Monthly Report

15/04/2014

Welcome to another issue of the online report that outlines what I’ve been involved with in my work during the past month. My responsibilities have increased recently as I became chair of the Environment and Sustainability Committee. Between that and membership of the Public Accounts Committee and the Finance Committee, committees take up a fair amount of my time these days. 

From the March Diary

1 March

St David’s Day Procession, Caernarfon

Official launch of cancer charity Tour de Cymru

Event in Caernarfon to celebrate 40th anniversary of Dafydd Wigley’s election as Caernarfon’s MP

3 March

Attended a meeting to support Caernarfon’s bid to attract S4C’s headquarters to the town

4 March

Assembly Plenary session

Meeting with Paul Silk, Chair of the Commission on Devolution in Wales

Meeting to celebrate Fair Trade Fortnight in the Millennium Stadium

5 March

Plenary Session

Day of the Book lecture

6 March

Public Accounts Committee

Public meeting in Bangor on neonatal intensive care service in north Wales

7 March

Meeting in Llanberis to discuss regenerating fisheries

Guest speaker at Cymmrodorion society, Llandudno

10 March

Launch of Cymru Coastliners, Arriva’s new buses

Meeting on renewable energy

11 March

Plenary session

Launch of Cymdeithas yr Iaith’s ‘Property and Planning Bill’

12 March

Plenary session

Finance Committee

Meeting with specialist panel on intensive neonatal care

13 March

Campaign Committee, Plaid Cymru Arfon / Caernarfon branch meeting

14 March

Meeting with Professor Dean Williams, Bangor University

Meeting with Huw Hughes, Seiont Gwyrfai Llyfni Fishing society

Ofcom meeting

Surgery at Abergwyngregyn

17 March

Addressed Families First, a support network for vulnerable families  

18 March

Plenary session

Public Accounts Committee

19 March

Plenary session

Environment Committee

20 March

Finance Committee

25 March

Plenary Session

Public Accounts Committee

Welcoming electors to the Assembly

Meeting with Finance Minister Jane Hutt

26 March

Plenary Session

Finance Committee

27 March

Environment Committee

Meeting Earth Hour, an initiative by the WWF

Workshop on scrutinising legislature

28 March

Surgery in Penygroes

Meeting board of Raising the Roof, pioneering music scheme for Maesincla and Maesgeirchen

29 March

With Jill Evans MEP to meet Gwyrfai Seiont Llyfni Fishing Society

Social evening in Bangor with Jill Evans

31 March

Bangor University Council meeting

 Questions and Speeches at the Assembly

4 March

Questions to First Minister Carwyn Jones

A.Ff.J.

Your Government has been consulting recently on reducing the number of statistics that you publish. In terms of the economy, the most recent figures that we have for GDP are those for 2011 and, for GVA, those for 2012. They are not ones that you could take pride in. Do you not believe that in order to assess the success of your policies that you need more consistent and more detailed figures than those available to us at the moment?

C.J.

 It is a fair point to say that the GDP figures are so old—three years of age—and the GVA figures are almost as old. There is GDHI as well, which is different in terms of the way the figures are collated. This is something that we are considering, to see whether it is possible to have figures for Wales that are more up to date than the ones that have been alluded to so far...

Questions to the Minster of Culture and Sport, John Griffiths

Budget Cuts

A.Ff.J.

 I do not know whether we want to get too far into UK politics in the Chamber today but, as we have addressed many times in this question and answer session, these are very difficult times...

5 March

Questions to the Minister for Education and Skills Huw Lewis

Welsh in Education Strategic Plans

A.Ff.J.

 Will the Minister make a statement on the progress across Wales in developing Welsh in Education Strategic Plans

H.L.

 Yes, of course. All local authorities are currently carrying out their statutory consultation on their draft Welsh in education strategic plans. When the final, post-consultation WESPs are submitted, I will be in a position to exercise my powers under the School Standards and Organisation (Wales) Act 2013 with regard to approving or rejecting those plans.

A.Ff.J.

Thank you for the response. If some of those plans were inadequate and deficient, what would the Government do on a practical level? You referred to the fact that you would be able to reject them, but what would you do, practically, to ensure that there was consistency of standard and service across Wales?

H.L.

This is a very important matter that the Member for Arfon has raised. I will be treating my responsibilities, when I see those final versions of the Welsh in education strategic plans, with great seriousness...

Questons to the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, Edwina Hart

The Welsh Language and Economic Development

A.Ff.J.

One of the recommendations contained within the report is that the procurement process could be used to promote the Welsh language, partially by use of contractors in the public sector to demonstrate that they are able to provide service bilingually. This is used on the continent. Will you consider that recommendation, too, as part of your discussions for the future?

E.H. I have already initiated discussions with the Minister for Finance, who has responsibility for procurement, on that particular recommendation in the report.

Plaid Cymru Debate: Entreprise

A.Ff.J.

In my contribution this afternoon, I want to refer to under-employment and its effect on Welsh performance figures—Welsh GVA—and also say a word about Plaid Cymru’s ideas about business rates.

Unemployment has fallen recently and has, at last, reached the United Kingdom average level; of course, Plaid Cymru welcomes that very much. We should not forget, however, that unemployment among young people is still high. In parts of Wales—in the Valleys in particular—it is as high as 40%. I do not think that we should crow about any improvement while such figures exist in parts of our country.

However, it is worth noting that Wales has been fairly successful in terms of job creation over the last two decades, even in the days of the Welsh Development Agency. The WDA has had a pretty rough time during the past day or two, but I remember, in the last days of the WDA, the chair at the time asking—in a meeting that I attended—why, despite the success of the WDA in bringing Japanese companies in particular to Wales to create thousands of jobs, Welsh relative GDP figures were falling and falling? He did not have an easy solution, but one answer was that the jobs being created at the time paid salaries that were not on a par with the jobs that were lost in the heavy industries. With the exception of about two years during the last Government, those relative GVA figures continue to fall.

It is clear that there are deeper problems in the Welsh economy than unemployment alone. There is certainly a problem of under-employment, as Plaid Cymru has emphasised many times. The number of people working part time has increased significantly since 2011 and there is also an increase in the number of people in temporary jobs. It is very concerning that an awful lot of those people who work part time are looking for full-time work. One figure that we cannot ignore is average weekly earnings; that gap, I am afraid, has continued to grow over the years, since 1999, to be honest. Salary levels will be important, of course, when we accept responsibility for a portion of income tax revenues. Therefore, under-employment and low wages are part of the inherent problems of the Welsh economy.

I will say a word here about Gwynedd Council’s recent decision to remove the

county council’s two lowest salary bands, at a time of financial difficulty, to pay a

fair wage—well, a fairer wage, at least—to hundreds of workers, many of whom are

women and many of whom work part time. I challenge other Welsh public bodies

to follow the example of Gwynedd Council under the leadership of Plaid Cymru.

A brief word about business rates: Plaid Cymru Government would introduce a

second business rate multiplier for big businesses, with a rateable value of £35,000

or more. Of course, England already has two multipliers, as has Scotland, so this

would not be revolutionary. However, the extra money that would be generated by

the second multiplier would pay for a cut in the multiplier for small businesses, and

we know that business rates account for a large part of the cost of operating a small

business, so it is very important, if we can, to give them a boost. We would also

extend the small business rate relief scheme to help over 83,000 businesses.

Under this policy, approximately 70,000 small businesses would not pay business

rates at all.

Nick Ramsay

Thank you for giving way. Just to be clear on that, Alun Ffred, is Plaid Cymru

supporting the Welsh Conservative policy of reducing business rates for businesses

with a rateable value of up to £15,000?

A.Ff.J.

I am very pleased that the Tories have adopted the Plaid Cymru policy, to all

intents and purposes. Whatever the details of the schemes, we agree that we need

an additional boost for small businesses by giving them more help with business

rates. I believe that that money would also boost employment in Wales and hope

that it would be a boost to encourage some of those small businesses to grow and

become businesses that genuinely contribute to the economy here in Wales.

 

 

Questions to the First Minister Carwyn Jones

Welsh NHS Finances

A.Ff.J. In terms of the additional £50 million that has been allocated for the health service, on what basis will it be distributed to the various health boards? Will it be on the basis of need, demand, or on the basis of failure to balance the books, or what?

C.J.

Well, there will be a variety of means and methods. Of course, we will have to distribute the funding in terms of annual revenue, but there are grants provided for individual elements...

Questions to the Minister for Local Government and Government Business, Lesley Griffiths

Mountain Rescue Service

A.Ff.J.

May I ask for a statement on the mountain rescue service? Every week, we hear about accidents on the Welsh mountains. The rescue teams in Llanberis and Ogwen are the busiest in the United Kingdom. These teams are voluntary but they work alongside the police, the health service and the helicopter service. However, there is very little financial support given by the Government to this vital service—less than a quarter of what is given in Scotland, despite the activity here. I ask for a statement on this important service, which protects the reputation of Wales, supports the tourism industry and is a vital tool for the police and health service.

L.G.

Yes, you raise a very important point. I agree with you about mountain rescue services. I do not think that we do enough to thank them or celebrate what they achieve...

Improving Public Procurement – Statement by Finance Minister Jamne Hutt

A.Ff.J.

I thank the Minister for her statement today. Plaid Cymru sees procurement as a crucial issue for the economy, as it is an efficient way to support Welsh businesses and support jobs in Wales.

Unfortunately, the Government’s guidance is not statutory. There is no requirement for any body in Wales to follow that guidance; that is the problem that the Government has to tackle in order to realise its objectives.

We know that the current percentage—52% of contracts in the public sector in Wales given to Welsh companies—accounts for nearly 100,000 jobs. If we were able to increase that figure to somewhere around 75%, which is not as high as in many countries in Europe, it could create up to 46,000 jobs, according to Value Wales’s own figures. That would reduce unemployment and add to our GVA figures, too. The simple fact is that we would not have to spend a penny extra to achieve that, so this is a crucial area.

As the Minister said, there are good examples and examples of bad practice here in Wales. Looking at north-west Wales, I noticed the other day that Gwynedd Council, in tendering contracts for school meals in 2013, managed to give 100% of those contracts to companies in north-west Wales. A neighbouring county council, the contracts—exactly the same kind of contracts—went to a single supplier from Reading. That is a contract worth £1.2 million going to a company well outside Wales. I am sure that there are reasons for that, but that is an example of two county councils operating in completely different ways, and I would like to know how the Government is going to try to respond to that. After all, you have just talked about sharing good practice, and said that this is part of the anti-poverty action plan. It is not going to help anyone if we award such contracts well beyond the borders of Wales.

It is eighteen months since we had the last figures, which suggested that just over half of our public contracts are awarded to Welsh companies. Will the Minister update the Assembly on the increase in the percentage of contracts that go to Welsh companies? If she is not able to do that, when will she be in a position to update us?

I am very grateful to Alun Ffred Jones for his response. He has been very actively engaged in promoting the importance of public procurement policy and, indeed, in influencing it...

The Second Supplementary Budget 2013-13

A.Ff.J.

We are very pleased that, in the original budget, Plaid Cymru managed to get an agreement to create 5,000 apprenticeships in order to boost opportunities for young people. This supplementary budget, on the other hand, shows a tendency to support the health boards financially and I would like to consider the results of doing that in these brief comments. There is a danger, as the Finance Committee notes, that throwing money at the health boards as they fail to live within their budgets can lead to bad practice. I hope that the Minister can assure us that financial management within the health service is improving, and, just as importantly of course, that that will lead to better care and outcomes for patients in due course.

My wider concern is the implication of protecting NHS spending on the rest of the budget. Now, it may be very laudable—indeed, I may support it—but there are some serious long-term implications for this when you look at the projections made by the Institute for Fiscal Studies about the future of devolved Welsh public spending. What I would like to see beyond this supplementary budget is more of a commentary from the Government about preparing public services for the future, whether that is through responding as a Government to the proposals of the Williams commission or some other means. That is a wider debate, admittedly, but it needs to be dealt with as part of the longer-term public finance agenda in Wales.

Turning back to the supplementary budget, I welcome the movements that reflect support for council tax being guaranteed for 2013-14. On local government funding more generally, one of the effects of the Welsh Government’s protection of health is that we are seeing inevitable council tax increases to try to save services and protect jobs. We need, I think, a more honest approach to council tax in Wales. Plaid Cymru has said that, where local authorities put up council tax, they should explain clearly which services or improvements the increases will deliver.

In Gwynedd, for example, the council tax was increased last year to put more resources into its housing support fund to help mitigate the bedroom tax and other welfare cuts. This year, the council is using it to deliver a pay rise for the lowest-paid council workers. In 2011, the Minister for Finance set out how the Barnett consequential from England’s council tax freeze was to be spent on a capital investment stimulus for the Welsh economy. At that time, the focus was very much on boosting the economy as the recovery was nowhere in sight. I am not sure whether it is in sight still, but never mind. However, what I would ask today is: what has happened to the subsequent council tax freeze consequential and is there a way of specifically directing that consequential into the local government settlement.

In Gwynedd, for example, the council tax was increased last year to put more resources into its housing support fund to help mitigate the bedroom tax and other welfare cuts. This year, the council is using it to deliver a pay rise for the lowest-paid council workers. In 2011, the Minister for Finance set out how the Barnett consequential from England’s council tax freeze was to be spent on a capital investment stimulus for the Welsh economy. At that time, the focus was very much on boosting the economy as the recovery was nowhere in sight. I am not sure whether it is in sight still, but never mind. However, what I would ask today is: what has happened to the subsequent council tax freeze consequential and is there a way of specifically directing that consequential into the local government settlement?

12 March

Plaid Cymru Debate: The Welsh Language

This is a positive motion from Plaid Cymru today, but we have to see it in its context, of course. There is no doubt that there has been a substantial change in the linguistic pattern over the past 50 years. People’s mobility is crucial to understanding the weakening of the position of the Welsh language as a social language. This was one of the main conclusions of the ‘cynhadledd fawr’ convened by the First Minister in Aberystwyth some time ago.

It is a fact that, during my lifetime, the linguistic landscape has changed quite considerably. There have been gains in terms of Welsh-medium education, in terms of public usage of the language and in terms of its status, but we have seen losses in terms of areas where the Welsh language is spoken widely and continues to be a social language. I believe that that undermines the confidence of Welsh speakers in the future of the language and the future of their own communities. Certainly, there is a need to change gear quite firmly in our efforts to turn the tide. Mobility works both ways, of course—you have young people moving out, usually to look for work or for training and education; and there is immigration, mostly by people who do not speak Welsh. To respond to that, we need some defensive measures and some proactive measures, and we have heard quite a bit about the proactive measures today. One area where there is certainly a need to see action from the Government is planning, and, in the proposed Bill from the Government, there is a need for the Welsh language to be recognised as a factor in the planning of homes and employment for the future. That is the view of experts in the field, namely that it will not be possible to operate positively without that being recognised in primary legislation.

I was very pleased that there was a reference to Llwyddo’n Lleol. The Llwyddo’n Lleol scheme developed from a conference I held when I was a member of Gwynedd Council at the beginning of the last decade. This is the programme that came out of that conference to promote entrepreneurship opportunities. That is an absolutely crucial and central aspect if we are to see the Welsh language and Welsh-speaking communities prosper in future.

Rhun talked about something interesting when he spoke about branding. One successful company in rural Wales is Llaeth y Llan. It changed its name to Village Dairies for some time, but it has returned to Llaeth yn Llan because it believes that the Welsh name gives it that unique selling point. That is good news and heartening news, not only for the company but for the use of the Welsh language in the business world. Therefore, I would urge the Government to look in detail at the recommendations of the task and finish group, and particularly at the recommendation to create growth centres. It talks about three main growth centres, and I think that there is strength in its arguments, but there is also a need for smaller centres that offer a variety of employment and economic viability to keep and attract young families in the west of Wales. That is why I was so pleased to see the development in Blaenau Ffestiniog with, mostly local, young people coming together and creating the mountain bike centre. There is a need for more of that sort of development and activity in our communities.

I welcome very much S4C’s intention to devolve some of its activity outside Cardiff, and I hope to see more public bodies following suit shortly. The impact of companies working for S4C in north-west Wales is massive. There was a report last year on ‘Rownd a Rownd’, which is celebrating 20 years of programme-making for S4C. The report noted the large contribution it has made in terms of local employment, with more than 100 people working there regularly, and its contribution to the local community of Menai Bridge and Caernarfon. However, we need more of these economic boosts in our rural areas and rural towns if we are serious about seeing the Welsh language prosper in the next century.

18 March

Questions to First Minister Carwyn Jones

The Welsh Language in the NHS

A.Ff.J.

The shortage of GPs with bilingual skills is now reaching crisis point in north-west Wales; we cannot even find such doctors for an area like the Nantlle valley. What is happening—you have mentioned that health boards have a strategy in place—at the level of Wales’s medical colleges to try to encourage more Welsh speakers to study and train in north Wales so that they are more likely to stay there?

C.J.

That is not the problem, in my opinion. It is not that people do not want to come to north-west Wales. One problem that has been raised with me is that people want to come to the area as doctors but that they have to find jobs for their husbands or wives...

19 March

Questions to the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, Jeff Cuthbert

Third Sector Funding

A.Ff.J.

One of the persistent problems of third sector organisations is funding arriving late. They are often funded by statutory bodies, such as county councils, and because those are not receiving confirmation of their funding from the Government, it means that third sector bodies often make staff redundant, and lose momentum; often, it is halfway through the year before they are able to pick up their work again. When is the Government going to ensure that the third sector receives financial fair play in order to do its work effectively?

J.C.

In 2012-13, we paid £323 million to third sector organisations... Now, there are issues in terms of when invoices are received... If you are aware of particular organisations that have problems, I would be grateful if you would pass those details on to me.

Tackling Poverty

A.Ff.J.

Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s efforts to tackle poverty in Arfon?

The Welsh Government’s tackling poverty action plan sets out targets and milestones on how we will tackle poverty. I am pleased that the Welsh Government agenda is shared by partners in the voluntary, health and local government sectors. That shared commitment was reiterated in my recent discussions with Gwynedd Council on how it is taking this work forward with Flying Start, Families First and Communities First programmes in Arfon.

A.Ff.J.

Thank you very much for that answer. I will be addressing the Families First network conference in Caernarfon on Friday. The partners have all come together. I would like to ask you to congratulate the team and the partnership working on the scheme, which has already had some success, and also the work that has taken place with Judy Hutchings’s team at Bangor University, whcih has done so much work with Incredible Years, which, in fact, is part of the same programme.

Holiday Caravan Sites Bill

A.Ff.J.

Briefly, I would like to declare conditional support for Darren Millar’s Bill. The potential for people who misuse caravan sites to live on them all year is increasing, not only because of pressure on local services, but because of the possibility, in the face of climate change, that some of them will be made homeless, and therefore will be asking for help from local councils. The question that I want to ask Darren Millar is this: does he agree that the situation has been made more complicated recently following the completely illogical decision by the Planning Inspectorate to get rid of the condition that restricted the season for caravan sites to be open? The north Wales planning authority was certainly agreed in opposing that appeal, but the inspectorate, in the name of the Welsh Government, decided to ignore the planners and the system that had been in place, which had been effective, or quite effective, in restricting people’s ability to use caravan sites as their main home. So, does he agree with me that that decision has actually made a difficult situation worse, and therefore that there is a need for some sort of legislation to deal with the situation?

Darren Millar AM

You are quite right in that if a site currently has a 12-month licence, because of the existing licensing regime, it makes it more difficult to police against residential misuse of holiday caravans...

Cardiff Airport

Statement by First Minister Carwyn Jones

C.J.

We have seen very good growth in the airport, with a 9% increase in the period up to February 2014. We expect to see more passengers coming through the airport in the future. It vindicates the decision to make sure that we secure the future of our national airport.

A.Ff.J.

As a regular user of the airport, I am very pleased with the encouraging news, although I would say that there is a very long way to go. There were no planes there last night apart from the one I arrived on. However, I have a question about the staff. I understand that a number of the staff in the airport are on zero-hours contracts. Can you confirm that, and, if that is true, will you move to change that given your opposition to such contracts?

C.J.

I will consider that issue. Of course, the airport is run by a board and not the Government directly...

Fire and Rescue Services in Wales

A.Ff.J.

I also want to pay tribute to the fire and rescue service. It carries out heroic acts across north Wales and the collaboration between the counties, and between the counties and the fire authority, has been very successful.

Another sector that is called out regularly to support the fire and rescue services, and sometimes to lead, is the mountain rescue teams. When floods occur, the expertise and equipment of these rescue teams are exceptionally important in supporting the statutory services. When there are tragedies and when people are missing, once again, these teams are exceptionally important. There was great recognition of this work following the disappearance of April Jones, and mountain rescue teams worked, one for a whole week, supporting the statutory services, and taking the pressure off those services. Of course, when people go missing or are injured on the mountains, although it is the police that co-ordinates the work on behalf of the emergency services, it is the volunteers who have to venture out in all weather.

Very little financial support comes from the Welsh Government to these rescue

teams. They have to raise most of their funding themselves. The Welsh Government

contributes something in the order of £100,000—in Scotland, that contribution is

closer to £0.5 million—although the Llanberis and Ogwen mountain rescue teams

are the busiest in the United Kingdom. So, the question that I want to ask the Minister

is this: is the Government going to recognise the vital role of the mountain rescue

teams in a worthy manner, bearing in mind their importance in supporting the other

emergency services, and in ensuring the safety of the public?