Y Cyfarfod Llawn
In the bilingual version, the left-hand column includes the language used during the meeting. The right-hand column includes a translation of those speeches.
The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in hybrid format, with some Members in the Senedd Chamber, and others joining by video-conference. All Members participating in proceedings of the Senedd, wherever they may be, will be treated equally. A Plenary meeting held using video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and these are noted on your agenda. I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, and apply equally to Members in the Siambr as to those joining virtually.
That brings us to our first item of business, which is the motion to appoint members to the Business Committee, and I call on the Trefnydd to move the motion.
Cynnig NNDM7687 Lesley Griffiths
To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 11.3:
Appoints the Presiding Officer, Lesley Griffiths (Labour), Darren Millar (Welsh Conservatives) and Siân Gwenllian (Plaid Cymru) as members of the Business Committee.
I have no speakers to this item. So, the proposal is to agree the motion to appoint members to the Business Committee. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, that motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The next item is item 2, which is a proposal under Standing Order 12.10(ii) relating to the items to be taken at the next Plenary meeting, which is the meeting on Wednesday 26 May. The Trefnydd to move the motion formally once again. Lesley Griffiths.
To propose that the Senedd, under Standing Order 12.10(ii), agrees the proposal for the following items to be taken at the next Plenary meeting:
Questions to the First Minister;
Motion under Standing Order 9.1 to agree to the First Minister's recommendation to Her Majesty of a person for appointment as Counsel General;
The Trade in Animals and Related Products (Wales) (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2021;
The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 6) Regulations 2021;
The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 7) Regulations 2021;
The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 8) Regulations 2021;
The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 9) Regulations 2021;
The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 10) Regulations 2021.
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, the motion is agreed.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The next item is item 3, which is a statement by the First Minister on the Cabinet appointments. First Minister.
Llywydd, diolch yn fawr. It's almost two weeks now since our fellow citizens in Wales were making their choice of the people who will represent them here in the Senedd over the coming five years. I know that in this Senedd term every Member elected will regard it as a privilege to sit in this Chamber, and to be First Minister of our nation is, of course, a very singular honour indeed. Yet, when I first became First Minister two and a half years ago, I emphasised my preference for collective and collaborative leadership, drawing on a wide pool of talent and commitment. I did so because I’ve always thought that collective leadership is therefore the most effective form of putting people to work for our nation's benefit. And I also believe that it goes with the grain of the way we do things here in Wales. We produce more choirs than soloists; we do better at rugby than at pole-vaulting, Now, that approach has held us in very good stead, I believe, during the last 15 months as we have responded to the global coronavirus pandemic, a response that has needed a whole-Government effort to help keep Wales safe.
The new Cabinet formed last week is a team of talent, ambition and experience, a team to ensure that we make the most of the opportunities that the next five years will bring, and to help us face the challenges that will inevitably come our way. I want to pay tribute today to Ken Skates, who has taken the decision to step back from Government to work from the backbenches. Ken has been a strong voice for north Wales inside the Government, and I know that he will continue to be a strong voice for north Wales from the backbenches. We will miss his passion and his energy around the Cabinet table.
Llywydd, the coronavirus crisis is not over. In the week since we last met in Plenary, all of the Members will have heard of the Indian variant and its potential impact. I will make a statement on the public health context later this afternoon, but the Cabinet will continue to make decisions in line with our three-weekly review cycle and to be collectively responsible for these decisions.
This new Cabinet is a Cabinet for recovery, and recovery for the Wales that lies beyond the pandemic—that stronger, greener and fairer Wales to which my party is committed. It's a Wales in which everyone has a part to play, and a Wales in which no-one is held back and no-one is left behind either.
This is a Cabinet created to meet those other great challenges of our time—biodiversity loss and climate change. The climate change emergency has not gone away while we have been dealing with the pandemic.
And it's for that reason, of course, Llywydd, that this new Government puts the environment, biodiversity loss and climate change at the heart of our decision making, brought together in a single ministry that will bring together all the major drivers that contribute to climate change. A Minister and a Deputy Minister—Julie James and Lee Waters—will together have responsibility for housing, transport, planning, energy and the environment, dealing with the dangers of climate change, but also harnessing our immense natural assets and creating the jobs of Wales's future.
Llywydd, we have already begun the work to develop a new programme for government, which will be laid before the Senedd in the coming weeks. It will set out our plans to help our public services recover after COVID. That will include an urgent NHS recovery plan and the biggest catch-up plan for young people in the history of devolution. It will set out the work to develop a new young person’s guarantee, giving everyone under the age of 25 the offer of work, education or training.
It will outline steps towards a fair deal for care, including paying the real living wage for all those working in the care sector. It will set out the action we will take to make Wales a greener country—abolishing more polluting single-use plastics and creating a national forest and a new national park for Wales. It will include plans for safer communities, increasing the number of police community support officers on our streets. And it will outline where we will create new jobs for Wales through a low-carbon house building revolution, building 20,000 new low-carbon social homes for rent.
But where we can go further and faster, this Government will always be open to new ideas. Llywydd, last week I said that no party has a monopoly on good ways of taking Wales forward, and I offered to work across party lines where there are common and shared interests. I have written to the leaders of the Welsh Conservatives and Plaid Cymru to confirm that offer. And I know that, across the Senedd, there will be new and returning Members who come here looking to make that positive contribution to the future of our nation, the challenges of today and of tomorrow.
As I've said, none is more pressing and none more urgent than the climate and nature crisis we face. That is why there is a new ministry at the heart of this Government. And all parties represented here, during the election, quite rightly signalled the need for bold steps to tackle the crisis we face. Now will be the time to translate that commitment into practical action. Out of the election, and out of the pandemic, can come that stronger, greener and fairer Wales. The job now is to set Wales on the path to recovery, and the Cabinet that I have set out this afternoon is ready to go to work to do just that. Llywydd, diolch yn fawr.
Thank you, First Minister, for your statement this afternoon. And I, too, join you in congratulating returning Members and new Members, for the privilege that it is to sit in this Chamber, debate, discuss, and hopefully inform policy decisions that make a dramatic impact on people's lives for the benefit of everyone in Wales. It is an exciting time to be in Wales, and what we potentially can do with the powers that are available to the Welsh Parliament, and indeed the way you've constructed your Government, after the mandate that was given to you by the Welsh people, is the tone of what you want to set, especially on climate change and the environment, which you emphasised so extensively in your statement.
One thing we do know, First Minister, is that you have signalled that you will not serve a full term as First Minister. So, can you indicate whether this is a Cabinet that will see your term out as First Minister? Or is it something that you will have to reconstruct as the Assembly term progresses? Because I do think that's a genuine conversation that people do want to understand—how much of the energy of Government will be focused on who might come after you, rather than maybe the mandate that you set your colleagues in Government.
Secondly, it is important to understand how these policies will be delivered within Government, focusing on the delivery unit that Carwyn Jones used to have and the Cabinet Office that succeeded that, and importantly the Permanent Secretary and the change in Permanent Secretary that has been identified. Can you indicate how that recruitment is going with the Permanent Secretary and how the changes might affect the delivery of the Cabinet's policy decisions and directives?
Can you also indicate the plans that you highlighted around waiting times, catch-up, furlough, climate change and housing targets, and the importance that Ministers will be held to account for delivering those targets, and what means you will use to hold them to account? Because they will be charged with delivering those points that you have set them, and what goals have you set them in particular on waiting times and catch-up, which are such an important part of rebuilding after the COVID crisis?
On the legislation front, we've all indicated agreement around the clean air Act and the agricultural Bill in particular that needs to be brought forward. Can you indicate when the Government will bring forward these important bits of legislation so they can be considered by this Welsh Parliament? In particular, can you indicate the policy that you announced on the weekend about universal basic income? Because, from what I understand, this is merely an allowance that will be given to carers. However applaudable that might be, this isn't a genuine test about a universal basic income that the Government talked about on the weekend. So, can you indicate what plans the Government will have for bringing forward such proposals in Wales to have a genuine test of such a proposal, which, I admit, our side of this Chamber does not find support with, but if that is to be the policy position of the Government, it's important we understand how you're going to deliver that.
And also the conversation that you started yesterday around more elected politicians. Is it now Welsh Government policy to support such a position, because I understand you were talking as First Minister when you were talking about proposals for new politicians to be brought before the electorate by 2026? So, can we now understand that that is official Welsh Government policy to support that position, albeit that it'll be for the Senedd to bring forward those proposals for consideration in their entirety? Thank you, First Minister.
Llywydd, I thank the leader of the opposition for all those questions and for the way that he introduced his remarks this afternoon. I agree with him that this is an exciting time to be involved in the future of Wales, and I am very committed to a sense of urgency in the way that this Government will deal with the challenges that we know are there in front of us.
I've always taken the view myself that you appoint Cabinet colleagues and then you give them the opportunity to grapple with the issues that lie to them. The average shelf life of a Secretary of State in Westminster I think is somewhere between 15 and 18 months. That seems to me that it offers you very little time to really get to grips with the issues that your department faces, and you have often long escaped the consequences of the decisions that you yourself might make. Throughout devolution, I think successive Governments have taken the opposite view. Ministers are here to have the time they need to discharge the responsibilities they have and then to be held accountable for the decisions that they make.
When we publish the programme for government, the Member will see some of the proposals we have for machinery of Government to support the effort of the new administration. I do intend that there will be a number of key commitments that will be held in the First Minister's office. So, I will take a direct interest in the oversight of the achievement of those objectives. But the majority of the actions of Government quite rightly lie at the portfolio level, and Ministers must be given the authority to get on with the job that they've been elected and appointed to do, and when the programme for government is published, Members will see those items that I think you need the authority of a First Minister's office behind to drive through the Government and those greater number of items that Ministers will take forward and be answerable for here in the Senedd.
Andrew R.T. Davies is right, Llywydd, that the post of the new permanent secretary was advertised on Monday of last week. I think I've said before that the adjective 'permanent' is a bit of a misnomer these days, because permanent secretaries are appointed on fixed five-year terms and the current permanent secretary's term of office will come to an end at the start of the next calendar year. I think I've come to a conclusion that one of the ways in which some Whitehall departments operate has something to offer us here, because in a number of Whitehall departments, alongside a permanent secretary, there is what's called a 'chief operating officer'. The chief operating officer's job is to deal with the mechanics of the way a department is operated: to deal with staffing matters, to deal with terms and conditions matters, to deal with who gets to park their cars where—all those sorts of things, which, at the moment, in the Welsh Government, all end up on the desk of the permanent secretary. Now, I want a permanent secretary whose time is available to help make the programme of the Government succeed and I think the new person would be helped, if, alongside them, they had a chief operating officer dealing more with the mechanics of Government. And I had an opportunity of a considerable conversation with Simon Case, the head of the Cabinet Office at Whitehall, and I thought learnt some useful things from what he said to me about how we might learn some of those lessons here.
There will indeed be a legislative programme, Llywydd, and that will begin in this first year of the Senedd and I will make the usual legislative programme statement in the second half of this summer term. I'm grateful for what Andrew Davies said about the agriculture Bill. He will remember that in the previous Senedd we agreed, partly because of representations from opposition parties, that the powers we took through the UK agriculture Bill would be time-limited—that there would be a sunset clause. Now, I think that was the right thing to do, but it does put a pressure on all of us here to make sure that we are able to put a Wales-specific agriculture Bill on the statute book so that we can go on doing all the things that we need to do to assist farmers and others who rely on the rural economy. So, that is a Bill that we will bring forward and I hope we will be able to work in the co-operative spirit that the leader of the opposition mentioned in his introduction.
As far as universal basic income is concerned, what the Government proposes is what we said in our manifesto and that is an experiment and a pilot. We don't have all the powers that would be necessary, let alone all of the funding that would be necessary to include a universal basic income for the whole of Wales, but we do have the ability, I believe, to design a smart experiment that will allow us to test the claims that are made for universal basic income. Now, I've been familiar with these claims for many years. My own doctoral thesis dealt with a group that advocated something called, 'social credit' in the inter-war period. Social credit is a form of universal basic income. They had a group here in Cardiff who were active in the promotion of the idea at the time. So, this is an idea with a very long history, but very little practical application to learn whether the things that are said for it are actually realised in the lives of people who receive it. And if we are able to begin with young people who come out of our care system, then I think there are strong arguments for doing that. They are a group of people who we know—we're able to identify them; we're able to provide, not simply an income for them, but the other assistance that they need to set their lives off on to successful futures. And I look forward, along with many Members in the Chamber who have an interest in UBI—I look forward to debating and discussing it with others who would like to see that experiment succeed as an experiment, where we will learn whether it works or, indeed, whether it doesn't deliver what's claimed for it.
And as far as the future of the Senedd is concerned, then it is indeed, as the leader of the opposition said, primarily a matter for the Senedd, not for the Government. There will be significant support on this side of the Chamber, as Members will have heard last week in the speeches made by my colleagues David Rees and Hefin David, both of whom referred to the need to take forward the proposals in the Laura McAllister review, and that that would be part of what they would seek to do were they elected as our Deputy Presiding Officer. So, there will be significant support on these benches for that effort, but in the end it is, as the leader of the opposition said, a matter for the Senedd itself, the Parliament itself, rather than the Government to take the lead.
May I thank the First Minister for his statement, and also respond to the spirit of collaboration that was intertwined throughout that statement? You mentioned that Welsh choral tradition as a sign of that spirit of collaboration, and of course we do have to remember that I think the original term for the Welsh Parliament was to create a cymanfa genedlaethol, that gathering for song. So that idea of seeking harmony rather than discord I think is always a good starting point in our proceedings as a Parliament, and may I, on behalf of Plaid Cymru, welcome the offer that you referred to, First Minister? We are of course always willing to seek to find that common ground between us for the benefit of the people of Wales, to get to grips with the issues that they face and to propose solutions that we of course discussed during the election.
May I just touch on some of those issues now where perhaps we will be able to find that common ground? I understand, of course, that you will in due course over the coming weeks be announcing your programme for government, but some of these areas are areas where we do need urgent action, so it would be good to hear more about your initial approaches.
May I just begin by referring to the housing crisis? I don't think that we could deny that there is a housing crisis in Wales at the moment. You have promised action before, during and after the election in terms of second homes. Can you give us a little more detail about the steps that you will be taking immediately in that regard? Housing prices in Wales generally are out of control, with house prices increasing here at a greater level than across the United Kingdom. Three charities have said over the weekend that it's a pipe dream to own a house, for many people in Wales now, and that the plans that you had as a previous Government didn't do enough to make a difference for a number of people. So, will you be bringing forward a genuinely radical proposition to get to grips with that particular problem, which is an increasing problem for so many of our young people in our communities?
Can you tell us, with regard to affordable homes, how you're going to deliver the more ambitious level of construction? My party and one of your advisory group suggested the creation of additional capacity with a specific agency. If you don't go down that path, how are you going to deliver on that?
May I just refer to child poverty, and specifically the concerns with regard to free school meals? This was a major theme in our campaign in Plaid Cymru. You've referred to the review of free school meals. Could you give us more detail on that?
With regard to the economy then, you commissioned—and this is at the heart of everything; this is the foundation—you commissioned a substantial and comprehensive report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development before the election, which suggested the creation of additional and the capacity to deliver economic policy in Wales within the civil service, within your department as First Minister, but also the creation of an economic development agency. Is that still something that you are considering as a Government, because we in Plaid Cymru think that we do need new capacity if we are going to increase economic performance in Wales?
It’s good to see the reference to the agriculture Bill. Of course, we do urge you to reconsider the situation with regard to nitrate vulnerable zones, which are a cause of great concern at a very uncertain time for agriculture in general. I heard the comments, but could I ask you to refer to the discussion that has been had over the past few days with regard to the possibility of a trade deal with Australia, which will set out a template—a very dangerous template, truth be told—for the entire future of agriculture in Wales? How much engagement have you had and has the Welsh Government had on this? Do you share the same opinion that we have, that we need to stand as one as a nation, truth be told, to oppose this suggestion that is coming from the Westminster Government?
In terms of the Senedd’s powers, you had argued during the general election for additional powers and you suggested the creation of a commission on this. Would you be able to give more detail on that?
Finally, may I ask you, as First Minister, to make a statement today in terms of the situation in Palestine and Israel, and demand that the United Kingdom Government does everything within its powers to ensure that there is a solution and that there is adherence to international law, to safeguard the interests of the people who are suffering so much in that region? Thank you.
I thank Adam Price for those questions. I don’t remember us having a gymanfa ganu previously in this Senedd, but that’s an idea that we can all agree on. I remember the Minister Lesley Griffiths reporting back to me on the gymanfa ganu in Builth Wells each year, so that’s a tradition that we can think about.
On housing, of course I agree on the importance of housing. One of the things that I did when I came to office as First Minister was to appoint someone at Cabinet level to be responsible for policy and practical approaches to housing, and Julie James continues to have responsibilities in that area.
When we’re discussing second homes and house prices and young people who want to remain in villages and so on, well, what I want to do is to put a radical proposal forward. There is a new unit within Government that has been working in this area. It’s looking at planning and taxation, but that, as I said last week, is one of the areas where I’m eager to work with others to see if there are new and different ideas that we could adopt in order to assist young people who are in that position, and of course to safeguard the future of the Welsh language.
We have set an ambitious number of new builds that we want to provide for rent and we’re going to be dealing with that in a number of different ways. However, working with local authorities is one of the things that we’re very eager to do, and to do more with them in order to put in place the resources and the people who have the necessary skills in order to build housing for the future and homes that can make a contribution to dealing with climate change too.
Now, in terms of child poverty, as we have stated in the past, we are now using new data that came out of the pupil level annual school census system and that was coming in as we were all out on doorsteps, involved with campaigning. However, officials are now working on that and that will be passed on to the new Minister for education. I do want to build on the OECD report in order to create new capacity to help us in the economy. I don't want to see a new agency outwith Government as the way to do that. I don't see that as the way forward. I don't want to see Ministers coming to the Senedd to say, 'Well, that's not my responsibility—we've passed that responsibility to some sort of new quango established here in Wales.' So, I do agree that we need to develop that new capacity, but the way to do it is in a way that is accountable to this Senedd.
I agree with Adam Price's comments on the reports on the proposed trade deal with Australia that the UK Government is putting in place. At a governmental level, we have been speaking to the UK Government and making points from a Welsh perspective. This evening, there is that almost weekly meeting between First Ministers and Michael Gove, and I have conveyed some comments already to his office, stating that I want to raise these issues this evening and I want to be clear as to what we in Wales thought about some of those ideas.
I've been speaking this morning to the new Counsel General about the commission, and he will want to bring a statement to the Senedd before summer recess in order to set out some of the ideas as to how we can draw cross-party consensus but also bring others into this debate about the future and how we can draw Wales' future. In the view of my party, that should be within the United Kingdom but within a United Kingdom that is reformed in a way that can lead to future success.
And finally, Llywydd, just to say that I have issued a statement already on the events in Palestine and in Israel, which does highlight international law and which has been agreed with the multifaith forum that we have here in Wales.
First Minister, like others, I want to welcome the re-election of the Labour Government and also the reappointment of yourself as First Minister and the team of Ministers that you have assembled to drive Wales forward over the next four years or so. My question this afternoon is on how that will happen in policy terms and about the mechanics of Government rather than the appointments of Government. You will remember that I chaired the Valleys taskforce in the last Senedd, and prior to that we'd had structures that had enabled different policy areas and Ministers to work together to deliver policy in the Valleys region. I'm particularly concerned, as you would expect, about how we maximise the value of the dualling of the A465 and how we ensure that the Heads of the Valleys remain a focus of policy. So, I'd be grateful, First Minister, if you could outline your thinking on this at the moment. I very much welcome the tone of your statement this afternoon in terms of working together, collaboratively working and reaching out in order to bring people together, and I hope that, in not just assembling your Government but then as you manage this Government, we'll be able to see that approach taken to delivering policy in some of the poorest parts of this country.
Llywydd, I thank Alun Davies for that and pay tribute to the work that he himself was involved in, in bringing ideas and people together to make sure that Valleys communities share in everything we are able to achieve here in Wales. We have in this Government two Members directly representing Valleys communities, and I've already talked to them about the part that they can play in making sure that that work is taken forward.
Llywydd, work on the mechanics of Government is ongoing. It was, as you will know, a pretty full week last week, and now we need to move on and deal with some of the other underpinning issues that you need to put in place. But what Alun Davies points to is one of the holy grails of Government, which is how do we make sure that we have genuine cross-portfolio working, that, when a problem can only be properly solved by bringing together different Ministers, but not just different Ministers, but, very often, partners elsewhere, partners in local government, partners in the third sector—how can we make sure that the mechanics of Government support that effort to work across boundaries and to make sure that the different contributions that are needed from within Government, but beyond Government too, can be harnessed in a way that creates the maximum impact for the areas and the people we seek to serve.
Diolch, Llywydd, and I would like to put on record my thanks to you for your reappointment to your post and also to the First Minister for getting reappointed to his post. I would also like to put on the record my thanks and appreciation to my predecessor, Kirsty Williams, for her work and dedication to the people of my constituency and to this Senedd, and also to the people of Brecon and Radnorshire for electing me as their new Senedd Member. Thank you very much.
First Minister, in my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire and across Powys, small schools like Dolau, Llanbedr and Cradoc are under threat of closure. As someone who was educated in a small rural school, I understand the importance they play in our rural communities. So, First Minister, how are you and your Government going to further protect rural schools and make sure that they have adequate funding to make sure that we keep small rural school closures off the table?
Llywydd, I congratulate the new Member for Brecon and Radnor, both on his election and on taking this early opportunity to make his first contribution on the floor of the Senedd, and for choosing an important issue to draw to everybody's attention. His predecessor, as the Member for Brecon and Radnor, changed the policy, as he will know, in relation to small and rural schools, to make it a presumption that those schools stay open. And that changes the challenge that local authorities face when they are dealing with school organisation. Previously, there was no such presumption. Now, local authorities have to start from the position that, unless good reasons can be adduced for those schools not to be continued, they will continue. And I hope that that has changed the nature of the debate. It has certainly, I know, in a number of instances provided greater power to parents who want to make the argument for the continuation of a school in a particular community.
In the last term as well, Llywydd, extra funding was provided to take account of some of the additional costs that are inevitably involved in providing education on that smaller scale. None of this means that every school will always be open forever, because sometimes local authorities are able to make good arguments that alternative provision would be to the benefit of that student and parent population. But I think it has changed the nature of the debate and this Government has no plans to change that new set of circumstances.
Thank you, Llywydd, and thank you to the First Minister for his welcome to us as brand-new Members to the Senedd.
The Scottish Government has a Cabinet Secretary responsible for culture and one responsible for sport. The Westminster Government has a Secretary of State responsible for culture and sport. But, despite your comments on culture and sport at the beginning of this session, once again, here in Wales, we have a Deputy Minister with responsibility for culture and sport. Why are culture and sport less important to the Welsh Government than to other Governments?
Congratulations too to Heledd Fychan on her election to the Senedd and for speaking on the floor of the Senedd this afternoon.
The purpose of devolution is to give options for the best way to do things in Scotland in the hands of people in Scotland, and to place those powers in our hands here in Wales. The way that we work as a Government is entirely different to the way that the Government in Westminster works.
There will be a powerful voice within Government for the new Minister responsible for culture and sport. As we've done over the years—. The point isn't about status in this area; the point is that the Minister will have all of the powers to speak up for culture and sport. I am entirely confident that the Deputy Minister will be successful and will be able to represent the people who work in those areas, who enjoy going to see people playing sport or seeing actors in our theatres, and so on. That is what is most important for me—namely, the impact of the person who does the work, not just the status.
First Minister, I'd like to congratulate you on the gender balance of your Government, which is obviously something I completely applaud. I'm rather disappointed to see that there's not a single woman on the Conservative benches here this afternoon. Clearly, there will need to be some hard work done to replace such excellent people as, say, Suzy Davies and Angela Burns, who will be sorely missed.
I wanted to just explore the innovative housing grants that we've been awarding throughout the last two Parliaments and on what basis that enables us to ensure that all new housing is built to zero carbon standards, not just the social housing that you've already alluded to, and therefore what plans your Government may have to amend Part L to ensure that private house builders are not building housing that is of a much lower standard than what we are building for social housing to rent.
One of the most urgent considerations for my constituents is the fact that we have many, many European citizens who are living a life in limbo because of the failure of the Home Office to grant them settled status. This is not just the 94-year-old woman who has lived nearly 60 years in this country, paying her taxes, and is now uncertain as to whether she can be assured of NHS care at the end of her life, which is an absolute disgrace; it's also about huge numbers of other people who are endeavouring to make a contribution to the economy and, in some cases, are being told that they are unable to go on courses to enable them to qualify, for example, as teaching assistants, because they're told that they still haven't got the correct settled status. So, I wondered if you could tell us who in your Government can approach the Home Office and the UK Government to find out when they are going to resolve these really disgraceful cases, which seem to be just a continuation of the Windrush scandal.
Well, Llywydd, I'm very proud to lead a Government where two thirds of Ministers are women. Indeed, my party will continue the tradition of the Senedd in making sure that representation in this Senedd reflects the Wales that we live in.
I'm very glad that we've had the innovative housing grant now for a number of years. Inevitably, when you are trying things out for the first time, innovative building methods are going to cost more until you're able to make them happen on a larger scale. That's why we have the grant. It's to enable innovation to take place, and then to apply the successful innovation on that larger scale. That is why we are confident that the 20,000 homes for social rent that we will build during this Senedd term will be housing of the future, creating as much energy, for example, as they consume.
Now, we began the process in the last Senedd term of reforming the housing regulations, and there is more to do. There will be more action taken by this Government to make sure that those standards of house building are applied generally and not just in an innovative context.
As for the points that Jenny Rathbone made about European citizens living here in Wales, I entirely share her sense of frustration, and more than that, at the way in which individuals who have made their homes in Wales, who have made huge contributions to Wales, now find themselves feeling that all of that has been undermined. We have put nearly £2 million into the funds of Citizens Advice in Wales to provide advice to people about acquiring settled status. We've provided nearly £0.5 million to Newfields Law, a specialist firm, to make sure that where people's circumstances are particularly complicated, they get that extra level of assistance to find their way through the new thickets that the UK Government has created for them.
I urge the Home Office, as we have many times, to take a properly flexible and human approach to this, not continually to be setting deadlines that mean that people find themselves fearful that they will be on the wrong side of an arbitrary date and denied all the rights that they have quite properly and legally enjoyed up until now. Here in Wales we celebrate the fact that we have people from other parts of the world who come here and make their futures part of our future, and anything that undermines that sense is surely to be regretted.
Thank you very much to the First Minister for addressing the Senedd this afternoon, and congratulations on forming a Government, and to the Llywydd for your re-election to your post last week. It's an absolute pleasure to address the Senedd for the first time as the first Conservative Member of the Vale of Clwyd, and I'd like to thank my predecessor, Ann Jones, for representing the constituency since 1999.
So, First Minister, the Vale of Clwyd in north Wales, like many parts of Wales, has been hit hard by the pandemic, particularly in areas such as the tourism, hospitality and leisure sectors. You say you're the Government of recovery, but you've failed to appoint a tourism Minister. How can you assure my constituents that their businesses will receive the attention and support they need to recover from the pandemic and prosper in a post-COVID Wales? Diolch yn fawr iawn.
Well, I thank Mr Davies for what he said and congratulate him, and for taking the opportunity to speak in the Senedd this afternoon. On his specific point, I have made tourism a responsibility of the Minister for Economy, and I do so because of the recognition of the importance of tourism to the economy of so many parts of Wales, including north Wales. I think it is to the advantage of the tourism and hospitality industry that they are firmly located in the economic engine of this Government, making sure that the contribution that the industry can make to the future economies of those parts of Wales is recognised in the major responsibilities that my colleague Vaughan Gething will now be discharging.
Wouldn't it be better to introduce, in the next 18 months, a Holtham levy to tackle the growing crisis in social care rather than allowing our social care policy to be made in Westminster?
Llywydd, there's no intention to allow our policy to be made in Westminster, but sensible policy making in Wales depends upon the interface between devolved responsibilities and non-devolved responsibilities, as the Holtham report on social care makes abundantly clear. There are decisions that the UK Government could make in the benefit system that could result in Welsh money simply being substituted for money that comes from the UK Government. That would be in nobody's interests, including those people who work in and rely upon social care.
Diolch, Llywydd, and thank you for the opportunity to speak today as another new Member here in the Senedd. And congratulations, First Minister, and to you, Llywydd, on your reappointments this time around.
Thank you, First Minister, for your statement. Similar to previous speakers, I too have noted the omission of the title of tourism within the title of a Minister within your Cabinet, but thank you for clarifying the point in regard to where that does sit for the Minister for the economy. I do want to say a few words about the tourism industry, though. As you will be aware, and as you noted in your response to Gareth earlier, the tourism industry is hugely significant for north Wales, the region that I represent, employing around 40,000 people in the region alone, and contributing around £3.5 billion a year to the local economy. So, with that in mind, I would ask: what measures will you be looking to take to ensure that this sector is properly supported to bounce back following this COVID crisis?
Well, Llywydd, it's a pleasure to welcome Mr Rowlands to the Chamber; I look forward to the contributions that he will make, particularly given his previous experience as a leader of a local authority in Wales. I know that he will have some important things that he will be able to contribute to the way in which we think about that relationship and make it work for people in Wales in the future. He was, of course, responsible for a number of tourism-related activities when leader of Conwy County Borough Council.
Can I just gently urge Members, Llywydd, not to mistake the surface for the substance? The label is not as important as what is in the jar, and that is as true of tourism here as it was for arts and sports, raised earlier. The most important thing that we can do for the sector is to create conditions around coronavirus that mean that it can be open and stay open. And as he will know, as from Monday of this week, all parts of tourism are now able to be reopened, alongside indoor hospitality. And the biggest thing we can do for the sector is collectively to make sure that the conditions are sustained in Wales where that can continue to be the case. But I absolutely recognise, as does the whole Government, that while there are parts of tourism and hospitality that are now able to reopen, they're not able to trade in the way that they would have done prior to the pandemic. The £66 million that I was able to announce—the first decision I took following my reappointment as First Minister—is a down payment on the £200 million that we have set aside to go on supporting businesses. I know that the sector itself is keen that we now work with them to develop a more targeted way of making sure that that money goes primarily to those businesses who are not back up and trading at full capacity.
So, it was inevitable, back in March of last year or January of this year, with so many businesses closed, that a rather blunt instrument approach was needed to get money out from the Welsh Government and into the hands of many businesses. We're in a different position today, and want to be in a different position—more strongly—in the future, and that will mean making sure that more of the help we're able to offer goes to those businesses who are still in recovery, and discussions with the tourism sector and others will be the way in which we will be able to design our help in a way that gets to where it is most needed.
First Minister, you've clearly put together a ministerial team that illustrates a determination to address the two biggest challenges that we face now, and that we're going to continue to face for many years to come: the climate emergency and the need for greater social justice. And I think what most people yearn for in life is a sense of security—security of employment, a secure home, security for their family, for their community and for the environment. We need to start tackling some of those systems and behaviours that so damage the security and the stability of society in people's lives, and I know that your Government will do so.
I am delighted, First Minister, that you have retained the role of north Wales Minister, and I'm very pleased indeed that my friend and colleague Lesley Griffiths has taken that role. And I'm confident, First Minister, that under your leadership this will be a Government that is humble but ambitious, that is modest yet audacious, that is unifying but also purposeful and, above all, that is courageous. First Minister, it was a pleasure to serve in your Government in the previous administration. Would you join with me in thanking the civil servants who have and will continue to serve Ministers so well? Their efforts during the pandemic have been heroic. And finally, to all Ministers, many of whom I worked with in the previous administration, au revoir, pob lwc and make sure you take care of yourselves in order to take care of the country.
Well, Llywydd, what a pleasure to hear from our colleague Ken Skates in this, his first contribution from the backbenches. I thank him for what he said, for drawing attention to the way in which climate change and social justice are the main innovations in the construction of this Government, and reflect that sense of challenge and that sense of security and stability that we need to build into people's lives.
I share exactly what he said about the efforts that are made by civil servants, often unseen, and it's not fashionable often to thank them for what they do, but when I think of the £2 billion that, when he was the economy Minister, left the coffers of the Welsh Government and went directly to businesses in Wales, that was only possible because of teams of civil servants who worked not just during the week, but over weekends and long into evenings to design those systems that allowed that to happen. That is just one example of the way in which we are well served by that sense of public service here in Wales.
I thank him, as well, for what he said about north Wales. I want to build further on everything he did as the Minister for north Wales, because the manifesto of my party has so many exciting things for the future of north Wales in it, from the clinical school in the north-west of Wales, through the new national park that will include, I believe, parts of the Member's own constituency, to the rebuilding of Theatr Clwyd, that iconic building for north Wales, to everything that is going on in Wrexham to create a future for that town and to make it a centre for those things that we know its population value so much. There is so much that this Government wants to do for north Wales, and a Minister there to make sure that every Cabinet portfolio plays its part in delivering it is something I was very keen to retain.
Finally, John Griffiths.
Diolch, Llywydd. I would like to congratulate the First Minister on his reappointment and his ministerial appointments, and also welcome the sense of urgency that he stressed in terms of governing Wales and implementing the programme for government. I think it is very consistent with what the First Minister has said about building back fairer and greener, through and beyond the pandemic, that we now have a Minister for Social Justice and also a powerhouse climate change department, including transport and housing. I think that augurs well for that fairer and greener approach, but I very much welcome what the First Minister said about the need for urgency in dealing with these challenges that matter so much for our communities across Wales.
And I'd just perhaps like some clarity from the First Minister in terms of responsibility for international affairs. I welcome what the First Minister said regarding his statement on the situation in Palestine and Israel. Communities in Newport East, particularly Muslim communities, are very concerned at what is happening at the moment. They want to see a ceasefire, they want to see a lasting and enduring peace, and they want to see talks and negotiations resuming towards that goal as quickly as possible. They note the overwhelming military strength of Israel in comparison to Palestine, and believe that carries with it a great responsibility to exercise greater caution than we are seeing at the moment with the loss of life in Gaza particularly. So, I welcome the First Minister speaking out, and I'd just like his reassurance that he will continue to do so on international matters when it matters so much to our communities here in Wales.
Can I thank John Griffiths for that important final contribution, Llywydd? Thank you to him for what he said about the way in which this Government is constructed to deliver that fairer, greener Wales for which he and I campaigned during the election period. There is an urgency about putting Wales back on track out of coronavirus. So many lives have been affected by it. I know how many times the Member has spoken on the floor of the Senedd here about the needs of our children and young people in education and what they have lost as a result of the pandemic. There is an urgency, isn’t there, to get on with the things that we have promised to do, that great catch-up programme we want to see in place so that the loss that those young people have suffered isn’t a permanent feature of their lives. I just wanted to thank him for recognising that.
During the election campaign, I had the privilege of being with John Griffiths in Newport East, in a part of the city where the community he referred to was very much in evidence. We had many opportunities to discuss with people that morning their view of Wales, its future and their part in it. He’s absolutely right; events in the middle east that trouble us all have a particular resonance for some of our fellow citizens. I agree with everything that John Griffiths said about the need for a resolution to what we have seen within the framework of international law, based on diplomacy rather than military activity. When there are interests in other parts of the world that have a direct impact on Welsh citizens, then of course we should make sure that we give voice to their concerns.
Thank you, First Minister. We will now take a short break to allow some changeovers in the Siambr. If Members who are leaving could do so promptly so that we can clean the Chamber and welcome new Members into the Chamber. A brief break.
Plenary was suspended at 14:32.
The Senedd reconvened at 14:40, with the Llywydd in the Chair.
The next item on our agenda is a statement by the First Minister on the review of the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) Regulations 2020. I call on the First Minister to make that statement. Mark Drakeford.
Thank you very much, Llywydd. In the last but one meeting of the fifth Senedd, which was the last time Members came together to discuss these coronavirus regulations, we had just marked a year since the beginning of the pandemic. That was a day of deep reflection, remembering not only those who had lost their lives to this terrible virus, but the bravery and strength shown by so many people the length and breadth of Wales.
As the situation regarding public health improved, we took the first steps out of the travel restrictions, moving from 'stay home' to 'stay local'. Hairdressers and barber shops had been open for a little over a week, and we were at the first stage of reopening businesses selling non-essential goods. Outdoor sporting facilities were also open for the first time.
Today, Llywydd, as we start this sixth Senedd, the public health position in Wales has moved significantly forward, and we are now at alert level 2. The hard work of everyone across Wales, combined with our successful vaccination programme, means we continue to have the lowest coronavirus rates in the United Kingdom, at around 10 cases per 100,000 of the population, and a positivity rate that today stands at 1 per cent.
At the same time, the number of people in hospital with COVID is at its lowest level since the start of the pandemic more than 15 months ago, and there are three people only with COVID in a critical care bed in Wales. Our NHS is returning to more normal levels of activity for this time of year, treating more people with a wider range of illnesses, injuries and health conditions. Thankfully, far fewer deaths are being reported, although I know that everyone in this Chamber, and participating virtually, will continue to think of all of those who have lost a loved one here in Wales to this awful virus.
This weekend, we passed the 2 million first dose vaccine milestone in Wales—that's 2 million people in Wales who have now said 'yes' to vaccination. More than 80 per cent of all adults in Wales have now had a first dose of the vaccine, as a minimum. In figures published earlier today, 80 per cent of people in their 40s, 62 per cent of people in their 30s, and 43 per cent of people aged between 18 and 29 have now had a first vaccine here in Wales. In the coming weeks, we hope to pass the milestone of a million people completing the two-dose course of vaccination—and all of this has happened in just six months.
I know that every Member of the Senedd will want to thank those involved with the vaccination programme, from all those who work behind the scenes to plan and co-ordinate what is a complex roll-out, to the thousands of people—the NHS staff, the military personnel, and the many volunteers—for this incredible achievement. It is their efforts that are making a real difference to the course of this pandemic.
Over the coming weeks, we will be focusing our energies on providing first doses, to make sure we vaccinate as many people as possible. Younger age groups will be offered the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, in line with the latest advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. And, Llywydd, it is because we have such low levels of coronavirus and high levels of vaccination that we have been able to move to alert level 2 in one step—one step further towards normality.
The results of the review of the regulations we are considering today are that indoor hospitality is able to reopen for groups of six people from up to six households, holiday accommodation can reopen fully, indoor entertainment and visitor attractions can reopen, and up to 30 people can take part in organised activities indoors and up to 50 people in organised outdoor activities, including wedding receptions. International travel has also resumed. We will follow the same red, amber, green traffic lights system in use in England and Scotland, but with some extra safeguards to do all we can to prevent coronavirus from being re-imported into Wales from overseas. And, Llywydd, because something is allowed, it certainly doesn't mean it's compulsory and it doesn't even necessarily mean that it is advisable. I repeat the view of the Welsh Government that this is the year to holiday at home and to enjoy everything that Wales has to offer.
As part of the three-week review, as of Monday of next week, we will also lift restrictions on the overall number of visitors able to visit people living in care homes. That will complete the decisions from this three-week review, and the next three-week review cycle will culminate at the start of June. Then, if the public health position remains positive, we will consider whether we can move to alert level 1. That would mean relaxing the rules further around people meeting in their own homes, increasing the number of people able to attend wedding receptions, and restarting larger events, building on the experience of our pilot programme, which is now under way.
Llywydd, while all of this is undoubtedly positive, I have to sound a note of caution. Once again, the pandemic has taken an unexpected and worrying turn. At the end of last week, there were more than 1,600 cases of the so-called India variant in the United Kingdom, and that number in England is doubling every five to seven days. The majority of those cases are to be found in north-west England, London and in the Bedford area. Here in Wales, we have some 25 cases linked to the India variant of concern. All of those are being investigated and all contacts of those individuals are, of course, being traced and tested.
The emerging evidence suggests that this new variant may be more transmissible than the current dominant form of the virus—the Kent variant—which was responsible for the surge in cases in Wales at the start of the winter last year. As of today, there is still not yet enough evidence about the impact of the India variant on the vaccination efficiency or whether it causes more serious illnesses. We all hope, of course, that the vaccine will be protective against this new variant and others that may arise, and the science continues to investigate the position, and we will receive advice from our scientific advisers as that evidence becomes clearer.
In the meantime, it is really important that we continue to do everything we can to keep levels of the virus as low as possible in Wales as we continue to relax restrictions in a careful and cautious way. It is all those individual efforts that add up to the best and most effective way of responding to the emergence of new variants. Of course, we will continue to be guided by the latest scientific advice, as we have throughout the pandemic, and to put that advice into the public domain for Members to see. I ask Members to approve the changes set out in this review of the coronavirus restrictions regulations when they are brought forward for debate.
Thank you, First Minister, for that update, and I agree with the sentiments in your statement. Whilst we are moving into more sunny climes, it is worth reflecting that there are many families, regrettably, around Wales who have lost loved ones and those loved ones are dearly missed by many and their loss is felt every single day of the week and every month that passes, and also the bravery and the strength of everyone who's been involved in the national effort to face down the virus, and the journey we still have to undertake to obviously get on top of this virus, as you indicated in your statement, with new variants coming before us. Virtually on a monthly basis now, it does seem as if there are variants of concern.
You touched on the Indian variant, and I think you did give us some numbers of the rates in Wales. I think you used the number 25 as being the number of concern in Wales. Are there any other variants that are starting to be fed into the Government's advice that potentially could provide significant problems as we go further into the summer months? Because, with a virus, we fully understand it will mutate and really we will have to start to come to live with the new variants that come before us as and when they present themselves. But the Indian variant seems to have gripped the country at the moment, over the weekend, with the coverage that it received, and I think it's important to consider how that has impacted on some of the thinking around these regulations that the Government is working on with its advisers to bring before the Assembly for approval.
I'd also like to highlight the failure of the Government to actually backdate its business support. Whilst the £66 million that has been made available is very welcome, First Minister, you will be aware, obviously, that during the election campaign there was a window when financial support was not available to businesses. And I know you've indicated that £200 million in total is available for businesses. Once it's finally allocated, will there be an opportunity for the Government to look at requests and claims for backdated support and compensation to businesses that fell in that window when business support dried up on 31 March, because I think that's a very important window to fund because those businesses were affected by the restrictions? And, of course, in Wales, business support hasn't had bounce-back start-up grants made available like in other parts of the United Kingdom. So, if you could give us some more information on the business support where these regulations have stopped businesses trading, it would be helpful.
On testing in particular, in other parts of the United Kingdom it is far easier for testing and test kits to be made available at request or on demand virtually, whereas it's more prescriptive here in Wales. Are there any measures that the Welsh Government are looking to bring forward to make testing kits more available here in Wales, which will facilitate the easing of restrictions in a more timely manner, and that normality that you alluded to in your statement and which we all crave? You're on the record, First Minister, as stating that masks and social distancing most probably, in Wales, would be required until the end of this year. Is it still your assessment that that is still very much the case, as other parts of the United Kingdom are talking about taking measures, obviously, that would relax social distancing and masks, or will we be—[Interruption.] I hear comments. I think it's a perfectly sensible question to ask, in fairness, because obviously people will want to understand the rules that will relate to their lives here in Wales.
And also, on international travel, I've just had an e-mail from a constituent who appreciates that it's merely advice that is available at the moment, which doesn't help them on insurance claims to travel companies. And people do want to adhere to the advice that the Government is giving, but that's no recourse to compensation when they go to the travel companies. So, is the Government in a position to offer any more advice and support to those individuals who find themselves locked into travel commitments but still want to adhere to the advice that the Government is giving, but, financially, they would be severely out of pocket?
And finally, if I could ask, you highlighted the success of the vaccination programme, which I think is a great UK success and has led to an unlocking at a faster rate than in other parts of the world, but there is talk of booster vaccines being required in the autumn. Have you any information that you could put on the Plenary record this afternoon around booster vaccinations that might be required late summer/early autumn, that, again, would hold back the restrictions that might have been imposed on our everyday lives if the vaccination programme hadn't been so successful? Thank you, First Minister.
I thank the leader of the opposition for those questions and I agree very much with what he said at the start. For those families who have lost loved ones as a result of coronavirus, the pandemic will never be over, because that loss will be with them for the rest of their lives, and I'm glad we've had an opportunity to pause even briefly this afternoon just to remember that and to make sure those people are still in our thoughts.
In terms of variants beyond the Indian variant, we still have examples of the South African variant here in Wales, and we remain alert to the Brazilian variant—
I'm sorry, but I'm going to need to cut across you. I don't think your microphone is working, First Minister. I don't think you can probably do anything to sort it out, but, because Members are on Zoom, they can't hear you at this point. So, we'll take a technical break.
Plenary was suspended at 14:55.
The Senedd reconvened at 15:08, with the Llywydd in the Chair.
We will recommence following that technical break. I call on the First Minister to respond to the comments made by the leader of the opposition. First Minister.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. I was replying to the leader of the opposition's question about variants beyond the Indian variant that are present in Wales. I just explained that we have examples of the South African variant in Wales. We are watching carefully the Brazilian variant, with a particular eye on Portugal and travel in and out of that country. In relation to the Indian variant itself, as well as the variant of concern, there are two other Indian variants under investigation, and we have a number of examples of that in Wales as well. So, the leader of the opposition is absolutely right, Llywydd, that while attention in the last few days has been on the Indian variant, it's only one example of the vigilance that has to go on all the time to make sure that we don't end up re-importing danger back into Wales.
As to what Andrew R.T. Davies said about business support, I don't accept that help dried up in April; many, many payments were made in April and where there are claims businesses have that can be pursued, of course they are able to do that. Nor, I think, do I recognise the position that I think he was describing in relation to testing. We have tens of thousands of tests each week in Wales that are not being taken up, because the current state of coronavirus is at such a low ebb in Wales. Whereas, at the height of it, we were doing 120,000 PCR tests in a week, we did 67,000 tests last week. So, there is ample capacity in the system for PCR tests, and we are using hundreds of thousands of lateral flow tests in Wales to make sure that schools continue to be protected, that care home workers are protected, and, indeed, that businesses are able to use them as well.
We are involved in the social distancing review that the UK Government is carrying out in the sense that officials are involved in it, and we will wait to see the outcome of it. I think it, too, is having to take account of the India variant and whether it would change any of the analysis that they've carried out so far.
As to international travel, it is advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that is decisive where insurance is concerned, and the FCO, I believe, issued advice yesterday saying to people that they shouldn't holiday in amber-list countries, and people will be able to use that to take to their insurance companies where they are deciding now not to go ahead and need to claim on their insurance.
And finally, the important question about booster vaccinations. I entirely agree, as I have throughout, that the UK Government has made a success of securing the supply of vaccination—50 million additional doses have been secured for a potential booster programme in the autumn. We have agreed a population share of that for Wales. Those booster vaccines will have been calibrated to take account of the emerging variants and we are planning already in Wales as to how we could run a booster programme during the autumn, should that be necessary.
In relation to the Indian variant, the primary Indian variant of concern, you said that there are a number of areas where we still do not have definitive evidence in relation to its effect in terms of vaccination efficacy and also whether it causes a more serious form of the disease. Could you say a little bit about those areas where we do have some understanding? So, particularly, I've read in some of the scientific advisory group for emergencies papers, for example, the conclusion that this variant could be 50 per cent more transmissible—is that your understanding? And, following the logic through, therefore, they argue that there's a realistic possibility that this could lead to a resurgence—a significant resurgence—of cases, partly because even with the very high level of vaccination that we have in Wales—I don't know whether we are now No. 2, still, in the first jab league table, and that's a huge credit, I think, to the fantastic team effort—but even with that, that does not give a sufficient level of protection in the community. Under those circumstances, if you follow the logic through, therefore, is there a risk that further easing of restrictions without continuing or non-pharmaceutical interventions could actually lead to higher hospitalisations and even higher deaths?
Are the Welsh Government confident that our health services have the capacity to cope with this scenario, based on those elements where we do have some evidence currently? And what contingency plans are being made on that basis, particularly for targeted measures in dealing with the spread of this new variant? So, I think you've talked previously about the possibility of surge vaccinations or even local lockdowns. I think that it would be particularly useful to hear your understanding, in terms of the geography of Wales, in relation to the concentration of the virus and its potential spill-over, effectively, into the north-east and the north-west of Wales. What's the thinking of the Welsh Government in relation to that?
Also, I saw your comments yesterday, First Minister, in relation to the vaccination of under-18s. Does that become more urgent in the context of a more transmissible virus? What is your latest advice on that? And, in that context as well, what's your response to the comments from the WHO today, urging the Welsh Government not to vaccinate under-18-year-olds and actually to prioritise sharing vaccination with higher risk adults in lower income countries?
In relation to schools as well, I was wondering if you could say a little bit more about your current state of thinking in relation to the wearing of masks in classrooms, and indeed how does what I've just I've referred to now, in terms of the new variant of concern, affect that consideration. There has been concern expressed in schools in a different context, which is about the pressure in relation to moderating assessments that schools and teachers are feeling, and that this, in turn, is causing anxiety for students. How is the Welsh Government supporting students and teachers in seeking to mitigate this?
Finally, in relation to financial support, if I understand you, First Minister, you said that people in the sector supported your effectively holding back some of the £200 million for more targeted support later. I have just had somebody from the Welsh Independent Restaurant Collective saying that they argued the very opposite of that. Others in UKHospitality said that, yes, they do support a targeted approach, but that the money that is provided now is not sufficient. The level—. I think, if you are under 10 employees, it's about £5,000. It does seem that this is much lower than the immediate support, the restart grants, that are being provided in England and Scotland. So, can I urge the First Minister to discuss this with officials? Because it may be that you have been given an impression that doesn't actually reflect what is going on on the ground in the sector, which is in an incredibly difficult position.
Llywydd, I thank Adam Price for those questions. The greatest area of understanding, in the advice that I have had, is in the likelihood that the India variant is 50 per cent more transmissible than the Kent variant, and therefore is likely to supplant it if it moves into genuine community spread. Now, we're not in that position here in Wales at the moment by any means, and the examples that we know of are all identified already by local public health teams, and all the individuals that we know of are contacted by name, and their individual circumstances are known.
Were we to see a resurgence, then, of course, what Adam Price said is right. Even with 80 per cent of the population having had a first dose of vaccination in Wales, that still means that 20 per cent have not, and this is a virus that seeks out the people who are most vulnerable. So, that still is a significant vulnerability, although every week that goes by thousands more people are vaccinated. I said in my statement that we will be focusing on making sure that we accelerate as fast as we can the first vaccination of people lower down the age ranges, because there is also some evidence that the India variant has been more found in younger populations, possibly because they are not vaccinated in the same numbers.
As far as hospitalisation is concerned, we are still seeing falls in the number of people in Welsh hospitals with coronavirus of any sort—suspected, confirmed, recovering. And the number of people with confirmed coronavirus—active coronavirus—is lower still. We are watching very carefully what is happening in Bolton, in particular, and the system is already talking and preparing, should we find ourselves with more people needing hospital care because of the impact of the India variant. We are going to have some targeted measures in relation to vaccination. Because we have such low numbers in Wales, we are able to focus additional vaccines in that way, and the discussions with the health boards are already happening so that they can use greater discretion to make sure that they bring forward for vaccination people in the areas most affected.
For under-18s, there is no vaccine as yet licensed, and we won't be vaccinating people under 18 until there is a licence for it. That may be available in the autumn, and then we will need to weigh up the case for doing so. We've talked a lot on the floor of the Senedd in the previous term about the need to make sure that our children, teaching staff and other staff members are properly protected against the virus, and there will undoubtedly be a strong case to consider for vaccinating children from the age of 12 upwards, when there is a vaccine licensed to do so, and that would then have an impact upon other non-pharmaceutical measures that are being taken in school at the moment. I've seen the WHO advice, and of course we will think that through as well.
I understand the points that are made about the pressures that schools and teachers and students are under, whether that's assessment or whether it's conventional exams. These are often difficult times in the academic year for students and staff. We will have a system in Wales where there is more flexibility at school level, and they'll be able to use that to mitigate some of those pressures. And, because we were the first country in the United Kingdom to acknowledge that conventional examinations would not be possible this year, we have had the longest period to put in place an alternative system, negotiated with the WJEC, with Qualifications Wales, with headteachers and other representatives, to make sure that the system is fair for young people but credible as well in the eyes of those people who will rely on the certification that follows from those assessments, and that those young people will not be disadvantaged in other ways.
As for financial support and industry, there's often more than one voice in any industry, and you'll find people who agree with what's happening and you'll find people who disagree with what's happening. I do know that it is a priority for the incoming Minister in the economy portfolio to have those discussions with those industries, as we heard earlier from Sam Rowlands, who are able to be back in business but not fully back in business, so that we use the inevitably finite resources we have to the greatest effect.
Thank you, Llywydd. Congratulations to you, Llywydd, the First Minister, and to everyone else in the Chamber and on our screens.
Congratulations to you all. It's good to be back, it is.
First Minister, I'm delighted to tell you I'll be heeding your advice: if you can arrange the weather, I will indeed be holidaying in Wales, in a tent in Cardigan bay and then in the Llŷn peninsula. So, if Welsh Government can organise the weather, please, I'd be delighted.
I've got one specific question, and, if you need to write to me, I'll fully understand that. But I've been trying desperately to get to the bottom of this question, for, as has been mentioned in the Chamber, we are a musical nation, a singing nation. I've had performers approach me, because there is good advice now and guidance on how you can sing, and choirs are starting to go back to rehearsal indoors and so on. But it's the question of singing in bars and cafes as part of background ambience, not overdoing it and so on—not a rock-and-roll night and so on—because the advice seems to suggest it can. In fact, the really good advice I had from special advisers goes through a list of how to do it and says, 'Complete a specific risk assessment if performing in social settings such as bars and restaurants.' But I can tell you that local authorities through the land, and shared regulatory services, are, perhaps understandably, being a lot more cautious. The man from the council and the woman from the council, they say 'no'. So, could you just clarify for us, either today or in writing separately, whether or not performers—sole performers playing quiet music in the background—are able to perform in licensed settings, not with alcohol themselves? Are they able to do it or—? Is it a 'yes' or a 'no' or is it a 'maybe'?
I think probably it is a letter—[Laughter.]—that I will provide to the Member to make sure that I give him the best advice. If he's planning a rock-and-roll night in his tent in Cardigan bay or on the Llŷn peninsula, he'll be fully within the rules by the time he gets there.
Llywydd, can I congratulate you on your reappointment? It's very much a privilege for me to join the Welsh Parliament, and I hope I can add some value to the work of the Senedd and the people of Wales. First Minister, can I congratulate you also on being returned as First Minister? I look forward to working with you and your colleagues here, as I have for many, many months, but, obviously, in the role as a council leader. It's been an extremely challenging period in all of our lives, and I'm hopeful we are heading to some normality, and the steps we are taking are welcome.
I'm sure, First Minister, you would agree that Wales's economic recovery is fundamental to this country and the people of Wales, and our businesses have been through the most awful of times and need our continued support like never before. I'm sorry to labour this financial support question again, but, First Minister, the March NDR-linked grants package was designed to support businesses through to the election on 6 May, so as to ensure Ministers did not have to make announcements of further grants during the pre-election period, and many businesses now are very much dismayed and probably angry that the Government has said that the financial support they were expecting for April will not be honoured. Can I ask you, First Minister, that you review the Government's position in regard to that so that the businesses can perhaps get the support they were hoping to have? Thank you very much, First Minister.
Llywydd, it's very good to be able to respond to a question from a new Member, and someone who we've worked very closely with in the Welsh Government for many years, and successfully as well. I'm not recognising the picture that is emerging from the Conservative benches of help not being available to businesses. This Government has provided the most generous package of support for businesses anywhere in the United Kingdom. That is a deliberate decision by this Government in recognition of the torrid time that businesses in Wales have had. It has been an economic crisis as well as a clinical crisis. That's why we've taken the steps we have, and there'll be no reason at all for us not to wish to continue to do exactly that. As I've said, the nature of that help will now need to be calibrated with the new circumstances, where far more businesses are beginning to reopen, and where economic conditions mean that they will be able to do what I know they want to do, which is not to rely on the next grant from the Welsh Government, but to earn the living and the success of the business that they've often invested so much in, and we will go on supporting them to do just that.
According to Steffan Lewis, the first appearance in the Chamber is the worst, and it gets easier after that first time, and, given the fact that many of the questions I wanted to ask have already been asked, I do hope that the future sessions will be far easier than this one. So, this is me talking for the first time as a representative for South Wales East, and I do want to take the opportunity to thank all constituents for putting me here, and I look forward to asking you, First Minister, a number of questions over the next few years, and I'm sure that by the end of this you'll have had more than enough of me.
I just want to emphasise a point actually that Adam has made, and Peter as well. As we emerge from the pandemic, the restart grants are going to become more important. For example, pubs in Scotland are eligible for restart grants of up to £18,000, whilst most pubs in Wales will be eligible for £7,500 at the absolute most, with many small community pubs only eligible for £2,500. I would welcome some further information from the First Minister or the economy Minister on what the timetable will be for support, as I'm sure the First Minister is aware that the hospitality sector is going to be a very important sector for our economic recovery as we emerge from the pandemic. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you very much for that question and for what Luke Fletcher said about Steffan Lewis. Many of us remember Steffan, of course, and I had an opportunity to collaborate with him when he was the spokesperson for Plaid Cymru on Brexit, when I worked on that within Government.
I've answered a number of questions on the economy, Llywydd. I don't think there's much more for me to add. Of course, the new Minister will be considering all of these points. We'll be looking to see how we can use the significant sums of money we still have to support businesses and to make sure that that is done in a way that suits us here in Wales, responding to Welsh circumstances and Welsh needs, and making that money as effective as it can be in supporting Welsh businesses.
It's really fantastic that the people of Wales have responded to the regulations and that is why we are in the good position we're in, and particularly the sacrifices made by children on our behalf need to be recognised, as well as the fantastic work done by our NHS and social care staff in keeping people safe or looking after them when they become sick.
As we're now in level 2, I wondered whether your excellent new health Minister or yourself have had the opportunity to look at whether the regulations around out-patient appointments could be amended to make them less restrictive, given the importance of having somebody with you when you're being told what may be difficult news or complicated news to ensure that you've fully understood what you've been told. I think this is a particular concern for those who are pregnant and who wish to have their partners with them, and that isn't always the case, and particularly where the pregnancy isn't going that well or according to plan, it seems to me rather important. At the moment, it's absolutely down to the discretion of individual health boards and individual colleges, so I wondered if you could say anything about how the guidance on how the health service operates, interfaces with individuals could be amended to be a little bit less restrictive given that, obviously, people socially are able to meet in groups of six indoors these days.
Llywydd, I thank Jenny Rathbone for that question, which we've debated a number of times during the whole of the pandemic, and it is one of the hardest areas of all, isn't it, when a couple are expecting a child and are unable to receive the normal sorts of appointments and joint involvement in the birth of a child that we would all want to see. The guidance in Wales encourages the system to be as welcoming as possible, but the reason for discretion is real. Maternity units across Wales vary enormously in terms of the size of the premises, the nature of the layout of buildings and so on, and, obviously, individuals come with different levels of risk themselves. Coronavirus has not gone away; people who are ill with it find themselves in hospital, and it has to be, in the end, a clinical decision made by the team of people looking after the woman and her partner as to how safe it is for other people to be involved directly in appointments. Now, the policy is that wherever it is safe to do so, that is what should happen, but I don't think we are in a position in the Senedd to make those individual clinical judgments in the different physical circumstances and individual circumstances that people face.
Thank so much, Presiding Officer. I'd like to begin by congratulating you and our First Minister on returning and resuming your roles in the new session here of 2021.
Now, as I'm sure you can all appreciate, we are all aware of the great debt that we owe to front-line workers of the national health service in Wales, who've had to cope with the tremendous pressure they've been subjected to down to the pandemic. Last year, the Royal College of Nursing ran a survey looking at the impact of the pandemic on front-line staff. It found that more than three quarters of Welsh members who took part reported increased stress, and more than half were worried about their mental health. Sadly, this pressure on NHS staff is unlikely to reduce in the short term as there are now more than 0.5 million people in Wales who are waiting for treatment on NHS waiting lists—a rise of 19 per cent in a year. Of these, 218,000 people have been waiting for more than nine months for treatment. I'd like to ask you, First Minister, what positive action is your Government taking to relieve the pressure on front-line NHS staff as restrictions are lifted. And I know you and many of my honourable colleagues have mentioned the Indian variant, the Brazilian variant and the South African variant, but I'd like to know, as deaths from COVID are rising here in Wales, as per the statement you kindly shared with us today, the Indian variant is actually on the rise. So, what study is being done by the Welsh Government of the potential impact of this new variant and other subsequent variants too? Thank you.
Well, I thank Natasha Asghar for her first contribution on the floor of the Senedd as well, and welcome her, of course, as a Member. And her question points to some very significant issues. The stresses and strains on our front-line staff in the health service have been enormous, and we've relied on them hugely to keep us safe during the pandemic, and we're going to have to go on relying on them for many other things we've talked about this afternoon. When the leader of the opposition rightly asks me about a booster programme in the autumn, it will be those same workers that we will be relying on to do that for us. When we talk about the need to be able to get the NHS working on the things that it has to do for everybody else, it will be the same people we will be relying on. So, it's a very important point about making sure that, when we make that ask of them, we are looking after them as well so that their health and well-being can also be considered.
In terms of what we are doing on making sure we've got the best information on new variants, well, we rely on the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the UK committee, but we have our own technical advisory group, and we publish its evidence to Government regularly. We are very fortunate to have one of the most advanced capacities in the world of genome sequencing here. So, part of the effort that's made across the United Kingdom to identify new variants relies on the Welsh capacity that we have, and UK capacity is amongst the very best in the world, partly as a result of that. So, we are very fortunate in having that early-warning system that we're able to deploy here in Wales, and that, alongside the interpretation of that evidence by the scientists who advise us, will be part of our contribution to that wider effort to make sure that new variants are identified as quickly as possible, that we understand the scale and scope of them, and then we're able to take whatever actions we can to go on keeping people in Wales safe.
First Minister, the people of Blaenau Gwent trusted you and the Welsh Government in the handling of this pandemic, and they trusted the decisions that you've been taking over this past year. And you will know, from your visits to Blaenau Gwent, that people wanted to thank you very much for the way in which you've led the Government's response on this, and I certainly want to convey those feelings here this afternoon.
In terms of how we move forward, there's clearly a discussion and a debate taking place about the sort of support that has been and is currently being provided to different business sectors. And there's clearly a disconnect between what we are hearing and what businesses are telling us about the support they are receiving. Would it be possible, First Minister, for you or the economy Minister to publish a breakdown of the business support that's being provided, either on a sectoral basis or on a more general basis, for us to understand how this disconnect has taken place? There was a debate on this matter on the last day of the last Senedd, in Petitions Committee, but clearly there wasn't an opportunity for the Government to respond at that time. But it may well be that this new Senedd now provides the Government with an opportunity to respond more fully to those businesses who do not feel that they are receiving the support that they require and which they feel they have a right to expect.
I thank Alun Davies for that. I very much enjoyed my visit to Blaenau Gwent during the election campaign. It's probably a rare enough experience in political life to find people crossing the road wanting to speak to you, rather than crossing the road to make sure they don't have to speak to you, but that certainly was the case during the time that you and I were campaigning together there.
There is a huge wealth of information in the Welsh Government about business support that has been provided—by sector, by geography, by strand within the economic recovery programme. So, I'll certainly ask the economy Minister to see if there are better ways in which we can make that information available to Members, so that Members can see more easily the enormous scale of help that's been provided to businesses in Wales, the purposes for which that has been provided, and where that money has ended up supporting businesses to survive through these incredibly difficult months.
I would like to start by paying tribute to my predecessor, Angela Burns, for her tireless work and dedication, not only in this place, but also for the people and constituency of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire.
First Minister, spectators and participants have begun returning to sporting and cultural events as part of the trials that you mentioned as coronavirus regulations are eased. However, the majority of these trials have so far been limited to the south Wales urban area. With the Iron Man competition scheduled to take place in September in Tenby in my constituency, can I ask what plans the Welsh Government has to extend the reach of these trial events over the coming months to ensure that elite events such as this are able to accommodate spectators and bring a much-needed boost to the local economy?
Once again, welcome to the new Member to the Chamber. He's got a big act to follow in Angela Burns, who was a very significant voice in this Chamber over a number of years, and I'm sure that he will be seeking to emulate the contribution that she made here.
The purpose of the pilot events is exactly to answer the question that has been posed: it is to find ways in which we can open up more of that sector safely. So, the different events that we are piloting are taking different approaches to it to try and make sure that we have a formula that will allow us to reopen more events in Wales, and in all parts of Wales, in a way that will make people who participate in them, and people who are responsible for running them, feel confident that their health is not being put at risk as a result. We will learn a lot through our own pilots. We have Welsh senior civil servants as part of the oversight group of the pilots that are happening across our border, and then, as we bring all that learning together, and of course depending upon the public health context at the time, we'll then be able to apply that learning so that events elsewhere can reopen and do so with confidence.
Finally, Mark Isherwood.
Diolch, Llywydd. Well, your Government stated last Friday, I quote, that
'organised activities, including wedding receptions can be arranged for up to 30 people indoors and 50 people outdoors',
but added that
'Outdoor receptions cannot take place in private gardens'.
Your written statement on these coronavirus regulations last Friday said that these could only take place in regulated premises. How do you therefore respond to the constituents who contacted me stating, 'The UK Government are to allow responsibly organised outdoor receptions in private gardens to go ahead from 17 May. Please let us in Wales do the same', adding, 'We've already lost a lot of money having to rearrange, as COVID is not covered by insurance, and I fear for mine and my daughter's mental health if we have to rearrange yet again'?
Finally, your written statement last Friday also referred to your vaccination programme. You stated yesterday that it's likely the Welsh Government would want to roll out jabs for children if licences are granted. What plans do you therefore have to offer the COVID-19 vaccine to those under 16 years old as rates of the Indian variant increase across the UK, and in particular to prioritise clinically extremely vulnerable young people?
Llywydd, children who are extremely clinically vulnerable are already receiving vaccination in Wales down to the age of 12. We won't be offering vaccination to children until there is a licensed vaccine to do so.
As far as weddings are concerned, I have huge sympathy for those many families who have arranged and rearranged wedding receptions. That must be a really difficult thing to have to do in your lives. But I make no apologies at all for having those receptions in regulated premises. That is for a reason. It is because regulated premises are able to take all the necessary actions to safeguard the health of people who mingle together in those circumstances. That is why we have retained in Wales the obligation, if you're having a wedding reception, to have it in such a place, because that keeps you safe and it keeps other people safe as well. That has always been our top priority as a Government.
Thank you, First Minister, and thank you all. That brings today's proceedings to a close.
The meeting ended at 15:46.