Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd

Plenary - Fifth Senedd

09/02/2021

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 14:57 with the Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) in the Chair.

Statement by the Deputy Presiding Officer

We'll now convene, and so welcome, all, to the Plenary session. Before we begin, can I just 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 32.4 will apply for today's Plenary and those are noted on the agenda. I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting.

1. Questions to the First Minister

So, item 1 in this part of the meeting is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Rhianon Passmore.

Children and Young People's Mental Health

1. What priority has the Welsh Government given to the mental health of children and young people in Islwyn during COVID-19? OQ56295

Dirprwy Lywydd, I thank the Member for the question. The Welsh Government has designated children and young people’s mental health as an essential service throughout the pandemic. Aneurin Bevan University Health Board has used additional funding provided to develop a range of innovative services involving other statutory and third sector partners.

Diolch. First Minister, last week was Children's Mental Health Week. I was pleased that the Government marked it by pledging to support young people's mental health week, and I was pleased that the Welsh Labour Government marked it by pledging to support young people's mental health services. This funding could be a real lifeline for so many young people who have been struggling throughout this pandemic. First Minister, can you outline how this funding will be used and how the Welsh Government will ensure it reaches the front-line services that are delivering this support in Islwyn?

I thank Rhianon Passmore for that follow-up question, Dirprwy Lywydd. I can tell her that of the £9.4 million, £5.4 million will be used to support child and adolescent mental health services provision, and that will include in-hospital provision, including the development of age-appropriate beds within local health boards where that is necessary, but there will also be a strengthening of support in community mental health teams to provide more intensive services for young people in the community, drawing them down from in-patient admissions. The remainder of the funding, £4 million, will support the expansion of the CAMHS schools in-reach pilot programme, and that is used to develop front-line capacity in our schools. And that, Dirprwy Lywydd, is part of the whole thrust of this additional money, which is to de-escalate intervention in the lives of young people. And that, as the Member will know, was reinforced further yesterday with an announcement of a further £2.5 million to support mental health and well-being services in our further education colleges, again aimed at the well-being of our young people.

15:00

First Minister, I, too, welcome any money towards this. Obviously it's in all of our hearts and minds at the moment, the struggles that many children are going through as a result of this pandemic, as, too, the parents and families also having to juggle and realign their lives to support them. But I was just wondering, as lots of councils are doing different things across the board in South Wales East but also across Wales, how this Government is finding the examples of best practice of using online services to support our vulnerable children and reaching out to those children who need it right now and making sure that best practice is spread across all of Wales. Thank you. 

Well, Llywydd, I thank Laura Anne Jones for that question. I agree very much with the premise of it. I think it's very good that there is innovation in different parts of Wales. I know the Member will join me in congratulating the Connecting with Telehealth to Children in Hospital team at Aneurin Bevan University Health Board, which recently won the team of the year award of the Royal College of Psychiatrists for its development of telehealth services, and those developments are now being taken up by other health boards in different parts of Wales. And that, I think, is a very sensible way for these services to develop, encouraging local innovation and, as Laura Anne Jones says, where they're demonstrated to have success, then making sure that that success is translated into wider services in the rest of Wales. It's why we have a Welsh national young people's mental health toolkit, it's why we have cognitive behavioural therapy services available online for young people in every part of Wales, while, as I say, continuing to encourage innovation in the third sector and in statutory services in these extraordinary times.

Wales's Constitutional Status

2. Will the First Minister make a statement in relation to Wales’s constitutional status within the United Kingdom? OQ56293

Dirprwy Lywydd, Wales is a devolved nation, participating voluntarily in the union of the United Kingdom. 

Thanks for that statement. We are going through a very serious health crisis and now also a mass vaccination programme. The procurement of the vaccines has been led by the UK Government, and I think most sensible people would agree that it has been a great success and that the procurement of the vaccines is a good example of the UK union working at its best. The Welsh Conservatives now seem to be belatedly coming over to the benefits of the UK-led approach, even though they failed to support amendments in favour of precisely that approach that were put forward by my party, the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party, here in this Chamber only three weeks ago, but better late than never. I wonder, First Minister, if you agree that it is perhaps time that you now stopped flying your kite about the UK becoming a federation and actually noted the very great benefits that can and did accrue from a UK-wide response to the COVID crisis. 

Well, Llywydd, I'm not responsible for the confusions of the Welsh Conservative Party, but what I am responsible for is reaching an agreement with other nations in the United Kingdom when I think it is in Wales's interests to do so. That is why we have a UK-wide procurement of supply of the vaccine, because, from the outset, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all agreed that that was the best way forward. That is what I mean by a voluntary association in the union of the United Kingdom. 

First Minister, do you agree with me that, for the future of the union, the best resource is our citizens, and that it's time for citizens throughout the United Kingdom to be involved in citizens' assemblies to help develop proposals that will lead to a new Act of union that will see a United Kingdom coherent constitutionally, I hope, for another 300 years?

15:05

I definitely agree with Mr Melding that, in something as important as the future of the country in which we all live, the involvement of citizens in the reshaping of the United Kingdom is vital. I heard the Member being interviewed not that long ago, in which he said—and I very much agreed with him—that the current union is over. There's no point in us trying to keep something that no longer has the support it once did going in that way. We need to reshape it in the way the Member has just described, and, in order to do that, the involvement and the support of citizens is of course essential.

First Minister, do you share my despair listening to people like Gareth Bennett and some in the Conservative Party who wish for Wales to have no existence at all? They want to wipe Wales off the map, and all because they can't get elected to Government in Wales. Democracy is fine for them as long as they win. First Minister, would you join me in condemning their strong dislike of our land and continue to oppose their feeble attempts to turn our country into a county?

I absolutely agree with that, Dirprwy Lywydd. Wales is not a branch line of anybody else's Government. The Welsh Conservative policy is clear these days: it is a 'for Wales, see England' policy. It's a craven policy, Dirprwy Lywydd. It lets down the people of Wales, and my party in this Government will never put ourselves in that position.

First Minister, since being returned to the Senedd and working on various committees, including the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, my view on devolution has evolved, and I'm leaning towards a more grown-up relationship between the UK nations and a move to a more federal structure. I'm interested to know, after hearing your thoughts on the future direction for devolution, is there actually a middle ground between abolish and independence? Thank you.

Dirprwy Lywydd, I thank the Member for that question and I congratulate her on the evolution of her views. I think it's genuinely encouraging when people use the experience that they have to think through these really important issues. And of course there is: my view is there's always been a middle ground between those who wish to separate us off from the United Kingdom and those who wish to hand us back to Westminster and Whitehall, and that is the policy of devolution, which gives us so much independence of action here in the Senedd to take decisions that affect only people who live in Wales, and those decisions should be made only by people in Wales. But at the same time, when we choose to do so, to pool our voluntary association and to be part of a UK-wide set of arrangements, that, I think, is the best of both worlds for people in Wales and a position that has been supported by Welsh people now for well over 20 years.

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

We'll now turn to party leaders' questions, and the first this afternoon is Adam Price.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Seeing those big, bold 'delivered' stamps on your annual report's opening page, First Minister, I was reminded of a paper I recently read about your Government, which said this:

'There tends to a box ticking drive to ensure Manifesto and Programme promises can be said to have been met. What I have never seen is an overall attempt to assess whether the desired outcomes underlying the Programme...are being advanced.'

Nowhere in your report do you acknowledge your failures, the missed targets, the broken promises. You said you'd eradicate fuel poverty by 2018; you didn't. You said you'd abolish child poverty by 2020; you didn't. You said you'd cut emissions by 40 per cent by last year; you didn't. To quote that paper again, about your Government:

'The current mindset puts delivery second best to maintenance of the status quo.'

Doesn't that just about sum things up, First Minister?

15:10

Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, the Member appears to have picked up the wrong speech. There's a debate on the annual report later this afternoon. He'll be able to recycle his remarks, no doubt, again there. I think people who live in Wales do not share his sneering attitude to 20,000 new affordable homes here in Wales. Those young people who've taken part in the 100,000 additional apprenticeships would not share his view; neither will those thousands of older people who have benefitted from the most progressive approach to people being able to retain their assets when they go into residential care, nor those people who have benefitted from the new treatments fund, reducing the length of time waiting for new drugs here in Wales from 90 days to 13 days. Those are real differences in the lives of real people right up and down Wales. That's what I stand for. That's what the Labour Party stands for. He may prefer the vacuities of independence and other high-flown sentiments. We will deal with those things that make a difference in people's lives, and that is why they know that this Government is a Government that is on their side.

First Minister, the remarks I just read out are not my views—they're the views of someone who was a non-executive director of your Government for almost a decade. It's difficult to find a more damning indictment than this statement from them about that experience:

'I have never been part of a Board with such a lack of measures of progress or outcome success.'

You campaign in poetry and govern in prose, so the saying goes, but you deliver in numbers, because, without metrics, you are rudderless and directionless, and that's as true of your future vision, First Minister, as it is of your past delivery. This is what Welsh Labour grass roots had to say about your policy proposals for the election in May: 'they lack…transformative edge', they're 'cautious and uninspiring', they

'fail to measure up to the scale of the challenges that Wales…will face over the years ahead.'

You can dismiss my criticisms of your Government, First Minister, but can you dismiss the words of the very people who campaign to put you in the position you're now in?

Well, Llywydd, our proposals for the next Senedd term will be published in Labour's manifesto. When the Member has seen it, he'll be able to make a judgment on it. He hasn't seen it; neither have the people that he appears to quote.

Well, the Labour activists I've quoted are critical of your party's final policy document, which I have seen, because it does not commit to extending free school meals—the very policy you've been attacking me on for these last few weeks. It seems I'm now closer to Labour values than you are.

The document contains few new ideas, but at least some new admissions. In it, Labour Party members, and I quote, highlighted the

'need for investment and policy change to build greater resilience to intense weather events',

which is a clearer admission than we've ever had from Ministers that you've failed to spend enough on flood defences, with disastrous consequences. It's hard to disagree with Labour members when they call in the document for more detail on a Labour vision for the future of farming, when your vision at the moment is no future at all. But perhaps the most telling sentence of all is this: the offer of social care free at the point of need—another Plaid Cymru policy—is desirable. The question is, First Minister: will it ever be deliverable with you and your party at the helm?

Well, Llywydd, I have previously offered the Member an opportunity of a membership form for the Labour Party, in which he takes such an interest, because, if he did, he would be more familiar with the policy-making processes of my party. So, my party has not completed its policy-making process. There is no final document, to which he mistakenly refers. Indeed, I am looking forward to spending Saturday with members of my party looking at some 700 different proposals that party units right across Wales have contributed to the final stages of our policy-making process. The Member, I'm afraid, has simply been misled in believing that he understands the way that the Labour Party operates. We will continue to develop our policies. We will put them in a manifesto. Our manifesto will a deliverable manifesto. It will not be an uncosted wish list of the sort that he has spent many months now developing—social care today; more hundreds of millions of pounds he hasn't got to spend—never an attempt to tell us where that money will come from, of course, following the last couple of weeks' wish lists in relation to other things that he thinks that, simply by dangling them in front of people, he will persuade them to support. The Welsh public, unfortunately for him, is more discerning than he gives them credit for. They will know that, when promises are made, the wherewithal to keep them has to be found as well. That is why, later this afternoon, we will demonstrate that the promises made by my party at the last election have been delivered during this Senedd term. That is what people expect, not the sort of fantasy policy making that the Member continues to offer us here. 

15:15

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. First Minister, I'd like to address the issue of waiting times in Wales, and I appreciate there are pressures on waiting times across the United Kingdom but, in Wales, for example, they're particularly acute, with 530,000 patients on a waiting list for starting treatment—the highest on record since data was first collected in this format since 2011. Two hundred and thirty one thousand of those patients have been waiting 36 weeks or more. That's a nearly 1,000 per cent increase from November 2019, when 22,000 patients were waiting over 36 weeks. And between March and November, there were 20,000 fewer urgent cancer referrals compared to the same time previously in the last 12 months. This is a matter of huge concern I think you'll agree, First Minister, so what action is your Government doing to address these waiting times here in Wales? 

Llywydd, I do agree with the Member that waiting times in the NHS are a cause of real concern a year into coronavirus, and he is right that that is a common position right across the United Kingdom. The first thing we have to do, and the most important thing that we can do, is to draw out of the health service the burden that it currently has to bear of people suffering from coronavirus to such an extent that they have to be treated inside the hospital, with all the impacts that that has on the ability of the health service to carry out all of the other things that we quite rightly look to it to do.

And in that regard, as the Member will know, at present we are succeeding—positivity rates down in Wales again today; the rates per 100,000 down across Wales again today. And this week I think, for the first time, we can see with some confidence that feeding into a reduction in pressures in the hospital system—for the first time for many weeks, fewer than 1,000 patients with confirmed coronavirus in a hospital bed, and the number of people needing intensive care significantly down in the last week as well.

That's the underpinning condition that we have to reach in order to reconstruct the health service for the future, and then when we are sure that we can create that capacity by having COVID-19 under control, then the health service will have a plan, and the plan will be based on clinical prioritisation. It'll be a plan led by clinicians, making sure that those whose needs are the most urgent will always in Wales be at the front of the queue. 

First Minister, it is a fact, as I identified in my opening remarks, that waiting times are large across the United Kingdom—I accept that—but here in Wales they are particularly acute, with one in five people on a waiting list from the whole population. And where my concern comes into play here is the urgency the Government is putting into this to have a plan of recovery out of COVID. When you have the chief executive of Tenovus Cancer Care saying that they have faced pushback from Ministers when it comes to recovery plans for cancer services, and the report that Macmillan Cancer Support identified last week that 3,500 have gone with undiagnosed cancer because of coronavirus, this surely is a huge concern to us all, because of the detrimental impact this has on outcomes, and the longer term pressures on the health service.

So, why are the cancer charities saying that they are facing pushback from Ministers when it comes to putting an urgent cancer plan in place, and, if that pushback doesn't exist, will you commit to developing that cancer plan that is urgently required, as Tom Crosby has identified—the cancer lead for Wales—that the cancer services in Wales will have to perform at 120 per cent to 130 per cent of capacity to get into these waiting times that we are facing here in Wales? 

Well, Llywydd, I agree that the challenge that faces the health service post coronavirus is very real, that it will not be a recovery that will happen overnight, and I agree that it will need to be a recovery that is properly planned, and planned with clinicians. There is no pushback from this Government in terms of making sure that our health service is in a position to recover. There is a dialogue, and a dialogue does mean that there will be competing perspectives and different pressures. Now, the health Minister has been in conversation with interests in the cancer field very recently indeed in order to be able to plan ahead, as I said in my answer to the first question this afternoon from Rhianon Passmore. Cancer services have been classified as an essential service by the Welsh Government right through the pandemic. We have to do more to give patients, sometimes, the confidence to come forward and to take up treatment when they are fearful of the level of coronavirus in circulation. And I echo the views of the health Minister, which I've heard him say very recently, that, where people have treatments available to them, particularly where those treatments are urgently necessary, we urge those people to come forward, because our health service has organised itself to make sure that those treatments can be delivered safely and successfully.

15:20

Regrettably, in that answer, First Minister, I didn't hear you identify the plan to take services forward so that they can engage with some of those 3,500 people who've gone undiagnosed, as well as developing services across Wales to meet the challenge of the waiting times that I addressed to you in my first question. We do know that waiting times were a problem before the pandemic, where twice as many patients were waiting over a year than the rest of the whole of England. It is really important that we understand the level of activity that's going on in the NHS at the moment. Will you commit to publishing the activity data that the Welsh Government holds on procedures within the NHS here in Wales, and will you also commit to convening a national recovery board of the professions to make sure that, working with Government Ministers, patients and clinicians within the health service can have confidence that these plans are being developed and will be implemented so that we do not continue getting reports such as the Macmillan report last week that identified so many undiagnosed cases of cancer across Wales? And could you commit to publishing your response to the Secretary of State for Wales and the Secretary of State for health in England, when they offered mutual aid to support any efforts that might be put forward here in Wales to address waiting times and address getting people through the health service?

Well, Llywydd, the final point is a piece of nonsense, isn't it? We publish figures monthly. The so-called offer from the Secretary of State was sent to us just at the point when English hospitals became overwhelmed by the level of coronavirus that they were facing. There's no offer of mutual aid in a system where they have twice the level of infection that we do here in Wales. It really—. To be honest—to be frank, Llywydd, it's just a piece of political games playing and it undermines the efforts of those of us who want to have a serious four-nation approach to recovering from this pandemic.

I've set out the plan already, Dirprwy Lywydd. The first part of the plan is to get coronavirus under control. I note that, for the second week in a row, neither opposition party leader wants to ask me any question about the most vital part of the health service in Wales today—the outstandingly successful vaccination programme here in Wales. As ever, with opposition parties, whenever anything is going well in Wales, they don't have a good word to say for it. For two weeks running, they couldn't find even a single question to ask about that outstanding success. That success will allow us to do what I explained to the Member, and that is to help us to get coronavirus under control, to draw out of the health service the pressure that it currently feels in dealing with the pandemic, and then to recover and to restore services outside coronavirus on the basis of clinical need. That will of course be designed with the professional groups that we are lucky enough to have in the health service in Wales. The serious job, rather than the petty, point-scoring approach to health service recovery, is one that people in Wales can be sure that this Government will pursue on their behalf. 

15:25
Vaccination Roll-out in Alyn and Deeside

3. Will the First Minister make a statement on the progress of the vaccination roll-out in Alyn and Deeside? OQ56255

Llywydd, the vaccination roll-out in Alyn and Deeside continues to accelerate, thanks to the commitment and dedication of all those involved in delivering this outstanding programme throughout the constituency.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. The vaccine roll-out in Wales continues to gain pace. Wales now has vaccinated more of its population than any other nation in the United Kingdom. Public sector workers once again showing that they can deliver and they do deliver when we need them. First Minister, how confident are you that we will meet the middle of February deadline, as promised? Secondly, how confident are you that we can continue to create more capacity going forward into the next stage of the vaccination programme? And finally, First Minister, I understand that professionals are working extremely hard to protect the NHS and the vulnerable, through a massive flu vaccination roll-out as well. Will you join me in congratulating everyone involved in both programmes?

Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, I thank Jack Sargeant for an opportunity for the Senedd to talk about what everybody else in Wales is talking about, and that is the astonishing success of our national health service and those other public sector workers, the local government officers, who have helped us to open up mass vaccination centres, who found the desks, who found the chairs, who found the rooms; those volunteers who welcomed people on arrival; those members of the armed forces in every part of Wales are part of that enormous vaccination effort.

And Dirprwy Lywydd, it's right to put on record this afternoon. Just think of the last weekend. On Friday, we went through the 0.5 million barrier in terms of the number of people vaccinated in Wales. On Friday and Saturday, we vaccinated 1 per cent of the whole of the population of Wales on both days. And on Monday, we went through 600,000 people who've now successfully been vaccinated. It is an enormous tribute, at a time, as Jack Sargeant said, Dirprwy Lywydd, when our health workers are doing all the other things that we ask of them, including that flu vaccination programme, which, by the way, has once again been an outstanding success in north Wales in particular, and in the Member's constituency, we have some of the best flu-uptake figures anywhere in Wales. To do all of that at the same time while responding to winter pressures, while doing all the other things that Andrew R.T. Davies talked to me about, it's a remarkable effort, and we owe those people an enormous debt of gratitude, and I'm very glad to have the chance to put that on the record here this afternoon.

And we will, Dirprwy Lywydd, be asking even more of them in the weeks to come, because very soon, not only will we be offering a first vaccination to everybody in groups 5 to 9 of the priority list, we'll be offering a second vaccine to everybody in groups 1 to 4. And the Member asked me if I'm confident that we will complete the vaccination of groups 1 to 4 within the time frame that we set out and promised and I'm very pleased to say to him that I am very confident that we will achieve that here in Wales.

Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board stated last Thursday that 'No vaccines will go to waste as we're using a standby list created in accordance with the national priority groups.' However, many Flintshire residents have contacted me concerned otherwise. One said, 'A neighbour had a knock on the door from a new resident who said every day there are spare vaccinations as many people were not turning up, and that if she was interested in a jab, her contact at Deeside vaccination centre would call her later in the day.' Another said, 'I've been made aware of a person employed on IT duties, aged 26 with no underlying health conditions, vaccinated at short notice. This is the third situation where I've heard of somebody outside of the roll-out criteria being vaccinated on short notice.' Another said, 'There are people who are not front-line NHS staff, over 80, et cetera, receiving appointments to have the vaccine. None had underlying health conditions.' They also copied me in on Deeside vaccination centre's online booking form, asking, 'Why is this being shared and used by everyone who shouldn't be eligible for the vaccine?' What, therefore, is going on, when surely any standby list should prioritise people like front-line police officers and teachers?

15:30

Well, Llywydd, now we've heard the only Conservative contribution to the astonishing success story that is vaccination here in Wales: a collection of random and unattributed anecdotes that really don't amount to a single piece of serious commentary. Let me tell the Member: the health service across Wales, and in Betsi Cadwaladr too, is working as hard as it possibly can to deliver vaccination in line with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advice. Of course health boards have reserve lists, so that when people are unable, for all sorts of reasons, to take up an appointment at short notice, there are other people who can be called upon, so that vaccine does not go to waste. What could possibly be objectionable in that? Would it not have been more fitting this afternoon if the Conservative Party could have found it in it to congratulate those people for everything that they are doing? Instead, when 628,000 people have successfully been vaccinated, he wants to talk to us about three people he has heard from who appear to have a complaint.

COVID-19 Vaccines in South Wales East

4. Will the First Minister make a statement on the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines in South Wales East? OQ56297

I thank the Member for that question, Dirprwy Lywydd. Over 100,000 vaccinations have now been carried out in South Wales East, in line with the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

Thank you. First Minister, I want to ask you about vaccinations for people with learning disabilities living in care homes, which is an issue raised with me by a number of constituents. These families thought that their loved ones would be vaccinated in the first priority groups, due to the health Minister's pledge in this Chamber that all care home residents and staff would have received a vaccination by the end of January. But, care homes for people with learning disabilities were not included.

I've spoken to family members of residents with severe learning disabilities, who fear for their loved ones' safety, since people with learning disabilities have been six times more likely to die from COVID due to their vulnerability. I understand from Mencap that only 3,500 or so people live in residential or supported living settings. Given the phenomenal figures that you have just been quoting—34,000 vaccinations were delivered in Wales on Saturday alone—surely providing these vaccinations would have a negligible effect on the general roll-out. Finally, it should surely also be a responsible use of public resource, since caring for people with severe learning disabilities in hospital can be particularly difficult due to behavioural issues and a lack of language skills. So, First Minister, could I please therefore ask you to give serious consideration to changing this policy?

Well, Llywydd, I have to make it clear to the Senedd once again that this Welsh Government follows the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. The care homes that are included in the top four priority groups are the care homes identified by that committee. Where people with learning difficulties are captured by those top four priority groups, of course they will have been vaccinated. Where they are not, then they will appear in the next set of priority groups.

Now, it is no use Members here thinking that they know better than the JCVI. I have already heard from Mark Isherwood wanting me to overturn the JCVI advice and to put police officers further up the list. I've had questions on the floor of the Senedd by other Members wanting me to put teachers at the top of the list. Now, the Member wants me to overturn the JCVI advice for another group in the population. Every one of those groups has a case to make, and often a case that is compelling on its own terms, but the Welsh Government cannot overturn the advice that all four Governments of the United Kingdom are following.

Now, I noticed what the First Minister of Scotland, from the Member's sister party, said when she was being asked on the floor of the Scottish Parliament to do what she is asking me to do—to overturn the JCVI prioritisation list and to put people further up it than would be the case of the JCVI. And she said, on the floor of the Scottish Parliament, 'Our duty is to vaccinate in line with the JCVI recommendations.' I agree with the First Minister of Scotland there. That is what we are doing in Wales. That is what is happening in the area of Wales that the Member represents. And I cannot and will not do what I think would be an irresponsible thing and depart from the advice that we have received.

15:35

I've been in contact with constituents who've had the vaccine—both the Pfizer and the AstraZeneca vaccine—and two key questions that have been raised with me have been, first of all, about the timing for the second jab in the Aneurin Bevan health board area. Are we confident that they will be on course to receive that in the time that is designated? Would the First Minister give assurance on that? And also with regard to the AstraZeneca vaccine, is he confident that the efficacy of the vaccine will not be affected substantially by the South African variant and other variants? And, in that case, would there be a programme for booster jabs to be delivered via the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board for people in the Caerphilly constituency?

Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, I thank the Member for both of those important questions. On the timing of the second dose of the vaccine, I've been contacted by a number of people telling me how pleased they were that when they went away from the mass vaccination centre where they'd received their first jab, they were given the date and the time to come back for their second vaccination. I think that gave them a lot of confidence that the system here in Wales is already geared up for what will be, Dirprwy Lywydd, a major challenge over coming weeks and months, because, from now on, not only will we be offering a first vaccination to people in the next set of priority groups, but we will be offering a second vaccination to people who we've already offered a first to as we complete groups 1 to 4. That is a major challenge. But as you've seen, the health service in Wales has risen magnificently to the first challenge, and I'm confident that the plans are in place to allow that second dose of vaccine to be delivered in time with the advice that we have from the JCVI.

As to the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccination for the South African variant, there is still a great deal of work being done by scientists to assess that efficacy, and we get advice directly to the Welsh Government through those scientific communities. The preferable course of action, of course, is to make sure that we don't have the South African variant in circulation here in Wales, and a huge effort is going on to make sure that, in that small number of cases that have been identified, everything is being done to prevent onward transmission.

What we need to see, I believe, is a stronger set of defences at our borders. The UK Government's red list is the bare minimum of what needs to be done to make sure that all the gains that are being made in suppressing the virus and vaccinating our population are not put at risk by people coming into the United Kingdom from other parts of the world where further new variants may already be in the brew. So, work is going on on the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccination, but more could be done to mitigate the risk of those new variants coming into the United Kingdom in the first place.

Easing Lockdown Restrictions

5. What action is the Welsh Government taking to formulate a strategy to ease lockdown restrictions? OQ56292

I thank the Member for that question. Our approach to easing restrictions will continue to be based on the latest scientific evidence and medical advice. We will ease lockdown in a gradual way and update our coronavirus control plan to take account of new variants and the vaccination roll-out.

15:40

Thank you, First Minister. Obviously, public safety is of paramount importance, and we need to do everything we need to at the right time, but our businesses need as much warning as possible about when they can start preparing to get back to business. The Confederation of British Industry Wales has called on the Welsh Government to work on a road map out of lockdown so businesses can be ready when the time is right. In particular, they want you to confirm what will be considered low, medium and high-risk economic activity so that businesses can understand what will be open sooner and later. Businesses I've been in contact with are crying out for more clarity so they can invest and plan for reopening. Do you have an exit strategy in place that can be provided, in part, to provide that clarity and much-needed information for our businesses? Thank you.

Well, it's called the coronavirus control plan. It was published on 14 December. It sets out our alert level framework. It tells people in Wales what the indicators are that we will use to decide whether Wales is at a level 4 set of restrictions, level 3, level 2, and it explains what will be possible in terms of reopening the economy, personal life, sporting and cultural activity at each of those levels. The plan was published in that way precisely in order to offer the sort of certainty that the Member has asked for. I think it's all there. I said in my original answer that we will update that plan, because it was drawn up before the Kent variant was widely understood and before the vaccination programme had got under way. I'm keen that we should update the plan to take account of those positive developments on the one hand and challenging developments on the other. But when we update it, it will continue to do what it set out to do, and that is to give people as much certainty as we can, in the highly uncertain circumstances of the pandemic, by giving people a clear sense of the indicators we will use to move between levels and the sort of activity that could be resumed when we are in a position to move out of level 4, as we are today, and to move down the levels, restoring freedoms as we do so.

First Minister, there's a great deal of concern in Wales about the effect on children and young people of the pandemic and the restrictions, which I know you very much share. I very much agree with you in terms of the priority of getting our children back to school as quickly as possible, possibly starting with foundation phase children. Would you also agree that we need to get our young people, our children, able to take part in sport and the many activities that they enjoy for the mental and physical health advantages as well as the social interaction that involves? When there is some leeway to do so, First Minister, would restoring those activities be amongst, perhaps, the first thoughts that you have as to how we can ease restrictions?

I thank John Griffiths for those points. Indeed, they are points that Laura Anne Jones herself has put to me in the past. The coronavirus control plan that I referred to does very specifically say that supervised children's activities can resume when we're in a position to move towards alert level 3. I very much agree with the points the Member made about the impact that the whole of the last 12 months has had on children and young people. That is why our top priority is to get those young people back into the classroom. As more headroom appears, provided it does, then offering those young people opportunities outside school, particularly in the open air, will be very much part of the thinking of this Government.

International Priorities

6. What have the Welsh Government’s international priorities been during the COVID-19 pandemic? OQ56291

15:45

During the early months of the pandemic, our international activity included obtaining PPE and assisting the UK Government to help Welsh citizens return home from abroad. The recently published international action plans set out our priorities in supporting Wales's recovery from the pandemic.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. As the UK has left the European Union, I certainly think it is now vital that Wales establishes its own role in the world as a nation as of right. The Welsh Conservative Party have made it clear that they would massively restrict the ability of the Welsh Government to engage with other countries by cutting the funding to those areas that are not overtly devolved, effectively gagging Wales's voice in the world and preventing us from speaking up for our nation and businesses overseas. It's clear to the majority of us here that this approach would have massively hampered the benefits that international co-operation has brought to Wales, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. So, First Minister, during this pandemic, what role has Wales played internationally and what are the Welsh Government's ambitions for future international engagement and international co-operation?

I thank Mick Antoniw for that question. He's absolutely right; there's never been a more important time to sustain the profile and the reputation of Wales abroad. We remain an outward-looking, international nation, and that has been very important to us during the coronavirus crisis, directly in the contacts that the chief medical officer has had with colleagues in South Korea and Sweden and in the Robert Koch Institute in Germany, for example, and in the work that Public Health Wales has done alongside the World Health Organization. It has been very important, I believe, to have sustained our links with key international networks over the past 12 months.

I'm grateful to the Member for representing Wales at the last meeting of the UK Committee of the Regions contact group, and grateful to David Rees and to Russell George for agreeing to be representatives for Wales in those future arrangements. We haven't stepped back during the past 12 months from our involvement, for example, in chairing the Vanguard Initiative, an initiative amongst a series of regional Governments looking at smart specialisation and capitalising on the strength that we have in south-east Wales in particular. I know that Mick Antoniw will have paid particularly close attention to the continuing actions we have taken through the Wales and Africa programme, the PONT group in his own constituency having played such an important part in all of that.

I expect that to be part of the rest of this calendar year as well. In the last couple of months, I have met ambassadors from Japan, the President of the Basque Country, the ambassador from Germany, I met the foreign and defence Minister of the Republic of Ireland, I am to meet the New Zealand high commissioner tomorrow—all of these contacts demonstrate that there is an appetite in the rest of the world to maintain their contact with Wales. That is essential to us in terms of future trade opportunities and cultural exchange, and in terms of making sure that Wales's reputation in the rest of the world is powerfully sustained. I thank the Member for the contribution that he has made to all of that throughout this Senedd term.

Support for the Rural Economy

7. Will the First Minister make a statement on support for the rural economy during the pandemic? OQ56294

The Welsh Government has taken a range of steps to support the entire economy, as well as making specific funding available for the rural economy in Wales.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. As you've just highlighted, the rural economy faces different and various challenges compared to urban areas, and that's always been the case pre the pandemic as well. The pandemic has exposed how vulnerable our rural way of life can be. Has any assessment been made of how many job losses there have been in rural communities compared to urban areas, and how many losses of companies there have been? How is support being specifically tailored so that it is suited to the particular issues that rural areas are facing at the moment, and, indeed, as we come out of the pandemic and hopefully grow back better?

15:50

I thank the Member for that important question. He will know that, at the present moment, the level of job losses in the UK economy is quite difficult to discern. The job retention scheme, which we have supported, has suppressed the level of job losses, and the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility tell us that it will not be until the second and third quarters of this year that we get a proper sense of the economic impact that coronavirus and Brexit, leaving the European Union, have had on our economy. So, at this point, I think it's quite difficult to have identified with any reliability the level of job losses in different parts of the Welsh economy, whether that is sectoral or geographical. The Welsh Government's help has, though, been very specifically directed to sectors of the economy that are important in parts of rural Wales. The support that we've provided to the tourism sector, for example, is a very important component of the economy of rural communities in many parts of Wales, and the additional help that we have announced in recent weeks will go on sustaining that industry through until the end of March. I'm very happy, in the way that the Member suggested, to make sure that we go on working with those interests that represent the different parts of the rural economy here in Wales to make sure that, as we move beyond coronavirus and into the recovery period, this Welsh Government will go on supporting them so that they are able to resume the economic activity that they wish to be able to carry out in order to be able to create successful futures in those industries. 

2. Questions to the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition (in respect of his 'law officer' responsibilities)

Item 2 on the agenda this afternoon is questions to the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition in respect of his law officer responsibilities. The first question is from Janet Finch-Saunders. 

The Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations 2021

1. What discussions has the Counsel General had with law officers in the UK Government as to the impact of the Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations 2021 on the operation of the law in England and Wales? OQ56266

Officials attend monthly meetings with UK Government counterparts on policy development in this field. No issues were identified with the operation of the law in England and Wales in relation to these regulations. They will help protect cross-border watercourses, such as the River Wye, from the consequences of agricultural pollution.

Thank you. According to regulation 46,

'any person who contravenes any provision of these Regulations is guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction, or on conviction on indictment, to a fine.'

The regulatory impact assessment has calculated that the upfront capital cost could run to £360 million. That's £100 million more than the latest total income from farming in Wales, and your Welsh Government is only covering 3.6 per cent with the £13 million offered. It is completely unreasonable and desperately improportionate. Due to your Welsh Government's actions, farmers from every corner of Wales could be joining the long line of individuals awaiting conviction in magistrates' courts.

Whilst the UK Government is establishing Nightingale courts to help ensure that justice continues to be served during the pandemic, your regulations could cause further pressure. Rather than trying to see farmers deliver further pollution reduction via the threat of conviction, and burdening magistrates, will you encourage the Welsh Government to listen to the recommendations of the Wales Land Management Forum sub-group on agricultural pollution, such as 5.4, which calls for securing a buy-in to a voluntary approach? Thank you. Diolch. 

The regulations are proportionate, in contrast to the implication in the Member's question—

The regulations are proportionate, in contrast to the implication in the Member's question, as they're targeted at specific activities that cause pollution. They will be introduced over a three-year time frame. In addition to that, whether it's the sustainable production grant or the rural development programme and grant schemes, financial support is being made available in order to support farmers to work towards that new regime, which is important for the support of our environment. And whilst recognising the financial costs incurred in regulation of any new sort, I would remind the Member that it was her party that sought to take £137 million this year out of the pockets of farmers, and it is the Welsh Government, in fact, that's found that money from other sources to make up the difference, to protect farmers from experiencing that financial hit.

15:55

Question 2, Neil McEvoy. No, I don't think the Member is present. Therefore, question 3, Janet Finch-Saunders.

Question 2 [OQ56263] not asked.

Financial Conduct Authority v. Arch Insurance (UK) Ltd and Others

3. What discussions has the Counsel General had with other law officers in the UK regarding the impact of the judgment in the case of Financial Conduct Authority (Appellant) v Arch Insurance (UK) Ltd and others (Respondents)? OQ56265

No. There is a problem, Counsel General, with your sound. I wonder if you, or if broadcasting—

The Welsh Government welcomes the clarity that the judgment provides for business and individual customers. And we will continue to work with the UK Government, devolved Governments, and the industry, to monitor the impact of this court judgment on the matter of legitimate insurance claims.

Thank you. It's really heartening to hear that you are working positively with the UK Government on an issue such as this. The appeals clarify whether a variety of insurance policy wordings cover business interruption losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, and public health measures taken by UK authorities, in response to the pandemic, from March 2020. So, as you've rightly pointed out, the judgment is some good news for businesses. For example, disease clauses were interpreted as covering business interruption losses resulting from COVID-19. The Supreme Court held that an instruction given by a public authority may amount to a restriction imposed in prevention of access and hybrid clauses. And it is also sufficient for a policy holder to show that, at the time of any relevant Government measure, there was at least one case of COVID-19 within the geographical area covered by the clause. So important were the issues raised in the case that, of course, it proceeded directly to the Supreme Court under the leapfrog procedure. What steps will you take to help make businesses across Wales aware of the important judgment that has been made, and the most positive impact that this could potentially have on them? Thank you.

Well, I reassure the Member that, I think it was in April of last year that I and the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport first met with the ABI—the Association of British Insurers—in relation to this specific matter, before litigation was contemplated. And it is to be welcomed that the 21 types of policy clause that have been sampled by the Supreme Court have been the subject of this clear outcome. And the practical effect is that the insuring clauses, which are the subject of the litigation, will provide the cover. We continue to point businesses with whom the Welsh Government have connections and relationships to the information available, and to resources that are in the public domain, in relation to this important judgment. Because it does provide a kind of clarity that businesses have been asking for for many, many months.

Question 4 [OQ56261] has been withdrawn. Therefore question 5, David Melding.

Consolidating Welsh Law

5. Will the Counsel General make a statement on Welsh Government efforts to consolidate Welsh law in the fifth Senedd? OQ56271

The Senedd has seen the publication of the Law Commission's report on the form and accessibility of Welsh law, the commitment of this Government to a programme of consolidation and codification, and the delivery of the Legislation (Wales) Act 2019, which creates new duties to improve the accessibility of Welsh law. Work is now under way on the first two consolidation Bills, which would be available for the Government in the next Senedd to take forward, if they wish to do so, along with other projects to consolidate and codify Welsh law. 

16:00

Thank you for that reply, and, whilst I welcome the Welsh Government's ambition in this area, I do feel it would have been better if we'd taken an area of really important public policy and seen some significant advance during the fifth Senedd, and housing law is a key area where we could have done that. I think we've passed four housing Bills or four housing Acts. And do you share my disappointment that, for whatever reasons, and I'm not attributing blame, it has not been possible perhaps to make as much advance as we would have liked, given that we've now had our law-making powers for nearly 10 years? 

Well, I think it's always preferable, as David Melding's question implies, to legislate in a way which is as accessible as possible, but it's sometimes the case, when reform in a particular area is particularly intense, that can sometimes be the least convenient point at which to consolidate the law. But I do reassure him there are at least two consolidation Bills, which, whilst they haven't reached the Senedd yet, will be available to the Government in a new Senedd to start with their new statutory obligations. And I do celebrate that this Senedd has passed the legislative underpinning for that consolidation process, which I know he is an advocate for himself. And the sorts of challenges that he is setting us, as a Government, will be facilitated by the fact the Senedd has passed that legislation. 

Commentary on Welsh Law

6. Will the Counsel General make a statement on efforts to improve the quality and scope of commentary on Welsh law during the fifth Senedd? OQ56272

The Senedd has seen the Government progress its ambitions for increased content about Welsh law, including steps to improve explanatory notes, to develop a new Law Wales website and to begin the work to organise and publish law by subject, rather than chronologically.

Thank you for that reply. And I do welcome the efforts that have been made, which I think are quite considerable. And do you agree with me that good quality legal literature is really important, not only for the informed citizen, but for the many high street solicitors out there that will be the initial point of contact for people having a query on Welsh law in key public service areas, and so that they can signpost and, then, see where they may need to develop more knowledge and seek that advice, that they can, at least, have that sort of portal, which will give them a good place to get a summary of current law?

Yes, indeed. I do support that ambition. I would have hoped by now to have been able to make sure the Law Wales website, in its new revamped format, would be live, and also I think to have made more progress on the bilingual publication of legislation on the legislation.gov.uk website. Both those projects were somewhat delayed during the response to COVID, if you like. But we have made progress in building the new Law Wales site. Work on transferring content to it was under way when resources unfortunately had to be diverted to tackle COVID. But I absolutely hope we'll be in a position very soon to make that go live, and for that to be a way of attracting comment, both from practitioners, but other industry bodies about their legal perspectives. It is essential, as he says, to make sure that that rich commentary on the law that we pass is available and readily available, both to the interested member of the public, but also, importantly, to practitioners and intermediaries. And I hope we'll have more to say about that before the end of the Senedd term. 

3. Business Statement and Announcement

Item 3 on the agenda this afternoon is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd, Rebecca Evans. 

Diolch. There are no changes to this week's business. 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.

Trefnydd, could I please request an oral statement from the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism in relation to the impact of COVID-19 on tourism in Wales and the steps being taken to plan for the reopening of the sector?

Now, as you'll be aware, tourism plays a huge role in my constituency, and supports many local jobs in the area. Sadly, businesses across Pembrokeshire continue to have concerns over matters such as business support, and they also, crucially, need further clarity on the Welsh Government's plans for reopening the sector so that they can start planning and preparing their own businesses. I appreciate that it can be difficult for you as a Government to predict coronavirus infection rates, even in the near future, given we've seen so many twists and turns during this pandemic. Setting out a road map for our tourism industry would be enormously beneficial for our tourism businesses. Therefore, I'd be grateful if the Government could find some time for a statement to be included in the agenda in the near future, outlining the Government's intentions, so that businesses can start planning ahead, given that Easter is now on the horizon.

Secondly, could I also ask for a statement from yourself or the Minister for Housing and Local Government in relation to ensuring that people have access to cash facilities in their local community, which is particularly important, given the travel restrictions in place. You may, or may not be aware that Goodwick post office in my constituency is risking losing its cash machine, and, unfortunately, as I'm sure you'll appreciate, several banks in the local area have already closed, meaning that local people will be without access to a cash facility in that particular community. Given the importance of limiting travel movements during the pandemic, accessing cash locally is crucial, and, therefore, I'd be grateful if the Government could provide a statement outlining the steps that the Welsh Government is taking to engage with banks, post offices and, indeed, other businesses, to ensure that these sorts of facilities are available in our local communities.

16:05

I'm grateful to Paul Davies for raising both of these important issues, and Welsh Government absolutely understands the importance of the tourism sector to huge swathes of Wales, and we're very keen to support the sector in as best a way as we possibly can. I know the Deputy Minister will be listening and considering the request for a specific statement on support, but I would like to reflect on the package of support that the Welsh Government has put in place for business. It is the most generous anywhere in the United Kingdom, and, actually, the funding that the Welsh Government has passed on to businesses here in Wales actually exceeds the consequential funding that we've received from the UK Government in respect of business support, and I think that demonstrates the priority that we are putting on the sector. But I'm sure that the Deputy Minister will be considering what you've said very carefully.

Again, I do share Paul Davies's concern about access to banking facilities and cash within local communities. The First Minister is very keen to pursue the idea of a community bank for Wales, and I know that my colleague Ken Skates has been working on this particular idea with Banc Cambria and the Wales Co-operative Centre, and I will ask the Minister to provide all colleagues with an update on that work, because I know it's of particular interest to all of us to ensure our constituents have access to the facilities they need. 

I would like to ask for two Government statements, one a statement on designation of something as a sport or whether it's play and leisure. I would suggest designating anything that is an Olympic event as a sport. Now, this designation has a major impact on when a facility can reopen and what tier it reopens in, and I think that there are a lot of people who are very concerned that they are actually sports that have been treated as if they are play and leisure.

The second one I'd like to ask, and Huw Irranca-Davies and I raised it a month ago, is for a statement on supply teachers and the way they're employed. I'm making a further request for a statement on supply teachers. My view on how poorly supply teachers are treated is well known, and I would like to see them employed directly by local authorities or groups of local authorities, but I just think we need a Government statement to explain why the Government does not support that.

Well, the regulations determine whether a business or premise must remain close at the different levels of alert, and guidance on what is or isn't allowed and what is allowed to open or has to remain closed is provided in the Welsh Government's control plan. At alert level 4, restrictions require all sports and leisure facilities to remain closed, and at alert level 3, sport and leisure facilities, including fitness studios and gyms are allowed to open, but ice rinks and bowling alleys must remain closed. As Mike Hedges says, indoor play centres, trampoline and skate centres must also remain closed at alert level 3, but following the representations that I've received and those that I know Mike Hedges has also received, when we are able to move to alert level 3, the Welsh Government will be revisiting guidance to provide any further clarification that may be required. 

And in respect of the request for the statement on supply teachers, I do know that the Minister for Education has written twice to Mike Hedges with some further information outlining the support, guidance and advice that the Welsh Government and the National Procurement Service have provided to supply teachers during the pandemic, and we do continue to liaise with our counterparts within the UK Government and all stakeholders to provide the very latest support and guidance. But, as I say, the Minister for Education will have heard the request for further information this afternoon. 

16:10

The Government will no doubt be aware of recent reports of care home staff having to take annual leave when they're required to self-isolate, and this is because the £96 per week statutory sick pay simply isn't enough to live on, especially when many people working in care homes have had to isolate a number of times. So do you agree with me that this is wrong, and that the situation needs rectifying? And can we therefore have a statement in response to the solution to this problem that is being pursued by the Scottish Government, where anyone earning £9.50 an hour or below have automatic entitlement to the self-isolation payments? I'm of the view that this is essential if we are to keep transmissions of COVID down. 

Welsh Government has put in place the £500 payment for those individuals who are required to self-isolate as a result of the conditions of the pandemic, but I will ask the health Minister to review your comments this afternoon in specific regard to those care home staff who are now being asked to take annual leave, given the specific role that those care home workers play in the pandemic.FootnoteLink 

You need to—. Sorry, you've only just unmuted, so can you start again, please?

Thank you. I wanted to raise a serious incident that took place at the Queensferry Gypsy and Traveller site managed by Flintshire County Council at the end of last month, which involved the mishandling of a COVID outbreak. An incident management team was set up, and somebody somewhere decided that—rather than asking the five families where someone had COVID to self-isolate, a decision was made to force everyone living on that site to become quarantined, regardless of whether or not they had tested negative. And what's more, a security firm was appointed to enforce this decision. I, frankly, know of no other instance where a whole street or a whole block of flats has been quarantined, and certainly not without putting in place arrangements to provide money to compensate people for loss of earnings, or the provision of essential food and medicines. So, I'm quite sure, if the incident management team dealing with the outbreak at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency had decided all their staff had to be confined to the workplace, there would have been an outrage at this breach of their human rights. I want, therefore, Trefnydd, to ask if we could have a statement from the Deputy Minister, who is responsible for equalities, that there will be no reoccurrence of such a major breach of the Equalities Act 2010 and that local authorities are clear that security firms have no role in promoting good management of relations between tenants and landlords, which in any case is essential to achieve public health compliance with COVID regulations. 

Thank you. I know the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip will have been listening very carefully to that contribution. We do understand that Flintshire County Council is conducting its own inquiry at the moment into the events at the Riverside site, and we'll be keen to learn from their findings. I would mention, though, that the Welsh Government has been very keen to provide good advice to local authorities since the very start of the pandemic. Back on 26 March, we provided advice to local authorities on how they can best support Gypsy and Traveller communities on sites and on roadside encampments through the pandemic. And our advice is really clear, in that managing COVID-19 incidents on sites must be based on clear communication, building trust and taking time to ask what support is needed by those residents. But I know that the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip will have heard the request for the particular statement.

16:15

Can I thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer? Trefnydd, can I call for two statements, please, from the Minister for economy and transport? The first I'd like to request is an update on the developments in respect of the north Wales metro. I noticed that there was some reference to the south Wales metro in the news this week, and it reminded me of the fact that of course there's going to be significant investment in the south Wales metro—some £0.75 billion, compared to just a paltry sum of £50 million being spent and invested on the north Wales metro. I think that, regardless of whether there are delays in the south, we certainly need to understand why there's such a disparity in the funding between north and south Wales for these two metro projects, and we certainly need to have an update on the situation in the north.

Can I also request a statement from the Minister for economy and transport in relation to the impact of the Welsh Government's clean air proposals in the White Paper that was published recently? You'll be aware, Trefnydd, that that White Paper suggests that we could have road pricing introduced in Wales on Welsh trunk roads. That would be absolutely devastating for people living in my constituency, who use trunk roads to get to and from their place of employment, to and from places of education like schools, and, indeed, for the tourism industry, which is absolutely dependent on people arriving from places on the trunk road network, such as the A5, the A55 and A494. I think it is absolutely imperative that we don't do anything to undermine the impact of the pandemic, and I can't think of anything worse than introducing road pricing in Wales at a time like this.

I will ask the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales to provide Darren Millar with that update on the north Wales metro.FootnoteLink

With respect to the clean air proposals, I would certainly encourage all colleagues to take the opportunity to seek to engage constructively with the White Paper and to come forward with their own suggestions as to how we can potentially ensure that, in future, we do have the clean air that we all aspire to and which will require interventions from all of us in all kinds of different ways. So, in the first instance, I think engaging constructively with that particular piece of work would be a useful first step.

Trefnydd, in November, we celebrated 20 years of the Wales Union Learning Fund. It's a programme that allows trade unions to support workers back into learning, and, since April alone, in 2020, the fund has supported more than 5,000 workers with learning, advice, guidance, on essential skills and career progression. So, with the worrying news that the Conservatives are axing the funding of the Union Learning Fund in England a year earlier than expected, can I ask the Welsh Government for a statement on the importance of workplace training and the role of the Wales Union Learning Fund in Wales?

Can I also ask for an update on the Welsh Government's discussions with Centrica, with regard to the company's recent industrial dispute, ongoing with GMB? Now, as you know, the union has taken industrial action against the company following their attempt to fire and rehire many of the hard-working staff that work for the firm. Now, as an important contractor with Centrica, and in recognition of the fair work ambitions here in Wales, I know that the Welsh Government recently wrote to the Centrica board about this very issue, so, Minister, I want to ask if the Welsh Government can publish the response it's received from the board, or at least provide a written update on the Government's engagement with the company. Thank you.

Thank you to Huw Irranca-Davies for raising these issues, and the first one was in relation to the Wales Union Learning Fund, and of course that gives me an ideal opportunity to remind colleagues that it is HeartUnions Week, and, were it not for unions, we wouldn't have all of the workplace protections that we enjoy and which are so easy to take for granted. So, we're very proud of the work that the Wales Union Learning Fund has been doing, and of course there's never been a better time to join a union, with all of the threats of leaving the European Union and, of course, the importance of staying safe in the workplace during the pandemic.

On the specific issue regarding Centrica, the First Minister did indeed write to the board of Centrica on 1 February highlighting the significant concerns that the Welsh Government has with the actions that the company has taken in recent months, and that letter repeats the Welsh Government's clear, stated ask that the company returns to the negotiating table to seek an agreed way forward with the GMB. I do understand, as Huw Irranca-Davies says, that a response has now been received. Clearly, we'll have to consider if the response can be put into the public domain in full, but we will certainly find an opportunity to update Members on our engagement with the company.

16:20

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Trefnydd, we all understand the issues relating to the flooding that happened in Skewen, and I very much praise the actions that the Welsh Government has taken to fund some of those residents to ensure that they have some support. But last night, on ITV's Sharp End, the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs seemed to indicate that they were asking the coal tips taskforce to take a look at the implications of mine workings as well across south Wales, and what that means for our communities. I wonder if we can have a statement from the Minister to indicate what exactly that taskforce will be asked to do, what discussions they're having with the UK Government in relation to these workings, and also what discussions they're having with the coal body and the UK Government to look at how they are liable for flooding from these workings. Because it's claimed the liability for floodwater is no-one's responsibility, but, when it emanates from a man-made structure that someone has responsibility for maintaining, surely there should be some liability there, and we should pursue that agenda very strongly.

Can I also ask for a statement from the Minister in relation to the dog thefts that have been happening lately? We have seen an increasing number of thefts of dogs and puppies across my region and area, and particularly across Wales. I very much appreciate the work that is done in trying to find those thieves and actually return some of those dogs, but we're now in a situation where people who are walking their dogs on the streets are being attacked and the dog's been stolen while they are taking that walk. It's clear we need to have a statement as to what action the Government is taking with the relevant authorities, with the police and the UK Government, and how we can perhaps adapt Lucy's law, when it comes in, to ensure that people selling these puppies illegally are going to be heavily penalised as a consequence of the actions they're taking.

And a final request, the Minister for the economy—

No, no—. No, no, I'm sorry. You have gone well over. You'll have to try again next week. Trefnydd.

Thank you. The first issue that was raised by David Rees was the coal tips taskforce, and the extension of that work now into mine works, and that's following the recent flooding incidents. Welsh Government is really keen to see a joint programme of work between the Welsh Government and the UK Government on this, recognising that Wales does have 40 per cent of the coal tips of the whole of the United Kingdom, and clearly the mine works issues will affect Wales also disproportionately, so it's important that we do have the correct support to address that. I'll seek to provide David Rees with a full update in terms of the discussions that are going on in that regard, and also with regard to the coal authority in particular.

And then the second issue was the important one of dog thefts, which is becoming increasingly concerning to us across all of our communities, I think. The theft of a pet is a criminal offence under the non-devolved Theft Act 1968, and the maximum penalty of course is seven years' imprisonment. I know that Jane Hutt meets regularly with the police, and that she'll be keen to raise this issue with them on behalf of David Rees and all of us who have concerns about this particularly concerning area.

4. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Update on COVID-19 Vaccinations

Item 4 on the agenda is a statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services—update on the COVID-19 vaccinations. I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething.

Apologies, Deputy Presiding Officer. I'm just getting my statement up. Here we are. I hadn't remembered all of it just yet.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Today we have published the third of our reports summarising progress against our national COVID-19 vaccination strategy. These reports are published every Tuesday, in addition to the surveillance data that is published by Public Health Wales both daily and weekly, and the operational data that is being published by Welsh Government statisticians.

According to the figures published at midday today, the NHS Wales-led vaccination programme has now vaccinated more than 628,000 people across Wales with their first dose. That's essentially one in five of the population, and over 80 per cent of those included within the first four priority groups. Over the last week, our teams vaccinated someone in Wales every four seconds. We expected a further step up of activity over the last week. I'm pleased to say that happened and is borne out in the published data.

Friday, 5 February marked the sixtieth day of the vaccination programme, and was also the day when the number of people to have received their first dose of the vaccine in Wales reached the 0.5 million mark. NHS Wales also broke the daily number of vaccinations recorded on two consecutive days on Friday and Saturday. More than 30,000 vaccines were administered on both days, with almost 34,000 reported on Saturday alone. That means for Friday and Saturday, we vaccinated 1 per cent of the Welsh population on each day.

The vaccination programme continues to go from strength to strength. By the end of last week, we had vaccinated a larger proportion of the total population than any other part of the UK. That is still the case today with the figures just released. Last week, not only were we vaccinating more people each day as a percentage of our population than any other UK nation, but at that point we ranked third in the world, behind only the United Arab Emirates and Israel. That is a fantastic achievement and testament to the efforts of everyone involved—our NHS, local government, the military and all of the volunteers.

We delivered more doses of vaccine to health boards than on any other week, and vaccines were being administered in 493 locations across Wales. We are progressing well through the priority cohorts, and are on track to deliver against that first major milestone in line with our national plan. We expect to have offered the vaccine to all those in cohorts 1 to 4 by the end of this week.

Until now, we had been asking people to wait until contacted by the NHS. However, as the pace of our vaccination programme increases, our health boards are starting to ask people over the age of 70 to get in touch if they haven’t been invited for their vaccination, but that is only people over the age of 70. We'll communicate the arrangements for this over the next week through our health boards. Sorry, we'll communicate this through our health boards over the coming days. This is a key part of us ensuring that no-one will be left behind.

This week, we have also seen more good news about the vaccinations. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, the independent regulator, released research demonstrating that the current vaccines are extremely safe, with only mild and expected side effects. Also, a study on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine suggests that it could lead to a substantial fall in the spread, the transmission of the virus, and that protection remained at 76 per cent during the first three months after the first dose, and rose to 82 per cent after the second dose.

I am immensely proud of our NHS colleagues across Wales, and grateful for their and their partners' unrelenting hard work in sustaining the pace of our vaccination programme. This really is a marathon, but we have made a fantastic start. I hope that Members across the Chamber share that sense of pride in our national achievements. Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. 

16:25

Thank you, Minister, for your statement this afternoon, and I too want to join in putting thanks on the record to all of the teams of vaccinators, and everyone concerned with the roll-outs across the whole of Wales. The numbers have gathered pace week in, week out now, and it's pleasing to see progress being made on the targets that were set by the Welsh Government early on in the campaign. And the point that you make about 60 days since the start of the vaccination programme clearly shows how right and proper it was that the UK Government went alone and purchased vaccines early, to allow us to get onto the field of play and start vaccinating people across the whole of the United Kingdom, but in particular here in Wales. 

I'd like to ask a series of questions, if I may, Minister. Are you able to update us on the work that's going on with the black, Asian and minority ethnic community? I raised this issue about hesitancy about taking the vaccine up in certain communities across Wales, based on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies evidence that indicated a 70 per cent to 75 per cent reticence from certain communities about engaging with the vaccination programme. It's really important that any misunderstandings or false stories that are put out there are stamped on very early, and I'd be grateful if you could enlighten us with more information following me raising this with you when I was the health spokesman for the Conservative group a month ago.

Could you also highlight what progress is being made in particular with the second dose of vaccines, vaccination, and informing people of the call-back for the second dose of vaccines, because come March that will be a big part of the programme and it's important that the two run side by side without any disruption? I hope you'll agree with that, Minister.

Could you also identify the advice that is being given from Welsh Government in relation to the 70 to 74-year-old cohort? I certainly have evidence that that cohort are being directed to the mass vaccination centres rather than, obviously, having the vaccine in the GP surgeries, and when the GP surgeries are challenged on this point, they say it's due to advice that's come down from Welsh Government to direct people to the mass vaccination centres. So, I'd be grateful to understand how that advice has been distributed, because certainly for individuals who have been shielding in that cohort—. I have constituents who've raised problems in relation to the referral that they've had to undertake.

In particular, you'll be aware of the campaign regarding children with learning disabilities and in particular about trying to get prioritisation for the vaccine for those who are responsible for caring for children with learning disabilities. I appreciate the First Minister did touch on this, and the evidence that the Minister and the Government work to is the recommendations from the JCVI, but have you made any referrals back to the committee to seek clarification on the evidence that they've given you and the advice that they've given you in relation to the groupings, in particular when we talk about learning disabilities and in particular how they're more prone by six times to be susceptible to the virus? I think that's an important consideration when considering the advice they're giving.

Can you also confirm that there will be no interruption in supplies whatsoever because the supply base has now resumed because of the Pfizer maintenance that went down a couple of weeks ago? Your understanding would greatly enlighten people's views as to any possible supply problems that might be in the system, because I have a letter here from a GP surgery that indicated that they'd been told that there might be a pause in the supply of vaccines the week commencing 15 February. I'm not asking you to comment specifically on that particular matter, but I'd be grateful to understand the more general issue around the supply of vaccine into Wales. Thank you, health Minister.

16:30

Thank you for the series of questions. I'll start with your first point and your last point together on vaccine supply. It is a UK Government responsibility, and the contracts that they've procured on behalf of the whole of the UK have allowed us to go out and deliver, and it's a credit to the way that our teams in Wales have then used that supply over the last weeks. I think from within your comments there was even some credit for the Government, as well as people outside the Government, for delivering that here in Wales at such a tremendous pace.

On vaccine supply, I've spoken not just with Nadhim Zahawi on a regular basis, the UK vaccines Minister, but I've also had conversations with both Pfizer and AstraZeneca and my officials. Pfizer had a planned pause in their production to restart on a more efficient basis. They are confident that that means they will be producing a vaccine at a higher rate, both to meet their commitments with the contract they have with the UK Government for all four nations, and indeed their commitments through Europe. That's good news and they also think that they will be able to negotiate the changed arrangements for goods to transfer between the European Union and the UK, and that of course is hugely important for all of us too.

On your point about BME take-up and hesitancy, it is a matter that I have been concerned about from the outset. We're well aware that there is a range of fake news and media associated with a wide group of people across the country. Some of that is particularly targeted around faith communities and around some particular communities, black and Asian-origin communities in particular. So, we're doing work, not just—. Other Governments are also doing something similar as well, in terms of UK-wide messaging, but also, later on today, I'll be joining a round-table with a range of community leaders to help address some of these very points. You'll have heard the comments that I've made and the First Minister has made at yesterday's press conference, indicating how we want to go about making this as open as possible in terms of what the Government does, but also the way that our health boards are doing direct outreach work with some of these communities. And I'm very grateful for individual healthcare staff who are reaching back into their communities to highlight the fact that the vaccine is safe and effective, and there is no bar to them taking it from either a religious or ethnic origin point of view, and that's really, really important for all of us, regardless of our own politics in the Chamber, to get on top of the fake news that will leave people more vulnerable to harm.

On second dose plans, that is very much part of what we're doing; you'll see more and more people getting their second doses in the information published every day. You'll also see the rate of second doses going up slightly. We did nearly 700 second doses yesterday and we're soon going to be in the territory of doing thousands of second doses through each week and then tens of thousands as we get to those people who need to have their Pfizer second dose as well. We need to make sure that the stock is available to make sure that we're giving people the right second dose over the weeks ahead.

Now, on 70 to 74-year-olds, I haven't given a direction that requires 70 to 74-year-olds to go to a mass vaccination centre. It would probably be more helpful if I could see the correspondence or the suggestion you refer to to try to address it. It's always a possibility that there are anecdotes and a suggestion that the Welsh Government has intervened when we haven't, and I'll be very clear that there is no policy choice that I have made requiring 70 to 74-year-olds to go to a mass vaccination centre. We're operating a deliberately blended approach, with 438 different locations where people can be vaccinated.

On your point about people with learning disabilities, it depends whether they're in scope to have a vaccine in the first place, because actually the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency authorisation doesn't cover every child, as you'll know, and it's also then about people who are carers and those who are carers within group 6, and those who are older adults with learning disabilities as well. And that very much is part of the challenges that we're considering, both in terms of our interaction with the JCVI and our Welsh representatives on that forum, but also in terms of our broader public health advice as well. In the course of rolling out to group 6 in particular, we will be doing some communications around that and trying to make that as clear as possible, and that'll inform not just what we do as a Government and the interactions health boards have with you, in your local capacities as Members, but obviously I will continue to make that available to health committee members in the regular briefings that we are continuing with. I believe that answers the questions that have been posed at this point.

16:35

I would like to thank everybody involved in the vaccination process in Wales, which is clearly on the right track and that's something that we should celebrate. I was over in the vaccination centre in Ysbyty Enfys in Bangor yesterday, at the invitation of the health board, and it's useful to be able to see for ourselves in order to give comfort to some people who may be still concerned about the process. But it's very striking, not just how smooth and effective the system is, but how committed the staff are who are part of the process, and I know that we're all very grateful to them.

I was pleased to hear today that there will be a change to the appointment system, where people will be encouraged, at the moment the over-70s will be encouraged to phone if they haven't had an appointment. There is still a problem with the system and I hope that the Minister would recognise that. One solution that I've discussed locally is the need for more volunteers to do that work of phoning to ask people to come in. There is work within the health board in north Wales to create that army of volunteers. But what support can the Government provide at a national level to ensure that we have those people in place to do that appointment work, because that's going to become more and more intense, as we reach out to more and more groups of people to be vaccinated?

I would ask once again for the full data. I think it is important that we have that full data on the allocation of vaccines to the various nations of the UK and then within Wales too, and the different kinds of vaccines available as well. It's one thing to say that there is information of commercial sensitivity, but it's another thing to hear from Government that they don't know how much has been allocated to each nation. I would suggest that you need to know.

Again, I would ask for investment now, or at least start to invest and plan for investment, in the infrastructure required to deal with the new kinds of mRNA vaccinations. I don't want to hear about a GP, as I have heard, who refuses a tray of Pfizer because he can't deal with the 1,000 doses, and it's that lack of infrastructure making it difficult for that GP to accept that tray that he would have liked to have accepted. So, let's see the plan for the creation of a health and vaccination system in Wales that can cope with this new technology in terms of vaccination.

Finally, now that we see very positive evidence that the vaccinations do provide some protection against the transfer of the virus, isn't it now really time to look again at the list of priorities provided by the JCVI, and bring people such as those working in our schools, in the emergency services and public transport into the system sooner rather than later, as a means of cutting that transmission link from one person to another? We are in a very good place, but there's always room for improvement.

16:40

There is always room for improvement, and I look forward to the coming weeks and months. There is certainly no complacency from our fantastic vaccination teams across the country in terms of what we're doing and what we think that we're going to be able to do, and need to do, in the weeks and months ahead.

On the appointments system, we are already looking at other potential uses of staff and volunteers, and, indeed, an online booking system, as we are rolling out to wider groups of the public, to make it easier for people to get a booking. We will also need to make sure that the second booking is done effectively and efficiently, while still running large numbers of first doses as well.

On vaccine supply, I expect that, this week, we will, in each of the nations, be able to publish some information on vaccine supply already received, which I hope will put the Member's mind at ease about the share that we are getting, but also about the use that we are making of that supply as well. It's taken certainly longer than I would have wanted to, but we, I think, have finally got to a position where all four Governments—and, indeed, the manufacturers—can have something that we can all provide to give the clarity that some people are looking for.

On your point about the information you have about a GP who can't accept a full tray of Pfizer at present, it's a combination of different points here, I think. It's the way that we get the trays, the size they are available in, and how they can and can't be broken down. It's also the reality that we aren't in a position to create that infrastructure in the immediate here and now. I appreciate that you are asking a future question, but it is a future question. Right now, with the amount of priorities that we have to deal with to roll out the programme, I think that to be wondering about how we can have storage facilities that can keep vaccines at under -70 degrees centigrade in local GP practices is probably the wrong priority for what we actually have to do now.

We do have to think about the lessons that we are learning as we go through the pandemic, as well as future courses, because it is entirely possible that there will be future pandemics. In many ways, the UK was lucky with SARS because SARS didn't arrive here and stay in larger numbers. SARS was actually even more deadly in terms of its acquisition rate and fatality rate than the current pandemic is. So, we have been incredibly fortunate. But, because other parts of the world were burned much more significantly by SARS, they had to have those arrangements in place. I have no doubt that, at the end of this, in every nation of the UK, we will have different arrangements in place for future pandemics, and that has to be a good thing for all of us.

When it comes to the JCVI priorities, it's a question asked on a consistent basis. Indeed, it was in First Minister's questions. We have a list of JCVI priorities that are about saving the maximum number of lives. We have asked, and we have representatives who are constantly looking at evidence from the JCVI and the questions that we have. We are looking not just at 1 to 9, but at the next phase as well, and about how we continue to save the maximum number of lives possible. That advice, at present, gives us our current priority groups. That's what we are working through at tremendous pace, and we will continue to do so.

Minister, I was at a meeting last night in Community House in the Maindee area of Newport East, which has a number of ethnic minority communities regularly involved in its activities. There was a presentation on the vaccination programme, around the reluctance of some black and ethnic minority communities to take part. One of the major issues was that the presentation that we had from public health focused on UK statistics. The group felt that there is a dearth of information, at least that they have, at a Wales level on that reluctance that would seem to be present in black and ethnic minority communities to have the vaccine. So, their plea, really, was for that information to be available on a Wales level, so that they could best direct their efforts in terms of community outreach messaging and communication to the groups that most need to have the benefit of that effort. I wonder if you could tell me today what information the Welsh Government might be able to produce for groups such as Community House to bolster their efforts to encourage take-up of the vaccine in those groups. 

16:45

We're doing a number of things on this. It's not just about the publication of the data we have; it is about that deliberate outreach into communities that every health board is doing. They've appointed people to undertake those outreach roles. It's also about the engagement that we need to continue to have in a variety of ways. The meeting that I am having tonight is only one part of it. The work of our staff in reaching out to communities is part of it as well. On the data, there is some data that we're looking to have clarified and tied up. It won't ever be perfect. That's because we don't have the ethnicity of every single member of Wales available in a general practice record. We do have a range of approximations that we can take with some of the data we have, which would give us an idea and an indication. I think that will confirm that there is a differential level of take-up. It's about being able not just to confirm that, but I think more than that, to understand what lies behind that, and to be able to address it. That really is, I'm afraid, about taking on some of the myths and some parts of distrust between communities and larger public services that we know exist. The more we can do, the better for all of us, because the sooner we have population coverage, the sooner we'll be into a different way of dealing with coronavirus, which, I'm afraid, we may not get to eliminate, but we may get to live with in a way where it's an endemic condition that we can be regularly protected against, and remember the harm that it's caused in these last 12 months.

Minister, well done on a really impressive performance over the last couple of weeks. You and everyone who's working as part of this have dealt with the gap with vaccination rates with England that I previously criticised you for, and I think I should recognise how good it has been over the past two weeks. So, well done. Because, on average, people have been vaccinated later in Wales, because of the earlier slower start, will that lead to anyone being infected or potentially hospitalised or worse because of that slow start? Or do you think any effect from that has now been undone?

Do you yet say that we have caught up with where things had been in England in terms of the percentage of the most vulnerable, groups 1 to 4? We've discussed before that in Wales we have a more elderly age structure. So, are the same percentages yet vaccinated in those most vulnerable groups? Are you getting just a population share of supply from the UK, or is there a recognition in the supply of that higher proportion of elderly people, such that we may now get a bit more than that?

Thank you for the new report that's come out today. Looking through that, you speak of the achievements of the markers and the milestones. You refer to three markers through January for ambulance staff, care homes and deployment to GPs, and celebrate having achieved that. What's happened to the marker of 70 per cent of the over-80s by 24 January? Was that never a marker, or has that been airbrushed from the history of this? You highlight the very good numbers on Friday, 30,000, and 34,000 on Saturday. Are you able to update us on the numbers for Sunday and Monday, and how do those compare?

And finally, it's good to know that the over-70s should be getting in touch. I think that will help Members where we've had people who've perhaps said they hadn't it yet. We can get back and say that if they're over 70, they need to get in touch. Just yesterday I was listening to the BBC Radio 4 PM programme. It was explaining that people in England should call if they were over 70 and haven't had it, but people in Wales shouldn't. Yet, today, we're told they should. Is there still more work to do in joining up communications and trying to have a better UK approach to those communications when things are different or changing, so that we try and co-ordinate those in a clearer way for people?

Thank you for the recognition of the significant pace and scale of improvement over the last few weeks in the programme. There is always more to do, but I think everyone can take a share of pride in what we're doing across the country.

On your point about the future infection rates, full protection isn't provided until some weeks after the first jab has been provided, and then the second dose should provide a greater level of protection, but also longevity as well. The reality is that we won't know more about that until we're actually in a phase of having surveillance and understanding what then happens with the population. That's when we'll know more about transmission, as well as longer term protection, whether we will need to have future vaccination programmes, and, potentially, the frequency of those as well. There is still a range of unknowns, but what we do know is that the vaccines we have are effective, they're safe, and everyone should take up the opportunity to have their vaccine when they are offered it by our NHS.

On whether we've caught up with England regarding 1 to 4 and your question about whether population share or whether the need base within the priority groups governs supply, there was a pragmatic choice made between all four health Ministers in the UK that population shares were the neatest and the quickest way to make sure that vaccines came out. Then, the Prime Minister introduced a different target that actually then rehighlighted that there are different percentages of the population within those priority groups. I have had several conversations with Nadhim Zahawi about the reality that that changes the picture, and we then need assurances that we will have an adequate supply coming into Wales to meet priority groups 1 to 4. We do think we'll have adequate supply, but we haven't seen a bump-up over and above our Barnett share in terms of population. That means that we think we're going to have enough to cover groups 1 to 4, but the programme in Wales has to be even more efficient than programmes within the rest of the UK to meet that target, both in terms of correctly identifying and inviting people in groups 1 to 4 to come forward, as well as then delivering it, as well as getting on top and making sure we have a very minimal level of wastage as well. We're able to do that, and that's why I think we have some confidence that we will get to that milestone of groups 1 to 4.

On the question about over-80s, I think we've answered this question on many occasions. We didn't reach the over-80s milestone at the time, when we expected to, but we have now got to 86.1 per cent of over-80s, and the figures published today were at 79 per cent for 75 to 79-year-olds. On older people's care homes, we have completed 679 out of 691. There is literally a handful of older people's care homes left, and that is because they've had active infections within them. So, we're doing remarkably well. On the figures published today—you asked about our comparisons with England and others, and how does Sunday and Monday compare; we've published those figures. On a population share, Wales has now vaccinated 19.9 per cent, in England it's 19.1, in Scotland it's 17 per cent. The figures in Northern Ireland aren't available yet. On the population above the age of 16, Wales has vaccinated 24.3 per cent, England 23.7 per cent and Scotland 20.4 per cent. So, in each of those measures, we're maintaining a high rate of achievement in our relative position with other UK nations. But, actually, we still have to keep on going as quickly as possible until the fight is won with the virus.

On UK-wide comms, it would always be helpful if we could have a longer term conversation and one about information in advance rather than having to respond to statements made in other parts of the UK, but that is, as ever, a work in progress.

16:50

Minister, can I commend Dr Sarah Medlicott of Bron-y-Garn surgery and other GPs who contacted me over a week ago expressing their desire to begin vaccinations of a relatively small group of front-line police medics, who are at higher risk of exposure to the virus in a very specialised line of work? As you know, Minister, we hit a frustrating problem immediately in that the JCVI did not, at that point last week, include police medics in their top priorities. Minister, can I thank you and your officials and your advisers for the work you've done to advocate for the inclusion of police medics in the priority 2 group, which, of course, includes front-line health and social care workers? Could I ask you, Minister, for an update on this so that Dr Medlicott and fellow GPs can get on now with vaccinating police medics across the Bridgend and Cwm Taf Morgannwg health board area, but also, so that all health boards in Wales ensure that police medics are now recognised as front-line healthcare workers and can be rapidly vaccinated as part of priority group 2? And finally, Minister, can I just say well done to team Wales and NHS Wales, including medical staff and volunteers, for the success with the vaccine roll-out? It's been one heck of an effort, and I've seen it first-hand. I commend them all.

16:55

Thank you. I'll deal with both points. In terms of Dr Medlicott and the work the local GPs have done around police medics, you're very current, because today I've agreed, and there's a note gone out through our system, that police medics are to be considered as analogous to group 2, because of the direct patient contact work they have, and it's analogous to a range of other activities. So, that does make sense. And a similar understanding of the JCVI advice: it doesn't always allow us to focus on every single nuanced area of practice, and that's why we've had to review some of these as we have gone on—the same points about the intimate care provision that some members of staff in education provide for special educational needs children in particular. So, that should be a consistent picture across Wales, and that's gone out into the system today, and thank you to Dr Medlicott and her colleagues for highlighting the issue, which has allowed us, including the questions you've asked, to make sure that issue is resolved. 

In terms of team Wales, I think it's a tremendous team Wales effort. And as I've said repeatedly, we—. At the start of this, I said that we would end up in a position not dissimilar to other UK nations, and we wouldn't be left behind. After an initial modestly slower start, we've now caught up and surpassed other UK nations. We need to maintain the pace though, not just for the next couple of weeks, but for many, many months ahead. That's why in many ways—. I said it was a marathon in my statement, but in many ways it's an ultra-marathon—one marathon after another after another, and still needing to maintain the same relentless pace to make sure we have different choices to make in the future. And I certainly look forward to being able to do so.

Many then potential vaccinators, including nurses and GPs, contacted me at the beginning of the roll-out, frustrated at the slow start then, but they've observed huge praise for that magnificent way they've risen to the challenge since. 

You referred to second vaccines. I think the latest figures in Wales are one in every 909 people; in England it's one in every 119 people. So, there's still a gap, but I can recognise that the figure in Wales has still improved significantly. How will you ensure that that continued roll-out of the second vaccine programme focuses on what you identify as population needs, and doesn't disadvantage the roll-out of the first vaccine programme where it's most needed? 

And finally, given that people classed as clinically extremely vulnerable are shielding, will you provide or are you able to provide an update on what percentage of the clinically extremely vulnerable group, such as people with cystic fibrosis, have now received their first coronavirus vaccination in Wales?

On your final point, there is work in train that Public Health Wales is doing to provide a useful figure on the clinically extremely vulnerable or the former shielded group of people, and the numbers of people that have been reached. I don't think we're going to be able to break them down into condition-specific areas, but for that wider population, you'll understand that requires some work, because whilst we have about 130,000 people in Wales who are on that clinically extremely vulnerable group, many of those are covered in some of the other areas—some of them will be care homes residents, some of them will be people over the age of 80, 70 or 75. So, we need to make sure that we're not double counting them, otherwise I'm sure that you or other Members will be accusing us of overcounting our success rate. 

On your points—your two earlier questions—about the second dose, I think the comparison with England is misleading: essentially, some parts of England jumped the gun and delivered their second doses much earlier. You'll notice, if you look back over the figures, a significant chunk of second doses were delivered many weeks ago when we'd actually agreed at all four nations to follow the advice of the JCVI, and indeed of all of our chief medical officers, about the inter-dose interval—the gap between the first and second dose. That's why you're only seeing a trickle of second doses taking place now, but you can expect to see a much greater number of second doses taking place in the few weeks ahead. And I am confident that when it comes to the first and the second dose, if we have the supply available to us, then we'll continue to go at real pace with first doses and meeting the second dose requirements too.

This is where I think we're going to see more use of, for example, community pharmacy—it was a point I made yesterday: as we need to have even more capacity, we can create extra capacity within our system. And that's only thanks to the level of planning that has gone into this over many months, but also the extraordinary commitment of our staff. It's a real team Wales effort that seems to be successful to date. We'll need much more of that in the weeks and months ahead, and I remain very proud of the work that everybody's doing on all of our behalves. 

17:00
5. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government: Working in Partnership for a Fair Work Wales

Item 5 on the agenda is a statement by the Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government: working in partnership for a fair work Wales, and I call on the Deputy Minister for Housing on Local Government, Hannah Blythyn.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I welcome this opportunity to update the Senedd on the valuable work we are doing in social partnership in order to realise our ambition for a Wales of fair work. The past year has changed the way that we look at almost everything in our daily lives, including the world of work. And it has brought into ever sharper focus the challenges that already existed in the workplace alongside a reinforced appreciation for the workers that have kept us going, day in, day out during the coronavirus pandemic.

This Government absolutely recognises that the vast majority of employers have done right by their workforce, supporting them and taking steps to keep them safe. But, unfortunately and unacceptably, we know this has not been the experience of all workers. Coronavirus has exposed and amplified entrenched inequalities in the workplace. And as we take the road to recovery, it’s crucial that we do not allow challenging economic conditions to provide the fertile ground within which unfair work can take root and spread. It’s not just about building back better, but about choosing the route that best enables us to forge a fairer future together.

The Welsh Government is committed to putting into practice our priorities and ambitions for a fair work Wales, using all the levers at our devolved disposal to help realise fair work outcomes, and we have made good progress in the past 12 months. 

The Welsh Government has established the social care fair work forum, bringing together trade unions, employers and the Welsh Government to chart a course towards fairer work in the social care sector in Wales. Never have we all been more aware of our incredible social care workers and the work they do than during the coronavirus pandemic. The forum has quickly established a number of task and finish groups to address issues around pay and progression, collective bargaining and ensuring a safe, healthy and inclusive working environment. 

Recent progress on COVID workplace protections has been enabled by the work of the health and safety forum. Considerations around workplace health and safety have been radically altered by coronavirus and the national forum was established in the autumn to provide a way for trade unions, the main employer bodies from the private and public sectors in Wales and the relevant UK enforcement agencies to come together to share their collective experience and work together to enhance workplace health and safety in Wales. The changes we have made together to regulations and guidance will not only help keep workers safer, but our communities and country too. They are testament to what can be done when Government, trade unions and employers work together in social partnership.

There’s never been a more important time for workers and employers to be aware of their rights and responsibilities at work. Against the backdrop of the pandemic and on the back of a key recommendation of the Fair Work Commission report, the Welsh Government has teamed up with our social partners, the Wales Trades Union Congress, the Federation of Small Businesses, CBI, Chambers Wales and other key partners in Acas and Citizens Advice, to launch a campaign in December to strengthen knowledge and understanding of workplace rights and responsibilities. The campaign reinforces our support for widening access to trade unions and the benefits of employers and trade unions working as partners in a spirit of collaboration, shared commitment and mutual respect. Likewise, employers also need to be supported, and through the campaign, we are connecting employers across Wales with the support and advice they need to comply with the law.

We are also building relationships with UK agencies to improve networks, intelligence sharing and our own capacity to influence non-devolved policy. This approach is already paying dividends. Our work with Acas has seen them deliver additional free digital briefing sessions for employers and workers in Wales. This has linked into our campaign to help awareness of workplace rights and responsibilities. 

Working across the Welsh Government, we are exercising the power of the public purse and our social partnership approach to promote fair work practices across both the public and private sectors, using levers such as the economic contract and the code of practice on ethical employment in supply chains. The challenge now is to strengthen the implementation by improving our reach and ability to both drive and support behavioural change. 

It is right that we measure that which we value. And working with our social partners, we are developing a set of indicators that we will use to measure and track a range of fair work outcomes in Wales. For example, this includes tracking the proportion of the workforce earning at least the real living wage.  

Finally, we are strengthening the social partnership approach that has been an important and established feature of our devolved politics and economy. Working in partnership has become the Welsh way of doing things and social partnership is a key way in which we can collectively improve public service delivery, and ensure fair work and wider social and economic well-being. Later this month, we'll be consulting on a landmark draft social partnership Bill, which will strengthen and promote social partnership, take forward fair work outcomes and achieve socially responsible procurement. 

The pandemic has meant we have all had to change the way we live and work. This is no time to let up, let alone roll back workplace protections. As recommended by the Fair Work Commission's report, we are actively engaging with the UK Government to defend and promote Welsh interests. Any erosion of workers' rights is unacceptable, unnecessary and damaging, and we are holding the UK Government to its promise to protect workers' rights following Brexit. After all, a race to the bottom on workers' rights is not in the interests of workers, businesses nor the broader economy. Safe, secure and rewarding work is not just in the interests of the individual but industry too. It doesn't just make a difference to the workplace but to the Welsh economy as a whole. A better deal for workers will mean a stronger recovery for our communities and our country. That's why this Welsh Government remains committed to working towards fair work in Wales, not solely in principle but in practice, working together in social partnership to make a lasting difference to lives and livelihoods.

17:05

I would like to thank the Deputy Minister very much for her statement and to confirm that we in Plaid Cymru share the ambitions of the Welsh Government around this very important agenda, and add to the thanks that she has already given to all of those who are working together and collaborating on this important work.

I just have a couple of specific points that I wish to raise with the Deputy Minister. Firstly, she's right to say, of course, that the vast majority of employers have behaved very well, but we know that some, as she said, have not. I want to draw the Welsh Government's attention again to the ongoing situation at the DVLA. Now, obviously, the DVLA is not a devolved employer, but the Welsh Government does have a responsibility around enforcing the coronavirus regulations and ensuring that people are able to work safely. I am still receiving correspondence from people from the east of my region, in communities like Llanelli and Llangennech, who work at the DVLA, and they are still very concerned about being pressurised to work in unsafe circumstances, to the extent that some of them don't even want me to use their names, they don't want me to pass things on, even confidentially, to Welsh Ministers, because they're so worried. Now, I know that Welsh Government has sought reassurances from the UK Government, but it seems clear to me that, if those assurances are being given, then they are disingenuous at least, and I would ask the Deputy Minister to have further conversations with her colleagues in Welsh Government and see what more can be done to enable those workers to work safely. And I cite this, Deputy Presiding Officer, as an example of a really big employer that's got no excuse for not engaging in best practice.

I was pleased to hear the Deputy Minister refer to the social care work forum, and I'm in no doubt that their work will be very valuable, but I am concerned about delays in doing what it is fairly obvious to me needs to be done. I'm glad that there is a task and finish group looking at pay and progression, but surely the Deputy Minister must agree with me, it is time for all of those working in the care sector, especially after everything they've done in this last year, to simply be paid the real living wage. And I think we should aspire to be moving those workers onto Agenda for Change, onto the same pay and conditions as NHS workers. So, does the Deputy Minister agree with me that it's imperative that the work of these task and finish groups don't delay action and implementation? It is important to get it right, but these workers, predominantly women, need support and need to get justice really quickly. 

Finally, Deputy Presiding Officer, the Deputy Minister makes reference to the economic contract and the code of practice on ethical employment in supply chains, and I'm very supportive of the principle of both of those. And she speaks of improving implementation and driving and supporting behavioural change, but can I ask the Deputy Minister what steps the Welsh Government are putting in place, what measures they're putting in place, to ensure that once an employer, for example, has signed up to the economic contract, that when they have been given grant aid and support or preferential loans, they then actually do follow the economic contract? Because it's one thing to get somebody to commit to something, it's another thing to check that they do actually follow through with those commitments. And I wonder what further thoughts the Deputy Minister has about how we can ensure that, as we come out of the pandemic, those commitments when they're made are actually kept to. Diolch yn fawr. 

Can I thank Helen Mary Jones for her supportive comments there and her commitment in this area? If I start with the last point the Member made with regard to the economic contract, we're currently looking at actually how the economic contract has been applied previously, and there's a piece of work being led by my colleague the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales in terms of actually how, like I said, we can strengthen not just its implementation in terms of how it drives that change within organisations, but also making sure that it does deliver the change that it's intended to as well. I think it's a really good tool in terms of actually how we manage those relationships, and also support employers who do want to do the right thing to get to that point where we would expect them to be with their workforce, and actually—in terms of, actually, things around, particularly, areas around fair work as well, and particularly the well-being of their workforce.

In respect of the DVLA and the Member—[Inaudible.]—I don't know. It's shocking but not surprising that people are—. It shouldn't be the case that people are in fear of giving their information to a Member in order to make the case for them, and I can assure the Member that we will continue to strongly make the case for workers at the DVLA with the UK Government, and we're also—and make sure, obviously, we're in close contact with and speaking to the Public and Commercial Services Union, who are representing members there, and I'm happy to keep both Helen Mary Jones and other Members updated with regard to that.

I take on board what the Member says with regard to the work of the health and social care forum and the task and finish groups. Clearly, we what we want to see is action, but the right kind of action, and I think—. Like I said, if we hadn't been aware before of the incredible work of those health and social care workers looking after many of our nearest and dearest—and I'm sure we've all had personal experience as well, like myself—it's been brought into ever sharper focus with the pandemic, which makes the urgency of our work, but making sure we do it in the right way to make sure that that profession is not just fairly rewarded, but fairly recognised as well for the role that they do play in our communities right across the country. 

17:10

The Deputy Minister and I, of course, share a very similar background, so it comes as no surprise that I share her support and principles that underpin our social partnership work. Can I very much welcome her statement? Not because it's easy; indeed, in my experience, it's often more difficult, but it does help to build a shared commitment to a common cause, and, in tough times like those that we've faced over the last 12 months, that pays dividends—not the dividends that are measured in monetary value, but in shared values and common cause. So, as we mark HeartUnions Week, can I pledge my commitment to the work of social partnerships and urge workers across Wales to join a union and be part of this change that we're making to build back fairer in Wales?

But, Deputy Minister, do you agree with me that a legislative framework for social partnerships that we have developed voluntarily over so many years in Wales will be a key factor in engaging key stakeholders across all sectors in both the private and the public sector, and will demonstrate how committed a future and current Welsh Labour Government will be to ensuring fairness to working people in Wales? And put that in stark contrast with the way in which the UK Government has been treating its staff in places like the DVLA, as we've heard from Helen Mary Jones, but also DWP workers in my constituency, who are being forced to move from Merthyr Tydfil to inaccessible locations elsewhere in Wales.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and yes, I and the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney do share a background of campaigning on workers' rights within the trade union movement, and I think it's timely for support for the social partnership approach in Wales, as we are marking HeartUnions Week across the UK and it's something that I am passionately supportive of as well.

I think, as the Member said, in the current circumstances, it's never been more important not just to protect and extend people's rights in the workplace and make people more aware of it, but the need for working in partnership. And like she said, it's not always easy, but it's the right thing to do and we have seen it. It is testament to that—over the past few months alone, the things we've been able to do in Wales to support people in work and actually to support businesses to do the right thing as well has been because of that forum we have for social partnership and the ability to bring all stakeholders around the table, albeit a virtual table at the moment. And as we move forward, what we want to do is strengthen that and formalise that commitment and that practice of social partnership with our social partnership Bill, which actually will be a key driver in the future to enable us to make those changes that we want to make within workplaces in the public sector in Wales, but also in terms of actually creating a shared objective in terms of getting to the fair work Wales we want to see, and actually which is to the mutual benefit of all stakeholders around that social partnership table.

17:15

Minister, what a difference we have within Wales during this commemoration of trade unions during this trade union week, where we actually seek to work in partnership, in contrast to the situation in London, where legislation is being considered as a way of disempowering trade unions still further. So, I very much welcome this very timely statement.

Can I also really endorse what you say about the concerns we have about some of those large corporations—British Airways, British Gas—who've sought to use COVID as a cover for undermining ethical standards of employment and workers' rights? Can I also welcome your commitment in respect of the social partnership Bill, and ask you just a couple of questions about that? The Bill, it seems to me, is one of the most forward-thinking pieces of legislation—just as the future generations legislation was, this could be for ethical standards of employment. But it does seem to me that one of the important roles that we have to support is the role of trade unions in promoting collective bargaining, and I wondered to what extent the legislation you have in mind will actually promote collective bargaining, because we know that collective bargaining is very linked to combatting in-work poverty. And also facilitating access to trade unions—just as we raise the issue of access to justice, so access to workers' rights through trade unions must be an important part of that process, Minister.

I welcome Mick Antoniw's comments and support. I know this is an area that Mick has a strong track record in advocating and working on and campaigning for, and I know it's something that he is keenly interested in. And I think the point you made in your opening, Mick, really brought it home in terms of what you said—our approach in Wales is that the door's open to talk, and to sit round the table and to take things forward, where perhaps over the border the door's often firmly shut in people's faces. But really the emphasis is on our partnership working and a positive approach in Wales, and taking that approach not to be different, but because it's the right thing to do, and it doesn't just make a difference to people in work, but it makes a difference to our communities as well and our country as a whole.

With regard to the draft social partnership Bill, clearly, one of the recommendations of the Fair Work Commission was about, actually, the importance of being able to empower that collective voice within the workplace, and the role that plays in achieving fair work in Wales. The hope is that this draft social partnership Bill will enable us to actually bring all the stakeholders around the table to set clear agendas for what we want to see in Wales in terms of how that would be achieved right across the country. I know that many of our trade union colleagues will be very involved with the consultation process, and I'm really keen to have a very innovative and very open consultation process to shape this Bill in social partnership, to ensure that the collective voice of the trade union movement and the members is heard, and, at the same time, also making sure that we do that in partnership with our stakeholders from both the public and private sectors in Wales.

Building on the comments of my colleagues Dawn Bowden and Mick Antoniw, it's definitely true, Minister, that the social partnership in Wales is a model for the UK of how businesses and unions, workers and the Government, constructively work together on jobs and the economy and the skills agenda and much more. Now, I don't want to be presumptuous, but can I ask whether the Minister would consider, with the legislation in the next Welsh Labour Government, extending the fair work provisions and the economic contract in Wales to cover all businesses that receive public assistance and taxpayer funds? This could vastly extend the awareness of employee rights and fair work, investment in workplace learning, and it could be used to boost progress towards wider uptake of the real living wage and, as Mick said, an increased openness to collective bargaining, which we know drives up wages and pay and conditions. So, Minister, is the sixth Senedd the one in which we legislate to strengthen our social partnership working and we go further and faster to make work fairer?

I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for his question and his commitment in this area as well. Absolutely, the ambition is for the sixth Senedd to be the Senedd when we legislate to strengthen the social partnership agenda in Wales to bring benefits not just for workers, but for businesses and for communities as a whole. As regards the economic contract, like I said previously, a current review is being led on that in terms of actually how we strengthen its implementation and its ability to drive that kind of change and to support businesses to do the right thing. That will be—. That's work that's being spearheaded by my colleague the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales, but, clearly, the issues you raise around fair work and what more we can do to support and drive that in businesses right throughout Wales, and the power of the public purse to do that, will be fundamental to the work of the future social partnership council, and also actually how we use our procurement levers in terms of the power of the public sector purse not just to drive fair work, but fair work objectives across the piece, whether that be in-work training or apprenticeships to ensure that people actually—that it's not just about pay, it's about progression, and about creating that fair work Wales that I'm sure that we all very much want to see.  

17:20

Can I remind Members that, if they want to be called in statements, they should have their video cameras on so they can be seen? I will call Nick Ramsay, even though I couldn't see him. So, I don't know whether you've had a technical problem there, but I will call you. So, Nick Ramsay. 

Many problems—I'm not sure they would be classed as technical or not, but—. [Laughter.] I wasn't exactly anticipating being called, actually, for this, Dirprwy Lywydd. But, in fact, it's been a very interesting statement, and can I thank the Minister for it? I don't disagree with many of the points that have been made hitherto, but if I could just ask a couple of questions on the back of some points that have been raised, firstly, the pandemic has clearly shone a light on certain weaknesses in the area of workers' rights, weaknesses that I think we'd agree were often there anyway, but the pandemic has added extra pressures. So, as we talk about coming out of the pandemic, Minister, and building back better, too often I think that that can be an easy expression to use, but doesn't actually translate into protections on the ground. And I know you mentioned procurement in your previous answer, and that's an area that can be strengthened, so how are you going to make sure that this does actually translate into real protection and improvement to workers' rights on the ground as, as I say, we build back better? 

And secondly, the well-being of future generations Act was mentioned earlier by one of the contributors. That's something that I as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee and the committee have been working on as part of our legacy work towards the end of this Senedd, and that's another area that is often very easy to talk about and certainly should have a large part to play in terms of protections for workers and safeguarding aspects of the economy. But it's not entirely clear how things like the Welsh Government budget do actually do that. So, what thought have you given to the well-being of future generations legislation to make sure that all of these things come together, we do build back better, we do build back greener, and workers' rights are enshrined at the very heart of policy making in the Welsh Government? 

Just on that line, I think it's absolutely imperative, not just for individual workers but for workplaces across Wales, to ensure that those rights are enshrined and are top of the agenda, and to support both workers to be more aware of their rights and how to implement them and also to support businesses to know their responsibilities as well, which is why it's been central to our workplace rights and responsibilities campaign, which we're hoping now to go to the next stage and then actually to look to put it on a more permanent footing so that advice and support is available. 

The Member came in on the role that we have—he was talking about the levers we have at our disposal in Wales in order to drive forward that fair work agenda and see a real difference not just in principle, but in practice. Clearly, procurement is one of the levers we do have there. So, as part of the proposed social partnership Bill that we will be consulting on—we start the consultation later this month—it will include a focus on socially responsible procurement and actually how we build on things that are already there—the rise in support and things like community benefits—to actually make sure that procurement is a key driver to enshrine fair work in everything we do within Wales. Obviously, the social partnership council will be central to making sure that we take the experiences of workers and of businesses to make sure that we can work together collaboratively and with consensus to take forward that fair work agenda in Wales to actually really start to make a difference—or to make a bigger difference—on the ground when it comes to people actually having not just fair work and pay and protections, but actually the opportunity to progress within the workplace right across Wales.   

17:25
6. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services: The Rebalancing Care and Support White Paper

Item 6 on the agenda is a statement by the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services on the 'Rebalancing care and support' White Paper. I call on the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services, Julie Morgan.

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. We remain committed to our vision of securing well-being for people who need care and support, and carers who need support. Significant progress has been made in the nearly 10 years since our first White Paper on social care, 'Sustainable Social Services: A Framework for Action', which marked the beginning of this journey. The Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 has reshaped the nature of the sector. It shares with the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 a focus on well-being, an ethos of prevention and early intervention, and the imperative of co-production and cross-sector working.

Whilst we have a strong legislative framework, there is a range of challenges facing social care, and of course the biggest challenge facing the social care sector is the funding position, set in the context of increasing and more complex demands on services, and years of UK-wide austerity have made their mark on public finances. The Welsh Government has increased local government budgets by £172 million in 2021-22, compared to the current year, but there is uncertainty about future budget decisions at a UK level. Even with the additional funding in the Welsh Government's draft budget, and the significant investment we have made in the sector to address costs arising because of the pandemic, the projected future funding need looks challenging. The Minister for Health and Social Services will update the Senedd in the coming weeks about the work of the inter-ministerial group on paying for care.

The pandemic has put the delivery of care and support under further significant strain, and made the fragility of the sector even more visible. It's difficult, I know, at the moment, to look much beyond each week, let alone to the long-term future, but the impact of the pandemic shows that we must work to put care and support on a much firmer long-term footing. That's why we must increase the pace of our transformational work to make social services sustainable. We must seize the moment when the public's consciousness of social care is at a high-water mark, and look to forge a Wales-wide consensus about what we need to do to build back stronger. We must learn from the way that the sector has worked together during the pandemic to co-ordinate and deliver services, in line with our vision of a healthier Wales.

I am strongly committed to decisions about local services being made as close as possible to local people, and therefore to local democratic accountability. In making that clear statement about local democratic accountability, it is not contradictory to point to the complexity in the social care landscape. I believe there are a number of issues that we need to address through an evolutionary approach to the policy direction that Welsh Government provides at a national level.

In January, I published a White Paper consultation on 'Rebalancing care and support'. I am proposing that to be fit for the future we need legislative measures that we believe are essential to secure our vision. In essence, the White Paper seeks to rebalance care and support so that it is based on a clear national framework, where services are organised regionally and delivered locally. We intend to develop a national framework for commissioning social care that will reduce complexity and ensure that quality is the key determinant of success in the social care market.

We know that continuity of the social care workforce has a significant impact on the achievement of people's outcomes, and therefore there will be a strong link between the national framework and action to support the workforce. A small national office will be set up to develop the framework productively with our partners, particularly in local government and the NHS. Separately, we will establish a professional voice for the social care and social work workforce, at a national level within Welsh Government.

We remain committed to regional partnership boards and want to support them to build on their successes, to strengthen integration across Wales. We will enhance regional partnership boards by providing them with a sharper set of tools to deploy, to deliver their core aims, to better plan and commission care and support where collective action is essential in order to improve people's well-being.

The proposals I've set out will reduce complexity, bolster sustainability and strengthen integration. They will increase transparency rather than obscure local accountability. The proposals are key to securing the vision for social care set out in the social services and well-being Act, supporting people to achieve their well-being outcomes.

The White Paper is a blueprint for a stronger, more balanced, care and support sector. It'll be for the incoming Welsh Government to take forward the results of the consultation about my proposals. And I hope that all Members of the Senedd will encourage all those with an interest to take part in the consultation, so that we can work together to achieve our vision of securing well-being for people.

17:30

Thank you, Deputy Minister. You describe the proposals in the White Paper as long-term solutions, and I think we're all looking for a long-term solution, yet it does fail to address what is arguably the biggest problem: finance. Yes, you have noted your inter-ministerial group on paying for social care, however, how much further on are you since the publication of Gerald Holtham's independent report 32 months ago?

You'll be aware that, in my previous portfolio, I held many social care forums and, from those, you really get everything coming forward from those who are working in social care. You have also previously hinted, or there's been innuendo, around the introduction of a social care tax. What is your position on that now? I think I've always made it very clear that I would prefer to see a social care efficiency inquiry undertaken, because lots of stakeholders have always maintained that, actually, there is lots of money in certain areas, but actually getting it out to where the wider need is is not always possible. So, sadly, the White Paper does raise even more questions than answers.

You were looking for a national framework, but despite exploring integration, you state that no current functions will be transferred from local authorities or health boards. Why? Frustratingly, despite the concerns about regional partnership boards being well known—and in our inquiry, we found many weaknesses—you wish to strengthen them further, so what work have you done on this to actually justify that being where you think the message can be carried out from? How can you justify this when your own White Paper states, and I quote,

'RPBs ability to meet their responsibilities could be regarded as limited'

and

'RPBs are concerned about managing a diverse cohort of need across localities'.

It is also explained that a national office for social care would deliver the framework. So, as I hope you'll agree, this should be independent of Government. Can you make that commitment to us today?

Whilst you have outlined the problems that unpaid carers face, you do need to clarify how the framework will improve their lives. And over the next 10 years, it is estimated that Wales will need 20,000 extra social care workers to cope with our ageing population. Therefore, will you be publishing a specific social care workforce plan that includes fresh ideas and a holistic approach to retention, and one that champions continuous professional development to go alongside the White Paper? The Association of Directors of Social Services Cymru noted in December very specifically that one call would be that those pressures continue to be recognised and, clearly, assisting care homes to remain viable during this. Sadly, we've seen so many care homes lose beds or indeed themselves having disappeared.

So, evidence shows that there is much more that your Welsh Government can do. In fact, only yesterday, Care Forum Wales warned that care homes across north Wales will be forced to close unless an emergency funding scheme, the hardship fund, is extended. So, will you be extending that? And can I reasonably conclude that you will look again and perhaps start to bring forward some solutions that really do address the present problems in this sector and those that we've all known about for quite some time? Thank you. Diolch.

Thank you very much, Janet, for all those points. First of all, I want to emphasise that this is only one bit of a jigsaw, and I explained at the beginning of the statement that the Minister for Health and Social Services will be coming to the Senedd to discuss the results of the inter-ministerial group. A lot of work has been done on that group to establish what the cost would be of taking forward certain priorities, and I think that he is in the best position to go through those issues with you. What I presented to you today is only part of the solution that we're proposing. The issue that Janet raised about a social care tax, all those have been considered by the inter-ministerial group and the Senedd will hear about that in due course.

The RPBs are still relatively new, but I think that we have seen signs of health and social services and local government working together better in those forums. What we've had said back to us is that they do not have enough tools to do what they want to do. We think that it's crucial that health and social services do work more closely together, but also to involve the third sector. As the Member will know, on RPBs, the third sector has a place. There's a place for the citizen's voice and a place for carers, and we want to strengthen those voices on RPBs. So, we think that RPBs are good bodies to build upon.

In terms of the national office, the national office could be part of the Government or it could be an arm's-length body. That is something that is in the consultation paper, and I hope that people will respond to the consultation paper to say what they think about that. Yes, we will need a lot of extra social care workers, because we know that we have an ageing population. But, one thing that we do want is that we want people to remain in their own homes as long as they possibly can, because that's what people want. We therefore want to see that we can give as much support for people to stay at home as we can. That is why we also feel that local government is the best place to deliver social care, because local government is close to the community.

We would like to see residential homes, for example, being much more a part of local communities. Many of them are already, but that, I think, is the way that we would like to see things develop. But, because of the fragility of the sector, and because of the huge range that there is within the sector, in terms of the fees that are charged and the fragility of the workforce, we think that by having a central, small body to try and determine how things are done within a national framework—that's what we think will help to address those issues. So, I thank the Member for her comments.

17:35

I thank the Deputy Minister for the statement. Plaid Cymru has, of course, undertaken a significant amount of work through our care commission, which made the case for a national health and care service, and for a major shift towards preventing ill health and keeping people living independently. But, ours did so because that's what's best for people receiving the service. So, I'm surprised that the Government's White Paper and the statement, above all, frame this in the context of austerity and financial challenges.

It is the case that healthier people, living independently, will cost health and care services less money than the opposite, but I do fear that using austerity as the main justification may backfire somewhat. Do this because it's the right thing to do, not because the spreadsheet tells you to do it.

The challenges identified in the White Paper are similar to the challenges that we identified, actually: a lack of progress, in general, on the integration agenda; limited data-sharing progress; problems with commissioning. But, I'm not sure that the penny really has dropped with this Labour Government. In 2013, Plaid Cymru tabled amendments to the social services Bill to require partnerships. They were voted down in favour of voluntary agreements. You've been giving voluntary partnerships one last chance for most of the past decade.

It's also, I think, quite telling that your statement doesn't actually mention health or the NHS. So, perhaps the Deputy Minister could tell us how she sees integration working now. Certainly, it doesn't mention housing, or the wider environment. Yes, we know we need more housing adapted to help people stay living there. We need more semi-residential care facilities that avoid the problems with full residential care, whilst still supporting the people in them. But we need to address housing as a core part of this. It seems to me that we have silo working in clear view here.

Turning to something the statement does mention, the workforce. I too welcome some of the work that's been done on this, but it's worth remembering just how often the party of Government voted down attempts to ban zero-hours contracts in social care. As the Plaid Cymru commission recommended, it's our firm commitment that we will place social care staff on NHS pay scales, and finally make good the aspiration of making social care a valued career that people can aspire to. I wonder if the Deputy Minister can outline where she stands on that.

And finally, I'll turn to the commissioning practices. The problems of focusing on price over quality are heavily mentioned in the White Paper. Now, we know the Government proposes a national framework for commissioning, but I want to know more details about how this Government's proposed framework will avoid the race to the bottom that left our care homes so exposed to the pandemic. I remind you again that my proposal is for a set of national frameworks providing the backbone for local delivery in a properly integrated national health and care service for Wales.  

17:40

Thank you very much, Rhun. Your last statement does not sound dissimilar to what we are proposing.

There are a lot of issues there. If I start off on the workforce, I am absolutely committed to recognising the value of the social care workforce. Certainly, this pandemic has absolutely highlighted the importance of the workforce. The public do, I think—maybe some for the first time—realise how crucial a job the social care workforce are carrying out. I was very pleased that we were able to recognise their work by acknowledging them with the £500 bonus, which was very well welcomed. But also, I think, it was an absolute recognition of the work that they're doing.

In the work of the inter-ministerial group, the pay of the social care workforce has been one of the dominant issues discussed. And, of course, as I've said, the Minister will come and speak to the Senedd about the range of options and their costs that have come up through the inter-ministerial group. A few Members said that we shouldn't let austerity determine it. We're not letting austerity determine what we're doing; we're just saying, really, that one of the results of austerity is that this situation is even more acute.

We are building the professionalism of the workforce already. As you will know, we have established a register of social care workers, which has been widely welcomed by the sector, and the social care worker card has also been very widely welcomed. We have tried, during the pandemic, to get as much parity as we possibly can between the health and social care workers. I think that there are huge challenges with social care, and I absolutely agree with you, Rhun, that it is crucial that health and social care work closely together.

I do feel very strongly that people who need social care help should be kept in the community as long as they possibly can, because that's where they want to be. But, of course, we do need the support for them to be there. I do think you're absolutely right in mentioning housing. Housing is one of the key issues that we have looked at in the inter-ministerial group, and things like extra housing and extra support in the community is one of the areas that I think that we definitely should be following and one of the things that the Government would support.

17:45

Thank you very much, Deputy Minister, for your commitment to decisions about local services being made with local people, because I think that has to be our starting point. Unless we have democratic accountability and proper engagement with the people who need the framework, the services that we need to provide them, then we really are not looking at the jigsaw that I like to refer to, which is the well-being goals infographic. We really do need to be addressing all the well-being goals when we're thinking of older people, not just younger people. I really do think that we have a challenge to address the preventative agenda to ensure that older people are living well longer. So, I very much welcome your aspiration to ensure that people are able to live for as long as possible in their own homes. I'm just wondering, if we really do have locally run services, whether regional partnership boards are able to really manage those and are really focused on local communities.

I was very interested in the pilots that we did into the neighbourhood nursing teams. Now we have the report, and we also have a commitment to roll out those neighbourhood nursing teams across the whole of Wales. I would be distressed to hear that we aren't going to have a joined-up health and social care set of teams who are going to be locally managed rather than always having to refer back to some bureaucratic organisation. I don't see how else they're going to be sensitive and responsive to the needs of local communities. I think it's right to base them in local government, but I do think that is a work in progress; it's not a given that just because they're local government services they are really focusing on the individual needs of very local communities. One of the most important things about the neighbourhood nursing teams was the use of artificial intelligence to do some of the tasks that otherwise take huge amounts of management time, i.e. matching up the constantly changing needs of local communities with the skills of the multidisciplinary team. So, I wondered how a decent and much more modern information technology system will enable these self-managed teams to be able to have the most responsive services that citizens want. There's no time to go into more detail now. I very much look forward to responding to the White Paper.