Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd

Plenary - Fifth Senedd

08/12/2020

In the bilingual version, the left-hand column includes the language used during the meeting. The right-hand column includes a translation of those speeches.

The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

Statement by the Llywydd

Good afternoon, and welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in hybrid format, with some Members in the Senedd Chamber and others joining by video-conference. All Members participating in Senedd proceedings, wherever they may be, will be treated equitably. A Plenary meeting held using video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and these are set out on your agenda. I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, and apply equally to Members in the Chamber as to those joining virtually. 

13:30
1. Questions to the First Minister

So, our first item this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Hefin David. 

The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 4) (Wales) Regulations 2020

1. Will the First Minister make a statement on the impact of the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 4) (Wales) Regulations 2020 in Caerphilly? OQ55992

Llywydd, I thank the Member for that question. The intended impact of the regulations in Caerphilly is to arrest and reduce the prevalence of coronavirus from its current rising and elevated level of 447 people per 100,000 in the population, and to reverse the rise in positivity rates from its present level in Caerphilly of over 17 per cent. 

I'd like to pay tribute again to the people of Caerphilly, many of whom are keeping in touch with me about the issues that they are facing as a result of these very difficult times. And I'm so often in awe of the measures that people in Caerphilly are taking in order to control and contain the virus. Several constituents have been in touch with me with regard to relatives in care homes, many of whom are suffering from dementia. They are currently prevented from visiting those relatives because of Caerphilly County Borough Council policy. We've queried this with Caerphilly council, who've told us that measures are put in place to prepare care homes for resumption of indoor visits, but they are awaiting a letter from the Welsh Government confirming a change in guidance. Now, as I understand it, the Welsh Government guidance is clear and, therefore, I'm looking to the First Minister to help me with this and find a way through what seems to be a blockage of bureaucracy in order to assist people in visiting relatives in care homes. 

I'd also say, while mentioning that, that the pilot lateral flow device and pods to enable visiting are to be welcomed, and particularly where visitors can now use these facilities to visit relatives in care homes, balancing against that risk of COVID. But in this particular case, could the First Minister provide some support for me to get back to Caerphilly council and enable those visits to resume where safe and possible?

Llywydd, I thank Hefin David for that. He points to one of the acutest dilemmas in the whole coronavirus pandemic, and that is the need for relatives to be able to visit people in care homes and yet the extreme vulnerability of the care home population. So, the Welsh Government has provided regular guidance throughout the pandemic, both from the director of social services in the Welsh Government, Albert Heaney, and through the Minister, Julie Morgan. Our guidance, I think, is clear. We say to local authorities that it is important to avoid an unnecessarily restrictive blanket approach to visiting, that it needs to be calibrated in the individual circumstances faced by the local authority, but also faced by the care home itself. Obviously, nobody would wish to see visits to a care home if a care home itself is actively dealing with an outbreak of coronavirus amongst its population. But we're still in a position, Llywydd, where almost half care homes in Wales have not had a single case of coronavirus.

The lateral flow device experiment that is going on in Wales at the moment will help to allow more visits to take place. But I want to emphasise the fact that, here in Wales, all the other precautions that we would expect to see—the wearing of PPE, the maintaining of social distancing, the special measures that care homes have put in place—we still expect to see all of that happening even if someone has tested negative through a lateral flow device. And the 30 pods to which Hefin David referred, they are now provided. They'll be available for Christmas, and I know that my colleague Julie Morgan hopes to have something to say very soon on support for those providers who've been able to source their own visitor pods, again in an effort to allow visits to take place where that balance between the need for human contact with family members and the prevalence of the virus can be properly struck.

First Minister, we all recognise that cases are rising across south-east Wales and Wales, and the seriousness of that, and that public health and safety must come first. But do you recognise the anger and frustration of businesses across Wales that have made great efforts to ensure the safety of their customers only to be punished by these latest Government damaging restrictions? Brains spent £500,000 on personal protective equipment, ensuring its commitment to protect its customers. Will you agree to publish the data, in the interests of transparency, so people can see the evidence on which these decisions were made?

13:35

Well, Llywydd, I'm afraid the Conservative Party in Wales is in a disgraceful position in relation to this matter, and that disgrace was very well illustrated in the Member's question to me. In the face of the numbers that we see here in Wales, the grip of the coronavirus crisis in Wales, she consistently, as does her party, avoids their responsibility for facing up to that and wants instead to make ridiculous, ridiculous allegations about sectors of the economy being punished in Wales. That sector is receiving £340 million-worth of support from the Welsh Government, where her party in Westminster is providing £40 million for the whole of England. Here in Wales, we work with the sector, we do our very best to be able to help them to deal with the consequences of this emergency. But this is a public health emergency and it's time the Conservative Party in Wales really did recognise that.

The First Minister and his colleagues have had to make extremely difficult decisions during the pandemic, and all of us realise how serious the situation is now in Caerphilly and across the south-east. I've just listened to the exchange between you and Laura Anne Jones, First Minister. I think there is a disconnect between the severity of the situation and some public attitudes towards this, and I wonder that this might have been because of some breakdowns in communication. I feel that the restrictions that have just been talked about with the hospitality sector, which came in last Friday, could have been met with less resistance if there'd been a longer lead-in time, which would have allowed businesses time to plan in terms of both staffing and stock, because failure to allow that time led to businesses having to close at short notice and pour beer down the drain. I'm aware of one business, which is in Caerphilly county, that sent a message to Members saying that they'd taken the difficult decision to suspend some services until mid January because they had no confidence in the Government's ability to commit to a reliable schedule of releasing restraints by the promised deadline. So, could I ask, First Minister, what assurance could you provide to the hospitality sector that you'll give them as much time as possible to prepare in future, both in terms of lifting and imposing restrictions?

Well, Llywydd, I announced on a Friday that these changes would be coming into place on the following Friday. When a Government is provided with advice from its chief medical officer and others that action needs to be taken, and that the speed at which that action is taken will have a direct impact on the effectiveness of those measures, and the impact on people's lives, I think it is incumbent on Government to act as soon as reasonably can be on that evidence. And the longer you wait, the more lives are lost. So, it's a terribly difficult balancing act between giving businesses the time they need—and I recognise the points the Member made are absolutely fair in that regard—and allowing those businesses to prepare against the certain knowledge that every day without the restrictions is a day less to have an impact on the coronavirus pandemic that we face. Now, we provided a full week of advance notice. On the following Monday, we provided all the detail of what would be required. I don't deny for a minute that that is a short period of time for businesses to be able to react, but we did give them what I thought was the longest we could, consistent with the advice we received that action was needed, it was needed as soon as possible and that every day we delayed meant the coronavirus was going to get worse and the impact on our health service and on people's lives would be worse as well.

Kinder Public Services

2. How is the Welsh Government adopting a trauma-based approach to developing kinder public services? OQ55996

I thank Jack Sargeant, Llywydd, for that. The adoption of a trauma-based approach in Wales is primarily taken forward through the work of the adverse childhood experiences hub. It works to embed the principles of trauma-based practice across the range of key public services in Wales. 

13:40

Can I thank the First Minister for that answer? Members will be aware, given my ongoing commitment to bring a kinder politics here to Wales, that I have previously called for kinder public services—services that recognise individual circumstances and do not take a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach. First Minister, I wanted to share with you today a positive. The Wallich, with the support of the ACE hub, have developed a trauma-informed rehabilitation programme, which has seen fantastic results. It is helping individuals who have suffered multiple adverse childhood experiences to turn their life around, and it also helps break the generational offending cycle. This is good for both service users and the taxpayer. First Minister, will you join me in praising this trauma-based approach and commit to continue to support the ACE hub to help provide kinder, human services? 

Well, Llywydd, I thank Jack Sargeant for bringing us a piece of good news to celebrate on the floor of the Senedd this afternoon. I think I had read that he had himself met recently with The Wallich to hear of their work and the way in which they are using the trauma-informed approach that has been pioneered through the ACE hub to make a difference in their work. I know that Jack Sargeant will know that our blueprints—our female offending and youth offending blueprints—are based on a trauma-informed approach to putting right in the lives of people things that have gone wrong much earlier in their lives.

And on his call for a kinder public service, which I've heard him speak here eloquently on the floor of the Senedd to support, he will have seen, I'm sure, that the toolkit that the hub has recently published to help workers make the link between physical and mental health and to recognise the signs and symptoms of trauma starts by saying, 'Showing kindness, compassion and listening can be protective factors for those who have experienced adversity.' So, kindness, which is a quality worth pursuing in itself, also has that practical advantage of making a difference in the lives of people, and I'm very pleased to join with Jack Sargeant in marking and celebrating the work of The Wallich and all those others whose work has been informed by the work of the centre. And he will know that my colleague Julie Morgan has committed £0.25 million to make sure that the work of the hub goes on into the next financial year while we review all the work that is going on in Wales in this area. 

Well, First Minister, of course, the pandemic's been a challenging time for very many, including pupils and students. All will have seen an impact on their learning, but some will have seen some on their mental health as well, as we've all heard over the last few months. For some, of course, it will be temporary, hopefully, but for others it could trigger something far deeper and more long lasting. So, First Minister, can you tell me who is responsible for ensuring that schools and colleges become trauma informed? And how many of the schools and colleges in South Wales West have had access to an ACE ambassador from the ACE hub? Thank you. 

Well, I can't give the Member a specific figure for her own area. I can tell her that, through the ACE hub, comprehensive training has been provided to over 600 schools in Wales and that the work of the ambassadors has been fundamental to that. The Member will know that we have increased the funding for school counselling services and that school counsellors are also part of the group of public sector workers who are informed by the work of the ACE hub, as are youth workers and housing workers and all health visitors here in Wales. The extra funding, therefore, that we have placed into school counselling draws on that work, allows more help to be given to a wider range of ages in our school system, and more young people who have—. Suzy Davies says, and it was reinforced to me in a meeting that I held with the Youth Parliament, chaired by the Llywydd, only last week, that the impact on the sense of well-being and mental health of young people in Wales in the pandemic has been profound and will be with us, I'm afraid, not just while the pandemic lasts, but there will be a recovery period that will go on well beyond that. 

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from the party leaders. The Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price.

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, a study recently published by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has found that mass testing in Slovakia, which we've discussed before, coupled with other measures—additional support for people who are self-isolating—brought the infection rate down by 60 per cent, which is considerably higher than the impact of the recent lockdown, for example, the circuit-breaker, in England. The study found that, due to the nature of the test used in Slovakia, they probably picked up 90 per cent of the people who were tested and were infected in that time, whereas in Liverpool the evidence there suggests that rapid tests have missed 50 per cent of all infections and 30 per cent of those with a high viral load. The technical advisory cell advice published today says that while there are new technologies that will enable more rapid testing, they're not a silver bullet, but the TAC's advice predates this new evidence that I've referred to. So, can you ask TAC to look again and undertake modelling to assess the likely impact of a Slovak-style mass testing programme in Wales as a more effective means of suppressing the virus and an alternative to cycling in and out of higher restrictions?

13:45

Llywydd, I'm very happy to ask the technical advisory group to do that. They, in any case, constantly update their advice based on emerging evidence, and particularly emerging evidence that is reported in reputable scientific journals of the sort to which Adam Price referred. We have our mass testing programme still going ahead in Merthyr Tydfil, expanded, as the Member will know, into the Cynon Valley over the weekend; we're learning a lot ourselves from doing it. I think it's quite important, Llywydd, to make a distinction between those lateral flow devices that we are using, which, essentially, pick up people who are infectious to others. So, they pick up people a couple of days before symptoms begin, and they continue to pick up people who are infectious for about five days or so beyond that. The PCR tests pick up not people who are infectious, but people who are both infectious and infected, and you can be infected for up to eight weeks beyond the point at which you were infectious to anybody else. PCR tests pick up the very last remnants of coronavirus that still may be circulating in somebody's system. So, it's important to be clear about what the purpose of the test is. I remain sure, myself, that the lateral flow devices that we are using in Wales have a part to play, provided it is carefully understood and properly calibrated.

Thank you for that, First Minister. In the TAC advice that I just referred to, they do say that a period of pre-isolation for families with children, as a result of school closures, could reduce the level of social mixing ahead of the 23 to 28 December period, and therefore have a beneficial effect in terms of saving lives. Are you considering this as an option, First Minister, and if you are, could you say when you would plan on announcing it? And what mitigating measures would you put in place, in the form of blended learning, the continued operation of hub schools, for example, to minimise wider harms, and would you agree that it's essential that no child's education or wider welfare should be unfairly disadvantaged as a result of this? Can you give an assurance that the key workers in the NHS and other sectors shouldn't be put in the invidious position of having to choose between turning up for work or looking after their children during this period?

Llywydd, the final points that Adam Price made are exactly why I want very strongly to endorse today the joint statement made between the Welsh Government and the Welsh Local Government Association, which urges schools to remain open until the last day of term, while recognising that there will be individual sets of circumstances where that will not be possible. Of course, Mr Price is right—I've brought the document with me this afternoon expecting it would be referred to here—that a period of restraint for 10 days before the Christmas period would be to the advantage of all families. The real problem is that we do not have confidence, from the behavioural evidence, that if children are not in school, that they would simply be being kept at home and kept away from the contacts that would otherwise create greater risk. The fear is that children who are not in school will be in even riskier environments.

I know Adam Price will be interested that in the mass testing of schools in Merthyr, the positivity rate—and remember we test every child in secondary schools there—was less than 1 per cent, so, far lower than the positivity rate in the general population, suggesting that being in school is actually very safe for children and young people. If I thought that those young people would genuinely be at home, genuinely self-isolating, genuinely creating that period before Christmas to keep them safe, I'd be attracted to the idea. I'm afraid the risks are that that simply wouldn't happen, that those children would be doing riskier things than they would in school. Better for them to be in school. Particularly, I agree with the points that Adam Price made towards the end about the need for vulnerable children to continue to be offered an education right up to the end of school term and for the children of key workers to be offered that service as well.

13:50

Just to be clear, so, in terms of the pre-isolation point then, will Welsh Government be giving wider advice to families in relation to a pre-isolation period?

Finally, on Monday, your colleague the health Minister warned that further restrictions may be necessary in response to the rising level of cases. A few weeks previously, the Deputy Minister for the economy also said that a second firebreak in the new year would be likely. Looking forward, the TAC report does also emphasise the importance of maintaining public support, because, otherwise, that could lead to lower levels of adherence among the public, and the advice says that, ideally, the policy and the rules need to be simple, understandable and achievable, accompanied by a clear rationale with an agreed beginning and end. Would you accept, First Minister, that in some people's minds, there is a lack of clarity at the moment as to where we are headed between now and the spring? What is the strategy for regaining control, reopening eventually and then recovery? And isn't now the time, First Minister, in light of the changing situation, that the Welsh Government presents a new winter plan?

Well, Llywydd, we're at a strange cusp, aren't we, in the career of coronavirus? We have today people being vaccinated for the very first time here in Wales and across the United Kingdom. We have, we hope, the prospect of a further vaccine being considered now by the regulators. We hope that it will gain regulatory approval and that will give us another string in the bow that we need. But, at the same time, in the immediate position, we have a very difficult position in Wales.

All local authorities but one in Wales today show rising numbers. We have authorities in Wales with over 600 and over 500 per 100,000 people who are infected with the virus, and positivity rates of 25 per cent in some parts of Wales. These are incredibly serious figures. Members here will have seen that last week the Welsh ambulance service had to declare a major incident one day, particularly in the south-east of Wales, because our hospitals are so full of people already suffering from the virus that they weren't able to get help to people in the way that we would want to see, the timely way we would want to see, for other serious conditions.

I agree with Adam Price about the struggle to secure public consent for some of the measures that are necessary, and I hope we won't have to rely on people seeing for themselves the fact that the health service isn't able to do what we need it to do before people understand the urgent need for action. We go on trying to explain that every day to people: that the measures we take are simply proportionate to the scale of the difficulty we face, that we have to act together, each one of us in our own lives, to do the right things that will bring the virus under control, and then we will have a path into next year that is different, that will allow us to use the lateral flow devices, the mass testing, the vaccination that will give us a different 2021 to the year we are in. In the meantime, nobody—nobody—should underestimate the seriousness of the position that we are facing in Wales.

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, when you announced the firebreak lockdown in October, you said that this was our best chance of regaining control of the virus and avoiding a much longer and much more damaging national lockdown. However, yesterday it was confirmed that Wales was the only part of the UK where figures were not falling at the end of November. First Minister, before considering introducing any further restrictions, can you tell us what assessments have been carried out in relation to the Welsh Government's firebreak lockdown, given that figures haven't fallen in Wales compared to other parts of the UK? 

13:55

Well, Llywydd, assessments have been made of the firebreak period, a period, of course, which his party refused to support here in the Senedd. It was successful; those 17 days did put the career of coronavirus back three weeks earlier than 23 October. It suppressed the R number here in Wales for a three-week period. It did what we had hoped that it would do. The problems we have faced have been in the post-firebreak period, where the virus has circulated faster and further than the modelling would have suggested, and hence the need to take further action again now.

First Minister, we know that infection rates in Wales are 70 per cent higher than when we entered the firebreak in October, and rates have increased by 82 per cent since the end of the firebreak lockdown. Indeed, the fact is that there are now more than 1,800 coronavirus-related patients in hospitals across Wales, which is the highest number since the pandemic began, and it shows that something has seriously gone wrong. And we know that there is still an issue in hospital settings, and clearly, more work needs to be done to tackle hospital-acquired infections, and there are also concerns over transmission rates in household settings, which you as a Government have been saying throughout this pandemic, of course.

Yesterday, as has already been said, the health Minister also warned that the Welsh Government would be looking at whether further measures would be needed to suppress this virus, but the health Minister refused to provide any further details to the people of Wales on what those restrictions would look like and whether they would be concentrated on specific sectors and environments, and whether they would be nationwide restrictions. Therefore, will the First Minister confirm exactly what further measures are now being considered, and is the Welsh Government looking at further restrictions before the Christmas period restrictions, or is the intention to bring in further measures post-Christmas?

Well, Llywydd, all those facts and figures that the leader of the opposition began with are the facts and figures that I put to him last week when he refused to support the measures we took in relation to hospitality; measures that this week, I think, nobody could possibly deny were right and necessary. We need to give those measures an opportunity to make a difference. We need them to be accompanied by actions that people can take in their own lives to assist communities right across Wales to get this virus back—the numbers falling once again. I don't think that means that we will be taking further measures this side of Christmas. But the other side of Christmas, the advice in the TAC report published and referred to by Adam Price is clear on this as well: that a period of relaxation over Christmas will lead to a further rise—yet a further rise, beyond the figures that the Member set out in his further question to me. And that means any responsible Government has to think about the measures that might be needed in order to protect the health service so it can go on doing everything else it has to do at the most pressurised point in any year, and to prevent avoidable deaths.

I look forward, Llywydd, to the support of the Conservative Party here in Wales for measures that will be necessary, because up until now, that support has been conspicuous by its absence.

That's not true, First Minister, because the fact of the matter is, this side of the Chamber have actually supported the majority of your coronavirus regulations that have actually been tabled since the end of March. So, it's not true to say that we haven't supported your coronavirus regulations on the whole. But what the people of Wales need now, First Minister, is hope: hope at the end of what has been a very difficult year.

Today marks a landmark moment as coronavirus vaccinations begin to be rolled out in Wales, and I'm pleased that a four-nation approach across the UK has been able to procure vaccines for all parts of the country. Now, I understand that the UK has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine and, as a result, Wales will have 40,000 doses of the vaccine, which equates to enough for nearly 20,000 people across the country. Of course, it's incredibly important that there is sufficient capacity in the NHS to roll out the vaccine effectively, and, as part of making capacity and resources available, I hope the Welsh Government has considered the role that community pharmacists and perhaps even retired clinicians can play in helping administer the vaccine across Wales as smoothly as possible. So, First Minister, can you tell us what strategic discussions are taking place with health boards across Wales to ensure that there is sufficient capacity and staff available to roll out the vaccine effectively? Can you also tell us what discussions are taking place with retired clinicians and indeed other medical professionals about the role that they could play in helping with the roll-out? And has the Welsh Government had any discussions with community pharmacists about the role they could play in administering the vaccine in communities right across Wales?

14:00

Llywydd, let me end this part of our proceedings by agreeing with the leader of the opposition. This is a moment where hope is really important to people. This has been such a long and difficult year in the lives of so many people here in Wales, and today, when the vaccine is being used for the first time, it does give us that glimmer of light at the end of what is still a long tunnel in front of us. The fact that we have been able to agree all this on a four-nation basis is something that I am very keen to welcome. I was very pleased to be part of the agreement on how the vaccine should be distributed. I know my colleague Vaughan Gething has met the other health Ministers on a weekly basis right through November and met again yesterday to make sure that we have a common sense of what this vaccine can do, how it can best be deployed. And the 40,000 doses that we're getting from the first batch of the vaccine is our population share of it.

Now, we've been part of planning on this, Llywydd, since June of this year, when the first all-Wales programme board was set up for vaccination, and we are, I believe, as well prepared for it as we could be. I agree that, as the volume of vaccination grows, we will need to draw more people into the pool of people able to carry out vaccination. All health boards have plans to recruit people into that pool to make sure that they are properly trained, they're properly accredited, and that their work is supervised by experienced clinicians. As it happens, I also know that my colleague the health Minister is meeting Community Pharmacy Wales next week, so there will definitely be opportunities to talk about the contribution that community pharmacy can make in this field. But the level of preparation we have in Wales, the commitment that has been shown by existing staff who've come forward to offer their services as vaccinators, I think can add to that sense of hope that we can offer people here in Wales today that next year will be a different year to the one that we've all experienced in 2020.

Diolch, Llywydd. I was remuted by the powers that be there.

Access to Dentistry

3. Will the First Minister make a statement on access to dentistry during the COVID-19 pandemic? OQ56018

Llywydd, I thank Carwyn Jones for that. We continue to implement a safe, phased re-establishment of dental services. The majority of dental practices now provide a full range of treatments for patients in Wales. COVID-19-required public health measures, however, remain necessary. Safety considerations mean that fewer patients can be treated in any one clinical session.

I thank the First Minister for his response. Does the First Minister share my concerns that the rhetoric, naivety and sheer ineptitude of the Brexiteers in the UK Government will make it far more difficult for us to recruit dentists and other staff for public services during this pandemic and beyond?

I thank Carwyn Jones for that supplementary question. He's absolutely right—in dentistry, 17 per cent of all dentists currently registered with the General Dental Council come from Europe. That percentage is higher in the larger, corporate companies who supply a large percentage of dental services. It's estimated that dentists who are recruited from the European Union provide as much as 30 per cent of all NHS dental treatment here in Wales, and those people have already stopped coming, Llywydd. That is the point, isn't it? They don't believe that they will be welcome in the United Kingdom of the sort that Mr Reckless would wish to devise. He'd rather they weren't here and they hear that message from him and, as a result, they have stopped coming. They had no certainty over their employment, they had no certainty over their residence, they faced the declining value of the pound as a result of the way that Brexit has been navigated by this Government.

I think I referred last time, Llywydd, to a meeting that I attended, led by the then First Minister. It was in his office with the first Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis. The then First Minister put a series of really important points to the Secretary of State about the Irish border, about Welsh ports, about the recruitment to public services. Carwyn Jones in his supplementary question referred to ineptitude and naivety. Well, it was fully on display that day. We were told that this would be the easiest negotiation that we had ever entered into, that the United Kingdom knew what we were doing and those foreigners would fall apart as soon as we put our demands on the table. How wrong he turned out to be.

14:05

First Minister, the issue of dentistry is a very hot topic in the Clwyd West constituency at the moment as a result of an announcement by Bupa Dental Care UK that they're going to be closing their clinic in Colwyn Bay. That's going to affect around 12,000 people in my constituency, and they've been advised by the local health board that they should seek to register with other NHS dentists in the north Wales area. Having contacted those dentists, they're told that they're not taking on extra patients. I heard what you said in response to Carwyn Jones's questions, but the reality is that you should have been training more dentists over the past decade; you shouldn't be having to rely on dentists coming in from overseas. If we had trained sufficient numbers—and you've been responsible for workforce planning for the past 20 years—then we wouldn't be in the pickle that we're currently in, with a shortage of dentists across Wales. 

Now, I've asked to meet with your health Minister and the chief dental officer to discuss the situation in Colwyn Bay, and they've refused to accept my request for a meeting. So, can you tell me what action is your Government taking to make sure that we've got sufficient numbers of dentists being trained in Wales now to meet the future needs of the Welsh population? And how can you reassure people in Colwyn Bay that they'll have access to NHS dental services as and when they need them in the future? 

Well, the pickle we're in, as the Member put it, is because of the advice that he and people like him gave to people in Wales that we would leave the European Union and they'd see no disadvantages at all in their lives. And yet what they're finding out is that his advice and the advice of people in his party has led to the position that they are facing in Colwyn Bay today, where a large corporate body, previously able to provide those services, is no longer able to attract the staff that are needed. That's a serious position in north Wales, as Siân Gwenllian explored with me here only two weeks ago. I explained then the actions that the health board is taking—the dental teaching unit that's to be established in Bangor that will attract further staff into the area; the work of the deputy chief dental officer, Professor Paul Brocklehurst, in providing advice directly to the health board. 

I disagree with what Darren Millar said about the future for dentistry. The future is not in relying entirely on more dentists—it is broadening the dental profession, it is making better use of other members of the dental team, and making sure that those high-volume activities that dentists need to be carried out can be carried out by people who are trained to do so, but do not need the very long training and the very scarce expertise that dentists themselves represent.

I have to say that I'm concerned that there's been a lack of planning in dentistry and ensuring that that service is sustainable for the future. I'm truly concerned about the position of dentistry in my constituency. The closure of private dental surgeries on the mainland recently has further exacerbated the problems people have in registering with and finding a dentist that does NHS work. The steps that I've taken along with a dentist in Anglesey to increase capacity have faced one barrier after the next, with us having already managed to attract two dentists in, but failing to get the board to increase the contract. In addition to that, I have huge concerns about what's happening to specialist dental services at Ysbyty Gwynedd, with the loss of services and a failure to recruit making me think that there is a plan to downgrade services. So, can we have a full review of dental services in my constituency, and indeed in broader north-west Wales?

14:10

Well, Llywydd, I agree with Rhun ap Iorwerth about the problems facing people in the west, in the south and in the north too. It also goes to the root of the problems that I have explained this afternoon. I will speak to the Minister to see whether there are more details that we can give Members, and to be clear with people about the steps that the health board in north Wales is taking to try and address the problems that they are facing at present.FootnoteLink

COVID-19 Incidence

4. What is the First Minister's current assessment of COVID-19 incidence in Wales? OQ56000

I thank John Griffiths. Llywydd, the incidence in Wales, represented by the seven-day rolling average, has been increasing each day for the last 18 days. Unless this trend can be halted and reversed, we will see an exponential growth in coronavirus right across Wales.

First Minister, it is a very worrying situation, and among the factors involved that make it very worrying is the increasing emergence of long COVID, which I believe the health service unfortunately may be dealing with for some years to come. Months after contracting the virus, sufferers are left with a range of symptoms, including breathlessness, brain fog, pain and fatigue. It is debilitating for many, and fears are growing that it could go on to affect hundreds of thousands across the UK. In England, they are opening specialist clinics to treat long COVID, and in Scotland they are funding rapid research projects and working up new treatment guidelines. First Minister, I would be grateful for your advice on Welsh Government action to address this significant threat to the health of our nation.

I thank John Griffiths for that important supplementary question, Llywydd. We have 1,100 people with confirmed coronavirus in Welsh hospital beds today. Over a quarter of them will need to be in hospital for three weeks or longer. This is a virus from which rapid recovery is not the outcome for many, many people who contract it, and not only does that mean that more and more people are retained in hospital beds, but that there is a long aftermath for many people. I know that John Griffiths will be aware that the health Minister published a written statement on this on 23 October. We published our national framework for rehabilitation from coronavirus in May of this year. Our focus is on trying to provide services for those people suffering the long-term effects of coronavirus as close to home as possible. It's not a model that relies upon people who are already unwell and suffering from those after-effects having to make their way into a hospital setting in order to get the treatment that they need. So, we are looking to have multidisciplinary teams that operate in the community and only where absolutely necessary from in-patient rehabilitation services. That's a different model to the one that's being adopted in some other places, but we think it will provide a better service to more people, more conveniently, and more attuned to the nature of the impact from coronavirus that they are suffering. 

In relation to clinical trials and research, then we are, ourselves, just as Scotland are, involved in a number of different studies. We're participating in the development by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence of a clinical definition of long COVID, which will help with its diagnosis and its care, and we're participating, Llywydd, in the UK post-hospitalisation COVID-19 study. That's a study funded by the National Institute for Health Research and the Medical Research Council at a UK level. It involves 10,000 participants and it's been described as a world-leading study in informing the developments of those care pathways that will be needed to help patients recover as fully as possible and as quickly as possible, having experienced the deeply debilitating impact of the disease.

14:15

Sorry, Llywydd, there was a delay with the unmuting. Thank you.

The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 4) (Wales) Regulations 2020

5. Will the First Minister make a statement on the impact of the review of the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 4) (Wales) Regulations 2020 on Conwy county? OQ56007

Llywydd, the impact of the revised regulations will be to allow continued travel between Conwy county and other parts of Wales. The regulations will help save the lives of Conwy citizens that would otherwise be lost, whilst safeguarding the local health services. The regulations will next be reviewed on 17 December.

Thank you, First Minister. Now, of course, I have had to raise concerns on this, because between 28 November and 4 December, Conwy had 62.3 cases per 100,000; obviously, compare that with Neath Port Talbot with 621.7—10 times more severe than Conwy county. Now, according to the latest COVID-19 biweekly local authority review report, published last week, the rate per 100,000 amongst those aged 60 or older in Conwy was 26.9. Now, if we had had a tiered system in place, as in England, Conwy would be in tier 1. So, how do you address and will you act on the hundreds of calls from both constituents and those in business for a Welsh tiered system? And can you explain how it is even considered balanced or proportionate for Conwy to be subjected to the same regs as Neath Port Talbot?

My final point is that lots of those in the hospitality industry are very concerned now about the restrictions between 17 December and over the Christmas period, as to whether they will be able to trade as normal and serve alcohol with their food. So, did I hear you correctly earlier that these restrictions will be lifted on the seventeenth, allowing the hospitality businesses, and pubs and restaurants and things, to be able to go back to business as normal? Thank you.

Llywydd, the Member certainly did not hear me say that the restrictions will be lifted on 17 December. I said that they would be reviewed on 17 December and that review will have to take into account that the figure in Conwy today is 73.4 people for every 100,000, and that will absolutely certainly not put Conwy in tier 1 in anybody's system. And that figure, not only is it 73.4, Llywydd, but it is rising every day. Over 120 people have lost their lives in the Member's constituency as a result of coronavirus. The positivity rate in her local authority area is over 5 per cent today. This Government will be focused on the public health emergency and why the actions we are taking will save lives in Conwy and every other part of Wales. I won't be focused, as the Member is, on other—and in that context more peripheral—issues.

The Conservative Party needs—. The leader of the opposition seemed to imply that this is already where the Conservative Party was, but in fact, today, all the questions I've received from his backbenchers have not been about coronavirus at all, they've been about the hospitality industry as though that were the more important of the two issues. And it happened again in the supplementary question from Janet Finch-Saunders. The position in her constituency—in her constituency—is getting worse by the day. That's what she needs to recognise and it would be very good indeed to have her support, on behalf of her constituents, for the measures that are necessary to protect their lives.

14:20
Support for Self-isolating Families

6. What action is the Welsh Government taking to support families who are told to self-isolate? OQ56022

In addition to existing support for families, we have introduced a self-isolation support scheme, making £500 payments to people at risk of financial hardship because they are self-isolating. This scheme is now being extended to include parents and carers of children who have been asked to self-isolate.

Can I thank the First Minister for that answer and for the decision of the Welsh Government to expand the self-isolation support fund to parents? That's clearly one of the concerns raised with me in my constituency, as many children have been asked to self-isolate within their schools, and single parents in particular are facing challenging times in delivering that. Can he confirm to me that that funding will work on a multi-occasional basis, because many parents—my own grandchild has been sent home more than once from school and told to self-isolate, so it is important that they're aware of that?

Can he also work with the campaign that the Welsh Government is leading with the Trades Union Congress on asking employees to know their rights and their responsibilities, and expand that to work with employers to know their responsibilities, so that in situations where we see parents having to take time off, maybe on more than one occasion, employers act in a responsible and compassionate manner to ensure that those parents are entitled and reminded that they can return to work and their work is not at risk? Can they also ensure that if the employers decide to ask someone to stay home because of coronavirus, they also act responsibly to ensure that those individuals are financially supported by the employer?

Llywydd, I thank David Rees for those important points. We discussed these matters at the last meeting of the social partnership council with representatives of employers in the private and public sectors, as well as the trade unions that were present. I'm very glad that the campaign that we have launched and are running at the moment is one supported by the Confederation of British Industry and the Federation of Small Businesses, as well as the Wales TUC. It's there to make sure that employers, as well as workers, know and then live up to their responsibilities.

The reason why we've extended self-isolation payments to parents and carers of children has been rehearsed on the floor, here, of the Senedd; I think Helen Mary Jones raised it with me last week. But, also, the more coronavirus is in circulation, the more people will be asked to self-isolate. In South Wales Police alone, 350 staff and police officers have been asked to self-isolate in the last seven days. That is the impact of coronavirus in our communities and on our key public services. It is why it is absolutely essential and unambiguous that we have to take the actions that we are taking. Where people try to chip away at it, looking for restrictions to be lifted and acting as though restrictions are not necessary for the health of the public, that sort of figure simply tells you that unless we get this under control and act together to do it, the impact is absolutely real, not just in the health service but in other public services as well.

David Rees asked how many times it's possible to claim the payment. I think we allow it at the moment on three different occasions. If a setting has needed to ask people to self-isolate for three times in a row, then we think it is right to pause and find out what is going on in that setting, because, in the way that David Rees said, sometimes we need to put the cause of the problem right in a workplace, rather than always just dealing with the consequences.

Cardiff Airport

7. Will the First Minister make a statement on future funding for Cardiff Airport in light of the impact of COVID-19? OQ56008

I thank the Member for the question, Llywydd. COVID-19 has been a very challenging experience for Cardiff Airport and the whole aviation sector. While we continue to support the airport's funding, options are constrained by state-aid rules and by the continuing uncertainty surrounding any Brexit deal.

I thank the First Minister for that answer. The Welsh Government made a brave decision when it bought Cardiff Airport. That decision appeared to be vindicated, given the performance of the airport in the years leading up to the COVID crisis. Despite some opposition in this Chamber, I believe that a truly international-quality airport is a significant, even vital ingredient if we are to call ourselves a global nation. Given the confidence the industry shows in Cardiff Airport, expressed only last week by the low-cost carrier Wizz announcing it will use the airport on a long-term basis, and the return of Ryanair pre COVID, not to mention the airport's old friend, KLM, would the First Minister commit to ensuring the funds and all helpful interventions will continue for the airport until such time as, and I'm sure this will happen, the Government is able to profitably sell its share in this vital asset?

14:25

Llywydd, I thank David Rowlands for his consistent support for the airport and for drawing attention this afternoon to the very welcome announcement last week that there are to be nine new routes out of the airport, provided through Wizz Air—3,500 seats will be available, 40 direct jobs and 250 indirect jobs, supported by that new announcement. I have met officials regularly with the transport Minister, Ken Skates, and with the airport authorities over this crisis to try to make sure we are doing everything we can to continue to support them.

We are constrained, Llywydd, by the interpretation by the UK Government of state-aid rules. In other EU states, including France and Germany, policies permit support for safety and security measures to be what's called 'allowable aid' for state-aid purposes. The UK Government doesn't allow that. That constrains our ability to provide help to the airport, which is just fair help—help that allows them to compete on a level playing field with what is available elsewhere in Europe. It would be a great help to us if the UK Government would review its position on that matter. And it would be a particular help to us in the state-aid notification for COVID-19 damage, which we have launched with the European Commission, and which we hope will be of help in allowing us to provide further support to the airport in this difficult time, so that it is there to resume its successful recovery, as we saw since it came into public ownership in 2013.

The COVID-19 Vaccine Roll-out

8. Will the First Minister provide an update on the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney? OQ56023

I thank Dawn Bowden for that. Plans are in place for Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board to deploy the vaccine immediately, in line with the vaccine delivery schedule and the advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. Before I move on to the vaccine, can I once again thank those who were involved with the huge logistical challenge of the mass testing pilot in Merthyr Tydfil? The tests so far have identified some 22,000 or more asymptomatic people through the testing programme, with around 280 positive cases identified—people who will now not be in the community spreading the virus. So, we believe that that's around 50 per cent of the eligible population, and in my view, that shows the great success that this pilot has been.

But as we move on to the vaccine roll-out, I wanted to stress the importance of past learning in healthcare and that in the roll-out of the vaccine we need to avoid what we often refer to as 'the inverse care law'. Now, whilst it is right that we prioritise front-line health and care staff and vulnerable citizens across the country in the first waves of the vaccinations, we'll then move on to the general population. I hope there is a recognition that those areas, like my constituency, that have been hardest hit by COVID, both in terms of the number of cases, but also the economic impact, will require special attention in the vaccine programme. So, can you confirm that this has been considered by Welsh Government plans for the vaccine roll-out and that you will ensure that the programme will not fall foul of the inverse care law?

Llywydd, I thank Dawn Bowden for that. Can I, as well, thank all those who've been involved in that fantastic effort in Merthyr on the mass testing front, but also this afternoon, Llywydd, particularly, to thank all those people in our health service who have been part of the vaccination programme? The huge work that has gone on very rapidly over recent weeks to provide the logistical support, the transport, the storage, the onward provision of the vaccine, and today we see the fruits of that and I'm sure everybody in the Chamber and remotely today would want to thank those who've made that possible.

I thank Dawn Bowden for raising that important point about the inverse care law. She will know that vaccination is one of the relatively rare parts of the health world that has the opposite characteristics to the inverse care law. I remember when I was the health Minister, and the Member represented workers in the health service, we introduced the HPV vaccine for young women aged 14 and above. The highest take-up in the whole of Wales was in Merthyr Tydfil and the lowest take-up of all was in Monmouthshire. And, strangely, those figures persist to today. Monmouthshire has a take-up of HPV of 77 per cent and Cwm Taf Morgannwg has a 91 per cent take-up. So, vaccination is one of those relatively rare things where the inverse care law doesn't seem to apply. It's really important it doesn't apply in relation to this vaccine. The fact that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation schedule for the roll-out of the vaccine focuses on age and clinical vulnerability means, I think, that its impact will most be felt most quickly in those parts of Wales where we have higher concentrations of older, poorer and sicker populations. And that means, I hope, that we will see greater numbers of those populations, including in the constituency represented by Dawn Bowden—that they will see the benefit of this vaccine first. And, given the characteristics, and given the advice of the JCVI, so they should. 

14:30
2. Business Statement and Announcement

The next item is the business statement and announcement. I call on the Trefnydd to make the statement. Rebecca Evans. 

Diolch, Llywydd. I have several changes to this week's business. Firstly, later this afternoon, the Government will move a motion to suspend Standing Orders in order to enable the Senedd to debate the new coronavirus restrictions. In order to accommodate this, I have reduced the timings of the statement on the Valleys taskforce and the debate on the equality and human rights annual review. The debate on the Non-Domestic Rating (Multiplier) (Wales) Order 2020 has been postponed. And finally, the Business Committee agreed this morning to move tomorrow's debate on the standards committee report to the last item before voting. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically. 

On 23 November, the Welsh Government announced a pilot programme for supporting visits to care homes in Wales. I call for a Welsh Government statement on provision for families to visit loved ones in care homes this Christmas. The Welsh Government statement said you were offering testing to care home visitors across a small number of care homes, intended to pave the way for a wider roll-out to more Welsh care homes starting on 14 December. Last week, the UK Government announced that care home residents in England will receive indoor visits from family and friends this Christmas if they test negative for COVID-19 unless there is an outbreak in the care home, with over 1 million rapid lateral flow tests sent to care homes as the first phase of an English national roll-out to enable visiting by Christmas. As a constituent then e-mailed, and I'll quote them, 'Testing of relatives in England and more and more people going into the care homes and holding their loved ones is beautiful, but what about Wales? Why are we always last in the queue? For God's sake, just roll it out and let the Welsh residents be granted the same lifeline as England'. I call for a statement and update accordingly. 

Well, Llywydd, I hope that the Member does recognise the very difficult balance that we do have to strike in terms of keeping residents in care homes safe from COVID, but then also recognising that they have important well-being and mental health needs as well. And we are trying to strike that really difficult balance. The statement that was announced by the Minister with responsibility for social services recently did point to the actions that the Welsh Government is taking in this regard. It referred to the use of tests to enable more visits and it also referred to the investment that Welsh Government is making in pods to allow those safe visits as well. I know that there's ongoing and, quite rightfully, a lot of interest in this particular agenda, so I will ensure that the Deputy Minister for social services keeps the Senedd up to date on progress in this regard. 

14:35

I want to ask for a number of Government interventions, even though I understand that the Senedd time available this year is limited. The first relates to payments for self-isolation. I've had a number of supply teachers, among many other people, who have contacted me who are not eligible for this payment. So, can you tell us how you can extend eligibility to make it much easier for people to be able to self-isolate? Again, I ask for a statement on keeping the clinically vulnerable safe. People need to have the right to stay off work and it's not okay that clinically vulnerable people in Wales don't have the same protections as they do over the border. And finally, will the Government give consideration to prioritising school staff for vaccination? I've already talked about the need for mass testing in schools, because we know that COVID is spreading in schools. These front-line education workers deserve all the protection that we can give them, so they deserve priority status when it comes to vaccination.

I thank Leanne Wood for raising all of those important issues this afternoon. On the last issue, which relates to the prioritisation of various groups for vaccination, she'll be aware that the Welsh Government takes its advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, as do all four Government of the UK. And that's really important, because the prioritisation that it advises for vaccination is done on the basis of its understanding of the needs and the risks that people face. I completely understand the various groups who passionately campaign that they should be at the front for those vaccinations, and they make excellent cases, but I don't think that this should be a political decision; it should be a decision based on the best advice that we get from the JCVI. I know that they take into consideration all of the representations that Governments across the four nations are receiving in this regard. On the issue of payments for self-isolation, I will ask Leanne Wood to write to the Minister, Julie James, with regard to the specific cases that she has described—the staff working in schools—so we can better understand the challenges there. And again, I will raise that important issue of what more we can do to ensure that clinically vulnerable staff are kept safe and that employers are exercising their responsibilities to their staff to keep them safe. I'll pursue that with the health Minister further.

Trefnydd, could I ask you for one statement? It could be a statement after the health Minister meets with the community pharmacy sector next week. It could be a written statement if it's good news. If it's an oral statement, perhaps we could have it on the floor so we could question it. It's to do with the role of community pharmacies in stepping up to the mark during this coronavirus pandemic that we've had. When GPs were forced at the start of this pandemic to actually shut their doors to public-facing arrangements, it was the community pharmacists that stepped in. They stepped in when physiotherapy and optician services and dental services were unable to perform and they stepped in to help in emergencies as well. And they've done this against real challenges with their own staff, some of whom have been shielding. So, would it be possible to have a statement that looks at how community pharmacies have served us during this pandemic and, indeed, how they can be remunerated for the additional costs they've had? I'm aware that Community Pharmacy Scotland, and those in Ireland and England as well, have been bringing forward support. It would be great to see, after the meeting with the health Minister next week, that we had a similar package brought forward to recognise people like Gareth Rowe of Nantymoel and Ogmore Vale pharmacies, and others, who really stepped up to the mark during this crisis.

Thank you to Huw Irranca-Davies for raising this particular issue. I also agree that community pharmacies have really gone above and beyond in many cases in terms of supporting their communities. I can tell Huw Irranca-Davies that negotiations between the Welsh Government and Community Pharmacy Wales officials have been ongoing since CPW submitted a claim back in April for additional expenses incurred due to the pandemic. We, of course, as I say, recognise it has been an extremely difficult time for community pharmacy, and the health Minister has signalled clearly his intention to provide additional resources, subject to these negotiations. A number of offers have been made, but they have been rejected, and a final offer has been made in recent weeks. As yet, it's been not possible to reach an agreement with CPW, but this is what the meeting next week will intend to come to a resolution on. I should add that we made additional funding of £1.5 million available in March to support business continuity, and we also postponed until further notice a range of services in pharmacies, but we're still continuing to provide the funding for those services. Again, that was because of our concerns about business continuity and meeting the additional costs for servicing their patients who are shielding, for example. So, we do recognise those matters as well. But I'll be sure to ensure that the health Minister provides that update on the outcome of those negotiations as soon as he's able to. 

14:40

I'd like to call for an urgent statement from the Minister for Education regarding the teaching of relationships and sexuality education. I've been contacted by many, many concerned parents who feel that the proposed new curriculum is a step too far. They are also very concerned that parents can no longer opt their children out of such lessons. Thousands of parents rightly believe that sex education starts and ends in the home, that those parents who want to teach their children developmental sex and relationship education should be free to do so, and that the children can opt out of RSE lessons. Much of the concern and outrage has been centred upon the materials, shared with me by concerned teachers, that will be shown to children as young as four. A four-year-old is still a baby in my eyes and should not, under any circumstances, be taught about sex and masturbation. Let's let children be children. Concern has been rising in recent weeks and we need a statement by the Minister to categorically state that RSE will not be compulsory and certainly not taught to children as young as four. Diolch yn fawr. 

The Welsh Government has been working on the curriculum and assessment Bill, which the issue the Member describes is part of, for a long time, and we've undertaken extensive consultation on this particular matter. I will invite Caroline Jones to write to the education Minister with those examples that have been shared with her, because the education Minister has always been absolutely categorical that any teaching provided to children in this particular field should always be absolutely age appropriate. So, if Caroline Jones could share the concerns that have been raised with her, I know that the Minister will be keen to see those descriptions. 

Business Minister, may I please call for a statement from the education Minister to address a problem in our schools that's now escalated from the last time that I spoke to you? I want to welcome what the First Minister said earlier—that a statement has come out this morning saying that local government and schools are now going to keep open until the end of this term. The First Minister also interestingly said that children are more at risk at home than in schools. To that end, I'm sure he'll share my concerns that whole year groups in some of our schools now are still going off just due to one coronavirus case per age group. For example, in a school in my area, in my region, two year groups have been off for two weeks and have been back in school four days, and now have been told to isolate again for two weeks, and this is all supposedly on just one case per age group. Minister, I'm acutely aware, obviously, as we've discussed today already, that cases are rising rapidly and that public health and safety must come first, and that schools are doing the best on the advice that they have been given, but something isn't working along the line. We are still getting massive differences between council areas on how COVID is being handled in our schools. I know there has purposely been a degree of local autonomy given on these matters, but, looking at these outcomes, don't you think it's time that we got control of this? Children are off school far too regularly now. The Government urgently needs to address this Chamber and state how it's going to address this disparity and how they're going to ensure that everyone can now access home schooling at a level that's close to receiving an education in the classroom. And I'm having reports that's not completely—

14:45

You do need to bring your contribution to a close now. Thank you.

—and admissions from heads that still children are unable to access devices. So, please could the education Minister bring a statement on how she intends to address the problem of frequent isolation now? The impact that is having—

Okay, okay, that's enough now. I asked you to bring your contribution to a conclusion. I gave you sufficient time. The Minister to respond.

Thank you. It is disappointing to see whole-year groups being sent home to self-isolate when you look at other schools that seem to be managing the situation much better. I know that the Member has raised this issue with me, alongside a couple of other questions specific to education recently, and I have asked the education Minister to provide a letter with a response. I'll ensure that she reviews the transcript today to ensure that the comments you've made are reflected in that written response as well.

This week, the roll-out of a vaccine has started and there is hope on the horizon for many people. But we are still looking at a few challenging months ahead, and the elderly and the young will feel this particularly. Perhaps it's the elderly and younger people who been most affected by loneliness and isolation over the past few months, losing out on experiences in the company of their friends and relatives. Recently, a group of Members launched a new cross-party group on intergenerational unity, and we will be working closely with the older people's commissioner, the future generations commissioner and the children's commissioner to draw attention to areas of policy that can be developed to nurture these relationships between the generations and to bring people back to the heart of their communities. So, I'd like to ask for a statement from the Welsh Government on the importance of intergenerational working in order to tackle loneliness. And I'd also like to ask a Government Minister to meet with members of the new cross-party group so that we can discuss what steps could be put in place before the next election.

I'm really pleased to see the formulation of the new cross-party group on intergenerational unity. I think there's plenty of ground to be gained in that area, and I think all of us can think of some great examples of things that are happening locally in order to address loneliness and isolation at both ends and to foster that better understanding between the generations. But perhaps these examples are more isolated than we'd like them to be. So, when the cross-party group does come forward with its proposals in terms of areas of policy that could be developed in this area, I know that Welsh Government would be very keen to see the suggestions and ideas coming forth from the cross-party group.

Trefnydd, can I just add my voice to that of Laura Anne Jones for a statement from the education Minister on the subject she was speaking of? We can't have 300 children going off just because there's one positive case and children just going to school for five days since the beginning of September.

Could I also ask for a statement from the education Minister regarding students and what they're being offered regarding their tests before they return home? You may have noticed that they're being asked to lay low in the period between the two tests, and if that means self-isolating, I think students need to know that's what it means. I think we could also do with a little bit more information on whether students will need two negative tests before they are allowed to return to university in January for face-to-face work?

Could I also just mention that the latest statistics show that only eight students in a seven-day rolling programme are testing positive for COVID? So, something is going right in universities and it would be useful to know what that is. Thank you.

Thank you to Suzy Davies for raising that issue. I will make a point of speaking to the education Minister to seek some clarity on those specific questions relating to some of the practicalities around the arrangements for students as they leave to go home for Christmas, but also in terms of the arrangements for returning to campus. So, I'll be sure to do that.

3. Statement by the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales: Burns Recommendations—Next Steps

The next item is a statement by the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales on the Burns recommendations—the next steps. I call on the Minister to make his statement—Ken Skates.

14:50

Diolch, Llywydd. The final report of the South East Wales Transport Commission was published on 26 November, completing their detailed and independent review into sustainable ways to tackle congestion on the M4 around Newport. I'd like to put on record my thanks to Lord Burns and his team of commissioners for preparing an excellent and evidenced piece of work. 

For those living locally who've had to endure the negative impact of congestion, and for the businesses and individuals who need a more reliable and resilient transport network, I believe that this report sets out a coherent and realistic plan for this vital corridor of Wales. I hope Members have had an opportunity to consider the report. For me, the most striking finding was its first-principles investigation of the use of the road itself. The majority of trips are between 10 and 50 miles, starting or ending in Newport, Cardiff and Bristol. So, the evidence clearly shows this is a regional challenge requiring a region-wide response. These trips have a high proportion of single car occupancy, and the congestion is most severe in the morning and evening peaks. The evidence shows this is a commuter issue, not one caused by local journeys across Newport. The type of trips filling up this road and causing congestion are ones that could readily be served by public transport if it were competitive on cost, journey time and convenience. Given the geography and topography of the area, it's vital this important corridor of Wales has an effective and high-quality public transport system serving it that can give people genuinely high-quality choices across all the modes that can take pressure off the road.

I believe that our new Wales transport strategy, 'Llwybr Newydd', complements the recommendations in the Burns report. Taken together, I believe they can reshape the way we think about how people move around south-east Wales and, indeed, beyond. The transport strategy sets out a powerful case for change. The Burns recommendations are a blueprint for how that change can be delivered in south-east Wales, building upon the significant metro work already progressing. Lord Burns calls for enhancement of the south Wales main line and also for six new stations on it. This infrastructure is, of course, the responsibility of the UK Government, and they'll need to be a part of the conversation we need to have about the realisation of this plan. On 23 November, I published my statement on the union connectivity review, and my officials are in the process of preparing a substantive submission to the work of Sir Peter Hendy. I believe that this provides the vehicle for the UK Government to provide early commitment to delivering on the Burns recommendations in non-devolved areas.

The Burns recommendations set out solid reasoning why the rail network in this region needs to be levelled up to be comparable to other parts of the United Kingdom. For too long Wales has been at the back of the queue when the UK Government has been investing in rail infrastructure, and this is a positive opportunity for the UK Government to make good on their underinvestment. It is that underinvestment in fact that has caused the problems we now see in Newport, and I look forward to working in partnership with them to put that right and to deliver the Burns vision.

Lord Burns recommends significant enhancement of bus and active travel infrastructure in and around Newport, and I'm particularly struck by how this report highlights the social injustice of Newport having a very high proportion of trips by private car, yet having some of the lowest levels of car ownership anywhere in the country. Now, whilst the Welsh Government set out the strategic needs, the detail of this is, of course, best decided locally. I'm pleased to say that we have signed a memorandum of understanding with Newport City Council to jointly steer the way forward for bus and active travel measures in the city, supported by Transport for Wales. We've put in place short-term actions to help support individuals, communities and businesses to deal with the immediate impacts of coronavirus. However, Lord Burns is rightly setting out a blueprint for the longer term, which takes into account the significant growth forecasts for this region. And that growth, combined with our aims to encourage modal shift, justifies creating a sustainable mass-transit system right across the region.

I'll be discussing the recommendations relating to land-use planning with the Minister for Housing and Local Government to see how we can work together to support them. Integration between transport and land-use planning is fundamental. It's important that new development is built in the right locations, which are well connected and have good public transport accessibility, particularly in this part of Wales where classic radial development is more challenging.

The recommendations reach across all aspects of transport policy and delivery. They'll require close collaboration and co-operation between partners, and work is under way for a delivery unit to be established, which will be a partnership of Welsh Government, Newport council and Transport for Wales to help make progress on the report recommendations, and I expect that unit to have its first meeting this month. This unit will initially be tasked with reviewing all 72 recommendations of the Burns commission and determining what next steps would need to be taken. For new recommendations, the development unit will advise me and our partners in local authorities and Network Rail on the best course of action to develop and sufficiently to inform further decision making.

In some areas, we have already made a start. The recommended new rail stations at St Mellons, on the outskirts of Cardiff, and at Llanwern are already at planning stages. We've also taken steps to bring our Wales and borders rail network back into public ownership. The bus reform programme has been established in response to the impact of COVID-19, and we are developing longer term plans for reforming the way that bus services are planned, funded and delivered. We've provided the largest ever investment in active travel funding. This is creating safe travel routes and better connections in our towns and cities, interfacing with public transport connections, reducing reliance on cars. There is more to do in Newport, of that there is no doubt, and, indeed, across Wales.

In conclusion, I warmly welcome the findings of the Burns report. The Welsh Government has set out our core vision for transport in Wales: an accessible, sustainable transport system that is good for people and communities, good for the environment, good for our economy and good for places. The recommendations within the report will, I believe, help us to achieve that ambition. But it will only happen, of course, if this report is more than a shiny document that sits on a shelf. It has to lead to real and dynamic change, and I look forward to working with the UK Government and others to help make it a reality.

14:55

Minister, can I thank you for your statement this afternoon and can I also, as you have done, thank Lord Burns and his colleagues for producing this report and making recommendations as they have done? I should also like to thank Lord Burns for recently providing me with a briefing himself. I broadly welcome the recommendations. I think it's a good piece of work, with some good recommendations. Clearly, some of those recommendations need some further consideration, but there are some recommendations, I think, that certainly I feel I can support straight away, in terms of, for example, the co-ordination of bus and rail timetables at key interchanges. That's of course a sensible recommendation.

Minister, you kind of ended your statement by talking about this not becoming a shiny document that sits on a shelf, effectively. So, I think that it is important that there is some context around the questions this afternoon. The Welsh Government brought forward a shiny document to deliver the M4 relief road and that did sit on a shelf for a long, long time, gathering dust, and then, of course, the First Minister threw that shiny document into the bin, and we had a Welsh Government that brought forward its own proposals for the M4 relief road, looked at independently, and after spending millions of pounds of taxpayers' money scrapped those proposals, and this is where we are today. Now, from my perspective, I think the inadequacies of the existing M4 relief road around Newport are clear for all to see. The road was first designed in the 1950s, not as a motorway but as a Newport bypass, and it falls far beyond modern motorway standards, with lane drops, intermittent hard shoulders, poor alignment, and frequent junctions. That's my firm view. I know it's your view as well because I've just used your words, that you used previously.

Now, in that context, I wonder if you could, Minister, perhaps give a little bit more than you have done in your statement in terms of your initial thoughts on the recommendations. You didn't say too much about that in the statement itself. But, for example, what areas do you think that you can agree on? I've outlined some recommendations that I think I could support. What recommendations clearly can you support, and are there any recommendations that you have more difficulty with? I don't know if you can give us just a little bit more this afternoon in terms of the initial findings.

You've talked again about the development unit. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about how that will work in practice. Also, in terms of the report, perhaps setting aside the recommendations and just looking at the conclusions themselves, within the report, what new information has been drawn out from that report that perhaps wasn't brought forward via the Welsh Government's original proposals for the M4 relief road and during that public inquiry stage? What new has come about in terms of those conclusions? For example, I know you mentioned the 10 to 15-mile starting point ending at Newport, Cardiff or Bristol. What other new items are there drawn out from the report, not in the Welsh Government's original proposals for the M4 relief road? You yourself have said that the 60-year appraisal period brings more than a £2 benefit for each pound spent on the M4 relief road scheme. So, do you anticipate the same level of return from investment from the recommendations? And if you don't know the answer to that, is that something that the development unit will be looking at?

Now, I've said I broadly welcome the recommendations in the report. There is one recommendation that does concern me, that I don't feel I can support, and that's around the workplace parking levy. For me, the way to change people's travelling patterns is to ensure that we've got good public transport at good prices, and we do it that way rather than by taxing people. So, with the pandemic, of course, having such a large impact on the economy, I wonder, Minister, do you consider it appropriate to be raising taxes in the way the report sets out? And if you can't guarantee that—. Or, rather, can you guarantee that no such workplace levy will be implemented under your watch, Minister? Thank you.

15:00

Can I really warmly thank Russell George not only for his contribution today, but also for his constructive participation in the process led by Lord Burns? And indeed, I'd like to thank every Member of the Senedd for being so constructive, willing and enthusiastic about speaking with Lord Burns and the commission, and I do hope that Members have felt well informed as a result of Lord Burns's willingness to engage directly with them. I'm very pleased indeed that Russell George welcomes the report, and, I must say, I think there are many, many recommendations where he and I would have agreement on, particularly in terms of the co-ordination, better co-ordination and integration of services and ticketing. It's vitally important that we create a public transport system that is desirable, that is accessible and that offers a better alternative to the car, and integration of services is key in doing just that.

The M4 relief road proposal was a solution for yesterday. It was a solution for an age before the climate emergency was declared by the Senedd, and the future is now low-carbon public transport and better active travel, less reliance on car use, more vibrant communities served by remote working hubs and a stronger foundational economy as a consequence of retaining wealth opportunities within communities.

In terms of my initial thoughts, I must say that, first of all, the delivery unit is going to be assessing all of the recommendations, and that delivery unit will be, if you like, a single mind that Lord Burns was keen to promote, involving all of the key delivery agents and decision-making bodies. But the delivery unit will be carrying out an assessment of all the recommendations. In terms, though, of my early thoughts on some of the key recommendations, I'd be very, very supportive of better infrastructure in terms of rail and active travel, and also utilisation of bus services, through the roll-out of more dedicated corridors. In particular, I think the need to upgrade the south Wales main line to provide the opportunity for more commuting services is something that pretty much all people in south-east Wales would welcome.

What the report found was that congestion on the M4 is a commuter problem, and the best commuter solution is to provide public transport that the most advanced western nations enjoy already, and that is through advanced metro systems. Now, our £700 million-plus metro vision will provide just that, but it's largely based on north to south travel. What Lord Burns has added is a vision for east-west travel as well, therefore combining all forms of movement across south-east Wales. I'd be very, very supportive of adding to the Welsh Government's vision for the metro an additional vision for east-west, horizontal travel between our key cities and, indeed, Bristol.

In terms of some of the key findings that emerged from the report, I was particularly struck—and it went back to the first principles of the work of Lord Burns—by findings concerning the main contribution to congestion at peak hours, and that it is people who are travelling between 10 and 50 miles. Prior to this report being published, I must say I'd heard a number of people who would make assumptions that the problem in and around Newport was caused by local journeys and local people. What is evident now is that that is not the case. These are longer journeys that are causing congestion.

Value for money will of course be a key consideration. Only today I received an e-mail from the finance Minister reminding me that value for money must be an integral part of our decision-making process. However, I would also add that if we are to inspire modal shift and provide opportunities for people to access public transport then we must invest in public transport, now and in the future, both in terms of the infrastructure that's required, but also in terms of the subsidy that's required to make it a cost-effective alternative to private car use.

And then, finally, to the important point that Russell George has raised, the proposals for workplace parking levies to be administered and determined by local authorities, I think the vitally important point to make here is that such a levy is proposed by Lord Burns only on the basis of those improvements to public transport alternatives having already been delivered, and, therefore, I think it's a very useful suggestion, but clearly it is based on the need to first of all implement the other recommendations that will provide attractive and cost-effective alternatives to private car use.

15:05

Diolch. I'd like to thank the Minister for his statement and put on record, too, my thanks to Lord Burns and his team for their work in completing the report. M4 commuters and the communities surrounding this stretch of the M4 deserve action after years of discussion that began, of course, in the 90s.

Now, we in Plaid Cymru welcome the recommendations of this report. For some time, Plaid Cymru has maintained that the solution to solving the Brynglas congestion problem is to invest in the public transport network around Newport. Simply building a new road will not solve the issue, and I'm glad to see so many recommendations reflecting this in the report. Anyone with an understanding of induced demand would appreciate this.

We're also living, of course, in the midst of a climate emergency. If we're serious in tackling that emergency, the logical conclusion when it comes to transport is investing in sustainable modes of public transportation. Recommendations for solving congestion problems on the M4, of course, could be implemented immediately if Wales had powers over rail infrastructure. The Burns commission has recommended, as has been set out, that congestion issues could be targeted with an investment of around £600 million to £800 million in public transport. As you've outlined, Minister, this could include building six new train stations, upgrading existing tracks, and so on, but rail infrastructure is not devolved, which means some of the main recommendations would require the agreement and support of the UK Government to implement, as you've just been setting out. Now, this does concern me. The recent UK Government spending review showed a huge reduction in the relative transport funding that Wales receives from Westminster, due to HS2 being designated as an England and Wales project, which suggests improving the Welsh rail network is not a priority for the UK Government.

Let's remember that the required investment set out by Burns is tiny compared with HS2 at less than 1 per cent of the cost of that project and, indeed, less than the amount by which HS2 has increased since last September. And it represents excellent value for money, delivering transport and wider environmental benefits for a region that's been so neglected for too long. 

Now, Minister, the sad reality is that had Labour and the Tories supported rail devolution as part of the St David's Day process, the Welsh Government could have started implementing these recommendations immediately. But as things stand, we must hope that the UK Government does the right thing, a deeply precarious situation to be in, to put it mildly. So, M4 commuters, I'm sure you would agree, deserve action after so long of discussion with this, so I'd urge the UK Government, as you said, to meet you and the Welsh Government as soon as possible to discuss how they'll implement the recommendations, because if they refuse to do so, it will be further proof that Westminster will never work for Wales. But Minister, I close by asking you: how confident are you that the UK Government will be keen to work with the Welsh Government on this, and what contingency plans can you put in place if they are not keen to work with the Welsh Government to take these recommendations forward? 

15:10

Can I thank Delyth Jewell for her questions? I'm very pleased indeed that the report by Lord Burns has been welcomed by the spokesperson and by Plaid Cymru. Obviously, when we look back at the debates that took place on numerous occasions in the Chamber concerning the proposals for a relief road, some parties supported the blue route, other parties supported a black route. I do hope now, Llywydd, that all parties will support the Burns route to alleviating congestion on the M4, and providing a viable and sustainable alternative to private car use on what is a very, very congested route at peak times. And I think Delyth Jewell is absolutely right to highlight the need for us to either have a true levelling up in terms of rail investment, or, and ideally, devolution responsibilities for rail infrastructure and a fair funding model for it that could be based on the Scottish methodology of funding.

Now, in terms of the work that's underway right now by Sir Peter Hendy—and it is very important work, because it provides the vehicle for which the Burns recommendations could be promoted to UK Government—I've already met with Sir Peter Hendy. I'm pleased to tell Members today that the Burns report is being carefully considered by him as part of the union connectivity review. And Delyth Jewell is absolutely right to highlight the relatively small sums of investment that would be required to deliver fully on the Burns recommendations from the UK Government, estimated to be between £390 million and £540 million, exclusively for the UK Government areas of responsibility. That, of course, concerns the rail infrastructure. When you compare that to the historic underfunding that has taken place over many years—and this is not a party political point, I'm just highlighting the fact—that through the Treasury Green Book, areas outside of south-east England have been disadvantaged for decades upon decades to the tune of something in the order of £2.1 billion between 2000 and 2030.

So, there is an opportunity with the review of the Green Book, with the union connectivity review, with the UK Government's declared determination to level up, for them to use the Burns report as perhaps the first opportunity to invest outside of south-east Wales in a fairer and more equitable way and, in so doing, solve a problem in south-east Wales that has been with us for several decades. I've already met with UK Government Ministers. As I say, I've met with Sir Peter Hendy as well. I do detect a very great interest in the recommendations by Lord Burns, and a willingness to work with the Welsh Government in implementing not just the short-term and medium-term solutions, but the longer term solutions. Ultimately, a test of the UK Government's willingness to level up, willingness to invest in a way that runs against traditional constraints of the Treasury Green Book, will determine the success of the Lord Burns recommendations, but I am hopeful that the UK Government will embrace it rather than reject it.

15:15

Thank you for your statement today, Minister. The Burns commission report outlines the situation in Newport as one of congestion and pollution. It's recognisable to those of us that live here and experience the impact of the M4 running through our city. For too long, Newport and the surrounding area have been poorly served by public transport options. The plans outlined by Burns are undoubtedly exciting for Newport, and will transform our public transport system into a fit-for-purpose, sustainable, commuter-friendly service.

A dramatic increase in train capacity using the existing relief lines, with several additional stations across the city in areas such as Maesglas and Tredegar Park, combined with attractive, functional and integrated links with Cardiff and Bristol—it's extremely welcome. It is a system that has been proven to work in cities across the world, and it can work here. It's a public transport system that Newport deserves. As the Minister knows, since the decision was taken not to go ahead with the road, I've always demanded from him and the First Minister that a solution must be found. Inaction is not an option. We, in Newport, have been here before. Progress needs to be made, and it needs to be made urgently. Key to its success is delivery of the vision. Could the Minister outline the immediate timetable? When will we start to see actual changes that will begin to make a difference?

Providing areas on the outskirts of cities with alternatives to driving is going to be essential to the overall success of the solution. Whilst I'm glad that the Welsh Government has committed to restoring the historic rail link between Ebbw Vale and Newport, which I've long been a campaigner for, we need to see that happen. Newport has been bypassed on this for too long. I can assure the Minister that I'll be continuing my calls for the Welsh Government to restore a station and rail service in Caerleon. Would the Minister give assurance that he will look back at the work that has been done over the years, and the Burns commission, on the re-establishment of this service in Caerleon?

I fully appreciate that not all responsibility for these changes is held by the Welsh Government, but I'm urging both the Welsh and UK Governments to just get on with it. Both Governments have the reports. This cannot be ignored. Warm words need to be turned into action. We just need to get on with it, and I will do all I can to support it. We need to make it a reality.

Well, can I thank Jayne Bryant for her questions and for her comments regarding the report and the historic problems concerning her constituency and the challenges that her constituents face on a daily basis? Jayne Bryant has been a powerful advocate for greater investment in and around the Newport community, and I very much welcome her contribution today. I have to say that, in a very short space of time, Lord Burns constructed a vision of twenty-first century, integrated transport for south-east Wales, and now it's our determination to move forward in implementing the recommendations at equal pace. That's required in order to serve the needs and the demands and desires and hopes of the people living in Jayne Bryant's constituency and those people who live right across the south-east Wales region.

Now, in terms of some of the challenges that Lord Burns has faced during the course of his work, one was the assumption that I outlined just a short while ago, that most of the congestion is caused by local journeys. This is not the case, and actually more than 90 per cent of journeys on the M4 involve going from one local authority to another, demonstrating how a regional solution is needed, and that, in turn, is why we also have to have that single mind, that delivery unit, which is being constructed right now, which will meet this month to ensure that all key stakeholders, all key delivery partners, are working together to the same ends. And in terms of some of the quick wins, well, Jayne Bryant will be aware that, already, the south Wales main line enhancement development programme is under way, that we're already developing the rapid bus and commuter cycle corridors, that trials are taking place concerning rapid bus services and alternatives to traditional scheduled services, that we're looking at commuter cycle corridors as well, and also, of course, that work is being undertaken at pace on Newport city centre interchange development.

Now, also in terms of early work, workplace travel planning will be undertaken to alleviate congestion on the M4. And with regard to the Ebbw Vale service and frequency enhancement, well, Transport for Wales, as the Member I know is aware, have developed a proposal for an interim additional hourly service to operate between Crosskeys and Newport, and potentially beyond to Gloucester, whilst we await the infrastructure work that isn't due to be completed until the 2023. Now, Welsh Government officials are continuing to work with Transport for Wales to develop this proposal further and to enable the service to operate from next year and to continue to run until the full service can be introduced, as I say, in 2023. We're seeking to introduce it as soon as possible, obviously subject to those regular scheduled timetable changes that have to take place. Obviously, in order to increase capacity further on the Ebbw Vale line, we'll also need funding from the UK Government, which has responsibility for the infrastructure both on the Ebbw line and the south Wales main line. And we've already submitted a bid to the UK Government's Restoring Your Railway accelerated ideas fund to secure the funding to progress the work on reopening the Abertillery spur. So, we're awaiting a decision on that particular application.

In terms of Caerleon, well, I was delighted that Lord Burns backed our long-held proposals for a station at Caerleon, and, in taking forward this work to develop potential stations that are recommended by Lord Burns, I will be asking Transport for Wales to ensure that appropriate consideration is given to a new station at Caerleon. But I must also stress that the development and the implementation of this will depend on support and commitment from Network Rail.

15:20

Can I thank the Minister for his statement today? I'd like to take the opportunity to thank Lord Burns and his team for this comprehensive report and for the often innovative recommendations it contains. We're all acutely aware of how important the M4 is not only to South Wales East, but as an access to the rest of south Wales, given that it links all three of the region's cities. We are also aware that we desperately need a solution to the acute congestion problems at the Brynglas tunnels.

Given that a new relief road is no longer an option, we have to accept that a new strategic and holistic solution has to be found. The approach used by Lord Burns I believe is a realistic option to a new road, and right at the heart of the report is the desire for people to abandon the private car for public transport. The report's authors believe that this will relieve the congestion at Brynglas, given that cars are, by far, the major component in the congestion problems. But we have to accept that this calls for a number of different transport modes to gel together, and the transfer from one mode to another must be a seamless one.

In order for this to be possible, as the report says, there has to be one region, one network and one ticket. We all know that the technology is there to make this happen, and, in many ways, it has to be a priority factor in the implementation of this new transport network. Will the Minister give an indication as to any progress being made to implement this important element?

If we deal with the recommendations with regard to rail first, the report identifies the need for extra stations on the south Wales relief line between Severn tunnel junction and Newport, and another at St Mellons. Can I, at this point, mention and congratulate the Magor Action Group on Rail, who have already advanced plans for a station at Magor? However, given that this line is still, unfortunately, under the control of Network Rail, how confident is the Minister that, even given Chris Grayling’s promises after the electrification to Swansea was cancelled, and Network Rail's statement that these issues are a priority, they will deliver, and in the time frame envisaged? The best solution would, of course, be for the Welsh Government to take control of this line, and I urge the Minister to keep pressing for that to become a reality. 

Buses are also identified as a major piece in the transport jigsaw. The detailed recommendations with regard to bus networks, including new park-and-ride facilities near rail stations and placing them right in the heart of major conurbations, would help facilitate the desire to encourage people to use public transport, as opposed to their cars. It is, of course, vitally important that train and bus times are fully integrated. No longer can we accept a train leaving Newport station five minutes before a commuter bus arrives from Blackwood.

One of the other aspirations contained in the report is to have people use the bike as the preferred mode of transport. I believe this is certainly achievable in city areas with the continued expansion of safe cycle lanes, though for commuting to work it will be much more difficult for those living in Valleys areas. A possible solution to this is to make access to public transport for bicycles as simple and affordable as possible. This can be achieved by safe and secure bicycle parks at railway and bus stations. There should also be designated areas on trains in particular, but, if possible, on buses too, so that the bicycle could be used at either end of the journey to work. Could the Minister indicate if some of these issues are being addressed?

I said at the beginning of my submission, Llywydd, that this is a comprehensive report, and I believe it outlines a truly holistic approach, but there are many components that will have to be completely integrated for it to work, and the UK Government must play its part in helping to finance this ambitious project. Thank you, Llywydd.

15:25

Llywydd, can I thank David Rowlands for his comments and his questions? I very much welcome what David has said about the report and the various recommendations contained within it and the need for the UK Government to play an active role and, indeed, the need for various groups, including the Magor action group, to be participants in designing transport solutions within the community. I said in my statement how many of the decisions need to be made locally, and it's my belief that groups such as the Magor action group, with whom I've met in the past, with John Griffiths and Jessica Morden, will play a critical role in helping to design solutions to the problems that are faced in and around Newport.

Of course, David Rowlands makes the important point that the M4 is a key artery for the economy of south Wales, but that it can't be the only artery, and that a public transport artery is needed to complement the M4 and, indeed, to offer an effective alternative to using the M4, particularly with a private vehicle. Integration, David Rowlands rightly pointed out, is critically important. To ensure this, we're setting up that delivery unit, we've entered into a memorandum of understanding with the local authority, and Transport for Wales are playing a greater role in terms of integrating bus and active travel and rail transport as well. Indeed, Transport for Wales, currently in this year, are undertaking a major mapping exercise regarding the provision of bus services as we seek to introduce, in the next Senedd term, legislation to take greater control over the provision of bus services so that we can truly integrate them with rail services and with the provision of active travel infrastructure.

Delivery in terms of the devolution of rail infrastructure and funding is hugely important. I agree entirely with David Rowlands that the ideal solution to this would be the devolution of rail infrastructure and the fair funding to go with it. In the absence of such a willingness to do so, we fully expect the union connectivity review and the Williams review to offer vehicles for the UK Government to deliver on a leveling-up agenda that requires additional and significant investment in Wales, particularly in regard to upgrading main lines, both in south Wales and in north Wales.

I think David Rowlands is also correct in outlining the importance of accessibility to public transport solutions, particularly in ensuring that they're well connected to active travel infrastructure. I'm pleased to say that coming from the review is a very clear indication that, if all of the recommendations are delivered and implemented correctly, then 90 per cent of people in the region would live within just one mile of a bus corridor or a rail hub. That would be a huge game changer in terms of rolling out full accessibility for the population of south-east Wales, and, of course, we do know that that final mile can be vitally important in encouraging people to undertake active travel to improve their health and well-being. So, I very much welcome the point made by David Rowlands concerning accessibility. 

And, finally, I would also agree with his point that the Welsh Government and the UK Government need to work very closely in delivering on the Burns report and recommendations, and I look forward to doing just that with UK Government counterparts.

15:30

Well, Minister, I agree with the Member for Newport West that we need action not options, because we know that this is a really serious problem, and there are many things that are going to concentrate our minds, not least the landmark inquest into the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, which may well find that air pollution was the main cause of her death. And we have similar illegal levels of air pollution in my constituency, and that is why we really do need to get on with providing serious alternatives to the motorcar for everyday commutes to school and to work. 

I absolutely am signed up to the Burns route. I have long suggested that one of the keys to alleviating this congestion that's currently going by road is the four train lines between Cardiff and Newport and beyond. And, therefore, I want to focus my remarks on how we are going to get that spine of the Burns proposals, progress made on that now. I appreciate that you're hoping that Sir Peter Hendy's connectivity review is going to unlock the current totally unfair way of funding transport across the United Kingdom. Let us remind ourselves that we're going to get nothing from the £2 billion to be invested in HS2, even though it's going to actually have a detrimental effect on the economy of Wales. We'll get nothing to improve our rail lines from that, so that needs to change. But we really can't wait until the Hendy report to be talking to Network Rail about what we could be doing now to release two of those four train lines to ensure that we can make serious progress already, building on St Mellons and Llanwern and the other local stations. Because the conversations you're having with Julie James about not allowing people to build housing in areas that aren't connected are long-term proposals, but I think we need to do things now in order to ensure that people realise that we are doing something about (a) this congestion, and (b) tackling climate change by getting people out of their cars. So, I wonder if you can say what conversations you've had with Network Rail on this. I appreciate that money is involved, but it's not of the same complexity as trying to free up land to create branch lines, et cetera.

We can't hear you, Minister. We've missed the start of your contribution, Minister. Can you start again? Try again, say something.

Thank you. Apologies. I very much welcome the statement made by Jenny Rathbone, particularly her comments concerning biodiversity and air quality. On pages 79 and 80 of the report, some very strong statements are made concerning the benefits of implementing the recommendations in terms of air quality and biodiversity, in particular on page 80, and I'll quote:

'Our recommendations would assist in mitigating these problems and contribute towards compliance with the air quality standards'

in those key areas where nitrogen dioxide levels have been excessive. And, of course, if we were to promote the shift towards other modes of transport, we'd also see some of those carbon canyons, as they're often referred to, within Cardiff itself, alleviated of toxic emissions and particulates. And, so, the report really does make a very, very powerful case for implementing the recommendations, on the basis of not just alleviating congestion, but also in terms of improving air quality.

And in terms of biodiversity, again, paragraph 366, on page 80, states:

'We do not foresee that any of our recommendations would cause detriment to any of the environmentally designated sites in the region.... On the contrary, reducing the impact of cars and vehicle emissions on these areas should bring benefits to biodiversity and the water environment.'

My view is that the report delivers well against the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, in terms of the ways of working, in terms of the need to recognise the significance of the environment, the need to ensure that we're making our full contribution to challenging the climate emergency. And in addition, the report also makes a number of very powerful cases for addressing social injustice within the region, by investing more in public transport.

Regarding the rail spine, as Jenny Rathbone described it—and it's a very apt description—this has already been raised with Network Rail on numerous occasions. Discussions are ongoing, and I'll be raising the need for the UK Government to invest in the recommendations for its upgrade later this week, when I participate in a quadrilateral with UK Government Ministers and with counterparts from the other devolved administrations. As I said to other speakers, the UK Government have already received this report and the recommendations with great interest. My determination is that that interest is converted into commitment, commitment to invest in rail infrastructure in south-east Wales and to enable those four track lines to serve not just long journeys that are conducted on the basis of inter-city connections, but also commuter services between Cardiff, Newport and Bristol.

15:35

We're out of time on this item. I'll need shorter contributions of no more than a minute from the remaining speakers, if I'm to get through everybody who's requested to speak. Nick Ramsay.

Diolch. I won't take it personally, and I'm sure the Minister will appreciate me being succinct. Thank you, Minister, for your statement, and also to thank Lord Burns for this valuable piece of work. There is no doubt at all that we do need a solution to the congestion along the M4 corridor around Newport, and, as you said, we have done for some time. Can I say, Minister, that I think that the time for reviews and commissions—welcome as they are—is obviously at an end now, and the people of Newport and south-east Wales want to see the recommendations of this report implemented as swiftly as possible? So, can I ask that you do that?

The bus and rail infrastructure in that part of the world has been sub-standard for a long time, and certainly not up to a city region standard. So, can you say a little bit more about how you intend to improve public transport in the area, and also to develop the metro system? I know that, in the past, you've spoken about the possibility of a metro hub at the Celtic Manor. With the new International Convention Centre Wales now having been finished, I think that now is an opportune moment to revisit that, and see if we can get that hub, with spokes going out both westwards to Newport station and also up to Monmouth in my constituency, so we can improve those public transport links.

And finally, Llywydd, I appreciate the Welsh Government's position on a relief road, and I also appreciate that these recommendations are around public transport. I am a bit concerned that, with the development of electric cars—particularly with the Government's deadlines now for 2030 as phasing out petrol cars—we are going to see growth in electric cars, and that means that the car vehicle is still going to be used over years to come. So, I think it would be wrong to shut the door on improvements to the existing M4 corridor. Do you have any plans to look at ways that that stretch of road can be improved, perhaps could be turned into a smart motorway? Perhaps there's scope for improvement at the Brynglas tunnels themselves—I know that there have been some lighting improvements and camera improvements over the months and years. But I think that we need both public transport and an engineering solution to the existing stretch of M4, working together to try and improve the transport problems in south-east Wales.

Can I thank Nick Ramsay for his contribution and the questions that he raised? I'd agree to his last point that we can't just look in isolation at the public transport solution, but we must also recognise that the M4 itself requires interventions. And that's why, in the first round of recommendations, Lord Burns recommended a small number of what were described as 'quick wins', to try to improve the flow of traffic along the M4, and that included additional signage, for example. We wish to prioritise our road investment in maintaining the asset, which is a very considerable one across Wales, amounting to about £17 billion in value. There are challenges in terms of smart motorways. I would never rule out the development of a smart motorway, but we must learn from some of the terrible, terrible accidents that have occurred in England during the development of the early round of smart motorways. Lives have been lost as a result of that particular intervention. So, the use of digital signing, the use of live traffic information, the use of remote monitoring systems are all very well and good, but safety has to come first—the safety of the travelling public. And, so, whilst I remain very, very open to the use of advanced technology in ensuring that traffic flows smoothly, I would not wish to follow what happened in the early stages of the development of smart motorways in England, where, unfortunately, lives were lost.

Electric cars, as Nick Ramsay said, could lead to similar volumes of traffic at the moment. Of course, there is advanced technology that is being researched concerning autonomous vehicles that could, in the future, in a distant time, lead to vehicles requiring potentially less space. In the first round of autonomous vehicles, it's likely that they'd need more space. But, of course, our key concern is in ensuring that through delivering the Burns recommendations we provide an alternative to reliance on the car, and that we provide an alternative that is cost-effective, and that is sustainable and that is accessible.

And I think that, in terms of the report, people in and around Newport, and across south-east Wales, are pretty settled on the report as the solution to this problem that has challenged us for many decades. And, of course, Nick Ramsay is right that within Newport itself the use of bus services will be hugely important. We've already trialled the Fflecsi service, as an alternative to traditional scheduled services. The report itself outlines recommendations concerning the integration of public bus services with active travel provision, and we're keen to ensure that the work is taken forward at maximum pace, working through the delivery unit that's been established and, of course, making sure that we go on using advanced technology, as it develops and as it emerges, to improve the provision of public transport and accessibility to it.

15:40

I very much welcome your statement today, Minister, and the work of the commission for this integrated, accessible and sustainable transport system for Newport and around. It's been long awaited and we must now make it a reality. The delivery unit is vital to this, Minister, and it's good to hear that it will be meeting this month. I wonder if you can tell us whether that delivery unit will have a dedicated budget, whether it will be headed up by a named individual and whether it will have a remit set out in more detail than you've mentioned today. 

In terms of buses, as you say, they must be a very important part of what we need to see happening in Newport, and any early wins around dedicated bus routes, bus corridors, would be very important. Would it be possible perhaps to have a free bus travel pilot, which would help with that accessibility and get more use of buses off to a very good start? 

I heard what you said about Magor. It's very encouraging, Minister, particularly involving the group in designing what happens. You will know that they're quite some way down the road with UK Government in terms of the new stations fund, and I hear what you said or what's in the statement about St Mellons and Llanwern being at planning stages. Quite a lot has already happened in terms of going through the UK Government's stages with Magor, so I wonder if you could add that to the other two in terms of early developments that we might see.

In terms of active travel, the statement says that there's more to do in Newport, which is certainly the case. I wonder, again, if you could say a bit more about how we could have some early wins in terms of active travel. It's such an important and exciting part of the overall agenda, which hits so many of, I think, Welsh Government's priorities in terms of health and fitness, as well as the transport and environmental advantages.

Finally, in terms of Ebbw Vale, I'll just add my voice to Jayne Bryant's. We've waited so long to see progress on that Ebbw Vale line, and people are very, very impatient and it would be a huge act of good faith if there could be any speeding up of the establishment of that passenger line.

15:45

I thank John Griffiths for his questions. That delivery unit is going to be vitally important, as John Griffiths outlined, and governance and programme costs are under consideration at this moment in time. With regard to bus services in and around Newport, Transport for Wales are conducting a mapping exercise across Wales, and that will inform both Welsh Government and Transport for Wales as to where additional routes and services and novel forms of services may be required. Of course, we're keen to make sure that Newport is considered a priority for any introduction of new such services. Integration is going to be absolutely vital in delivering affordable transport solutions for the public. I'm very keen to make sure that we develop ticketing systems that are similar to very advanced systems that exist across other parts of the UK and further afield, including, for example, in Liverpool, where very, very affordable forms of public transport are available to the public. I know that the Magor action group have worked tirelessly to promote a new station in their community, and we're keen to go on working with them through the development process to ensure that that piece of infrastructure is in place as Lord Burns recommends. And in terms of active travel, on page 82 of the recommendations, Members will note that an early delivery of the Burns report could be the introduction of the Newport cycle hire scheme. I would very much welcome such a scheme, as it would give an opportunity to people to utilise hire cycles in the same way that other cities around Wales and the UK have enjoyed them in recent times.

I'd still like to see the M4 relief road built as promised, but I'll focus my remarks on the report. The UK Government and the Welsh Government have got different responsibilities here through law, but I wonder is a better approach to have a joint project team, where both parties are funding that and working together to deliver an agreed solution, as with Crossrail, where we saw the Department for Transport and Transport for London? Shouldn't we look at that joint model rather than just divvying up responsibilities? The Minister mentioned at the beginning the 10 to 50 miles and Cardiff, Newport and Bristol, and then said there needed to be a regional solution. But the remarks were focused on the south-east Wales region. What is going to be done to link this up and have an approach that takes in the demand to travel to and from Bristol from these parts of south Wales as well? When I've spoken with Ted Hand and the Magor group, who I congratulate too, I've emphasised how they complement what's happening at Cardiff parkway, or St Mellons, and also at Llanwern, because if you have three or now potentially six new stations, then the whole of that is going to change how transport works, and there is a much greater benefit to having all of them than just one. But on the 4.4 figure within the report, the four trains per hour running through those six stations, none of them are shown as going on to Bristol. Is that just how the particular figure has been drawn, or does that imply that, actually, none of those stopping services will be serving commuters going through to Bristol?

Could I thank Mark Reckless and say that the latter is correct? Those additional services are designed to address the needs and existing demand within the Newport city area. But also, as the report makes clear, in terms of the summary, we would wish to see increased services across the border. Much of the report is actually dedicated to cross-border transport and makes recommendations concerning improved provision of rail services between south-east Wales and the south-west of England and, indeed, the south-east of England. In terms of the proposal for a joint project team, well, the delivery unit is a joint project team, currently comprising of Welsh Government, Transport for Wales and the local authorities. But, of course, given the significant role that Network Rail and the UK Government will play in this, then the door would certainly be open to participation by them in such a delivery unit to make sure that that investment that is so urgently required in terms of rail infrastructure in south-east Wales is delivered as soon as possible. So, I’d very much welcome their early participation in such a unit, and this is something that I'll be raising again with Ministers later this week.

15:50

I'm very grateful to Lord Burns and the commission and to the Minister for his statement this afternoon. The Minister, in answering the questions, has referred to developments on the Ebbw valley line, and particularly new infrastructure in and around Abertillery. I'd be grateful if he could write to me outlining exactly what those investments are and how he sees those developments being pursued over the coming years.

But the point I wanted to make in this contribution this afternoon is the importance of that wider regional approach. The debate around the M4 has been too predicated on a very narrow band across the M4 corridor itself, or the 5 km north of it. What many of us would like to see—and this is one thing that I was very, very pleased to see in the report—is that wider regional approach, so that people who wish to travel into Newport, or through Newport into Cardiff, are able to do so, and to do so with a choice of transport services available to them, so that you do have the railway line providing the link from the Heads of the Valleys into the cities of the south, and also bus services that will serve communities across the south-east of the country.

The final point I would make is this: in designing new services, we need to always keep in mind the purpose of these services. The Ebbw valley line was designed not as a commuter service for the cities and the communities of the M4 corridor, but as an inter-urban service, linking the Heads of the Valleys with the city centre here. And there is always a danger—and I blame nobody for this; we will all campaign for our own constituencies—that as we add more stops in the southern part of that route, we slow the service down and we do not make it a viable service for the people of Blaenau Gwent. So, it is important, in ensuring that we develop and drive forward public transport serving the communities of eastern Cardiff, Newport and the rest, that we don't do that and inadvertently deprive the people of the Heads of the Valleys of the service that was designed in order to link that community with the communities here in Cardiff and Newport.

Can I thank Alun Davies for the points he raises and the questions that he raised? If I may, I'll just recap some of the areas of spend that the Welsh Government has made since 2001 in terms of rail infrastructure. There's the Vale of Glamorgan line reopening, the Ebbw valley line reopening, and new stations under development or being constructed at the moment include Bow Street, Ebbw town and Pye Corner—some have been completed, of course. There are the Merthyr frequency enhancements that we've invested in, and, of course, ongoing investment in the development of improvements between Wrexham and Chester on the line in the north. And, course, we're investing very heavily in the transformation of the core Valleys lines. So, as Alun Davies has outlined, our investment in rail infrastructure cannot be doubted. What we need now is the delivery of the Burns recommendations, and, to achieve that, UK Government investment.

Alun Davies is absolutely right that there must be affordable and attractive alternatives to the use of the private car, and in terms of making alternatives attractive, they have to be regular, they have to be rapid and they have to be reliable. And that's why the four trains per hour on the Ebbw line is such an important aim for the Welsh Government, and why we are so determined to ensure that four trains per hour are provided. I totally accept the point that the number of stops should be minimised in order to ensure that a service is rapid and that people are able to travel from A to B in less time than they would using their own vehicle, but, obviously, there is also the balance that needs to be struck with ensuring that people across an entire region have public transport that is accessible to them, and that we are able to maintain a strong farebox receipt in order to make those services sustainable.

In terms of the Ebbw Vale enhancements that are required, obviously, to deliver four trains per hour, it will require quite considerable investment by Network Rail, but we are working towards ensuring that that can happen. Because people in some of the most disadvantaged and distant communities in Wales, as in the UK as a whole, have been poorly served by rail investment, outside of the south-east of England, for far too long. That needs to be addressed as part of the levelling up agenda across the UK, and particularly within Wales.

15:55

I thank the Minister. The next item will be the break. We will take a brief break while change-overs are made in the Siambr. So, we'll return in a few minutes' time.

Plenary was suspended at 15:55.

16:00

The Senedd reconvened at 16:03, with the Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) in the Chair.

4. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport: Update on the Valleys Taskforce

So, we reconvene then on item 4, which is a statement by the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport: update on the Valleys taskforce, and I call on the Deputy Minister for the Economy and Transport, Lee Waters.

Thank you. My first initiative on becoming the chair of the Valleys taskforce two years ago was to look across the Valleys for existing good practice to share. There was understandable scepticism when the taskforce was first set up in 2016, that people had seen initiatives to transform the Valleys come and go. There was no appetite for more well-meaning initiatives from outsiders, and great efforts were made for this initiative to be different. Building on the extensive programme of open meetings and consultation that my colleague Alun Davies and other Ministers undertook, I met with every local authority leader in the taskforce area to ask them to identify successful initiatives that had originated in their areas that we could spread across neighbouring authorities.

Rhondda Cynon Taf had successfully developed a scheme to tackle the blight of empty properties. The taskforce decided to scale it across the Valleys. We set aside £10 million for people with houses that had been empty for more than six months to apply for a grant to bring them back into use as homes. We also decided to add to the original project by making an extra grant available for energy-saving measures.

We co-designed a scheme that tackled blight, a lack of affordable homes, and helped achieve decarbonisation, and we did so in a way that supported the foundational economy, with small local building firms benefiting from the regeneration spend that this project has unleashed. So far, over 500 applications have been received. Inevitably, the pandemic has caused delays but I am pleased that the Valleys' local authorities are committed to making this scheme a success—a scheme designed and delivered in the Valleys, and one that offers an example for the rest of Wales.

The pandemic has shown the well-being-critical role everyday services and key workers play. And a broader commitment to support the foundations of the Valleys economy has been at the heart of the taskforce’s approach. Last year, I launched a foundational economy challenge fund trial project to test different approaches. Of the 52 experimental projects, 27 are in the Valleys. Through these projects, we are committed to experiment and to learn from different interventions to nurture local communities and change their relationship to their local economy. This is critical to build resilience to the disruption from external shocks we're seeing, like COVID, Brexit, automation and climate change.

Key to this is to stop wealth leaking out of the area. I’m pleased that the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, which did important work with Preston City Council to test the concept, is now working with every large public body in the Valleys to maximise the power of the public pound. They are all now working though their contracts to understand where they can redirect spending to shore up the local economy. This focused work in the Valleys will also inform work in the rest of Wales.

The same is true of some of our business initiatives. The Valleys taskforce piloted a peer-to-peer mutual support network for local business founders to tackle common problems. We're now extending it, and Business Wales are considering how it can be incorporated into business support initiatives across Wales.

We have also piloted the access employability programme to provide employability skills and personal development to people who have become unemployed. It, too, has proven a great success and is now being expanded across Wales as part of the ReAct programme.

We have spread good practice through the Valleys Regional Park project. We adapted our original plan to have park rangers to follow Bridgend County Borough Council's example of community guardians. We now have a network of Valleys Regional Park guardians who are at work in each of the discovery sites that act as a gateway to our green spaces. They not only keep an eye on the parks but link in to social prescribing and community enterprise initiatives, too. At Bryngarw Country Park, where we have funded a new education centre, the guardians are developing nature experience programmes for the home-schooling community. Connecting communities with local nature in this way is key to meeting the challenges of climate change. Funding for the management of the regional park is now in place until 2023. And to help support the long-term management of the landscape, we’ve put the governance of the parks under the city region structure.

Another exciting project that could lift the Valleys Regional Park is the Crucible project in Merthyr. To help seed it, we have contributed £80,000 to an archival study to help create the blueprint for this landmark project.

I'm also pleased to announce that Llyn Llech Owain in the Gwendraeth valley and the Afan forest in Neath Port Talbot have been awarded funding for improvements to become discovery gateway sites. In addition, Llyn Llech Owain and Parc Bryn Bach in Blaenau Gwent will become remote working hubs. Instead of a long commute, people can work from a modern office set in their local park, and take a break in nature in their lunch hour. We are funding complementary remote working projects in Rhondda Cynon Taf and Caerphilly, which will test the concept in smaller town centres, too. These, too, will inform our work to encourage 30 per cent of people to work remotely.

On top of this, we’ve invited smaller towns and villages to bid into a £3 million taskforce fund to help them to recover from the impact of COVID-19. The funding will cover physical improvements as well as digital. This will include a network of LoRaWAN gateways to support the development of 'the internet of things' innovations. In this case, bringing to the Valleys innovations in the use of footfall data from Cardigan and from north-west Wales, because best practice ought to travel both ways.

In transport we’ve innovated, too, and this was one of the areas frequently raised at our numerous public engagement events, the need for regular, reliable public transport. The on-demand local bus service, Fflecsi, which is now being piloted across Wales, came from Valleys taskforce discussions. And we have further announcements to make in the coming weeks. Again, these are all initiatives from the Valleys for the Valleys, but with the potential to be applied all over Wales. Dirprwy Lywydd, nobody is denying that the south Wales Valleys continue to face many challenges, but the taskforce has shown at least that the solutions to their problems lie within.

16:10

I thank the Deputy Minister for his statement today and broadly welcome it. The Valleys taskforce was established in 2016 to focus resources on disadvantaged communities in south Wales Valleys, which, of course, is very welcome. These communities have faced economic and social issues that have detrimentally impacted on their well-being. Sadly, the work of the Valleys taskforce has been significantly hampered by the coronavirus outbreak. In June, Deputy Minister, you confirmed that a number of projects have been paused due to health and safety concerns and capacity constraints. You also asked officials to undertake a review of each of the seven priorities of the current Valleys taskforce programme. In view of this, could you outline the future of the Valleys taskforce during the remainder of the programme, and what projects will be prioritised or scrapped to provide certainty to stakeholders and the communities?

Despite its good intentions, the Valleys taskforce has not delivered the transformative change that the south Wales Valleys needed to improve the prosperity of local communities. In written evidence to the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee, the Bevan Foundation state that they have continued to have concerns about the strategy, scale and impact of the taskforce. The Bevan Foundation note that the taskforce itself has helped to direct focus on the socioeconomic issues facing the communities in the Valleys. However, they are also critical of the Welsh Labour Government's lack of leadership and direction in setting up and resourcing the taskforce.

They also criticise the Welsh Labour-led Government's target to get 7,000 people into work by 2021, which pales in comparison to the 67,000 jobs that are estimated to be required to meet the jobs need of the area. The most recent statistics show that 4,500 people have been supported into work through community employment programmes since July 2017. However, this progress is likely to have been offset by job losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you react, Deputy Minister, to the evidence provided by stakeholders that the Valleys taskforce has been limited by a lack of ambition from the Welsh Labour Government, and that a somewhat inconsistent approach to a socioeconomic regeneration has resulted in resources and investment being spread out too thinly across the region?

The number of empty properties in the Valleys region is still high. Recent estimates show that there are 994 empty properties in Blaenau Gwent, equivalent to 3 per cent of the total number of dwellings in the area; 2,212 empty properties in Rhondda Cynon Taff, equivalent to 2 per cent of the total number of dwellings; and 520 empty properties in Merthyr Tydfil, equivalent to 1.9 per cent of the total dwellings in the area.

The Welsh index of multiple deprivation in 2019 found that towns in south Wales Valleys are more likely to experience higher income deprivation and health deprivation than other parts of Wales. I know you've introduced an empty homes grant to tackle the issue of empty and derelict homes in the Valleys region, but this scheme will end in February 2021. The Welsh Valleys need urgent tailored investment and support to help communities to build back better. Will the Deputy Minister outline how the Welsh Labour Government will use its unallocated resources as part of the extra £5 billion of extra funding provided by the UK Conservative Government to help the Valleys recover post pandemic? Thank you.

Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, I think, for too long, the debate around the Valleys has been a bit of a Punch and Judy show, with people rightly pointing out the impact the deindustrialisation has caused and the impact that the Thatcher Government has had, and I've always been reluctant to go there, but that contribution really did take the biscuit, I must say. For Laura Anne Jones to point to a 67,000 jobs gap in the Valleys and blame the Welsh Government for it, I think really is stretching credibility beyond its limits. And the so-called £5 billion that Laura Anne Jones has pointed to that the UK Government has so generously given us barely covers the cost of the NHS uplift and leaves our public finances in a very real stretched position; not least, we're not getting the proper Barnett share for rail schemes and for HS2, which, if we had them, then we could spread further investment into the Valleys. So, I find these sort of glib observations really unhelpful, given the scale of the challenge before us. So, I shall not go any further into that particular Punch and Judy show, but there's plenty of script there if I wanted to.

To turn to some of her more sensible points, in terms of how do we make the empty property programme self-sustaining, given, as she rightly said, the scale of the challenge in the Valleys—Rhondda Cynon Taf, for example, has the second highest level of empty homes in all of the UK—I think one of the clever things about the scheme that Councillor Andrew Morgan and his colleagues developed in Rhondda Cynon Taf was that this would be self-sustaining. We've made sure, as we've designed this with the authorities, that they've put investment on the table to match ours, that, following the RCT example, they've been requested to increase council tax on empty homes, so they're generating some revenue that can then fuel the next round of grants that can go out. And of course, these are grants that are repayable should people sell their properties or move within five years. So, what we hope is that, by getting local authorities to co-operate like this and to collaborate, we will open their eyes to the possibility of what RCT has done and spread that, and that they will then put their own resources into it and see the benefit to their own communities. After all, RCT started this because they found a problem with public health officials being called to rats at houses. So, there was a problem they had to deal with, and they came up with an innovative solution, which we have scaled.

I don't accept the critique that there's a lack of ambition behind the project. It was never going to be possible to reverse generations of challenging economic circumstances in such a short period, but what I hope my statement has shown is that, through trial and different place-based approaches, collaboratively with local authorities—so, it's not people coming in with solutions; it's coming up with solutions together—we will kick start a regeneration that will have a dynamic beyond the time of the taskforce.

16:15

Diolch. The Rhondda, my constituency, my home, is a place that has struggled for decades. Now, much as many people might like to, we cannot get away from the fact that since the start of the various pit closure programmes, but especially since Margaret Thatcher's attack on our communities in the 1980s, with no plan to replace those lost jobs, life has been a big struggle for many people, and the problems facing people are of course mainly economic.

We are not unique. Most of our former industrial areas have struggled for generations, but the Rhondda is in a particularly precarious situation. In a study of towns in Wales and England most vulnerable to the economic effects of COVID-19, two from the Rhondda were named in the top 20. This, of course, comes on top of devastating floods. The Rhondda could really do with some help right now, but, sadly, little has been forthcoming from the Valleys taskforce. Yes, we have the Skyline project, which is pioneered by the amazing people at Welcome To Our Woods, and, yes, there are good works going on in terms of empty homes. But this isn't enough. We need more job creation.

Take the classic example of the co-operative made up of former Burberry workers, which tried to get off the ground in the last two years. There's been a lot of talk, but, to date, there has been little concrete support, no contracts, and no financial assistance for this group. The Burberry co-operative represents an opportunity to take advantage of world-class clothing manufacturing skills that still exist within our community following Burberry's departure from Treorchy 13 years ago. It could have been an iconic and great success story—yet nothing. In the taskforce's original delivery plan, there are three overriding priorities: good quality jobs and the skills to do them, better public services and community. The example of the Burberry workers in the Rhondda—that co-operative would fit perfectly well with the first priority, and it would meet the other two as well. So many well-spun initiatives we've seen, but how long is it going to be before there's any real addressing of the socioeconomic problems that plague our communities?

Now, I've asked this question many times but I've yet to get a substantive answer, so I will ask it again: how has the Rhondda benefited, in terms of job creation, over and above other constituencies as a result of the work of the Valleys taskforce? What measurable economic progress can you show in my constituency as a result of the Valleys taskforce? I and many other people want initiatives like the Valleys taskforce to deliver what they promise to communities like mine in the Rhondda but, so far, progress has been disappointing to say the least. 

16:20

I'm disappointed but not surprised by that contribution. I think the claim that the Rhondda should benefit over and above the Valleys taskforce areas goes to the heart of the problem with the contribution. It's constantly looking for grievance to seize upon and to exploit, rather than looking in the spirit of co-operation as to how all the authorities can work together.

Leanne Wood again mentioned the example of the Treorchy Burberry co-operative, and I have met with them and explained to her at length the process that we went through, working with that co-operative, and working with the trustees, to offer them help to win contracts by themselves. Now, there is a responsibility on both parties to co-operate here, and I know she's disappointed that the co-operative that we set up in Ebbw Vale didn't come to the Rhondda, but, as I say, these projects need to go to different places based on evidence, and the evidence analysis that we carried out for the criteria of that project and having a location that was suitable, close to public transport, close to people who had been out of work for a long time, favoured Ebbw Vale in this particular instance.

Leanne Wood seems unable to move beyond that, even though, as I've said, we remain open to working with the co-operative. We have reached out repeatedly to the co-operative. We set up the foundational economy challenge fund, which they could have bid into. So, I'm not sure what else she expects us to do, short of give them a large contract, which we simply just can't be doing. But we remain happy to work with them, because their objectives are my objectives. Their objectives are the objectives of the foundational economy, of social business and social enterprise, which we champion. But it's a shame—she keeps going on about this example when I've explained to her the limitations of that approach, but, again, I sincerely say we remain open to working with them to see if we can find a way through. 

She asked again what the Rhondda had benefited, and my speech set out a series of initiatives that the Rhondda had benefited from, alongside other parts of the Valleys. Again, the empty homes project, which is specifically in the Rhondda, has benefited considerably from the Valleys taskforce budget, and that helps all parts of the Valleys. 

Specifically on the co-working space pilots, we are funding £300,000 to Rhondda Cynon Taf council for the development of the Llwynypia court house and for the development of co-working space in Rhondda Housing Association. The court house redevelopment project has a great deal to recommend it, building on the former magistrates' court into a multi-purpose structure, which would have a cafe, a fully-equipped gym, as well as a place where people can work so they can benefit their local town centre, rather than going further afield.  

I'd like to thank the Minister for the statement this afternoon, but I also want to congratulate him on the work he's done since taking over responsibility for this portfolio and as chair of the Valleys taskforce. It's always difficult for a former Minister, of course, to ask questions of his replacement in Government, and I accept that, but I want to make the point of congratulating him on the work he's done over these last two years; I think it's testament to a real, deep commitment and vision. The work that he did particularly in ensuring a supply chain for personal protective equipment over the last year is testament to a values-based approach to politics that Members on all sides of this Chamber would do well to reflect upon, and, certainly, the work in supporting the co-operative in Ebbw Vale is something that is greatly appreciated, not only in the town but in the hospitals and care homes of Wales as well. 

I'd like to ask the Minister if he will, before dissolution, ensure that we are able to see the bookend, if you like, of this piece of work—that the targets and objectives that I published as a Minister at the time are reflected upon. The Conservative Member for south-east Wales was wrong in her assumptions about those targets and objectives—they were actually built upon a very long and in-depth consversation with a number of different organisations within the Valleys, and those targets and objectives were set together. They weren't imposed upon the Valleys, they came from the Valleys, and I think that's a really important point that was lost there. But it is important for the trust in Government that we're able to say, 'We said we'd do this, and this is what we delivered.'

The other issue I'd like to raise—

16:25

—that I'd like to just raise, quickly, with the Minister, is our Tech Valleys. This is a £100 million investment in Blaenau Gwent that was announced by myself as a Minister and also the Minister for economy and enterprise. It is important that we're able to deliver on that commitment. It was a solid commitment, given to the people of Blaenau Gwent at an extraordinarily difficult time. The people of Blaenau Gwent, I think, have an absolute right to ensure and to expect this Government to deliver on that promise. Thank you.

Thank you for the generous comments. I, of course, will be addressing his point about how we've met the targets, and I'm confident that we will have done that, despite the most challenging of circumstances. On the Tech Valleys, this is a subject we have addressed in this Chamber before. I'm confident that we will have—. Obviously, it is a 10-year project, but we will have, by the end of this Senedd term, the beginnings in Ebbw Vale of a tech cluster. We are investing significantly in property, because that was one of the things that the local authority and the Tech Valleys board have identified as a real issue in the Heads of the Valleys area. So, we are investing in new property and in rejuvenating existing property to create an offer. We have created, with the location of Thales on the former steelworks site, a cyber capacity. I'm hopeful that we're going to be able to get 5G on the site. We're working very hard on that and have had significant advances, but we're not quite over the line on that yet. But, once we have those things in place, I think then there's a genuine tech offering in Ebbw Vale that makes Ebbw Vale and the surrounding area stand out, and I think can begin to repay the promise and the potential that we offered with the announcement of that project. But I would also say to Alun Davies that we want to look beyond Ebbw Vale to the whole Heads of the Valleys area, recognising that this is an economic ecosystem. We are doing work, particularly, in supporting existing firms, rather than just trying to attract new firms in. We've done a piece of work to improve the productivity and resilience of grounded firms in the area, and I think there's a lot more we can do in that.

I have no doubt whatsoever that the Deputy Minister charged with the task of reinvigorating the former mining communities of the south Wales Valleys is a truly committed individual, with a real desire to succeed where others have patently failed. My worry is the sheer number of organisations and bodies tasked with instigating and developing the programmes of the Valleys taskforce. First, we have, of course, the Welsh Government itself, then local authorities and their LEAs. We then have the Cardiff capital region and the Swansea bay city deals—not to mention the Blaenau Gwent enterprise zone, the Valleys regional park project, and the Taff Vale scheme. To this we can add local health boards, public services boards, Transport for Wales, and, last but not least, we have the third sector bodies, together with a large number of private sector partners. One has to ask the question: how are these disparate bodies going to combine to produce the desired outcomes? Given that the desired outcome is to create at least 7,000 skilled new jobs across the Valleys region, how are we going to monitor whether these are truly new, productive jobs, as opposed to administrative jobs? I remember the figures for the Merthyr Tydfil Communities First project. Out of the £1.5 million allocated, £1.25 million went on just that—administrative jobs. Will the Deputy Minister outline what measures he is putting in place to make sure this does not happen to this comprehensive project? If we look very briefly at some details—

I will indeed. Okay, sorry. Deputy Minister, there's no doubt that the plans and projects outlined in the report are ambitious and desirable, but if we are to assuage the growing discontent, not just with the Welsh Government but with the Senedd institution as a whole, these grand designs—for that is what they are—cannot fail. They have to deliver, or, dare we say, more than deliver, on their objectives. The people of the—[Inaudible.]—Valleys regions have waited far too long for real lifestyle improvements.

I don't really recognise the picture that David Rowlands presented, and I recognise he will have drafted his remarks before he had the chance to listen to my contribution. Perhaps on re-reading it, he'll have a chance to reflect that we're not pursuing administrative jobs, we're pursuing real jobs and real economic improvement. And as for his point about too many cooks spoiling this particular broth, I just don't think that's right either. He effectively describes central Government and local government, and of course the Cardiff city deal has a role because the Valleys are part of a broader economic region, so it's right that they are included in part of the broader plans. But I really think that he is trying to make something out of nothing.

16:30

I've long campaigned for the beautiful Cwmcarn forest drive to be restored for the people of Wales and the world to enjoy. It's a place where I had my only holidays as a small child and where my father has painted since he was a child. So, its revival also, though, is due to the hugely dedicated people of Islwyn, who have campaigned for its restoration over many years now. It's also because of the Labour-run Caerphilly County Borough Council working in partnership with the Welsh Labour Government that it has now been made into an integral part of the Valleys taskforce as a key gateway site in the Valleys regional park. I'm delighted that the Minister was able to announce that we now have a network of Valleys regional park guardians who are at work in each of the discovery sites that act as a gateway to our green spaces.

Last December, Natural Resources Wales announced plans to redevelop eight recreational sites along the seven-mile forest drive in addition to the play areas that included wooden sculptures and sensory tunnels, as well as a number of all-ability trails and new picnic and seating areas. Deputy Llywydd, although the coronavirus pandemic has slowed this work down, it has not stopped it. Earlier this year, extensive work was carried out that included repairs to road services, landscaping, three new play areas, eight waterless toilets and an award-winning official camping site. So, this innovative project culmination will be a key moment for my constituency—a Valleys constituency—for our tourism and hospitality post COVID. And now, Minister, we need, I think, to—

[Inaudible.]—Islwyn, working within a holistic apprenticeship, education and training skills drive. So, my question, Minister: what actions will the Welsh Government and the Valleys taskforce consider to ensure even better integration between the communities of Islwyn and one of the natural wonders of Wales? And what actions can the Valleys taskforce take to exploit Islwyn's cultural creativity and outdoor future festival and performance programmes within that?

Well, can I pay tribute to Rhianon Passmore for championing the Cwmcarn forest drive and making a very robust case for investment there in her constituency? I think the pandemic and the lockdown have shown us how important having quality landscape and environmental facilities on our doorstep has been to so many people during a very difficult time. I think the Cwmcarn forest drive has been an exemplar, really, in how people have been able to use the outdoors to nourish their well-being, as well as create a different relationship between people and nature. And it's important that we see the Valleys regional park network as the complementary side of the city region's economic focus. The two need to work hand in hand, and certainly that was the example of Stuttgart, which is where the city region movement really earned its spurs, and I know it was somewhere that Alun Davies visited when he was Minister to take inspiration for the gateway projects.

That is why I think it's so important that the regional park is now under the umbrella of the city deal and Anthony Hunt, indeed, the leader of the authority, is the leader of the group that is looking at the regional park to make sure that the point she makes about the economic potential that there still is from this initial investment is fully realised.

Minister, can I welcome very much the positive approach you've made in your statement to the changes and to the initiatives? One of the dangers that I've always found is that the more you talk down an area, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I first became the Assembly Member for Pontypridd, I hesitated to go in and say to businesses, 'How are things?' because you would then have a tirade. But we've talked up Pontypridd, which is a core town for the Valleys, and with the initiatives from Welsh Government and with the local council, you can see the economic transformation that is taking place. 

In view of the limited time I've got, can I just ask this, Minister? One of the key aspects to regeneration is obviously transport. We have some very, very effective rail transport systems that are developing and being improved, but the bus interconnection with our transport system is absolutely fundamental. Too many of our communities do not have the access necessary to either employment or other forms of engagement, and that is a key to economic regeneration. How do you see the transport system becoming part of the Valleys initiative and achieving those objectives that we all want to see occur? 

16:35

Well, an important element of what the taskforce has done, which has been behind the scenes really, has been stitching together different bits of Government activity on the Valleys footprint to make sure we have an integrated approach, and that's not something that really makes it into a ministerial statement, but I think that's been one of its key contributions within Government. The example Mick Antoniw cites is a really good example of that.

The bringing together through masterplans for Caerphilly, Merthyr and, I believe, Pontypridd, has been a really important long-term development for shaping where the metro developments lie, and Pontypridd will have a huge asset in having a train service pretty much every five minutes, once the metro service is fully up and running. We can see the development already taking place, and the TFW headquarters in the town is a real example of that. The pulling down of the unsightly buildings in the vicinity of the train station will, again, open up space and potential for further redevelopment. So, I think transport and the masterplanning of it, and tying that together with other Government initiatives has been a real success story of the taskforce, but their fruits may not be possible to see for a couple of years yet.

5. The Non-Domestic Rating (Multiplier) (Wales) Order 2020
6. The Plant Health (Forestry) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (Wales) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020

Therefore, we move to item 6, which is the Plant Health (Forestry) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (Wales) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020—[Interruption.] Sorry, that's how it is written. Can I now call on the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs to move the motion? Lesley Griffiths. 

Motion NDM7498 Rebecca Evans

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 27.5:

1. Approves that the draft Plant Health (Forestry) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (Wales) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 are made in accordance with the draft laid in the Table Office on 17 November 2020.

Motion moved.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and I move the motion. The Plant Health (Forestry) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (Wales) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 make amendments to the Fore