Senedd roundup: Moves to tighten safety checks of coal tips following recent landslides
Coal tip above Duffryn in the Afan valley. © Copyright Jeremy Bolwell (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
This week’s questions to the Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham), continued to be dominated by the Welsh Government’s response to recent flooding.
There were several questions about the safety of coal tips following recent flooding. Mohammad Asghar AM (Con, South Wales East) said recent landslides evoked memories of the Aberfan disaster, while Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) asked whether rules around coal tips were being changed to take into account increased rainfall and flooding in the future?
The Minister told the chamber that high-risk coal tips were inspected by the end of last week and agreed that the safety standards around coal tips needed to be looked at again.
The situation regarding responsibility for coal tips was complicated, but something the Welsh Government were seeking to clear up:
“Across all of these coal tips there are….local authorities, Natural Resources Wales or Welsh Government, the Coal Authority, and there are some private owners. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to have a register of all of these. I think that’s something that we need to get up and running very quickly. Clearly, even if it’s a private landowner, the local authority…. (should) have the powers to go in and inspect it. So I think it’s really important that we bring this piece of work to a close as quickly as possible.”
– Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths
It’s up to councils to top-up Welsh Government financial support for flood victims
Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales) asked for an update on any additional resources made available to Natural Resources Wales following the flooding. There had to be appropriate funding provided year-upon-year, not in response to a disaster. He also suggested different parts of Wales were supported to a greater extent than others.
“Now, I’ve consistently raised with you….the need to ensure that core resources are available for NRW and that they are sufficient. It’s a matter of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, very often, if something happens and then the funding is made available. That funding should be in place year on year to ensure that the capacity is in place.”
– Llyr Gruffydd AM
The Minister said funding to support clean-up efforts has been made available from multiple government departments. The level of support provided to flood victims is also consistent regardless of where you are in Wales – though it was a matter for each council whether they top-up support provided by the Welsh Government.
Coronavirus and farming
Shadow Environment Minister, Andrew RT Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central), turned to the other big topic at the moment. With some estimates suggesting up to 20% of the workforce could be off sick at some point due to coronavirus, how would this impact farming– particularly as the deadline for single payment applications closes in May when the virus is expected to peak?
The Minister told AMs every Welsh Government department was looking at how coronavirus would impact their responsibilities. A lot of the Environment Department’s staff can work from home if need be, but the likes of farm inspectors obviously can’t.
“This will be something that we will continually start to work up now we’ve seen some of the projected figures and the reasonably worst scenario. So, this is an ongoing piece of work. We’ll have to be very flexible. It’s the same for this Chamber, isn’t it? If 20% or more of us are unable to attend Senedd sittings, obviously business will be affected. So, this is something that we’re looking at right across Government, and I’m sure the (Assembly) Commission are too.”
– Environment, Energy & Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths
Lack of national social housing waiting list “astonishing”
A summary of questions to Local Government & housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West).
Affordable homes target still set to be met
Shadow Housing Minister, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) noted that with 13 months of the Fifth Senedd left, the Welsh Government was only 6,500 homes into its 20,000 affordable home target. He also thought it was time to reconsider what the target meant in practice.
“I just wonder whether we would be better off moving to a definition now that focuses on social housing, housing for rent. And I think it’s time, as all parties in this Chamber prepare their manifestos for next year’s election, to be looking at realistic but ambitious targets for social housing in the 2020s. And it’s my view that we need to be building in the region of 4,000 social homes a year, or 20,000 over the term of an Assembly, in the 2020s. Do you agree?”
– Shadow Housing Minister, David Melding AM
The Minister agreed and thought the time was coming to review the definition of “affordable”.
That said, the Minister expects the affordable housing target to be met and it’s already been exceeded in terms of Help to Buy’s share of the target. The focus now is on building social housing because that’s where the biggest shortfall is – though caps applied by the UK Government to local Housing Revenue Accounts are preventing councils from borrowing and reinvesting in social housing.
In a separate question from Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon), the Minister confirmed that the Welsh Government doesn’t keep a national social housing waiting list.
“It’s astonishing that you don’t have, as a Government, detailed national data on the number of people who are waiting for social housing in Wales. Given that this is one of your priorities, namely, providing more social housing, how are you monitoring that your policies are effective if you don’t know exactly what is the position? In Arfon, I know that there are too many people waiting for social housing. They are in inappropriate homes.”
– Sian Gwenllian AM
The Minister accepted that this was a valid point of criticism, but there were other, perhaps more accurate, measures used to monitor social housing demand.
“….the housing waiting list is not an indication of housing need, as such, because people go on waiting lists for all kinds of reasons. For example, they might want to move for a particular reason, but not be in housing need….We monitor, for example, the units let as social housing units. So, at 31st March 2019, Wales had a total of 231,408 units of social housing let. The new lettings increased by 4% during 2018-19 to 21,135 lettings, 61% of those were on the housing waiting list, up 2% on the previous year to 12,863 of those.”
– Local Government & housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West)
Preparing local government and social care for coronavirus
Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) asked whether the Welsh Government had confidence that local authority would be able to ensure care could still be provided if social care staff became ill? There were also issues about the impact self-quarantine may have on those employed in the care sector.
“Current advice issued by Public Health Wales is that those suspecting they have coronavirus should self-quarantine until a negative test is received. An issue that was raised in the Chamber yesterday was that of zero-hours contracts, but I think that the issue also applies to those who are self-employed or on low wages, where if those people lose shifts, they will also lose wages. We know that many people in the social care sector are on low wages, and are not benefiting from lots of employment protections as we would like to see them benefiting from.”
– Delyth Jewell AM
The Minister confirmed that the impact of sickness on the care sector has been discussed at Cabinet level.
It’s expected that local authority-employed staff would be covered straight away, but for those employed privately or self-employed, the Welsh Government are looking at ways to support them similarly to measures to support businesses affected by recent flooding – though no details were forthcoming.
Photo by Luisella Planeta Leoni from Pixabay
Coronavirus: “Catch it, kill it, bin it”
As trailed yesterday the Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), gave a statement to AMs on the Welsh Government’s initial response to coronavirus/Covid-19 following the first confirmed case in Wales.
Summarising the key points:
- People should follow UK Foreign Office advice to avoid travel to Hubei province in China and only travel to the rest of mainland China and affected parts of northern Italy (presumably Iran too) if it’s essential.
- Anyone who’s travelled back to Wales from an affected area or has had contact with someone who has – and is displaying symptoms (fever, dry cough, shortness of breath) – SHOULD NOT go to their GP or A&E department and should instead use NHS Direct Wales/111 telephone service (which is free). People will be seen in good time based on their likelihood of infection but the Minister appealed for patience.
- 450 people in Wales have been tested at time of posting with only one confirmed case. 90% of tests are undertaken in a person’s home. Coronavirus has been added to Public Health Wales‘ disease monitoring programme.
- Emergency powers are being considered if needed and would likely be introduced as a whole-UK law (which will require the Senedd’s consent as some aspects are devolved). There are no timescales yet.
- Schools should remain open unless told otherwise and enhanced passenger monitoring can be introduced at Cardiff Airport if needed.
- The key message to take home to avoid transmitting the virus is “Catch it, bin it, kill it” – use disposable tissues when sneezing or coughing, bin the tissue then wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
Another key message, in the era of fake news and social media, was to only trust reliable sources of information:
Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.), believed the UK’s governments have dealt with the issue so far as best as they can. When it came to informing the public, there had to be a stronger push that falling back on Public Health Wales website so people will actually see it.
Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) asked for a clear direction for employers and their responsibilities. Irresponsible employers are expecting workers to turn up regardless of their health, which could put others at risk. Plaid Cymru has also called for coronavirus to be labelled a “notifiable disease” which has insurance implications for businesses to cover possible lost earnings (in the last few minutes it’s been announced that the Welsh Government are going to do this).
Huw Irranca-Davies AM (Lab, Ogmore) also focused on getting the message out, stressing the need for clarity and for different sources of information to be put together so it can be easily found by the public, businesses and frontline workers.
Senedd approves budget for 2020-21
Yesterday, AMs debated the final version of the Welsh budget for the 2020-21 financial year.
- £5 million for the Development Bank.
- £1.25 million for National Museums.
- A £1.25 million cut from the Invest to Save programme.
- £385,000 to support nutrition in schools.
Any additional costs related to recent flooding – including £10 million in immediate funding made available by the Welsh Government – hasn’t been reflected in the budget.
Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower), has made her objections to the recent £200 million “adjustment” to Welsh capital spending clear to the UK Treasury and has sought clarification and has made a formal request for flood relief outside the usual Barnett formula process.
Depending on additional money coming to Wales in the forthcoming UK budget (due on 11th March), housing and homeless has been made a high priority given concerns from AMs over the housing support grant.
Chair of the Finance Committee, Llyr Gruffydd AM (Plaid, North Wales), acknowledged the challenges resulting from uncertainty caused by delays to the UK budget and he was pleased that the implications of the UK budget will be communicated to AMs as soon as possible.
Shadow Finance Minister, Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) criticised a lack of focus on developing green infrastructure – particularly electric charging points. There was also some confusion of Cardiff Airport’s state support that requires clarification.
Plaid Cymru voted against the budget. Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) accepted the Welsh Government faced challenges drafting this budget, but the government should’ve reacted to it by doing things differently, with very little being done to address poverty and the climate emergency.
Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) called for opposition parties to publish their alternative budgets – if they had one. That said, one area he would’ve like to have seen extra spending is primary care/GPs to reduce pressures on A&E departments.
Both Rhianon Passmore AM (Lab, Islwyn) and Vikki Howells AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) showed their support for the budget, particularly an increase in council funding and investment in the pupil deprivation grant.
Alongside the main budget, the Local Government Settlement for 2020-21 was approved by 27-19 with 4 abstentions, while a vote on the (unchanged) Welsh rate of income tax was approved by 43-1 with 6 abstentions.