Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd16/03/2021
In the bilingual version, the left-hand column includes the language used during the meeting. The right-hand column includes a translation of those speeches.
The Senedd met by video-conference at 13:29 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Good afternoon. Welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. A meeting held by video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and those are set out on your agenda. I would also remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting.
So, the first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and the first question this afternoon is from Dai Lloyd.
1. Will the First Minister make a statement on the role of the Welsh Government in the potential development of a Swansea bay tidal lagoon? OQ56472
Thank you for the question, Llywydd. Ever since the UK Government turned down the project, it's the support of Welsh Government, financially and politically, which has helped the local taskforce to keep alive the potential development of a Swansea bay tidal lagoon, and we continue to work with others to advance the case of Welsh marine energy.
Diolch yn fawr. First Minister, the lack of decision making on this issue is becoming a source of huge frustration locally. As you said, we know that the UK Government will not invest in this project, but what is disappointingly becoming apparent is that the Welsh Government has no plans to take ownership of this project either. There has been no detailed public response to the Swansea bay city region report of May 2019, and despite the Labour leader of Swansea Council claiming back in June 2020 that he hoped to see the Welsh Government back plans for the revised lagoon 'within the next few weeks', I quote, we have heard nothing. Are people in Swansea therefore right to conclude that the Welsh Government has given up on the tidal lagoon, and, if not, what evidence can you provide to show that you are working towards delivering the scheme?
Well, many tens of thousands of pounds of evidence demonstrate that if it were not for the support of this Welsh Labour Government, there would be no scheme at all in Swansea to take forward in any way. When the UK Government stepped away from the investment that they had promised in the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, the Welsh Government intervened to support both the local authority and other local players with the funding they needed to be able to develop the Dragon Energy Island concept. Now, I know that the Secretary of State for Wales and the Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have been having discussions with the leadership of Swansea council about how this concept can be taken forward. Unfortunately, despite lots of warm words, there was no funding at all identified in last week's budget to be able to back up what the UK Government had been suggesting was their positive interest in the new set of proposals.
Now, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Wales on 20 October last, proposing a partnership approach, where the Welsh Government would be at the table alongside the UK Government and local interests. The Secretary of State replied to me very quickly—it was a positive reply—on 2 November, saying he was more than happy to meet. Unfortunately, no time has been available in the Secretary of State's diary since then for such a meeting. It was due to take place with my colleague Lee Waters, the Government's lead on the Swansea bay city deal. It was meant to happen last week on 10 March. Unfortunately, the Secretary of State was unable to keep that commitment. It's back in the diary for 23 March and, this time, let's hope that the meeting that the Secretary of State was more than happy to agree to months ago will take place, because we need the UK Government to be at that table if we are to match the support that the Welsh Government has provided and the local authority has provided, with the help that only the UK Government can bring to that table.
Back in April 2019, First Minister, the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd at that point confirmed that Welsh Government continued to be an enthusiastic supporter of the proposal at that time and that funding was still on the table should 'a viable proposal come forward'—I'm just quoting her there. Do you think that the Dragon Island proposal is a viable one, and, if so, how much money has been ring-fenced in this year's budget as a contribution towards it moving forward, or are you in a position as a Welsh Government to say, 'Well, actually, it may not be for Swansea, this money; it could be for other tidal projects', as hinted by the Trefnydd in later contributions on this type of question? Is it for the lagoon or not?
Llywydd, I think the Welsh Government has been clear throughout—we are committed to tidal energy and to marine energy in Wales. The Swansea bay tidal lagoon was obviously the front-runner in all of that, because it had developed its proposals, and it believed it had the support of the UK Government in doing so. The Charles Hendry review, set up by the UK Government to advise it on the possibility, described it, as the Member will remember, as a no-regrets investment. The UK Government then took 18 months to reply to the Hendry review, before turning it down in June 2018. We need the UK Government to come to the table, to do it in a way that would make the Dragon Energy Island project a viable proposition, because it will only be a viable proposition if it is done on a partnership basis. If that happens, the Welsh Government will be there to play our part, as we have demonstrated. As I said, if it were not for the money that we put into the development of that alternative proposition, there wouldn't be anything to discuss. But it's there because of the work that we and, of course, Swansea Council and local players have put into it. If the UK Government will back up its warm words with some actual action and some hard cash, the Welsh Government will be there too.
Our major asset in terms of renewables is the tidal movement in the Severn estuary. It is the equivalent of hydropower and geothermal power in Iceland, and hydropower in China and Brazil. Welsh Government support has never been in doubt. Will the First Minister continue to press the Westminster Government on the production of electricity via tidal lagoon, obviously starting with Swansea?
Well, Llywydd, I think Mike Hedges has just set out just why the failure of the UK Government to act on this is so frustrating, and so frustrating for Wales. We have unique opportunities in Wales in marine energy, whether that is in the Menai straits, whether that is around Pembrokeshire, or whether it is with tidal lagoon technology, to capitalise on the groundbreaking work that has already been done in preparing for a demonstration project in Swansea. And of course the Welsh Government goes on explaining to the UK Government the unique opportunities that the tidal reach of the Severn estuary provides. Wales and the United Kingdom need to be at the cutting edge of the global energy revolution that will be needed in years to come. We have all the natural assets to allow us to be in that position, and I very much share Mike Hedges's frustration at the failure of the UK Government to recognise that potential and to act on it.
2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the status of inter-governmental relationships between the Welsh Government and UK Government? OQ56457
Llywydd, the relationships continue to be, too often, unpredictable, ad hoc, disrupted by aggressively unilateral actions by the UK Government, and without the necessary underpinning of machinery for inter-governmental co-operation required to preserve the UK and enable it to prosper as a voluntary association of four nations.
First Minister, you like to blame the UK Government for problems or aggression in the relationship, but shouldn't you take some responsibility? You chose to have yourself filmed saying the Prime Minister is really, really awful. How does that help bring the UK Government to the table? You've concluded the UK is over; you're running candidates who support independence at the coming election. This morning, one of your Ministers supported BBC Wales appointing an ex-chief executive of Plaid Cymru as its director of content. Wasn't the Secretary of State right to tell me last week that this is all about you palling up with Plaid Cymru with a view to a coalition after the election, and, so long as we have devolution, we will be on a slippery slope to independence?
Well, Llywydd, the Welsh Government has, time after time, for a decade, under the leadership that my predecessor, Carwyn Jones, gave to this whole agenda, argued for a constitutional convention to put the United Kingdom on a footing that would allow it to prosper in the future, and that is my position and the position of my party. We believe that the United Kingdom is better off for having Wales in it and that Wales is better off for being in the United Kingdom. There's no ambiguity at all in our position. What we lack is a UK Government willing to act in a way that recognises that, 20 years into devolution, attempting to bring devolved Governments to heel rather than to bring us closer together, will ever be a recipe for securing the continuation of a successful United Kingdom.
Time after time, both Carwyn Jones and I have urged UK Ministers to enter into the serious conversations that are needed to establish inter-governmental machinery, to find independent means of resolving and avoiding disputes between the nations, to do that on the basis of a parity of participation and of respect. Instead, we face a UK Government that unilaterally and aggressively takes funding, takes powers away from devolved Governments across the United Kingdom and, in its everyday actions, feeds the forces that will lead to the United Kingdom's break-up, unless the United Kingdom Government is prepared to recognise the foolishness of its approach and instead to follow the sorts of arguments and constructive proposals that the Welsh Government has consistently brought to this debate.
First Minister, can I ask you about positive steps that you can take in working with the UK Government to make Wales a safer place for everyone? I, along with many other Members and people across Wales, lit up my doorstep on Saturday evening to support the Reclaim the Streets campaign, not just to pay my respects to Wenjing Lin and Sarah Everard, but also to show a commitment to making our communities across Wales a safer place. You've just mentioned communities. Much more action is needed now to help women and people feel safer in our communities. Can you confirm that the Welsh Government will do what it can to positively collaborate with the UK Government on this specific issue? And could you also tell us a little bit more about the steps that Welsh Government is taking to empower women and to reassure people that they are safe in communities across Wales?
Well, Llywydd, I thank Nick Ramsay for that very serious and pertinent question, and of course the Welsh Government will act positively and constructively with other Governments in the United Kingdom. Women in Wales and elsewhere in the United Kingdom must be safe and feel safe. And if that's to happen in Wales, then that can only be with a combination of services that are devolved and non-devolved. If the UK Government wants a constructive conversation and engagement on that issue, then, of course, they will find a ready partner for that here.
In terms of the actions that we can take, these were set out in the statement issued earlier today by my colleague Jane Hutt, the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip, who has dedicated her whole political career to advancing the causes of women and girls here in Wales. I commend the statement to Members of the Senedd. It sets out the actions that we, as a Welsh Government, will embark upon and, as I say, in answering Nick Ramsay, where others are willing to act with us in a genuinely collaborative fashion, we will always—we will always—be prepared to do that in the most constructive way.
First Minister, I cannot over-emphasise how deeply I disagree with everything Mark Reckless now stands for. It seems to me that one of the main barriers to good inter-governmental relations between Wales and England is the largely defunct role of Secretary of State for Wales. The incumbent, Simon Hart, has said recently that the Welsh Government should
'stop fretting about their own little status in Cardiff and...look at the bigger picture'.
Would you agree with me that the bigger picture we need to look towards, before we achieve the independence that will empower us, is actually to abolish the role of Welsh Secretary, seeing as his Government and he are so intent on undermining the devolution that the people of Wales have voted for on no less than 14 occasions, through two referendums and delivering pro-devolution majorities in every election since 1997?
Well, Llywydd, I certainly agree with Delyth Jewell that I have no sympathy at all with what Mr Reckless stands for or proposes. I often feel, when that Member is asking me questions, that what he's really doing is he's accusing me of being Welsh. And it's an accusation, Llywydd, to which I plead guilty, of course—inside out, back to front, upside down; you name it, that's what I am. The Member, I'm afraid—Mr Reckless—will never understand that, and it leads to the misguided sets of ideas that he puts in front of us.
On the issue of the Secretary of State's office, I have long believed—I've believed for more than a decade, while there were Labour Governments as well as Conservative Governments—that the continued case for territorial Secretaries of State, as they are called, has diminished year by year. I think there is a case for a Whitehall ministry that takes a constructive responsibility for relationships between the nations of the United Kingdom. I think that's a proper ambition. But territorial Secretaries of State are a hangover from pre-devolution days and, as I say, I agree with Delyth Jewell that the case for them weakens all the time, and is certainly weakened when any incumbent of that office uses the sort of belittling and demeaning language that we've seen from the Secretary of State for Wales.
Questions now from the party leaders. Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, today we mark the very sombre anniversary of the first recorded death as a result of COVID-19 in Wales. You've talked about the need for a future public inquiry that will seek to identify lessons from the last 12 months. Do you share the view, as I do, recently expressed by Sir Mansel Aylward, that one of the clear lessons is that there was a failure to properly plan and prepare for the pandemic? Specifically, do you think that the emphasis on influenza to the exclusion of coronaviruses like severe acute respiratory syndrome or middle east respiratory syndrome in the pandemic plan led to some of the early mistakes in the response? The science around a flu pandemic suggested it was very, very difficult, or even futile, to try and suppress community transmission once it's become endemic, which isn't the case, as we now know, with COVID. Does that explain the two principal mistakes early on—the failure to adopt lockdown restrictions sufficiently early and the abandonment of community test and trace, later readopted, of course?
Well, Llywydd, let me thank Adam Price for drawing attention to the very sober and sombre day it is when we mark the anniversary of the first death from coronavirus here in Wales, an experience that has been repeated for far, far too many families. I was very glad today to be able to make the announcement of commemorative woodland, in both north and south Wales, where families who have experienced that loss will be able to have permanent memorial to that awful experience. Mr Price is right as well, Llywydd, to point to the fact that pandemic planning across the United Kingdom had largely focused on influenza, and the lessons that were drawn from earlier experiences of that.
I think it is too early to talk of mistakes and to attributing causes to things that could have been done differently. I'm quite sure that things would have been done differently if we knew then what we know now. So, that's not in any way to deny that things could have been done differently. Being able to say, 'It was because if this, or because of that, and, if we'd known, we'd have done something differently'—I think that's much harder to be definitive. There needs to be an inquiry. That inquiry needs to be on a UK basis, otherwise it will never make sense of the experience here in Wales in a full way, and it needs to be done at a time when the system—which is still focused, every single day, on dealing with the very real impacts of the public health emergency—has the space it needs to be able to think about and contribute to the questions that such an inquiry will rightly raise.
Many people, First Minister, are pointing to the way in which COVID-19 has highlighted and further exacerbated existing health inequalities that the Welsh health and social care policy forum, which draw together the leading organisations in the sector in Wales, have written to you, asking you to commit to a cross-Government strategy to reduce these inequalities, addressing the deeper social determinants of ill health, poor housing, gaps in educational opportunity and the prior pandemic of poverty that has scarred too many people in Wales for far too long.
The announcement that you just referred to—the creation of a living memorial to those who have lost their lives—I think is very thoughtful and very welcome, but would it not be an even greater memorial for us to resolve together to end child hunger and poverty, to end homelessness and poor housing, and end poverty pay, beginning with key workers, as a sign of our collective determination not to go back to how things were before?
Well, Llywydd, those are also important points. I'm very glad the social care forum has been hard at work on this agenda. The work of the social partnership council, Llywydd, when we come to reflect on this extraordinary 12 months, I think will stand out as a way of working here in Wales that genuinely brings all interested parties around the table together. It's met every fortnight, it set up the social care forum as part of those arrangements, and I think they will be shown to have stood us in very good stead.
My ambition beyond coronavirus is absolutely to build back fairer, because if we don't build back fairer we certainly will not be building back better. And coronavirus has exposed—absolutely exposed—those deep, underlying unfairnesses and inequalities that are there in Welsh society and which have been exacerbated during a decade of deliberate austerity. What we now need to see is a Government at Westminster that is prepared, as we come out of all of this, not to heap the responsibility for it on the shoulders of those on whom we've relied the most during the last 12 months, and yet I fear very much that that is what we will see. And instead of inequalities being eroded, the Welsh Government will once again be faced with trying to do everything we can do to mitigate the impacts of a UK Government whose actions simply add to rather than address the structural impacts that we have seen drawn to the surface during the pandemic.
First Minister, you previously said that you share my party's ambition of paying care workers fairly, with a guaranteed minimum wage of £10 an hour, but that can only happen, you said, if your party at Westminster succeeds in persuading the UK Government to adopt such a policy. Surely we can't afford to outsource such a fundamental decision to a UK Tory Government—they're never going to build back fairer, are they? Twenty-five years ago, we used to talk about the devolution dividend as one of the core arguments for the creation of this institution, the Senedd. Isn't it time that that dividend was paid to this group of workers? So, will you commit to funding social care, First Minister, sufficiently, so that all care workers can at least receive the real living wage, as an embodiment of the new Wales we should endeavour to create as a positive legacy of this awful pandemic?
Well, first of all, Llywydd, let me say that the devolution dividend is there every day in the experience of Welsh citizens, and there in a way that directly addresses inequalities as well. People here in Wales who are in low pay don't pay for their prescriptions, whereas, across the border, they're paying nearly £9 for every item. There's no tax on sickness here in Wales, and that's a devolution dividend. In this Senedd term, we have created the most generous childcare offer anywhere in the United Kingdom, again so that working families know that they can go to work and deal with and have at their disposal quality childcare for young people as they are in those formative years. We still have free breakfasts in our primary schools—again, absolutely aimed at making sure that those children who came to school too hungry to learn have something in Wales that we know will prevent that from happening. The devolution dividend is there every single day in the lives of Welsh families. And as for social care workers, of course it's the ambition of this Government that our social care workers should be properly recognised and properly paid for the job they do. We were the first Government in the United Kingdom to pay £500 to social care workers in recognition of the extraordinary job they have done during the pandemic. Now that the Chancellor's budget is out of the way, then my colleague Rebecca Evans, with Julie Morgan and Vaughan Gething, are looking to see how we can use our budget to continue to advance our agenda of recognising and rewarding social care workers for the vital job they do here in Wales.
Leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer, and I identify myself with the comments of other leaders here this afternoon in reflecting on the year's anniversary since the first COVID death in Wales. Who would have thought, 12 months later, we would still tragically be seeing more deaths being reported from COVID, and continuing to go through the restrictions that are placed on all our everyday lives? I'd also like to ask the First Minister—. Because, as we come out of the COVID crisis, with the vaccine programme in full swing across the whole of the United Kingdom, on the continent of Europe, many leaders are now turning their back on the AstraZeneca vaccine and putting comments in the press that are deeply unhelpful to the roll-out of the vaccine—. You've used the rostrum here, or the lectern, should I say, to pass a message to the leaders on the continent of Europe when the Brexit discussions were in full flow. First Minister, what's your message to President Macron and Chancellor Merkel when they're talking negatively about the AstraZeneca vaccine? Because, until we have society across the world vaccinated, it's going to be increasingly difficult for us to get back to our normal lives. And what impact have you had—? What impact and assessment have you had made of the comments on the roll-out of the vaccine here in Wales—of the comments made in Europe?
Well, Llywydd, my message is to people here in Wales on this important issue, and my message to people in Wales is very simple: the Oxford vaccine is safe. The anxieties that have been expressed about it elsewhere are not shared by the medicines regulator here in Wales, they are not shared by the World Health Organization, they are not shared by the European Medicines Agency, and they are certainly not shared by our chief medical officer and our scientific advisers. The health Minister and I had an opportunity yesterday to test all this evidence directly with our chief medical officer, and we came away from that absolutely strengthened in our understanding that the blood clots that are talked about in newspapers—there is no more risk of a blood clot from having the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine than there would be in the population at large at any time. Blood clots occur all the time in the population, and the vaccine is not—is not—going to increase your risk of that. So, on the important point that Andrew R.T. Davies made, I don't want anybody in Wales who may be hesitant about the vaccine to become more hesitant because of the stories that they will have seen or heard.
The vaccination programme in Wales goes from strength to strength. We broke records twice in this last week, on Friday and on Saturday, in the reported numbers of people who were vaccinated in one day. Over 40,000 people in one day reported on Saturday—an extraordinary figure; over 1 per cent of the whole population of Wales coming forward for vaccination. That's what we need to see in the days and weeks ahead, and I know that that will be strongly supported by parties across this Chamber, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have reinforced those messages again this afternoon.
Thank you, First Minister. And I do welcome those positive comments, despite the negativity that is coming from other countries, and I hope that we can get back, in those countries, to a normal process of vaccination, because, as I said, unless we all adhere to the vaccination programme, we will all suffer lockdown measures going forward, as we're seeing in countries across Europe at the moment.
But I do want to bring you back to your own control plan, the coronavirus control plan, which you brought forward in December, and in particular that plan was predicated on the Kent variant being the dominant virus, which you identified on 21 December. The health Minister repeated this to me in January, when I was asking for a road map out of lockdown and, in particular, gateways of opportunity to open up the economy and open up society. You also repeated the importance of the coronavirus control plan to my colleague Laura Anne Jones in February, yet it is my understanding that the coronavirus control plan has now been put to one side and is awaiting an update. Why is it taking so long to update the coronavirus control plan, as it's been central to your thinking up until a few weeks ago? And can you, in the interest of transparency, publish all the updated guidelines that you're using when you're considering measures to unlock society as we go further into the spring and early summer?
Well, Llywydd, the control plan, the alert levels, were absolutely key to the announcement that I was able to make on Friday of last week: a very clear set of milestones for our education system, for our personal lives and in the business community, explaining how we hope to take advantage of the work that we have done together to suppress the virus here in Wales, to have more children back in school, more opportunities for people to meet, more businesses able to reopen again. I set out a series of dates, right up until 12 April, and indicated the issues that will be under consideration in the review period beyond that, provided conditions allow. All of that drew very heavily on the control plan.
We are in the process of updating some of the metrics in it to take full account of new variants and risks that still exist, because while numbers in Wales are currently falling, and the number of people in hospital is falling as well, none of us should turn our sight away from the risks that continue to be there. Three quarters of the countries of Europe reported rising coronavirus rates only last week, and here in Wales, we have some areas where numbers are not falling. So, while the position is, for the moment, and hopefully continuingly, heading in the right direction, it won't continue to do so if we don't attend to all the risks that continue to be there. The updated coronavirus plan will make sure that we have a properly balanced assessment, both of everything that has been achieved, of the positive impact that vaccination will continue to provide, but also that we do not put at risk everything that's been achieved by not being constantly vigilant about the risks that this virus can still pose to us all and to the lives of people here in Wales.
Thank you for that answer, First Minister. I am a little surprised at the importance you attached to the coronavirus control plan in last week's announcement, because the health Minister did confirm that the plan, as devised, was not being adhered to in the consideration of the plans you announced on Friday, and that update was alluded to by the Deputy Minister in his interview on the Politics Wales show on Sunday, which we're still waiting for. Can you confirm when that new plan will be available for us all to consider what matrix the Government are working to?
Importantly, when it comes to a public inquiry, you've made comments recently that you do not believe that a public inquiry would be appropriate to start before the pandemic has come to its natural conclusion, if indeed it ever does come to its conclusion. We've also learned from Carmarthenshire council, for example, that twice as many people died in care homes in the second wave of the coronavirus outbreak. So, it's really important that we do have an independent, thorough inquiry to look at all these aspects, so that we can plan for the future, learn the safety measures we need to put in place to save lives going forward. I know that we have an election on 6 May, and we'll all be fighting to take the job that you have, and you will be fighting to retain that job, but it's important that members of the public understand exactly who occupies that chair, what they will do in commissioning such a public inquiry. From my point of view, I want to see a public inquiry as soon as possible make progress, and, rather than lose it in a wider UK public inquiry, have a Wales-specific public inquiry. Could you clarify your remarks so that we can understand exactly when you believe that a public inquiry should start, and that you agree that it should be a stand-alone Welsh public inquiry, looking at the measures that Welsh Government have control over, rather than be submerged in a wider UK inquiry?
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
Well, Llywydd, I believe that an inquiry will be a necessary and important part of the way that we learn the lessons of the extraordinary 12 months that we have lived through. I did not say yesterday that I thought it should wait until coronavirus was over; I said I thought it should wait until we are all confident that coronavirus is in the rear-view mirror. So, we will still be dealing with coronavirus, and will be for some time to come, but when we are certain that we are moving out of it and we're not at risk of it re-emerging again, then there will be capacity in the system to do the thinking and the work of contributing to a public inquiry.
I don't agree with him about a Wales-only inquiry. I've lost count of the number of times he has urged on me a four-nation approach, but on this issue he appears to think it sensible to go it alone. A Wales-only inquiry would not be able to grapple with a long list of issues that will be fundamental to being able to draw the lessons from what has happened. It would not be able to look at issues of foreign travel and the importation of the virus into the United Kingdom, and yet the first cases we saw here in Wales were viruses that came from elsewhere in the world. It would not be able to deal with the decision making of COBRA and the way in which that has impacted on the course of the virus here in Wales. It would not be able to deal with the vaccination programme, because the vaccination programme relies heavily on the successful work of the UK Government in securing supplies of the vaccine. It wouldn't be able to deal with the testing programme, because again, for the testing programme, we rely on the lighthouse labs for a good part of the testing programme here in Wales, and those labs and the decisions about them are made by the UK Government. Llywydd, I could go on. There is a very long list of things that are absolutely central to understanding the way in which coronavirus has impacted here in Wales.
That will, absolutely properly, look at the decision making of the Welsh Government as well, but trying to do it in isolation from the decisions that have been made across the United Kingdom and by other Governments as well as decisions that have been made jointly, it wouldn't even begin to tell the picture of what has happened in the last 12 months, it would not be worth it as an endeavour. On this matter, I agree with the advice he normally gives me, that a UK-wide inquiry, in which the decision making of all layers of Government will be fundamental, that is the way to learn the lessons, in a way that is right, proper and effective. And that's something that I'm very committed to making sure happens.
3. What action is the Welsh Government taking to combat the rise in dog thefts in Wales? OQ56467
I thank the Member for the question, Llywydd. While dog theft is not a devolved matter, officials across the UK are working together to develop proposals to tackle pet theft. The Welsh Government will act with others to ensure any such proposals have an effective impact here in Wales.
Thank you, First Minister. For many people, their dog is not just a pet, they are a family member, and to have that family member violently ripped from you so someone can profit is unimaginable to me, and I'm sure every person with an ounce of compassion feels that way. I cannot imagine the heartache those people are going through. So, while I accept, First Minister, that crime and sentencing matters are reserved to the UK Government, we can take action to make these crimes more difficult to perpetrate. First Minister, will you consider imposing tougher restrictions on third-party sales of pets to ensure that not only stringent animal welfare standards are met but to cut off the black market in animal sales? Diolch.
Llywydd, can I thank Caroline Jones? I share her view of the impact that dog thefts have on families where the care of an animal is absolutely part of what that family revolves around. I vividly remember, Llywydd, an early conversation with a food bank that I visited about the importance of being able to provide food for animals as part of the service that they provided for those families who relied upon the companionship of the dog that they spent a lot of their time and a lot of their lives with, so to have a dog stolen will be devastating for so many families. And I'm very pleased to be able to say in relation to the supplementary question that, next week, the Welsh Government will bring forward for debate on 23 March Lucy's law proposals—as they are sometimes called—to ban third-party sales of pets here in Wales. I look forward to that debate and, I'm sure, to support from Members for that action in many parts of the Chamber.
First Minister, as a dog lover, I know that your dog is often your best friend and, as has been said already this afternoon, is very much a family member. Now, it's deeply disturbing to know that criminals are targeting dogs and other pets to steal. These people are an absolute disgrace, an absolute disgrace. First Minister, what conversations have Welsh Government Ministers had with the police and the Home Office to ensure that these criminals are brought to justice, and what conversations have you had about the impact of UK Conservative police cuts and their failure to deliver on the promised 62 extra police officers in Deeside?
Llywydd, I thank Jack Sargeant for that. We've been just discussing the pandemic's impact here in Wales, and this question is connected to it as well. We know that in the conditions of having to work from home and stay at home, many families have acquired pets, and that means that the opportunity for criminal action has arisen because the prices of dogs have risen very fast over the last 12 months. And it is disgraceful, I agree absolutely with Jack Sargeant, that people should seek to exploit people's vulnerabilities in that way.
We have conversations, of course, with our police and crime commissioners and police forces. It's very good to see that Dyfed-Powys Police has recently appointed a chief inspector to head their task force on this matter. But our police forces are stretched in all directions, and policing the pandemic and dealing with volumes of crimes that have not abated, in many ways, during it, create enormous pressures for them and those pressures are exacerbated by a decade of cuts, a decade of Tory cuts in police forces, numbers reduced year after year after year.
The Welsh Government stepped in—as Jack Sargeant will know, and his father was very much part of this—stepped in to fund 500 police community support officers here in Wales, to allow our local forces to have more people on the ground in communities able to deal with issues like dog theft and the impact that that has on families. I know that the Conservative Party has committed itself to ensuring that were they to have any part to play in the next Senedd Government, that no funding would be provided for non-devolved matters. Well, that's the end of 500 police support officers in Wales, because we have put our money in to protect communities where the Conservative Government has failed, and if we're returned to Government after 6 May, then people in Wales can know that those beat officers—the people they meet day in, day out in their communities—they will be safe with a Labour Government, even while the Tories here in Wales are determined to defund them.
4. What assessment has the First Minister made of the proposed funding allocations to Wales resulting from the UK Government's shared prosperity fund? OQ56469
Dirprwy Lywydd, our assessment is clear: the UK shared prosperity fund fails to honour repeated public commitments made by the UK Government and 'leave' campaigners in Wales that exiting the European Union would mean not a penny less and no devolved powers lost to Wales.
Thank you, First Minister. We have heard much but seen little of either the shared prosperity fund or the levelling-up fund, both of which are becoming more and more like a publicly funded Conservative election fund than a serious attempt to share the prosperity of the United Kingdom. First Minister, do you share my concern that Wales will lose out, that investment funding in Wales will be cut, and that support for Welsh communities recovering from COVID will be cut by a UK Tory Government that has, over the last year, delivered more funds to its friends and donors than it has invested to sustain the Welsh economy? Therefore, do you agree with me that we can only trust the Welsh Government to deliver for Wales, and not a Tory UK Government that only looks at us with disdain from afar?
Those cuts are already happening. Those cuts are guaranteed now by the way the UK Government has published its plans for a levelling-up fund, so called, and for the shared prosperity fund. Wales will miss out on millions and millions and millions of pounds, and communities like Blaenau Gwent will be at the sharp end of that—communities of which this Conservative Government knows little and cares less. In those practical decisions we are going to see, instead of the seven-year funding that we had under structural funds, instead of a partnership approach with players here in Wales at that local level, determining how that money should be spent—we are going to see a random, divisive, bureaucratic and wasteful set of arrangements imposed upon us.
I very much share the anxiety that Alun Davies expressed in his opening supplementary question. We are going to be in the hands of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, a ministry of which the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said, in July 2019, on the local enterprise funds in England, that despite spending £12 billion, that ministry had no understanding of what impact that spending had on local economic growth. The same committee, commenting on the towns fund and decisions made by the Secretary of State Robert Jenrick, said that he had
'risked the Civil Service’s reputation for integrity and impartiality'
and that he had acted in ways that
'fuelled accusations of political bias'
when he picked a scheme that was 536 on the list of 541 ranked by his civil servants and decided to fund it. It's little wonder that the conclusions were drawn that that decision was driven by those narrow, partisan and politically motivated ways of conducting business. Now, Wales will be at the same mercy of a UK Government making decisions in Whitehall, bypassing people here in Wales. We will look every day at the way that those decisions are made to make sure that pork-barrel politics of the sort we see by this Tory Government in Whitehall—that we are not polluted by it here in Wales.
Speaking in the House of Commons last month, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales said the amount of money that's going to be spent in Wales when the shared prosperity fund comes in
'will be identical to or higher than the amount of money that was spent in Wales that came from the European Union',
and that the UK will continue to engage with the Welsh Government as they develop the fund's investment framework for publication. Speaking in a joint meeting of the Senedd's finance and external affairs committees last week, the Secretary of State for Wales said the funding being made available to Wales, underpinned by the 'not a penny less' guarantee, will provide opportunities for Wales to do even better than it has previously done in terms of funding streams, and that they're asking local authorities to join with stakeholders, their MSs, Welsh Government officials and with MPs to come up with really innovative ideas either as individual authorities or jointly with other authorities, and bid for the money available, where the lessons learned from this year will form the basis of the actual shared prosperity fund, which is a much larger package of money from the end of 2021 onwards. How will you engage with that and avoid, as you say we must, narrow, partisan and politically motivated approaches?
The fact that nonsense is spoken on the floor of the House of Commons doesn't make it any less nonsensical. And it's plainly nonsensical. Next year, the community renewal fund—the latest rebadging of the shared prosperity fund—is worth £220 million for the whole of the United Kingdom. Wales alone had £375 million in structural funds. And we're not guaranteed—to use that word—a single penny of it. It is a UK fund on a bidding basis. There is no money in it that says 'Wales' on it at all. You'll be able to bid and then a Tory Minister in Whitehall will make decisions against the track record that I just set out for Members here. In what possible sense—in what possible sense—could anybody defend that as a way of treating Wales? We are being cheated out of money, we are being stolen from when it comes to our powers, and the unfolding record of the UK Government in Westminster short-changes Wales every single day.
5. Will the First Minister make a statement on the effectiveness of NHS Wales's Test, Trace, Protect service? OQ56440
Test, trace, protect is an essential mechanism to detect, control and protect people from the spread of the virus. The public service partnership approach that we have taken in Wales has safeguarded public funds, used them with probity and integrity, and has efficiently delivered a highly effective system for Wales.
First Minister, thank you for that answer. The reason I raise this question is because, shockingly, it was reported last week, and I quote, that 'there is no evidence to show that the UK Conservative Government’s multibillion-pound test and trace programme to combat COVID-19 in England contributed to a reduction in coronavirus infection levels.' But worse still, First Minister, the Chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee said that the enormous amount spent on this scheme leaves the impression that the public purse has been used like a cash point, totalling £37 billion over two years. This is in stark contrast to NHS Wales's test, trace and protect service, which as of the end of February I understand had reached 99.6 per cent of positive cases who were eligible, together with 95 per cent of their close contacts. Would you agree with me, First Minister, that it is definitely better to invest taxpayers' hard-earned money into tried-and-tested public services that have a strong track record of delivery, and that the £37 billion wasted by the UK Government frankly makes their offer of a below-inflation 1 per cent pay rise to nurses even more darn insulting?
Huw Irranca-Davies is right; the £37 billion figure is eye-watering—£6 billion pounds handed out in contracts by direct award, with no competition for those contracts at all. We have made provision in our budget for next year to run our highly successful TTP system up until the end of September, and we've needed to put £60 million aside in order to do that. That's £60 million, the cost here in Wales, not the eye-watering sums criticised in that Public Accounts Committee report across the border. We've done it, as the Member knows, because we have relied upon the public service—no £1,100-a-day consultants here in Wales, no companies running the service in order to extract a private profit. We've relied on public service and public servants, and it's they who have delivered the outstandingly successful system we have. I agree with him; I go back to the answer I gave earlier about the way in which we can see the Conservative Government at Westminster manoeuvring to make sure that the consequences of this pandemic are heaped onto the shoulders of those least able to bear them. And when we say that it is our public service and public servants who have got us through this crisis, in the way that our TTP system demonstrates, those people are to have no increase at all next year. That's their reward from the UK Government. This Government, and a Labour Government at the UK level too, would have a very, very different set of priorities, and I believe that those priorities are shared by people here in Wales.
The Llywydd took the Chair.
Nice try to the previous speaker for a general 'doing the evil Tory Government in Westminster down'. First Minister, I did hear your response about private versus public, but of course we all know it was privately employed Kate Bingham who actually very, very successfully protected the United Kingdom, including Wales, on the vaccines, by buying, investing and supporting all of those amazing scientists. So, let's hear it for the private sector as well. When you talk about having a highly effective test, trace and protect system for Wales, that's exactly what I want, but let's be clear: the World Health Organization says that a successful contact tracing system is marked by being able to trace 80 per cent of contacts within three days. Your test, trace and protect system reaches 90 per cent of contacts—well done—but within nine days after that initial contact. There is a lot of spreading within that nine-day window, significantly more than the world health authority's recommendation that it should be three days. So, can you please tell us what actions you will be taking to try to cut that lag from nine days to the WHO's recommended three days, in order to ensure that here in Wales we have the most effective test, trace and protect system?
I don't recognise the nine-day figure at all. The Member will be very pleased to know, given her concerns, that 90 per cent of close contacts last week were reached within 24 hours, and that 93 per cent of index cases were reached within 24 hours. So, where the nine days comes from, I do not know, but last week those were the figures that were reported. That's a good deal better than the three days that the WHO has identified, and I think demonstrates once again the success of the system we have here in Wales.
6. Will the First Minister make a statement on access to primary care services in Mid and West Wales during the COVID-19 pandemic? OQ56449
I thank the Member for that, Llywydd. Access to primary care services has changed rapidly across Wales over the past year. Services have had to adapt so that patients can access primary care in a safe and effective manner. Many are using digital technology to do so.
I'm grateful to the First Minister for his answer. Of course health boards have had to make changes in the provision of primary care. One instance in my region is that the surgery in the village of Trimsaran has had to be temporarily closed so that that is kept as a space that can be used for treating COVID patients if necessary. The community has accepted this, but they are concerned with the immediate situation, because they have to travel now to Kidwelly, and at the same time the bus services have been cut because of COVID—a perfect storm, but perhaps unavoidable. But there is a suspicion that the health board may use the COVID crisis to permanently close that surgery. Obviously, I think we'd want to congratulate the health board on how they've handled the crisis, and these operational matters are not matters for the First Minister, but can I ask the First Minister today if he can reassure my constituents in Trimsaran that the Welsh Government does not expect any changes to primary care services that have been made because of the COVID crisis to be extended beyond the pandemic without proper assessment and consultation?
Well, let me just emphasise the last part of what the Member said, because, on that basis, then I could sign up to what she just said, because I was about to say to her before she'd made that final point, that, of course, many of the changes that have happened during the pandemic we will want to see them continue afterwards. But they need to be properly consulted upon, and they need to be properly understood. But, the fact that we have thousands of video consultations happening every day, and people no longer having to travel inconvenient distances, and do things that were difficult for them to do, we'll want to preserve those things as well.
The specific point that Helen Mary Jones makes points to a dilemma. I've been asked a number of times on the floor of the Senedd to think about having COVID-only hospitals, and, therefore, other hospitals that deal with all the non-COVID things. But when you do that, it's inevitable, as you see in Trimsaran, that the things you would normally go to a hospital for will no longer be available to you, and you have to travel an even longer distance to find them. So, dealing with the pandemic and trying to keep people safe, and trying to make sure that people who need the health service for non-COVID reasons don't run the risk of contracting the disease is genuinely challenging. And it's been felt in our primary care, as well as in our hospital services.
As we move beyond the pandemic, I am very keen that we learn the positive lessons, the astonishing rate of change that the health service has managed to accommodate over the last 12 months, but of course, those are things that need to be done in consultation with local populations, and to make sure that patients are taken on that journey.
7. What steps has the Welsh Government taken to support the Pembrokeshire economy throughout the COVID-19 pandemic? OQ56435
Llywydd, over 4,000 businesses in Pembrokeshire have received more than £91 million in grants since the start of the pandemic in order to support that local economy.
Thank you for that response, First Minister. Now, the Welsh Government's announcement on Friday was met with particular frustration from non-essential local businesses in Pembrokeshire, some of whom had planned for potential reopening this week and incurred costs to do so. You previously suggested that businesses selling non-essential products should look to reopen from next Monday, and now that's been put back until 12 April. In light of this change in direction from the Welsh Government, can you confirm exactly what scientific evidence was used to continue to prohibit the reopening of non-essential retail outlets until 12 April, and can you confirm that the Welsh Government will recoup the costs that have been made by businesses, so that, at the very least, those businesses are not further disadvantaged financially as a result of the delay in reopening non-essential retail outlets?
Well, Llywydd, I've taken the precaution of bringing with me what I actually said on 19 February when looking forward to the current three-week review. It's not what Mr Davies has suggested at all. So, let's look at what was actually said. Here it is. I said, 'We will then look'—and I was talking about this three weeks—'at whether'—so, 'whether'—'we can start'—so, 'start'—'to reopen some'—some—'non-essential retail.'
That's what I said. That we would consider whether we could begin to reopen some non-essential retail. And, actually, Llywydd, that is exactly what we have done, and is exactly what we will do, because, from 22 March, those shops that are already open selling essential goods will be able to sell the full range of goods that they would normally have on offer, and that will include all those non-essential items as well. It is safe to do that because those shops are already open. They already comply with the strengthened regulations that we put on the statute book here in Wales in January, to take account of the Kent variant. Other non-essential retailers now know that on 12 April, the same day as in England—remember that four-nation approach that the Conservative Party was keen to advocate—on the same day as in England, all other non-essential retail in Wales will reopen. In the meantime, the sector will be supported by £150 million of additional assistance that I was also able to announce last Friday, to take account of the fact that, of course, those businesses would rather be open. They'd rather be opening, they'd rather be trading than waiting for a grant from the Welsh Government—I completely understand that. And as soon as it is safe to do so, and as soon as they are able to take account of the next few weeks to make themselves safe, then, on 12 April, they will all be able to reopen as well.
And finally, question 8, Laura Jones.
8. What action is the Welsh Government taking to improve transport in south-east Wales? OQ56468
Llywydd, we are already taking forward many of the suggestions made by the Burns commission. Its ambitious set of recommendations will lead to significant transport improvements for the region. The interim report of the Hendy review highlights the case for improvements to the south Wales main line, as proposed by the commission.
Thank you. First Minister, last week, in response to my question on Newport City Council's support for a referendum for an M4 relief road, the Minister for Housing and Local Government said,
'If there is a call for a local referendum, then we're certainly happy to work with Newport council to see how that might be accomplished.'
Julie James then went on to say she was all in favour of local people having a large say in what happens in their region or area. You've told us today how important local democracy is to you, First Minister. So, therefore, would you hold a referendum on an M4 relief road, as called for by Newport council?
Llywydd, I don't have anything to add to what my colleague has already told the Member on that matter. I'm very glad though to hear her conversion to local decision making. She will feel as aggrieved as I do, therefore, that Ministers in her Government in London continually pretend that they have powers to make decisions in relation to an M4 relief road—they don't. Those decisions are properly made here, and the Member's conversion to that is very welcome.
Thank you, First Minister.
The next item is questions to the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition, in respect of his law officer responsibilities. And the first question is from Huw Irranca-Davies.
1. What discussions has the Counsel General had with other law officers regarding the constitutional implications of the UK Government's proposals for the shared prosperity fund? OQ56434
The implications are clear: this is an attempt to take things back to decades ago, when Westminster supposedly knew best. Bypassing the elected institutions of Wales is not just an insult to the people of Wales, it will clearly result in worse outcomes for Wales as well.
I thank the Counsel General for that response. And I draw his attention to the Secretary of State's appearance last week in front of the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee, where it was made very, very clear that there is no intention from the UK Government to engage with Welsh Government, and that the Secretary of State for Wales's interpretation of devolution—and of subsidiarity and decision making—does not include Welsh Government, nor does it include regional economic partnerships either. But moreover, there was a worrying ignorance—intentional or otherwise—of the policy framework in Wales, including the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 framework. Now, surely, Counsel General, this has not only financial implications for Wales, but real constitutional implications for our current devolution settlement.
I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for that supplementary question. Through the shared prosperity fund, it is certainly the case that the UK Government seeks to be delivering in devolved areas with no input from the Welsh Government on its plans, and without any stakeholder engagement or public consultation. And in practice, that would mean that the UK Government is taking decisions on devolved matters in Wales without being answerable to the Senedd on behalf of the people of Wales. That, obviously, defies the constitutional settlement. And, whilst I note the comments of the Secretary of State for Wales in another context, which highlighted the little status, I think, which he thought the Welsh Government was concerned about, I would encourage him to remember that this is a constitutional settlement, which people in Wales have voted for democratically, and that the decision to proceed in defiance of the constitutional arrangements in Wales is a grave matter from a democratic point of view, but also is ineffective in terms of delivering benefits to people in Wales. And the grievance that we have, and people right across Wales have, yes, it's constitutional, but it's also about a fund that is not going to be effective, has not been consulted upon, does not reflect the priorities of businesses in Wales, cannot be integrated and, where decisions will be taken by a UK Government department whose mismanagement of the towns fund has already been criticised severely in Parliament. And, at a recent meeting, with both the relevant Secretary of State for Wales and the Secretary of State for the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, it was absolutely clear that the intention is for MHCLG to make these decisions, including on the basis of officials appointed in Wales to do so. This Government regards that as fundamentally unacceptable constitutionally and, also, not in the interests of the economy of Wales.
2. What advice has the Counsel General given to the Welsh Government regarding the legal powers available to strengthen the ability to protect livestock from dog attacks in Wales? OQ56443
The Welsh Government is currently working closely with police forces, the UK Government, other devolved administrations and stakeholders to explore how best to address the serious issue of dog attacks on livestock and prevent its devastating effects.
But we know, of course, Counsel General, that Scotland has the powers that they need to take action to tackle this problem, and that there's already been a Bill laid in Parliament there. Unfortunately, generally speaking, we, in Wales, are reliant on the UK Government to take action, but they've refused to do that. They've refused to give police more powers to take DNA samples from dogs suspected of attacks, more rights to seize dogs in certain areas, strengthening fines, compensating livestock owners for their losses and so on and so forth.
So, we've been in negotiations with the UK Government for many years. I raised this over two years ago. Isn't it now time for you to join with me and others in calling on the UK Government, as they clearly don't intend to take action on this issue—. Will you join with me in calling for the devolution of the necessary powers to us, in the Senedd, as has happened in Scotland, so that we can tackle this problem once and for all?
Well, the Member knows that my function is to ensure that the Welsh Government works within its constitutional powers, but also to ensure that we can work to the furthest boundaries of our devolved powers, and that we seek all possible opportunities to ensure that the devolution settlement is reformed in a way that benefits the people of Wales. The Minister for environment has recently written to the UK Government to ask for changes in this area in terms of legislation based on the kind of criticism that the Member referred to in his question. And we, as a Government, certainly strongly agree with a need to reform legislation in Westminster, which would enable us to do more than is possible at the moment.
3. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to ministerial colleagues on assisting leaseholders who face financial liabilities in addressing defects in high-rise buildings in Wales? OQ56446
Welsh Government are exploring options to protect leaseholders from bearing the full brunt of costs to remediate building safety issues. It's imperative, of course, that we ensure that all options are properly scoped, risk assessed and that their consequences are fully understood before funding models are announced.
Diolch yn fawr, Weinidog. Now, in these post-Grenfell times, Counsel General, you may be aware of the issues facing leaseholders at Meridian Quay in Swansea, where the construction company and the insurers have both gone into liquidation. This has left leaseholders in a position where they feel trapped, their apartments are seen as worthless and they are unable to sell. Now, hopefully, attempts to gain compensation through the Financial Services Compensation Scheme will bear fruit, and I have written to the Minister for Housing and Local Government on this matter.
I would be grateful, however, if you could outline what discussions you are having within Government on the £3.5 billion funding announced by the UK Government recently, and whether you feel that it would be possible for the Welsh Government to offer an indemnity to leaseholders in situations such as Meridian Quay, particularly for consequential costs, such as rising insurance and rising legal costs.
Well, we certainly expect for Wales to receive its fair share of funding, as a result of the spending commitments recently announced in England, and that will, of course enable us to prepare a response to leaseholders who are in this position. The White Paper that the Minister has published is open for consultation until 12 April, and I'll take this opportunity to encourage people to respond to that consultation. But our position as a Government is very, very clear: we do not believe leaseholders should have to pay to rectify issues that constitute failure to build to appropriate quality standards. We've announced already £10.5 million in this year and a further £32 million-worth of capital funding for the next financial year, and our intention, I can reassure the Member, is to establish a funding offer for Wales that goes even further than that which is being considered in other parts of the UK, which looks at the holistic remediation of buildings, beyond cladding, to include some of the other sorts of aspects that he mentioned in his question and others have been calling for as well. I know that the Minister for Housing and Local Government will be making an announcement in due course about how that kind of funding can be accessed.
4. What action has the Counsel General taken to encourage an improved awareness of the rule of law amongst young adults in Wales? OQ56447
Awareness of the rule of law is integral to our work as a Government and to our efforts to make Welsh law more accessible. A number of initiatives are under way that will be brought together in a formal programme, in accordance with the legislation passed in this Senedd, at the start of the next Senedd term.
Thank you. Of course, you'll be aware that Justice Week 2021 took place from 1 March to 5 March against the context of COVID-19. Justice Week provided an opportunity for a vital health check on our rights, our justice system and, ultimately, on the rule of law. As an article on the Law Society website outlined, children have been affected heavily by coronavirus through school closures, and most young people are never consulted on decisions. The Law Society supports public legal education and highlighted the Big Legal Lesson during Justice Week. This is a classroom resource initiative designed by teachers to introduce children and young people to the rule of law. The resources help familiarise young people with subjects such as why we have laws, what a Bill is and how a law is created. Seven hundred and thirty two schools are now taking part this year. Will you liaise with Kirsty Williams MS to establish what steps can be taken to see all schools in Wales participate in BLL next year?
I thank Janet Finch-Saunders for that supplementary, and I was delighted, in the interests of discussing questions about the rule of law with young people, to have participated recently with some students from the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol in their law and criminology conference, to discuss this very sort of issue. And in the way that she was implying in her question, much of that discussion related to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Of course, in Wales, we have worked with the children's commissioner to seek to ascertain the views of children and young people very specifically about the impact of COVID on their lives in particular. But, as she says, there is always more to do in relation to making sure that pupils in schools get a very good appreciation of the issues in relation to the rule of law, democratic accountability, and so on. I'm very confident that the new curriculum Bill, when it becomes an Act, will facilitate that kind of education, and it's a matter of regret that her party didn't choose to support that.
5. What discussions has the Counsel General had with law officers in the UK Government regarding the introduction of legal measures to tackle rural crime? OQ56448
We take rural crime very seriously, which is why we established the Wales wildlife and rural crime group. Whilst policing, of course, is sadly not a devolved matter, we will continue to work with the UK Government and the Welsh police forces to ensure that public safety needs are met right across Wales.
Thank you. From previous scrutiny that I've laid before you, you will be aware of my view that the Welsh Government certainly does have a role to play in tackling rural crime. I would like to highlight an article in a recent Farmers Guardian publication. The headline reads:
'Organised gangs target farm quad bikes'.
So, we're not talking about the odd quad bike being stolen, but we're talking now about organised gangs, and that is far more ramped up in terms of criminal behaviour. Data from NFU Mutual shows that thefts are continuing to rise year on year, up from 1.8 million in 2015 to 2.6 million in just three years. Detective Constable Chris Piggott, rural vehicle crime intelligence officer at the National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service, has advised that several gangs now seem to be moving across force borders and that, at the moment, most of Wales is being targeted. Lesley Griffiths MS recently sent me a letter explaining that she is in correspondence with Lord Goldsmith, the north Wales rural crime team and DEFRA colleagues. I welcome that, but I'm just wondering whether you've had more discussions with the Minister about supporting the calls for the formation of a national rural crime taskforce for Wales. Will you support such a proposal, to bring Welsh stakeholders together to work on a suitable Welsh Government response so as to protect our rural communities and, of course, so as to create a platform from which key correspondence can be sent from Wales to the UK Government and that we can have better collaborative working on rural crime, going forward? Thank you.
I thank the Member for raising this matter again. She has, of course, as she mentioned in the question, raised it before with me, and it's obviously a very, very important matter both in her constituency and right across Wales. I think there is very good evidence of joint working between the relevant agencies in Wales, which I do think—and I know she would acknowledge this—has been regarded elsewhere as best practice. The point she makes in particular around vehicle theft, I think, is very, very important. It's certainly one of the priorities in terms of the current range, unfortunately, of rural and wildlife crime in Wales. This, principally, of course, is a matter for the Minister in the relevant portfolio, and I'm aware that she is currently considering a specific proposal to increase the focus on rural and wildlife crime in Wales, and we can expect an announcement from her on that matter in the coming days.
Helen Mary Jones.
Apologies, Llywydd, I thought we'd withdrawn that request. I do apologise.
Okay. That's fine.
Okay, that concludes that question session.
So, our next item of business is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement. Rebecca Evans.
Diolch, Llywydd. There is one change to today's agenda. The motion to approve the Agricultural Support (Miscellaneous Amendments) (Wales) (EU Exit) Regulations 2021 has been postponed until next week. Draft business for the last week of term is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.
Trefnydd, can I call for two statements this week, please, the first from the Minister for Education regarding antisemitism in Welsh universities? The Welsh Government and many public bodies across Wales have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, but it's of great regret, I think, that some Welsh universities are yet to adopt that definition. As you will be aware, the UK Government has actively encouraged universities in England to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, and I think that it would be very good for the people of Wales to know whether the Welsh Government is taking some similar action to tackle the scourge of antisemitism in some parts of our higher education sector here in Wales.
The second statement that I'd like is one on clarity for the leisure industry on whether gyms and swimming pools will be able to reopen in Wales. I've had a number of constituents who've been in touch with me regarding the adverse impact of the closure of their local gym and swimming pool on their physical and mental health, and, of course, many people don't realise that this is actually something that affects people of all ages, not just young people. I've had students, of course, living alone, fitness instructors who are without an income, and cardiac patients who've been unable to do their rehab, who've been in touch with me in recent weeks. The evidence that I've seen, Trefnydd, suggests that the risks of harm from infection associated with gyms and swimming pools is very low, while the consequences of not taking adequate exercise, such as obesity, are very significant. So, I think it would be prudent to have a statement on a timetable for the reopening of gyms and swimming pools as soon as possible.
Thank you to Darren Millar for raising both of those issues. Clearly, there's absolutely no place for antisemitism anywhere in Wales, and I'd be pleased to ask the Minister for Education to write to you on that specific issue that you raised, regarding the adoption of the IHRA definition.
And, on the issue of gyms and swimming pools, I'm afraid I don't have anything further that I can add to what the First Minister said at his statement on Friday in terms of the next steps and providing a specific date. But, clearly, all of these matters are under constant review, and we do recognise the important physical and also mental health and well-being contribution that both gyms and swimming pools can make to people of all ages, as you set out, and we're very, very aware of the impact that the restrictions are having on people and their lives. So, as soon as we are able to provide a date, I know that we would be keen to do so.
I'd like a statement from the Government, please, about the vital importance of helping young people recover from the crisis, particularly their mental health and well-being. I've spoken in the Senedd before about the fantastic work that the Senghenydd Youth Drop In Centre—or SYDIC—does to provide activities and opportunities for young people. I've spoken to Dave Brunton, who does excellent work for the centre, and I know of the concerns felt by him and so many others about the effects that lockdowns have had on young people whose access to extended family and friends, and the support they receive from groups like SYDIC, has been curtailed. More and more young people have come to feel depressed, lonely and isolated. Surely youth activities and support need to be central to how we rebuild after COVID; they're a cornerstone. Because of so many cuts to funding over the years, they are too often fighting for their own survival, but young people are going to need meaningful contact, targeted interventions to help overcome the social isolation and the mental health issues that have come about because of the pandemic. So, I'd like a statement, please, setting out what will be done to make young people's well-being a central tenet of COVID recovery. Thank you.
Thank you for raising the issue. As you were talking, I was looking at the questions for the Minister for Education tomorrow, and there is an opportunity specifically to address young people's and children's well-being there. But I know that you'd be keen to have a wider statement, and the Minister will have heard everything that you've had to say.
I've been pleased, in the budget for next year, to provide an uplift to the funding for mental health for young people, in recognition of the very, very difficult time that they've had, and also we've provided significant additional funding to our colleges and universities for them to also support the mental health needs of the people who they provide the educational services to. But I'm grateful to you for raising that, and for also giving the opportunity to say 'thank you' to everybody at the Senghenydd drop-in centre for the work that they have done over a long period, and I know that they're very keen to be able to get back to the fullness of their role in due course.
At Westminster and at local councils, the budget and the budget debate are major events, even when there is no doubt the budget will be passed with a large majority. At the Senedd, it's considered only worthy of a one-hour debate. The debate on the budget is not part of scrutiny, which I think is something that some members of the Government—and I don't mean Ministers, I mean civil servants—haven't quite grasped. We're not scrutinising the budget, we are setting the budget, and I think that is an entirely different position. It is a binding vote on Government expenditure; try losing one and you'll find out how important it is. Surely it is worthy of a full afternoon's debate. Will the Welsh Government consider this request and report back to the Senedd?
Yes, thank you to Mike Hedges for raising the budget. Of course, we do have four opportunities to debate the budget on the floor of the Senedd: we have the early budget debate, which, over the last two years, has been brought forward and led by the Finance Committee, so that we can reflect on the work that the Finance Committee has done in terms of its engagement work; then we have the statement on the debate of the draft budget; and then the debate on the draft budget; and then the final budget debate further on in the year. I do recognise that there is keenness to have longer debates, and it will be for the next Government now to determine the length of those debates. I'm sure that there will be opportunities to have discussions, potentially, within Government and within the Business Committee in terms of tabling those future debates, but I think that's a matter for the next administration now.
Can I just add my support to the request made by Darren Millar regarding a statement on antisemitism within our universities? I'd have asked that myself as well, but I've got two other requests, if I may. One is for the education Minister, seeking a statement setting out some guidance to schools on graffiti on school walls, and the speed at which that should be dealt with. It's been brought to my attention that Ysgol Bro Hyddgen in the Dyfi valley has been sporting a 'Cofiwch Dryweryn' sign for some months now, and, while that is a valid commemoration of an important event in Welsh history, we all know it's become associated with a particular political movement now, and therefore I would say that it's inappropriate for a school to still be sporting that.
And then, finally, could I have a statement, please, from the environment Minister? I repeat a call to her to advise Members on any changes to guidance that help public bodies balance competing priorities when they have to make decisions that stem from Welsh Government policy decisions. Trefnydd, you'll know yourself about the dilemmas that certainly my constituents in Mayals have been facing in choosing between an active travel route and chopping down trees, but, even when there's enthusiasm for an active travel route, how do we ensure that wildlife, habitat and biodiversity aren't trashed in the process of creating an active travel route? You'll probably know about this because of the Clyne section in Gower. It just strikes me as slightly odd that we have a policy that's intended to improve health and reduce pollution, but that can be implemented in a way that destroys significantly important local habitat. So, I'm wondering if you could request a statement on what guidance is currently available to help with that decision, and what remedies are available to constituents who believe that consultation processes haven't been followed adequately. I'm sure that Members would agree with me when I say that judicial review is no remedy at all for the average constituent, because of the cost of this. Thank you.
Thank you for raising both those issues, and I'll ensure that the correspondence to which I referred in my answer to Darren Millar is also sent to you as well. In terms of the first question, regarding the speed at which graffiti should be removed, could I ask you to write to the Minister on that issue, and I'm sure that they will be able to provide some more information and point you to any guidance that might be available? And then on the issue of the changes to guidance and the difficult way in which various priorities have to be balanced, I will ask the Minister to write to you. I know that there are some specific issues regarding the active travel route at Mayals, and my understanding, from discussions with the council, is that those trees would have had to have come down in the near future anyway, but I think that those are detailed discussions, perhaps not for the business statement, but I'll be sure that you do get the information that you're looking for.
Over the last week, I've been inundated with complaints from parents in the Rhondda who've been unable to secure a place for their child or children at the school's breakfast club. Now, this is an issue that came to my attention towards the end of last year, when the last round of breakfast places were all snapped up very quickly, leaving many parents not just disappointed but in despair. At the time, I wrote to Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council and your Government calling for breakfast club places to be prioritised for vulnerable children and those of key workers, and I was told that this couldn't be done, as it's not permitted by the legislation. While that was disappointing to hear, that would only have been a temporary solution anyway. We need major investment in breakfast clubs in schools across Wales in order to increase the capacity so that supply can meet the demand that's out there. So, can we have a Government statement about the current breakfast club situation in Wales, and could you let us know if your Government intends to do anything about this problem, which keeps cropping up each time there's a new round of applications?
I will speak to the Minister for Education about the issue of breakfast clubs to understand how widespread the issue of capacity is, with a view to exploring what more a future Welsh Government can do in this area, but, if you could send me some more information about the level of the additional demand that you're aware of, that would be very useful. I know that we'll also want to pick it up with Rhondda Cynon Taf council as well.
Just in relation to the call by Darren Millar and Suzy Davies for a statement on how we combat antisemitism in our universities, could that statement clarify that, whether or not universities are signatories to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, all universities must abide by the Equality Act 2010, which, obviously, protects Jewish people as people of protected characteristics? I think that would be an important thing to clarify. The Equality Act was passed by the last Labour Government in the UK.
Secondly, I bicycled down to the Angel Hotel in the centre of Cardiff at lunchtime to congratulate them on their offer of a place of safety to all women and girls who think they are at risk, and that's a very important contribution to ensure that people feel safe to be out in Cardiff once we resume nightlife. But, clearly, the murders of Sarah Everard and Wenjing Xu spotlight the daily violence that all women are threatened with, sadly, every day of the week. I note the Deputy Minister's statement on International Women's Day highlighting the extra funding that's been given for the free helpline, and we also have the new relationship and values education in the curriculum, which I think are both very important contributions to combating misogyny that, unfortunately, they still haven't got round to in England. I just wondered if there's anything further the Welsh Government might be able to do to make women feel less anxious in relation to these two murders.
And lastly, I was very disappointed to read that Bridgend council seems to be hostile to the idea of locating the new residential women's centre there. Therefore, I wonder if the Government's able to clarify what work has been done with the UK Government to identify Cardiff as a potential alternative, where I'm sure we would want very much to host such an important centre so that women who have offended don't need to be sent to prisons in England, and can instead be rehabilitated closer to home.
Thank you for raising both of those really important issues, and I'm pleased that you highlighted the statement that the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip has issued just today, reflecting on the recent tragic events that have, I think, reminded us how often women feel unsafe. I think it's really, really positive that businesses such as the Angel Hotel in Cardiff, but also hotels and shops across Wales and across the United Kingdom, now are coming forward to say that they will be a safe place for women who need them. I think that that demonstrates that this isn't just a role for Welsh Government, despite all of the good work that we're doing, which was encapsulated in the written statement of today, but actually there's a role for all of us as individual citizens and as people in our professional roles and working roles, regardless of where that might be. So, I think that the intervention of individuals and shops and so on has been really, really helpful in this regard.
In terms of the residential women's centre, it is a key commitment in the female offending blueprint that will provide intensive rehabilitative support for women as part of a community sentence, where they would otherwise have served a short custodial sentence. I'm not aware of discussions that the Ministry of Justice has had with the Welsh Government in terms of identifying a site; that doesn't mean those discussions haven't taken place, but I haven't had them come across my desk. But I will ask the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip to provide you with an update on that. I do understand the Ministry of Justice has said that they're looking at three sites and are currently looking at submitting a planning application. That's all the information that I have currently, but I will ensure that you have some further detail.
I call for an urgent Welsh Government statement on support for outdoor education providers in Wales. A sector representative e-mailed me yesterday stating, quote, 'I wanted to make you aware of this issue that is affecting rural Wales and, indeed, north Wales most severely. I ask that you take the matter forward to the Welsh Government. The situation has reached a critical point and, quite frankly, the way this sector is being treated by the Welsh Government is nothing less than shambolic. I'm appalled that most recently an open letter sent to both economy Minister Ken Skates and First Minister Mark Drakeford, signed by 49 companies and organisations across Wales, was only seen fit to receive a cut-and-paste stock response with the reply that Ministers were too busy to respond in person.' 'The way that this sector is being treated', they said, 'is awful, and the Welsh Government's attention to rural Wales is again very poor.' 'Furthermore', they said, 'I've become increasingly concerned for the mental health of those working within this sector, which has not been able to trade for a full 12 months and seemingly has no way of making their voice heard to the Welsh Government. It does also beg the question of why run a business in Wales at all.'
As the open letter referred to states, 'On 16 March 2020, residential education centres closed their doors to children and young people on school trips from across the UK. Unlike many sectors of the economy, Welsh Government regulations have prevented us from reopening at any stage since.' And as the open letter concluded, 'Will the Welsh Government recognise the essential role the sector will play as a part of the post-COVID recovery solution, or will it allow the decline of quality educational provision for this and future generations?' The sector desperately needs both targeted financial support and constructive dialogue with Welsh Government to enable it to survive the coming months and years. I call for a statement accordingly.
Well, we've all received the same correspondence and I know that I've asked for a copy of the response that the Welsh Government issued in the first instance regarding outdoor education, because of course we recognise the important role that outdoor education plays both in children and young people's learning experience but also in terms of building their self-esteem, their confidence and those other skills that you just can't learn in the classroom. So, when I do see a copy of that, I'll explore what more we can do in terms of understanding what, if any, support has been applied for by those particular businesses, because our approach has been not to provide individualised, very, very narrow support, but to provide packages of support through the economic resilience fund to capture as wide a base as possible. But, when I have had the chance to review that letter, I'm sure we will respond further.
Many of the issues that were set out in the lead up to the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill unfortunately didn't become part of the final Bill, specifically the number of Members in this Chamber. Now, one way of improving the workload and scrutiny problems that have been clearly set out in the past few years would be to really consider the issue of job sharing. This is becoming more common in business now and it allows women, particularly women with families and underrepresented groups, to return to work in a way that's appropriate to their way of life and can resolve issues that we know exist within our societies, such as work-life balance and flexibility. So, can we have a statement on this, and could the Trefnydd comment on whether she would like to see any future Government in May taking these issues seriously in the next Senedd?
The second request for a statement I'd like to make is: many of us will have seen distressing developments in the case of Mohamud Hassan, a black man, as you'll be aware, who died following a stay in police custody earlier this year. We know today from the family lawyer, Lee Jasper, that four police officers now face a formal investigation in this case, and developments since suggest police actions were completely at odds with initial statements made by South Wales Police. Yet South Wales Police are still communicating via press release, they have still not released body cam footage, and it's my understanding that the officers involved have still not been suspended while this investigation is carried out. This is all completely unacceptable. A family and a community are not being treated fairly or in a just way. So, would I be able to have a statement from the Welsh Government as to their communications with South Wales Police on this particular case and be able to assure us that this investigation is being conducted in a fair and impartial way?
Thank you for raising that issue, and we've said previously that it's really important that that investigation was undertaken very quickly and came to its conclusions quickly, given the real sensitivities that there are and the hurt that's been felt within the community. So, the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip has our main role in terms of liaison with the police and I know that she'll be raising this issue particularly with them.
And on the issue of how we can encourage a more diverse group of people into politics, I think that that is something that is going to be really important to take forward in the next Senedd. We've had lots of good cross-party work, I think, undertaken in terms of shaping ideas to ensure that the future Senedd is one where all people can play their part. Clearly, we're not in a place where we'll be making changes with the elections coming up just a few weeks from now, but certainly, you would hope that these are discussions that will be continued in the next Senedd with a view to ensuring that the Senedd is a more accessible place for everybody.
I thank the Trefnydd.
The next item is a statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services, an update on COVID-19 vaccinations, and I call on the Minister for health to make that statement.
Thank you, Llywydd. The hard work of all those involved in our COVID-19 vaccination programme has continued yet again this week. We are maintaining the best vaccination rate within the UK and a greater proportion of people in Wales have had both doses of the vaccine compared to any other part of the UK.
There is just one month to go now until the mid-April target date for achieving milestone two in our strategy. We are progressing with confidence and pace towards this next key milestone of offering a first vaccination to all those in the current nine priority groups. With increased vaccine supply at present, we expect to see higher numbers of first doses administered whilst also maintaining the pace of our second dose programme at the same time. We have flexed our delivery capacity upwards in response to the increase in supplies. It remains the case that if supplies are provided, then we will deliver.
More than 90 per cent of people between the ages of 65 and 69 have already received their first dose of the vaccine, and people between the ages of 50 and 64 are beginning to be called for their appointments. We are making strong progress.
Our second dose programme has been running for around a month now, and already over 0.25 million people here in Wales have had their full course of the vaccine, which is of course encouraging news. This includes more than one third of care home residents and over half of their care staff. The second dose is essential for longer term protection, so it's really important that second dose offers are taken up.
Thank you to everyone who has taken up their offer of the second dose so far. And I encourage everyone to take up the offer of a vaccine and to encourage your friends and family to do the same. I received my first dose on Sunday, and I look forward to getting my second dose in due course.
And I want to reassure Members that people's safety will always come first. We continually and closely review vaccine safety reports and the independent regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, continues to review the evidence on safety. I recognise reports about some European countries pausing AstraZeneca delivery because of concerns around blood clots. Across the UK, over 12 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine have now been delivered and the MHRA state:
'Reports of blood clots received so far are not greater than the number that would have occurred naturally in the vaccinated population.'
'People should still go and get their COVID-19 vaccine when asked to do so.'
The World Health Organization, the European Medicines Agency, Thrombosis UK and all four UK chief medical officers all support the MHRA position on the safety of our vaccines, and the alternative risk of not receiving the protection that the vaccines provide. The alternative risk from COVID includes, amongst others, an increased risk of blood clots, lasting organ damage and, of course, mortality.
We are confident in our vaccines and certain that we must keep up the momentum. Over the weekend we recorded delivery of more than 40,000 vaccines in a single day—that is comfortably more than 1 per cent of the population vaccinated in one day. We still have more to achieve to keep Wales safe. However, I am grateful for the support from all political sides and the public for our successful vaccination delivery programme. I will of course continue to keep Members and the public updated.
Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I'm very pleased to hear you say so unequivocally that people must go out and get their vaccine, whether it is a Pfizer vaccine or an AstraZeneca, and I join with you in saying that the risk of blood clots from any potential vaccine is far, far less than anything else. Given that, what public message—? And I've heard your message, and I've said it, and the First Minister's said it, and I'm sure every single Member here will cleave to this, but how do we get that message out to the areas of Wales where people are very concerned, perhaps already slightly anti-vaccine for various reasons, and this will help to compound it? I really urge you to look at a very strong public health campaign, and ask what your thoughts might be on that.
In terms of care home residents, there's no doubt that the statistics outlining the uptake of the first doses of the vaccine are impressive, but I do have some concerns surrounding the data that is shown in them, namely the group size of care home residents. Now, between 1 and 2 March this group size fell from 17,630 to 15,398, a drop of 2,232. The statistics published today show the number of care home residents at 13,780, so a drop between 17,630 and 13,780 over the space of 16 days is a decrease in the care home population in Wales of 3,850 in less than half a month. Minister, as I've consistently said, data is king and, across the UK, Governments are being driven by data, not dates. Therefore, we need to have huge confidence that the data we have is reliable. When your data shows that over 95 per cent of care home residents have been vaccinated, it is essential that we can trust, and you know, that that data is correct. Now, while I accept that some care home residents have sadly passed away, are you able to explain why there is a 21.9 per cent drop in the number of care home residents over the course of half a month?
I just want to turn briefly to the difficulties in altering the dates of tests. I'm still getting so many e-mails about the difficulties people are having in rearranging tests that were arranged through mass vaccination centres. I am concerned that we run the risk of seeing doses wasted if we do not get to grips with this problem, especially as we move into vaccinating the working-age population who may have more constraints on their time, and thus may be unable to drop everything and attend a date given to them because of work or childcare issues. Are you able to tell us what might be able to be done to help address this?
Finally, I'd just like to touch on the study published by Public Health Wales yesterday, following the mass testing in November and December in the Merthyr Tydfil and Cynon Valley areas, which shows that household contact was the most significant source of transmission. With lockdown rules being in place for close to four months now, and Merthyr once again just showing a bump in the number of cases in Wales, what extra resources and safeguards can you put in place on a local basis to dampen localised outbreaks such as the one that we're seeing in Merthyr? And what community messaging can we put out there about the need to not only address our hygiene measures, but to uptake the vaccine, to ensure that we don't have any further peaks? Thank you.
Thank you for those questions. I think, on your point about the size of the denominator in care home residents—the Scottish terrier has now left the building—then I'll make sure that, in terms of not just the explanation about data cleansing, I will not only provide it to you, Angela, but to Members as well; I'm sure there'll be some wider interest. And I think that that either may be a written statement or, in a sense, the next version of the narrative provided on a Tuesday or a Thursday to provide a proper explanation as to how that number has been arrived at, and the change that has been made in the number progressively.
On your point about rearranging appointments, it's an extraordinary endeavour to organise the whole programme. That does mean there's a lot of interest and there are people who are worried and getting hold of numbers to ring when they don't need to ring. There's a lot of public expectation and demand. When I had to rearrange my mother's appointment, I rang later in the day and I was able to do so, because I found that during the middle of the day and early in the day that it wasn't easy to get through. So, there's a point there about persevering and wanting to rearrange, but, actually, the starting point is wanting people to attend when they're offered the appointment.
And this is something we discussed at the shadow social partnership council, where trade unions were keen to have an understanding of encouragement from the Government for employers to be understanding and to release people from their time, because it isn't always straightforward for people to attend a vaccination if their employer isn't understanding. The employers' representatives on the social partnership council were positive about wanting people to get vaccinated, because they could see there was a benefit for those individuals, but more than that, for their business and for the people that they work alongside as well. The greater the proportion of people that we protect with vaccination, the more that we can do to provide a safer Wales for us all, and the environment for those businesses to improve from their own prospects as well.
So, we are looking to have not just a public message about that, but messaging within both sides of the employment relationship about wanting to be positive and enable people to have their vaccines without a cost to them, rather than simply saying people need to do it in their own time, which will actually hamper our efforts. And this will be even more important as we go through each age cohort. Once we get to the under-50s, more and more people of working age will need to have an approach that is consistent and enables vaccination rates to carry on at the pace that we have already set.
On household contact, and you were particularly talking about Merthyr, I understand it's around Gellideg in particular, a couple of streets having a very high number of cases and extended family and relationships where social distancing appears to have broken down, and there does appear to have been household contact. This highlights the fact that the extra household mixing—the indoor mixing—is the way in which coronavirus is still most likely to spread, and to spread very quickly, as we've seen with this particular cluster. And it highlights why we asked the public to do the right thing, not for my sake, but actually because you can otherwise see a real cluster that will interrupt the way people are able to live their lives, and some of those people could fall seriously ill; some of those people could lose their lives as well. So, there is a price to pay, unfortunately, if the public don't continue to support this very difficult—. And I know it's not a pleasant way to have to live our lives, even as we're exiting lockdown, but there is a proper point and purpose to it in keeping us all safe. And I hope that the Merthyr outbreak reinforces positive behaviours for others, not just in Merthyr but across the country about the risks that are still there to be run, especially with the Kent variant.
And on your starting point about the vaccine safety and the public messaging on blood clots, I'm expecting to have an opportunity to talk about this again. The chief medical officer has been talking about this today as well in the media. It's very high-profile reporting across all media platforms, radio and television, and I know that BBC, ITV and Sky have all had significant packages on this, particularly as the European Medicines Agency this afternoon have said that they've reiterated their firm belief that the vaccines are safe, and the balance of risk is absolutely on the side of taking the vaccine with the additional protection that that provides. I think, actually, what will be most helpful is if those European countries that have made this decision at present, if they're going to revisit their choices and, again, restart the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
It's a case in point that we're further along on vaccinating our populations than most other European countries, of course, so they're still vaccinating in many European countries their over-70s where the risk of harm is even higher. So, there's a real point for us all to see the AstraZeneca vaccination programme put back on track, and that will help people who may otherwise be really concerned here to go ahead and get the protection that the vaccination offers. And I should make clear that the AstraZeneca vaccine is the one that I myself had on the weekend.
The Deputy Presiding Officer took the Chair.
I have two questions and two points, Minister. The two questions relate to questions that are raised with me by constituents, and I'm sure with other Members, on the process. I want to start, of course, by thanking everyone involved in the vaccination process. It's still working well, and we're clearly on the right track.
One of the questions is about what happens at the end of the day. People hear about people getting in through the back door because they might know somebody and so on. A strategy for using up the leftover doses when people don't turn up is very important. You know that I'm eager to see people in particular roles being prioritised. You disagree with me on that, but should an effort be made now to bring those into a robust strategy, even if it's just for using up those spare doses at the end of the day?
Secondly, you know how people follow the data very carefully, and look at what's happening within their health boards and the rest of Wales at the moment. And they do occasionally see and hear anecdotally a feeling that their area might be falling behind. Now, I'm convinced that we're likely to reach a point ultimately that we all want to get to, but what monitoring do you do as a Government to ensure consistency across Wales, and within health boards, on the pace of the vaccination process, to ensure that there aren't major differences from one area to another?
Now the two points I want to make. My constituency, my county, is one of those areas where there's a stubbornly high number of cases still. I appeal to you to continue to seek innovative and new ways of communicating the danger of the virus, and also to find more ways of supporting people. There are still people who choose not to go for a test, or choose not to self-isolate because they are concerned of the implications of that. They may be on low wages, and they may be concerned about the financial impact on them. So, continue, as I've constantly called for, to look for ways of supporting those people, so that they get the help that they need to self-isolate and to go for a test.
The other is around AstraZeneca. Just to make the point myself, I believe it's quite right that people take an interest and ask questions about the safety of the vaccination, but we must remind ourselves, if there is a proven risk with blood clots—and there isn't as of yet—we're talking about one in half a million people who are vaccinated, as was explained to us in a briefing this morning. I was looking at a report this morning that says that one in five people with COVID can experience some sort of blood clot, and one in three people in an intensive care department. So, that's the reality in terms of where the risk really lies.
In terms of your comment about a strategy for end-of-day vaccinations, given the cohort we're currently working through of everyone 50 years and above, and running our second dose programme, at this point of time we really shouldn't have difficulty in using the supplies that we've got. We're largely directing the Pfizer jabs at present for the second dose programme, because that's the stage that we're still working through from the earliest doses before AstraZeneca came on board and was delivered more widely. But in terms of our use of AstraZeneca, it's not the case that we expect to see large amounts of wastage, and that's one of the good things, I think, we've been doing from an early point; we've been publishing our figures on waste, which is showing that the programme in Wales is not just going through at a very fast pace, but it's highly efficient, with very, very low wastage rates. That, again, is to the credit of the programme and the deliberate time we took at the outset to get everything right in the way we set up the programme. As we get towards the end of the cohort, and as we're looking to roll out and go into the next age range, we may face a time where there is a more realistic prospect of needing an end-of-day plan in reality. We've already written out and given guidance to the service on doing that, so we certainly don't want to see vaccines wasted. We've had a range of conversations with emergency services workers and others—but I don't think that's going to be a present problem for us now, given the scale and the numbers of people that we have to do and the cohorts that are still available.
I've got to work too with officials on when we'll be moving into the under-50s age group. You'll recall that we were at the point of practical completion when we had essentially delivered 80 per cent of groups 1 to 4, with others then having had invites to their appointments. We were able then to start inviting as a matter of course people in the next ages, for the next part of the roll-out. So, we need to look again and confirm as soon as possible the approach we'll take for the next stage of the vaccination programme. And we do look at the speed across Wales; it's a conversation we have at the vaccination board each week. So, that is a conversation, and it's an open conversation, in a positively competitive way. Each part of Wales wants to see how quickly it can make progress. In every part of Wales, I think the vaccination programme is in a good place, and it's a good problem to have about how fast can we go, rather than having people who are lagging and outliers. And again, when you compare us to other European countries, we're doing extraordinarily well.
I want to reiterate that people should get a test and seek help. TTP includes the contact tracers, but also the supportive part of it, the 'protect' element of it. There are regular calls to people who are isolating—to make sure they are isolating, but also, and primarily, to make sure that there's a well-being check, there's an opportunity to talk to someone, to make sure they are aware of where they can get help and support practically to manage with isolation. Self-isolating is still really important in protecting people around you. It's one of the most effective things we can do to halt the spread of the virus, and that will be even more important as we go through each stage of unlocking more measures.
And finally, on blood clots, it is a matter of fact that, at present, the risk of blood clots is higher, in fact, from the evidence as we understand it, in the unvaccinated population, compared to people who have had the AstraZeneca vaccine. The figures show it's actually slightly lower. And there is no evidence linking blood clots to the AstraZeneca vaccine itself. I appreciate that other countries want to work that through. But I am definitely confident in the evidence we have across the UK, having delivered more than 12 million doses of AstraZeneca. The numbers of people who reported having a blood clot without there being any evidence that's come from the vaccine is lower than in the rest of the population. So, it's a concern. We hope people will look at the evidence, and act on the evidence, to protect themselves and encourage others to get that protection. Because having COVID means you're much more likely to get a blood clot and much more likely to suffer serious harm.
Thank you very much, Minister.
Item 5 on the agenda this afternoon is a statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services—an update on the work of the inter-ministerial group on paying for social care. I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, for the opportunity to update Members on the work of the inter-ministerial group on paying for social care. Since my last update, our work to explore the implications for social care services of increasing population need, and the development of practical options to address this, has continued. Inevitably, the pandemic has had an impact on our plans. Unfortunately, the national conversation that I announced in my previous statement could not take place, for reasons that I’m sure Members will understand. The pandemic has shown both the importance and the fragility of the sector. The long-term challenges remain, and, once we come through the pandemic, they will still need to be addressed.
The demand for care and support in the population means that already stretched services will not meet future needs unless action is taken. The Health Foundation has used work by the London School of Economics to project the cost of publicly funded adult social care in Wales. This shows that costs could increase by 80 per cent in real terms between 2015 and 2030, and these estimates complement shorter term analysis by Wales Public Services 2025. Whilst ageing is a positive trend, and something to be celebrated, grappling with paying for care is something that many Governments are striving to address. We believe that a UK-wide answer to social care funding is preferable, as it could take account properly of the important interlinking with the tax and benefits system. However, given that a UK-wide answer is unlikely for some time to come, we need to develop sustainable long-term solutions for Wales, which will require some cross-party consensus.
The inter-ministerial group is keen to share the knowledge acquired on these challenging issues. To underpin our work we commissioned, prior to the pandemic, analysis about cost pressures within the sector, and I have made this report available to Members today. Analysis of recently published data has shown net current expenditure on social services rising in line with the high-cost scenario described by the analysis. Should this trend continue, net current expenditure on social services could be up to £400 million higher in 2022-23 than it was in 2019-20, and this implies that growing cost pressures lie ahead for maintaining the existing level of provision alone. We also commissioned LE Wales to provide detailed analysis and costing of some options for a social care promise. I have also shared this report today. Potential revisions to the current charging mechanism were considered, and the three options considered in more detail were: providing fully funded personal care, both at home and in residential care; fully funded non-residential care; and a contribution towards residential costs.
Workforce options on improvements to pay, terms and conditions were also considered. These include paying the real living wage and fully implementing the equivalent NHS Agenda for Change pay and terms and conditions, amongst others. In addition to these options, we recognise the important role of housing in accelerating the shift to new models of care. The 'housing with care' option, considered outside of the LE Wales report, looks to build on the existing integrated care fund capital programme. It provides a number of options for capital investment to strengthen the housing and social care infrastructure.
It is evident from the analysis that the potential costs associated with each of the options, as we expected, are very high. This leads to our considerations around how the social care promise could be funded. We explored some tax design principles, building on a number of concepts set out in Professor Holtham’s report, and these included identifying how much funding would need to be raised annually and on a recurring basis to fund a social care promise; the importance of hypothecation compared with budgetary flexibility; whether the benefit may only be available based on a contribution; and opportunities to address intergenerational fairness. In addition, we considered the collection and administration of any tax option, as well as the appetite of the UK Government for further tax devolution.
The pandemic and the actions to contain it have led to a sharp increase in UK Government borrowing and debt. In this challenging fiscal environment, the outlook for economic activity and public sector finances in Wales remains highly uncertain. Any decision about whether, how and when to use tax policy levers in Wales would need to consider the possibility of the UK Government implementing other fiscal measures that would impact in Wales, and the need to support economic recovery in Wales to generate the tax revenues to pay for Welsh public services.
Taking account of the impact of the pandemic and the challenging economic and fiscal climate, our conclusion is that a tax solution for raising funds for social care is now more of a longer term potential solution and not a likely solution in the near future. The implication of not increasing taxes is that we cannot raise or redirect resources to improve social care in the way we would have liked to have done through the social care promise. I want to stress that we are not avoiding addressing these issues, but we have taken what I believe is an honest and pragmatic approach given the fiscal environment we find ourselves in.
This brings me to measures we have identified through our work that could, subject to budget prioritisation by an incoming government, be implemented more quickly and therefore be a bridge to other more wide-ranging reform in the medium to long term. These measures, which could be started in the shorter term, and implemented as quickly as is affordable, include working towards introducing a real living wage for the workforce. LE Wales estimated this to be an extra £19 million above the projected national minimum wage uplift for year 1, and some capital investment to enable better housing solutions, estimated at £70 million to £80 million a year over a five-year programme.
Support for the real living wage would be consistent with our fair work agenda. We are working, as part of the social care fair work forum, to consider what else can be done to help make social care a more attractive place to work. This would also be enhanced through proposals in our recent 'Rebalancing care and support' White Paper, which advocates a national commissioning framework through which any additional workforce investment could be guided. Fundamentally, the demographic challenge facing Wales means matters explored by the group cannot be left unaddressed. The next Government will need to retain this as a key area of focus. We have developed a whole body of evidence, providing a strong foundation for future work. And finally, Deputy Presiding Officer, I'd like to thank all of the Welsh Government officials and external groups who are supporting the work of the inter-ministerial group, and thank my fellow Ministers and, in particular, the former chair, Huw Irranca-Davies, for the work he did in leading off on this work initially.
Thank you, Minister, for your statement. Anybody would think there was an election brewing, because this statement very, very clearly puts your ideas of having a social care tax into the long grass, and I'm not surprised at all that you've kicked it there. However, looking back at the inter-ministerial group report, it has most certainly laid the foundations for a Labour social care tax through their workings, and I'm here to say that the Welsh Conservatives will not tax the elderly to provide for social care.
We believe it is the right of elderly people to be provided with the care that they need and deserve, and we know there is money in the system, but it's just not the clear-sighted planning and drive to solve this issue. So, I cannot agree with your other comment that you've buried in that statement about introducing a levy in the longer term. However, I do agree that the social care sector is fragile, and swift action must be taken, and I do agree that we are facing a demographic challenge. It's a welcome challenge—a long life is to be celebrated—but it is a challenge nonetheless.
I have read the LE report, and it's really interesting, and I think that there's an awful lot there that we should take away from it and use to build on a potential solution. But what I would like to know and understand is, over the past workings of the inter-ministerial group, how much time have they looked at the 'how' and the potential cost of directing us all to healthier lifestyles. We've talked a lot about the fact that poverty, obesity, substance dependency, smoking, alcohol, lack of exercise, during our lives, from child to older adult, will actually be the influences that influence the quality of our later years, and those are where we need to spend time and tackle, rather than just saying, when you get there and you're not in great shape, 'You're going to have to pay for your care.' So, I'd be really interested to know what they've looked at in those terms.
Do you also, I'd like to know, agree with the principle that paying for social care should be a shared risk across our nation in the same way that we pay for our NHS, because if we're only going to say, 'We're just going to make you when you get older to pay for social care', I just believe that fairness is going out of the window?
You also speak of the need to improve care staff terms of pay. I totally agree, and the Welsh Conservatives have an aggressive plan to recruit and empower care staff, to pay them an absolute minimum of £10 an hour, and more with training and responsibilities. So, how will you in the short term look to recruit and empower care staff, because you say that this is a short-term problem as well as a long-term plan?
When looking at the proposals put together by Gerry Holtham, they effectively meant that you could end up paying more tax just as you were retiring and your income drops. Did the ministerial group look at the issues that would affect Holtham's calculations, such as unemployment, because I think that's actually a really key plank, and I'd be really interested to know if LE also reviewed that?
You mention a need for cross-party involvement in order to be able to bring this forward over the longer term, and I don't necessarily disagree with that, but please could you also outline how older people and a broad range of their representatives will be able to be involved in true co-production of any new policy?
Finally, in my view, until budgets are totally pooled within social care and healthcare, you are having an uphill battle for the true integration of health and social care, and, in my view, at some point somebody has absolutely got to bite that bullet and make that happen, because that is what will drive it, because money is king in public services and that's what will drive that integration and make this kind of decision making and decision planning much, much easier and far more cohesive. Thank you, Minister.
Thank you for the comments and the series of questions. Curiously, there are some that I would agree with—some of the comments made—and others that I simply don't agree with as well. I shall miss Angela when she's no longer in the Chamber, although, that's her choice, and I'm down to the whim of the voters at the forthcoming election.
But I do think there's a real challenge for the Welsh Conservatives and their attitude to the future. I think it's a welcome step for a Welsh Conservative Party to be talking about raising pay for people in the social care sector—that's, I think, good news. But I think there's a real challenge about how that's achieved, because that will require prioritisation in budgetary terms. And in terms of the challenge for where we are, I just don't think it's going to be possible to lever in the sort of money to increase what we're able to do within social care without thinking about more significant financial support for that. And I just don't think the clear-sighted planning to release money is going to get you there—that sort of magic-hat approach to make things more efficient and you'll squeeze, magically, huge sums of money out. If we were speaking with local government of every political shade and background, including Conservative-run or coalition authorities, I don't think they'd say that there are huge untapped resources within the system just waiting to be found and put into the pockets of workers. I think it will take more than that. And as I said in my statement, the current trend shows that we could need to spend up to £400 million by 2022-23, and that's just to deliver what we have, not to deliver better care but to deliver the same care; not to raise the wages of staff, but on the same rates of pay and the same sort of care. And that shows the level of challenge that we face.
So, there is, of course, a challenge, and at this point in the economic cycle—it's classic Keynes—this is not a time to raise taxes. So, it isn't about putting something into the long grass; it's being honest about where we are. And the context changed during the course of the work of the inter-ministerial group, of course, because we were at the point of wanting to start a national conversation, to talk about what all this meant and how we could lever in significant amounts of extra resource into the social care sector. The pandemic has fundamentally changed not just our ability to have the conversation, but the context in which we're operating.
So, yes, we are considering a range of other areas. I've already mentioned the housing options. And the challenge we have I don't think is going to be resolved by lifestyle change. We do know that we have a broader public health challenge and that's work that Eluned Morgan is now leading on. Our ‘Healthy Weight: Healthy Wales’ programme is important for people of all ages to make sure that we live well. But actually, when you think about our challenges on housing, we've estimated that we're going to need a significant increase in extra care units. Well, we've only delivered about 500 extra care units across the whole of Wales in the last five years. So, actually, there needs to be a real step-up in what we're doing to be able to meet the challenge, in addition to wanting to improve the public health outcomes for the whole population.
On your point about paying for social care with a shared risk, like the NHS, well, that will require some consensus to do so. And part of the challenge in doing that is the way that we're currently structured and the lack of a UK-wide answer is part of what inhibits us, because there's going to be a limit to what we can do before we potentially start intervening and having unintended consequences around the wider tax and benefits system. In fact, the cross-party select committee in the House of Commons, before the last election, produced a report in which they advocated raising tax revenues to be able to deliver much more significantly, and that would then have been something that we shared across the whole of the UK, with significant sums of money that would've come to each devolved national Government. They also advocated an age-related form of taxation much like what takes place in Japan. So, there is still an open debate that is not concluded about what the future might bring. This is the current position: the ability to make a difference in taking forward the work on integration that the Member refers to on improving the rates of pay and the quality of care that is delivered and how we have a motivated workforce in a system that, with the reforms that are set out in the White Paper for consultation on 6 April, could significantly change social care, but we recognise that there will still be more to do for the next Government. But I do believe, as I've said in the statement, that this provides a strong foundation for any future Government to take that work forward.
In the spirit of positivity, I will say at the outset that I sympathise with the Minister, to the extent that the pandemic, of course, has had a very great impact on the broader context and on all of our capacity to look at health and care in the longer term. And that pressure on capacity, of course, is very real. We see it in the fatigue of our staff, in the financial pressures, the unprecedented pressures on public coffers in this acute period of responding to the pandemic. But, for me, that gives us even more reason to act. That’s what the experience of the last year has done: we have seen more plainly than ever the lack of status, attention and investment that there’s been in social care. We have seen the lack of respect to care staff. We’ve had clear evidence that our health services are unsustainable and are overly reliant on the goodwill of staff. They’re far too often in crisis management mode and facing staffing problems that should have been resolved years ago. So, whilst a Plaid Cymru Government would want to put an urgent action plan in place to restore services post COVID, we wouldn’t want to come back to the situation we were in, but to transform services for the longer term, and that in the current climate is a huge challenge.
Now, at the heart of our plans is the creation of new health and care services, providing clear frameworks as to how health boards and local authorities deliver health and care in a seamless way with integrated budgeting, and that means treating health and care staff at the same level, the same conditions and wage grades, whether they are care or health workers.
And the other key part of this, of course, is what we have before us today, namely the future of social care and how we pay for it. Quite simply, we must now move to providing free care where it’s required, just as healthcare is provided. How does it still make sense that someone with dementia has to pay, but somebody with another illness, such as cancer, doesn't? And I'm not for one minute saying this is going to be easy, or it would have been done many years ago, I'm sure. Indeed, the Minister himself has outlined some of the challenges that we face, including, of course, the expected increases in the cost of care in years to come. But do bear in mind that that's an increase at that rate if we keep things as they are today. And we do have to include, as part of the equation on costs, what we should be aiming to save through revolutionising the way we think about the preventative agenda, keeping people fitter, living more independently for longer.
I'm very grateful to Age Cymru for summarising very well what their vision is in a statement that appeared in my inbox today. It's a mirror of what I want to see. This is a question of fairness at a fundamental level. We need fairness as to who pays and how we pay, and they note, among their core principles, that the risk must be shared across society. Of course, there's more than one way of sharing that risk. I am still convinced that this could be included in the general taxation system if we look at it as part of a health and care landscape that is transformed, and that's how I want to deliver this. But, of course, we will consider all options in Government. My question simply is: does the Minister agree with me that the time has now come at last to take action in this area, and that there are challenges to overcome, not to ignore?
Well, I think in my statement I've indicated that there is action that we propose to take. There is action to take, but there are challenges that you can't avoid or ignore. If we're not going to have a UK-wide answer, we need to think about the resources we have available, how we use them, and how we set out what are achievable objectives to take matters forward. Now, we've indicated the cost for the real living wage. We've indicated that we would want, as a further immediate priority, to see progress made on housing. And it's worth pointing out that I think, in the conclusion that we reached, we thought we'd need at least an extra 1,500 care facilities in Wales by 2025, against a backdrop where we delivered 500 across Wales in the last five years. So, it would be a significant scaling up to deliver improved housing options that would deliver better care, and again allow people to stay within their own homes. That would help us on the broader preventative and well-being agenda, and actually this is not something that is instead of making progress on the preventative agenda, it's not something instead of the transformation in the way that we deliver health and care. This is not something instead of moving to a genuinely sustainable healthcare system that works alongside as a proper integrated partner with social care.
And I just turn my mind back to the meeting that I had with Welsh Local Government Association social care cabinet members, and the briefing that I gave them, with WLGA officials, literally just before we then had to start to take extraordinary measures in last spring, because we were just on the cusp of publishing the national conversation documents, and I was telling them when that was likely to happen and what they could expect to see within them. And then all of that had to be paused and stopped. So, the work has been stopped. This isn't a deliberate choice of leaving this right up until the cusp of an election; it's the reality of where we are. But I was keen, as indeed were ministerial colleagues, to make sure we published and made available this information, so it's available before people make their final choices, and helps, I think, to guide whoever the next Government is, although I don't share the Member's view that that will be a Plaid Cymru Government—I think that's one of the less likely options—but let us see what the voters decide.
When it comes to the potential challenges, though, we do know that, the things that we'd like to do, there's a cost attached to each of those. So, we know that—and this comes from the work that's been done by civil servants and external advice as well—free care and support in the style of the NHS would cost about £700 million a year. Moving to all the same terms and conditions as 'Agenda for Change' will be likely to cost about £135 million in addition to that £700 million as well. So, there are big price tags to improve conditions in this area, and those conditions don't then deal with some of those other challenges we have as well. So, that's why, I think, the cross-party consensus we'll need will need to be pragmatic and honest about what's achievable, how we stage each of those improvements, and how we continue to move the dial further forward.
So, I look forward to a conversation with the public, and, indeed, however the next Senedd is made up, I look forward to being part of a conversation, and, hopefully, decision making, about how we do exactly what I think all of us would say we want to do, which is to improve the quality of care, about outcomes for people and, indeed, the way in which our staff are rewarded and recognised.
Thank you very much, Minister.
Item 6 on the agenda this afternoon is the statement by the Minister for Education on the twenty-first century schools and colleges programme, and I call on the Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer, and I have been absolutely privileged, during my time as the education Minister, to see the improvement in the educational settings for our children and young people throughout our country delivered through the twenty-first century schools and colleges programme.
Over this term, we have successfully delivered the first wave of £1.4 billion of programme funding within the five years, as was promised, with some really important additions. Going beyond the 150 school projects originally promised, investment has culminated in 170 new and refurbished schools right the way across Wales, giving our pupils the very best start in life. We have changed the learning environment for over 100,000 pupils during the first wave, provided an economic stimulus during difficult times, we've created jobs as well as learning and engagement opportunities for communities, and benefits for local supply chains.
This success has paved the way for a further £2.3 billion-worth of investment through the second wave of the programme funding, which I launched in April 2019. With an improved programme intervention rate, this has increased the affordability of the programme for our delivery partners, and a mix of capital and revenue funding to make the most strategic investments in the school estate is now available as we move forward. I'm delighted that £1.5 billion has been spent to date under the programme, and we've been able to invest in inspiring schools and colleges in every single part of Wales. And I'm particularly proud that this financial year, in the most difficult and challenging of circumstances, the programme has continued, and, in some cases, accelerated delivery, as shown by the number of projects that are under way or being completed ahead of the programme schedule.
We have achieved the largest annual programme spend of over £300 million in this financial year, which demonstrates and illustrates the resolve of Welsh Government and our delivery partners to continue to deliver for learners across Wales. However, the programme is not just about new buildings and remodelling existing educational settings; it is about providing environments that invest in the people that use them, valuing our excellent teachers and school staff and truly making a difference for our learners.
Deputy Presiding Officer, I have particularly enjoyed being able to witness that first hand—sometimes, indeed, with you, Deputy Presiding Officer—in the schools that I have been able to visit. It has been delightful to talk with our children and young people and school staff who have shown me the benefits of the investment in their school setting, what has made them feel really proud, what has made them feel really supported, and what has given them the determination to succeed.
Throughout this time, I have been particularly conscious of the condition of the school estate, and I'm keen to ensure that we recognise this for the schools and the pupils who, at this stage, are not lucky enough to enjoy support under the twenty-first century schools programme. So, we have been keen to ensure an annual maintenance budget is made available to support schools so that they can be in the best condition possible for learners. I recently announced £50 million-worth of capital maintenance funding, providing schools with additional money to manage maintenance costs, and I'm very pleased today to confirm that this will be enhanced by an additional £45 million that is being allocated to schools across Wales to support revenue maintenance costs.
Over this Government term, personally, I have been particularly proud of the innovative way in which we've invested capital funding to help continue the expansion of Welsh-medium and bilingual education; 2018 saw the establishment of the Welsh-medium capital grant, worth £46 million, which has supported projects, again across Wales, creating nearly 3,000 school and childcare places. However, to build on this momentum, last week, I was delighted to announce a further £30 million to continue this important work. And, of course, following £5 million of Welsh Government funding, I was very pleased, last September, to be able to visit, with the Presiding Officer, the newly-refurbished Pantycelyn halls at Aberystwyth University, hosting 200 of the university's Welsh-speaking student community.
2020 has shown how absolutely crucial and important the school environment continues to be as a place where children learn, grow, and feel safe and secure, and it has been a salutary reminder to us all of the importance of the school estate to the wider community. I have been a strong believer that schools must play a vital role within their communities. This is why community benefits are such an important consideration for all of our proposed education projects, and why I've been delighted to invest £15 million specifically to fund pilot projects that look to encourage wider use of community assets. Twenty-one projects are currently under way, showcasing excellence in community learning hubs, community provision and community-focused schools. This is good progress, but, Deputy Presiding Officer, we need to push forward with a greater emphasis on widening parental engagement, increasing family and parenting activities, and expanding the use of facilities beyond the school day.
It was only back at the beginning of this year that our chief inspector noted that one of the very few silver linings of this terrible pandemic is the increased communication and relationship building between parents and schools. Let's not lose this as we go forward. Indeed, let's plan for this and support it in the use of greater community facilities within our school settings. It's also clear to me that what we do now will impact on the environment we leave for future generations to live, learn and work in, and that's why it's important we make sure we involve our staff, children and young learners in decisions about their schools and colleges. And this is why I firmly believe that the education sector is key in moving our nation towards a low-carbon economy that maximises the benefits for all people in Wales and our environment. It is important that we act now to ensure that proposals for new schools are delivered against the Welsh Government's longer term commitment towards carbon reduction and the net-zero public sector buildings strategy. This is a strategy that we're embedding into our programme through a net-zero carbon pilot project, helping us towards decarbonisation of our schools and colleges. And it has been a real pleasure to see the start of the construction of the first net-zero school in Wales: the new primary school in Llancarfan in the Vale of Glamorgan. All in all, I hope colleagues will agree that this programme is truly is a cause for celebration, and one in which we can as a nation be proud. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you for your statement, Minister. I'm going to agree with you that the programme is indeed a cause for congratulation in some cases, but I still have some questions for you where there are questions to be asked here. I think it's an important point to make as well that progress has accelerated during a difficult year, and I'll just come on to that in a moment. I've been lucky enough to see some of the schools that have been built as a result of the band A part of the programme within my own region, and it's absolutely right that the learning environment does affect the experience of the learner as well as the staff there, whether that's frying in some of those over-warm rooms that we all fall asleep in, or freezing in the draughty classrooms of the Victorian era or even more modern buildings that are essentially held together by safety pins and sticking plaster.
Regarding band A, this part of the programme closed in 2019, but there are seven schools that benefited from that that are either still under construction or have not yet started being built, which is two years after the pot closed, effectively. I wonder what you can tell us about the reasons for the time that some of these projects are taking and whether issues like the location of a new school might be a material factor in the delays. If that is the case, is there an argument for saying that the application process, certainly as we go forward, needs to tighten up on certain questions or certainties in order for the building programme to progress more quickly?
As for band B, in 2017, Welsh Government said that they'd received £2.3 billion-worth of strategic outline bids; it's a figure that you've referred to again today. But here we are in 2021 and only four of those projects have been completed, and only £448 million-worth of work has been approved. Now, that's 20 per cent, roughly, of the £2.3 billion referred to. I'm wondering why it's taking that amount of time, bearing in mind this part of the project is only open for another few years, and I wonder also if you can tell us about the balance between what are new schools and what are refurbishments, because it's been really difficult to get that. It's been really difficult to get that information via the researchers' department's questions to Welsh Government. I still can't attribute individual figures to individual projects from the information that I've got.
Annual maintenance grants—this is great news, but I'd be surprised if all Members here still aren't receiving pleas for help from various schools. So, what can you tell us about how that money is distributed? If it goes through local councils, is it ring-fenced or is it at the mercy of other claims on the revenue support grant, and how confident are you that it's actually spent on school maintenance rather than anything else?
And then, just to finish, the £15 million on community use of schools. Yes, yes, yes. I underlined that three times. I just wonder why we need to be spending money on something that should be happening anyway. We have community schools who should behave like community schools already, and I think it's been a source of disappointment to us all that they're not. And then, just on the Welsh schools and the use of the money that you mentioned in your statement, does that mean that you've brought money in from the Welsh main expenditure groups, if you like, into education, or is this an addition to the £2.3 million that you've committed to twenty-first century schools? I wasn't quite sure what you were saying in that part of your statement, so any clarity on that would be very welcome. Thank you.
Thank you very much, Suzy, for that. Good to see you back. Can we say we missed you very much last week in our debate on the curriculum and assessment Bill, given all your hard work in scrutinising that Bill?
Can I say you're correct in that there are some outlying projects that were initially earmarked for band A of the programme? There are specific circumstances in each case. Any commitment from the Welsh Government to spend money in the twenty-first century programme is subject to local authorities going through all the usual planning processes, and sometimes that can prove challenging. We are aware of cases where, also, sometimes there has been a delayed completion of the project through unforeseen circumstances, such as the collapse of a contractor who may have been initially earmarked or indeed have begun to work on a project, which sometimes then has led to a delay and local authorities having to go back out to secure new contractors, being subject, of course, to all of the regulations around public procurement. And also, sometimes, as with any building project, despite everybody's best endeavours, additional features and challenges can sometimes be uncovered on a site that perhaps had not been fully anticipated at the beginning of the project. So, those could be some of the reasons why we have seen a few projects not being delivered as quickly as possible.
Again, you make a good point around greater transparency between new build and refurbishment. It's really important that we stress once again that the project allows for both. Sometimes, there is a misapprehension that the only way to draw down twenty-first century schools money is to have a new building. That's not the case. The programme also allows for the refurbishment of existing facilities or, indeed, the refurbishment and the extension of facilities as well. I've been to some fantastically innovative projects where a school has been a listed building and has very sensitively been expanded to provide additional capacity where the local authority has felt that the school is certainly in the right location and there is a high demand for places, but the existing building simply can't keep pace. So, it's important that there is flexibility in the programme to be able to meet our partners' desires to develop their estate. But I will look to supply the Member with some greater detail around the split between new builds, refurbishment and extensions, if the Member would find that useful.
With regard to revenue money, that does indeed go to local authorities. Each local authority has an allocation that is based partly on the number of pupils, but also partly on the number of schools that a local authority has. There are two pots of money this year. The first is for capital costs. We would expect local authorities to allocate those resources—indeed, ring-fence—for the purposes of school maintenance. That would be for, for instance, larger projects that would not normally be able to be covered within a school's own capital budget, such as complete roof replacements, for instance, and that kind. And then the revenue budget, again, is finding its way into school budgets to cover the costs of some revenue maintenance that they would have carried out themselves. It is ring-fenced, but it does go via the local authorities.
With regard to community-focused schools, you're right, Suzy, all of our schools should be community-focused schools. This particular pot of money has been used to pilot approaches where there's a real desire in the school to provide greater community usage, but actually the building has demonstrated some constraints. So, we're not talking here about leasing out the school hall for larger events; this is about, for instance, having the space to develop a new classroom that is dedicated to parents' learning, or having the ability to create a new space on the school estate that allows for interdisciplinary teams to work with parents. So, this is not about schools that are not willing to do it, it's about actually adding additional facilities to schools to be able to really expand what they're able to offer parents and where the current estate actually has constraints. So, there's a real desire on behalf of the school, the local authority and the community, but actually there's no adequate space within that building to allow those activities to happen. So, that's why the money is there. But you're right, we need to continue to have conversations with governing bodies, because of course, once the school is handed over to the governing body, it is their responsibility, and we need to engender an expectation always that that building, yes belongs to the school, but actually provides a wonderful opportunity for the wider community. In some communities, the school can be the last vestige of the state; it could be the only public building in an area, and therefore there should be an opportunity. But this is to specifically look at additional spaces on the school estate that allow that school to go the extra mile to develop those relationships.
The ring-fencing of the £30 million for Welsh-medium education comes out of education capital expenditure, but it is ring-fenced to specifically support Welsh-medium expansion, whether that be in schools or in nursery settings.
Thank you for the statement and the update. In discussing twenty-first century schools, you continue to use this concept of a building to describe a school. New buildings, well designed, can contribute towards creating an environment that encourages creativity and learning, and I myself am familiar with a number of brand-new school buildings in Arfon that have been warmly welcomed and have been built as a result of the particular programme that we're discussing today. Welsh-medium schools need to be a central part of the long-term strategy in terms of educational infrastructure for the future, given the 1 million Welsh speakers strategy, and I don't think that they currently are at the heart of the strategy at the moment and that it's additional funding that is often used, rather than the programme including buildings for Welsh-medium education from the very outset.
The pandemic has taught us that we must ensure that schools are safe places that help to reduce the risk of spread of disease, and therefore ventilation is crucially important, so we need to ensure that schools are fit for purpose by investing in technologies that allow effective and efficient ventilation in all of our schools. Do you agree that we need a particular work programme to ensure that problems of ventilation are properly addressed in the short term as well as the long term?
To return to my first point on twenty-first century schools, a school is not a building; a school is a group of children and young people learning together, led by skilled teachers who can inspire future generations, and I believe that it's time for us to move towards a far broader definition as we discuss the meaning of the word 'school' in the modern world, and I will just look at one aspect of that new definition that we need to move towards. A school can happen outside of the four walls of a room. Some countries are already leading the way in terms of outdoor education—Denmark, Finland, Singapore and New Zealand—with these countries using outdoor education to enhance learners' connections with the natural world while promoting mental health and well-being too. So, I would like to know what funding your Government is allocating specifically for the development of open-air learning, so that a school in the twenty-first century can become a concept that can include this.
The outdoor education sector, including residential centres, have an important contribution to make too, but this sector is on its knees at the moment, and it's very disappointing that they are not being adequately supported by the Government through this pandemic. Out of the 44 centres in Wales, there are five that have already closed in an industry that's worth some £40 million to the Welsh economy. I've had a number of meetings with representatives of the sector, and I also arranged for them to be able to make their case for support directly to the Minister for economy's officials, but it's very disappointing that they are still awaiting support. So, finally from me, do you accept that the sector needs support, and that the crisis provides an opportunity to give a new direction to outdoor education that will include strengthening links with schools and local colleges?
I would be pleased to hear your comments on those two specific issues, namely ventilation and the importance of outdoor education.
Can I thank, Deputy Presiding Officer, Siân Gwenllian for her comments? She raises an interesting concept of what constitutes a school and I think, over the last five years, we as a Welsh Government have demonstrated our commitment to recognising education in its broadest possible form. I'm sure the Member is very familiar with the absolutely outstanding and innovative building at Ysgol Hafod Lon in Penrhyndeudraeth, a school for some of our most special children, and the concept of that building is one of a highly adaptable and responsive space that truly meets the needs of the pupils that attend there.
Over the last five years, one of the things that I am particularly proud of is the instigation of our e-sgol, a virtual school that allows children to be able to access teachers and opportunities from across the globe. Only a matter of weeks ago, students in Wales had the opportunity to receive lessons from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the world's leading university. It did not require them to travel to Cambridge, Massachusetts; they were able to do that sitting in their own homes. We're delivering increasing amounts of remote learning via our e-sgol model, a model that initially was set up to respond to some of the logistical challenges of delivering education in a rural setting, but now authorities such as Cardiff are showing real interest in how they can adopt that model for their own children and young people, to increase educational experiences here in our capital city.
The Member is also right to talk about outdoor education, and that's why the Welsh Government's support for early years settings is not limited to buildings. We have seen during the last five years the beginnings of skogsmulle, which is a nursery setting that does not have an indoor space, where the entire day—well, the majority of the day—is spent learning outside. So, the range of funding programmes that we have here in Wales is perfectly able to capture schools in the widest possible definition.
Can I just say to the Member, when she says that Welsh medium is not central to the twenty-first century plan, in recent weeks I've got used to this kind of spin coming from the Member, but can I just refer her to the statement? I've announced today, on top of the £48 million that has already been invested—that is 100 per cent of the capital costs borne by the Welsh Government to be able to assist local authorities to drive forward their Welsh in education plans—a further £30 million today. That is opposed to the usual intervention rates for the programme. It's just one way in which we're developing Welsh-medium education, and of course we are reliant, I should remind the Member, on the fact that the plans that come forward to the twenty-first century schools programme are plans from our local education authorities. We don't impose them on our partners; it is they that come forward with the plans and the priorities that they have. What we are able to do as a Welsh Government is to make those plans more affordable when it comes to Welsh-medium education.
With regard to ventilation, well, ventilation is regulated by building regs. All approved schools must comply with our building regulation regime within Wales, and of course, since the pandemic, COVID guidance on ventilation has been issued too.
With regard to outdoor education, it is important to recognise that those outdoor education providers, many of them have been able to be assisted by Government grants and interventions that have been available to all businesses during the pandemic. We recognise what a really challenging, challenging time it has been for those operators that are either private businesses, some are owned by local authorities—indeed, some of them in Wales are owned by local authorities that are not within Wales—and some of them are charitable organisations, but I recognise that all of them have been hit. But as businesses, they have been able to access the range of funds that have been made available. And indeed, for some of our most prominent providers, such as the Urdd, the Welsh Government has been able to intervene to support that organisation especially. But I continue to work with my colleague Ken Skates on these issues, because I recognise that once we are able to get children back outside and enjoying these activities, these outdoor education centres have a really, really valuable role to play in our recovery from the pandemic. Providing children with the opportunity to get to them is really important to me. That's why I hope that before the end of this term, Deputy Presiding Officer, the Government will be in a place to provide extra amounts of help and support.
Minister, I want to thank you for your statement and for the work of this Welsh Government in ensuring that we can continue with the urgently needed rebuild of our Welsh schools infrastructure. Education, apart from love, I believe, is the greatest gift that we can give our children. As a society, it speaks to who and what we are, to what we prioritise and what we value as a progressive and dynamic nation. In Islwyn, the delivery of the £3.7 billion twenty-first century schools programme has seen schools like Islwyn High created, with large-scale investments to secondary schools in Newbridge and Blackwood.
We have, as a local education authority and Welsh Government partnership, delivered on brand new state-of-the-art primary schools, eco-schools, across the borough, and with much more to come. Our schools and places of learning should be in their bricks and mortar what they embody in soul and spirit to the communities they serve, whatever the pedagogy they follow. And after decades of chronic lack of investment from a Tory Government via Whitehall, Islwyn communities value our twenty-first century schools as much as they value their teachers and education staff, who make up the very heart and soul of our communities.
We agree that they need to be more than fit for purpose, because our children and future generations deserve the best that this generation can offer them. So, Minister, what are the challenges facing this innovative Wales-only programme in the years ahead, what are the obstacles we face in accelerating that reach so that every community in Islwyn and throughout Wales continues to experience the priority value we place on the very most important legacy of all for our future generations?
Well, Deputy Presiding Officer, I must say that I don't want to use all my ammunition, otherwise I'll have nothing to answer the Member tomorrow, because I know she has a question on twenty-first century schools in Islwyn on the order paper tomorrow afternoon. I don't want to use all my best lines today, otherwise I'll have nothing to say to the Member tomorrow, except that, Rhianon, you're absolutely right in that the buildings are more than just bricks and mortar. It is a message to the children of those communities and the educators of those communities that what they do matters. It is a sign of the value that we place on them and their work.
What I have been struck by when I've had the opportunity to travel around Wales to visit these buildings is how often, especially in some of our more deprived communities, the children find it hard to believe that the building is truly for them. I think the Deputy Presiding Officer will agree with me; when I visited her brand new high school, the overwhelming response from the children when they saw it was, 'Is this really for us? Has this really been built for us?' They couldn't quite believe—many of them living some really, really tough lives—that they were seen as so important that their local authority and their Government had built that building for them. And if nothing else in some of our toughest communities, I hope these buildings demonstrate a commitment in our national mission that no matter where you're from or whatever your background is, we want you to fulfil your potential. And building the schools that you've just referred to is a message to the children in your constituency that their futures matter to us, because when we get it right for them, we'll get it right for the nation as a whole.
As I said to Suzy Davies, sometimes the barriers that we face are protracted planning considerations and building site issues, but what is amazing to me is that even a global pandemic has not been able to slow this programme down. I anticipate that, with the strong working relationship that exists between us and our partners in local authorities, and our colleagues in the further education sector, we can continue to deliver more of those fabulous buildings, so more children can see that their futures really matter.
Thank you very much for that, Minister.
We're going to go on to item 7, which is the Education Workforce Council (Interim Suspension Orders) (Additional Functions) (Wales) Order 2021. I call on the Minister for Education to move that motion—Kirsty Williams.
Motion NDM7643 Rebecca Evans
To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 27.5:
1. Approves that the draft The Education Workforce Council (Interim Suspension Orders) (Additional Functions) (Wales) Order 2021 is made in accordance with the draft laid in the Table Office on 23 February 2021.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I move the motion to approve the Education Workforce Council (Interim Suspension Orders) (Additional Functions) (Wales) Order 2021. The Order addresses recommendation 21 of the Children, Young People and Education Committee in their report on the teachers' professional learning and education inquiry, namely that the
'remit of the Education Workforce Council should be extended to provide it with power to suspend teachers in appropriate circumstances.'
However, it's important that I point out that the Order goes further in that it will enable the council to suspend all categories of registered persons, not only schoolteachers. Interim suspension orders are commonly used by professional regulators in Wales and the United Kingdom as a means to temporarily suspend a person's registration whilst a serious concern is being investigated, or pending the outcome of criminal proceedings relating to serious charges. An interim suspension order will not be a disciplinary order, but instead a temporary measure to be taken pending an investigation and a disciplinary hearing.
A person can appeal against the imposition of an interim suspension order, and it will be subject to regular review. The maximum period for which an interim suspension order may have an effect, without an application to the High Court for an extension, is 18 months. The decision to impose an interim suspension order would not involve a final determination of facts relating to the allegations in the case. The primary purpose of the imposition of an interim suspension order is to ensure the protection and safeguarding of children and young people, as it would ensure that an individual who has a very serious allegation made against them would not continue to have the status of a registered person while the investigative and disciplinary processes are being carried out.
The Government believes that the Order provides a significant additional safeguarding protection to children and young people, and therefore I ask Members of the Senedd to approve the Order before us today.
I call on the Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, Mick Antoniw.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. We considered these regulations at our meeting yesterday morning, and our report contains only one merits point, which I will briefly summarise for Members this afternoon. Article 12 of this Order makes provision in connection with an application for review of an interim suspension order by the person to whom it relates. Paragraphs 1 and 2 of Article 12 set out the process and time periods within which certain actions must happen, as has been outlined by the Minister. Where the Education Workforce Council must convene a hearing, the effect of paragraphs 1 and 2 means that it could have very little time to do so. In our report, we have provided an example to illustrate our point that there could be less than a day between a person submitting an application to the council that it reviews an interim suspension order, and then the council subsequently having to convene a hearing to consider the case. In its response to our report, the Welsh Government has acknowledged the timings as set out in our example. The Government’s response also advises that the Order has been drafted following input from stakeholders, including the council, which did not express any concern with regard to the timescales presented. Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd.
I have no Members who wish to speak and I have nobody who has indicated they want to make an intervention. Therefore, I'll call the Minister to reply to that debate.
Can I thank Mick Antoniw and his committee for their consideration of the Order? I'd just absolutely reinforce the point that not only did the Education Workforce Council perceive there to be no problems with the timing issues highlighted by Mick Antoniw, but that these suspension order powers are very much welcomed by the Education Workforce Council. They have been asking for them for a considerable period of time, and I'm delighted, even as we come to the end of this Senedd term, that we've been able to respond positively to both the request of the EWC but also the children and young people committee. Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? I don't see objections. Therefore, in accordance with Standing Order 12.36, the motion is agreed.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Item 8 on our agenda is the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 (Consequential Amendments and Miscellaneous Provisions) Regulations 2021. I call on the Minister for Housing and Local Government to move the motion—Julie James.
Motion NDM7648 Rebecca Evans
To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 27.5:
1. Approves that the draft The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 (Consequential Amendments and Miscellaneous Provisions) Regulations 2021 is made in accordance with the draft laid in the Table Office on 23 February 2021.