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The Assembly met at 1.29 p.m. with the Presiding Officer (Rosemary Butler) in the Chair.
 
13:29
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
The National Assembly for Wales is now in session.
 
Questions to the Minister for Natural Resources and Food
Renewable Energy Policies
 
13:29
Suzy DaviesBiography
1. What plans does the Minister have to review the Welsh Government’s renewable energy policies? OAQ(4)0009(NRF)
 
13:29
Alun DaviesBiographyThe Minister for Natural Resources and Food
The Welsh Government’s energy policy is set out in ‘Energy Wales’. Our aim is a low-carbon economy that delivers jobs and long-term prosperity on the basis of working in partnership with communities and businesses.
 
13:30
Suzy DaviesBiography
You will be aware of the recent ruling that all 27 European member states are failing to comply with the Aarhus convention. Therefore, what discussions have you had with the UK Government, as the member state, to ensure that energy policy in Wales complies with the convention, especially regarding the means by which the public is involved in formulating Welsh Government energy policy?
 
13:30
Alun DaviesBiography
You will be familiar with the work that was done on delivering on ‘Energy Wales’, as well as the work that has been done, and the focus that has been placed, on community involvement and community benefit in several different projects that the Welsh Government has been involved with. You will also be aware that energy policy, in terms of the approach of the UK Government, is one where we have regular conversations.
 
13:30
Vaughan GethingBiography
Minister, you will be aware, from our long-running inquiry in the Environment and Sustainability Committee, of our interest in renewable energy matters. Would you make a further statement on one of the greatest potential areas of benefit to Wales, namely what the Welsh Government is doing to support marine and tidal power off Wales’s coastline.
 
13:31
Alun DaviesBiography
Members will be aware that the First Minister announced last week that an additional £1.6 million of European funding is being committed to promote the DeltaStream project off Pembrokeshire. The Welsh Government has also recently announced the consenting of a 10 MW pre-commercial tidal array off Anglesey. We are seeking—and Members will be aware of this from reading ‘Energy Wales’—to promote tidal and wave power at all opportunities.
 
13:31
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
I call on the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Alun Ffred Jones.
 
13:31
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
Much of the objection to windfarms is as a result of the fact that there is no community benefit for the areas concerned. Will you amend your energy policy in order to ensure that economic and social benefit is included in all planning permissions?
 
13:32
Alun DaviesBiography
We have been saying that and doing that. You will know from the First Minister’s speech last week that he focused on that, and emphasised the importance of the community being a part of decisions and benefitting from decisions.
 
13:32
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
Why, therefore, will you not do that through legislation?
 
13:32
Alun DaviesBiography
You will also know that many of these issues are not devolved to us in Wales. You and we have been campaigning on that kind of devolution—we agree on that. Once that happens, I hope that we will be able to do more to make that happen.
 
13:32
Peter BlackBiography
Following the question from the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, what interaction have you had with the company that proposed to build a tidal lagoon in Swansea bay, and how is the Welsh Government encouraging that development?
 
13:33
Alun DaviesBiography
You will be aware that the Welsh Government recognises the opportunities, but also the challenges, that are associated with harnessing tidal range energy, such as in Swansea bay. The work there has already started in terms of licences to carry out ground investigation, and there will be an environmental statement that will be subject to full consultation.
 
13:33
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
I call on the opposition spokesperson, Antoinette Sandbach.
 
13:33
Antoinette SandbachBiography
Minister, small-scale hydro power schemes are, in many ways, ideally suited to the Welsh renewable energy mix. However, Natural Resources Wales is currently in favour of a set of water abstraction standards on flow-splitting that will kill off this industry while it is still in its infancy. Given that this year represents what the industry views as the last chance for small-scale hydro power schemes in Wales, due to the upcoming feed-in tariff deadline in December, what approach will you take to encourage the retention and development of small-scale hydro power schemes in Wales?
 
13:34
Alun DaviesBiography
The guidelines to which the Member refers are those that NRW inherited from the predecessor bodies. I met NRW management this morning, and I emphasised to them the importance of small-scale hydro power schemes, to which the Member refers. I also met with representatives of the hydro-power industry last month, and I assured them of my personal support for an approach that means that we review and search out problems, but that we do not just recycle them, we solve them.
 
13:34
Antoinette SandbachBiography
I am very encouraged to hear that, Minister. One of the other problems facing small-scale renewable energy projects is the high cost of grid connections, which is a frequent complaint in rural Wales. The people to whom I have spoken show me quotes that, sometimes, run into many thousands of pounds. Given the way that these charges are holding back renewable energy generation, can you confirm what meetings you have had with energy companies to bring down the costs of grid connections, to allow these small-scale projects to flourish?
 
13:35
Alun DaviesBiography
Since I took on this new role, I have not had any meetings with energy companies to discuss that particular aspect of the promotion of small-scale renewables. I am aware of a number of projects that suffer the difficulties to which you refer—the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd wrote to me some days ago about a scheme in his constituency that had encountered exactly those problems. I replied to him saying that we would take a proactive approach to resolving these issues, and these are matters that I will seek to resolve in the coming weeks and months.
 
Coal Gasification
 
13:35
Byron DaviesBiography
2. Will the Minister make a statement on the use of coal gasification in Wales? OAQ(4)0005(NRF)
 
13:35
Alun DaviesBiography
Underground coal gasification may offer benefits in terms of energy security and the cleaner use of fossil fuels, but it remains largely untested on a long-term commercial basis. Any proposed exploration will need to comply with the Welsh planning and environmental regulatory regime.
 
13:36
Byron DaviesBiography
Thank you for that answer, Minister. As you say, there is little knowledge of the underground coal gasification process in the UK, especially so close to residential areas, and no regulatory framework. I have concerns now that Cluff Natural Resources has been awarded an underground coal gasification licence for the Loughor estuary. Can you examine this licence and scheme to ensure that the environment and the people of Gower and its vicinity remain safe?
 
13:36
Alun DaviesBiography
This licence has been awarded to explore projects in Loughor and the Dee estuaries. Following the conditional licence, Natural Resources Wales will only offer a full permit if it is fully satisfied that the environment and local communities are fully protected.
 
13:36
David ReesBiography
Coal gasification is just one of several unconventional gas methods of producing energy, with fracking being another. Has the Welsh Government taken a position regarding fracking? Will it follow other EU countries and regions that have placed a moratorium on fracking until further investigative research has been undertaken on the full impact of fracking, particularly in geological areas such as south Wales?
 
13:37
Alun DaviesBiography
The Member will be aware of the work that is already being done on this matter by the United Kingdom Government. Our position, from both the environmental and safety perspectives, is already a precautionary one, so I do not consider it necessary to impose a moratorium on this matter in Wales at the moment. We recognise, however, that there is a need to evaluate the potential of unconventional gas as an energy source and full consideration of all the available evidence—economic and environmental—is required before either exploration or potential extraction of the resource is considered.
 
13:37
Bethan JenkinsBiography
My question is also about the Cluff coal exploration in my region. When Dr Shaun Lavis of Clean Coal Ltd, which has a licence in Swansea bay, was questioned by my colleagues on the Environment and Sustainability Committee in March, he said that current regulations governing underground coal gasification would allow operators to vent carbon dioxide while producing diesel from synthetic gas. Is the Minister aware of these regulations and what provision is there for protecting special areas of conservation?
 
13:38
Alun DaviesBiography
All regulations will protect all areas of special conservation.
 
Domestic Animal Welfare
 
13:38
Darren MillarBiography
3. Will the Minister make a statement on domestic animal welfare? OAQ(4)0003(NRF)
 
13:38
Alun DaviesBiography
We are fully committed to raising standards of animal welfare. Welfare programmes on dog breeding, micro-chipping and control, fly grazing, the welfare of animals at time of slaughter and pig welfare are ongoing. I must also not lose this opportunity to congratulate the Member for being awarded the Kennel Club’s Dog Parliamentary Award in 2012.
 
13:38
Darren MillarBiography
Thank you very much indeed for reminding me of that, Minister. You will know that animal welfare charities are busier than ever at the moment and, no doubt, you will also be aware from your briefing that the RSPCA Bryn-y-Maen animal centre in Upper Colwyn Bay does a great deal of hard work to promote animal welfare. Will you join me in paying tribute to it for its hard work? What support are you giving animal charities such as the RSPCA and others that are working to protect and re-home animals where welfare problems arise?
 
13:39
Alun DaviesBiography
We are all clearly aware that the RSPCA does a great job in protecting animal welfare across the whole of Wales. I pay tribute to the people to whom the Member refers in his own constituency, as I do to people who do the same work elsewhere. There has been an increase in reports of animal cruelty in Wales in recent months and years, which is something that all of us, on all sides of the Chamber, join together to regret. In the work that we are doing at the moment with the RSPCA, we are seeking clarification on whether there is any pattern of cruelty or whether cruelty is increasing across the board, or simply that the reports of cruelty are increasing. That work continues and I would be happy to report to the Member or Members on the conclusions of that work when it is available.
 
13:40
Julie MorganBiography
I am pleased that the Minister is pressing ahead with compulsory micro-chipping for dogs but am very disappointed that he has put the control of dogs (Wales) Bill on hold. As he knows, it has a great deal of support from all the animal welfare charities. At what stage does he think that he will be satisfied that the Westminster anti-social behaviour Bill will incorporate all the dog-specific elements of the proposed Bill in Wales?
 
13:40
Alun DaviesBiography
I thank the Member for her kind words on the micro-chipping issue. I understand her disappointment with the issue on the control of dogs legislation. The Member will be aware that this morning’s Queen’s Speech contained a commitment from the United Kingdom Government to bring forward legislation on the anti-social behaviour toolkit. The conversations that my officials have begun in the Home Office will be continued by me and I will ensure that Members are always updated on those conversations and how that work is pursued.
 
13:41
Christine ChapmanBiography
Minister, I was shocked to learn that prosecutions by the RSPCA for animal cruelty in some parts of the south Wales Valleys, including Rhondda Cynon Taf, rose by 230% last year. As you mentioned earlier, this may indicate greater awareness of mistreatment. It may also show that people are struggling to cope in the face of the recession. How can we tackle this cruelty and help pet owners while also ensuring that all pet owners know the responsibilities of looking after their animals?
 
13:41
Alun DaviesBiography
I am well aware of the issues that the Member raises. In my own constituency of Blaenau Gwent, we have seen a 168% increase in the number of convictions for animal neglect and cruelty, so I am more than aware of those matters. The work that we are currently undertaking to review what lies behind these figures will inform our response to the publication of this information. The majority of animal owners are well aware of their responsibilities but we need to ensure that all animal owners are aware of their duty of care. That includes training and socialising an animal as and when appropriate. We will continue to talk to the RSPCA about these matters. I hope that, in the next few weeks or months, we will be able to have a far greater understanding of what lies behind these figures. When we have that understanding, we will bring forward new measures where necessary.
 
Common Land Policy
 
13:42
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
4. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government’s Common Land policy? OAQ(4)0015(NRF)
 
13:43
Alun DaviesBiography
Common land policy in Wales has a number of elements. Key among these is the implementation of the Commons Act 2006, delivering the recommendations of the uplands report, and the Glastir commons element. Approximately 50% of common land is now within Glastir—more than any previous agri-environment scheme.
 
13:43
Kirsty WilliamsBiographyThe Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats
I thank the Minister for that answer, but what steps is he taking to protect the biodiversity of Welsh commons and the rights of commoners when plans are submitted for industrial or economic development on Welsh commons?
 
13:43
Alun DaviesBiography
The Member will be aware from our previous correspondence on this matter that we take all the applications for changes of use on common land seriously. Where decisions are taken, we ensure that the integrity of the common land, wherever possible, is maintained and where common land is lost, we try to ensure that that is compensated for by land being used from elsewhere. In terms of continuing to maintain the diversity and vitality of common land, we hope and expect that the Glastir project will ensure that we have sustainable management on far greater elements of common land than we have ever seen before. We hope and expect that that will deliver many of the ambitions that the Member and I share.
 
13:44
Kenneth SkatesBiography
Minister, as many as 13,000 low-paid workers will be affected by the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. The decision will have serious implications for agricultural and rural development across Wales. I welcome the consultation that you have undertaken to try to protect the industry this side of the border. Will you encourage farm workers, rural communities and others affected by the UK Government’s actions to share their views in the consultation so that we can find the best way forward for Wales?
 
13:44
Alun DaviesBiography
I certainly would encourage everybody to take part in that consultation. The consultation is about strengthening the agriculture industry in Wales and putting the necessary professionalism in place within the industry in Wales that will lead to greater efficiency and greater profitability for the whole of that industry. My commitment is to ensure that the Welsh Government will continue to invest in ensuring that Welsh agriculture is as efficient and profitable as possible.
 
13:45
Byron DaviesBiography
Minister, I am sure that you are aware of the planning application for a large-scale monstrous windfarm for Mynydd y Gwair on the common land overlooking Swansea and Gower. This common land is a natural resource for Swansea, for both farmers’ livelihoods and the tourism industry. What will you do to ensure that this common land use does not suffer as a consequence of this potential use?
 
13:45
Alun DaviesBiography
You will also be aware, Byron, that I will not comment on any planning applications that are currently being considered.
 
13:45
Llyr Huws GruffyddBiography
You mentioned Glastir in a previous answer, Minister, and the Welsh commons forum has recently expressed concerns about the potential that Glastir could lead, ultimately, to the destocking and under-grazing of common land and the uplands of Wales. On the other hand, the Welsh Government, in fairness, has made it quite clear that that will not happen. The point that I want to put to you is: does that not demonstrate that you and your department have some work to do to communicate the benefits of this programme to key stakeholders in Wales?
 
13:46
Alun DaviesBiography
I have also read ‘The Daily Post’ and read the same article as you. The forum has got many things wrong recently, and it is at risk of misleading people. More common land in Wales is part of Glastir than has ever been the case with any similar scheme in the past. Therefore, I am confident that the majority of people understand what Glastir means and not just its implications, but its benefits for common land.
 
Having said that, I do not disagree with you. I believe that we have a great deal of work to do in communicating the advantages of Glastir for both common land and farmers. Therefore, I acknowledge your point. As you know, as a member of the committee, we have already started working on that.
 
Fruit and Vegetables
 
13:47
Jenny RathboneBiography
5. What is the Welsh Government doing to promote sustainable fruit and vegetable supplies in urban areas like Cardiff? OAQ(4)0017(NRF)
 
13:47
Alun DaviesBiography
This Government promotes sustainable fruit and vegetable supplies across Wales, including through the community food co-operative programme, which improves access to, and the consumption of, affordable, quality and fresh fruit and vegetables, through the setting up of food co-operatives. There are 340 co-ops in Wales and 25 in Cardiff. An increasing number of schools involve pupils in growing fruit and vegetables on site.
 
13:48
Jenny RathboneBiography
That is excellent news. Indeed, Lakeside Primary School visited me yesterday, and pupils there are growing their own food. However, there is a great deal more to be done. As Wales is the only country in the UK in which all local authorities recycle food waste, I wonder what more can be done to make money out of this muck through anaerobic digestion technology, either to feed back into the growing system so that we can grow more fruit and veg, because a lot of it is still coming from the Birmingham wholesale market, or, indeed, to sell it commercially.
 
13:48
Alun DaviesBiography
I agree with the points made by the Member for Cardiff Central. Currently, our Tyfu Pobl programme generates about £1 million of business per year for a total of 80 Welsh producers. That is an input into the overall economy. However, I agree with the Member that there is more that can be done. I am happy to continue working with these different projects to deliver not only the social goods of creating a better understanding of the food chain, but to improve the availability and accessibility of local sourcing of food and drink in Wales.
 
13:49
Leanne WoodBiographyThe Leader of Plaid Cymru
Minister, you might have heard me mention that I am an allotment holder. I have an allotment in Tonypandy, so I am well aware of the benefits of growing your own fruit and vegetables. My family is very lucky to have an allotment, because there are waiting lists, particularly in urban areas, and those long waiting lists can be off-putting. I know that in Cardiff, some sites have waiting lists of up to five years. You recently issued a consultation on a draft plan to encourage pollinators and more allotments would clearly help with that. What practical steps can you take to expand the provision of land and green spaces for allotments to ease the burden on the allotment waiting list?
 
13:50
Alun DaviesBiography
I am familiar with your allotment, Leanne. I have never visited it, but you have described it in Technicolor detail on a number of occasions, and I think that we all look forward to a visit at some point or another. [Interruption.] We can all enjoy an afternoon there. [Interruption.] I will answer the question. In terms of where we are going now, you are aware that, some time ago, the community-grown food task and finish group made several recommendations regarding ways in which we can improve the accessibility and amount of land available for allotments and other community growing initiatives. Those are the recommendations that we are following at the moment, but I would welcome any suggestions that the Member wishes to make.
 
Abergavenny Food Festival
 
13:51
Nick RamsayBiography
6. Will the Minister outline what support the Welsh Government offers Abergavenny Food Festival? OAQ(4)0006(NRF)
 
13:51
Alun DaviesBiography
I know that the Member for Monmouth is a regular visitor to the Abergavenny Food Festival, as am I. Food festivals are an important part of our food culture. My view is that any food festival should plan to be fully sustainable and self-sufficient, especially in the longer term. Abergavenny Food Festival has received support totalling £238,995 from the Welsh Government over the last five years.
 
13:51
Nick RamsayBiography
While the leader of Plaid Cymru enjoys growing vegetables, I know that the Minister, like me, enjoys eating them. As you said, I have bumped into you once or twice at the Abergavenny Food Festival, Minister, and your support is appreciated. I note that the Abergavenny Food Festival was included in the 32 food and produce events to receive funding from the Welsh Government this year—you have just mentioned that—but what guarantees can you offer that that support will continue and how do you propose, in your new role, to roll out the food festival model across Wales? While it might not be right for every town, other towns could benefit from such a model.
 
13:52
Alun DaviesBiography
The Member is right, and I am supporting a local initiative in my constituency at the moment, which will be launched in July. In terms of support for food festivals, my view is that they are the sort of initiative that must come from local communities that want to host and grow the festival. I have been delighted to support Abergavenny over a number of years, both personally and in my role as a Minister. I attended the festival last year and spoke at a seminar at the festival. I am more than happy to look at how we continue to grow and support the development of food culture across Wales.
 
13:52
Lindsay WhittleBiography
I understand that the Government offers some very good support, to be fair, to many food festivals across Wales. Incidentally, your website does not mention your support for the Caerphilly Food Festival, which took place last Saturday. We congratulate Abergavenny for attracting 40,000 visitors. That is something that we certainly wish to emulate. What criteria are used to judge which festivals should get support, and is that support equitable across Wales? Can the Government do more and offer more support to festivals that clearly promote and use local Welsh produce and local Welsh companies—and maybe some vegetables from Leanne Wood’s allotment?
 
13:53
Alun DaviesBiography
I am not sure that we could make the final point a criterion for the funding of food festivals. However, part of the criteria for receiving a food festival grant is the requirement for there to be at least 75% Welsh food and drink producers. While that might be welcome in Caerphilly, I know that it has caused difficulties for food festivals elsewhere, including—or perhaps especially—those that are closer to the English border.
 
The criteria are available from the Welsh Government. If the Member has difficulty in accessing that information, I can ensure that it is made available to all Members. This is part of our wider support for the appreciation and value of Welsh food and produce throughout Wales.
 
Marketing Welsh Food Produce
 
13:54
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
7. What are the Minister’s plans for marketing Welsh food produce? OAQ(4)0010(NRF)
 
13:54
Alun DaviesBiography
This Government is committed to supporting Welsh food and drink produce through supporting a number of initiatives. These include attendance at major food and drink trade exhibitions, both internationally and within the UK. We also have a programme of measures, which include new product development, innovation, programmes for business mentoring and market development.
 
13:54
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
Wales the True Taste has been very successful campaign and brand, and recent reports that have been presented to you prove that. However, in a recent food festival, there was no sign of the logo or brand, only a sign in English that read ‘Food and Drink Wales’. When and why did you decide to get rid of Wales the True Taste?
 
13:54
Alun DaviesBiography
No such decision has been made to get rid of Wales the True Taste. At present, we are considering how we move the food strategy forward. I have been reviewing it internally over the past few months and I have not made any such decision.
 
13:55
Antoinette SandbachBiography
Minister, given the range of high-quality food and drink from local producers across Wales, there is obviously huge potential for this sector to boost the tourism industry and to help reverse the year-on-year decline in the numbers of overseas visitors to Wales and increase the amount of money spent in the tourist economy. Can you confirm, from your discussions with your Cabinet colleagues, that food tourism will be integral to your Government’s forthcoming tourism strategy? What plans do you have to expand the number of food trails so that every area of Wales has the best chance to tap into the growing market for food tourism?
 
13:55
Alun DaviesBiography
I can give the Member the reassurance that she seeks. Food tourism is a part of our continuing strategy. I am sure that the Member is referring to the food trail that I helped to launch in the Vale of Clwyd last year. It is one to which I returned a few weeks ago and I am delighted with its success in bringing together producers, retailers and processors. In many ways, I think that it is a model for the sort of work that can be done and supported by the rural development plan in the future.
 
13:56
Eluned ParrottBiography
Minister, I am delighted to hear you say that because, as you will know, my own region is home to not only Leanne Wood’s cabbage patch, but also a number of fine food and drink producers, such as Gwynt y Ddraig cider, Penderyn whisky, Llanerch Vineyard, Otley brewery and lots of other really good quality producers. What discussions have you had about creating a food and drink trail to boost tourism in south Wales?
 
13:56
Alun DaviesBiography
I am familiar with many of the brands that she has listed in her question. One of the issues that I would like to see us, perhaps, expand our work on is supporting some of the great vineyards that we have in Wales.
 
Food Policy and Strategy
 
13:57
Mark IsherwoodBiography
8. Will the Minister outline the Welsh Government’s Food Policy and Strategy? OAQ(4)0007(NRF)
 
13:57
Alun DaviesBiography
I am developing a strategy to ensure that the food and drinks sector will be sustainable and profitable in the future. I will issue a plan for food shortly that will detail Government interventions. My intention is that this will inform widespread discussion with the industry to ensure the best way forward.
 
13:57
Mark IsherwoodBiography
Thank you for that response, Minister. You wrote to me this week regarding the Mold Food and Drink Festival. You stated that the 75% Welsh producers threshold for food festivals is applicable to food festivals across the whole of Wales in order to ensure that a strong and distinctively Welsh food culture is promoted. Clearly, we would all support your aspiration. However, the report, ‘The Dee Region Cross-Border Economy’, by Dr Elizabeth Haywood for the Welsh Government stated that making a virtue of the north-east Wales region’s cross-border nature and rejecting the existing tendency to focus marketing on one side of the border or the other would be beneficial. How, therefore, will you ensure sufficient flexibility in your review of this strategy in the border areas to address the concerns raised by the Mold Food and Drink Festival that the 75% rule there could be achieved only at the cost of the sustainability of that festival and of supporting local food and drink producers on a long-term basis?
 
13:58
Alun DaviesBiography
I am familiar with the issue that the Member has raised; I referred to it in a previous answer. On the issue of the Mold food festival, I have been in significant and continued correspondence with the Member for Delyn who has raised this issue with me on a number of different occasions. I recognise the difficulties that this creates for those producers and festival organisers who are close to the English border. It might well be that we are able to work alongside our English colleagues to develop a brand or a way of expressing our support for them in border areas. I am open to those sorts of discussions. Those discussions have already begun with the Member for Delyn and I am more than happy to continue those conversations.
 
13:59
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-ThomasBiography
Would the Minister agree that it is very important that any food strategy is led by the strong food businesses that have developed in Wales, locally and nationally, in recent years? I am thinking particularly of distribution companies such as Harlech Foodservice in my constituency and Castell Howell Foods that supplies us here on a daily basis. Therefore, it is important that the Government, in supporting the promotion of food from Wales, collaborates with those businesses that are also increasingly selling Welsh produce. While I am naming names, I should also have mentioned Deiniol ap Dafydd and Blas ar Fwyd in the Conwy valley.
 
14:00
Alun DaviesBiography
The Member made the last point better than I could have done. I am most eager to develop the food chain in Wales. The emphasis has been on primary producers—the farmers—mostly, and the occasional food processor. It is exceptionally important that we develop the chain, which creates value and profit at every point to communities in Wales. That is how I have considered the milk industry, and I see that as a model for developing and sustaining value and profit for food producers and processors in all parts of Wales.
 
Small-scale Hydro Energy Schemes
 
14:01
William PowellBiography
9. Will the Minister make a statement on small scale hydro energy schemes in Mid and West Wales. OAQ(4)0012(NRF)
 
14:01
Alun DaviesBiography
Small-scale hydro energy schemes in Mid and West Wales will make a very important contribution to meeting our energy needs in the future. Significant help is already available to community-scale hydro schemes through the Welsh Government’s Ynni’r Fro programme, funded by the European regional development fund, which provides advice, support, grants and loans to community-led hydro schemes.
 
14:01
William PowellBiography
I thank the Minister very much for that answer. Those of us who were present this morning at the meeting of the cross-party group on rural affairs will have been encouraged to hear you referring to the importance of policy as an enabler, rather than a barrier, to progress. In that context, I am sure that you will be aware that current Scottish guidance on hydro schemes allows a particular emphasis on high-head projects, which are particularly appropriate to the setting of the Scottish landscape. Will you reassure this Chamber that, in your further discussions with Natural Resources Wales, issues around the abstraction process that were referred to earlier are very much made to fit Welsh circumstances so as to maximise the potential return for those investing in such schemes across Wales?
 
14:02
Alun DaviesBiography
I hope that I can reassure the Member. I referred to this in answer to a previous question. I met the management of NRW this morning. I made those points to the management of NRW and, I have to say, these are points that it readily accepted. If you read the remit letter that I provided to NRW on 28 March, you will see that there is agreement that NRW wants to be an agile, proactive regulator that seeks to enable things to happen, rather than seeking simply to create blockages. We are of one mind that we want to seek to enable projects, wherever possible, to be supported.
 
14:03
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
I call William Powell to ask a second and shorter question.
 
14:03
William PowellBiography
Indeed. Diolch, Lywydd. In the run-up to the anniversary of Robert Owen’s birthday, Robert Owen Renewables Ltd, a community-owned concern in Newtown, is delivering a very important scheme at Penarth weir. I ask the Minister to consider visiting that site, as far as his diary allows, and whether he would recognise that as an exemplar project in the hydro sector.
 
14:03
Alun DaviesBiography
I would always welcome a visit to Montgomeryshire.
 
14:03
Russell GeorgeBiography
I am very pleased with your last answer, Minister. A problem that is hampering schemes across Wales is consistency, that is, how consistent, or rather inconsistent, the former Environment Agency Wales was in administering guidance. I have received strong evidence from developers that they were treated differently depending upon which office in Wales dealt with their application. That is, of course, unacceptable. How will you ensure that the new body properly applies a consistent approach across the organisation, so that applications are treated equally and the determination process in all parts of Wales is consistent?
 
14:04
Alun DaviesBiography
The Member will be aware that one of the reasons for the establishment of NRW was to improve the quality of services provided to people who require regulatory advice and regulatory decisions. I am absolutely certain that that will happen in the future. If the Member has any concerns in the future, he should address those concerns to me, but I have absolute confidence that NRW will provide excellent services and consistency across the whole of Wales.
 
14:04
Simon ThomasBiography
I am glad to hear some of the statements made today regarding hydroelectric schemes. It is is clear that some rethinking is going on, because there is a barrier here to the development of these projects in Mid and West Wales. Is the Government giving any consideration to allowing farmers or any schemes associated with rural development to have some kind of permitted development rights in the planning system in Wales?
 
14:05
Alun DaviesBiography
I will be discussing those issues with the Minister for planning later this afternoon.
 
14:05
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Question 10, OAQ(4)0004(NRF), has been transferred for written answer.
 
The Target for Planting Trees
 
14:05
Aled RobertsBiography
11. Will the Minister provide an update on performance against the target for planting trees by 2020 within the Natural Environment Framework? OAQ(4)0013(NRF)
 
14:05
Alun DaviesBiography
I want to increase the rate of tree planting, and my officials will present me, by the end of June, with a range of options to achieve this.
 
14:05
Aled RobertsBiography
I accept that this is part of your new responsibilities, but the rate of tree planting over the first three years has been disappointing. Do you intend to create annual targets or targets within that 20-year period so that the Assembly can monitor the performance of Natural Resources Wales against them?
 
14:06
Alun DaviesBiography
I believe that targets would be beneficial and assist us, and perhaps that is something that we can consider as part of the discussions for the next rural development plan. I am very happy to hold those discussions. I remind the Member that the target date for planting is 2030, so I do not think that we need be too hard on ourselves at present. However, I accept the broader point. We have accepted 417 schemes to date, but we must increase the amount of planting taking place in Wales. I agree with the Member on that and I am happy to accept that targets can be of benefit to us and help us in that endeavour.
 
14:06
Darren MillarBiography
Planting new trees is a vital way of improving our environment, Minister, but there are many old trees in Wales that are in need of attention and protection. We know about the Pontfadog oak, which fell over and was over 1,200 years old, but there is an even older tree in my constituency, which is estimated to be between 4,000 and 5,000 years old, the Llangernyw yew. Will you confirm today your intention to visit the Llangernyw yew and can you outline what additional protection you might be able to afford to trees such as that, which may be vulnerable in the future?
 
14:07
Alun DaviesBiography
Assuming that the Member is not inviting me to climb it, I happily accept his very kind invitation. The Member for Clwyd South has already invited me to visit the tree that fell down last month. I hasten to add that that had nothing to do with me. [Laughter.] However, yes, I would say that we need to have a significantly improved statutory framework for these matters and perhaps visiting the tree that fell down and the tree that is still standing would help my understanding of these matters. [Interruption.] And then I will plant one, yes.
 
Albion Water
 
14:08
Bethan JenkinsBiography
12. What actions will the Minister take following the recent Competition Appeal Tribunal, where Dŵr Cymru was ordered to pay nearly £1.9 million to Albion Water? OAQ(4)0008(NRF)
 
14:08
Alun DaviesBiography
I am aware of the situation between Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water and Albion Water. As this is a legal dispute between both companies, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.
 
14:08
Bethan JenkinsBiography
The damning ruling highlighted the difficulties in trying to introduce competition into a utility industry such as the water industry. Without your going into the legal ramifications, are there any lessons that we can learn in Wales, such as, potentially, our having a different type of system in Wales similar to that which we had before the water industry was privatised? Can we seek those powers from Westminster so that we have control over our own natural resources in Wales?
 
14:09
Alun DaviesBiography
As I said to the Member in my earlier answer, none of my comments should be taken to reflect in any way on that individual legal dispute. In wider policy terms, I am not convinced by the arguments that Martin Cave has advanced and some of the issues contained in the UK Government’s potential water Bill. I answered some questions on this in the Environment and Sustainability Committee last week. I welcome the UK Government’s offer to us to extend the legislative competence of this place over sewerage; we already have some legislative competence over water. I spoke to the UK Minister Richard Benyon this morning to discuss that and other matters contained in the water Bill. I have said to him that it is not a policy of this Government to accept any intervention powers to be held by the Secretary of State. We believe that we have moved beyond that in terms of devolution now and that intervention powers are irrelevant to today’s constitutional settlement within the United Kingdom.
 
14:10
Antoinette SandbachBiography
Minister, the judgment from the competition appeals tribunal stated that Dŵr Cymru’s handling of this case constituted a conspicuous and reprehensible failure of corporate governance, and highlighted the lack of competence and supervision of the staff involved in setting the common carriage price for Albion. Minister, what assurances have you received from Dŵr Cymru that it is now operating corporate governance in a way that is acceptable and complies with the law?
 
14:10
Alun DaviesBiography
As I said in my earlier answer, as it is a legal situation, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.
 
Commercial Water Abstraction
 
14:11
Russell GeorgeBiography
13. Will the Minister make a statement about levels of commercial water extraction in Wales? OAQ(4)0011(NRF)
 
14:11
Alun DaviesBiography
Natural Resources Wales regulates water abstraction through abstraction licences. These licences authorise the volume and use of the water. Industry abstracts an annual average of 176 Gl, 20% of the total abstraction in Wales.
 
14:11
Russell GeorgeBiography
Thank you for your answer, Minister. The issue of water abstraction from the Camlad Valley was brought to the attention of your predecessor last year, because of public concern that this natural resource is being commercially exploited to the detriment of local water supplies. Can the Minister tell me what the Welsh Government perceives to be the maximum sustainable rate of abstraction permissible for commercial bottled water without detrimental effect to other water users, sensitive habitats and the environment?
 
14:11
Alun DaviesBiography
These are matters for Natural Resources Wales and I would seek and take its advice on them.
 
Meetings with the Agricultural Industry
 
14:12
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-ThomasBiography
14. How many meetings has the Minister had with representatives from the agricultural industry since being appointed? OAQ(4)0014(NRF)
 
14:12
Alun DaviesBiography
Since taking on my new portfolio responsibilities, I have continued to meet regularly with a range of people in the agriculture industry.
 
14:12
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-ThomasBiography
I thank the Minister very much for that response. What does he consider the purpose of these meetings to be? Is it for him to communicate Government policy, or for him to listen to evidence from the agricultural industry?
 
14:12
Alun DaviesBiography
We have many discussions where I listen to it, and it listens to me.
 
14:12
Janet Finch-SaundersBiography
Minister, I am sure that, when you have met representatives of the agricultural industry, one thing that will have been mentioned is the Schmallenberg virus. This, of course, is in addition to the many challenges facing our farmers, in particular in the recent extreme weather conditions. Can you confirm what recent guidance you have received from your chief veterinary officer about your Government’s response to this disease? What plans do you have to engage and consult with farmers in order to provide advice on this quite horrendous disease?
 
14:13
Alun DaviesBiography
Schmallenberg virus is not a notifiable disease, so we do not deal with it in the same way as we would deal with notifiable diseases; the chief veterinary officer will be in touch with local private vets, who will be dealing with the individual farmers concerned.
 
Renewable Energy Projects
 
14:13
Simon ThomasBiography
15. What role does Natural Resources Wales play in the consideration of renewable energy projects in Mid Wales. OAQ(4)0016(NRF)
 
14:13
Alun DaviesBiography
Natural Resource Wales is the statutory consultee to consenting bodies on energy projects. It also provides advice and data to applicants and issues licences and permits that may be required for renewable energy projects to be built.
 
14:14
Simon ThomasBiography
Thank you for the response, Minister. It is clear that this new body has a key role in consenting to or refusing to consent to renewable energy development in mid Wales. There are very many major projects that have already been brought forward in mid Wales, or are about to be brought forward, and I am concerned that there is not sufficient capacity within that new body in mid Wales in particular. I am aware of one application for windfarms that has been waiting for three years for the predecessor bodies, and now Natural Resources Wales, to come to a decision on a recommendation to the local authorities. Are you clear that there is sufficient capacity to deal with the numerous applications forthcoming and are you taking steps to ensure that that capacity is in place?
 
14:14
Alun DaviesBiography
The Member raises a valid point. One of the reasons for establishing the new body was to ensure that we could reduce the administration and the structures that people have to pass through in order to get the required consent. Therefore, I hope that we have created additional capacity in the system by creating an all-encompassing body. I have not been notified by the managers of the new body that they have any issues with capacity. If they were to approach me with such a report, stating that they had capacity problems, I would discuss it with them at the time. However, at present, I very much hope that we will see decisions being taken slightly more quickly than in the past.
 
14:15
Russell GeorgeBiography
Will the Minister tell me when the good practice guidance for hydroelectric schemes will be published?
 
14:15
Alun DaviesBiography
As has been referred to on a number of occasions during this question session, I have asked Natural Resources Wales to review the way in which guidance is provided to hydropower developers. I have also met with the industry in order to discuss the problems that it is facing. I met representatives from the industry on 25 April and asked them to provide me with some correspondence outlining the difficulties that they faced. They replied on 29 April, and my officials are currently looking at that correspondence with a view to discussing with Natural Resources Wales how we can overcome those difficulties. I have given an undertaking to the industry that I will meet its representatives again at the beginning of October to ensure that the undertakings that I gave earlier this month are actually delivered.
 
Questions to the Minister for Housing and Regeneration
Housing Market Assessments
 
14:16
Aled RobertsBiography
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the use of housing market assessments within local development plans? OAQ(4)0255(HR)
 
14:16
Carl SargeantBiographyThe Minister for Housing and Regeneration
I thank the Member for his question. Local housing market assessments provide a robust evidence base identifying the appropriate mix of market and affordable housing within an authority’s area. An up-to-date LHMA is essential for ensuring that housing policies in a local development plan can be justified at examination, culminating in an adopted plan benefiting the whole community.
 
14:17
Aled RobertsBiography
You will be aware, Minister, that in north Wales many of the plans are now falling behind due to evidential disputes between the local authorities and the Welsh Government statistics. The recent report from Dr Haywood suggested that there will be a need for more cross-border co-operation with regard to planning issues. What is your understanding of the effects of any of that cross-border co-operation on increasing the housing assessed need?
 
14:17
Carl SargeantBiography
This is a matter for individual local authorities. I congratulate one authority, Denbighshire County Council, on recently receiving a positive inspectors’ report on the adoption of its LDP. The local housing market assessment, no doubt, assisted in the successful outcome of that. It is important to understand, regionally, what the market assessment is. It is something that I will be taking a very close look at in terms of the planning and housing Bills that we are taking forward.
 
14:18
Vaughan GethingBiography
You will be aware, Minister, that the Environment and Sustainability Committee has been looking at this issue. In that inquiry so far, we have looked at housing market assessments, and the issues around the figures and the growth assumptions. However, the particularly issue that I have is the link between this and regional collaboration. Housing and the employment market do not respect local authority borders and boundaries. Frequently, housing markets go over more than one local authority boundary. Can you confirm that, in the future, you will have a much clearer and transparent process that requires local authorities to reflect the reality of those regional markets in the way that they undertake their local development plans?
 
14:18
Carl SargeantBiography
This is something that I will give consideration to in the future.
 
14:19
Darren MillarBiography
Do you agree, Minister, that one of the flaws with the housing market assessment process is that it is only a snapshot in time when an assessment is undertaken? In Conwy County Borough Council, for example, its initial housing market assessment was undertaken at the height of the property boom, and there was a huge demand for housing. Of course, the current situation is now very different in terms of the level of demand for new homes, in particular. Given that, what revised guidance will you issue on housing market assessments to ensure that those factors can be taken account of when predicting future demand?
 
14:19
Carl SargeantBiography
I am not sure that I do agree with your comments. The local housing market assessment clearly does work in many areas, and we have already adopted policies around local development plans. As for Conwy County Borough Council’s specific programme, it is under public scrutiny through an examination and I cannot offer any comments on that, individually.
 
14:20
Llyr Huws GruffyddBiography
Minister, new data derived from the recently released 2011 census show a lower growth in households compared with the previous set of projections. What plans does your Government therefore have to revise down its projections for the housing numbers that local planning authorities are expected to meet within their local development plans?
 
14:20
Carl SargeantBiography
The assessment figures are constantly under review, and the Member will of course recognise the flexibility in the system, which is demand-led. We cannot plan for now alone; we have to plan for the future. That is ensuring that we have a robust evidence base for a long-term assessment, and it is something that my team is very well adapted to considering, along with making the right guidance for local authorities to make their determinations.
 
Discussions with Corresponding Ministers
 
14:20
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-ThomasBiography
2. What discussions has the Minister held with the corresponding Ministers in the UK Government since his appointment to the post? OAQ(4)0250(HR)
 
14:20
Carl SargeantBiography
Since my very recent appointment, as the Member will be aware, I have requested a meeting with the Minister of State for Housing and I eagerly await his response. I look forward to meeting all my counterparts across the UK in due course.
 
14:21
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-ThomasBiography
When the Minister has an opportunity to meet with corresponding Ministers in the United Kingdom Government, will he remind them that devolution means that planning in Wales is his responsibility as Minister and that he is accountable to the Assembly, and that we do not expect noises off to made when we discuss the planning Bill that will come before the Assembly in due time?
 
14:21
Carl SargeantBiography
Of course, and the Member is right to raise the issue of the significant planning Bill, which is to be followed by a consolidation planning Bill. We will make decisions that are in the best interests of Wales, making sure that the main driver in this is to build the economy and to look at how we can develop a better Wales for the future.
 
14:22
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
I call the opposition spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
 
14:22
Mark IsherwoodBiography
No doubt, since your appointment, Minister, you have, among other things, been acquainting yourself with discussions that your predecessor will have had with corresponding Ministers in the UK Government, including those relating to the controversial issue of housing benefit changes. Given that a good practice guide was issued by the Department for Work and Pensions in March 2011 on discretionary housing payments, with a further circular issued in July 2012 detailing exemptions, priority groups and so on, why, despite more than two years’ notice, was no action taken to address the known supply issues, identified exemptions and priority groups for greater assistance until the changes were almost upon us?
 
14:22
Carl SargeantBiography
Let us not try to shun responsibility here: these welfare reforms are being driven by the heartless coalition Government in the UK, so I will take no lessons from the Member opposite. When you consider that the bedroom tax will displace many families in our communities, you should reconsider the question that you have put to me. [Interruption.]
 
14:23
Mark IsherwoodBiography
What caused it? I would suggest that you check your own party’s UK manifesto and its recommendations in this respect, because some might suggest that you have actually delayed and delayed, using the people to engineer and maximise the pain, rather than take that two-year period to drive the change. So, why have you not responded as a Government to the recommendation in the 2011 Communities and Culture Committee report, recognising the shortage among vulnerable groups in the private rented sector in Wales, that
 
‘the Welsh Government actively seeks to promote a positive public image of the private rented sector as a tenure of choice in Wales’,
 
when reputable landlord organisations had told us that they had already built in housing benefit changes, so that change needed to be managed in local authorities and the Welsh Government, given that they told me—
 
14:23
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Are you coming to the question?
 
14:23
Mark IsherwoodBiography
—when the changes were only two weeks away, that the Welsh Government had still not started the engagement and working they needed to make this happen?
 
14:24
Carl SargeantBiography
The rhetoric and spin from the Member opposite will never deflect from the issues that the UK Government is placing on this Welsh nation, namely that you will displace many families in our communities. Of course, it is to do with the Conservative Government in the UK that is making these decisions on residences in Wales.
 
14:24
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
I call the Welsh Liberal Democrats spokesperson, Peter Black.
 
14:24
Peter BlackBiography
Minister, since the collapse of the NewBuy Cymru scheme, have you had any discussions with UK Government Ministers about whether they can assist in resurrecting the scheme?
 
14:24
Carl SargeantBiography
Not with UK Government Ministers.
 
14:24
Peter BlackBiography
Thank you for that answer, Minister. As you know, when your scheme did collapse, you blamed the scheme being put in place by the UK Government. Are you now in a position to say whether the NewBuy Cymru scheme can be revitalised? If not, will you now undertake to talk to UK Government Ministers about whether we can make use of their scheme to help first-time buyers in Wales?
 
14:24
Carl SargeantBiography
We are still pursuing the scheme that was intended to be launched but was taken off track because of third-party interests and the UK Government’s announcement. However, we are still in discussions with the organisations.
 
The Cash Flow of Registered Social Landlords
 
14:25
Mike HedgesBiography
3. What projections does the Minister have for the effect of benefit changes on the cash flow of registered social landlords? OAQ(4)0245(HR)
 
14:25
Carl SargeantBiography
I thank the Member for Swansea East for his question. I anticipate that the changes will have an adverse effect on the cash flow of registered social landlords. My regulation team has considered the projections that landlords have made and the potential impacts on their 30-year financial forecasts. We will continue to monitor this situation.
 
14:25
Mike HedgesBiography
I thank the Minister for his reply. I am certainly concerned as to the effect of most of the benefit changes, especially direct payment. Lynne Neagle has previously outlined in the Chamber the problems that occurred in one of the pilot projects. Has the Minister had any indication that increases in borrowing charges are likely to occur for those registered social landlords on variable rates?
 
14:26
Carl SargeantBiography
As I mentioned in response to your question earlier, we are making assessments of the situation with landlords. We believe that they are currently in a stable position, and we hope that that will continue, but it is certainly a risk that they should be mindful of for the future.
 
14:26
Antoinette SandbachBiography
Minister, when I have met with housing associations in north Wales they have highlighted how the requirement to bring their properties up to the Welsh quality housing standard has diverted investment over the last two years that would otherwise have gone into building new one-bedroomed and two-bedroomed accommodation. Can you confirm what plans you have to meet with representatives of housing associations in north Wales to discuss the share of the £20 million funding announced yesterday that will be going to housing associations in north Wales to build that accommodation?
 
14:26
Carl SargeantBiography
I have already met with housing associations in north Wales, and not one of them raised with me the issue around the Wales housing quality standard. I find it shameful that the Member thinks it is okay for people to live in poor quality houses with no investment in their homes, but then again I should not be surprised at the Conservative Member.
 
14:27
Bethan JenkinsBiography
Minister, you will be aware that Cutswatch and Chwarae Teg have made a series of recommendations to the Welsh Government recently, which are targeted specifically at mitigating the effects of changes to welfare, including the proposal that the Government should research the possibility of social landlords re-designating homes as a way of taking advantage of the gaps with the bedroom tax. Have you considered doing that, or have you spoken to councils in order that they should do that? I am sure that you will know that councils in England have already done that. What is your Government going to do about it?
 
14:27
Carl SargeantBiography
I thank the Member for that important question. Re-designation is one option that can be considered by local authorities, and is something that I know they are seriously considering. However, that has to be taken in the round as to whether the auditing process is appropriate and legal. It is something that I know my colleague Huw Lewis, who is well-informed on these issues, is taking forward on the welfare reform aspect of his portfolio.
 
14:28
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Question 4, OAQ(4)0246(HR), has been transferred for written answer.
 
Planning Guidance
 
14:28
Keith DaviesBiography
5. What recent discussions has the Minister had regarding planning guidance? OAQ(4)0257(HR)
 
14:28
Carl SargeantBiography
I thank the Member for Llanelli for his question. Since assuming responsibility for planning I have had a range of discussions regarding planning guidance.
 
14:28
Keith DaviesBiography
Thank you for that response. Bearing in mind technical advice note 15, ‘Planning Policy Wales’ and the aim of moving towards a more positive approach to flood-risk management, how is the Welsh Government working with local authorities to ensure that a sustainable approach to development is taken?
 
14:29
Carl SargeantBiography
I thank the Member for his question again. Planning policy and guidance for Wales is set out very clearly in ‘Planning Policy Wales’. The issue around TAN 15 that the Member raises regarding advice to local authorities on building in flood areas is contained in the national planning policy document. The aim of the policy is to protect areas of high risk of flooding, and we continue to ensure that this is applied and considered across planning authorities in Wales.
 
14:29
Russell GeorgeBiography
There are local concerns in Powys regarding the performance of the national park in relation to planning. People continue to raise with me issues of underperforming against it, statutory targets and non-adherence to planning guidance, without any moves to ensure improvement and compliance. How will you work with the Minister for Culture and Sport to see that this problem is properly addressed?
 
14:30
Carl SargeantBiography
If the Member wishes to write to me, highlighting the issues that have been raised with him, I would take that seriously, and would look at it and respond to him accordingly.
 
14:30
Simon ThomasBiography
I refer to TAN 20, the technical advice note that deals with the impact of planning on the Welsh language. The Government consulted on the amendment of TAN 20 two years ago. To date, we have not seen that amended TAN, and many people are concerned that the current TAN is not adequate in dealing with applications such as Pen-y-banc in my region, where Labour and Plaid Cymru councillors have expressed concerns about those plans. When will we see that new TAN 20, Minister?
 
14:30
Carl SargeantBiography
I am grateful for the Member’s question. I am aware of the commitment to complete the review of TAN 20. As part of my new portfolio, I am considering these issues before deciding when to issue the new guidance.
 
14:31
David ReesBiography
‘Minerals Technical Advice Note 2: Coal’ currently indicates 500m as a buffer zone from settlements for planning applications for opencast coal mining. While we await the local development plans from the various local authorities that have still to submit them, which should explicitly include that minimum distance, will the Welsh Government ensure that this buffer zone is enforced by local authorities when considering planning applications for opencast mining? Furthermore, will you also look at the settlement being equal to an individual dwelling or a community building?
 
14:31
Carl SargeantBiography
Without prejudicing any planning application that may be current, I recognise the Member’s question clearly. The guidance should be adopted by any planning authority appropriately, in the way that they act in determining any planning application.
 
14:31
Darren MillarBiography
Minister, you will be aware that the Department for Communities and Local Government announced some improvements to the planning system, to allow for high-speed broadband access, just recently. Are there any plans to introduce similar arrangements in Wales, so that local communities in my constituency—and others—can benefit from high-speed access to broadband over the mobile network?
 
14:32
Carl SargeantBiography
The Minister for Economy, Science and Transport has announced in the Chamber the investment in broadband services across Wales. I am not aware that there is any issue regarding the planning aspect of this that will prohibit roll-out across Wales. However, if that is the case, then I will have further discussions with the Minister.
 
Welsh Quality Housing Standard
 
14:32
Eluned ParrottBiography
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the implementation of the Welsh Quality Housing Standard in South Wales Central? OAQ(4)0248(HR)
 
14:32
Carl SargeantBiography
We have received business plans from all local authorities on how they will meet the Welsh housing quality standard, and the Vale of Glamorgan Council expects to achieve the standard in 2017.
 
14:32
Eluned ParrottBiography
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I have had correspondence from several constituents, in different parts of my region, who fear that it is not so much the quality of the work that is being assessed, but the volume of kitchen and bathroom units that are being put into houses that is being measured. What can you do as a Government to ensure that the work that is being done on these houses is being done to an appropriate and safe standard?
 
14:33
Carl SargeantBiography
I would hope that any investment of public money into any housing stock, through the Wales housing quality standard, or otherwise, should be appropriately used. Again, I have had anecdotal evidence of the quality of some of the investment into new kitchens and bathrooms being questionable. If the Member has any further evidence that she wishes to share with me, I would be happy to receive it.
 
14:33
Leanne WoodBiography
Minister, I have recently been contacted by a stock-transferred social housing resident, who has suffered terrible and long-standing problems with mould at their home. Pictures that have been taken inside the house, which is owned by RCT Homes, show that the mould is widespread. In my opinion, the property should not be habited and falls well below the Welsh housing quality standard. I understand that this problem is not unique among properties that are owned by this housing association, and that the problems are related to poor insulation. Given that you have the powers to intervene on such issues, would you be prepared to investigate this further, and, if necessary, see for yourself the conditions in those homes?
 
14:34
Carl SargeantBiography
I thank the Member for her question. Other Members have also raised issues with me today related to some of the workmanship, it appears, in terms of the implementation of the WHQS. The first point of contact would be to deal with RCT Homes, in terms of the issues that the Member raises. If that is not successful, I would be happy to receive a further note from the Member in terms of the detail, which I would be happy to follow up.
 
Care and Repair Service
 
14:35
Sandy MewiesBiography
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the contribution the Care and Repair service makes in helping the Welsh Government meet its policy objectives. OAQ(4)0254(HR)
 
14:35
Carl SargeantBiography
I thank the Member for Delyn for her question. Care and Repair provides an invaluable service to older people in Wales by enabling them to remain in their own homes in comfort and security.
 
14:35
Sandy MewiesBiography
Your announcement of additional funding for Care and Repair agencies was very welcome in Flintshire and, indeed, across Wales, where the service is valued by all. The work of the service cannot be underestimated. Would you agree that the work of Care and Repair has wider implications across health and social policies, promoting quality of life and enabling many older people to remain in their own homes and live independently? Would you also agree that this work should continue to be supported?
 
14:35
Carl SargeantBiography
The Member raises a very important issue. Within my housing and regeneration portfolio are some very important aspects such as the Supporting People grant. The Care and Repair work that continues to go on throughout our communities saves money and ensures that people can live in their own properties, as explained earlier. It has huge implications on the health, wellbeing and social care budgets if we do not get this right, particularly at this juncture within housing. Therefore, we will continue, as we can, to ensure that there is a service for all our communities across Wales.
 
14:36
William GrahamBiography
You will know that the Welsh Conservatives acknowledge the tremendous work done by Care and Repair. It is a wonderful low-level intervention that enables people to remain in their homes. Could the Minister suggest how he might further discuss this with the Deputy Minister for Social Services and work out a way in which it can be properly evaluated? Hopefully, you will be able to devote more funds to it in the future.
 
14:37
Carl SargeantBiography
I am certainly happy to have discussions with the Deputy Minister for Social Services and the Minister for Health and Social Services on the Supporting People grant and Care and Repair. There was an interesting end to the Member’s contribution when he asked about increased funding streams to this organisation. As he is aware, we have had a reduction of at least £1.7 billion in our budget thanks to the UK Government. He may want to have a word with his colleagues in London.
 
14:37
Lindsay WhittleBiography
What provisions will there be in the new housing Bill that will come forward in the autumn to recognise the contribution that Care and Repair Cymru is making to enable older people to remain in their own homes? As William Graham just asked, can you ensure, in your discussions with the Deputy Minister, that this aspect of housing policy features prominently in the forthcoming Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Bill? It is important that we all talk to each other.
 
14:37
Carl SargeantBiography
The Member is right to raise the issue around working together across portfolios, and that is something that we will continue to do. In terms of the legislative angle of Care and Repair, I will give further consideration to that. The function that it carries out is important to communities and is certainly important to Welsh Government, and we will continue to support that as long as we can afford to do so.
 
14:38
Nick RamsayBiography
The great thing about Care and Repair is that it provides on-the-ground support when it is needed most. I visited a constituent recently who had had a new boiler fitted as part of that scheme. I appreciate that funds are tight, but will you make sure that you support schemes such as Care and Repair, which provide such assistance, despite the fact that the UK Government had to cut the amount of money it gives to you because of the previous UK Labour Government’s failure to spend properly?
 
14:38
Carl SargeantBiography
Your question started off very well. Of course I will continue to seek to support Care and Repair and other organisations that do an invaluable job in all our communities in protecting the vulnerable, old and infirm in their own homes. I will ignore the last bit of the question, if I may.
 
Unadopted Roads
 
14:39
Darren MillarBiography
8. Will the Minister make a statement on the impact of unadopted roads on community regeneration? OAQ(4)0244(HR)
 
14:39
Carl SargeantBiography
I am aware that unadopted roads can be an issue for residents and businesses in certain areas of Wales, but, in the first instance, engagement with the relevant local authority to determine their intentions is the best course of action.
 
14:39
Darren MillarBiography
Thanks you for that answer, Minister. You will know that we have had some correspondence between our offices in respect of the Sandy Cove estate in Kinmel Bay, which lies within the north Wales strategic regeneration area, yet is massively overlooked in terms of the need to improve the highways on that estate, as well as the drainage and street lighting, the standards of which are significantly below where they should be. I would be very grateful if you could give an indication today that your officials will work with the local authority to resolve the problems on the estate. More than 250 homes are affected by this problem. It is probably the largest community affected by unadopted roads in Wales. I think that it is worthy of national attention, not just attention from the local authority.
 
14:40
Carl SargeantBiography
I recognise the Member’s interest and welcome, as always, his question on a constituency matter in the Chamber. However, he will be aware that there are roles and responsibilities that lie with other authorities. I ask the Member to seek clarification from Conwy County Borough Council in the first instance to look at the feasibility of making this road good. If that is not possible, then I would be happy for further discussions to take place between my officials and the council’s officers to see where we go from there.
 
14:40
Rhodri Glyn ThomasBiography
Minister, do you accept that these problems arise because of the agreement between local authorities and developers regarding what needs to be done on housing estates as they complete their work?
 
14:41
Carl SargeantBiography
Yes, I recognise the issue the Member raises. I think that this should be prerequisite in terms of planning decisions around estates. However, in relation to the previous question raised by Darren Millar, the estate stems from the 1930s, and I do not think that section 106 agreements were in place at that point.
 
14:41
Rhodri Glyn ThomasBiography
Minister, do you therefore accept that there is a need for a new protocol between local authorities and developers as regards what needs to be done in order to ensure that these roads are adopted, not because of the practical problems that Darren Millar has raised, but because of the problems that arise for the emergency services when these roads deteriorate? The emergency services often find it difficult to get to houses along such roads after being called to them. Do you agree that this new protocol is needed?
 
14:42
Carl SargeantBiography
I do not think that we need a new protocol. I think that it works very well in most instances. However, it is up to the local planning authority to have discussions with the developers to ensure the completion of work within the planning boundary before they leave a site. Determination on a planning application should only be considered positive if those discussions have taken place and both parties are happy to take it forward.
 
14:42
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Question 9, OAQ(4)0252(HR), has been transferred for written answer.
 
One-bedroomed Properties
 
14:42
Mick AntoniwBiography
10. Will the Minister make a statement on the availability of one bedroom properties for social housing in Rhondda Cynon Taf? OAQ(4)0247(HR)
 
14:42
Carl SargeantBiography
The availability of smaller properties is important to help people cope with housing benefit changes. We are working closely with housing organisations to do that. I understand that Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council is planning to increase the delivery of one and two-bedroomed homes.
 
14:43
Mick AntoniwBiography
Minister, thank you for that answer. Almost 1,000 people in my constituency are affected by the bedroom tax and will be, on average, £624 worse off each as a result of these cuts. RCT Homes has said that there is a 1,000% deficit in the availability of these homes, which causes a major dilemma for those families. What can the Welsh Government do to mitigate the effects of the disastrous consequences of the bedroom tax?
 
14:43
Carl SargeantBiography
I thank the Member for his very important question. As the Member will be aware, the Minister for Finance yesterday joined with me in announcing an additional investment of £20 million for the social housing programme for smaller properties. However, while that is welcomed by many across Wales, we will not be able to supply the amount of one-bedroomed properties needed across Wales, due to the way in which, and the speed with which the UK Government is implementing welfare reform changes.
 
14:44
Leanne WoodBiography
Minister, the bedroom tax is causing financial difficulties for people in all parts of Wales. We welcome the additional funding available, but I am sure that you will accept that it is nowhere near enough to tackle the problem. I have said many times that we should do all that we can to mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax. I heard your earlier answer to my colleague Bethan Jenkins, but, will you consider issuing instructions to local authorities and housing associations so that they do all that they can to exploit loopholes regarding the classification of bedrooms in properties affected by the bedroom tax? Furthermore, have you given any consideration to making resources available to upgrade and reconfigure existing empty sheltered accommodation to make it more suitable for individuals or small families that are affected by the bedroom tax?
 
14:45
Carl SargeantBiography
I am grateful for the Member’s important question. The innovative housing sector is exploring all options in terms of mitigating the effects of the bedroom tax. I will support it to do so in every way that I can; it may not always be through financial support, but if there is a legislative portal that we need to access to support them, we will seek to do so if needs be.
 
Affordable Housing
 
14:45
Janet Finch-SaundersBiography
11. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to increase the provision of affordable housing in rural areas. OAQ(4)0251(HR)
 
14:45
Carl SargeantBiography
The social housing grant is available to all local authorities, including in rural areas, to increase the support for affordable housing in rural communities.
 
14:45
Janet Finch-SaundersBiography
I understand that the rural development plan advisory group will be meeting quite soon. What negotiations have taken place between you and the Minister for Natural Resources and Food to ensure that affordable rural housing will remain high on that agenda?
 
14:46
Carl SargeantBiography
There have been no negotiations to date, but I have a meeting with him this afternoon.
 
14:46
William PowellBiography
Minister, when it was first introduced in 2010, there was considerable optimism in rural communities in Wales associated with ‘Technical Advice Note 6: Planning for Sustainable Rural Communities’. Since its introduction, I think that it is fair to say that a number of authorities have adopted a very precautionary principle and that relatively few dwellings have been yielded through that policy. At the earliest possible time, will you consider conducting an audit of what has been yielded in the way of affordable accommodation through that policy? If so, will you launch a refresh of that policy?
 
14:46
Carl SargeantBiography
I would not look so negatively at the issue of rural housing enablers. In 2012-13, we made available £13.3 million in social housing grants in nine rural local authority areas for the provision of affordable housing; that was spent in full.
 
Housing Demand
 
14:47
Keith DaviesBiography
12. Will the Minister make a statement on the action the Welsh Government is taking to meet housing demand? OAQ(4)0258(HR)
 
14:47
Carl SargeantBiography
Demand for all tenures of housing continues to be a challenge for the market in affordable housing. We are maximising limited budgets to support the delivery of rented and low-cost home ownership. We are making good progress against our target of 7,500 additional affordable homes, bringing 5,000 empty homes back into use.
 
14:47
Keith DaviesBiography
Thank you for that response, Minister. I too welcome the £20 million for the social housing grant and the £10 million for the Houses into Homes pilot scheme announced yesterday by the Minister for Finance yesterday. I chair the Heol yr Orsaf forum in Llanelli, which at present is promoting work to improve the perception of the area, which comes under the local letting policy of Carmarthenshire County Council. This policy tries to develop strong, integrated and safe communities by creating a balance within those communities. Do you agree that is a good example of best practice, merging the need for housing and local perceptions, which, eventually, leads to sustainable demand?
 
14:48
Carl SargeantBiography
I am grateful for the Member’s question. I am not aware of the details of that project, but I take his word that it is an example of best practice. If it is such an example, we should roll it out across all local authorities. It is important that the allocation of social housing is linked to the wider housing options to meet housing need. It is also important that people receive consistent advice and information on all housing options available to them. The Welsh Government code of guidance for local authorities on the allocation of accommodation and homes encourages the use of their lettings policy; it is something about which we are very clear with local authorities.
 
14:49
Suzy DaviesBiography
Minister, we welcome the Welsh Government’s initiative to bring empty homes back into use through the Houses into Homes scheme. However, what conditions do you place on the loans to ensure that the renovated properties meet local need and local housing shortages? How are those conditions monitored?
 
14:49
Carl SargeantBiography
There are strict criteria around the Houses into Homes project. I am surprised that the Member did not raise the investment of £10 million announced by the Minister for Finance to increase the support for Houses into Homes, which this Welsh Labour Government is delivering in our communities across Wales.
 
14:49
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Question 13, OAQ(4)0253(HR), has been transferred for written answer.
 
Housebuilders
 
14:49
Peter BlackBiography
14. Will the Minister make a statement on any discussions he has had with house builders regarding new build homes? OAQ(4)0242(HR)
 
14:49
Carl SargeantBiography
Over the past two weeks, I have met with the Home Builders Federation on two occasions to discuss the current pressures facing the industry. The second meeting included a large number of key builders in Wales, and I have arranged to meet the HBF on a regular basis.
 
14:50
Peter BlackBiography
Thank you for that answer, Minister. The housebuilders I have spoken to are very keen to be able to build more houses in Wales and are looking for the right conditions in order to do that. You have just been allocated an extra £20 million to build new affordable homes and, in the past, you have been able to use such money to leverage in additional private sector money and expand the developments that have been produced as a result. Can you use some of this £20 million to do the same sort of thing and give a boost to private sector building at the same time?
 
14:50
Carl SargeantBiography
The funding is to support an increase in one-bedroomed properties around Wales. I will be working with the Minister for Finance. We are looking to ensure that we can make the best of opportunities offered by innovative finance programmes. The Minister for Finance has recently met developers and interested stakeholders to see how we can move different schemes forward.
 
14:51
Mark IsherwoodBiography
Housebuilding in Wales is at its lowest level since the second world war, and some say since the 1920s, and the Welsh Government, since 1999, according to its own StatsWales website, has cut the supply of new social housing by 70%. How, therefore, will you engage with housing developers such as the head of the major Welsh house-building company who told the cross-party group on construction that, although he was adapting his business model to adjust to the burden of regulation in Wales, he also predicted a flow of investment into England?
 
14:51
Carl SargeantBiography
As I said earlier, I have met the Home Builders Federation. We had a very positive meeting only last week and we are working with it to ensure that we can stimulate the market to encourage new build across Wales and to meet the demand that is being imposed by the UK Government following the displacement of people from their current homes, which means that we have to provide new facilities for them.
 
Domestic Fire Safety (Wales) Measure 2011
 
14:52
Ann JonesBiography
15. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the Secretary of State for Wales regarding the Domestic Fire Safety (Wales) Measure 2011 in the past six months? OAQ(4)0243(HR)
 
14:52
Carl SargeantBiography
The Welsh Government has had no meeting with the Secretary of State for Wales to discuss the devolved issue of the Domestic Fire Safety (Wales) Measure 2011. We are currently consulting on proposed regulations to implement the Measure, and the consultation ends on 17 June this year.
 
14:52
Ann JonesBiography
Thank you very much for that, Minister. It does not surprise me that you have not met him, because he has refused to meet me twice—he has not answered two letters asking for a meeting to discuss his apparent lack of understanding of the Domestic Fire Safety (Wales) Measure. If you get to meet him before I do—and I shall not hold my breath—would you remind him of the devolution settlement and that using life-saving mechanisms, such as the Domestic Fire Safety (Wales) Measure, is a cheap political point and that he should stop doing it?
 
14:52
Carl SargeantBiography
I heard the Member’s question very well. As I said, we are currently consulting on the proposals for the the Domestic Fire Safety (Wales) Measure, which was passed with cross-party support in the Chamber. I share the Member’s concerns about the Secretary of State’s involvement in this process. I do not think that it would be helpful either for you or me to meet him; he has made his position very clear and, quite frankly, I do not think that it has anything to do with him at all.
 
14:53
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Thank you very much, Minister.
 
14:53
Procedural Motion
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
I have been notified by Antoinette Sandbach that she wishes to move a procedural motion in accordance with Standing Order No. 12.32 to postpone the short debate tabled in her name. I call on Antoinette Sandbach to move the motion.
 
The National Assembly for Wales, under Standing Order No. 12.32, postpones the short debate tabled in the name of Antoinette Sandbach.
 
14:53
Antoinette SandbachBiography
I move the motion.
 
14:53
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
The proposal is to agree the procedural motion to postpone the short debate. Does any Member object? I see that there is no objection. Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order No. 12.36.
 
Motion agreed.
 
14:54
The Health and Social Care Committee's Report on the One-day Inquiry into Stillbirths in Wales
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
I call on the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee to move the motion.
 
Cynnig NDM5231 Vaughan Gething
 
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
 
Notes the report of the Health and Social Care Committee on its one-day inquiry into stillbirths in Wales, which was laid in the Table Office on 27 February 2013.
 
14:54
Vaughan GethingBiography
I move the motion.
 
I am pleased to open this debate on the important subject of stillbirth on behalf of the Health and Social Care Committee. The stillbirth of a child is a tragedy that devastates families. Approximately four stillbirths occur each week in Wales, yet our awareness as a population of stillbirth, particularly its causes and what can be done to prevent it, is woefully low. It is the most common form of child mortality. It is 10 times more common than cot death, 40 times more common than child road deaths, and 80 times more common than childhood meningitis. It is these stark figures that compelled the Health and Social Care Committee to undertake this one-day inquiry.
 
Our main aim in undertaking this work was to identify where improvements could be made—after all, stillbirth rates have barely changed in Wales since the early 1990s. We also wanted to shine a light on a subject too long neglected and in much need of attention and discussion. Before turning to the detail of the report I would like to note our thanks to all those who provided oral and written evidence to the inquiry. We were assisted by a committed group of healthcare professionals, charities, academics and bereaved parents, all of whom provided an important insight into this sensitive and difficult subject. However, our particular thanks goes to Isobel Martin, who drew our initial attention to this issue and who continues to campaign for more research in this area following the stillbirth of her daughter, Holly, nearly 30 years ago.
 
Committee members were unanimous in their support for this report. The evidence that we received during the course of our inquiry pointed to one key conclusion. No single step exists that, if taken, would remedy the risk of stillbirths. Yet, we were clear in our view that progress towards that end has been held back by a frame of mind in which the search for the perfect has driven out the possible. Consideration of the relatively straightforward small steps that have already been devised—and those that could be devised—to make a difference to the rates of stillbirth in Wales is long overdue. We believe that those steps need to be taken now.
 
In the time that I have to open the debate I will touch on some of the issues that caught our attention. These are the areas in which we made recommendations and where we feel tangible improvements could be delivered for parents across Wales. We are pleased that these recommendations have all been accepted, at least in principle, by the Welsh Government. We also welcome the establishment of the national stillbirth working group, which, we hope, will drive much-needed improvement in this area.
 
Recommendations 1 and 2 relate to the most striking element of our inquiry, namely the need to raise public awareness of stillbirth and its risk factors in order to reduce rates in Wales. It was noticeable to us that, although some issues less frequent than stillbirth, such as Down’s syndrome and cot death, are discussed in relative openness with expectant parents, there is a real reluctance among some health professionals to discuss stillbirth and its risk factors. In our minds, ensuring that this dialogue takes place with all expectant mothers is crucial to tackling the stubbornly static rate of stillbirth in Wales. We are pleased that the national stillbirth working group will be tasked with delivering improvements in this area and we will keep an eye on progress over the next few years.
 
Recommendations 3 and 4 address the issues of professional awareness and training, and continuity of care. During the course of the inquiry it became clear that awareness among some health professionals of stillbirth and its risk factors is inadequate. Calls were made for improvements to be made to training curricula for clinicians and midwives to address this knowledge deficit. It was argued that this could help address the variability in care standards across Wales cited by a number of witnesses. We are pleased that efforts are now being made by the relevant professional and regulatory bodies to improve training curricula. We also welcome the Welsh Government’s work to consider the scope and viability of establishing a maternity network to ensure that best practice is shared across Wales.
 
Recommendation 5 calls on the Welsh Government to undertake a review of the number of women in Wales who deliver more than 13 days after their due date. Post-term delivery is one of the few areas in the field of stillbirth that we know—and have evidence to prove—leads to a definite higher risk. Evidence presented to us suggested that further work is needed to explore why, in certain cases, women are not induced within the recommended guideline time of 10 to 12 days of their due date. We learned that delays may be due, in part, to maternal choice, with mothers wanting to avoid intervention where possible. We were concerned to hear, however, that a lack of resources may also play a role in these delays. We believe that further consideration ought to be given to whether women with other high-risk factors, such as advanced maternal age, smoking or weight, should be induced closer to their due date. We are pleased that the national stillbirth working group will explore all of these issues by March 2014.
 
Recommendation 6 relates to resources. It is clear to us that matters of resource, particularly in the form of staffing, are crucial for the maintenance of high-quality care. Evidence to our inquiry suggested that, for a country the size of Wales, two more full-time fetal medicine specialists are required. It was argued to us that the need to seek specialist fetal medicine consultation outside Wales, as a consequence of this alleged shortage, now exceeds the cost of providing the service within Wales. We are pleased that the Welsh Government will take action to assess the options for the provision of specialist fetal medicine for the population of Wales.
 
With nearly half of all stillbirths classified as ‘unexplained’, recommendation 7 of our report addresses the need to do more work to better understand its underlying causes. We were told during our inquiry that even if we use the tools that we already have to standardise care and improve the detection of babies who are at risk, there is still too much that we do not know about stillbirth. The evidence that we received suggested that this lack of understanding comes not from looking for answers and failing to find them, but rather that our ignorance, in relative terms, is due in large part to the neglect of this area in terms of medical review and research.
 
We are pleased that the Government has accepted our recommendation that a national minimum standard for reviewing perinatal deaths should be developed and rolled out across Wales. Furthermore, we welcome the fact that the Government is holding discussions on developing a national perinatal audit for Wales, and we urge it to progress this work as quickly as possible.
 
The importance of a postmortem as a means by which we can better understand the underlying causes of stillbirth was a strong theme in the inquiry. Witnesses told the committee that because the reasons behind a large proportion of stillbirths are not known, cases need to be looked at in more detail, most usefully through a postmortem. Despite its importance, it is clear from evidence that the uptake of postmortems is low across the UK, and it is easy to understand why. However, in Wales’s case, we were told that this was due, at least in part, to an alleged lack of perinatal pathologists. Witnesses told the committee that parents who consent to a postmortem face delays of many weeks before they are able to lay their babies to rest. Moreover, many face the prospect of their baby having to be transported a significant distance. We were told that these difficulties were perpetuated by a lack of confidence and skills among health professionals to broach the subject of a postmortem with recently bereaved parents.
 
Recommendation 8 in our report acknowledges the important role of postmortems in understanding the causes of stillbirth. We urge the Government to publish a detailed plan of how it proposes to tackle the problem caused by the low rate of postmortems for stillborn babies. We are pleased that this recommendation has been accepted. We are also pleased to see that the Government acknowledges the importance of being able to arrange a postmortem on a specific date and to transport a baby, if necessary, to and from that location so that parents know where their baby is at all times.
 
The need for more and better research into stillbirth was one of the resounding themes of the inquiry. Our final recommendation— recommendation 9—addresses this area. The relative neglect of stillbirth in terms of research, and the potential that further work could have in reducing the static rate in Wales, was clear to us. We were alerted to the fact that, in the case of cot death, the numbers of babies dying has dropped by 70% as a direct result of research. We were told that similar gains could be made for stillbirth if similar attention was given to this area of research.
 
In the absence of larger charities and interested industry that fund the bulk of the research for other health conditions, we are clear that the Welsh Government, through the Clinical Research Centre of the National Institute for Social Care and Health Research, should commission a comprehensive piece of work on the underlying causes of stillbirth. We believe that that work should be completed and published before the end of this Assembly.
 
Although we are pleased that the Government has accepted this recommendation, we note that the collaborative work with Scotland, as proposed in the Minister’s response, will only look at how the detection and management of reduced fetal movements may help to reduce the rates of stillbirth. Given that our inquiry suggested that looking at one factor alone would not be sufficient, we ask that further work in areas such as reduced fetal growth also be considered. I would be grateful if the Minister would reflect on this point and consider whether more work should also be done on factors other than reduced fetal movements.
 
In drawing my remarks to a close, I thank committee members for their contribution to the inquiry. As with all inquiries undertaken by our committee, we intend to return to this matter later in the course of this Assembly to ensure that the recommendations we have made and the commitments given are being delivered.
 
15:05
William GrahamBiography
May I join the Chair in expressing our thanks to those who gave evidence to the committee, particularly those who brought the matter to the attention of the committee, and I especially mention 1,000 Lives Plus? There are approximately four stillbirths in Wales every week, which is a remark that the Chairman just made. It is something that is of great concern to all members of the committee, and all Members here will be aware of this particularly difficult situation in family life. In 2011, 150 Welsh babies were stillborn, and while neonatal and infant mortality rates have improved significantly over the last decade, stillbirth rates have barely changed. The stillbirth rate in Wales, and across the United Kingdom, remains higher than in most other European countries. In a recent analysis in ‘The Lancet’, the UK ranked thirty-third out of 35 countries of similar income in terms of its rate of stillborn babies.
 
I am in no doubt that the current rate in Wales is quite unacceptable and that more needs to be done to raise public and professional awareness of stillbirths and the risk factors that contribute towards them. More also needs to be done to understand the underlying causes of stillbirth, particularly, as the Chair has already mentioned, as over half of all occurrences are currently classified as unexplained. We cannot expect one action to transform the whole picture—the nature of stillbirth is too complex to assume that a simple solution exists—but to refrain from doing things that we already know can help just because we cannot solve everything at the moment remains unacceptable. This fits in with the committee’s key conclusion that there is no single step that, if taken, would remedy the risk of stillbirths in Wales, yet I believe that progress towards that end has been held back by a frame of mind in which the search for the perfect has driven out the possible. Consideration of the relatively small steps that have already been devised, or can be devised relatively straightforwardly, to make a difference to the rates of stillbirth in Wales is long overdue.
 
Recommendations 1 and 2 show that parents are shocked to discover how common stillbirth is. Indeed, there is reluctance among health professionals to talk about it for fear of scaremongering. It is not normalised in the way that cot death and Down’s syndrome are. Developing and communicating public health messages are key, and I am pleased that the national stillbirth working group will take a lead on this. However, to get information to expectant parents, there will be a need for extra training for staff on how it should be delivered.
 
Recommendation 3 concentrates on training and identifies that the midwifery and medical curricula fail to concentrate on stillbirth. There is a variation in professionals’ knowledge about fetal growth restriction or reduced movement. A lack of awareness of stillbirth could be why many women with risk factors are not identified, and I find it a great shame that the Welsh Government could only accept the recommendation in principle. Again, although the Welsh Government has accepted recommendation 8, I would welcome the Minister’s assurance on how this training will be delivered.
 
Recommendations 7 and 9 concentrate on training and the chief nursing officer has acknowledged that Wales is not very good at learning national lessons from these tragedies. Better research and more comprehensive perinatal audits could reduce stillbirth rates and will save funds in the long run. Complacency in this matter should be eradicated. It is pleasing to note that, as a direct result of research, cot death has been reduced by 70%. It was research that provided a screening system for Down’s syndrome, but, in the absence of large charities specialising in this field, research must be funded by Governmental resources. A more imaginative approach to Welsh Government funding for medical research needs to be adopted, and while I note that the Minister has accepted the need for research, I would appreciate an update on collaboration with the Scottish studies.
 
I echo the committee’s findings and hope that these recommendations will draw attention to an area too long neglected and in much need of improvement. While across the United Kingdom the numbers of stillbirths have remained largely unchanged for over a quarter of a century, we also know that other countries have succeeded in reducing their rates of stillbirth over that time. It is now incumbent on us to do the same in Wales.
 
15:09
Jenny RathboneBiography
I congratulate the committee members for producing an excellent report. It shows what can be done in a one-day inquiry, because it is thorough and wide-ranging. I think that it is excellent.
 
It is worth noting that, in contrast to stillbirths, the UK leads the world on reducing maternal mortality. There are only 4.67 deaths of women in childbirth per 100,000 births. That compares extremely favourably with the stillbirth rate, which is 4.2 to 5.0 deaths for every 1,000 births. Therefore, the chance of a baby being born dead is 100 times more likely to occur than the chance of a mother dying in childbirth. Both are tragedies, and I am sure that we want to see either averted, but I think that the concentration of effort on reducing and eliminating, where possible, deaths among mothers in childbirth is one of the reasons why we still have such a significant figure.
 
The Centre for Maternal and Child Enquiries produces the UK-wide confidential inquiries into the deaths of women in pregnancy every three years. In 2011, it was chaired by Dr Gwyneth Lewis. In the introduction to the latest report, she states,
 
‘The reason why the maternal mortality rate in the UK is comparatively low is because we make every effort to understand and then act on the root causes of why some mothers die during and after pregnancy.’
 
When I looked up stillbirths on the database of the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group, which is the international collaborative on best practice in childbirth, I was really surprised that I could not find anything on stillbirths. It may be there, but I just could not find it in the way in which the literature is laid out. However, I do know that the Centre for Better Births, which recently opened at the Liverpool women’s hospital—the biggest birth centre in Europe—will help to rectify that because the centre is specifically focusing on stillbirths. So, I hope that our national stillbirths group will collaborate with the Centre for Better Births, which is a collaboration between the University of Liverpool and the Liverpool Women’s NHS Foundation Trust, particularly given its proximity to north Wales.
 
I think that the Health and Social Care Committee report clearly sets out some of the likely causal links that will merit investigation and help us to elucidate why stillbirths occur, particularly in the 95% of cases where no-one predicted the risk of complications. That, clearly, is the area that we need to be investigating.
 
15:12
Elin JonesBiography
As other committee members have done, I wish to thank all the witnesses who gave such powerful evidence to us on stillbirths. Stillbirth is such a disastrous occurrence for mothers and families. The committee was quite clear that the rate of stillbirth in Wales was unacceptably high. This rate has hardly changed since the early 1990s, while the rate of postnatal deaths has reduced significantly. Evidence from other countries, particularly Scandinavian countries, shows that it is possible to reduce the rate of stillbirths, but it will take a combination of a number of different measures in order to do that. There is no silver bullet in this particular case that would reduce the rate of stillbirths.
 
Possibly, the easiest steps to take would be to increase awareness of stillbirths and the related risk factors through public health messages. Specifically, we heard evidence about the unwillingness to discuss stillbirths with prospective parents. The Sands group told us that midwives and professional staff were happy to discuss with prospective parents the risk of cot death or Down’s syndrome, but that the risk of stillbirth was not mentioned to prospective parents very often. It was almost a taboo subject in such conversations. The professional staff were afraid of frightening prospective parents and the professional witnesses were also willing to accept that that was the reality. It is crucially important, therefore, that this culture should be transformed. I welcome the fact that the Government is to accept these recommendations and that the Government will work with professional organisations and health boards to ensure that the discussion on stillbirths, and the associated risks, will become part of the natural and normal conversation between prospective parents and health professionals.
 
In terms of public health messages to prospective parents, the Government needs to look particularly at the most disadvantaged areas of our country. The levels of stillbirth are higher in disadvantaged areas in Wales and beyond. Therefore, we need to target the public health messages at these areas, concentrating on lifestyle factors, in particular smoking and obesity, both of which are risk factors for stillbirth.
 
In addition to the steps that can be taken to improve information for the public and prospective parents, another short-term step that should be taken to improve the situation is to co-ordinate the analysis of every case of stillbirth, learn from them and share any lessons from individual cases. As the chief nursing officer told us, the number of stillbirths is relatively small, and the details of every case are known to the authorities. This information could be analysed and lessons shared easily, but that does not happen systematically at present. It is important that that begins to happen, so that there is a bank of understanding about stillbirth among the professional workforce, and that bank of knowledge expands.
 
The final point that I want to make relating to an understanding of stillbirth is a point about the levels of postmortems following stillbirth and the fact that the rate of postmortems is low, although the benefit from conducting a postmortem on these individuals is very significant. It is therefore important for the Welsh Government to take steps to increase the number of postmortems by creating the circumstances for conducting swift, effective and expedient postmortems for parents, and it is also important to provide training for health professionals so that they are better able to raise this exceptionally difficult and sensitive issue with parents who are grieving.
 
The committee’s report has thrown light on a very important issue. Now, the responsibility transfers to the Minister and to the Government to implement these recommendations.
 
15:17
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
I begin this afternoon by paying tribute to my constituent, Isobel Martin, who set up a trust to commemorate her daughter Holly, as she and members of Sands groups throughout Wales have shown such commitment and determination in highlighting the issues of stillbirth and campaigning for service change and research to reduce the risk and to reduce the number of babies that are lost. I would also like to thank the Minister for his interest in the subject while Chair of the committee; I have every confidence that he will want to pursue the recommendations of this report with the utmost vigour.
 
As we have already heard, stillbirths are at an unacceptably high level that has remained relatively unchanged for over a quarter of a century. In any other field of health, that would be regarded as a failure. However, it does not have to be this way. Other nations have succeeded in reducing the number of babies lost, and the committee’s report sets out a number of recommendations, which, I believe, if taken together, would begin to bring the level in Wales down.
 
I am pleased that the Minister shares that view and has accepted the recommendations. Of course, the fact that his name appears in the introduction to the report makes it a bit difficult for him to have done otherwise. However, I would like to raise some questions regarding the Minister’s response to two particular recommendations. First is recommendation 4, which looks at the necessity and desirability of setting up a maternity network to drive forward the standardisation of care across Wales, with at least a virtual network to be set up within 12 months. The relative failure of routine antenatal care to identify and assess babies at risk of being stillborn was frightening. In the Welsh Government’s own evidence, one in three stillbirths is associated with substandard antenatal care. If that were addressed, we could potentially reduce the number of babies lost in Wales by 60 a year.
 
We also heard evidence of non-compliance by healthcare professionals with existing National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidance and royal college guidelines. The representatives from the royal college were absolutely certain in the evidence that they gave us that a maternity network would add value and drive change. It is very disappointing that the Minister has not been able to see how this could be realised. Now, I appreciate that funding is difficult, and, yes, there would be costs in establishing such a network, but what are the costs of not establishing that network? We have other such networks for other conditions. Why should expectant mothers be treated any differently to other patient groups in Wales? How are we to make progress on spreading good practice, and learning the lessons of research on low birth-weight babies, restricted growth and fetal movement monitoring, if we do not have such a network? How are we to know whether we are truly raising awareness with expectant parents about the risks of cot death, or reducing risks in practice and the active management of post-term babies? I ask the Minister once again to look again at the resources available and to make progress on what I believe is a very important recommendation.
 
Secondly, on recommendation 6 and the desire for a fetal medicine service, I was very fortunate in all three of my pregnancies to be looked after by a fetal medicine specialist, the wonderful Andrew Dawson. He let his health board know, 18 months before his retirement, that he was intending to retire, to allow it to recruit a person with similar skills and expertise. The local health board did not do so. If I were to have another pregnancy I would probably have to travel to Cardiff or across the border to receive such a service these days. That is a diminution of service compared to what we had seven or eight years ago in the Gwent area.
 
We are spending money sending Welsh women over the border to receive these services, and, while we have two specialists in Cardiff, for women elsewhere in the country accessing the service involves long drives. The figures show that we need two more. In the Minister’s response, it is stated that this is a matter for local health boards, but what the recommendation actually said, Minister, was that the Government should commission or should look to commission this as a tertiary service. You cannot accept that in principle.
 
15:22
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Your time is up.
 
15:22
Kirsty Willi