has been given to the establishment of a network of one-stop shops for veterans, as they have in Scotland, to ensure that they are fully aware of the advice and support available to them there?
 
14:20
Leighton AndrewsBiography
Llywydd, in the first instance, of course, it is for the Ministry of Defence to ensure that resettlement services for members of the armed forces are adequate, but I think we can be proud of the fact that, in Wales, we have established the community covenant across all 22 local authorities with armed forces champions in place in those local authorities. We have worked with the Ministry of Defence, with representatives of the armed forces communities and the charities that support them to ensure that the relevant information on discharge is available to members of the armed forces.
 
14:21
Darren MillarBiography
Minister, will you join me in thanking the UK Government for their investment in the wonderful Change Step programme, which has been supported by your Government in the past and engages very effectively with the Veterans’ NHS Wales service? The UK Government, of course, has announced that £500,000 package. It comes just a couple of weeks after an announcement that funding would not continue for that organisation, and this will be very welcome news, indeed, for veterans and their families across Wales.
 
14:21
Leighton AndrewsBiography
I do want to pay tribute to the work that Change Step has done, and I’ve seen it, indeed, in my own constituency of the Rhondda very recently, when I met with veterans and members of Change Step to discuss the services that they provide and the needs that they have. So, I very much do want to join the Member in congratulating Change Step on the work that it does.
 
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
 
14:21
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to questions by party spokespeople. First this afternoon is the Welsh Conservatives’ spokesperson, Janet Finch-Saunders.
 
14:21
Janet Finch-SaundersBiography
Thank you. Minister, your statement yesterday regarding consultation on the draft Local Government (Wales) Bill notes that there is still no clear consensus on the future local government structure. Having previously told those working across local government to ‘grow up’ over your dramatic merger proposals, how do you envisage working productively with a new Welsh Government and local government after this Assembly term?
 
14:22
Leighton AndrewsBiography
Can I say to the Conservative Member that my remarks at committee were, of course, directed to some of the representatives of the Welsh Local Government Association who had previously given evidence to the committee and made what I thought were unhelpful and unfortunate remarks?
 
14:22
Janet Finch-SaundersBiography
Thank you, Minister. Having previously described the concerns of the Wales Audit Office relating to the draft Local Government (Wales) Bill affecting audit independence as ‘absurd’, how do you now respond to the findings of the Auditor General for Wales that section 143 of the Bill falls foul of both section 108 and Part 2 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, as is detailed in his comprehensive letter to the chairman of the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee?
 
14:23
Leighton AndrewsBiography
I don’t agree with the auditor general.
 
14:23
Janet Finch-SaundersBiography
Thank you. Finally, Minister, as these are my last questions of this Assembly term, could I just thank you for responding to my questions as the spokesperson most courteously and with some humour? [Laughter.] Minister, the reports of the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee into the draft Local Government (Wales) Bill urges further consideration, in conjunction with the WLGA, as to how the cost of merges may be met without significant cuts to front-line services. Wouldn’t you agree with me that the next Welsh Government must commit to working with the WLGA on this matter? After all, they are the ones that truly reflect the members for whom they serve.
 
14:24
Leighton AndrewsBiography
Can I start by saying that I have thoroughly enjoyed crossing swords with the Member in this Chamber and in committee over the last 18 months as we’ve held the respective portfolio responsibilities? In respect to the WLGA, I always listen to what they have to say. [Laughter.]
 
14:24
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Oh, I beg your pardon. [Laughter.] That did sound like one of your preambles then, Minister. [Laughter.] I do beg your pardon. We now move to Plaid Cymru’s spokesman, Simon Thomas.
 
14:24
Simon ThomasBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, nevertheless, you do leave office with 22 principal local authorities still in place, three national park authorities, over 730 town and community councils still in place, 22 new statutory public service boards, four education consortia and a myriad of regional partnerships and delivery bodies still active in delivering public services. If this is public service reform, what would neglect have looked like? [Laughter.]
 
14:25
Leighton AndrewsBiography
Well, I was very grateful to the Member and his colleagues when they helped us get the Local Government (Wales) Bill through, just a few months ago. Indeed, I thought at the time they were a rather cheap date. [Assembly Members: ‘Oh.’]
 
14:25
Simon ThomasBiography
You may regret that in a few weeks. [Laughter.] We will use the legislation when we’re in Government to deliver our agenda for public service reform, and let’s see what sort of date you are then. Turning to dates, let me ask a similar question—perhaps in a different way, but perhaps I’ll get a different answer— to that which the Conservative spokesperson asked you. You, in the past, have suggested that the WLGA should not be funded by central Government and should fund itself, because it is, after all, representing another layer of government, and, often, in opposition to yourself. Do you see that you’ll need to bring an end to central Government funding for the WLGA in order for them to become a true partner in delivering public service reform?
 
14:26
Leighton AndrewsBiography
I’m not sure that we need to curtail all support for the WLGA, but what I do think, at the end of the day, is the WLGA’s role is principally to represent the interests of local government in Wales. Now, it’s fair to say that local government in Wales gets a very high percentage of its income from the Welsh Government already. So, for us then to fund the WLGA on top of that might be seen to be asking a bit much, I think, of this Government’s generosity.
 
14:26
Simon ThomasBiography
Well, one of the things that the WLGA is using its funds, partly from you, to do at the moment, of course, is to establish a commission on local government finance, chaired by Professor Travers, who is well known in local government finance circles in that respect. I understand that that will report, actually, on 24 March. We won’t be sitting as an Assembly; however, you’ll still be a Government Minister. So, can you give an indication to the Assembly today, as it’s our last day, of how you might want to respond to that report, and whether you agree with me that the reform of funding for local government finance is something that has to go hand in hand with the reform of the delivery bodies?
 
14:27
Leighton AndrewsBiography
Firstly, can I say that I don’t agree that the reform of local government finance has to go hand in hand with the reorganisation of local government? In fact, I think it’s probably preferable that we proceed with one agenda before addressing the longer term agenda of local government finance reform. However, he will be aware that I have also appointed a finance futures panel to look at some of those long-term issues. I’ve had a thorough briefing from Professor Tony Travers on the work of the independent commission. I welcome the work that has been done there and I look forward to the publication of their final report, which I think will be important and will make a significant contribution to wider debate in Wales about the future of local government finance reform. Since this is our last question time, can I pay tribute to the Member who has followed me from portfolio to portfolio, it feels, in this Chamber? It was only within a few weeks of him coming into this Chamber that he changed his party’s policy on tuition fees and now I find him changing his party’s policy on local government, but it’s always been enjoyable to work with him.
 
14:28
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Peter Black.
 
14:28
Peter BlackBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Can I also add my thanks to the Minister for our engagements in the past and my appreciation of the work that we have done together to try to improve local government and the various responsibilities that he has under his portfolio? Just following on from Simon Thomas’s question in relation to local government finance, the Minister has referred to the finance futures panel, which he set up, and I’ve also had a briefing on the WLGA commission, which I understand is to report on Thursday, 26 March. Minister, in setting up your finance futures panel, what principles have you asked them to consider in terms of looking at how local government should be funded in the future?
 
14:29
Leighton AndrewsBiography
I wouldn’t go on a date with him, because Thursday isn’t 26 March, it’s 24 March, as it happens. But, leaving that aside, these are important issues. The report of the independent commission, established by the WLGA, I very much look forward to reading in full. Professor Tony Travers came to my finance futures panel to give evidence there. We all know, I think, of his reputation in this area, over decades, and he has made a very significant contribution to public life and public thinking around issues of local government finance, and I am sure that we will all read with interest what he has to say. And can I reciprocate to the Member and say that I have thoroughly enjoyed our sparring across this Chamber over the years, and can I say to him—if it’s not too presumptive—I look forward to it continuing?
 
14:30
Peter BlackBiography
Well, thank you for that, Minister. I also look forward to it continuing after 5 May as well. Minister, you’ve outlined again how you understand the WLGA panel—Tony Travers’s panel—is going to work, but you haven’t actually given me much detail in terms of what your finance futures panel is actually looking at. What are the main principles that you believe should be built into any future local government finance system? Clearly, there is a need to improve services and outcomes, and maybe to drive economic growth. Are those the key drivers, or are there other drivers you want to consider as well?
 
14:31
Leighton AndrewsBiography
Well, I think we need to consider equity, we need to consider factors like deprivation, we need to consider all of those issues that have been raised by Members in this Chamber, including, of course, sparsity. But I think we are at a time when, increasingly, local government is going to need to become more sustainable of itself, and therefore its ability to raise finance is going to become a more critical question. And, therefore, I wouldn’t want the finance futures panel at this stage to rule out anything in its considerations. It will look across the piece; it will certainly take on board what has been said in the independent commission report, when that is published. But, from my point of view, I would rather we took our time to explore all options and to get this right than rushed into a reform of local government finance that proved to be less than optimal.
 
14:32
Peter BlackBiography
Thank you for that answer. I think that’s absolutely right, and I think we saw the consequences when the Conservative Government rushed into reforming, with the creation of the community charge or the poll tax. Minister, you’ve already talked about giving local government more responsibility and empowering them, and you’ve also, of course, abolished a lot of direct grants to local government, although I think there are still about 50 left, which need to be looked at for the future. Would you be considering giving local government more freedom to impose their own taxes and devise taxes locally, as part of this? Is that part of your approach—a more sort of diverse approach, giving local councils the ability to do different things in different areas?
 
14:32
Leighton AndrewsBiography
I think it’s far too early to say what the finance futures panel would be willing to recommend. But, clearly, it needs to look across the piece at international evidence, and we know local government, and, indeed, regional governments in other parts of the world, have in their hands a number of different levers that they can use to raise finance. It’s right that we give consideration to all of those, and, at this stage, I wouldn’t want to rule things out, but I think it’s unlikely that—there is one area that I probably would want to rule out, and I think it’s unlikely that the concept of local income tax would find favour with this Government.
 
14:33
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Question 3 [OAQ(4)0685(PS)] is withdrawn.
 
Public Engagement (Public Services)
 
14:33
Joyce WatsonBiography
4. Will the Minister make a statement on the function of public engagement in designing public services? OAQ(4)0691(PS)
 
14:33
Leighton AndrewsBiography
The Welsh Government encourages public participation in policy making and in the design and delivery of public services. Both the draft Local Government (Wales) Bill and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 promote the importance of engagement in designing public services.
 
14:34
Joyce WatsonBiography
I thank you for that answer, Minister. With today’s budget, George Osborne looks set to cut £4 billion of public spend, and the hole does get deeper, and the Tories will keep digging, of course, and that will be the fiscal context and challenge for the next Welsh Government, and also knocking on to public services. So, consulting the public on spending priorities and service design will really be important. Will you, therefore, reiterate to public bodies, Minister, the need for user-friendly, widely publicised, and easily available consultation, and, in the name of saving finance, would you ask them to include information about upcoming consultations in literature that the councils already send round to every house in their given area?
 
14:34
Leighton AndrewsBiography
Can I start by saying my colleague the Member for Mid and West Wales is right to remind the Chamber of the devastating cuts to public finances imposed by the Conservative Government at Westminster—the cuts they’ve imposed on the Welsh budget of around £1.3 billion and economic policies, of course, which are simply not delivering, as we know, at a UK level or indeed delivering for the people of Wales?
 
In respect of the clarity that councils need to give to their residents about proposals that are being developed for local spending or local council tax, when I announced the local government settlement, I reminded councillors in my letter to them of the importance of engaging with their local communities in formulating budget proposals and in making budget decisions. Some councils do that very comprehensively indeed, but in the draft Local Government (Wales) Bill, of course, we will be placing a new duty on local authorities to consult their communities and partner organisations in the setting of spending priorities for each financial year before budgets are agreed by the council.
 
14:36
Suzy DaviesBiography
Of course, Minister, many local authorities and public bodies now carry out their consultations almost exclusively online and not through the medium of leaflets, as Joyce Watson seems to think still goes on. While that does make it more accessible for some people, it doesn’t really help the digitally excluded and in particular children and young people. I think it would be fair to say that many web pages aren’t designed, when they should be, to be accessible by young children and young people. I recall that we share the same view on our commitment as an Assembly to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child trickling down to public bodies that deliver Government policy and I wonder therefore what steps you’ve taken, let’s say in the last six months, to talk to public bodies and local authorities about complying with what we believe are UNCRC obligations.
 
14:37
Leighton AndrewsBiography
Let’s start by saying that it’s not a question of trickling down to local government. Local authorities are autonomous institutions in their own right: they have public duties, including duties in respect of children, and they have duties in respect of young people more widely. I’m pleased that some councils, of course, have established youth councils locally, which play an important role in decision taking in their areas. This was an issue that we explored in the White Paper, ‘Reforming Local Government: Power to Local People’, which I published last year.
 
14:37
Jocelyn DaviesBiography
Minister, something often raised with me is the jargon used by organisations being off-putting. So, what is the Welsh Government doing to make sure that plain language is used during public consultations?
 
14:37
Leighton AndrewsBiography
Can I start, before anything else, by just saying how much I’ve enjoyed working with the Member over the last 13 or so years? Although, on the first occasion that I met her, she did use very direct language, in fact—I think it was before I was elected to the Assembly. She called me a ‘wannabe’. But since then our relationship has changed and it was only a few years later that she was drawing everybody’s attention to my perennially sunny disposition. So, can I say it’s been great fun working with her and I very much want to place on record my thanks to her for the work that she did in enabling this Assembly to pass the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015, which was obviously a groundbreaking piece of legislation?
 
We are very keen that local government, and indeed ourselves as a Government, use clear language that cannot be guilty of misinterpretation. She will know that I try to speak bluntly; I encourage everyone else to do the same.
 
14:38
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
I think you succeed actually, Minister. [Laughter.] Kirsty Williams.
 
14:39
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
Minister, you will be aware of my frustrations with my own local authority, Powys County Council, and how it engages with its local population. Already in this past week, we’ve seen Powys County Council change the start date for a consultation on the future of a high school three times in the space of one week. You will also be very familiar with the school organisation code—a document that you wrote whilst you were the education Minister. What can you do, as Minister for Public Services, to ensure that Powys County Council treats its local population with respect and carries out consultations under the auspices of the code that you wrote in a correct manner, which allows for proper engagement by the public? Would you agree with me that the simple fact that they’ve had to change the date three times in a week before that consultation starts just shows what a shambles they currently are?
 
14:39
Leighton AndrewsBiography
Well, I think the Member has made her point very forcefully about the current schools consultation that is going on in Powys. I think she will have heard what the First Minister said yesterday. It’s not for Ministers to comment on proposals that might come near the Government at some stage for some aspects. I will say to her that my e-mail inbox—as I’m sure the inbox of many other Ministers—has received, I would say, dozens, genuinely, of e-mails from concerned people in Powys. I have certainly ensured that those e-mails are passed on to the Minister for Education and Skills. In respect of the school organisation code, all local authorities know what their obligations are under that school organisation code. It is a matter, of course, for my colleague the Minister for Education and Skills, but I would certainly expect all local authorities to implement that code effectively and properly.
 
Local Authority Functions
 
14:40
Bethan JenkinsBiography
5. Will the Minister make a statement on the outsourcing of local authority functions? OAQ(4)0679(PS)
 
14:40
Leighton AndrewsBiography
I believe that public servants and those acting in the public interest are best placed to deliver public services. Alternative delivery models have a role to play as an alternative to services being withdrawn or outsourced into the for-private-profit sector.
 
14:41