Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd

Plenary - Fifth Senedd

19/01/2021

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 by video-conference at 13:29 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

Statement by the Llywydd

Welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. A Plenary meeting held by 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 noted on your agenda. I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting. 

13:30
Emergency Question: The COVID-19 Vaccination Programme

The first item on our agenda is the emergency question. It will be asked to the Minister for Health and Social Services, and the question is to be asked by Rhun ap Iorwerth. 

Will the Minister make a statement on the COVID-19 vaccination programme in Wales following reports that the Welsh Government’s policy is to gradually distribute vaccinations rather than to vaccinate as many people as possible in the shortest time possible? (EQ0008)

Thank you. Every vaccine is going to people who need them. Vaccines are not being held back in Wales. Every week, we are vaccinating more people. This week, we will provide a further 60,000 Pfizer vaccines in mass vaccination centres, almost double the number last week. Today's figure shows that at least 161,900 people have now had their first dose, and an average of 10,000 people a day are being vaccinated. I expect to see that increase further during the rest of this week. We're on track to meet the milestones in the vaccination plan that I published last week. 

Diolch, Weinidog. Getting vaccination right is very, very important. It is the light at the end of the tunnel, the hope so many people have been clinging to. There has to be real confidence among the population that things are on track. People waiting for the vaccine for themselves or their loved ones are being told, 'Don't call us, we'll call you.' If people are being asked to be patient, they must be given reason to have faith that their turn will come soon. Unfortunately, Welsh Government has severely dented that confidence. Firstly, figures showing we're lagging behind other parts of the UK. The First Minister has tried to brush this off saying it's just small fractions, but while 6.6 per cent of the population vaccinated in England may not sound much bigger than 4.8 per cent vaccinated in Wales or in Scotland, that's a 30 per cent difference in the number of people vaccinated, and that needs to be addressed right now. 

We had those figures about how many vaccines had been received in Wales—hundreds of thousands received—and, at that time, just tens of thousands actually put in people's arms, where we want them. And then we had those astonishing statements from the First Minister saying stocks would be spread out over the next few weeks—repeated statements—rather than getting them out as soon as possible. If they were all given out, we were told, vaccinators would be standing around, doing nothing. The British Medical Association called it 'bewildering.' I haven't seen any clinical reason why that would make sense, and what makes sense to me and, more importantly, what makes sense to the Welsh public, I think, is to get it out as quickly as possible. Now, a Welsh Government statement yesterday was completely at odds with the First Minister, as were the Minister's comments now. We were told in that statement that there would be no holding back of vaccine. So, which is it—that statement, or what we heard repeatedly from the First Minister?

We need to be able to measure exactly what's going on. So, again, I ask today: give us regular updates on how much of each kind of vaccine has been given to each UK nation. That is crucial. We need to be absolutely sure that we are getting our share of the easier-to-use AstraZeneca vaccine for example. We need to know how much of each has been given to each health board, and how many of each have been put in people's arms. 

I began by saying how important it is to get vaccination right, and I'll finish if I can by quoting a comment by esteemed poet, Gwyneth Lewis, on social media. She says, 'I will never forgive this administration if my vulnerable husband, having been shielded since March, catches COVID between now and vaccination so that staff aren't hanging about, doing nothing. We've abided by all the guidelines', she says, 'and are angry and baffled by this approach to vaccination in Wales.' Llywydd, many people are angry and baffled. We in Plaid Cymru want Welsh Government to get this right. We know we have brilliant vaccines and vaccinating teams already at work, all poised ready to go. Government has to now get the strategy right, be absolutely transparent in what's going on, including about where any problems are in the system, and, crucially, they must build the confidence we need in this all-important vaccination programme.

13:35

Thank you. I think, in terms of the comments, I'll try to be as direct and as brief as possible, Llywydd. The First Minister has clarified the remarks, as you're aware—we're all really clear that every vaccine is being used and no vaccines are being held back. I don't think we can be any clearer. It's also worth reminding everybody who's not in the virtual meeting, but those watching outside as well, the Pfizer stocks are being held, stored and then released for use in every UK country. Every one of the four UK nations had a Pfizer delivery at the end of December, and those are the stocks we're working through as fast as our system can deliver them. And we've built up our infrastructure to deliver a great many more Pfizer vaccines. That's why over 60,000 Pfizer jabs have been released this week into NHS Wales, to make sure they're then delivered into people's arms, to provide the protection that we all want our citizens to have.

On the request for yet more information to be put into the public domain, we're being as open as possible. I've issued a written statement, setting out our approach to providing information about supplies and delivery as well. So, every Thursday there'll be a dashboard with more information, and every Tuesday from next week we'll provide more information still about what we're achieving, together with the daily figures.

On the detailed information the Member requests for the amount of supply we're receiving—what's coming in and what's going out—I'd say two things. The first is that I'm very clear we're getting our population share of all of the vaccine supply available. As long as the supply comes in, we'll deliver those vaccines. The second point is that the level of detail the Member asks for in every aspect may not be possible to give. The Member will have noted that, in Scotland, they had to remove the plan that they'd published online and then publish a new version because some potentially commercially sensitive information about vaccine supply was contained within that initial strategy. So, we do have to be careful about providing as much information as we can, and that may not meet all of the Member's demands for additional daily information.

I can say, though, on the confidence about where we are, the daily figures are being published, and you will see an increase of delivery through this week and into next week as well. And it's worth reflecting that, as we stand now, I am confident that seven in 10 over-80s in Wales by the end of this week will have had their first shot, and seven in 10 of our care home residents and staff by the end of this week will have had their first vaccine as well. That is an increasing level of pace and confidence, increasing protection, exactly as the Member asked for, exactly as I and every member of this Government want to see, because I recognise the crucial importance of this vaccination programme. There'll be no lack of effort or urgency in doing the right thing on our part to keep Wales safe.

[Inaudible.]—for the answer, and also some of the points that you've made already. But the fact of the matter is that, on a population share, we are 40,000 people behind where England is. That's the equivalent of a town the size of Caerphilly being completely vaccinated. These numbers are getting bigger as the days and weeks go by, because, two weeks ago, that gap between where England is and Wales is was 15,000 citizens—the difference between where England is and Wales is at the moment. So, can you tell me what confidence have you got that you will be in a position to be closing that gap and getting more Welsh citizens vaccinated, despite the comments of the First Minister yesterday in saying that vaccinators were struggling to keep up with demand because they didn't have enough vaccines so we needed to ration the vaccine being made available? That really sends, as David Bailey said, a bewildering message—David Bailey from the British Medical Association—to people, wherever they live in Wales, who want to see this genuine success story unfolded here in Wales, because it is the light at the end of the tunnel that we're all hanging on to. But what we're seeing as each day goes by is an increasing gap opening up between where other parts of the UK are vaccinating and where Wales is vaccinating, a poor communication strategy from the Welsh Government, typified by yesterday's comments from the First Minister in particular, and a lack of detail in being able to understand exactly how this programme is progressing in some of our vulnerable communities.

Twice last week I asked you, Minister, could you give us a figure for the number of over-80s that had been vaccinated here in Wales, and, on both occasions, you were unable to provide that information. I hear what you said in response to Rhun ap Iorwerth, when you said that, at the end of the week, you hope seven in 10 of over-80s will have been vaccinated here in Wales with their first shot. Can you confirm today how many over-80s, as a percentage of the population, will have been vaccinated? Because on Sunday I could tell that in England, because it was across the news bulletins that over 50 per cent of over-80s had been vaccinated. We want to see the Government succeed in its programme of vaccination across Wales, because if this programme succeeds, Wales succeeds. But it is not unreasonable, when you hear comments like yesterday's, to have doubts as to the efficiency and the effectiveness of the campaign that the Welsh Government has put in place. So, if you could respond to the points I've put to you, I'd be most grateful. 

13:40

Thank you for those comments. When it comes to our delivery, you will have noticed that we have made real progress on increasing the number of mass vaccination centres. That now means that we can increase the delivery of the Pfizer vaccine. That's why we're able to confidently predict we'll be able to not just deliver 60,000 doses to our NHS, but they will then be able to put them into the arms of people and to give them protection. We are making progress. The pace is increasing week on week and the figures demonstrate that. And I hope the Member is genuine in his comments, because we all want this programme to succeed, and I hope that, from the concerns he is expressing now and, to be fair, has regularly done so, he'll then give some credit to the Government and our national health service if we do, as I expect, achieve the milestone of having protected the first four priority groups by the middle of February, as will other UK nations expect to do as well. 

When it comes to where we are, I don't just hope we'll have reached seven in 10 care home residents and staff by the weekend, I don't just hope we'll have reached 70 per cent of the over-80s by the end of the weekend, I expect us to do so. And I can say that my current understanding is that we have already managed to do so for the majority of our over-80s population. I'll have more figures available later this week that I'd be happy to provide to Members and the public to provide the confidence that the Member says he wants to understand and to be able to provide to the wider public. This is a programme that is gathering in pace. We recognise the importance, and I certainly understand the urgency of this for all of us, regardless of our views on politics, to provide a different future for the rest of this year, because the vaccination programme is absolutely protecting our most vulnerable and helping to save lives. 

Very briefly, as we're all aware, people are concerned regarding the wait for the vaccine. Will the Minister unequivocally commit that vaccines will be provided as fast as is possible?

Yes. Vaccines are being provided as fast as is possible and will continue to be provided as fast as is possible. It's worth pointing out that if there are any anxious over-80s watching this, not only have we already got to the majority of over-80s here in Wales, it is not the case that England have completed their over-80s programme. There are still gaps and there will still be people in England waiting for their vaccines too. In Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, we're all working through as fast as possible in those priority groups, and there will be no let up from the Welsh Government or our hard-working staff within our national health service, who I think are doing a fantastic job and are a credit to our country.  

Minister, despite whether the First Minister misspoke on the Radio 4 interview or not, the reality is that Wales is the worst home nation when it comes to vaccine roll-out. We are well behind both Northern Ireland and England, and if the smallest nation in our nation can get its act together, why can't we? It's vital that we vastly accelerate the vaccine roll-out when you consider that Wales has one of the highest death rates in the world. We're losing more people per capita than even the US, who have totally bungled their coronavirus response. So, facing this huge death toll, why are GPs in my region only receiving a third of the vaccine supplies they were promised and forced to cancel vaccinations at the last minute? Minister, when will Wales get its act together, considering that we have clearly demonstrated that vaccination is the only way out of this pandemic? Diolch.  

As a matter of fact, we're not the worst home nation. We've now caught up with and are tracking the progress in Scotland, and I expect us to go even faster during the rest of this week, as I've said repeatedly not just this afternoon, but also in other statements and interviews that I've given over the last couple of days. We are accelerating the roll-out, and, as I say, look at the figures, not just in the last few weeks where we've seen a week-on-week increase in the roll-out, but by the end of this week, when you'll see a further increase in the roll-out in Wales. I believe our NHS staff deserve praise for that increasing roll-out, and you'll see more of that moving forward.

When it comes to international comparisons, of course, Wales is the fifth best country in the world at present, but we want to compare well with every other part of the UK. That's the commitment of our staff. That's the commitment of this Government. More people will be protected. The limiting step, as every other health Minister has acknowledged when being questioned about this, is supply. Those general practices that have not had all of the AstraZeneca supply they would have expected, it's simply a matter of delivery to them. But I am confident that the assurances we have had in every single UK nation about vaccine supply increasing will be met, and if they are, we will continue to increase our delivery. That means more people being protected at a faster rate in every community right across Wales.

13:45

My inbox on vaccine roll-out is full of anger, and our wonderful staff are chomping at the bit to deliver the vaccine. Now, we know Welsh Government has bought into the UK Government procurement for various vaccines, as we've heard. Can I ask what flexibility is there in the agreed provision of the Pfizer vaccine versus the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine? Is there flexibility to change as the situation potentially changes, or as the challenges change? Is there flexibility in the procurement agreement? Is Wales getting its fair share of the Oxford-AZ vaccine, which is easier to roll out within GP surgeries and community pharmacies and all the rest?

My final point is: with high circulating levels of COVID still, though the lockdown is working and the figures are coming down, there remains high probability of new mutant strains developing, which is why you must vaccinate as a matter of urgency—pull out all the stops. The Welsh Government must be braver in its roll-out and go for broke and press for more vaccines if we're in danger of running out. Minister, would you agree, and also would you agree we must be flexible? If there's vaccine available anywhere, we must go for it. No administrative straitjacket should hold up this urgent vaccination programme.

I'm happy to confirm that I don't believe there is an administrative straitjacket holding up the vaccination programme here in Wales. I understand the frustration of our staff who want to be out vaccinating more. I understand not just general practice, but community pharmacy too. As the supplies of AstraZeneca increase as we expect them to—that's not just from conversations with the UK Government, but also from direct engagement between the Welsh Government and AstraZeneca themselves—we expect to have much greater supplies progressively through the rest of the spring. That means we'll be able to deliver at an even faster rate.

I've had direct conversations with Nadhim Zahawi, the UK vaccines Minister, about the supply to Wales, because part of my concern about the Prime Minister's surprise announcement on the first four groups being resolved by the middle of February was that, of course, we have a higher portion as a population of those first four groups than England does, and we need to make sure that we're not going to be artificially held back by a lack of supply in going as fast as possible. In those conversations, there has been a direct assurance that we will have all of the supply we need to be able to achieve that milestone at the same time as other UK nations. We're receiving at least our population share, as we've agreed. So, yes, we're getting a fair share and we're making good use of that fair share of all the vaccines that we're receiving.

I do think it's helpful to reiterate the point you make, though, that lockdowns work on the terms on which they're introduced. They help to slow down the rate of transmission, to reduce the amount of harm being caused, to ensure our NHS is not being overwhelmed, to allow us to limit the rate of transmission, to see it reduced, and to allow different choices to be made as vaccination protects more of our most vulnerable citizens. There is no let-up from this Government, no lack of understanding of the need for urgency, pace and delivery, and I'm very proud—as I've said more than once—of the job that our NHS staff are doing to protect as many of our vulnerable people as quickly as possible in every single community right across Wales.

13:50

Minister, the First Minister, in making the statements he did yesterday, has caused a lot of anxiety, concern and upset. Actually, he's leading vulnerable people to believe that they are now at an increased risk of contracting the virus, and no more so than in Aberconwy.

Do you agree with the First Minister that all available Pfizer vaccines should not be made available as quickly as possible? You claimed that the challenge was having enough infrastructure to deliver the Pfizer jab without wasting it, but how can you stand by what you've said when locations down the road from me here at Venue Cymru have only been working three days a week, instead of the agreed six days, because they can't get enough vaccines? How do you respond to GPs working in my constituency who are absolutely furious because some have agreed to issue 100 doses a day for six days a week, yet in the last two weeks, have only managed to complete 100 a week? That's due to them not being able to obtain the supplies. Why are you not listening to the health professionals and all those hard-working health staff delivering these vaccines? As has been pointed out, Dr David Bailey, chair of the British Medical Association in Wales, is asking you—and I quote—

'to stop sitting on supplies and get on with it.'

And as a GP said to me yesterday, 'Will you please tell Mr Vaughan Gething from me that I want those vaccinations in the arms of our people here in Aberconwy? They are no use to anyone sitting on a shelf and all that's going to succeed if that happens is that the virus is going to be harder to defeat and patients will lose lives.' It doesn't get any more serious than that, Minister, so please listen to what you are being told. Diolch, Llywydd.

With respect, I think the Member should listen to the answers that are being given on information. When it comes to the Pfizer supply, we're putting out much more Pfizer supply this week—nearly double what went out last week—and that'll make sure that the increasing number of mass vaccination centres—. We currently have 28 operating and over 90 per cent of those were open this weekend. We're going to move up to 45 vaccination centres within the next week or two. So, actually, that will make sure that we make good use of the Pfizer vaccination supply that we have and we should continue to get into the future.

I understand the concerns of general practitioners, and this was a point that I've dealt with in several other questions, including Dr Lloyd's question immediately before your own. The Oxford-AstraZeneca supply is the one that we're providing to primary care. I know that some people have been frustrated that they haven't received as much as expected, but that's simply a matter of supply into Wales. As we see significant increases take place this week, those supplies will go out very quickly to general practice; they won't be sitting on shelves, they won't be kept somewhere away from practitioners who need to be able to deliver them to protect our citizens. That's exactly what we are doing and exactly what you will see our NHS do.

I hope that the clarity in the information that we're providing today and the clarity in the numbers that you will see increase through the rest of this week will provide the level of confidence that the Member claims she wants to have in this programme and the significant difference it will make to people in every single community up and down the country, as our NHS plays its part in helping to keep Wales safe.

1. Questions to the First Minister

The next item is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Huw Irranca-Davies.

COVID-19 and Jobs

1. What representations has the First Minister made to the UK Government regarding the provision of additional financial support to assist jobs affected by COVID-19 in Wales? OQ56126

We take all opportunities to make such representations. The Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales met the UK small business Minister on Thursday and the Secretary of State for Wales yesterday. A quadrilateral of UK Governments takes place tomorrow, where further representations will be made. 

First Minister, I'm glad to hear about the frequency of those meetings, because when I first laid this question, I thought to ask you to push the UK Government to provide more support for the self-employed and others who still fall outside the job support schemes available, and to push them to guarantee to protect, which they shamefully failed to do in a vote in the House of Commons this week, the £20 uplift to universal credit, which, as we know, goes to some of the poorest working families in Wales. But I did not foresee, First Minister, that, in the course of last weekend, the Conservatives would bring forward proposals for a bonfire of workers' rights and terms and conditions, so that, in the teeth of a jobs insecurity crisis, which is flowing from both leaving the EU and the global pandemic, the UK Government rips away hard-won protections for ordinary working people. So, First Minister, when you next meet Boris Johnson, would you ask him why working people in Ogmore and Wales should ever vote for his party, when he plans to make them work longer for less pay and strip away their employment rights? 

13:55

I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for that supplementary question. When I next get an opportunity to meet with the Prime Minister, I will certainly put those points to him. People in Wales have a right to know why promises that were made are so rapidly torn up by this Government. We were provided with a promise that workers' rights would be protected as we left the European Union. We see how shallow that promise was. We were promised that Wales would not be a penny worse off through leaving the European Union. That promise has been shredded time and time again just in recent weeks. We're promised that we will get protections that other parts of the United Kingdom get, yet when, at the weekend, the UK Government made a very great deal of fuss about the support it was going to give to airports, having decided that travel corridors could no longer be sustained, it turned out that while Bristol will get £8 million, Cardiff Airport is to get nothing from them. Time and time again, this Government fulfills that well-known saying, known everywhere in Wales, 'You can't trust the Tories'.

First Minister, I've had a number of concerns raised with me from those businesses in the hospitality and tourism sector. The issue seems to be that the criteria for the economic resilience fund are that they have to employ staff on the pay-as-you-earn system. Many in that industry, of course, would point out that that's the very nature of the industry, where they do employ people on a self-employed basis, whether they're cleaners or on a short-term basis. Can you agree, First Minister, to have a look at this particular issue in terms of the next round of the economic resilience fund? Because the hospitality and tourism sector needs urgent support, and these criteria, which could be helping them through the economic resilience fund, are preventing them from actually being able to access the support.

The tourist and hospitality industry in Wales has the most generous package of support anywhere in the United Kingdom, and millions and millions of pounds have been paid out to those industries and those businesses in order to assist them through the enormous difficulties that the pandemic has created for them. I'm happy, of course, to look at the specific point that the Member has raised. We hope, here in Wales, to be able to announce further support to industries affected by the current state of the pandemic. We'll be assisted in that when it is clear from the UK Government how much money we have in order to be able to make those further announcements. The Member will know that the Treasury announced that we were getting £227 million coming to Wales as a result of further support in England, only the following day to withdraw that announcement and to tell us that we had the money already. When we do have genuine clarity, then we will be in a position to make those further announcements to which we are committed. I'm happy to say that we'll take up the point that the Member has raised in those discussions.

First Minister, do you agree with me that the best way to secure jobs during this pandemic is to ensure that all employers affected by measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 receive support? I have been contacted by two such affected companies in my region, both of which operate amusement arcades and both of which have been refused support because they're classed as gambling businesses. First Minister, these are legal businesses, their taxes are taken and they are suffering the same as any other leisure business, so shouldn't they receive the same support as other leisure businesses? Thank you.

More than £1.7 billion is already in the accounts of businesses here in Wales as a result of the assistance that they have received from the Welsh Government. There is more still to be claimed and there are more announcements, as I said, to come, with further support. In the end, as Members will understand, this is public money. There have to be rules about how claims can be made and who can claim them. It's for business who think they have a legitimate claim and can bring themselves within those rules to do so. And provided they can, then those payments will be made. But when you are dispersing public money on the scale that has been necessary during this public health crisis, it has to be done on the basis that that money can be properly accounted for, and when payments are made, there is confidence that they are being made to legitimate businesses for legitimate purposes, and those are the rules that we have here in Wales.

14:00

Question 2 [OQ56158] not asked.

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

I can't see Neil Hamilton on the screen in front of me, so I'll move on to questions by party leaders, and the first leader this afternoon is the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Paul Davies.

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, in November, the Welsh Government held six Cabinet meetings, and yet in the published minutes a range of issues were discussed, such as the Welsh Government's transport strategy, the building safety White Paper and even broadening the role of firefighters. However, there's not one single item on vaccines or vaccinations tabled or raised for discussion. Given the importance of developing a vaccine strategy in readiness for the deployment of vaccines, why did the Welsh Government not even discuss the matter during the entire month of November? And can you tell us when, as a Cabinet, you did discuss the deployment of vaccines?

Llywydd, I'm grateful for the opportunity to put on record, in front of the Senedd, what my colleague the health Minister has already said. The very top priority for this Government and the very top priority for the NHS in Wales is to vaccinate as many people in Wales as quickly and as safely as possible, and the plan that we set out for doing so is being fulfilled, and we are on track to do what we have promised the people of Wales to do. Because the Member doesn't read in the minutes every detail of what is discussed at the Cabinet does not, of course, mean that matters are not discussed. Vaccination, and all other aspects of the coronavirus crisis, were discussed inside the Welsh Government with senior officials and between Ministers right through the month of November, as they have been ever since the first meeting of our group to plan for vaccination took place in June of this year.

Well, I put it to you, First Minister, something as important as the roll-out of the vaccinations should have been discussed at Cabinet level and should have been minuted, I would have thought. The Welsh Government has had months to develop a strategy that ensures people in priority groups all over Wales receive their vaccination. And instead, what we've seen is patchy and inconsistent provision with different levels of progress in different parts of the country. And it's deeply concerning to hear that you defend your go-slow policy to prevent vaccinators standing around with nothing to do when a Welsh Government should be significantly accelerating the administration of vaccines across Wales, and those concerns, of course, have been echoed by BMA Cymru, who, as we've already heard earlier this afternoon, have said to stop sitting on supplies and to get on with it. Now, whilst other parts of the UK have started vaccinating people in the over-70 category, here in Wales, people in their 80s and some even in their 90s in my constituency are still waiting for their vaccines. So, First Minister, can you tell us whether the Welsh Government intends to continue with its go-slow approach for the duration of the vaccine period? And if so, how confident are you that people in priority groups will actually receive their first vaccine by mid February?

Llywydd, the policy of the Welsh Government is to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible here in Wales. There is no other policy. It is our top priority and it is the top priority of those very hard-working people in our health service who, on top of everything else that we ask of them, are putting in those long hours to make sure that 1,000 people in care homes are being vaccinated every day here in Wales, and that by the end of this week, as a minimum, 70 per cent of the over-80s and people living and working in care homes will have been vaccinated in Wales. When I spoke in First Minister's questions last week, Llywydd, I said that our hope was that we would have 100 GP practices vaccinating by the end of last week—we exceeded that; that we were to have 250 GP practices by the end of the month—we will exceed that; that we would have 35 mass vaccination centres—we're going to have 45. Not only is the Welsh NHS doing everything that we have asked of it, it is doing even more every day, and that means we can be confident that we will deliver vaccination to those top four priority groups, in line with our plan, by the middle of February. It's thanks to those enormous efforts, which I think everybody in this Senedd will want to support.

14:05

Well, First Minister, if it's your policy to get the vaccines into people's arms as quickly as possible, why on earth did you actually say that you wanted to roll out the vaccines over a period of time? Because that is just a confusing message. And, Llywydd, whilst the Welsh Government may be happy with its go-slow approach, the people of Wales are far from happy; they want to see action and they want to see it now. In the meantime, people across Wales are being held prisoner to this virus. People can't meet up with their loved ones, children are without face-to-face learning and parents are struggling to manage the competing demands of working from home and home schooling their children. The Welsh Government's slow progress in vaccinating people just increases people's frustration and anger at a time when the Welsh Government should be providing them with hope and doing everything possible to expedite its vaccine delivery.

First Minister, will you tell us why Wales has been lagging behind the rest of the UK in rolling out the vaccine to those who actually need it most here in Wales? And can you tell us what urgent action the Welsh Government is taking to seriously accelerate its vaccine delivery to priority groups in Wales, so that those who need it the most can receive their vaccine as soon as possible?

Well, Llywydd, the health spokesperson of the Conservative Party said earlier this afternoon that he wanted to see the vaccine programme succeed. It does not help to make it succeed when the leader of the opposition deliberately and knowingly runs down the efforts of those people who are working so hard to accelerate vaccine here in Wales by describing it all the time as a go-slow policy.

Let me just say again, because he said he might be confused; he needn't be confused if he'd listened to the first two answers I've given him. Let me give him the answer again and then he need not be confused again in the future: the policy of the Welsh Government is to vaccinate as many people in Wales as quickly and as safely as possible. That is how we have had 162,000 people vaccinated already here in Wales. That is why the pace of vaccination will accelerate again this week. The rate-limiting factor in Welsh vaccination is the one that the health Minister explained, in answering the emergency question. It is the rate of supply of the vaccine. We've had 25,000 doses of the Oxford vaccine available to us over each of the last two weeks. We expect to have 80,000 doses available to us this week, and we will use all of them. And we will use every drop of the Pfizer vaccine as well before the next delivery of that vaccine arrives here in Wales. That is our determination, that is what people in the NHS are working so hard to achieve, and I know that they would like to have the support of the leader of the opposition rather than his continual criticism of them.

First Minister, if the rate-limiting factor is supply—and the health Minister just said that that was true across all of the nations—what it then explains is the differential rate of vaccination in Wales compared to, as we've heard, the UK as a whole, England and Northern Ireland in particular. If it's the same rate of supply across these nations, then why are we seeing a differential rate, a gap between the rate of vaccination in Wales? We haven't really heard, to my mind, a coherent, clear answer to that question. So, can you give it to us now?

Well, Llywydd, the race we are in in Wales is the race with the virus. The race is between infection and injection; it is not a race with other countries. We are doing our very best to vaccinate as many people as fast as we can, with the supply of vaccine that we have, and that is what we are focused on. The figures between different parts of the United Kingdom will vary over time, as they do with every other aspect of coronavirus. The figures that matter to people in Wales are the figures of vaccination that are going on here, and our determination and our confidence in the plan that we have, which is the same plan as in any other part of the United Kingdom, is to complete the vaccination of the top four priority groups by the middle of February. We are on course to do that, and that is where our efforts are focused.

14:10

First Minister, you haven't addressed my question, and it's a reasonable question for me to put to you, and, indeed, it's a question that my own elderly parents ask me, because they're in the position—they haven't had a date at all; both of them in their 80s. My father, an 85 year old ex-miner, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; he in a clinically vulnerable group, and yet he has had no communication yet to explain to him when he's going to get a vaccination. We have family, like many people in Wales, across different parts of the UK; many of them have been vaccinated, and they have had a date for a vaccination. So, a reasonable question for me to put to you again, First Minister, is: what explains the gap? It's important for us to know, because if there's a problem there, then we can solve it. Is it the case that—? We heard the Minister referring to the fact that Wales has higher shares of population in some of the priority groups—absolutely. We've got higher numbers of people in the over 80s. We've got a significantly higher share of people in the over 65s. So, isn't there a case to return to the question of whether we should be getting a share that is greater than our population because of this higher level of need?

Well, Llywydd, I discussed that very issue with the First Ministers of Scotland, Northern Ireland and with Michael Gove at the Cabinet Office in our meeting on Wednesday of last week. We explored it with the most senior civil servant who is responsible for securing and dispersing supplies of vaccines across the United Kingdom. The point about our age structure was recognised in that conversation, and actions are being taken to make sure that it is taken into account in the supplies of vaccine, which will ramp up here in Wales and across the whole of the United Kingdom.

The figures of what happens elsewhere in the United Kingdom and what happens in Wales will, as I say, change week by week. What we are focused on is making the fastest and most efficient use of every drop of vaccine that comes here in Wales. We've used the Oxford vaccine that's come to us over the last two weeks; we will use the 80,000 doses that we have this week, and accelerating numbers beyond. And we will use all the Pfizer vaccine that we have before there's another delivery of it here in Wales. And the figures that will matter most to people—and I absolutely understand that there are people who are still waiting to be contacted. Our programme sets out that we would offer the vaccine to everybody by the middle of February; inevitably, there are some people who will still be waiting. I absolutely understand that they will be anxious and waiting to be contacted. The figures that will matter to them are the figures of how the vaccine is being deployed here in Wales, and the figures that have been provided this afternoon, by the health Minister and by myself, demonstrate that we are on track to deliver what we promised, in line with what is happening across the whole of the United Kingdom.

It's right, of course, for us not to be just parochial, if you like, and comparing ourselves to other nations in these islands, but comparing ourselves to some of the best in the world. We know, of course, by Sunday, Israel had vaccinated 20 per cent of its population—I think it's now up to 28 per cent. It was initially expected that their programme would also suffer a slow down with Pfizer doses running low, but the Israeli Government secured a commitment from the company to bring forward deliveries on the grounds that they would share statistical data, in return giving scientists a case study to which to analyse the impact of the vaccine roll-out. That means that they're on target to meet a complete vaccination of their citizens over 16 within two months. First Minister, would you commit to contacting Pfizer to explore avenues for Wales to reach a similar agreement, or failing this, would you make representations to the UK Prime Minister to pursue a similar path, so that we can make this lockdown that we're going through now the last lockdown?

Well, Llywydd, as the health Minister explained, we do have direct contact with suppliers of the vaccine, but that is not about the contract that is struck with them—that is done by the UK Government on behalf of all four nations. I'll raise the points the Member has made at my next meeting with the UK Government tomorrow, but the negotiations that they carry out on our behalf have succeeded in securing for the United Kingdom, and therefore for Wales, supplies of vaccine that mean that the United Kingdom, and Wales as part of it, is, as you heard the health Minister explain, at the leading edge of vaccination on the world stage. The confidence that we have in those supplies comes from our ability to pool our needs and our resources and to have that then dispersed across the United Kingdom in a way that reflects both our population and the structure of that population.

14:15
COVID-19 Vaccinations

3. What action is the Welsh Government taking to speed up the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations in Wales? OQ56159

7. Will the First Minister make a statement on the progress of the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccinations in north Wales? OQ56127

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. With GPs and pharmacies now delivering COVID vaccinations in Wales, we will step up the contribution of optometrists and dentistry to provide additional resource and capacity as volumes of available vaccine increase. 

Thank you. First Minister, you just had the audacity to say earlier in the questioning that, 'You can't trust the Tories', yet the people of Wales have trusted you to deliver this roll-out of the vaccine at speed to try and save the lives of the people of Wales, and you have let them down in some fashion. I welcome the comments by the health Minister earlier, but, quite frankly, your comments over the last couple of days to the media are bewildering, and I think that's a good use of word by the medical association. Like in England, this whole system in Wales needs to be more transparent. We are in a sprint to save lives, so what is the problem? If you're not holding the vaccines back, Minister, is the system the problem? Why are we so behind? If everyone got the vaccine in December, why are we so different? Why are we so behind? An excuse just now was delivery is a problem. Well, what are you doing to increase delivery, to speed up the delivery of the vaccine? People already are waiting, as Janet Finch-Saunders said, to deliver and to vaccinate people. They are wanting to vaccinate more people, and yet Community Pharmacy Wales has expressed concern at the lack of engagement they've had from your Government to expand the vaccine roll-out programme. What's going on, Minister? How can you justify us being so far behind everyone else?

Well, Llywydd, as I've explained and as the health Minister has explained, we set out our plans to vaccinate the whole of the top four priority groups here in Wales on a common timetable with the rest of the United Kingdom. We are on track to deliver on that promise. We will vaccinate the four priority groups by the middle of February. Letters are going out in Wales this week to people aged over 70 and in the previously shielding group to make sure that they are ready to receive the vaccine, which will be available to them in all parts of Wales at the accelerating pace that the figures for the last three weeks continue to demonstrate. All of those plans are there; what we need to make sure that we can deliver them is a supply of vaccine that matches our capacity on the ground to deliver it. The delivery mechanisms are there and ready, and will be expanded in the way that I explained to the Member. We need the supply of vaccine to match that, and then we will make sure that, as we set out in our plan, those four top priority groups will all receive the vaccine in line with everywhere else by the middle of February.

I received a request to group questions 3 and 7, and therefore I'll call Darren Millar to ask his supplementary on question 7. Darren Millar.

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, the Betsi Cadwaladr health board, according to a written answer from your own health Minister, received just 17.3 per cent of the vaccine stock distributed by the Welsh Government to 8 January, in spite of having over 22 per cent of the Welsh population to look after. And just last week, GPs in north Wales who were part of the vaccine roll-out programme were told to postpone appointments because of delays in delivering vaccine stock. Now, this is coupled with what appears to be a slower roll-out of the vaccination programme in north Wales. Can you tell us why north Wales isn't getting its fair share of vaccine stocks, or certainly wasn't up until 8 January, and also why GPs can't use the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, given that it has a five-day shelf life even after being taken out of deep cold storage, because, as I understand it, that's one of the reasons why the ramp-up hasn't been quicker than it currently is in north Wales?

14:20

Llywydd, the Member is quite wrong in his description of the position in north Wales. By 8 a.m. yesterday, 31,095 citizens in north Wales had been vaccinated, and that is by some way the highest number of any health board anywhere in Wales. So, far from being held back, actually, the actions of the Betsi Cadwaladr health board are putting them in the lead of vaccination here in Wales. And that is because of the amazing response that we have had from the GP community and the community pharmacy community in north Wales. All 98 primary care practices in Betsi Cadwaladr have indicated that they wish to engage and deliver the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Now, Darren Millar is right that we had hoped to receive 26,000 more doses of the Oxford vaccine than will come our way this week. And that has meant that some plans that were there in north Wales to accelerate still further vaccination have had to be held back. The good news is that the UK Government assure us that we will get that supply next week, in addition to what we were already expecting next week. So that will be a very temporary downturn in the vaccine that we would otherwise expect. 

GPs in their own surgeries are much better equipped to deliver the Oxford vaccine than the Pfizer vaccine, for reasons that many Members will know. The Pfizer vaccine has to be stored in very particular conditions, not simply of temperature but in other conditions as well. It means the Pfizer vaccines are suited for the mass vaccination centres—three of them already in north Wales—and for the hospital-based vaccination centres—three of those in north Wales—and the GP community will focus on the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine. The success of that strategy lies behind the very considerable success that we are seeing in north Wales and which I know the Member will want to recognise and to celebrate. 

First Minister, I was very pleased to visit the mass vaccination centre at Rainbow Hospital in Deeside last week and see at first hand the mammoth efforts being undertaken to roll out the vaccination programme. And I want to take this time today to put on record my thanks and to pay tribute to all of the staff and all of the volunteers in Betsi for their hard work. 

We have heard some worrying news this weekend about the delays in the supply of vaccines. First Minister, will these affect the Welsh Government's ambitious target to offer everyone in the first priority groups a vaccine by mid February? And can the First Minister reassure me that every community pharmacy that expresses interest will be administering the vaccine across north-east Wales and, in particular, in Flintshire? 

Well, I thank Jack Sargeant for that supplementary question, Llywydd, and for what he said about the efforts that he has seen himself on the ground by people going far beyond what their contract would expect, working in the evenings, working at weekends, doing everything they can to make sure that as many people as quickly as possible are vaccinated here in Wales. 

The problems that have been reported with the vaccine supply are just a warning to us that that supply chain does have fragilities in it. We were due four batches of the Oxford vaccine to Wales this week. One of those batches, very late in the process, was identified as needing some further attention and therefore couldn't come to us this week. Members will have read some of the concerns that have been expressed elsewhere in Europe about issues at the Belgian factory of the Pfizer company. I think Pfizer has since confirmed that there are some issues at that factory and that will have some impact on its ability to ramp up supplies in the way that it had anticipated. These are problems, however, that do not simply affect Wales. They affect all those places that are relying on the vaccine coming through in the way that we would all wish, and the impact of the Oxford vaccine issues wasn't just felt in Wales, it was felt in other parts of the United Kingdom as well. We remain confident—to go to Jack's point, we remain confident that we will deliver the promise we made, that those top four priority groups will be vaccinated by mid February, and the contribution of community pharmacy will not simply be in pharmacies themselves, but will be made by community pharmacists helping at mass vaccination centres, where the skills and the abilities that they have built up, through, for example, the flu vaccination programme, will be put to very good use in making sure that those vaccines are delivered as quickly as they possibly can be to people here in Wales. 

14:25

I've had quite a lot of communication from people who are anxious because they don't feel that the Government has been proactive enough in telling them who is eligible and when they will get that information through. I've even had some comments and some phone calls to my office, as we've been speaking here, from over-80-year-olds saying they've had to chase appointments with the GP. I hear what you're saying—that they will find out in February—but I think people need to know loud and clear exactly when they will be having that information to allay any anxieties they may have. I've also been concerned with a lady who contacted me in my region who is over 80, but was told to go to a centre over 30 miles away. That simply is not acceptable. What can you do to allay her fears, that she will get another vaccine opportunity at a closer place, so that she can be protected from this most terrible virus?

Llywydd, can I thank the Member for those important points? I believe that all health boards have written directly to all residents in their area setting out the plans at a health board level for the delivery of the vaccine, and the Welsh Government's plan was, of course, published over a week ago; we've rehearsed that extensively here this afternoon. At the very local level, where GPs are vaccinating, then the information has to come from the practice, because of the way in which it is able to organise delivery of the vaccine in the most rapid way that it can. The individual that the Member mentioned who was offered a vaccine 30 miles away will have been offered it because that was the first possible opportunity to get vaccine to that individual. But, of course, if you are aged over 80, travel will not always be possible for you, and, in those circumstances, that individual will definitely get an offer from a much more local provider, whether it's her GP or whether it's in a community pharmacy setting. But the offer will have been made because of everything we have heard and the other people that the Member mentioned—people wanting to know, and wanting, of course, to get the vaccine as fast as possible—and the offer will have been made because that would have been the first possible opportunity to allow that person to get the vaccine that they will want. When it isn't possible for them to take up that offer, then a different offer will be made to them by the Welsh NHS, and one that they will in a position to take up.

I'm grateful, Presiding Officer, and thank you for your answers on this, First Minister. I visited the mass vaccination centre that opened in Ebbw Vale last Thursday, and I have to say it was an inspiring and uplifting experience to see the enthusiasm of the nursing staff, of the health service workers, working alongside the RAF personnel who were there managing the process—it was something that was really uplifting to see, together with the people, overwhelmingly over 80 years old, who had been vaccinated, and the sense of purpose of those people walking into the general offices to receive their vaccination and then feeling so confident walking out.

And do you know, First Minister, what people in Blaenau Gwent want is to see politicians working together to put people first, and not playing politics with their lives? That's what people want and that's what they tell me, and what they want to see is how we can expand and quicken the pace of the vaccination programme, when GPs and pharmacies are able to deliver the vaccine in their own community close to home. Can you, this afternoon, guarantee that GPs and pharmacies will be having doses of a vaccine, and will be able to supplement mass vaccination centres, to ensure that the people we want to take care of have a vaccine and are able to feel safe?

14:30

Llywydd, I thank Alun Davies very much for that supplementary question, and I agree with him completely. What people in Wales expect is a genuine team Wales effort to get this enormous vaccination programme done as fast and as effectively as we can. And it is inspiring when you talk to and hear from those front-line staff who are going far beyond what could reasonably be expected of them to make sure that the programme is a success.

And let me just give the Member just a couple of figures to bear out what he asked, because in Gwent, this week just gone, 14 GP practices had already commenced clinics using the Oxford vaccine. By the end of this week, 70 of the 74 Gwent practices will have received vaccine and will be carrying out immunisations in their local communities. Fourteen last week, 70 this week, and 72 next week. I think that just demonstrates the amazing commitment of our GP and primary care community, the speed at which that is being mobilised locally, and I think that will speak louder to people in Wales who want to see this succeed than anything that I am likely to say, and certainly louder than any of those who seek to run their efforts down.

First Minister, you've talked about the need to go slow with vaccinating people, but nobody else seems able to understand this, including the BMA. And three other Ministers, rather than explaining the thinking behind the go slow, have simply come out and decided that this is what is happening. Vaughan Gething, Kirsty Williams and Jeremy Miles are all saying that the vaccine is being rolled out as fast as possible. In other words, they are, all of them, totally contradicting your publicly stated policy. I wonder if you can explain why this is happening. We now understand from your response earlier today that the vaccination programme has not even been discussed at Cabinet level. Does your Cabinet understand your policy on vaccinating the Welsh people? Does anyone understand it?

Well, Llywydd, it would no doubt improve the quality of discussion here in the Senedd if the Member were to just listen to what has been said already. The Cabinet discusses all aspects of our coronavirus response throughout the coronavirus period, including vaccination. Let me put that point clearly to him so that he need not make that mistake another time.

As to the pace of the roll-out, let me just say it again: the policy of the Welsh Government is to deliver vaccination as fast as we can, for as many people as we can, as safely as we can, in all parts of Wales. Next time he quotes our policy, I look forward to him quoting that because he's heard it from me, and he's heard it from me repeatedly during the afternoon. There really is no excuse for the Member's confusion.

Okay. Sorry, there was a technical issue there. 

Yesterday, the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board confirmed that all GPs in my constituency will be in receipt of the vaccine today and tomorrow. That's up from 13 in the whole board area last week. The vaccine centre at Ystrad Mynach is open indefinitely to help hit the four priority targets by mid February, and last week, nearly 11,000 people in our area were vaccinated.

I've had some concerns raised with me by residents who have relations in England about what they perceive to be a postcode lottery happening there, and it's in all of our interests to ensure that the whole of the UK is vaccinated as soon as possible. I want to recognise, after this past few days, the progress that's been made in the Aneurin Bevan health board area, and would the First Minister therefore recognise that, and the progress being made in Caerphilly?

Llywydd, I absolutely recognise the astonishing efforts that have been made in the Aneurin Bevan area, by staff of the health board and by people who are at the front line. That's particularly commendable, Llywydd, I think, given that only weeks ago the level of coronavirus in the Aneurin Bevan health board area was amongst the highest in the whole of Wales, and the health board has had to deal not simply with vaccination, but with all those people who have fallen ill with this virus, and the demand that that has placed on health services and hospital services, particularly in the Aneurin Bevan health board area. As of today, Llywydd, I'm very pleased to say that numbers in the Aneurin Bevan health board area continue to decline, because of the efforts that residents, particularly residents of the Caerphilly area, as we've discussed here in the Senedd previously, the enormous efforts they have made during the lockdown to help us to get those numbers heading in the right direction. The health board has taken every advantage of the opportunities it now has to mobilise its primary care community, to deliver vaccination in the way that the Member has already described, and at the scale that will be evident in the Aneurin Bevan area over the week ahead.

Now, I repeat what I said earlier, Llywydd: I am focused on what happens here in Wales, I'm delivering on the promise that we made. But, everywhere in the United Kingdom, you will find people raising concerns that people who are younger than themselves have been offered vaccination while they themselves are still waiting for it. You will have seen what Thérèse Coffey, the Cabinet Minister in London, has said yesterday about the part of England that she represents not having had a fair share of the vaccine available in England. All communities are anxious to make sure that they are getting everything that can be done. That is true here in Wales, and people in the Aneurin Bevan area can be very proud indeed of everything that their health service is doing on their behalf.

14:35
COVID-19 in the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board Area

4. What is the First Minister’s current assessment of COVID-19 in the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board area? OQ56155

Llywydd, we continue to see a trend of reducing incidence rates and test positivity rates across all local authority areas within the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board area. However, numbers do remain high and our NHS capacity is still very stretched. All efforts must continue to continue to drive those rates down further.

First Minister, the vaccination programme is crucial in saving lives, in reducing pressure on our national health service, with all the benefits that brings for COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 health services, and in allowing restrictions to be eased for a return of economic activity, our schools and more normal living. Understandably, expectations of the roll-out are very high, and my constituents want to see every effort made to vaccinate as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. I know, First Minister, from what you've said today and previously, that you are very committed to this, so is the Welsh Government collectively, and of course, so is our NHS. First Minister, will you reassure my constituents who have contacted me here in Newport East that vaccination will proceed with the utmost urgency, with the top 4 priority groups offered a vaccine by mid February, and the other groups following as quickly as possible, to get us out of this terrible crisis in the shortest possible time?

Llywydd, I can do no better than to echo exactly what John Griffiths said in his supplementary question. The policy of the Welsh Government is to vaccinate as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. And the efforts we've already discussed here this afternoon amongst healthcare staff in Gwent just demonstrate the commitment that they have to exactly that policy. Now, I've set out already, Llywydd, the very rapid increase in the number of GP practices in the Member's constituency who will be delivering the vaccine this week. But that is on top of the four mass vaccination centres that are currently operating in the Gwent area, and, as I know John Griffiths will be aware, a large mass vaccination centre opened in Newport yesterday, ahead of schedule, and that is typical of what is happening across Wales.

As I said in an earlier answer, Llywydd, when I was here last week, I was setting out our ambitions for mass vaccination centres, GP practices, and we're exceeding those ambitions, as we are in Newport, because of all the efforts that are being made. And, because of that, the local population in the Member's constituency can have confidence that the plans we set out will be delivered, that they will be delivered with urgency and with determination, and that when we complete the first four priority groups, those efforts will continue and expand further as we drive our way down the nine top priority groups and then move on to the rest of the population.

14:40
Council Tax

5. What assessment has the First Minister made of the impact of an increase in council tax on the finances of people in South Wales East who are facing financial difficulties? OQ56164

Llywydd, in recognition of the financial difficulties facing individuals and public services, the Welsh Government’s draft budget provides an uplift of 3.8 per cent in revenue funding for local authorities, at a time when inflation is rising at 0.6 per cent, and when our own budget in 2021-22 will be more than 3 per cent lower in real terms than a decade ago.

I thank the First Minister for that answer and for those points. However, many families and individuals in my region have faced real financial hardships even though they don't qualify for council tax support as it is available. A recent report by the Bevan Foundation found that nearly a quarter of households have seen their incomes fall since the start of the pandemic, while at the same time they've seen their living costs increase. It found that one in five households with incomes of less than £20,000 a year have had to cut back on food, on heating, electricity and water. We know that council tax is the most regressive tax we have, because it places the biggest burden on low-income households and we've had confirmation that councils, including one in my region, in Caerphilly, intend to raise council tax by 4 per cent. The Labour Party leader in England, Keir Starmer, said it is absurd to expect hard-pressed families to pay more and called on the UK Government to cover the proposed increases in England. Will the Welsh Government do that in Wales?

Well, Llywydd, if the UK Government provides funding to allow that to happen, then we will get, we assume—although that's an assumption that becomes more questionable these days—a Barnett consequential of that decision and that would allow us to do more to help families here in Wales. The Member will know that, unlike in England, our council tax benefit system operates across the whole of Wales, that the Welsh Government put £22 million over and above the money that came from the UK Government when that benefit was devolved to us, and that hundreds of thousands of households in Wales benefit from that provision. Because of a take-up campaign that the Welsh Government with local authorities mounted earlier last year, we've had 10,000 more additional households apply since the end of March to benefit from the council tax benefit, and that is because of the pressures on household incomes that the Member quite rightly sets out.

We use every opportunity we have to provide services and financial help that leaves money in the pockets of families who otherwise would have to pay for things themselves. Where more help comes from the UK Government, we will deploy that to help those families further. In the meantime, I go back to a point that Huw Irranca-Davies made, Llywydd, in the very first question this afternoon, that the biggest help that the UK Government can provide, and the most urgent help it needs to provide, is to guarantee that the £20 a week that the poorest families in the land now get when they are on universal credit continues beyond 31 March this year. Without that, the hard-pressed families that Delyth Jewell has referred to will be £1,000 a year worse off, and there's no family in Wales living on those sorts of incomes that can possibly afford to be in that position.

14:45
Child Poverty

6. Will the First Minister make a statement on the level of child poverty in Llanelli? OQ56147

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. The pandemic is predicted to increase child poverty in Llanelli and across Wales. That impact would be made worse by premature withdrawal of the job retention scheme and any refusal to maintain the £20 universal credit weekly uplift beyond the end of March.

I'm grateful to the First Minister for his answer. In an earlier answer, he told us, and I would not disagree, that we can't trust the Tories, and when it comes to providing support for our poorest families and our poorest children, I don't believe we can trust them either. The First Minister makes reference to the threat of the withdrawal of the £20 uplift for universal credit, but given what he said to us about not trusting the Tories, can I ask him again to reconsider his decision not to seek the devolution of benefits, as has been recommended by a committee of this Senedd and by independent research and think tanks, because that would enable us, despite the financial challenges, to develop a system of our own that would be fairer when it came to supporting families in these positions? In the meantime, further to exchanges that we had last week, will he consider the practicality of extending free school meals to all those children whose families are in receipt of universal credit? If we can't get the devolution of the main part of the benefits system, is it not time for his Government to support those families in ways that are within this Senedd's current competence?

Llywydd, I thank Helen Mary Jones for those further questions. I am persuaded by much of what was said in the report provided by the committee of the Senedd chaired by John Griffiths about exploring the devolution of the administration of aspects of the benefits system. It was a very helpful report, and it helps to shape the thinking of the Welsh Government, and I'm very happy to go on exploring that with Members who are of a similar persuasion.

As to the point the Member makes about free school meals, the changes that we have made to free school meals entitlement during this term will extend eligibility to thousands more children over the next couple of years. Plaid Cymru's policy is to provide free school meals to every child in a family where universal credit is being claimed. I set out for the Member last week that, if those families have two children per family, that's a cost of £67 million a year, and that would rise to over £100 million a year. Those other costings I have been provided by officials in the Welsh Government whose job it is to help us administer the help we currently provide to families receiving free school meals. Those are choices that Governments can make.

But the last questioner, Llywydd, asked me to find Welsh Government money to help families who struggle because of the council tax. Plaid Cymru has a policy of providing £35 a week for free-school-meals children, again at a cost of many millions of pounds. It has a policy of providing free childcare from 12 months of age, at a cost of £950 million. It has a policy of free social care for everyone in Wales. When parties put forward policies, they have to be able to credibly explain to people not why something is desirable, but why it is also achievable within the resources that the Welsh Government has, and I'm afraid when you begin to add up that long list of no doubt desirable things, I think very many question marks begin to emerge about their deliverability.

Constitutional Developments

8. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's proposals for constitutional developments in Wales? OQ56160

Llywydd, I set out our proposals for Wales’s constitutional arrangements in the 'Reforming our Union' paper published at the end of last year. We have been clear that Wales’s future is best secured through a powerful and entrenched devolution settlement, within a successful United Kingdom.

14:50

It's a fascinating document, but, First Minister, we're currently seeing the impact of vaccinations being devolved. What would it be like if, as you want, you also get your hands on justice or can borrow money with no restraint? When devolution is a process that only ever moves in one direction—towards independence—how can people become comfortable with it? If there is no devolution settlement, if it's not stable, won't we sooner or later have to choose between abolishing this place or sleepwalking to independence? 

Llywydd, from a Member who I believe is now in the fifth political party that he's joined since the last election, lectures on stability seem a little far-fetched. The way to debate Wales's constitutional future is to set out different propositions, to put them to the public, to make arguments in favour of them. The Welsh Labour Party and the Government that I represent will go on arguing that Wales's constitutional future is best secured through a form of radical federalism, in which the dispersal of sovereignty to four different, directly elected Parliaments in the United Kingdom is recognised, but where we choose to pool that sovereignty in order to more effectively secure common goals—an entrenched devolution settlement for a successful United Kingdom.

That is the ground that the Welsh Labour Party occupies, not the increasingly strident English nationalism of the Conservative Party here in Wales, and those candidates it appears willing to select on the basis that they will, to quote one of them, 'take a sledgehammer to the Senedd', and come here to campaign for the destruction of devolution. That appears to be the viewpoint of the modern Conservative Party in Wales, but nor will we support the idea of independence—a nineteenth-century idea to a twenty-first century problem. The real future, the constitutional future that the bulk of people in Wales want to see is proper, powerful, entrenched devolution with the advantages that continued membership of the United Kingdom brings to Wales. 

The Erasmus Programme

9. What are the implications for Wales of the UK Government's decision to cancel UK participation in the European Erasmus programme? OQ56157

Llywydd, the decision by the Westminster Government not to participate in Erasmus+ means that the benefits of a highly valued programme are being denied to our young people. For the first time this year, organisations and institutions in Wales will no longer be able to submit new applications to Erasmus+, in an act of cultural vandalism. 

Thank you, First Minister. I would agree with you—it is indeed an act of cultural vandalism. One of the most disappointing aspects of the UK Government's decision to turn its back on Europe and the opportunities that Erasmus offered for young people, particularly those from disadvantaged families, is that my understanding is that the Turing scheme, which they hope to replace it with, does not allow youth services to nominate people who may not be taking the academic path in their future career path, but those who need to, nevertheless, broaden their horizons, understand what the innovations are that already exist in Europe and which could be strengthening their capacity to run successful businesses here in Wales. So, what options are now open to young people to engage with their global responsibilities in an informed way?

Llywydd, I think it's a very good question from Jenny Rathbone. Let me repeat what I said here once before, Llywydd. The Turing scheme is an English scheme being imposed on the rest of the United Kingdom. It is an early example of the way in which the Conservative Party intends to use the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, because instead of providing money to Wales for us to discharge our devolved responsibilities for higher and further education and the youth service, this is to be a scheme imposed on us, funded directly from Whitehall with no reference at all to the particular needs, circumstances and democratic preferences of people here in Wales. Jenny Rathbone is absolutely right—we have made greater use of the Erasmus programme for young people through the youth service than any other part of the United Kingdom. It's been a distinctively Welsh feature of the use that we have made of it, and that's now going to be denied to us. That is part of the disgrace of the UK Government's failure to negotiate proper participation in the scheme, and then to compound that by imposing on us a scheme that simply doesn't meet the needs and preferences of people here in Wales.

We will now have to build up, in answer to the Member's final part of the question, those schemes that we already have in operation in Wales: the Seren programme, which sends young people to Yale, Harvard, Chicago and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the scholarships that we promote through Global Wales; the MIT global teaching laboratories, in which 25,000 learners in Wales participated in 2020. Llywydd, when I met the German ambassador a week ago, he very positively put to me the prospects for bilateral arrangements between young people in Wales and young people in Germany outside the arrangements that the UK Government is contemplating imposing on us. We will pursue those bilateral opportunities—those opportunities we've already invested in—to try and make good the fact that young people in Wales are now to be denied opportunities that generations of young people have been able to enjoy up until now and were quite certainly promised to them by the UK Government, and have failed to be delivered in the deal that they have struck with the European Union.

14:55
2. Business Statement and Announcement

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

Diolch, Llywydd. There is one change to this week's business. The statement on the Welsh Government's response to the recommendations of the South East Wales Transport Commission will be made by the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport. 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.

I call for a Welsh Government statement on COVID-19 vaccination for police officers. Responding to you last week, I referred to calls by the North Wales Police Federation for policing to be considered for some priority on the COVID-19 vaccination programme. Instead, the health Minister, Vaughan Gething, subsequently told me, quote,

'There is a real impact to moving occupational staff groups around',

and referred to lateral flow testing trials for the police. Yesterday, North Wales Police Federation told me they had been contacted over the weekend by, quote, 'Very reliable sources working within the vaccination centres', who advised that hospital secretaries and even social workers who are working from home are receiving the vaccine, yet front-line policing is still not considered to be a risk, nor even being allowed to use up any spare or unused vaccines. They added, 'Even if we could get front-line police officers on a stand-by list, like is happening in some parts of England, it would be a start.' An e-mail from a front-line north Wales police officer today stated, 'There is always a sense of shock and bewilderment when I speak to people and inform them that police are not considered a priority group for the vaccine. I ask that the Welsh Government commit to giving policing some priority', she said, 'where we need to protect the protectors who ultimately protect us all.' I call for a statement accordingly. 

Thank you to Mark Isherwood for raising that issue this afternoon, and of course I very much understand everybody's anxiousness in terms of being able to access the vaccine as soon as humanly possible. There are several questions to the health Minister on the order paper tomorrow afternoon in relation to the COVID-19 vaccines, so there may be opportunities there to raise this directly with the Minister, but I'm sure the Minister's response would be along the lines of Welsh Government very much taking the advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation in terms of the priority schedule because this very much should be something that is clinician led, taking on board all of the evidence available to them, rather than for politicians to decide the order of vaccination. Because it's such a sensitive and serious undertaking, given that we're talking about saving as many lives as we possibly can. But there are several opportunities, I think, within the next 24 hours to raise this, and, of course, the health Minister has just had an emergency question on vaccination this afternoon.

15:00

Could we have a statement, please, on perinatal mental health support, which includes ways in which the Welsh Government will implement a whole-family approach and recognise the fact that many new parents currently don't have the support they need? I'm asking this because my office has conducted a survey with over 300 responses, which clearly shows that over 80 per cent have felt that they weren't getting enough support during giving birth last year, and that, despite tweaks in the health service to those who can attend a birth, they are still finding that they are very much alone during that process. Over two thirds said that they haven't had contact with a health visitor and a staggering 68 per cent of those with mild to moderate perinatal mental health symptoms said that they had not received any support. So, a statement on that would be good.

My second request is a statement on the provision of free school meals. In Wales, some councils are still providing parcels, and we've seen that being scrapped in England, much to the joy of many of your Labour colleagues. But here in Wales, Bridgend County Borough Council are still administering food parcels and are currently refusing to allow any direct payments or any food vouchers, despite the fact that much of the food has gone off, or they're not receiving the food that's appropriate for the dietary requirements of their young people. I think it's time, now, that Welsh Government intervened on this considering that three of these councils are simply not budging on the food parcels agenda and are not allowing parents to make decisions for their own children that would allow them to spend the money as they so wish.

Thank you for raising those two issues. In respect of perinatal mental health support, I know that the health Minister would be really interested in the findings of your survey that you've undertaken. You say you've had more than 300 responses, so I'm sure that that will provide a really useful evidence base for the Welsh Government. So, if you could share that with the health Minister, I know that he'd be keen to explore the findings of your survey.

In respect of free school meals, I will, on this occasion, invite you to take up this perhaps through writing in the first instance to the Minister for local government, who will be able to raise specific concerns with the leader, potentially, of Bridgend council in respect of what you've described in terms of food that has gone off and so on. Because clearly, that's something that we obviously wouldn't want to be taking place.

Trefnydd, could we have a statement from the health Minister on whether he will ask the joint council for vaccinations to add front-line funeral workers, mortuary technicians and embalmers to the list of front-line healthcare staff in Wales for whom occupational immunisation with the COVID-19 vaccination is recommended? I understand Northern Ireland are likely to do so within the coming days, and, indeed, Scotland and England have done so in recent days.

Could we also have a statement on pay for experienced supply teachers? There's been a welcome framework put in place in Wales to ensure that all supply teachers are paid to at least M1, the entrance level salary, and it's a big improvement for many. However, for the more experienced teachers, including a constituent of mine who is on the U1 level, this is quite a bit under what they've trained for and what they've gained experience over many years for. If supply teachers are employed directly by councils, they're paid to the scale that they're on, but the fear is that supply agencies are taking over so much that schools are not using supply pools themselves any more, so experienced teachers are earning much less than they're qualified for.

A statement, Minister, could also clarify arrangements for supply teachers through furlough. There are many agencies that are still deciding whether or not to furlough their supply staff. As being a supply teacher depends entirely on day-to-day work, the supply agencies are finding the furlough process quite difficult and, of course, this impacts, then, on their supply teachers too. So, I'd welcome those two statements, please. 

15:05

Thank you for raising both of those issues this afternoon. It is the case that the JCVI guidance issued on 2 December states that front-line funeral operatives and mortuary technicians or embalmers are both at risk of exposure. It has been agreed now that those in the funeral sector who would require PPE to undertake their role would come under cohort 2 and, therefore, should be vaccinated. So, we would ask any of those working in that industry to pass their information on to the local health board to ensure that the vaccination is offered to them at the appropriate time.

On the second issue, relating to pay for supply teachers, I'll write to you on that matter, in respect of my responsibilities for procurement, to provide a detailed response. 

Can I, firstly, concur with Bethan Sayed's call for better perinatal mental health support? I think that that's an area that has needed some work for a while, and I'm pleased to see that progressing.

Two issues, if I may, Trefnydd. First of all, I attended a meeting, along with some other representatives, with Community Pharmacy Wales yesterday, at which the pace of the vaccine roll-out was raised—it's been raised by many Members today as well, of course—and the potential role of community pharmacies across Wales in helping with the delivery of the vaccine. I know the First Minister mentioned this earlier. I wonder whether we could have a statement from the health Minister on what discussions are being had with Community Pharmacy Wales to increase their involvement in the roll-out. I think they had some interesting comments to make on the Pfizer vaccine, which, obviously, has to be stored at a very low temperature, and I know that some community pharmacies that have been delivering flu vaccines for some time are, maybe, better able to deal with a vaccine like that.

Secondly, and briefly, I wonder whether we could have a statement from the culture Minister on large events and large event venues, and the support that they're getting during the pandemic. I know that Chepstow Racecourse has been particularly affected. I've been contacted by a business that hosts annual events in Chepstow, and they're looking at signposting to more support to get them through, so that they can then build back better.

Thank you for those issues this afternoon. On the role of community pharmacists, they absolutely will play a very important role in terms of our roll-out of the coronavirus vaccine. You'll be aware, of course, that the first community pharmacy pilot has been undertaken in north Wales already, so we'll be looking to learn from that and build from that. Community pharmacists themselves will play an important role. It might not necessarily be in their local pharmacy, but they might be deployed, for example, to some of the mass vaccination centres, because not every pharmacy is necessarily of an appropriate size and scale to offer the vaccine from the pharmacy itself. I know that all of these issues have been discussed and are under continued discussion. When the Minister makes his next update on vaccination, I'm sure that he'll be keen to stress and elaborate on the role that community pharmacy and pharmacists will play, and are playing, in the vaccination programme.

On the second issue, in relation to large sporting events, spectator-sports events particularly, I do know that the Deputy Minister is currently considering what support might be available and is very keen to say something more very shortly on that.

Can I also, like Huw Irranca-Davies, request a ministerial statement regarding supply teachers? I believe it is fundamentally wrong that they are not directly employed by councils or groups of councils. I would like to ask specifically about financial support for supply teachers, because there's very little supply teaching available at the moment. Some have been furloughed and some have not. What financial support can the Welsh Government either give or work with the Westminster Government to achieve for these people, who are highly qualified, highly committed and incredibly badly treated? If I were asked to identify one group of workers in Wales who are treated the worst, I would choose supply teachers. I think it's abysmal, the way they're treated, and I would like a statement from the Government on that, or, preferably, a debate. 

Thank you to Mike Hedges for raising the concerns of supply teachers. I do know that this is a concern for several Members, so we'll explore what might be possible in terms of providing an update that is wider than the one that I've described this afternoon to Huw Irranca-Davies. In Wales, of course, we do have the national supply agency framework in place, and that does aim to ensure fair pay and conditions for supply teachers here. All agencies on that framework have confirmed that they've accessed the furlough scheme for their supply staff from March, and the majority of those framework agencies have committed to furloughing eligible staff once again from this current period of lockdown. Terms and conditions of supply staff will vary, so it's important that staff describe and discuss their personal circumstances with their agency to see if there is some further support or furloughing, particularly, available to them. But I very much recognise Mike Hedges's comment, certainly from the correspondence I've had locally from supply teachers about the difficulty that they've had in accessing support. So, I will explore what more we can do to provide that further information that Mike Hedges has requested.

15:10

I'm grateful to you, Presiding Officer. Can I ask for two statements this afternoon, please? First of all on fisheries, and secondly on the shared prosperity fund.

Minister, I don't think any of us could have failed to have been moved by the reports that we're seeing from the fishing industry at the moment. I don't like to use this language, but it's difficult to say that the fishing industry have been anything except betrayed by the UK Government, not only by the deal, which they reached on Christmas eve, where they capitulated in real terms, but also in the way they've been treated since then. The fishing industry is not a huge industry in Wales, but it is an important industry, and people depend on it for their livelihoods. Those people have been treated appallingly by the UK Government and it's difficult to overstate that. So, I think it would be important that we can have either a statement on support for the fishing industry, or a debate on how we can continue to support the fishing industry.

I noticed over the weekend that Stephen Barclay, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, wrote to the Scottish finance Minister, your equivalent in the Scottish Government. I don't know if you had a copy of his letter, but he seemed to be setting out there some structures for the shared prosperity fund. What he seemed to be saying was what we'd assumed previously, I think, which is that the new funds would be controlled by Westminster, they would be controlled by Whitehall, they will be seeking deliberately, as a focus of policy, to avoid dealing with the democratically elected Governments in either Wales or Scotland.

Now, I don't want to get into an argument over powers, as it happens, but I want to get into an argument over money and how it's spent, and the structures of how it's spent. The Minister may remember, just when she was elected, I was a European programmes Minister, and I published the lessons learnt from the first round of Objective 1 in that role. And it appears to me that the UK Government today are not learning those lessons, but repeating some of the worst mistakes. What I can see is a structure that is set up for political convenience, which is going to take money away from the poorest communities in Wales as a matter of policy, and wasted elsewhere as a matter of policy. I think we really need to address those issues very urgently.

Thank you to Alun Davies for raising those two issues this afternoon. Both of them, I think, describe areas where the UK Government has absolutely misled, I think, the people who will be on the receiving end of the various forms of support. I know that many working in the fishing industry feel that they had been sold a future that hasn't actually materialised, and we've seen the difficulties that that's presenting for those working in the fishing industry at the moment. I will speak to the Minister with regard to your request for an update to explore how we can best demonstrate the Welsh Government's support for the fishing industry here in Wales.

I agree with that analysis in terms of the shared prosperity fund and the impact that it might have on communities such as those that Alun Davies represents, and the opportunities that they will have for future funding. You'll be aware that the UK Government has said that they will introduce a £220 million pilot scheme, starting with further information available from this month. Well, of course, the time for a pilot scheme was a long time ago, and we are actually in a situation where we have a £220 million scheme for the whole of the UK, whereas if we had retained our membership of the European Union, of course, we'd be looking at £375 million just for Wales. So, the analysis that Alun Davies describes is absolutely something that I would agree with, and I will explore with my colleague the Minister with responsibility for EU transition and our future relationships how we can best update the Senedd on these issues.   

15:15
3. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport: The Welsh Government Response to the South East Wales Transport Commission’s Final Recommendations

The next item is a statement by the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport on the Welsh Government's response to the South East Wales Transport Commission's final recommendations. I call on the Deputy Minister to make the statement, Lee Waters.

Diolch, Llywydd. I'd like to update the Senedd on our response to the recommendations made by the South East Wales Transport Commission.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.

The Welsh Government, along with Transport for Wales, have now completed an initial review of all the recommendations made by Lord Burns and his fellow commissioners. And, again, we thank them for their work. Today, we have published a line-by-line response so that we are completely clear on the status of each of the recommendations. It's a bold and practical set of recommendations, and they can only be achieved by a range of bodies working together in partnership. And in that spirit, I want to reiterate the Welsh Government's commitment to work with the local authority, local representatives, the UK Government and other key partners to deliver the Burns commission blueprint.

At its heart, the recommendations set out a vision for the modern public transport system that a city the size of Newport has a right to expect. And as we've indicated in our Wales transport strategy, it's the sort of vision we have for the whole of Wales. The difficult debate over the right solution for tackling congestion around Newport has acted as a catalyst for a broader change. The Burns report has helped to steer us onto a llwybr newydd, a new path, and for this reason I'm happy to confirm that we will accept in principle all of the recommendations.

The new Wales transport strategy sets out a powerful case for a shift towards an integrated, low-carbon and multimodal metro transport network across Wales, and the Burns commission report sets out a blueprint for implementing that vision, though a regional approach to transport and land use planning. It sets out a package of measures to tackle congestion on the M4 around Newport in a way that also helps tackle climate change, improving air quality and advancing social justice. The recommendations of the commission cover all modes of transport, and therefore the responsibility for implementing them needs to be shared. The UK Government, the Welsh Government and Newport City Council all have important roles to play, as does Transport for Wales and Network Rail.  

We have, Llywydd, already signed a memorandum of understanding with Newport City Council to jointly steer forward the way for bus and active travel measures in the city, supported by Transport for Wales. The union connectivity review, led by Sir Peter Hendy, provides the vehicle for the UK Government to provide an early commitment to delivering on the recommendations in non-devolved areas. I have today written to the Secretary of State for Transport and to Network Rail, highlighting the solid reasoning why the rail network in this region needs to be levelled up to be comparable to other parts of the UK. For too long, Wales has been at the back of the queue when the UK Government has been investing in rail infrastructure, but this is a positive opportunity for the UK Government to make good on their underinvestment. And I look forward to working in partnership with them to put that right and to deliver this vision.

The commission has made recommendations across five packages: infrastructure; network policies; behaviour change; transport governance; and land use and planning. Our line-by-line response identifies where action is already being taken and where it can be taken in future to develop them further. There are a number of particular points that I would like to highlight today and to be clear on how we intend to take them forward.

The first is to enhance the south Wales main line and triple the number of stations in the region. Using the Burns report, my officials have already engaged in positive discussions with Network Rail and the UK Department for Transport on the proposals for this non-devolved asset. Our intention is to work further with Network Rail on these recommendations specifically, as well as the wider work of improving the main line, and TfW will play a vital role as our agent for this. A dedicated development unit has now been established within Transport for Wales. This unit will provide advice to a steering group and, ultimately, to Welsh Ministers on progress against all of the recommendations.

Members will have already seen, in the table published today, that many of the measures recommended by Lord Burns are in progress already in some shape or form. Where this is the case, the development unit are now tasked with monitoring progress, and reporting to the steering group if intervention is required to push things along.

Using the evidence base provided by Lord Burns and the commissioners, I'm keen to carry out a rapid prioritisation exercise to identify measures that the development unit can play an active role in progressing at pace. For example, I believe that, working with Newport council, we can select priority bus and active travel measures for the development unit to work on detailed design and consultation, so that we can move quickly to implementation decisions. Preparing for the longer term, the unit has been instructed to develop in more detail a potential delivery programme for each of the recommendations.

Finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, recognising the pivotal role of the development unit's steering group, I am keen to appoint a suitably experienced chair to lead forward progress, and I will provide further updates in due course to inform Members on this and how the wider commission's recommendations are progressing. Dirprwy Lywydd, it's been a difficult journey to get to this point, but I hope the Burns report and our response to it shows a way forward, which can both tackle congestion and tackle climate change, whilst improving the lives and life chances of the people of south-east Wales and beyond. Diolch.

15:20

Can I thank the Deputy Minister for his statement today? And also my own thanks to Lord Burns and the commissioners for their recommendations also. And I should also like to thank Lord Burns and Peter McDonald from the commission secretariat for attending the EIS committee last week, which I thought was particularly helpful.

From my perspective, Deputy Minister, the volume of traffic in Wales is generally increasing year on year. I and my party welcome the recommendations set out in the commission's report; I'll put that on the table very clearly now as well. But I do believe that, of course, the recommendations are no substitute for an M4 relief road—to be clear on that also. It is my view that the recommendations, mainly, shouldn't be carried out in isolation; they should be carried out alongside the creation of an M4 relief road. 

In evidence last week, the committee heard from Lord Burns, and he referred to some—when he was asked—scepticism amongst stakeholders about whether any of the recommendations would see the light of day. Now, I understand why there would be that scepticism. Do you understand why there would be that scepticism, and have you had that scepticism presented to you also? And what would you say to those who have that sceptical view? 

In terms of the recommendations, you've set out in your statement today that the delivery unit will look at those in detail and come back to you in terms of priorities. That I understand clear enough, but perhaps you could set out yourself what you feel are the initial early recommendations that you think should be adopted and be worked on yourself, ahead of receiving that from the delivery unit. There was lots of mention about the delivery unit and also the steering group. I think you were quite clear on that, but I just would like you to be a bit clearer in terms of who you are charging to implement the recommendations. There is this talk of both groups; whose job will it be to liaise with the stakeholders that you've mentioned? If you could also tell us a little bit more about the governance of the delivery unit—I know you referred to the chair being appointed—a little bit more about the governance, the funding of that delivery unit and its remit—will they have a remit letter? Because, clearly, it looks like the delivery unit will be a body in place over the next five to 10 years. And also, perhaps, how you will take forward the recommendations on behavioural change in particular, alongside or in parallel with the infrastructure recommendations.

There's the Welsh Government's on home working of 30 per cent; clearly, there's been change in travelling patterns during 2020, so how do you feel that the commission has taken those into account in its work? The increase in home working during the pandemic, I don't think should be seen as an excuse for delay on putting these recommendations into practice, I'd hope you would agree with that, but I do agree with Lord Burns when he says that there is breathing space now because of the pandemic, because there isn't that pressure on the road, so it's about using that breathing space correctly, in the right way, so perhaps you could tell me if you agree with that perspective.

Increasing behavioural change is a must, and the recommendation with which I have the most concern is the parking levy that's mentioned. My concern would be, although this parking levy would be on employers, not employees, effectively, there'd be a knock-on effect that, in effect, employees would be paying for those charges themselves. I'd welcome further views on that.

And finally, in terms of the financial impacts, the First Minister previously indicated that the first call on the Welsh Government for that £1 billion would be for these kinds of improvements. A lot has happened since then, of course, and the First Minister also cited that the costs were a major factor in terms of the recommendations. The commission have said that the costs of the recommendations are going to be somewhere between £600 million and £800 million spend over 10 years. Do you think that represents good value for money? How does that take into account the other needs of the Welsh Government or a future Welsh Government in terms of dealing with the pandemic?

15:25

Thank you. Well, a range of questions there. I'm glad that the Welsh Conservatives welcome the recommendations. Russell George asks about scepticism about the delivery, and, of course, I understand that, because Welsh Governments have been planning to tackle congestion in Newport for some time, and the congestion is still there, so there's certainly room for us to jump into that void and show that action will be taken. Of course, I must point out to Russell George that if we had the funding that Wales deserves for railway infrastructure, then we would be able to take action much quicker, so I think it's only fair that he recognises the shortcomings of the UK Government there, because based on the known commitments for the period of 2019 to 2029, we estimate a shortfall of investment in Wales of up to £5 billion in the next 10 years. That's from published commitments of the UK Government in England over that period, and if we had a pro rata share for Wales. Five billion pounds we're being short-changed, not to mention the failure to deliver on the electrification of the south Wales railway line, so an awful lot of delivery and scepticism could have been overcome if the UK Government was actually delivering on its rhetoric of levelling up. So, I think it's only fair that that is recognised, just as I recognise that the Welsh Government has not been quick enough to do what it said it was going to do on tackling congestion. So, I think there's room for both of us to reflect there, on things that could have been done better.

In terms of early priorities, he asks—I think, as I mentioned in the statement, we certainly think in terms of the bus network and the active travel network there are things that we can do within a period of a year or so. We all know that transport changes on the ground take time and have to go through a whole range of processes, but we do think that the changes to the south Wales main line, some infrastructure improvements for Newport bus so that people find bus a realistic alternative to the car—we've got to make buses go quicker, not be snarled up in traffic, and similarly getting people out of cars and using their bike or to travel by foot to do everyday journeys. So, there are some real, practical things that can be done there that will make a difference and be able to show people in Newport that progress is being made on the ground. That certainly is going to be an early priority for the delivery unit, which is the next question Russell George asked me about: who is in charge of delivery?

Well, we recognise, as I say, this is a shared responsibility, but we also recognise that Newport council, like all councils, have capacity constraints. So, we are creating a joint delivery unit through Transport for Wales, the Welsh Government and Newport council. That will sit within TfW primarily, but with a memorandum of understanding with Newport council, which we've already signed. The stakeholders—he asked—will be liaised with through a group and we want a dynamic chair of that to be able to push things forward and hold TfW's feet to the fire.

In terms of the funding and the remit letter, that'll be covered within TfW's existing arrangements, but, as he said, a commitment has been made by the First Minister that money will be found to implement this. He asked whether or not we thought this was value for money. Well, I will point out this is less than half the cost of the M4, without any of the damaging environmental impacts, which cannot—a price cannot be put on losing the unique Gwent levels, for example, nor, though perhaps it's easier to quantify financially, the economic harm caused by increasing climate change impacts from increasing traffic, which we would have seen through the induced demand released by building a six-mile motorway. There's plenty of evidence to show that is pretty likely. So, I think we can say this represents very good value for money. 

He also asks about behaviour change, and, of course, our draft Wales transport strategy has modal shift at its heart, and behaviour change is a key component of that, although he sniffs then at the role that behavioural disincentives play in achieving behaviour change, and no doubt he spots a campaigning opportunity to make hay on any particular parking levy. But I would say that all the evidence shows that, if you are going to achieve behaviour change, you need both carrot and stick, and it's my view that we should put the carrot in before we put the stick in, but, as part of a spectrum of interventions, disincentives play their part. And it's all very well for him to welcome the recommendations and want to see the changes, but if he's not prepared to back that then those are rather hollow words. So, I hope that answers the questions that Russell George poses. 

15:30

I'd like to thank the Deputy Minister for his statement. As Russell George said, it was very useful indeed to have Lord Burns attend the committee so we had an opportunity as committee members to explore some of the ideas with him directly. I want to offer the Deputy Minister Plaid Cymru's support for this approach, and to say that we are pleased that he has been able to accept the recommendations. I'm looking forward to studying the line-by-line response, because the Deputy Minister knows as well as I do that accepting in principle doesn't always mean that we can actually get it done. So, we'll need to look at that a little bit carefully I think, but very much welcome the approach. 

Can I just ask a little bit more about delivery of this? Now, the Deputy Minister is quite right when he talks about induced demand, and we know that, if this road had been built, it would have been filled up in a matter of a couple of years, whereas what we're talking about here is longer-term change. There will be challenges there. I think we would accept what the Deputy Minister has said about the need, when good alternatives are in place, for disincentives for people to carry on using private cars to come into play, though I am relieved to hear the Deputy Minister say that we need to start with the positive incentives by making public transport more accessible, making it feel safer, making it easier for people to use.

I'm concerned that one of the big challenges to delivery is going to be the situation of the non-devolved parts of the rail network. Now, this afternoon's conversation is not perhaps the place to have the conversation about the missed opportunity when Welsh Government could have asked for the full devolution and didn't, but, in the context of today's discussion, this does present some real challenges. The Deputy Minister is right to say that Wales has been short-changed massively in terms of capital spending by this UK Government. I think the First Minister was right when he told us earlier this afternoon that we can't trust the Tories. But, in terms of delivering this particular set of outcomes, I'd like to ask the Deputy Minister this afternoon how those initial discussions with UK Government that he and his officials have been having are progressing. It's early days to say, of course, but does he get the sense that they understand the importance, and indeed the urgency, of delivering for the people of south-east Wales, and, indeed, beyond, because, of course, that congestion in the south-east has an effect beyond the south-east itself? So, does he perceive that lack of power over rail infrastructure is going to be an issue in terms of delivering on this set of recommendations?

With regard to the shorter term work that he's talked about in terms of active travel and the bus network, is he confident that Welsh Government has got sufficient power to be able to ensure that this happens with regard to buses? Of course, with Newport Bus themselves, they are still controlled, as I understand it, by the local authority, so that will be relatively straightforward. But there are other bus services that go in and out of Newport, particularly those bus services that serve Valley communities—they're not all under direct local authority control. So, I wonder: does the Deputy Minister feel that the next Government may need to return to bus legislation, and may need to take that bus legislation perhaps further than was planned in the draft that we were looking at before COVID hit, to ensure that there are sufficient powers?

And the Deputy Minister did talk about governance in response to Russell George, and indeed mentioned that in his own statement. Has he given consideration as to how the UK Government will fit in to those governance mechanisms, as he begins to roll out the bigger infrastructure projects around rail? Because it seems to me that it's very important that there is some mechanism whereby, once agreements are reached, those agreements can be monitored. And does he see that as coming within the remit of the unit that he speaks about and the independent chair?

And finally, can he give us a sense this afternoon of when he thinks people in the Newport area will begin to see some of these changes? I'm a lot less sceptical than Russell George appears to be, and I think the intentions here are solid, and we've got good evidence from the Burns commission as to why these changes should be brought about. But I know that the Deputy Minister will understand the frustrations of people most directly affected, and indeed of the surrounding communities who get affected by the knock-on effects. So, can he give us some indication as to when he thinks people will begin to feel some changes on the ground as a result of this work, understanding, of course, that the bigger infrastructure works will take longer?

15:35

Can I thank Helen Mary Jones for welcoming the approach that we've set out today, and for her constructive set of questions? We do, of course, support the devolution of rail infrastructure in Wales, and there was a debate and a vote in the Senedd back in February 2019 that called for that. So, I think I just want to make sure that point is understood by Plaid Cymru—that is something that this Government does support.

She asked, 'Do I think the UK Government gets the need to deliver on this report and the urgency of it?' Well, I suppose the jury is out on that, if I'm frank. As I've made clear, this is a shared responsibility. The fact that they have not delivered our share of rail infrastructure for some time has got to make me concerned about that. In fact, they've only set out a plan for something like £60 million-worth of railway improvements for the next 10 years, rather than the £5 billion that we would be entitled to. So, I think there is a call on them, really, to show that they do get it. And we've had constructive conversations with both the Department for Transport and, as I say, Sir Peter Hendy. So, let us be optimistic that that is indeed the case.

She also asks about the bus network and the powers necessary. Well, there is much that we can do through our bus emergency scheme. I met this week with the main local government leaders across Wales to discuss collaboration for what we're calling the bus emergency scheme 2, and sign-up for that. And that was a very consensual and very encouraging conversation. The industry is also engaging very well with us. So, we hope to be in a position where we can get all partners signed up to a framework for taking forward the funding and the organising of the bus industry that enables us to deliver many of the things that we were planning to use the legislation to achieve. Now that's no longer possible to pass that law in this Senedd term, we do think we have found another way to achieve much of it, but not all of it, and officials are drafting bus legislation should the next Welsh Government want to take that forward. And certainly, if we are in a position to form the Government, then we certainly will want to do that, because there is unfinished business, which is needed to make the system work well.

In terms of the governance mechanisms—Helen Mary Jones asks—well, as I say, it's a shared responsibility. And also her last question, 'Well, when will people see a change?'—well, we can commit to our part of that, but obviously it requires the others to commit to their parts of that as well. So, for example, the local roads in Newport are the responsibility of the local highway authority. The Welsh Government does not have power over Newport's roads. So, the bus measures and the active travel measures—we can provide funding for them, we can provide encouragement for them, we can provide help in designing them, but we can't deliver them without the co-operation of the local authority. And, of course, there has been a mixed record in recent decades in Newport council about their attitude to bus lanes. The previous Conservative administration in Newport tore up the bus lanes. So, I understand that there is scepticism amongst the public about that, but this current administration is working with us very well, is very positive, and certainly is committed to achieving the vision of this report.

So, when will people see change? Well, it's not entirely in our hands, but I certainly hope they'll see change within 18 months to two years—the start of it—but this is a 10-year project and will require—certainly the rail measures will require—a lot of work at a UK level. At the end of it, we expect to see 80 per cent of the people in the region within one mile of a high-quality public transport installation. That can be a game changer for a city the size of Newport, which has suffered for too long with poor air quality, with disadvantage for people on lower incomes because they weren't able to access transport easily, and their life chances and employment chances because of that. So, the prize of this goes way beyond a lot of transport-related gubbins. This is about people's lives and their life chances and I think it is a vision that we can all get behind.

15:40

It's good to hear Helen Mary Jones supporting the courageous decision by the Welsh Government to take forward this sustainable solution for tackling congestion around Newport, which has very significant impacts on people in Cardiff and particularly in my constituency. So, I very much welcome the opportunity to act as a catalyst for change that we have to seize on in order to meet our climate change obligations. In fact, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 requires us to take all our decisions in light of the way we tackle climate change, improve air quality and advance social justice. 

So, I just want to focus on recommendation 1, which, to me, is the most important one, because upgrading the east-west rail lines between Cardiff and Newport and beyond is the spine around which the rest of the excellent Burns plan for a sustainable, joined-up transport system is built, so that, as you said, all citizens can live within one mile of a rail station or a rapid transport bus line and we can all get to work or school on public transport and not the polluting car.

So, telling us that you're going to work with Network Rail, TfW and the Department of Transport doesn't tell us very much beyond reminding us of the capacity of the Department of Transport's political masters to walk away from any commitments made, for example, on the electrification of the main line beyond Swansea. So, I appreciate that we constantly have hints that the UK Prime Minister remains enthusiastic about the out of date and ineffective idea of building a relief road around Newport, which is no solution to anything. 

So, how do you think you're going to be able to, if you like, make the case for Wales to get support for upgrading its so severely neglected Welsh infrastructure in the context that we'll get absolutely nothing from the billions being showered on HS2? Surely Wales needs to get some of the UK money that's going to be spent on making the transport of the future?  

Well, thank you for your supportive comments. It is absolutely the case that if the UK Government is sincere about its rhetoric about levelling up, then we need to see the proof of that in their response to this report and the investment that they're prepared to put into it, and Network Rail's willingness to prioritise these routes. As you said, recommendation 1 is the game-changer really in terms of the local railway network, to separate the local, commuting services and the inter-city services, and upgrading the relief lines so that all four tracks can operate up to 90 mph. That's clearly a significant piece of work and will need to be done in stages.

Alongside that, there is a recommendation for six new train stations. On three of those, work has begun on them in one shape or form, and there'll be a further three new ones, as well as the opportunity for two further trains on the Marches line from Magor and Maesglas. So, together, that represents a significant package of railway infrastructure, which is beyond the ability and the financial firepower of the Welsh Government to deliver. And this is something where the development unit within Transport for Wales is already working on businesses cases and talking to the UK Government about developing that, so that it is able to get through the various stage gates for funding approval. But I think Jenny Rathbone is absolutely right to point out that, without that commitment by the UK Government, then this report will not be able to achieve the potential that Lord Burns and the commissioners have identified to transform the public transport system in the city of Newport.

15:45

Can I thank the Deputy Minister for his statement? Just one small disappointment in the Deputy Minister's statement, touched on by Helen Mary Jones, and that is he uses the words, 'accept in principle'. Now, given that the Welsh Government commissioned this report and chose the chair, it's surprising that these words were used at all. However, apart from that mild criticism, it is gratifying to see that it certainly seems that the Welsh Government is fully committed to implementing many of the report's recommendations.

There is no doubt that the Burns report is a full and comprehensive assessment of the problems caused by the bottleneck at Malpas tunnel, and it wisely goes on to describe a holistic approach to solving the ongoing problems. I believe that the report is right in identifying the problem being very much exacerbated by the use of the M4 by local traffic. I also believe that Lord Burns and his team are right in advocating a number of measures that should be put in place to effect a sea change in people's attitudes to travel, which involves getting us out of the motor car and onto public transport.

The report outlines, amongst other things, the opening of new rail stations and new bus hubs. Given that buses carry a great many more passengers than trains, I believe that the Deputy Minister's first priority should be to ensure bus connectivity. Would the Deputy Minister outline what proposals are being put forward to immediately enhance bus services in and around Newport? 

If we are to effect the sea change in overall car usage, it is essential that not only is public transport more accessible, it must also be cost-effective. Indeed, prices must be so low as to make it especially competitive as opposed to the use of a car. Could the Deputy Minister give us any idea as to pricing strategies, especially in the short term?

We've touched upon— 

Certainly. We have—[Inaudible.]—fast, efficient public transport offer. Given the extraordinary delays we have experienced with regard to action on this massively important transport project, we can only wish Welsh Government well in this—

Thank you very much. I can just reassure David Rowlands that there is no ambivalence in using the term 'accept in principle'; it's simply the fact that this is a 10-year vision and the detail of some of this may need to flex as the practicalities are explored as we go along, and not least there are statutory processes to go through, which the Welsh Government has a role in, and the lawyers need me to be careful in what I say. But I can assure you that our support is strong and significant for the vision set out, and we are committed to working through the detail, to put it into practice and to add to it as much as we can. And certainly, as I say, 'Llwybr Newydd: a new Wales transport strategy' has taken this vision and scaled it for the whole of Wales, so we certainly hope—. And certainly the question he raises about the affordability of bus use, that is a key question for achieving modal shift, for persuading people to leave their cars behind for everyday journeys and to use sustainable forms of transport, because, clearly, affordability is one of those measures. So, if we're not going to make a public transport system attractive—and there are many ways that you make it attractive, and that's certainly one of them—then the vision of this will not be achieved, that's for sure.

In terms of bus measures, I agree with him; I've already said that I see one of the first measures we take to be around bus prioritisation. Transport for Wales has been doing a series of modelling work, looking at where, for example, bus passengers lose the most time in the morning. I've had an interesting presentation from their modellers that shows quite clearly that there are three different bottlenecks for the buses in Newport in the morning, where bus passengers are sitting waiting because they're stuck in traffic, and I think an early priority would be to look at each of those three and to see how we can create some priority measures to allow buses to move freely, to encourage people to jump on the bus instead of jumping in a car.

So, that is a systematic piece of work that we are beginning with the delivery of it within TfW, and work has already started on that, but as I say, that does need the council working with us, being willing to make local decisions to make these changes possible in practice. I certainly think that, as ever, setting out the vision for these things is the easy bit; delivering it at pace, funding it, taking people with you is the hard bit. And I'm not underestimating the challenge ahead of us in taking this through, not least given the challenges that I've already outlined that we've had in the area, but it's absolutely doable and the prize is there for all to see. Given the challenges we all face in tackling climate change and in regenerating the local economy in the face of this recession, then this is a priority where there's an imperative for us all to get a move on.

15:50

Thank you. Can I remind speakers that they have a minute to ask a question of the Deputy Minister? And I suppose then if they only have a minute, Deputy Minister, your answers will be shorter. Thank you. Rhianon Passmore.

As you will appreciate, Newport, as Gwent's only city, forms a real focal point for the Gwent Valleys communities of Islwyn that I represent, and I very much welcome the Welsh Government's positive response to the recommendations of the South East Wales Transport Commission and the much welcomed Newport line is now eagerly anticipated. So, it's totally imperative today that the UK does come to the table and seek out an opportunity to level up, because it's increasingly concerning that Wales is not being given its due, and it's also heartbreaking to see this trend continuing in the aviation industry where, this week, Bristol Airport received £8 million from the UK Government to support it and Cardiff received absolutely nothing.

So, the question, and I'll go straight to it: will the Deputy Minister agree that we need to see the UK Government place full and fair resources in our rail network? A figure of £5 billion has been stated today to make integrated public transport across Gwent fit for purpose in the twenty-first century. And how can the communities of Islwyn best engage with this very important process moving forward, and what are the transformational shifts that this could bring to the lives of citizens across Islwyn?

Thank you for that. Rhianon Passmore is right to draw attention to again the iniquitous decision on aviation by the UK Government, which is all the more reason why they need to step up to the plate on this package to show that they are as committed to levelling up in all parts of the UK as they say they are.

To answer Rhianon Passmore's question, as I say, certainly people within the boundaries of Newport itself, 80 per cent of them will be within a mile of a high-quality public transport installation as a result of these proposals, but there'll be benefits to the hinterland as well in the Gwent Valleys as part of that. The Ebbw Vale line, which I know is an issue that she is consistently pressurising the Welsh Government to do more on, is an important part of that. We are hoping that this year we will have a new timetable with services as far as Cross Keys. We're not able to go beyond Cross Keys without investment and intervention from Network Rail and the UK Government, so that's another example where they need to 'Siapia hi', as my grandmother would say, but we are hoping to see four trains an hour on that line, and that is definitely part of the wider Burns vision.

15:55

I thank the Deputy Minister for his statement today. I welcome many of the proposals contained in this report, particularly for the people of Newport, and particularly the recommended improvements to the rail network, the new stations planned and the new rapid bus corridors across the region that will link to the rail backbone. I acknowledge that these will be beneficial in reducing the volume of traffic on the M4, however, as has already been said, it is no substitute for an M4 relief road—the M4 relief road that you've conveniently forgotten the Welsh Government has squandered millions and millions of pounds on, yet we see no solution and no road.

Welsh Labour has consistently failed to put in place a solution for the M4 congestion problem, breaking its own manifesto commitment in doing so. Despite 20 years of discussion and consultation, no practical solution has yet been delivered. While the Welsh Government have been dithering and shelving the scheme, the traffic on the M4 has been increasing rapidly. The performance of Wales's road and transport network will be a crucial enabler for sustaining productivity and competitiveness. Don't you agree with me that many of these proposals should be implemented alongside an M4 relief road in order to maximise the potential reduction in traffic and to bring maximum economic benefit to the region? Your transport infrastructure—

—supports the productivity of Wales, so it's not a question of whether we can afford to build an M4 relief road as well, but whether we can afford not to.

Laura Anne Jones is telling us that there's no practical solution been presented, and here we are discussing a practical solution that has been presented by a commission of experts on transport planning. We have a practical blueprint for the next 10 years, so I've no idea what she's on about, that there's no practical solution presented. That's exactly what we're talking about, Laura Anne.

She's saying that this is no substitute for an M4 relief road. That's absolutely right; it is no substitute for an M4 relief road. We've cancelled the M4 relief road because (a) it was going to cost £2 billion, and I've just said that the UK Government has short-changed us of £5 billion for rail infrastructure already, so—. She's muttering away to herself there, but she has yet to show us where we would get this mystical £2 billion because it simply isn't available. Even if it was available, it would fly in the face of all the commitments we've made on a cross-party basis to tackle climate change. It's no good on the one hand standing next to a Conservative tree and saying that you are the green party, and then on the other hand demanding actions that will tear into our carbon commitments. This is a different proposal: one that tackles congestion. It costs half the amount of money that an expensive road through a precious wetland would do, and it helps to reduce emissions, not increase them.

Minister, you complain that UK Government isn't prepared to fund anything and that the M4 relief road was too expensive at £2 billion, but there have been a number of suggestions around UK Government that the shared prosperity fund, indeed the internal market Bill, could be used for this. If there's a chance of getting up to £2 billion out of the UK Government to deal with the congestion and drive our economy with an M4 relief road, surely we should be biting their hand off.

Could I, though, ask the Minister to pass on to Lord Burns and his team the appreciation for their work on a cross-party basis across the Senedd? I had been sceptical to start with that this was just a cover up for the Minister not doing anything on the M4 relief road, but it's been a substantive body of work and I'm impressed with several of the recommendations in it.

In terms of the rail work, is it an all-or-nothing or can we get some improvements even if we don't get all of them? For instance, what's happening on the Cardiff parkway station? When might we see that delivered, and the two others where work's already starting? I remind the Minister: wasn't this commission about what to do with the money that you weren't spending on the M4 relief road, or a substantial part of it? So, why are we then getting the answer, 'Oh well, this is for the UK Government to fund'? I do have some sympathy with his statement that the UK Government should be funding more in Wales on rail infrastructure, but will he give me the assurance that he won't be using that as an excuse not to move forward in this area? Because this relief rail with six stations all working together and having a stopping service I think will be a real benefit to the south Wales economy.

I appreciate Mark Reckless's comments about what a substantial body of work has been carried out by the report, which does command both respect and support across the virtual Chamber.

In terms of the funding of it, rail infrastructure, which forms a large part of the report—apart from the central Valleys lines, which have now been devolved to the Welsh Government—lies with the UK Government. We estimate the cost of implementing the Burns report somewhere between £500 million and £800 million, and we estimate around £0.5 billion of that is spending for the UK Government to do on the railway line. This is money that has been underinvested for years, as I've already mentioned. So, given that we ought to be getting £5 billion, then £0.5 billion shouldn't be an unreasonable request, not least since it delivers on the levelling-up agenda the UK Government talks about.

He also talked about the shared prosperity fund, but I think he has more faith than I do that it's going to deliver anything, because so far, four years or more since the referendum, we're yet to see what a shared prosperity fund looks like. So, I don't think we can put our eggs in that basket when it comes to this project, and even if we did have £2 billion from the UK Government to fund an M4 relief road, it would be the wrong solution. We have declared a climate change emergency and building a large pollution-generating highway through protected wetlands would not be the right thing to do. 

Now, as I say, the good thing about Burns is that it's looked at the problem with a fresh pair of eyes from a carbon reduction point of view, and it has put forward practical ways that improve connectivity, improve the local economy, but without the damaging effects of a scheme that induces and grows traffic. So, I think we have the best of both worlds. We now need to get on with delivering it, and we can only do that in partnership.

16:00

I welcome this statement. I note that a large aspect of the Burns plan requires investment from the UK Government; that's come up a number of times this afternoon. Given that the historical underinvestment in Welsh rail infrastructure by the UK Government shows no sign of abating, what would the Deputy Minister say is the contingency plan if they do refuse to provide the money that we need? I was glad to hear you say to my colleague Helen Mary Jones that the Welsh Government does now support the full devolution of rail infrastructure, and I know that you said earlier that you want to be optimistic, Deputy Minister, but to be realistic, if the UK Government continues with intransigence, would you agree that Welsh rail would have a brighter future as a fully nationalised asset of an independent Welsh state? 

Well, I can agree with some of that, but I think you're pushing your luck on all of it. [Laughter.] It's certainly the case that there are things that we can be getting on with while we do the work with Network Rail and the Department for Transport on the rail planning process. As I say, we've started that work already, and of the six new stations that Burns identifies, three are under way. And Mark Reckless, I'm sorry, I forgot to touch on this. He mentioned the Cardiff parkway station, which is advancing with our support. Also, in terms of the active travel measures, that is also something within our control and that we are increasing investment significantly in to be able to deliver that. I'm very keen to see a Cardiff to Newport route delivered soon as part of that active travel work. But ultimately, as Delyth Jewell mentions, this does require the UK. This is a UK rail network. It is not devolved to the Welsh Government, the infrastructure side of it, and so they need to play their part to make sure that people of this part of the UK are well served by our collective railway network. 

There are many good actions suggested by Lord Burns that will be actioned by Welsh Government with partners, Deputy Minister. You will know that, for example, the new railway station at Magor has very good community support and buy-in and has been put forward for quite some time. So, I think that is very, very promising, and the new stations at Llanwern and Somerton similarly. I also welcome the proposals for Severn Tunnel Junction, with better co-ordinated transport services and bus access, and also the long-desired link between the M48 and the B4245, which would take a lot of congestion off the roads through the villages of Magor and Undy.

There is a lot that's going to be really valuable, but, obviously, we need to make it happen, and I take the point that was made in terms of have we got sufficient goodwill from UK Government in terms of the main line and the relief lines, and I hope very much that we'll see that forthcoming. But in terms of those matters within our more direct control, bus is obviously very important, and points have been made about the number of people who travel by bus and the early opportunities with bus priority and so on. Could you give very careful consideration, in terms of bus and how we get things moving, Deputy Minister, to a pilot free bus travel scheme in Newport, which I think would have a lot of merit? It would be a very early signal of intention, and I think it would capture the imagination and the support of local people.

16:05

I'm certainly prepared to look at that proposal. Of course, what we are doing in Newport is rolling out a pilot of our demand-responsive bus project there—we're calling it Fflecsi—and that's built on a tried-and-tested model of providing people with an on-call bus network, if you like. That has already proved to be very successful in the parts of Newport where we've tried it. In fact, its demand has outstripped our capacity to deal with it, and as a result we are scaling it up. So, certainly, that's a project we'd like to roll out to other parts of Wales, and we are piloting it in different communities and different settings in other parts of Wales. Newport is the place we're doing it on the largest scale, and I certainly think that could act as a great complement to the existing bus network. The evidence so far is that it's driving new patrons onto the bus network—people who otherwise would not have traditionally considered catching the bus. So, it does seem to be a very promising project.

John Griffiths mentions a range of local stations as part of the Burns vision, not least the walk-up station in Magor, which I will be meeting with the local authority to discuss soon, as well as the other projects reflecting the communities in Undy and Maesglas and other parts of the area. There's no doubt that the whole city and the people in it will benefit from the range of different proposals in this and, frankly, the sort of modern public transport network that really shouldn't be a big deal. This should be your standard for a city like Newport, and for too long, I think, we've not put the investment into bus in particular, and in making sure that there is a realistic alternative to the car.

I know time is short, so I'll be brief. Can I just ask you, Deputy Minister, on the public transport enhancements that you've mentioned? It's good to hear about the proposed increase in the number of stations in Newport, but, of course, the increase in the number of stations only works when you've actually got a railway line. Two questions on the back of that: first of all, are there any plans for the Newport to Hereford line, for any increase in the number of stations there, or some increase in capacity? Because, of course, that feeds into the Newport area and would take commuters.

Secondly, in the east of my constituency, there are no railway lines and there haven't been for 60 or 70 years. So, other than the car, there will have to be other public transport improvements. I've previously questioned the Minister for economy and transport on the possibility of a hub at the Celtic Manor, at the new convention centre. Is that something that's being looked at? Because without any of those changes in my constituency, my constituents will still have to travel by car and cause congestion around Newport.

That's why the new Wales transport strategy is so important, because it puts all these sorts of options on the table, and they'll be different for different communities. So, I think the demand-responsive network I mentioned, particularly for areas like yours, Nick Ramsay, which doesn't have inherent railway infrastructure, is a way of getting people out of cars and moving people around in the relatively short term. This is something that can be scaled up and rolled out quickly. So, certainly, based on the success in Newport, we would want to be rolling that out to as many communities as possible. In terms of the specific question he asks me about stations from Newport to Hereford, I will have to write to him about that, but this is an agenda that is going to be increasing. The more support there is for enhancing services and infrastructure, the more that we can all suggest improvements in our own areas to put these principles into practice.

I'm grateful to you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and grateful to the Deputy Minister as well. I note that the Government are accepting the recommendation on the Ebbw valley line going to four trains an hour and I'd be grateful for an indication of the timescale on that. I would also like to understand what the future vision is for the line, because when it was created and when it was restored and opened, it was an interurban service linking the heads of the Valleys with the city centre in Cardiff. There's a very real danger with some of the proposals in this report that it will become a suburban service linking Cardiff and Newport, and that would be a real problem for us in terms of having a regional solution. The more stations, the longer the journey time, and I think we need to have a conversation about that.

The second issue I wanted to raise is that about regional buses. We've already debated the interconnectivity and the integration of different services, but we need to ensure that we have a regional approach to this. Simply linking Cardiff and Newport won't be sufficient to solve the problems, and that means that we have the governance at a regional level, we have the ability to route buses at a regional level, we have the ability to ensure that we have the interticketing, and the ability of people to move easily from one mode of transport to another. Thank you.

16:10

I entirely agree with that last point, and that's why it's important that, through the creation of the joint transport committees, we put the planning of our bus network on a regional footing, so that these connections can be laid out and achieved. As I said, I had a very encouraging conversation with regional and local government leaders earlier this week on supporting that vision. I think we have already announced an improvement of the regional service in Alun Davies's constituency, using the TrawsCymru network to link up to the new Grange hospital. So, I think there are some things we've already delivered there and I think we're putting in place the structure to be able to deliver more.

In terms of his point about a suburban network and the need to link Ebbw Vale in particular both to Cardiff and to Newport, it's certainly the intention of the Ebbw Vale railway enhancements that they will do both—that the enhancement we hope to see this year to Crosskeys will go into Newport, where the existing service goes into Cardiff. As we go up to four services, they will serve both cities. But it's a strong point that he makes and one that I think we're going to need to keep a dialogue open on to make sure that, as we improve and enhance our public transport network, it works for all communities.

4. Statement by the Minister for Housing and Local Government: The Building Safety Regime White Paper

Item 4 on the agenda this afternoon is a statement by the Minister for Housing and Local Government on the building safety regime White Paper. I call on the Minister for Housing and Local Government, Julie James.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I am very pleased to speak to Members today about the launch of our White Paper, which proposes a new building safety regime for Wales. As Members will be aware, the White Paper was launched last week alongside a written statement, but I also felt that it was important to address you directly and provide an opportunity for comment and questions on this important area.

I know that this is a matter of great importance to Members, as evidenced by the many spirited and challenging questions and debates we have had on this topic already on the floor. I am sure that you would agree that this topic should be a priority of any Government. For us to successfully achieve this vision at pace, I truly believe this must be a shared vision that transcends party political lines. I am also pleased to offer for my officials to hold a technical briefing for all Members as this is a technical and complex area and I want to ensure that our proposals are clear and well understood. 

As I mentioned in my written statement, the changes we set out last week represent a significant step forward in our plans to improve building safety. The scope of the regime is extensive. This is because we want to ensure that safety is the primary consideration at all stages of a building’s lifecycle and that all multi-occupied buildings are covered by the new measures our regime proposes to put in place. The safety measures we propose to introduce are wide-ranging, but they are also proportionate, and, we believe, appropriately tailored to the different building categories that will fall in scope. 

Crucially, these changes must work for residents. As the ultimate beneficiaries of these reforms, I am particularly keen to hear their views. I have met and corresponded with many residents on the issues being faced at present with defects in existing buildings, and I will continue to do so. But it is also important that we seek their views on changes for the future; the lived experience of residents is critical to helping us find the right solutions. To help maximise resident engagement with our consultation, we have published a range of supporting documents and materials, such as the video I was hoping to play, Dirprwy Lywydd, but that's not been possible—I will make it available to Members, though—and an easy-read and quick-read version of the White Paper. I want to ensure that each and every person interested in or impacted by these changes can access and understand them, and share their views with us.

I repeat my desire also for there to be as much engagement with our consultation as possible from our stakeholders and partners across industry and the housing sector. Officials will be running engagement events and speaking with all interested parties about our proposals throughout the consultation period to help us gain as many responses as possible. I appreciate it is a very busy time for many, as we continue to navigate the challenges presented by COVID-19, but we really must not lose sight of our long-term goals. If these are to be realised, they require us to act and consider them now. Whilst publication of this White Paper is a significant milestone, there is much more work to do and we need the support and insights of all our parties to help us reach the right solution for Wales and ensure our homes are safe. Diolch.

16:15

I would like to place on record that, in principle, we very much support the bringing forward of a Bill that will actually ensure that our residents can feel safe in their homes and that we never, ever witness anything again like the Grenfell tragedy. As Dame Judith Hackitt has made clear, there is a need for a radical rethink of the whole system and how it works. She has described this situation as a

'race to the bottom caused either through ignorance, indifference or because the system does not facilitate good practice.'

Now, this Welsh Parliament needs to deliver the best quality and safest buildings possible in order that our residents can feel safe and comfortable in their homes. I appreciate that this is no easy task, as the comprehensive consultation document shows, but I thank the Minister for creating a White Paper that does outline a way forward for Wales. Frustratingly, though, the White Paper comes 32 months after Dame Hackitt's final report, and over three and a half years since the Grenfell tragedy.

In the White Paper, Minister, you have proposed that a joint inspection team be established for an initial period of two years. How realistic is it, do you feel, that it should take to establish a new building safety regime for Wales?

There are many points that I welcome in the proposals, and I'll say at this point that when we do come to scrutinise the Bill, it is such an important piece of legislation coming forward that we've all got to work across parties to ensure that the Bill does exactly what we're all hoping it will do.

So, I welcome some of the proposals, including a new general duty to maintain compartmentation; the aim of providing clarity with regard to who is responsible for safety in multi-occupied residential buildings, not just during the building of them but throughout the lifecycle—I think, too often, we've all been aware of everybody trying to pass the buck when it comes to finding out who the responsible person is, and that has to stop; making fire and rescue authorities specific consultees and having a single process for escalating concerns to the regulator.

The scope of the proposed regime would capture a house converted into two flats through to a high-rise apartment block. You are contemplating two categories; category 2 could encompass 37,000 properties and around 130,000 flats. Is it reasonable to have a house that is converted into two flats in the same category as a five-storey, purpose-built block of flats?

Now, consideration ought to be given to splitting category 2 in two. Whilst I'm aware that you could set out the legislation in a way that would allow category classifications to be amended via regulations, we need to get this right in the first place so that whatever the number of categories, all will be expected to have an annual fire risk assessment undertaken by a suitably qualified person. This is what I worry about: whether this could, potentially, be the Achilles heel.

Your team has already advised me that there are no estimates yet as to how many suitably qualified individuals there are presently in Wales to assess around 37,000 properties annually, and whether the new requirement would actually highlight a vast shortage of these qualified people, and whether it could see the cost and demand for the service rocket. That research does need to be commissioned, so I implore you to do this quickly and liaise with your Cabinet so to pursue a boost via education and bringing apprenticeships into the frame. Now, according to section 6 of the local authority, they would provide the building control function for all category 1 properties. It is noted that, where there are capacity issues in one authority, the service could be provided by another. So, would the other authority be financially resourced for the service? And can you provide further details about the consideration you have given already to existing capacity issues at local authorities? We know that it's some of these departments that have take the massive hit of some of the settlement problems that they've had as a result of poor local settlements, my own included here.

Now, I am very interested in the three gateways and note that the final one would require the principle contractor to produce a final declaration confirming that the building fully complies with building regulations. So, it would be down to the local authority to decide whether to accept that declaration, and we know now that, like with COVID, we're vastly behind with planning permissions. We're behind in planning enforcements, either through COVID or through a lack of resources. We know that—

16:20

Right. The regulator is key to the major reform that is needed. The Hackitt report highlighted that the current regulatory regime is fractured, so why not be bold and pursue the option of a single national regulator?

I welcome this consultation, Minister, and hope that there will be quick and decisive progress to introduce legislation in the next Senedd, be it you or our party in power. Diolch yn fawr.