MONTHLY REPORT

11/03/2015

ARFON ASSEMBLY MEMBER

ALUN FFRED JONES AM

February 2015

From the February Diary

Monday, 2 February

Bangor University – meeting with Gerry Hunter

Surgery

Tuesday, 3 February

Meeting with Jane Hutt, Environment Minister

Plenary session

Plaid Cymru reception

Wednesday, 4 February

Finance Committee

Plenary session

Thursday 5 February

Chair Environment Committee

Meet Coleg Menai students

Monday, 9 February

Meeting with Hywel Williams MP

Hawl i Holi, Ysgol Brynrefail

WEA Cymru shop, Bangor

Tuesday, 10 February

Meeting with Welsh Retail Consortium

Meeting with Jane Hutt

Plenary session

Wednesday, 11 February

Chair Environment Committee

Meeting with CAB Cymru

Meeting with Jane Hutt

Plenary session

Thursday, 12 February

Society for the Blind, Bangor – launch of Benefit Claiming scheme

Surgery, Caernarfon

Dyffryn Nantlle branch meeting

Friday, 13 February

Surgery Dyffryn Ogwen

Raising the Roof committee

Leanne Wood public meeting, Celtic Royal Hotel

Tuesday, 17 February

(Half term week)

Meet electors, Penygroes

Wednesday, 18 February

Visit Coed Cymru housing scheme, Dolwyddelan

Surgery, Caernarfon

Thursday, 19 February

Meet Plaid Cymru Group leaders, Gwynedd Council

Meet Walis George, Cynefin housing group

Friday, 20 February

Meet officers of Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board re Ysbyty Glan Clwyd

Surgery, Caernarfon

Saturday, 21 February

Speak at maternity care protest rally, Ysbyty Glan Clwyd

Monday, 22 February

Various meetings, Caernarfon office

Meeting at Anheddau (social care company), Parc Menai

Tuesday, 24 February

Briefing meeting with Jane Hutt

Plenary session

Wednesday, 25 February

Finance Committee

Meet Wales Alzheimer Society

Meet Deputy Heritage Minister Ken Skates

Discussion panel, United Nations Association, Temple of Peace

Thursday, 26 February

Chair Environment Committee

Meeting with Latvian Ambassador

Friday, 27 February

Visit Education School, Bangor University

Various meetings, Bangor office

Saturday, 28 February

St David’s Day celebration, Caernarfon Town FC Supporters Club

Questions and Speeches at the Assembly

3 February

Questions to First Minister Carwyn Jones

The Educational Attainment of Children in Wales

A.Ff.J. Will the First Minister make a statement on the educational attainment of children in Wales?

C.J. This has been a very positive story for Wales over the past couple of years, especially the final performance results in 2014. The final examination results demonstrate real progress and improved performance.

A.Ff.J. Of the pupils in Wales who qualify for free school lunches and achieve five GCSEs, 28% of those pupils actually succeed in Wales. In England, the figure is some 38%. Now, after 15 years of Labour education Ministers and an anti-poverty strategy that has been a priority here in Wales, why do the figures compare so poorly?

C.J. Well, the figures are, of course, more positive. We know from the figures published last week that the level is rising...

4 February

Questions to the Minister for Finance and Government Business, Jane Hutt

Fair funding for Wales

A.Ff.J. What negotiations have you had with UK Government Ministers in terms of fair funding for Wales?

J.H. As I said in answer to earlier questions, of course, this is a key part of the St David’s Day process. A funding work stream has enabled me to continue to press for our call for a Barnett floor to deliver fair funding, and, of course, that is critical in terms of moving forward and for a fair deal for Wales in terms of new fiscal powers.

A.Ff.J. Well, I’m not sure about a fair deal, but the per capita GVA in Scotland is 94% of the UK level. The figure for Wales is 72.3%. What justification is there for the much better settlement that the Barnett formula gives to Scotland, and to Northern Ireland if it came to that—a settlement that your Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has supported?

J.H. Well, of course, there’s no justification for the better settlement that Scotland’s had for decades from the Barnett formula. We would like to see a reform of the Barnett formula, but, of course, what we have to do in terms of our responsibilities here in Wales, and what I do as Welsh Government finance Minister, is find a way forward to secure a fair funding deal for Wales. We can secure a fair funding deal for Wales if we secure the floor that Gerry Holtham recommended when he undertook the independent commission. Of course, that was backed by the cross-party Silk commission.

A.Ff.J. Since I have been at the Assembly, I’ve heard Ministers on the front bench there justifying the Barnett formula, until quite recently. You had 13 years in Government when you did nothing about the formula. If Wales were funded on the same level as Scotland, then you would have an additional £1 billion. Now then, the question is: what are you going to do to secure a fair settlement for Wales, and why this lack of ambition on behalf of Wales?

J.H. Well, I think it’s been very powerful that the whole of this Assembly—all parties—have backed this recommendation for a funding floor...

Welsh Public Sector Procurement Expenditure

A.Ff.J. What percentage of Welsh public sector procurement expenditure is awarded to companies within Wales? 

J.H. As I announced in the Plenary debate on 2 December, an analysis of 2012-13 data shows that 55% of Welsh public sector procurement expenditure was won by Wales-based companies.

A.Ff.J. Thank you. When may we expect more up-to-date figures than those, so that we can see what progress has been made in that percentage? As you know very well, if we were to sell 75% of those contracts to Welsh companies, it would create around 50,000 jobs.

J.H. Well, of course, I think great progress is being made, because we have improved that expenditure with Wales-based suppliers...

Questions to the Minister for Public Services, Leighton Andrews

Level of Pay of Senior Council Officers

A.Ff.J. May I also refer to the recommendation made yesterday to keep better control over chief executives’ salaries in local authorities? Will you join with me in congratulating Gwynedd Council for keeping the chief executive’s salary and that of the principal officers at about the lowest level in Wales, whilst increasing the salaries for 2,000 of the workers on the lowest salaries? I think that’s a very good example for every council; would you not agree?

L.A. Well, I’m very happy to welcome action that is taken to hold down senior salaries in local government, wherever it happens

Plaid Cymru Debate: Fracking

A.Ff.J. Well, it appears to me that there is a majority in the Chamber today in favour of what Plaid Cymru is calling for, which is that this Assembly should state clearly that it is in favour of a moratorium on fracking in Wales. That message would be a strong and significant one that this Senedd, which is a reflection of the democratic choice of the people of Wales, would not wish to see fracking taking place in Wales at present, while also believing that the Welsh Government should have the right to act according to that opinion.

Leanne Wood has already spoken about the democratic deficit in terms of the Assembly’s power as compared to the will of the people of Wales. Mick Antoniw has also mentioned the same very powerfully. I’d like to expand on that point. It appears to me that there is a big gap between what politicians are saying on the hand and what they are doing on the other hand. That matter is at the root of today’s debate on fracking.

In a response to a question by Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson on energy, Llyr Gruffydd, the Minister for Natural Resources told the Assembly that he and the First Minister had held several discussions with the United Kingdom Government regarding giving the Welsh Government power to introduce a moratorium on fracking. However, after the Plaid Cymru Member of Parliament for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, Jonathan Edwards, verified this statement with the UK Government Minister, it appears that no contact had been made by the Welsh Government on this matter at all.

Of course, when the Labour Party had an opportunity to introduce amendments to the Infrastructure Bill in Westminster, they introduced an amendment to devolve the power to Scotland but not to Wales. We have to ask, remembering the robust comments that Mick Antoniw made, why the Welsh Labour Members of Parliament were not willing to make that amendment. Again, what’s strange—even more strange, to be honest—is the fact that when Plaid Cymru put forward an amendment to that effect, Labour decided not to support that amendment. The situation is appalling and laughable, to be honest.

The people of Wales are being tricked in this regard. May I make one thing very clear today? Plaid Cymru is against fracking. Plaid Cymru has voted against fracking in this place, in the United Kingdom Parliament and in the European Parliament at every opportunity, and that’s what we will do in future. Now, I do understand that some people are in favour of fracking and will vote to that effect today, but to those who say that they are against it, then your voting record will be clearer than your words. Thank you very much.

10 February

Questions to the First Minister Carwyn Jones

Support for Ex-forces Personnel

A.Ff.J. Young men and women who join the army and the military have suffered because of the enthusiasm of Westminster Governments to go to war, including the illegal Iraq war, of course. We’ve seen the loss of life, terrible disabilities and, of course, mental illnesses amongst former members of the military. Have you any data as a Government as regards the percentage of people suffering from mental health problems in Wales who are ex-military?

C.J. I don’t have those figures to hand, but I will write to the Member with that figure if it is available...

Statement by the Minster for Finance and Government Business: Tax Devolution in Wales—Consultation on a Land Transaction Tax

A.Ff.J.  I welcome the statement and agree, to a great extent, with the intentions. The devolution of SDLT in 2018 will be a significant step forward for Wales. Not that the sum is huge, but it’s an important step, and land and property transaction taxes are very advantageous as sources of revenue, as they are very difficult to avoid. At the same time, it will be an opportunity to reconfigure the tax to meet Welsh objectives and needs, in accordance with what Alun Davies said earlier.

I’d like to refer to your fifth paragraph, where you state that

‘I am seeking a Barnett “floor” that will deliver fair funding for Wales’

I think a Barnett floor would certainly deliver fairer funding for Wales, but the only fair funding for Wales, surely, is parity with Scotland, and that is what is going to keep libraries open, school budgets adequate and a viable health service.

But, to return to the tax, Plaid Cymru’s option to replace the stamp duty would be to have a more innovative structure to do away with the slab effect, as it’s been described. We know that a more innovative tax is going to be implemented in Scotland, and the UK Chancellor has also moved in that direction in the autumn statement, as you referred to. I note that the Minister favours a similar route.

The changes introduced by the Chancellor came into force immediately before the introduction of the land and buildings transaction tax in Scotland, although the Scottish Government had already planned and created forecasts for that new tax. The Chancellor’s changes will now have an impact on the Scottish Government’s revenue in the first year of the new tax, because of changes in behaviour that the Scottish Government could not have anticipated. Bearing all this in mind, is the Minister allowing adequate flexibility in her approach? I know that she has referred to that in her statement this afternoon.

Finally, we should also consider the issue of first-time buyers. In her ministerial statement, the Minister emphasised fairness, simplicity and stability for taxpayers and businesses in planning the new tax, but are their opportunities to use any aspects of the new tax to assist first-time buyers?

J.H. I thank Alun Ffred Jones for his questions and also for recognising this is an important step for us in terms of the future of devolution in Wales and that we must, with these new powers, reconfigure as and how is appropriate...

Debate: The General Principles of the Planning (Wales) Bill

A.Ff.J. I am pleased to contribute to this debate as Chair of the Environment and Sustainability Committee, which was responsible for the scrutiny of the Bill at Stage 1. We heard from various stakeholders in order to gather their views on whether the Bill would achieve what they expect from legislation. I thank everyone who gave evidence to the committee.

In terms of the general principles, you will see from the report that, as a committee, we support the general principles of the Bill. It is worth noting, on the other hand, that we have made 42 recommendations aimed at addressing concerns that the Bill needs to be more consistent, more efficient and, above all else perhaps, more democratic. I will now refer to some of the main recommendations.

One criticism was of the complexity of the proposed planning system. Some witnesses argued that the new arrangements set out in the Bill are unnecessarily complicated and that they will create a four-tier planning structure. It is also worth noting that there will be a need to pass 65 pieces of secondary legislation before the Bill comes into force. Concerns have also been expressed that the Bill operates from the top down and gives significant additional powers to Welsh Ministers. We have called in the past for reform of the planning system. However, centralising powers and reforming processes could move power away from communities and individuals and make it harder for the community to take part in the system, eroding local democracy. I think that this is a warning that the Government should take seriously. So, we recommend that the Minister should bring forward an amendment to give the status of a formal development plan to place plans and give more consideration to how local communities can have more opportunities to take part.

In terms of a statutory purpose for planning, when the committee considered the draft Bill, an independent advisory group recommended that the statutory purpose for planning should be placed on the face of the Bill. Now, the Minister argues that the existence of the Bill removes the need for a statutory purpose. However, due to the bulk of evidence that came forward, we recommend that the Minister should bring forward an amendment to the Bill to include a statutory purpose for planning. I note the comments made by the Minister regarding the Welsh language, and I am grateful for them. These are consistent with the recommendation made by the First Minister last summer. As a committee, we do believe that the Bill is an opportunity to support the growth of the Welsh language throughout Wales and that the position of Welsh in the planning system should be strengthened to ensure equality with other considerations. We also acknowledge, on the other hand, the evidence we received that Welsh should not be considered above all other material considerations. Because of this, the committee recommends that the Minister should introduce amendments to place a requirement on those drawing up plans to undertake an assessment of the impact of development plans on the Welsh language and to note in primary legislation that Welsh is a material consideration. In addition, we believe that the Welsh Language Commissioner should have a formal role in assessing the quality of the language impact assessments for development plans. That is not the same as saying that the commissioner should deal with planning applications in any way.

If terms of links with other systems, in recommendations 11 and 12, a number of witnesses have called for more definite information about what type of link there will be between the different types of schemes proposed in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill, the Planning (Wales) Bill and the environment Bill that will come forward soon. We are concerned that there is no specific link made in the Bill between arrangements for national statutory transport schemes and the new national development framework that would be created by the Bill. We therefore recommend that the Minister brings forward amendments to establish new statutory links between these systems.

In terms of the national parks, as the Minister mentioned, namely recommendation 15, the recommendation is that the Minister should leave the Bill as it has been drafted in terms of the national parks. If he doesn’t intend to do anything about it, why take that responsibility and why give that power to himself to be able to abolish them or combine them with other planning committees?

In terms of the national development framework, looking at recommendations 18 and 19, one of the major changes made by the Bill is the creation of the national development framework to replace the Wales spatial plan. As the Bill is drafted, the NDF doesn’t have to be approved by the Assembly and Welsh Ministers don’t have to explain how they take into account the views of the Assembly. A number of witnesses raised concerns about this, so we recommend that the Assembly should be able to determine its own procedures in considering the draft NDF and that it should be a requirement that the NDF is approved by the Assembly.

I note that I’m going to run out of time, so, if I could just refer to some of the other areas, in terms of the strategic development plans and the strategic planning panels, there are concerns about the accountability and the membership of these panels. But there is a general concern as well that we are creating a structure that is too complex in this field, and concerns have been expressed about this layer.

 In terms of developments of national significance, the Bill introduces a new system of developments of national significance, which means the Welsh Ministers would be responsible for making decisions on some applications.

Now then, we heard concerns about the lack of definition on the face of the Bill leading to a future Government amending the definition in order to justify the introduction of these new categories of development. So, we recommend that the Minister should include a definition of DNS on the face of the Bill rather than in secondary legislation, and we have been persuaded that there should be a statutory timetable for considering DNS by Welsh Ministers.

There are some other issues that we refer to. One is design and access statements. The recommendation in the Bill is that these should be removed, but we’ve been persuaded that they have an important part to play in the process. The Minister also referred to town and village greens, and we welcome the fact that the Minister has listened to the evidence regarding those.

So, overall, there is support for the general principles, but I think there are major concerns that the Bill centralises power and there is a need for it to be more democratic in terms of this institution, the Assembly itself, but also, in fairness, to local authorities and also communities across Wales.

11 February

Questions to the Minister for Education and Skills, Huw Lewis

Education Spend

A.Ff.J. A school in my constituency has 40% of its children coming from highly deprived homes—that is, amongst the 20% worst in Wales—but only half of those pupils are in receipt of free school meals, although, of course, they’re all eligible for free school meals, and that, of course, has a huge impact on the school budget. As both the school and the pupils are losing out, what is your advice for the headteacher?

H.L. Well, it is, of course, open to the local authority and to the leadership in an individual school to set about trying to rectify a problem like that, with perhaps parents not being aware of what they might be entitled to, or having been reluctant to sign up...

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

Rail Services

A.Ff.J. In talking about investment, when will north Wales train passengers get trains that belong to the twenty-first century rather than the 1970s of the last century?

E.H. As soon as we have the powers.

24 February

Questions to First Minister Carwyn Jones

Expensive drugs

C.J.   …So, again, I make this point: it is absurd to say, as the Prime Minister has said, that somehow people are being denied life-saving drugs and are dying in Wales. That is wrong, and I challenge the Conservative Party to give us a single example of a life-saving drug—life-saving drug—that is not available in Wales. They will fall far short on that, as they always do.

A.Ff.J. I don’t think that the family of Mr Irfon Williams will thank you for the kind of debate that we’ve just had on this particular case. Mr Irfon Williams, who has a baby son, is being cared for by a cancer specialist at Aintree hospital in Liverpool, and it’s that specialist who has made the request for the drug cetuximab. Now, Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board has rejected that application, and rejected a second one too. My question is: shouldn’t difficult cases like this be dealt with at an all-Wales level, rather than being left to local health boards, in order to ensure consistency and fairness?

C.J. First of all, may I say this to the Member? I believe that it’s true that, sometimes, discussions take place where we forget the individual. I accept that...

Questions to the Minister for Finance and Government Business, Jane Hutt

Free swimming

A.Ff.J. When the free swimming programme was introduced over 10 years ago, it was one of the cornerstones of the Government’s programme at that time, and changes were made over the years. During my time as Minister, priority was given to teaching children to swim within that programme. Now, further changes to the formula funding this particular programme have been made. Gwynedd, for example, is going to lose 40% of its budget, which will have a seriously detrimental effect on children and older people in the county, and their ability to learn to swim. I would, therefore, ask for a statement from the Deputy Minister on this strategy and these changes, which are going to have a very detrimental effect in many counties of Wales.

J.H. Alun Ffred Jones, I’m not aware of the reasons for this impact in the changes in terms of the funding allocations. We’ll certainly look at this, because our commitment to universal benefits, such as free swimming, of course, forms an important part of our budget...

Landfill Disposals Tax

A.Ff.J.  I welcome the consultation launched today, and thank you very much for the briefing provided this morning to the opposition parties.

Many of the questions have already been asked, and the responses have been comprehensive, as is your statement. May I just note a few things? I agree entirely with what you say: that business and industry need certainty and equity. That is very important. So, may I ask what discussions you have had with industry on this specific new tax, which, of course, is extremely important to many of our businesses? Certainly, one would agree that there is no justification for change for change’s sake in the situation that we find ourselves in. You’ve touched upon this issue, but if the Government’s recycling strategy is successful, and there is an additional emphasis on that now, then less and less money will be generated by the landfill tax. How is the Government going to include this in its budgetary planning for the future?

Finally, I also want to refer to the landfill communities fund, which, at present, is administered on a UK-wide basis. I would make one plea: the use of these funds should not be controlled by Government centrally. After all, these taxes are targeted at those areas where there are landfill sites. If you want to have an overview, and make strategic use of those funds, then that’s a responsibility, I would suggest, for local councils. There are too many funds of this kind that are controlled centrally by Government, and the upshot of that is that whole areas of Wales, and families in Wales, are excluded from funds of this sort and I don’t want to see more of that happening in the future. And I will be keeping a close eye on that as this consultation proceeds.

25 February

Questions to the Minister for Natural Resources Carl Sergeant

Carbon Dioxide Emmissions

A.Ff.J. If we are to reduce our carbon emissions, then we must produce more electricity in a sustainable manner for the future. When will the Government set meaningful targets for energy production from renewable sources?

C.S. Well, we are very keen to have a mix of energy. Low-carbon energy programmes are part of that programme. I’m sure I can count on the Member’s support for low carbon technology as we move forward here in Wales, particularly in Anglesey.