Today’s Senedd roundup: Plea for extra cash for councils and schools
Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
Plea for councils and schools to be at front of queue for extra cash
Shadow Finance Minister, Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth), has called for increased funding for schools following yesterday’s announcement on spending and, in particular, the additional £593 million announced for Wales by the UK Treasury.
“School funding….has not kept pace with inflation between 2010 and 2011 and 2018 and 2019: gross budget expenditure on schools has actually seen a 2.9% real-terms cut terms cut….and school funding per pupil has widened to £645-per-pupil in 2017-18 (sic). How are you going to use the new funding allocation to address this?”
– Shadow Finance Minister, Nick Ramsay AM
The Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower), said bilateral discussions were taking place with different Ministers. It was important to stress that education spending-per-head was 5% higher than in England.
She was sympathetic to the need for people in key frontline services to know what next year’s budget is going to be, but it was unfair to make announcements before the matter has been discussed further within the Welsh Government.
Local government cuts
In another echo from yesterday’s statement, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) asked for assurances that local councils will be prioritised and won’t face a “cash flat” budget for 2020-21.
The Minister was non-committal, but understood the issue:
“I can certainly give the assurance that in the discussions that we’ve had….health remains a top priority, but we have all been clear that we want to give local government the best possible settlement. In terms of what more I can say about that, at the moment, without having further detailed discussions, I wouldn’t want to say too much more today.”
– Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans
That answer didn’t give Rhun much confidence, warning that Anglesey Council was facing a £6 million cut and Bridgend Council was facing £35 million of cuts with a potential 13% increase in council tax.
The Minister repeated the point that she couldn’t make any promises or announcements as things stand but will try to do so as soon as practically possible.
Spending on the over-60s
David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) asked what measures are being taken to ensure the next budget doesn’t reduce services to the over-60s. The decision to raise the free bus pass age to the state pension age added to the possible loss of free TV licences for the over-75s and changes to concessionary free swimming.
Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) raised the matter of bus pass renewal, which has resulted in problems since day one due to the Transport for Wales website failing to cope with visitors. There was also an issue about a lack of internet access amongst the elderly and paper applications being rejected; why weren’t bus passes automatically renewed?
The Minister said social care remained a top priority in terms of funding, but the other questions were mainly a matter for other government ministers. She added that there was no need to rush to apply to renew bus passes, but the new cards will be able to work as part of an integrated ticketing system, raising the possibility of them being used on other forms of public transport.
Draft international strategy “a PR exercise”
Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) took exception to many proposals, or lack of, in the Welsh Government’s draft international strategy. One of the key aims was for Wales to portray itself as a responsible, ethical nation, but this often bore little resemblance to the Welsh Government’s actions – such as the recent arms fair. She believed the strategy often resembled a PR exercise and selected at least eight areas of potential weakness including the green economy, higher education and the Welsh diaspora.
One particular area Delyth Jewell focused on was the lack of reference to the Welsh language “beyond the fact it exists”, and this had to be reconsidered:
“Will you commit today, as a first step, to….overturn your disgraceful decision to refuse to provide Welsh language lessons free of charge to refugees in Wales, a decision that is entirely contrary to the commitment in your refuge scheme and the Noddfa scheme, to ensure that asylum seekers are included in the opportunity to learn Welsh?”
– Delyth Jewell AM
Minister for International Affairs & Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan (Lab, Mid & West Wales), unsurprisingly, rejected these observations. Concerning the arms fair, cyber-security is an important and growing field where Wales has expertise. Contrary to reports, the Minister said that Welsh lessons for refugees haven’t been entirely withdrawn but are instead forming part of a Coleg Cenedlaethol Cymraeg pilot in Cardiff and Swansea.
The Minister added it was difficult to draft a strategy with uncertainties over Brexit remaining.
Shadow Tourism Minister, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central), asked about tourism strategy and in particular whether a target of tourism earnings increasing by 10% was going to be met? Wales seemed to do well within the domestic (UK) market, but less so with international visitors. There was also great potential for Wales to take advantage of tourists’ increasing desire for “sustainable”/”green” holidays.
The Deputy Minister was in full agreement:
“I agree with that analysis….I do take the point that we need to emphasise international marketing. We have identified certain countries on mainland Europe, and we will pursue this strategy to make sure that those people are aware that our borders are still open between Wales and England, whatever may happen to the borders of the UK.”
– Deputy Minister for Culture, Tourism & Sport, Dafydd Elis-Thomas (Ind, Dwyfor Meirionnydd)
Giant dome to market Wales in Japan
Ahead of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which starts this week, Andrew RT Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central), asked what objectives the Welsh Government had to boost Wales’ profile in Japan?
The Minister said the primary focus was on promoting Welsh food and drink, using an “unorthodox” method:
“You’ll be aware that we have a nine-foot dome that is going to be placed right in the centre of Japan, which is going to be the centrepiece of our promotional activity. This is about really raising Wales’s profile internationally. Obviously, food and drink is going to be a key part of that, but seeing an increase in the number of tourists will also be a key part of what we’re expecting as a return.
“….What we’ve done is to get people sponsoring the dome and it’s an all-embracing facility where things are projected onto the walls and it’s very exciting and lots of companies have taken the opportunity to promote themselves out there. “
– International Affairs & Welsh Language Minister, Eluned Morgan
There’s also a permanent Welsh presence in Japan via a Welsh Government office, plus a “Clwb hiraeth” of people who’ve worked for Japanese companies in Wales who’ve since returned to Japan and are taking part in promotional activities.
Government accused of watering down no-fault eviction proposals
Following a consultation, the Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James (Lab, Swansea West), has announced the Welsh Government’s intention to extend the notice period a landlord must give tenants when ending a standard contract under a no-fault eviction (an eviction for no specific reason).
Security of tenure
The notice period will be extended from two months to six months, while a notice can’t be issued until at least six months after a contract has been agreed – this would effectively mean a minimum of a year’s security of tenure, compared to 6 months now.
“Ultimately, I consider the length of time that someone has to find a new home is more critical than whether or not the landlord has a reason to seek possession. Therefore, under our proposals, even where a landlord intends to sell the property or live in it themselves, contract holders will have much more time to make the necessary arrangements for themselves or their dependents, such as their child’s school or for those they care for, and to find a property more suited to their needs.”
– Local Government & Housing Minister, Julie James
Additional measures including making it easier for a contract holder’s dependents or relatives to succeed to a contract. Any final decisions will be at least partially dependent on the responses to the consultation.
Shadow Housing Minister, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central), said that no-fault evictions will effectively end in England even though the notice period for an eviction will be shorter at just two months.
The Minister disputed that assessment, as there will still be circumstances where no-fault evictions will be allowed – such as if a landlord wants to use a rented property themselves or wants to sell it.
Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda) was less impressed:
“I’d like to say I’m surprised by this watered-down policy, but I’m not. It follows a well-trodden path in which a Labour Government hints at….progressive policy, only to lose the courage of its convictions and instead roll out something that’s unsatisfactory and diluted. I may not be surprised, but that’s not to say that I’m not disappointed – disappointed for the many thousands of people in Wales that are living under the threat of a no-fault eviction.”
– Leanne Wood AM
She went on to add that Shelter Cymru statistics showed that 42% of private tenants in Wales don’t have a fixed-term tenancy agreement – meaning they were at risk of eviction for merely getting on the wrong side of a landlord.
The Minister herself wasn’t impressed by an attempt to “politicise” the issue. It simply wasn’t possible to eliminate no-fault evictions because landlords would potentially lose a right to live in a property they own (if they wanted to take possession of a rental property for their use) – which would contravene human rights.
Both Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) and Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East) expressed support for ending no-fault evictions, though the latter said the proposals were a step in the right direction.
Caroline Jones AM (BXP, South Wales West) – who declared an interest as a landlord – said the proposals would mean landlord waiting longer to evict bad tenants. She also argued that it should be up to a landlord whether to award a contract to relatives.
The Minister counter-argued that allowing relatives/persons not named on the contract (including carers or children) to succeed to a tenancy might reduce the risk of homelessness.
Welsh Budget to be brought forward to November
the Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower), has confirmed the next Welsh budget will be brought forward to November following the UK Chancellor’s recent announcement that Wales will receive an additional £593million in revenue funding.
There had been concerns of a possible lengthy delay due to a spending review by the UK Treasury being postponed.
“The UK Government is acting irresponsibly by publishing spending plans at this time based on forecasts from March, which assumed a relatively benign Brexit, and a previous administration’s fiscal policy. Since March, official data has shown that the UK economy contracted in the second quarter and the latest survey data indicates that it remains weak.”
– Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans
Despite the funding boost, the Minister told AMs the Welsh budget will still be 2% (£300million) lower in real terms compared to 2010-11 and “didn’t make up for nearly a decade of cuts”.
Shadow Finance Minister, Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) said a “corner has been turned” and the “belt was now slackening” and called for the Welsh Government to urgently set out its funding priorities – picking the NHS and education spending in particular.
Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Mon) called for cuts to local government budgets to come to an end, as a flat settlement for 2020-21 would put extreme pressure on council budgets and lead to unsustainable council tax increases.
Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) accused the Minister of taking a pessimistic view and the increase in money should be welcomed.
Brexit Party AM concerned about Brexit’s impact on medicine supplies