Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

23/06/2021

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

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

Statement by the Llywydd

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

1. Questions to the Minister for Finance and Local Government

The first item this afternoon are questions to the Minister for Finance and Local Government, and the first question is from Jack Sargeant.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

1. What resources have been allocated in the Welsh Government's 2021-22 budget to help people with adverse childhood experiences in Wales? OQ56620

Our budget supports a range of investments preventing adverse childhood experiences, but we allocated £1 million for 2021-22 on targeted support. Half will support the ACE support hub for Wales and the other half will support activity to prevent, tackle and mitigate the impact of ACEs, particularly at a community level.

Can I thank the Minister for that answer and the support to date? This has been an extremely difficult 18 months for children across Wales. However, the difference in how children have experienced the pandemic will be stark. It's obvious to me that children who have experienced multiple adverse childhood experiences will have faced further challenges not seen by many of their peers. There is significant work already done to establish that this trauma will have a lifelong impact. There are good examples of where trauma-informed approaches to support these children can pay a real dividend. Minister, can I ask you, therefore, what consideration has the Welsh Government given to significantly increasing the amount of money spent on tackling and preventing ACEs?

Thank you for raising this really important issue, and I know that it's of key concern to my colleagues the Minister for Health and Social Services and her team in particular. The 2021-22 budget does include a further £0.5 million to support work to prevent, tackle and mitigate the impact of adverse childhood experiences, and this is on top of the previous funding. Decisions about how this particular amount will be allocated will be informed by the work that is currently being undertaken by the ACE support hub that's seeking to map the existing provision. And the ACEs expert task and finish group will also contribute to that work, to help us take forward the findings of the Welsh Government's ACEs policy review. So, advice, I know, is currently being prepared for my colleagues, and that will be presented to them before the end of August 2021, in order to identify how best to use that particular additional funding.

Minister, whilst I welcome any resources set aside to help those with adverse childhood experiences, it's abundantly clear that Wales is not doing enough to limit adversity in the first place. We know that, although poverty is not an ACE in and of itself, poverty is an additional stressor that can lead to neglect or abuse of a child. Sadly, nearly 30 per cent of our children live in poverty, and the Welsh Government totally failed to meet their target of eliminating child poverty by 2020. Minister, what is your Government going to do to tackle childhood poverty, and when will you meet your elimination target? Thank you very much.

Well, in our Welsh Government budget, we set out a wide range of activities that we'll be undertaking in order to tackle and prevent child poverty. You'll have seen our additional funding for free school meals, for example, and Wales was, of course, the first country in the UK to announce that free school meals would be extended right the way through the school holidays, until Easter 2022. And we're currently undertaking a piece of work to look further at free school meals and our policy there, to ensure that we are encapsulating those children who need it most.

You'll understand as well that we've been looking at what more we can do in terms of our pupil development grant access scheme, to widen that out to a wider number of children and families here in Wales. So, we're looking at the schemes that we currently have and what else we can be doing in this particular important area. And, as you say, poverty in and of itself is not one of the adverse childhood experiences that we think of when we talk about ACEs, but it certainly is an absolutely key issue that we have to tackle alongside ACEs.

13:35
Tax Policy

2. What principles will the Welsh Government follow in developing tax policy in Wales? OQ56635

Our tax principles, published in our tax policy framework, bring consistency and coherence to our wider tax system by ensuring that Welsh taxes raise revenue fairly, support wider policy objectives, are clear, stable and simple, and encourage wide engagement, to create a more equal Wales for future generations, and I am currently reviewing the principles. 

Minister, there is far too much inequality within the UK, and far too much inequality within Wales. When we travel around our constituencies as Senedd Members, we see great differences in quality of life, wealth and income between various areas of our constituencies. So, there is much work to be done. Some of the levers rest with UK Government in terms of tax and benefits, but Welsh Government does have significant levers, and, after income tax, one of the most significant is council tax. The Institute for Fiscal Studies' report last year said that council tax in Wales is out of date, regressive and distortionary, and needs be revalued and reformed, and, indeed, there was a pledge in the Labour manifesto for these Senedd elections to reform council tax. So, reforming council tax could make a significant difference in making Wales a fairer country. So, could you tell us today, Minister, whether work will be taken forward urgently to look at the council tax system in Wales and how it might be reformed to make it much more progressive and fair? And will that work also look at alternatives such as a land valuation tax?

I thank you for that important question. There are two things I'd like to offer in my response, with the first being that I'm really pleased with what we were able to achieve over the course of the last Senedd term in terms of making council tax fairer. We removed the punishment of imprisonment for the non-payment of council tax because we know that struggling to pay your bills shouldn't be a crime. We also ensured that care leavers up to the age of 25 were removed from the burden of council tax, and we also worked really closely with MoneySavingExpert and Martin Lewis to ensure that people with severe mental impairments were able to access the range of support available to them in terms of support for council tax payments particularly. So, we did a lot in terms of making council tax fairer, but John Griffiths is absolutely right that the system, in and of itself, is not a progressive system; it's a regressive system, as the IFS said in that report, which was commissioned by the Welsh Government.

Over the course of the last Senedd, we undertook and commissioned a suite of research, including the work from the IFS, but also work from Bangor University, Cardiff University, and others, to explore what a fairer system might look like in future. Those options included a land value tax, local income tax, and keeping our current system but with a revaluation and potentially additional bands within the system. So, all of those pieces of work were collated in a summary of findings, which we published in February, and the job now for the Welsh Government, and, hopefully, working with partners across the Chamber, is to determine which of those options, if any, we take forward and how we go about that. So, there's certainly an exciting road for us, I think, over the course of this Senedd term in terms of the reforming of local taxation to make it fairer. 

Minister, many people in Brecon and Radnorshire commute to work out of the constituency to Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and beyond, and the only way those people can go to their place of work is by driving due to the rurality of my constituency and the lack of public transport. During the last term of the Senedd, the Welsh Government floated the idea of a potential road tax and, if imposed, this could hit the hard-working people of my constituency who are already paying their taxes to fund our public services and to keep growing the economy of Wales. Minister, can you confirm today that the Welsh Government is not looking to impose a road tax, as this would have a big impact on the pockets of the hard-working people of Brecon and Radnorshire? Diolch, Llywydd. 

So, the work to which you refer was a piece of work undertaken by the economy Minister in the last Senedd term to explore what a road tax might look like, and this isn't one of the taxes that we're currently actively considering taking forward at the moment in the immediate term. However, it is something that we're interested in exploring, to understand the merits or the demerits of it. So, it's certainly not an active proposal at the moment, but one of a wide variety of areas that we're looking at just to understand what the opportunities or the risks might be. So, there are no current immediate proposals, however, clearly interested in ideas. 

13:40
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservatives' spokesperson, Peter Fox. 

Diolch, Llywydd, and thank you, Minister, for coming before us today, and I look forward to a healthy working relationship with you over the coming period.

Minister, the Welsh Government's decision to delay major relaxation of restrictions by some four weeks has dashed the hopes of many sectors, in particular hospitality, which had been hoping obviously for an earlier return to trading after those difficult, disastrous 15 months we've had, and, for businesses to stay afloat for the duration of the current restrictions, it's now crucial that additional support is quickly made available. However, I noticed in the supplementary budget, which we received last night, it's only allocated funding for businesses to the end of this month—to June. So, Minister, as a matter of urgency, will you today answer my call to provide additional financial support to Wales's businesses beyond the end of this month?  

Thank you for the question, and I very much am looking forward to finding that common ground on which we can work collaboratively in the future, and congratulations on your appointment to what is an absolutely fascinating and wonderful portfolio, which I know you'll enjoy. 

Welsh Government has been really keen to provide the absolute best possible package of support for businesses right through the course of the pandemic, and, as a result, we've already announced and committed around £2.5 billion in financial support, and that safeguarded 160,000 Welsh jobs. Clearly, we're very mindful of the impact of the continued restrictions on certain sectors of the economy, which is why my colleague the education Minister recently announced an additional £2.5 million being made available to compensate those businesses, such as indoor attractions and wedding venues, who are still affected by the staged transition to alert level 1. The supplementary budget sets out the allocations which have been made to date. However, you'll be aware that, in the final budget, I did earmark up to £200 million of additional support for businesses. So, there is certainly some funding left to allocate, and I know that my colleague the Minister for Economy is speaking to officials about what schemes might look like in the future, and I know that he'll be keen to provide as much information as soon as possible. 

Well, thank you, Minister. That's reassuring, because Wales's businesses have warned me in no uncertain terms that they fear collapse. Many of them fear collapse unless more financial support is given now by your Government. And, with that in mind, it makes no sense why the Government is perhaps choosing to leave—. Well, I hear what you said, that business won't be left behind, but we're looking forward to seeing some of that support come forward sooner rather than later. The very recent research that we found from the Wales Fiscal Analysis suggested that there's roughly £500 million—and excuse me if I've got that wrong—in unallocated COVID-19 funding, which could be used to kick start Wales's financial recovery by extending the business rate freeze beyond the financial year—which is a great thing, don't get me wrong, but to extend it further—and perhaps with additional incentives. So, Minister, it's also imperative that our businesses are able to bounce back post pandemic. So, what are you going to do to ensure a long-term sustainable financial recovery for businesses and communities?

Well, I'm really pleased we were able to provide that 12-month business rate relief for businesses in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors here in Wales, which, of course, goes further than what's available to businesses across the border, and actually cost us more than what we received from the UK Government in consequential funding, but that's because we put such a premium on supporting businesses in those sectors, which are largely small and medium-sized enterprises. 

So, we will obviously look to continue to support businesses in any way that we can, and you're absolutely right that there is significant unallocated resource in the COVID reserve. However, that will need to meet needs across Welsh life. So, I would be expecting in the fairly near future to be making further announcements on support for the NHS and further support for local government, should it be needed through the hardship fund and so forth. There are lots of pressures on that additional funding, but I do want to provide reassurance that there will be announcements in respect of COVID funding in various areas in due course.

13:45

I really do welcome that; thank you, Minister. Many of our businesses are still here today, despite that massive damage inflicted by COVID. Of course, I think that is because of the £6 billion in support to Wales from the UK Government. Without that support, I think we all dread to think of the jobs and businesses that would not have been here now and would have been lost.

Now I know that the Welsh Government has claimed to have provided more funding for businesses than actually has been handed over by the UK. We heard Mrs Watson yesterday mention it in this Chamber, reaffirmed by the First Minister. If that is the case, then, without delay, the people of Wales must be given the full picture. Where has this money originated—the additional £400 million? Was it repurposed and how much of this may have been repurposed? How has that left other services, which that money had been repurposed from? How are they going to manage going forward? There are obviously some questions and some clarity needed around that.

But one thing is for certain: it's crucial that hard-hit families, as well as vitally important small and medium-sized businesses, do not foot the bill for the extra spending commitment. So, whilst I welcome that extra money being spent, there is always an opportunity lost in the cost to doing that. What we need is clear understanding. We certainly don't want those burdens, those additional costs, to fall onto families and businesses. So, will you today, Minister, answer these important concerns and will you also rule out any tax rises in the near future that would hamper Wales's financial recovery? Thank you.

I thank you for those questions. I always aim to be as absolutely transparent as I can be and I'll give my commitment to be as transparent as I possibly can be in the course of this Senedd as well. That's one of the reasons why we published three supplementary budgets in the course of last year. We were the only part of the UK to do that, because it was important to me that people understood where the money was coming from and where we were allocating it to.

In terms of repurposing funding, in the last financial year, I undertook an exercise with colleagues across Government to scrutinise their budgets and explore what could be returned to the centre to support the COVID response. That came forward with around £0.25 billion of repurposed funding. You'll find the details of that in our previous supplementary budgets, but largely it was in relation to activities that could no longer take place because of restrictions. So, they weren't cuts in the traditional sense, if you like, there.

But we've also been fortunate; because of decisions take here, things have cost us less to deliver, which has meant that we've been able to deliver more. A good example, I think, is our test, trace, protect system, which has been delivered by local authorities, by health boards and other public service partners here in Wales, and has delivered excellent value for money on top of being a really top-class service. Those are the kinds of decisions that we took here that allowed us to get a service for less financial outlay, but also a good service, and then allowed us to repurpose additional funding elsewhere.

We've said really, really clearly in our manifesto that we would not be looking to raise Welsh rates of income tax for as long as the economic crisis continues, and certainly we are absolutely in that crisis at the moment.

Thank you very much, Llywydd. May I take this opportunity to congratulate you and put on record my formal congratulations to you on your appointment as Minister in the current Government? I look forward very much to shadowing your work during this Senedd term.

Several layers of public administration have been created anew in Wales over the past few years. One of those is the public services boards, emerging from the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. One clear weakness in the framework of the Act and in the creation of the public services boards is the lack of consistent financial arrangements for these boards. Given the importance of the public services boards as the main vehicle of the delivery of the well-being Act on the ground in Wales, and bearing in mind that the membership of the boards is very similar, or is almost exactly the same, across Wales, and that they have the same statutory responsibility, the lack of a consistent, national financial approach and lack of access to joint funds is shocking. It's even stranger bearing in mind that some of the other entities, such as the regional partnership boards and the proposed corporate joint committees, also will be operating on a different basis. So, may I ask what your intention is, early in your term as Minister, to tackle this inconsistency?

13:50

Thank you for the question and your warm words welcoming me to this particular role. Again, I look very much forward to finding those areas of common ground that we can work on together.

In terms of public services boards and the other statutory boards that we have in Wales, you'll be familiar that there was a review carried out by the Welsh Government, reporting towards the end of last year, and that review set out some of those challenges that you've described in terms of the funding arrangements and the perceived duplication of some of the roles of the boards. But the report was very, very clear that any change should absolutely come from the ground up, rather than being imposed by the Welsh Government.

My immediate priorities within the local government side of my portfolio are the successful delivery of the decisions on the boundary reviews, and then also the successful delivery of the subordinate legislation underneath the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021. But I've been thinking about what the priorities will be moving towards the end of the year, and absolutely, looking at public services boards and the other boards in terms of their roles and how they're supported and so on will be important. That's a conversation that I've yet to open with local government and others, although I did have the opportunity to talk to Alun Michael about his views on this. But I feel, at this point, before I set out any way forward, I have to have those conversations and do some listening, clearly taking on board everything that you've said this afternoon too.

Well, lucky Alun Michael, I say. There we are. I'm sure there'll be others that you will be talking to.

Of course, this point has come about as a result of the Public Accounts Committee, a cross-party committee, at the end of the last Senedd, which looked at the implementation of the well-being of future generations Act. The committee said that the

'inconsistent funding arrangements for Public Services Boards limit their effectiveness.'

It's 'inefficient', and there is no justification for that. So, whilst I appreciate and understand that you're eager to work from the bottom up, the nature of the Act was that the diktat came from the top down, in terms of creating these boards in the first place. So, I would very much hope that this would be something that you would take seriously and seek to address.

But, of course, it's only one part of the work that the Public Accounts Committee described as a 

'complex and bureaucratic landscape of partnership bodies and plethora of legislative and reporting requirements'

in terms of the PSBs. And, of course, the latest addition to this landscape will be the corporate joint committees, the CJCs. In providing evidence to the committee for that inquiry, one of the senior directors of your department stated, and I quote:

'in the longer term, we would envisage some of those...partnerships, some of those other structures, becoming redundant, actually, because the CJCs will be taking a much more powerful overview—and a much wider overview as they settle in—that will begin to pick up some of that work of the other partnerships.'

You've perhaps touched on this in your previous response, but perhaps you could tell us what partnerships and structures you anticipate being made redundant over the ensuing period. And, indeed, the suggestion then is that the intention is to merge many of these structures into the CJCs ultimately, and that that is some sort of reorganisation of local government and public services through the back door.

That's certainly not the intention. You'll know that the initial focuses of work for the CJCs, when they are up and running, will be along the lines of regional and local—across those local boundaries—development in terms of economic development, and also planning. These are areas that are not currently the responsibility of public services boards, the regional partnership boards and so forth. But I'm absolutely, genuinely keen and open to have these discussions about how the boards can be made to work more effectively in future and to ensure that any changes to their responsibilities are done in partnership with those who sit on those boards. But CJCs are absolutely not a mechanism at this point for making those kinds of changes that you describe, because I think they'll be first and foremost trying to get to grips with those important items, such as economic development, that they will need to work on together. So, obviously I'll be keen to familiarise myself with the work of the Public Accounts Committee on this, alongside the other reports, and to have those discussions with public services boards, regional partnership boards and others before coming to a way forward.

13:55

Thank you. The Government hasn't formally responded to the report as of yet. I think the intention was to ask the current Government to respond because the report was published at the end of the last Senedd. And given your key role now in the context of local services and finance, too, I would hope that you would be part of that discussion in responding to that. I hope that that's not gone missing in all of the work of the Government. 

Another thing that became clear in the committee's report on the delivery of the Act was that, although we legislated to create a way of working here in Wales that is based on sustainable development and the preventative approach, and so on and so forth, the truth of the matter is that the funding system is anything but sustainable. The report recognises the impact of a decade of austerity imposed by the UK Government, which has run many of our public services to the ground, to all intents and purposes. It states in the report:

'Legislation which requires public bodies to plan for future generations is more difficult to implement properly if budgets are guaranteed for as little as one year at a time.'

Whilst recognising the clear challenges of the inadequate and deficient settlements that we've had from London, the committee does set a challenge to Government to do what it can to invest in our public services in order to deliver the ambitions of the Act. So, the question I'd like to close on is: will this Government, and will you as Minister, refuse to implement more austerity over the next five years and use creative approaches to lead a recovery that is driven by investment? That is, how will you as a Government protect the people of Wales from further cuts through your actions, not just through your words?

Thank you very much for that question. I share your concern and the concerns that you've described about one-year settlements and what that means for the difficulty in planning and having sustainable approaches to services. So, I'm really pleased to be able to say that we do expect, finally, the long-awaited comprehensive spending review later this year. We would expect it to be a three-year spending review, and that will give Welsh Government the chance then to implement a three-year budget moving forward and to give that three-year confidence to partners who need it, in local government and elsewhere as well. I think that's something that can be really positive, going forward. 

It does concern me when we consider what the Chancellor said in his March budget about the financial outlook for the future. Certainly it doesn't seem, for next year particularly, that we will be looking at a particularly positive settlement. So, things could change. Inevitably, the UK Government is going to be facing some of the same challenges that we are in terms of demand on the health service, the need to support and continue to support businesses and so forth. It remains to be seen what the UK Government does in its three-year comprehensive spending review, but it's absolutely our intent to provide that kind of certainty and also to continue to provide that protection as far as we can for the NHS and for local government, recognising the role that they play in providing services to people in our communities.

I'm really looking forward to bringing forward a debate before the end of term, very much in the way in which we've done over the last couple of years. And of course, you'll remember it's been led by the Finance Committee in the previous years so that the committee could reflect on the evidence gathered. Unfortunately, this year, we're not quite there yet with the committees, but I'm still keen to bring forward that debate to hear colleagues' priorities for the three years forthcoming.   

Local Authority Voting Systems

3. How will the Welsh Government ensure that local authorities adopt the single transferable vote as a voting system as a result of the coming into force of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021? OQ56641

The 2021 Act allows principal councils to choose either first-past-the-post or STV. A key principle throughout the 2021 Act is for decisions to be made locally. The Welsh Government should not interfere in that local choice by seeking to ensure councils have got one or other system.

14:00

Well, if you expect local authorities to do this voluntarily, I think you're kidding yourself to some extent, Minister. I think that the Government needs to be proactive in encouraging the local authorities to adopt this new system. So, do you agree with, for example, the Electoral Reform Society that you need to work with some local authorities to pilot this, perhaps? Perhaps there's a need to create some sort of fund to give them that incentive. There's local educational work to be doing in terms of the new voting system and without those elements being in place, it's just not going to happen. So, what I want to hear from you is whether there is an intention for you to be proactive rather than sitting back and ultimately seeing there's nothing happening.

So, of course the 2021 Act is following the same principle as the Wales 2017 Act did when it gave the Senedd the right to choose its voting system, so it is following that established process which would be applied to us here. But I did have an excellent meeting with the Electoral Reform Society earlier on this week, and they told me about work that they'd done with councillors to understand the appetite for STV amongst councillors here in Wales, and one of the things they reflected on quite significantly was the fact that quite a significant number of councillors didn't know and they didn't feel that they knew enough about STV and knew enough about the implications, how it might work and so forth, to make that decision, so I agreed that there was work that we could be doing jointly to provide information to councillors and to support that education work that the ERS wants to do to ensure that councillors are able to make at least an informed choice about the options available to them.

Minister, during my election count in May, council officers and volunteers were verifying and counting ballots for the Senedd constituency vote, the Senedd regional vote, police and crime commissioner election, and votes for council and community council by-elections. Going forward, it's not an unrealistic expectation to see a scenario where every one of these ballots could be counted under a different voting system. Does the Minister agree that this is a scenario that should be avoided, as not only will it lead to confusion amongst the electorate but it will hamper efforts to increase engagement in those democratic processes such as local council elections, that already struggle with voter turnout?

I think there is perhaps a tendency to overstate the complexities and the likelihood of voter confusion, because as you say, voters are already able to cope with a variety of voting systems, and as you've described, voters have different approaches in Senedd, UK parliamentary, and police and crime commissioner elections. So, the counting system under STV might be complicated, but the voting process certainly isn't in terms of ranking your candidates using one, two, three and so on, and it is important that ballot papers have clear instructions for voters as to how to cast their votes. So, I don't think that necessarily it will be beyond the wit of voters to be able to use a number of different systems when casting their ballots.

Can I ask the Minister to look at the number of spoilt ballot papers we had the length and breadth of Wales when we had the Senedd elections? But I can think of no worse electoral system than STV. Can I ask the Minister to look at the size of the wards and results from the Scottish council elections, which were held under STV? Can the Minister provide information to the public, not just to councils, on exactly how STV works? Because I think people talk about STV a lot and everybody says how wonderful it is until people start looking at it.

So, in terms of the Scottish council elections, I'm not aware of any problems that we've had in 2017 or 2012, but it is absolutely the case that 2007 was a very difficult year for those particular elections, which did combine the elections for the Scottish Parliament and local government on the same day. But I think the consensus is that those problems arose mainly because they were combined on a single ballot paper, and introduced a series of significant innovations on the same day, so namely the single-sided parliamentary ballot paper, electronic counting and the new STV voting system for local government. So, I think it is incumbent on us to look at experiences elsewhere to learn from the positive, but also obviously more difficult experiences, which I think that Scotland seems to have managed to have resolved.

14:05
The Financial Effect of COVID-19 on Local Authorities

4. What assessment has the Minister made of the financial effect of COVID-19 on local authorities in Wales? OQ56630

My ministerial colleagues and I have had regular discussions with local government leaders on the effect of the pandemic, including the financial impacts. Welsh Government officials have worked with local government finance directors to understand the sector’s needs, and we've responded with significant support, with funding of more than £1 billion. 

Thank you, Minister. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank local council workers for going above and beyond during the pandemic. Rhondda Cynon Taf's budget hasn't only been hit by the costs of COVID—we also have a bill of £12 million for the landslide remedial works in Tylorstown, and let's not forget millions to enhance culverts and drainage systems following the dreadful floods.

Our forefathers in Rhondda worked their fingers to the bone to make this country rich, many paying the ultimate price of coal. It wouldn't be fair to expect our communities to cover the costs to make our coal tips safe. I was proud to stand on a manifesto that committed to a coal tip safety Act, and I welcome the support from both Welsh Government and the UK Government for the work so far. Will the Minister continue to work closely with UK Government Ministers to ensure we receive the much-needed financial support?

I'd like to echo Buffy Williams's admiration and thanks for local government workers who, as she said, have gone absolutely above and beyond through the course of the pandemic, and keep doing so as we try and move through this current period as well.

It is absolutely the case that communities such as the one Buffy represents have played an incredibly important part in our history, and sacrificed a great deal as a result of it. The coal tip legacy that we have here in Wales is exactly that—it's a legacy, and it's something that the UK Government also needs to play its part in helping resolve. There is a large piece of work going on that looks at coal tip safety across Wales and coal tip remediation, to explore what work needs to be done there, but that work, I have to say, is a huge piece of work. It will span 10 years and it will take a lot of financial resources, too, so we are trying to work with the UK Government to secure funding to support us with that work. The First Minister wrote to the Prime Minister on 19 March proposing ways that we could move forward on that. He is currently awaiting a response, but it's something that we will continue to press the UK Government to work with us constructively on. 

Let me join also in paying tribute to the hard work of local authorities during this time, and pay credit to all the efforts made by those at the front face of this, but also to those behind the scenes in those support services who have been doing things like balancing the books to ensure that the services have been able to continue and support our communities. 

One of the issues this pandemic has shone a light on is the preparedness of governments at all levels for events of national crisis and significance. So in light of this, what funding will you make available to local authorities to enable them to be fully prepared for similar events in the future?

Thank you for raising this issue. We do have a civil contingencies unit within the Welsh Government, and work is under way to examine the preparations and planning of all parts of Welsh Government in terms of what we need to do alongside partners for future pandemics, learning from our experiences during this one. Of course, funding forms part of those considerations, but it is dependent on the upcoming comprehensive spending review in terms of providing that certainty through multi-year budgets. I do think, moving forward, we have really, really strong foundations on which to build. The work that we've done in partnership with local authorities and through our support in the local government COVID hardship fund has really been, I think, exemplary in many ways in terms of meeting local communities' needs. So, we'll need to find ways in which we can continue to build on what we have so that we are ready for anything that requires a civil contingencies response. Of course, we fervently hope that there is not another pandemic, but absolutely, we need to prepare for everything. 

COVID has undoubtedly had a big impact on public finances and local authorities have been no exception. The way in which the public sector has come together and given up resources to help in the fight against the pandemic has been inspiring. I'm also aware that some councils in Wales have been unable to spend some of their budgets, as operations have ceased or been curtailed in certain sectors. For example, I'm aware of some community councils who have built up significant reserves as the things that they normally spend money on, they haven't been able to because those have been on stop. Is there any advice that this Government can issue to councils, whether it county or community, about the use of reserves in mitigating against the impact of reduced income in other areas, and easing the burden on council tax payers? 

14:10

Thank you for raising that important issue. We've been really conscious of lost income for local authorities in particular and, as a result, Welsh Government has provided £190.5 million to support local government in terms of lost income. And that includes lost income from adult social services for which they would normally make a charge, other services such as planning where they might look to make income, services such as theatres, which lots of local authorities run, and catering services, and so forth. So, we worked really closely with local government, and that figure of £190.5 million was identified. And we were able to provide the support there to meet that cost. And we've also provided additional funding for local government to recognise the fact that they have not been able to collect all of the council tax that they would have normally collected as well. So, we've been able to support local authorities in that respect.

Of course, if there is additional income now in reserve, I think it could be an opportunity for local authorities and those local town and community councils to be considering what their contribution might be as we move into the recovery, and what their own local communities are telling them that they would like to see that investment in.

Business Support

5. What consideration did the Welsh Government give to business support in Wales when drafting its 2021-22 budget? OQ56627

Our package of business support is the most generous available anywhere in the UK, and we have provided more in business support than we've received from the UK Government in respect of support in England. I have earmarked up to £200 million of additional business support in 2021-22 to respond to the evolving changes of the pandemic.

Thank you. Given that one of the Welsh Government's responsibilities is business development, you would expect the Welsh Government to also contribute some of its own money above the additional UK Government funding. Despite the First Minister's denials, a restaurant owner in north Wales ineligible for the Welsh Government's latest funding stated that he had stabbed them in the back. Another hospitality business e-mailed: 'I spoke to Mark Drakeford when he visited Wrexham Lager brewery. He told me there would be a restart grant for when my pub reopens, another grant because my pub could not open due to not having outdoor space, and a further grant for operating on 17 May. I've just checked Business Wales' website only to find I'm not eligible for any grants at all'. He subsequently found out he may be able to apply for a grant of £2,500, which he said does not compare to England's equivalent grant of £8,000. 

Another described the Welsh Government's grant announcement as a slap in the face. Another told me: 'We were promised by Mark Drakeford that money had been set aside and would be promptly distributed as soon as Government had been voted in, but haven't received any funding. Another said: 'The last round of grants covered us up to the end of March. The latest grants cover from May to June. What happened to April when we were still closed?' Simply repeating the First Minister's claim that Welsh Government has provided the most generous package of business support in the UK is an insult to these and the many other of these businesses who have contacted me and other Members. What, if anything, have you got to say to them? What are you going to do about it?  

I have to say to Mark Isherwood it's more than a claim—it's a fact. Welsh Government has provided the most generous package of business support, and businesses in north Wales have received over £475 million of support through the economic resilience fund since that was put in place in April 2020. And the support that we've given to the tourism industry in Wales is the most generous in the UK, and that's because of the bespoke arrangements that we have put in place. Now, inevitably, we're not going to be able to reach every single business. However, I can't respond to nameless businesses that you've described in the Chamber without knowing all of the facts. But Welsh Government has recently published a link to all of the support that businesses have received in Wales, and I think that colleagues will find that quite instructive and positive, in terms of being able to look at the businesses in their own communities and constituencies that have received Welsh Government funding. So, as I say, Welsh Government has provided the most generous package of business support. It's designed to complement the UK Government's support through the furlough scheme, and we're very keen that the furlough scheme is extended for as long as it's needed, rather than coming to an end in short order.

14:15
Decarbonising Transport

Minister, congratulations on your new role. I'd like to ask you:

6. What consideration has the Minister given to decarbonising transport when allocating the budget to the climate change portfolio? OQ56629

Tackling climate change is at the heart of this Government’s policy making. For example, this year we have provided £275 million of capital funding to support the continued delivery of our metro networks, increased investment in active travel to around £55 million, and allocated £38 million to support the roll-out of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, zero-emission buses, taxis and private hire vehicles.

Thank you, Minister. From 2013 to 2014, Wales replaced the bus services operating grant with the bus services support grant, with funding set at £25 million. This fixed pot of £25 million has not changed since the BSSG's inception, with 10 per cent top-sliced for community transport and a further £100,000 top-sliced as the operators' contribution to running Traveline Cymru, leaving £22.4 million net for local registered bus services in Wales. In contrast, the Scottish Government's bus service operators grant comprises of a core payment and an incentive for the operation of green, environmentally friendly buses. The core payment aims to support operators to keep fares at affordable levels, and networks are more extensive than would otherwise be the case. And the green incentive helps with the additional running costs of low-emission buses, to support their key uptake by operators. I'd like to know, Minister, what discussions have you had with the Minister for Climate Change to provide an incentive through the bus services operating grant to bus companies in Wales to decarbonise their vehicle stock.

Thank you for raising that issue, and I'm really pleased to say that we do have a debate on buses, of course, later on this afternoon, where some of these issues can be explored in more depth with the Minister with responsibility for transport. But decarbonisation of transport is critical, and, as I've described, some of the investment that we are making is specifically in zero-emission buses, so that the services are able to operate in a way that is more in line with our ambitions for tackling climate change. And throughout the pandemic, we've provided the bus industry here in Wales with significant funding to ensure that it kept going through the pandemic, knowing how important that service is for many key workers to get to their place of employment. So, our support for the bus industry has been significant. It's still here today, thanks to the support that we've given it through the pandemic, but that's not to say that there can't be and shouldn't be change in future, both in terms of ensuring a more carbon efficient service, but also a service that is just more responsive to the demands of our particular communities and one that is alongside our ambitions, really, for social justice. So, the current system, because of the deregulation of the bus industry, means that some of the places where buses are most needed aren't well served, but areas where people are able to pay more tend to get a better service, unfortunately.

Minister, constituents have been in touch with me saying that they find it very difficult, in Canton in Cardiff, to travel by bike back and forth to school, because of an absence of cycle lanes. What assessment has the Welsh Government made, in terms of decarbonising transport, of funding for Safe Routes to School for councils such as Cardiff council? Thank you.

Welsh Government has provided, over recent years, significant funding for councils for Safe Routes to School, Safe Routes in Communities, and also our active travel funding. At the start of the previous Senedd, we were only investing around £16 million a year in active travel, but, as I said, investment now has increased to around £55 million, showing the constant and increased priority that we are giving to active travel, for all the reasons that you described, but also in terms of our clean air ambitions as well.

14:20
The Local Authority Funding Formula

7. Will the Minister commit to an independent review of the current formula for funding local authorities in Wales? OQ56642

Yes. The funding formula is developed and maintained jointly with local government. If local government, through the collective voice of the Welsh Local Government Association, has proposals for different approaches or wants a formal review of the formula, then it is open for it to propose this. 

Thank you, Minister. I appreciate the response. I raise this with you as I have some grave concerns that the current funding formula is no longer fit for purpose. It was put in place many years ago—we know the history of that—and it may have been right for that time, but I don't believe that it's right for the situation that we're in now. 

As a past long-standing council leader, I have seen the growing disparity between funding and reserves of various councils and have argued that the system is out of date and requires review. We currently see variations in funding per capita from £1,000 to over £1,700 per person, with an expectation for lower funded councils to just keep turning to increases in council tax to block the shortfalls and this isn't sustainable. Minister, do you believe that recognising rurality, sparsity and the increased unit cost of delivering services in large rural authorities will be fundamental in any revised formula or method of funding local authorities?

Well, this funding formula is developed in consultation with local government to ensure that there is fair treatment of different factors, and, of course, the independent members of the distribution sub-group are there to ensure that there is no bias in favour of or against the interests of any particular authority, and they also, of course, identify technical issues. But it is the case that the formula seeks to take on board a range of things. So, you'll know from Monmouthshire that one of the reasons that Monmouthshire receives a lower settlement grant than others is due to the higher relative ability that you have to raise council tax compared to other councils, and that data used in the settlement reflects that Monmouthshire has a relatively smaller amount of deprivation than other Welsh areas, and I think that considering deprivation in areas and our need to provide services is absolutely key to the formula. But it does mean also that, in 2021-22, Monmouthshire's settlement increased by 3.9 per cent, and that was actually above the Welsh average. So, when you pull lots of factors together, you do get these different responses. But I think tackling deprivation is absolutely key and I wouldn't want any change to a formula to be moving away from that.

Non-devolved Policy Areas

8. Will the Minister make a statement on the percentage of the Welsh Government's budget for 2021-22 that is spent on areas of policy that are not devolved? OQ56624

The Welsh Government only invests in line with the priorities voted upon by the people of Wales. This has included the need to invest to address historic and consistent underinvestment by the UK Government in critical areas such as broadband and rail infrastructure.

Thank you, Minister. On 19 May 2021, the First Minister admitted himself to the Senedd that:

'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'.

So, pardon my astonishment, then, that the Welsh Government so soon into this new Senedd has already started to spend resources on a non-devolved area of policy. Now, whilst the First Minister may think that he has the ability to design an experiment that will allow you to test the claims that are made for UBI, every single penny that is invested and minute of time spent by officials on this pursuit of a socialist utopia is simply quite unjustifiable. In fact, Wales would be a step closer to being a communist state should your concept of giving every person a fixed amount of money every month become a reality. So, will you as Minister state how much resources have you agreed to allow to be allocated to fund work related to UBI this financial year? Diolch.

Well, of course, universal basic income is about alleviating poverty, and that is absolutely the interest of the Welsh Government. It's also about giving people more control over their lives and having a positive impact on their mental health and their well-being—all things that we would want to achieve here in Wales. We've followed pilots across the world very closely and with interest, and we think that there is the opportunity to test a version here.

Of course, we are not testing a version for the entire population. We're thinking about a cohort of people, potentially care leavers, who I think are some of the most vulnerable people and the people who are most deserving of us supporting them, and finding creative ways and innovative ways to support those individuals. So, we're looking closely at models that have been drawn up elsewhere; we're looking at the experience of Scotland and other countries across the world. But all of this work is being undertaken in the portfolio of the Minister for Social Justice, and she'll be managing this particular piece of work within her main expenditure group.

14:25

I thank the Minister.

Before we move on, can I just say that I've noticed a tendency for a proliferation of flag flying behind Members on Zoom this week? It looks as if the R rate on flags is greater than 1 at the moment. Therefore, from next week, no more flags. Otherwise, I'll be tempted to fly the flag of the independent tropical republic of Ceredigion behind me here. [Interruption.] Exactly. So, we move on to a flagless week next week, please.

2. Questions to the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

The next item is the questions to the Minister for rural affairs, the north, and the Trefnydd, Lesley Griffiths, and the first question is by Rhun ap Iorwerth. 

The Food Sector in Ynys Môn

1. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government efforts to promote the food sector in Ynys Môn? OQ56632

Member
Lesley Griffiths MS 14:26:56
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Last month the £20 million expansion of Mona Island Dairy, backed by Welsh Government funding, was announced. The Welsh Government continues to promote the food and drink sector, and producers from Ynys Môn will have the opportunity to take part in our international showcase, Blas Cymru, later this year.

Thank you, Minister. You'll know that I have drawn attention on several occasions to the lack of appropriate property for food production in Ynys Môn. I've pushed for investment of that kind, and I've appreciated meetings with you and officials on this in the past. But we are still seeing company after company having to retrofit business units to make them appropriate for food production.

This is a sector that's very exciting on Ynys Môn. I visited Mona Island Dairy's new factory last week, and I'm very grateful to the Government for the support for that initiative. But let's use this as a springboard for the kind of investment that I'm calling for in premises where we can grow this sector—producing food and generating jobs in a sector that is so exciting in Ynys Môn. I offer again to collaborate with the Government to turn this into a reality.

Diolch. And as you know, we had a brief conversation, I think the last time we met in the Senedd; I'd be very happy to have a further meeting with you. Obviously, the Food Technology Centre in Llangefni is somewhere where we've explored this, and it is absolutely essential that you have the purpose-built units to which you refer, so that we can encourage further innovation. That's a conversation that I will continue to have with all three, actually, of our food technology centres here in Wales.

Diolch. Trade and industry leaders have welcomed the return of freeports to the UK, and food processing, confectionery, alcoholic drinks and textile sectors may stand to gain most. UK trade deals offer a boost to Welsh businesses, where, for example, Anglesey sea salt, Welsh lamb, Conwy mussels and the Vale of Clwyd Denbigh plum are among 15 iconic Welsh products that could be protected in Japan for the first time as part of the UK-Japan trade deal.

The UK Government is establishing 10 or more freeports around the UK, and wants to establish a freeport in each UK nation. This will require a joined-up approach, with businesses, communities, local authorities and the Welsh Government all coming on board. The UK freeport model encompasses a broad set of measures to stimulate economic activity, while creating jobs and having a regenerative effect on ports, local communities and economies. How would you therefore engage with the the Anglesey freeport steering group, with members from Ynys Môn and across north Wales working to develop an Anglesey Holyhead freeport proposal?    

Well, at present, no formal offer has been presented to the Welsh Government on a proposed Welsh freeport. But we have been absolutely clear that we cannot accept the proposal that a Welsh freeport would receive just £8 million in financial support while every freeport in England gets £25 million. I'm sure the Member would agree that's completely unacceptable. And Welsh Ministers did write to the UK Treasury, back in February, making that very clear. And we also set out conditions where a joint approach could be taken, but as yet we haven't received a response to that letter. So, it's not possible to take a decision on it unless we have a response from the UK Government.

I'm sure, again, you will agree that the Secretary of State's suggestion that the UK Government might choose to implement a freeport in Wales, without our agreement, represents yet another example of a top-down throwback to pre-devolution economic policy, where the message was, 'In Wales, you'll get what you're given.' And the UK Government need to work with us not against us.

14:30
The Outline Trade Agreement Between the UK Government and Australia

2. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of the recent outline trade agreement between the UK Government and Australia on North Wales beef and lamb farmers? OQ56634

Thank you. We've worked closely with industry stakeholders to identify any potential impacts on the Welsh agricultural sector. This work underpinned our representations to the UK Government, stating any trade deal must not disadvantage Welsh farmers or compromise our high standards.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. The in-principle agreement of a new free trade deal with Australia, announced by the UK Government, fails British farmers in the same way it has failed the British fishing industry. It would allow Australia to increase its beef export to the UK by more than 60 times the 2020 levels in the first year, before any tariffs would kick in. This sets a very dangerous precedent for further trade deals with countries such as the US and Canada. And I know that farmers across the North Wales region that I represent are deeply concerned by this.

The deal also threatens food standards, animal welfare regulation and environmental protections, on top of astronomical food miles, which we should be working to reduce in light of the climate emergency. It is vital that produce from Australia is clearly labelled, so we as consumers can make informed choices about the food we buy and the repercussions. What representations has the Welsh Government made to the UK Government on this matter, calling for protections for Welsh farmers and the industry standards we have at present? Thank you. Diolch.

Thank you. Welsh Government officials have worked very closely with our industry stakeholders and other devolved administrations so that we've been able to assess the potential impacts from all ongoing trade negotiations, and obviously that includes the agreement with Australia. I have to say, the entire five years since the European Union referendum, back in June 2016, we have made these points repeatedly and very clear representations to the UK Government for appropriate agricultural safeguards, so that we don't have that very unlevel playing field going forward. I don't think the UK Government were in any doubt about our view regarding the importance of retaining tariffs and quotas on our very sensitive agricultural goods, such as lamb and beef. I've also repeatedly highlighted to the UK Government how this deal could set a precedent. I think you make a very important point: it's not just about the Australia deal, it's about the other trade deals too.

In relation to your question around standards, again, we don't want our very high standards to be undermined by countries that might not have the same high standards as ours. I attend an inter-ministerial group with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other devolved administrations. We've held them probably every six weeks through the last term of Government. The next one now is next Monday—this will be the first one of this term—and we'll be able to reiterate that. If it's taken into account, we will see.

On labelling, again, I think that's really important, because people really understand about provenance now, and they want to know where their food is coming from. So, it's very important that any Australian meat should be clearly labelled at sale, so that people can make those decisions and that it can be distinguished from higher standard produce that will also be on the shelves.

I did find it interesting that, on a recent visit to a farm with the National Farmers Union and a number of farmers, their significant concerns were not trade agreements but actually areas that you, Minister, have control of, such as nitrate vulnerable zones and the growing threat that TB is posing to their livestock and, therefore, their livelihoods. But that aside, in light of the opportunities that this and future trade deals provide, what additional efforts are you making to promote Welsh beef and lamb overseas?

14:35

So, the Welsh Government have provided significant funding to Hybu Cig Cymru. We've worked very closely with them to ensure that we are able to promote our beef and lamb right around the world. Clearly, since the COVID-19 pandemic, we haven't been able to undertake the number of trade visits that we would normally do, although we have done some virtual ones. But, hopefully, we'll be able to continue those trade visits going forward, as we're able to travel. 

Again, we work very closely with other stakeholders to do that, and we also—. You may have heard me say in an earlier answer to Rhun ap Iorwerth that, later this year, we will be holding the unfortunately postponed Blas Cymru. That attracts literally millions of pounds, and Welsh lamb and Welsh beef will be very prominent there too.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Diolch, Llywydd. Firstly, can I congratulate the Minister on her reappointment, and I look forward to working towards a fairer and prosperous rural Wales? Minister, at an event in Cardiff as part of Seafood Week in 2016, you announced your intention to double sea aquaculture production by 2020. As the 2019 marine plan and the subsequent 2020 report failed to reference this objective, and figures are a year and a half behind publication, has this policy sunk without a trace?

Welcome to Samuel Kurtz on his appointment, and I look forward to you shadowing me. I think, regardless of what Rebecca says, I think this is a very exciting portfolio too and I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

It hasn't; we still have that policy. Clearly, we have had some issues with our seafood exports, particularly you'll be aware of the issues around live bivalve molluscs, and since we left the European Union, the difficulties that we've had. That absolutely is a priority for us at the moment because, literally, the export industry is at a cliff edge. So, we are concentrating on that, but, no, the policy is still there.

Thank you. One issue that does continue to cause stress and anguish for farmers across Wales is bovine TB, an issue that successive Welsh Ministers have failed to really get to grips with. Last week, in responding to a question from my colleague Janet Finch-Saunders, the First Minister laid the blame for the spread of TB at the feet of Welsh farmers, saying,

'the reason why low area statuses have moved up is because of the importation of TB by farmers buying infected cattle and bringing them into the area.'

This statement caused outrage amongst farmers here in Wales, who are doing all that is being asked of them by this Welsh Government to combat bovine TB. You and I both know that a clear pre-movement test is required before cattle can be moved. Yesterday, the First Minister, you and I received a letter from the National Beef Association, who called on the First Minister and the Welsh Government to, I quote:

'brush up on the scientific and proven facts surrounding bovine TB and then apologise to the industry for the damage you have caused by your false statement.'

Minister, will you now either offer this apology to the Welsh agricultural industry, or do you publicly endorse the views that the First Minister stated last week?

I think it was one of the rudest letters I've ever had the misfortune to receive, to be perfectly frank with you. I think what you say is incorrect around statistics. If you look at the trend that's certainly been occurring over the past, I think it's 33 months now, we have seen a decrease in the 12-month total of new herd incidents and we've had a 2 per cent decrease in new incidents in the 12 months to March 2021. And, clearly, the information that we have been given is that the likely causes for the increases in TB in the Conwy valley, Denbighshire and the Pennal areas, which I think are the areas that Janet Finch-Saunders raised with the First Minister, appear to have been driven initially by moves into the area from holdings in higher incidence TB areas, and then subsequently by local movements within that area, particularly within holdings under the same business control.

Thank you, but that just goes to show that the false negatives that come from the current bovine TB skin test show that if movement is being undertaken under the Welsh Government policy that there is a failure of policy here.

It was recently announced, however, that Carmarthenshire County Council spent the grand sum of £136,000 on their Hollywood-esque Carmarthen/Caerfyrddin sign on the side of the eastbound A40 carriageway, with money coming from the Welsh Government's rural development plan. This, coupled with the Wales Audit Office's findings that the Welsh Government had not taken appropriate measures to ensure value for money in the absence of competition, shows that in its current guise the RDP is not fit for purpose. Minister, can you confirm it is the intention of the Welsh Government to commit to a full independent review of the RDP to ensure vanity projects and favouritism no longer cloud the Government's judgment around administering RDP grants?

14:40

There are no plans to undertake a further review of the 2014-20 RDP. Officials have acknowledged the approach to testing value for money for a number of the historic RDP projects didn't represent best practice. So, I think there will not be a further review of that. 

Thank you very much, Llywydd. And may I congratulate you too on your reappointment as Minister? And I look forward to developing a constructive relationship with you over the coming years. I too am going to continue the theme of the RDP, if I may? There's been a great deal of coverage over the past few months to fully funding the rural development plan, and that plan, as we all know, is crucially important to rural Wales, supporting farms directly and also in developing economic and environmental projects.

However, there is concern in the sector that the Welsh Government will fail to spend the full budget for this plan by the end of the financial period in 2023. Based on the latest figures published, only a little over 60 per cent of the funding for this programme has been spent to date. If the Government is to spend all of the funding available, namely £838 million by December 2023, then we will need to see a substantial increase in the monthly spend rate from £6 million to £10 million, which is quite a leap. So, what measures does the Welsh Government intend to put in place to ensure that all of this funding is spent in order to support our rural areas? And does the Minister accept that, if the Welsh Government doesn't spend the funding in full, this will give the Westminster Government another excuse to provide less funding for agriculture in Wales in coming years, putting at risk the economic stability and viability of our agricultural industry? 

Thank you. And welcome to you to your opposition spokesperson's role, and I very much look forward to working with you too. We do continue to make very good progress in relation to our RDP programme delivery. More than £512 million has already been spent. As you say, there's a further £362 million to be spent over the next three years, and certainly I meet regularly with my officials who monitor the RDP, and at the moment we are very confident that that funding will be spent. 

Thank you very much. I hope that you won't be like John Redwood, taking pride in the fact that we would be sending Welsh funding back to the Treasury. 

The second question: tree planting on farmland. Another important issue for our rural communities is plans for tree planting on farmland. Recently, I met with representatives from Myddfai Community Council in Carmarthenshire and some local farmers in that area to hear increasing evidence of whole farms, as much as 300 acres, being purchased by rich businesspeople and major international companies for the planting of trees for carbon offsetting. And they gave me examples of farms in Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and south Powys that have recently been purchased for this end. And it seems that Glastir funding is being used to support these plans. In one case, this had prevented a young farmer, who had intended to return and buy land close to the family farm, and he was prevented from doing that because this farm had been bought for carbon-offsetting purposes.

Now, I am sure you would agree with me that once our family farms are lost and covered in trees, they won't be returned to agricultural usage. And this is a disaster, of course, not just for food production in Wales, but also for the sustainability of our rural communities, as it leads to more rural depopulation and a damaging impact on the sustainability of our rural schools and public services in rural areas too.

Nobody doubts the importance of tree planting in delivering against our environmental policies, but we must do this while safeguarding the viability of our agricultural businesses. So, the question for the Minister is this: do you agree with me that it is entirely absurd that companies and wealthy people from outside of Wales, for example, can get hold of farming support payments through the Glastir scheme to plant trees when that policy should ensure that the funding remains in Wales? And will the Government ensure that it's only active farmers who can access support payments through this scheme and that we cap the percentage of farm acres that can be allocated for tree planting and that planning permission is needed in order to do so? Thank you.

14:45

Thank you very much. You raised several important points, with, I think, the first one around a young farmer being unable to either rent or purchase farmland or a farm. And I've done a significant amount of work with young farmers, along with Llyr Huws Gruffydd, when he was in your role, to ensure that they have the opportunity to start their own farm, or, if they can't buy one, then at least rent one. So, I think you raise a really important point. And protecting our farms is something that, obviously, I believe is vital to my role. And going forward, as we develop our agricultural policy, again, you may be aware that the words 'active farmer' appear a lot, if you look at the White Paper that I published back in December, and ensuring that it's active farmers who are rewarded for the work is very high in the priorities there.

Tree planting is clearly very important. If we are going to achieve our carbon emissions ambitions, if we are going to achieve our climate change ambitions, we need to be planting more trees. I've always said—and tree planting now sits within the climate change ministry—when I had responsibility for it, we weren't planting enough trees. So, it is important that we do plant trees, but, obviously, who gets the funding for that is also important.

Diolch yn fawr iawn. I absolutely agree that planting trees is important, but it's the right tree in the right place and for the right reason.

So, my final question—

—in Welsh: clearly, the main focus of the work of Government and the Senedd over the next few years in relation to rural issues will be the introduction of a new agriculture Bill for Wales. The multiple challenges facing rural areas in Wales and the agricultural sector mean that we need to draw a new context for agriculture in Wales and to ensure a far more prosperous future for farming. That has to happen in a way that provides resilience for our family farms and that should be at the heart of the regeneration of the industry. And I'm sure you would agree that we as a Senedd must support Welsh farmers in their aim of being one of the most environmentally sustainable agricultural sectors in the world. But we must also recognise that in order for those farms to be environmentally sustainable, they must also be economically viable and sustainable. Therefore, with the need for time to develop, pilot, model and assess the appropriate impact of the contribution of your proposed plans for the economic, environmental, social and cultural well-being of Wales, does the Minister agree that the basic payment should be safeguarded at current levels—particularly in the context of post-COVID recovery and damaging trade policies imposed by the UK Government, as we've heard mention of already—in order to promote greater economic stability for the industry during this challenging time?

Thank you. You will be aware that we maintained the basic payment scheme payments at the same level for 2021. If I receive the funding that we should receive from the UK Government, we will look to do it for 2022 also. As we develop the sustainable farming scheme that is set out in the White Paper and we bring forward the agricultural Bill, I've made it very clear that we won't introduce the new scheme until it's absolutely ready. So, there won't be any concern about falling through the gaps or anything like that, because I think it's absolutely vital that that scheme is up and running. And we've had two consultations. We've now had the White Paper, so, over three years, we've got significant responses to consultations that we can work on with in-depth analysis continuing at the moment. But I think, to give farmers the certainty that I do think they need in these very uncertain times, so long as we get that same funding from the UK Government, we'll do that for 2022.

14:50
Roaming Farm Animals

3. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of roaming farm animals on animal welfare? OQ56661

We've not made an assessment of the impact of roaming farm animals on animal welfare. Animal owners and keepers have a legal duty to care for the animals for which they are responsible.

Thank you very much, Minister. I would suggest that perhaps the Government do so. Those of us who live and were brought up in the Heads of the Valleys are well used to seeing sheep around our communities as part of the nature of the place. But what we've seen recently is the failure of the local authority in Blaenau Gwent to maintain fences and to maintain the common areas where they have responsibilities, which has meant that we have a significant animal welfare problem within the borough. We had seven animals killed in one accident on the eve of poll in May, and this is exceptionally distressing both for the keepers and the farmers, but also for people who have to witness that. And I think it's important to recognise that there are statutory bodies here with responsibilities, and I would be grateful if the Welsh Government could, first of all, carry out the assessment that I spoke about, and then ensure that local authorities do deliver on their obligations and their responsibilities in these matters.

Thank you, and, as you say, in May this year, unusually high numbers of sheep were reported to be roaming around towns in your constituency. People were obviously concerned about the possibility of accidents being caused, but, of course, for the welfare of the animals themselves, as you say. It's, I think, right to point out that anyone with concerns should contact Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council. The maintenance of boundaries is the responsibility of the landowner, but if fences are deliberately damaged, for instance, that should be reported to the police. You suggest that we need to do some further work with the local authority, and I will commit to doing that, and, obviously, inform the Member when that's been completed.

Minister, animal welfare is a priority for all Members and many people in society. Roaming livestock is an issue, as also are people who are roaming the countryside and the dangers that that poses, both to livestock and that the livestock poses to people, and we've seen some tragic accidents in recent years. Are you aware of schemes that have been undertaken in the south-west of England that have allowed temporary diversions of foot paths to protect ramblers and people who enjoy the countryside, as well as livestock? And if you are aware, then, could I encourage you to have a discussion with the Minister for climate change, who's responsible for public rights of way, to encourage greater take-up of these types of schemes to avoid tragic accidents in the countryside and improve animal welfare?

Thank you. I'm not aware of the schemes—I think you said the south-east of England—but it's certainly something that I will ask officials to look at and to explore to see if there are any lessons we can learn.

Improving Animal Welfare

4. What is the Welsh Government doing to improve animal welfare in Wales? OQ56663

5. How will the Welsh Government improve animal health and welfare over this Senedd term? OQ56647

8. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government priorities for improving animal welfare during the course of this Senedd term? OQ56657

Llywydd, I understand that you've given your permission for questions 4, 5 and 8 to be grouped. Animal health and welfare is a priority for the Welsh Government and for the Wales animal health and welfare framework group. The framework group, launched in 2014, sets out our 10-year overarching plan for making improvements in standards of animal health and welfare.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. Since the start of the pandemic, there's been a large increase in pet ownership in Wales. Many of these animals have found their loving, forever homes. However, there is concern from the likes of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that the end of the pandemic could be the perfect storm for abandonments. The combination of a surge in spur-of-the-moment pet ownership, the change in people's circumstances and the economic impacts of the pandemic could all hit and lead to a surge in people no longer able to look after their pets. We know this fluctuation exists. Google searches for 'buy a puppy in the UK' quadrupled in the middle of March last year, before doubling again in early May. Then, in November, search terms related to selling puppies and dogs online, such as 'sell puppy' and 'selling a dog' saw spikes on Google.

As the pandemic eases, can the Welsh Government work with charities, such as the RSPCA and Dogs Trust, as well as local authorities, on an information campaign to make sure people are pointed in the right direction for support if they're struggling with their pets, and to highlight the best and safest routes forward so no animal has to suffer through no fault of their own?

14:55

Thank you. I think you raise a really important point, and I think many people will be grappling with this issue, perhaps as they go back to work, back to the office or back to their place of employment, because they bought the animal during the COVID pandemic. That change of company throughout the day could cause a big impact on the pet, but also on the owners as well. So, I think they need to plan how they are going to make that transition and being out of the house for long periods of time. Obviously, planning and routine can help animals to adjust to new ways of living. As a Welsh Government, we've always worked closely with the framework group that I mentioned, and also the animal welfare network group we have in Wales, and we've been producing relevant guidance and relevant support for people to be able to do that, and a lot of it is linked to our Welsh Government website, so people can access that very easily. 

We've also supported the work of the Pet Advertising Advisory Group. That was set up back in 2001 to combat growing concerns regarding the irresponsible advertising of pets for sale, rehoming and exchange, and, again, that was something that was highlighted to me probably at the beginning of the pandemic as we realised people were indeed buying—we saw a huge increase in the number of people buying dogs, in particular. People really need to think hard about the commitment involved in pet ownership, and it's really important to say—and it's a great opportunity to be able to say this again—a new pet should be sourced responsibly.

I'm sure I'm not the only Member with four-legged friends. I have a Jack Russell named Poppy and a cat named Binx. I couldn't imagine my life without them. They're not just pets, they're part of the family. That isn't to say they always behave, and, as difficult as they can be at times, I would be horrified if they were ever harmed or stolen. In my Rhondda constituency, we've sadly seen a rise in the number of dog thefts and attempted dog thefts. South Wales Police are doing all they can do recover stolen dogs. How can the Welsh Government support the police to prevent dog thefts from happening in the future?

I absolutely agree with you—I firmly believe pets enhance family life, and we have certainly seen, unfortunately, an increase particularly in dog thefts over the past few years. It's a criminal offence under the Theft Act 1968, which is, obviously, a reserved piece of legislation, and the maximum penalty is seven years' imprisonment. Officials right across the UK have been considering carefully how we can best tackle pet theft, and DEFRA, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice have come together jointly in the UK Government and brought forward a taskforce. That was announced, I think, literally just after, or even on the day of, our election in May, and that's going to look at information that all police forces hold in relation to this matter. They're going to report on their findings very soon, actually, over the summer recess.

Here in Wales, I'm just about to announce—well, I think I may have just announced—that next week I'm to meet our Wales rural and wildlife crime co-ordinator. We've got some fantastic rural crime teams here in Wales; I think they're the envy of the England police forces. So, what I've done is agreed to fund a 12-month trial for this co-ordinator—commissioner, actually—and he is going to lead and facilitate effective liaison and co-ordination with the four police forces here in Wales. So, I'm looking forward to meeting him next week. I think it's a very exciting role, going forward.

Minister, I was really pleased to see in the programme for government a reference to banning the use of snares, an issue that I've campaigned on since I was first elected in 2016. Snares, as we know, cause indiscriminate suffering to pets, farm animals and protected species alike. Are you able to provide any further details as to when Welsh Government will be bringing forward its proposals?

I'm not able to give you a timeline for it. Obviously, it's in our programme for government, so it will be during this Senedd term, but it's something that I'm seeking to do at the first possible opportunity. I know it's something that you feel very passionately about, so I was very pleased it was in the programme for government. You'll be aware that we had plans around this in the White Paper—the agriculture White Paper that I mentioned—I published back in December. So, it will certainly be very good to bring forward that ban.

15:00

Minister, the UK Conservative Government has already begun the process in Parliament of banning primates being kept as pets in all except very specific circumstances. RSPCA Wales has expressed concern that the Welsh Government has indicated it will not bring forward a similar ban here in Wales. Minister, I'd like to ask you: could you clarify your policy on keeping primates as pets? If you do not introduce a ban in Wales, what action will you take to address the welfare issue associated with keeping primates in unsuitable domestic environments?

Thank you. No person may keep any dangerous wild animal, and that includes many primates, without first obtaining a licence from their local authority under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976. As part of that, local authorities would, obviously, inspect premises and consider welfare requirements. We are working with Animal Welfare Network Wales to draft a new code of practice here in Wales around primates, which does highlight their complex needs. Unfortunately, the work was paused last summer, I think, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, which is a UK Government Bill, will prohibit the keeping, breeding, sale and transfer of primates in England without a specific primate licence. We are working closely with the UK Government so that we can extend that provision here in Wales. I laid a legislative consent memorandum just this week in relation to that.

Excuse my slightly grainy image. I hope it doesn't affect the sound quality at all. Minister, I welcome moves by your Government to improve animal health and welfare. We must do all we can to ensure we maintain the highest welfare standards here in Wales. One of my constituents in the Vale of Clwyd has raised concerns surrounding the keeping of livestock in a residential setting. Raising and keeping livestock surely requires specialist skills and knowledge beyond that needed to keep companion animals such as dogs or cats. Those who keep livestock for a living are subject to animal welfare checks and a whole raft of requirements relating to animal health and welfare. Will your Government ensure that those people who keep livestock in residential areas are subject to the same rigorous animal welfare requirements as farmers?

It is certainly the responsibility of the owner to ensure the health and welfare of the animal that they have in their keeping. We would expect people to absolutely recognise that and behave in the same way.

Minister, the Welsh Government's programme for government commits to requiring slaughterhouses in Wales to have CCTV, a move that all parties have long supported and raised with you in this Chamber for several years now. The use of this technology has long been viewed as an important step in ensuring that we have the very highest levels of protection on animal welfare in Wales. Therefore, can you tell us why CCTV in slaughterhouses isn't already mandatory, and given the clear political will from all sides, why hasn't this issue already been resolved by the Welsh Government?

The Member will be aware of the significant work that was undertaken in the previous Senedd term around CCTV. We had a voluntary approach where we provided significant funding for the smaller slaughterhouses. All the larger slaughterhouses in Wales do have CCTV and they adhere to a protocol jointly developed and agreed with the Food Standards Agency. We provided funding for the smaller ones to help purchase CCTV. CCTV cannot replace direct oversight by slaughterhouse management; I think that's really important to bear in mind—or official veterinarians, particularly in small premises. I think that's really important. But we have made a commitment to require CCTV in all slaughterhouses during this Government's term.

The Rural Development Programme

6. Will the Minister provide an update on the rural development programme in South Wales West? OQ56653

Diolch. The rural development programme continues to deliver across the whole of Wales, including in south-west Wales. Projects are being delivered that are benefitting our natural environment, businesses and rural communities throughout the country.

Thank you, Minister. Despite the fact that the rural development programme has run for a number of years, with the aim of promoting economic growth and sustainable growth in rural areas, we still see income levels in some of our rural areas of South Wales West being stubbornly low. Of course, programmes such as the Swansea bay city deal have the potential to support growth in rural areas, with a focus on better provision digitally that could lead to economic development, but rural poverty is multifaceted and it's something that we have to get to grips with across Government. The lack of public transport in particular arises time and time again as a factor that impacts economic opportunities and quality of life. Cuts to bus services in particular, as a result of the pressure on local government budgets and COVID, are a major problem. So, I'd like to ask you what discussions you are having at the moment with your fellow Ministers, particularly the Ministers for the economy and social justice, with regard to developing an economic and poverty eradication strategy tailored to rural communities over the coming years. Thank you. 

15:05

I haven't had any discussions with the two Ministers that you referred to in the past month or so of the new Government, but clearly, having been in the portfolio in the previous term, I've had those discussions about ensuring our rural areas get the funding that they require, because obviously rural areas do have different requirements and needs. You mentioned public transport, for instance; certainly, those discussions have taken place before. 

In relation to the rural development programme, it's really important that the funded projects do bring the necessary benefits to the areas that they are there for and that those programmes and projects are monitored. There are some significant appraisals under way in your region at the moment in relation to the RDP projects there. COVID recovery is obviously an area where we are looking to ensure that rural areas don't get left behind. And there are also the rural business investment schemes for food and non-agricultural projects, some of which you've just referred to. 

One of the aims of the rural development programme is to promote strong, sustainable economic growth in Wales. For many farms and rural businesses, this is something that can be achieved by diversification of their businesses. Some in my region, particularly in Gower, have looked to diversify by going into tourism, but many have told me it's quite a long, drawn-out and bureaucratic process. Can I ask the Minister to outline the support made available by Welsh Government for other businesses looking to do the same in the future?

It surprises me that you say that around diversification into tourism, because I think that is an area where we've seen some significant diversification. A lot of the applications we've had in relation to diversification lately have been in relation to energy, for instance—people would like to put maybe one windmill on their farm to make sure that they have energy. So, it surprises me that you say that they're overly bureaucratic, because I think tourism is the main area where that diversification has already taken place. But there are a variety of schemes that farmers can apply for. And also Farming Connect, which is obviously unique to Wales, provides a service where, if any farmer wants to discuss diversification of any type, they're able to ring there for support and specialist advice. 

We get very little of the benefit of food production beyond the sale of the raw materials. Does the Minister agree with me that we need to develop the food processing industry in Wales, and will the Minister look at the Felindre site in my colleague Rebecca Evans's constituency as a location for food processing by a large number of companies so that the profit made from food processing is made in Wales, not exported out?

I think it's very important that we do enlarge the food processing sector that we have here. It's really important for the Welsh economy, as you say. I'd certainly be very happy to look in broad terms at what we can do in relation to that at Felindre. 

Bovine TB

7. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's bovine TB eradication plan? OQ56639

When I relaunched the TB eradication programme in 2017, I committed to updating Members of the Senedd annually. The latest written statement I issued was in November 2020 and I will be releasing the next statement on the progress of our TB eradication programme towards the end of this year.

Thank you for your answer, Minister. I'd like to ask you about your tests and testing strategy. As it stands now, some TB-infected cattle are not being detected by Welsh Government's own tests, and this clearly causes great frustration to the farming industry when the First Minister himself tries to heap blame on farmers, as was outlined earlier in this session by my colleague Samuel Kurtz. We're not going to solve the problems if Welsh Government's own tests fail to pick up TB-infected cattle. So, can I ask, Minister, do you recognise this issue? Why aren't TB-infected cattle being detected by the Welsh Government's very own tests, and what are the Welsh Government doing to improve the false negatives to stop the spread of TB?  

15:10

I don't think that was what the First Minister did at all. You will have heard me say in my earlier answer to Samuel that what he was referring to was the information that we've been given around the likely causes for increases in the low-incidence TB area. I think M. bovis is a very difficult organism to detect. There is no single test or combination of tests available that has a 100 per cent specificity, that doesn't detect any false positives and has a 100 per cent sensitivity. They can't detect all TB-infected animals. So, we use additional blood tests, for instance, such as the interferon gamma test and the IDEXX antibody test, and we use severe interpretation of the skin test so that the risk of missing infected cattle is minimised. That's the approach that we take in the low and intermediate TB areas of Wales.

I share the concern of everybody here when farms have an outbreak of TB. We know that it's cruel, that it's traumatic, and it's a disease that we want to eradicate. I've only ever disagreed with Senedd Members about culling badgers; many badgers have been culled over many decades, and yet TB still remains. We have, however, Minister, made good progress and there's been a 44 per cent reduction in incidence in the last decade. You mentioned a cattle vaccination programme that was going on—it was a pioneer—and I would like to hear if you've got any update regarding that vaccination programme.

Thank you. Absolutely, it is a very distressing time for farmers. I know how distressing it is when they have a TB breakdown. You'll be aware that we've got those bespoke action plans as well, where we deal with those really difficult breakdowns. You mentioned the field tests that we're carrying out in relation to this vaccine. The aim of the project, once we've had those successful field trials, is to apply to the Veterinary Medicines Directorate so we can get marketing authorisations for both the cattle BCG vaccine and the DIVA skin tests by 2025. I haven't got an update, probably, from the last one I gave, but we are hoping to complete the field trials by the end of 2024. But what we will do is bring forward progress reports as we go over the next two to three years.

I thank the Minister. We will now take a short break to allow for changeovers in the Chamber.

Plenary was suspended at 15:13.

15:20

The Senedd reconvened at 15:24, with the Deputy Presiding Officer (David Rees) in the Chair.

3. Topical Questions
4. 90-second Statements
15:25

Thank you. This year, Morriston Ladies Choir is celebrating 80 years since its formation, and I’m very proud to be president of the choir.

The choir was formed in 1941 by Miss Lillian Abbott and members of the local first aid defence group. At the time, there were many popular male voice choirs in the area, as there are today, such as the world-famous Morriston Orpheus.

The choir’s current director of music, Anthony Williams, has been with the choir since 1974, and they have been gradually expanding their musical repertoire, from folk songs and hymns to showtunes and pop music.

The choir is based at the Tabernacle Chapel in Morriston. They rehearse in the vestry, and have their concerts in the chapel itself. They have performed with a number of choirs, soloists and military bands. The choir is also known around the globe, having performed at the Parliament buildings in Toronto and Ottawa during their tour of Canada in 1991.

Canada isn’t the only country where the choir has left a mark. They have also performed in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Finland, Ireland, Tuscany and Poland, and have performed many concerts in England. Congratulations.

This week marks Armed Forces Week across the United Kingdom, and many of us will be marking Armed Forces Day this Saturday. But today is Reserves Day—a day that we set aside to pay tribute to those who give their spare time to serve as an integral part of the UK's defence capability. More than 2,000 reservists in Wales volunteer to balance their day jobs and family life with a military career and, this year, we have the opportunity to reflect on and give thanks for the incredible role that reservists have played during the COVID-19 pandemic. This work has included supporting our NHS to deliver its world-leading vaccination programme, supporting our testing centres, and helping the Welsh Ambulance Service. So, today, let's take the opportunity to thank reservists and the entire armed forces community in Wales for their work during the past 18 months, and in recognition of their valuable contribution to our nation and the benefits that they bring to their employers, let us do everything that we can to encourage employers across this nation, including the Senedd Commission and the Welsh Government, to adopt policies that support the recruitment of reservists and afford them the flexibility that they need to undertake their vital and important roles. Thank you.

Yesterday afternoon, we learnt of the death of a man who played such a crucial role in the lives of so many of us. David R. Edwards died at 56 years old. Dave formed the band Datblygu when at school in Cardigan in 1982, and the band developed to be one of the most influential in the history of modern Welsh music. He was a composer and a poet, and his poetry was witty, tender, funny and profound. But he wasn't a man of the establishment. Indeed, he would laugh in thinking that we were commemorating him here today. Dave had no time for anyone or any class of people who looked down their noses and judged others.

Dave's lyrics reflected life in Wales, which wasn't reflected in the mass media. He held a mirror up to real life in Wales—the 'Sgymraeg' life of ordinary people—and through his music it meant that we also knew what life was like for the people of Wales. He created a new counter-culture with a sound that was unique to Wales. It wasn't music that was trying to emulate the Anglo-American culture, but a sound that belonged to a particular time and a particular place, all through the medium of Welsh. In telling the story of real Wales, he gave confidence to a generation of Welsh people to get out there and express themselves. Dave inspired a number of musicians and bands, and that developed into 'Cool Cymru', as it was known at the turn of the century. And, of course, he continues to inspire young people today. Yes, the feelings and lives of young people were very important to Dave. Our thanks are great to him. His music will be an everlasting part of the soundtrack of my generation. We think of this very special man's friends and family in their grief today. Thank you, Dave.

15:30
Motion to Suspend Standing Orders

The next item is a motion to suspend Standing Orders in order to allow a debate on the next item of business. I call on a member of the Business Committee to formally move the motion. Darren Millar.

Motion NDM7727 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Orders 33.6 and 33.8:

Suspends Standing Order 12.10(ii) and that part of Standing Order 11.16 that requires the weekly announcement under Standing Order 11.11 to constitute the timetable for business in Plenary for the following week, to allow the next item of business to be considered in Plenary on Wednesday, 23 June 2021.

Motion moved.

The proposal is to suspend Standing Orders. Does any Member object? I don't see any objections. The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motions under Standing Order 16.1 and 16.3 to agree the titles and remits of Committees

Motions under Standing Order 16.1 and 16.3 to agree titles and remits to committees. I call a member of the Business Committee to move the motions formally.

Motion NDM7729 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 16.3, agrees that the Interim Subordinate Legislation Committee, established on 26 May 2021, is retitled the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee. Its remit is to carry out the functions of the responsible committee set out in Standing Order 21 and Standing Order 26C, and to consider any other matter relating to: legislation within or relating to the competence of the Senedd or the Welsh Ministers, including the quality of legislation; devolution, the constitution (including Wales’s constitutional future), justice, and external affairs, including (but not restricted to) changes to the devolution settlement, and intergovernmental relations.

Motion NDM7731 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 16.1, establishes a Finance Committee to carry out the functions of the responsible committee set out in Standing Orders 18.10, 18.11, 18A and 19 of the Senedd. Under Standing Order 19, the committee’s responsibilities include considering any report or document laid before the Senedd concerning the use of resources, or expenditure from the Welsh Consolidated Fund, including undertaking budget scrutiny of the bodies directly funded from the Welsh Consolidated Fund. Under Standing Orders 18.10 and 18.11, the committee’s responsibilities include oversight of the governance of the Wales Audit Office, as set out in the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2013. Under Standing Order 18A, the committee’s responsibilities include oversight of the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales. The committee may also consider any proposals for, and the progress of, the devolution of fiscal powers to Wales as part of its responsibilities. The committee may scrutinise legislation introduced to the Senedd.

Motion NDM7732 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 16.1, establishes a Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee to carry out the functions set out in Standing Orders 18.2 and 18.3, to consider any other matter that relates to the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which resources are employed in the discharge of public functions in Wales. The committee may scrutinise any other matter relating to the machinery of government, including the quality and standards of administration provided by the Welsh Government’s Civil Service and Welsh Government Sponsored Bodies.

Motion NDM7733 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 16.1, establishes a Children, Young People and Education Committee to examine legislation and hold the Welsh Government to account by scrutinising its expenditure, administration and policy matters, encompassing (but not restricted to): the education, health and well-being of the children and young people of Wales, including their social care.

Motion NDM7734 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 16.1, establishes a Health and Social Care Committee to examine legislation and hold the Welsh Government to account by scrutinising its expenditure, administration and policy matters, encompassing (but not restricted to): the physical, mental and public health and well-being of the people of Wales, including the social care system.

Motion NDM7735 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 16.1, establishes an Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee to examine legislation and hold the Welsh Government to account by scrutinising its expenditure, administration and policy matters, encompassing (but not restricted to): economic development, regeneration, skills, trade, research and development (including technology and science), and rural affairs.

Motion NDM7736 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 16.1, establishes a Local Government and Housing Committee to examine legislation and hold the Welsh Government to account by scrutinising its expenditure, administration and policy matters, encompassing (but not restricted to): local government, communities, and housing.

Motion NDM7737 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 16.1, establishes an Equality and Social Justice Committee to examine legislation and hold the Welsh Government to account by scrutinising its expenditure, administration and policy matters, encompassing (but not restricted to): equality and human rights, fair work, community cohesion and safety, tackling poverty, and implementation of the Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015. Additionally, the committee may investigate any area of policy from the perspective of the cross-cutting issues within its remit, including (but not restricted to): equality and human rights, and the implementation of the Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015.

Motion NDM7738 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 16.1, establishes a Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee to examine legislation and hold the Welsh Government to account by scrutinising its expenditure, administration and policy matters, encompassing (but not restricted to): climate change policy, the environment, energy; planning; transport, and connectivity.

Motion NDM7739 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 16.1, establishes a Culture, Communications, Welsh Language, Sport, and International Relations Committee to examine legislation and hold the Welsh Government to account by scrutinising its expenditure, administration and policy matters, encompassing (but not restricted to): the Welsh Language, culture; the arts; historic environment; communications, broadcasting; the media, sport, and international relations. The Committee may investigate any area of policy from the perspective of the Welsh Language.

Motion NDM7740 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 16.1, establishes a Standards of Conduct Committee to carry out the functions of the responsible committee set out in Standing Order 22.

Motion NDM7741 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 16.1 establishes a Petitions Committee to carry out the functions of the responsible committee set out in Standing Order 23.

Motions moved.

Thank you, Darren. The proposal is to agree the motions. Does any Member object? I see no objections. The motions are therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motions agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion to allocate committee chairs to political groups

Motion to allocate committee chairs to political groups. And I call on a member of the Business Committee to move the motion formally. Darren.

Motion NDM7728 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.2A, agrees that the political groups from which the chairs of committees are elected will be as follows:

1. Children, Young People and Education Committee - Labour;

2. Health and Social Care Committee – Welsh Conservatives;

3. Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs - Welsh Conservatives;

4. Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee - Plaid Cymru;

5. Equality and Social Justice - Labour;

6. Culture, Communications, Welsh Language, Sport, and International Relations – Plaid Cymru;

7. Local Government and Housing - Labour;

8. Finance Committee – Plaid Cymru;

9. Public Accounts and Public Administration  Committee – Welsh Conservatives;

10. Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee - Labour;

11. Standards of Conduct Committee - Labour;

12. Petitions Committee – Labour.

Motion moved.

The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No. The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion to appoint the Senedd Commission

Motion to appoint the Senedd Commission. I call on a Member of the Business Committee to move the motion formally. Darren.

Motion NDM7730 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 7.1, appoints Ken Skates (Welsh Labour), Janet Finch-Saunders (Welsh Conservatives), Rhun ap Iorwerth (Plaid Cymru) and Joyce Watson (Welsh Labour), as members of the Senedd Commission.

Motion moved.

Thank you. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No. The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

5. Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv): Bus services

The next item is the motion to appoint the Senedd Commission—

Oh, I've done that one. [Laughter.] Just checking.

The next item is a Member debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv). It's a debate on bus services. And I call on Huw Irranca-Davies to move the motion.

Motion NDM7704 Huw Irranca-Davies, Jayne Bryant, Hefin David, Janet Finch-Saunders, John Griffiths, Llyr Gruffydd, Vikki Howells, Jenny Rathbone, Luke Fletcher, Altaf Hussain, Jane Dodds, Natasha Asghar, Heledd Fychan

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes the bus service agreement of March 2021 commits £37.2 million of funding to continue to support the bus industry in the coming financial year.

2. Notes that the agreement commits to a fundamental reshaping of local bus services, better meeting the needs of passengers.

3. Notes that the agreement also seeks to rebuild patronage post-COVID, encouraging increasing numbers to use public transport over time for a wide range of journeys, as conditions permit.

4. Further notes the publication of Llwybr Newydd: The Wales Transport Strategy 2021, which contains a range of commitments including:

a) extending the reach of bus services;

b) progressing new bus legislation to give the public sector more control over local bus services;

c) delivering innovative, more flexible bus services, in partnership with local authorities, the commercial and third sectors; and

d) ensuring that bus services and facilities are accessible, attractive and safe for everyone.

5. Calls on the Welsh Government to set out detailed plans and timescales for delivering the commitments on bus services in Llwybr Newydd.

6. Calls on the Welsh Government and partners to engage meaningfully with local communities across Wales on the strategy and in reshaping bus services to meet the transport needs identified by those communities.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. And can I thank the Business Committee for selecting this motion for debate and the many cross-party Members who supported the application too?

Buses and properly integrated public transport are clearly very important to the Senedd and to the constituents we serve. Now, no doubt, today some Members will have stories to tell of our own local services. Some will be of services lost during or even before the pandemic; some will be of creative new ways to provide transport solutions, particularly for people who rely on public and community transport in remote and rural areas. And we will also hear, I hope, of the courage of drivers and of staff who kept essential bus services going during the height of the pandemic and since. These real local and Wales-wide experiences will be good to hear in the Senedd.

But I hope we'll also have time to focus on the way forward for Wales, for every part of Wales, which must involve truly radical reform to and innovation and investment in our buses, scheduled buses and Fflecsi buses and on-demand buses, but also a far greater integration of different types of public and community transport, streamlined timetables and ticketing, a step change in modal shift from individual to communal transport and to active travel, wherever possible, to help to tackle climate change, lessening the need for longer travel too, by creating local communities with jobs and services and retail and opportunities to socialise in easy travelable distance by foot or by bike.

But let us begin with buses, because I suspect that's what many people will want to hear about. I won't be alone in having witnessed many cuts to services over recent years, and the cuts have often fallen hardest on the most remote communities, and often communities with already existing significant disadvantage. The beautiful tops of my valleys—the hilltops in my valleys—they're often former coal-mining communities and social housing estates. They're also often poorly served by shops and health provision and job opportunities and clubs and community centres in which to mix and socialise. They're often where car ownership is lowest and where the residents are often older and less well and less mobile. Yet these are the very communities—so often, the ones where the cuts are seen first. And often those cuts come first as temporary, because of reported problems with navigating narrow streets with parked cars for buses, or damage to buses or anti-social behaviour, or because of the pandemic. But, so often, these cuts become permanent, despite representations from local people and local representatives. Sometimes the cuts, we are told, come because the route just isn't profitable. Yet buses and public transport have a true social and economic purpose. They connect people and communities. Without buses, we have isolated communities and isolated people, with all the ills that that brings for them individually and for society. We cannot reduce buses simply to a transaction of money for a ticket or to cold calculations of short-term profitability on different routes. They are more than that. As Marion and Keith in Caerau said to the BBC last night, they are the lifeline for people to meet their friends, get to the doctor or hospital, get to work and be part of their wider community. Without them, communities are isolated and alone and so are individuals.

So, in this sixth Senedd, we have the opportunity now to do things very differently. Now that we have the powers, we need to restore the public and social purpose to the very heart of all public and community transport, as we've already begun to do with trains. And this means putting people, transport users and locally-elected representatives, back in control of our buses and of the wider oversight of public transport, so that buses and trains and Fflecsi buses and on-demand buses and community transport work effectively together, and where no-one—no-one—is left without being connected to their wider community and the world of work and the world of their friends and of society. 

Despite the pandemic, or perhaps because of it, that work has already begun. The bus service agreement of March 2021 has committed over £37 million of funding to continue to support the bus industry in the coming financial year, but this is conditional on, in quotes,

'a fundamental reshaping of local bus services, better meeting the needs of passengers.'

And it also seeks to rebuild patronage post COVID, encouraging increasing numbers to use public transport over time for a wide range of journeys. That's good, and it's encouraging to see Ministers seizing the opportunity to reshape the way we do bus transport already. The bold announcement yesterday on the pause and review of road building also had a welcome focus on shifting investment into buses and public transport. That's good, but there is much more to do—much more. 

'Llwybr Newydd: the Wales Transport Strategy 2021', sets a clear and new radical direction to take on bus transport and local transport connectivity. It contains a range of commitments, which include extending the reach of bus services—not shrinking, but extending—progressing the new bus legislation, which we've consulted on already, to give the public sector more control over local bus services, delivering innovative, more flexible bus services in partnership with local authorities, with commercial and with third sectors, says the chair of the Co-operative Party, and ensuring that bus services and facilities are accessible, attractive and safe for everyone. They are the go-to choice, not a leftover option.

Now, this is truly exciting for many of us. This sees a new future for buses that puts them at the heart of local and regional transport policy, and it puts people back at the heart of those local services, with greater control over local routes and times and more, with the point of principle that, in quotes,

'bus services and facilities are accessible, attractive and safe for everyone'.

So, how do we then put people and bus users back at the heart of public transport? We do it by using the new powers this Senedd now has, by putting a modern, Welsh form of re-regulation of buses and public transport in place, and by recognising that buses and public transport have a fundamental social and public purpose. We democratise buses again. Now, we don't start from a blank sheet. We start from a real world of several decades of post-deregulation bus services, and we start from acknowledging the skills and expertise that are out there in the current operators, and some of the investment, albeit greatly driven by Government investment and regulation, in modern and accessible vehicles in parts of the network, and we also acknowledge the commitment and experience of the drivers and the staff who've kept this service through the pandemic too. 

But I say if London and Liverpool can have greater democratic control of, and greater integration of, buses and other forms of public transport, integrating ticketing and cheaper tickets, routes and services going more frequently when and where the public want them to go, then why not us? And if commercial operators can provide these services, then, as in the few select places of the UK and actually many worldwide, so can local and regional and municipal authorities and not-for-profit mutuals and social enterprises too. If they can have greater investment in buses with a longer term funding horizon, ultra low emission buses, fully accessible at that, if we can shift funding and passengers to climate-friendly mass transit, rather than individual transport, and we can improve working conditions and the attractiveness of the sector for drivers—. I say if it's good enough for London and it's good enough for Liverpool, then it's good enough for Lewistown in Ogmore, and it's good enough for Laleston in Bridgend, or for Llanelli and Llandudno, and anywhere else in Wales for that matter too. So, let's be bold in reimagining the future of buses and integrated transport in Wales. 

I'm looking forward in this debate to hearing other Members of the Senedd's views on the future of buses and integrated transport in Wales, and the response of the Minister to this debate shortly, as I hope he will set out a bus timetable for delivering this exciting and radical transformation. And Dirprwy Lywydd, I will only require a short time at the end to respond. Thank you. 

15:40

I'm very grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this Parliament on the subject of bus services in Wales, and I'd like to thank my colleague for raising this and tabling this as an issue. Now, it's without a doubt that this is an issue of great concern to people all across Wales, and this is clearly demonstrated by the support for this motion by Members from every political group represented here today. 

Improving bus services makes good sense economically, by improving accessibility to goods and services as well. It also makes good sense socially, by allowing people to live fuller and more satisfying lives. However, it is a fact—and I know we all like facts here—that passenger numbers have been in decline in recent times. There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this: firstly, an increase in private car use; secondly, congestion, which naturally increases journey times, making services less predictable; thirdly, a decline in financial support for the sector, making many routes uneconomical.

In rural areas, more disperse, lower density populations make it challenging to deliver widespread timetable services run by traditional buses. Services often take long and indirect routes to serve as many people as possible, but they become an unattractive alternative for passengers who have access to a car. This is made more challenging by the impact of COVID-19 on the bus sector. The bus services emergency grant provided by the Welsh Government during the pandemic has provided the essential services for people who have needed to keep using public transport, including key workers. But the lasting impact on bus use remains unknown, with passenger numbers expected to fall even more so than they have already. So, the question is: how do we reverse this decline?

Firstly, we need to invest in bus services. I've already mentioned the bus services emergency grant, but, before the pandemic, the Welsh Government's direct support for the bus network was largely focused on the bus services support grant. Six years ago, Wales replaced the bus services operating grant with the bus services support grant, with funding set at £25 million. It's shocking, therefore, that this fixed pot of £25 million has not changed since BSSG's inception. Funding per passenger for bus services is inadequate and compares poorly with that provided for rail passengers. The Deputy Minister may point to the various concessionary fare schemes that exist, but these are a subsidy enjoyed by the passenger, and are not a substitute for poorly funded bus services. 

Secondly, we must encourage cleaner, greener buses. In Scotland, the Scottish Government bus service operators grant comprises a core payment and an incentive for the operation of green, economically friendly buses. The core payment aims to support operators to keep fares at affordable levels and networks more extensive than would otherwise be the case, and the green incentive helps with additional running costs of low emission buses to support their uptake by operators. The Welsh Government must provide incentives to bus companies in Wales to decarbonise their vehicle stock.

Congestion remains a major disincentive to people using buses, and this can only be exacerbated by the Welsh Government's implementation of a 20 mph speed limit in residential areas. We clearly need a programme of bus priority measures, such as effective and efficient bus lanes, priority traffic lights and improved bus shelters, to encourage people out of their cars and back on buses, because, as it stands, I'm yet to meet someone who feels that the bus system here in Wales is actually worth sacrificing their cars for. 

Lastly, we need to make it easier for people to travel across Wales using one bus company to another, by introducing an all-Wales travel card. I was delighted when my suggestion—that such a positive response came from the First Minister a few weeks ago. Deputy Presiding Officer, I support this motion, and sincerely look forward to working with everyone here to deliver a better bus service for everyone in Wales. Thank you very much. 

15:45

I'd like to obviously thank Huw Irranca-Davies for bringing forward this motion to debate. I think both Huw and I have a shared interest locally as we both hail from the glorious constituency of Ogmore—myself in Pencoed and Huw, of course, in Maesteg. And, of course, I think it's fair to say that both of us have family members who often rely on bus services to get to work or to attend hospital appointments. 

I think we're all aware that, no matter the area we represent, buses and the provision of bus services is often the most raised issue in our in-boxes. In the election, for example, I lost count the amount of times bus services were raised with me, in particular by constituents who were retired and, more often than not, relying on the service to get to an appointment, in my case, or in the cases that I come across, at the Princess of Wales Hospital.

I think the Deputy Minister for Climate Change hit the nail on the head yesterday, and I think he's going to be very happy that I've said this, that buses are as much a social justice issue as they are a climate change or a transport issue. For example, we know that the majority of bus users—some 80 per cent—do not have access to a private car. We also know that the vast majority of bus users who rely on the services are on low incomes. And, again, coming back to Ogmore, as Huw is aware, the vast majority of the constituency isn't covered by rail. And this isn't a unique characteristic of Ogmore, this is something that is seen across Wales. The Ogmore and Garw valleys are solely reliant on bus services for public transport and that's a pattern that we see everywhere in Wales, as I've said, from the Ogmore valleys to the Neath valleys and to the Swansea valleys. A lot of these areas are reliant on these services and, despite this, services are under constant threat of being cut or being altered because they are no longer profitable.

And profit I think is a key word for us to consider in this debate. The reality is that so long as bus services are in the hands of companies that are driven by profit, they will never be driven by the needs of our communities—that's the bottom line. The Minister for Finance and Local Government alluded to this in an answer she gave earlier on today: where services are needed, largely in low-income communities, they are pretty much non-existent and of poor quality, but where people can afford to pay more for the service, then the quality of the service is great. It's important now as this debate progresses—and it needs to progress as a matter of urgency, by the way—that we focus on how we can ensure that our bus services and the wider public transport system work for our communities, and communities, again, being the operative word here. For me, that's bringing the power back to the people and to bring our essential services back into public hands.

In the last Government, I delivered a petition to the Petitions Committee with approximately 3,700 signatures on it, with a covering note explaining that it is a social healthcare issue as well as a transport and economy issue. As a previous local authority cabinet member for transport, I addressed packed meetings of distressed residents concerned about the loss of a service, some of them in tears and worrying about being socially isolated.

Bus transport is hugely complicated and expensive. Our contract for a service, on average, is approximately £500,000. They are often tied up with school transport to make them viable. Each region is different, which is why the bus transport grant is broken down into regions and then local authority areas based on a formula. In Flintshire, for example, just one of 22 authorities, there are 450 transport contracts: 350 are school, serving thousands of residents, often the most vulnerable, young, old, disabled and socially disadvantaged. When a bus is late or does not turn up on time, it's distressing and needs resolving quickly, which is why it needs delivering locally with local expertise.

Highly populated areas have good services because that is where it is more lucrative. Rural areas need high subsidies and access to services that are not found locally. Transport needs to evolve and grow from the community up. Experience tells me that you cannot dictate from above and expect people to migrate to a service. Operators need the financial security of a long-term contract and grant funding towards the procurement of new vehicles to help services to be sustainable. I believe that scheduled services should remain on busy routes and Fflecsi dial-a-ride services on those with low passenger numbers, incorporating taxis and school contract operators through an element of community benefit, especially for medical appointments. This could be expanded to work in collaboration with health boards. And we need to give powers to local authorities to be able to run them, just as they once did. There used to be a public bus service for public people, and a service. A lot of our services have been eradicated by competitiveness and are not properly funded. Thank you. 

15:50

Others have made the case this afternoon for the principle of buses and funding bus services, and the organisation and management of bus services. I endorse everything that was said in opening this debate by my colleague Huw Irranca-Davies; I think it's absolutely essential that we recognise the place of buses in a wider public transport policy. What I'd like to do is seek to describe how that would fit into a wider approach from Government. And I'm glad that the Minister is here—physically here, in fact—this afternoon to be able to listen to this debate and to join the debate.

In terms of how we deliver buses and bus services, there are clearly going to be significant changes and there need to be significant changes for the reasons that many people have given already; we can't carry on managing our services today and tomorrow in the way that we did some decades ago. But we also need to be aware of the needs of the people we serve. If you look at what's been happening in Ebbw Vale over the last two weeks, you'll have seen the introduction of the Fflecsi service, where you phone and make an appointment with an app to catch a bus and the rest of it, and I supported that. I would like to see the extension and development of these services, but it has to be delivered. And the chaos that we've seen in Ebbw Vale in the last couple of weeks is not the delivery of a service that the people of Ebbw Vale need. We need to ensure that, where we're delivering services, we're actually understanding the life experiences and the lived experiences of the people who are using those services. If you're taking your child to school in Ebbw Vale, you don't need a bus in an hour, you need a bus now and then you need to return in half an hour or 20 minutes. And that's what a much shorter urban bus service can do. Perhaps we need to consider the delivery of Fflecsi services and the rest of it on a wider, longer service network than in a small-town environment, where bus services are needed for short journeys that are more frequent journeys, but not longer journeys, and you need to return within an hour, and the rest of it. So, we need to understand the lived experience of people.

And then, we need Government to talk with itself and with us, together. Those of you who sat in the last Senedd will have been bored by me already talking about the need—[Interruption.] [Laughter.] To be fair, you were bored before I stood up. About the need for services to connect places like Blaenau Gwent to the new Grange hospital in Cwmbran. And many people here will have heard Ministers responding saying that that would happen. Needless to say, the hospital was built, the hospital was opened and we don't have the bus services to connect the people to the services that we need. And parts of my constituency remain unserved by a connectivity to that fantastic new resource.

So, you've got one part of Government saying, 'We're going to be delivering investment in public services and we want people to use public transport, and we want public transport to be the service of choice rather than the private car', and then we've got another part of Government delivering fantastic new facilities that are out of reach of public transport and out of reach of people who require those services. And that needs to be joined up. I don't have much patience, I'm afraid, or sympathy with Government on this, because they were told about it and they were told about it five years ago. And although we had a number of Ministers making some very eloquent speeches—and we're looking forward to yours, Minister, this afternoon—what we didn't have was the reality of the delivery of the policy on the ground, and as a consequence, I talk to constituents week after week about the failure to deliver the connectivity that they need, require and have the right to expect.

I'll conclude by saying this: the deregulation of buses by the Thatcher Government in the 1980s was an utter disaster for poor and vulnerable people in this country. It was an utter disaster for bus services and for bus companies as well. We have seen the destruction of a public service as a consequence of the policy of Government, of the UK Government, and it is right and proper now that we use the powers available to us in order to restore bus services as a public service, serving the needs of people. The irony is that, not only did the Tory Government, the Thatcher Government, destroy the public service, they also destroyed the foundation of the industry itself. If Darren would do some Googling, he'd know that bus companies themselves are not sustainable as things stand. We need a sustainable service. We need a service that delivers connectivity. And we need a service, as was said earlier, that delivers social justice for people throughout this country.

15:55

Prior to the COVID pandemic, usage of and access to bus services were already on a downward trajectory. Analysis in 2018 suggested that the distance travelled by local bus services had fallen by 20 per cent in 10 years. In fact, Wales has seen the biggest percentage drop in bus miles between 2006-07 and 2016-17 compared to the other UK nations. That is a really regrettable fact. So, I'm delighted that there is cross-party consensus on the need to engage meaningfully with our communities across Wales on a new strategy and in reshaping bus services to meet transport needs.

Transport providers themselves have certainly stepped up to the mark during this pandemic, and I'm really proud of my bus operators in Aberconwy. Alpine Travel have offered a complimentary community transport service to enable vulnerable people to access shops, and they have run errands, such as picking up prescriptions. That is one example of the passion that our bus operators in north Wales have for connecting communities. So, I think that it's right that we stop talking down that sector and actually speak up for them. They haven't been failed by themselves, the communities, they've been failed by this Welsh Government.

The £37.2 million in the bus services agreement is a good start. I welcome that the scheme has terms requiring operators to provide services that meet local need and priorities, including supporting learners' journeys to school, increasing services in situations where demand exceeds capacity, and backing integration across transport modes. In fact, in my constituency and next door, it could be a benefit to the Conwy valley and Snowdonia national park. As many Members  here will know, the area is being overwhelmed with visitors travelling in their own cars. I have long campaigned for a direct rail service from Manchester Airport to Blaenau Ffestiniog, and then integrated timetabling of rail and bus services, so that tourists can easily go by public transport from cities to the highest peak in England and Wales.

Of course, this would be in line with priority 2 of 'Llwybr Newydd' and the commitment to extend the geographical reach of public transport into every community, especially in rural Wales. In fact, Aberconwy is a prime example of how services can be, and have been, modernised to meet demand across rural communities. We have the Conwy valley Fflecsi bus service. What this bus provision does is adjust its route to pick up and drop off passengers anywhere within the designated Fflecsi zone. I do not doubt that it would have a positive impact on our united missions to achieve net zero.

Recently, I had the pleasure to learn about the steps that Llew Jones International from Llanrwst are taking to provide clean, sustainable and affordable travel. For example, they have two hybrid vehicles that reduce diesel usage by around 65 per cent. They have other exciting plans, such as creating the first TrawsCymru route in Conwy, which will have two fully electric vehicles. Their green drive could be empowered through a scheme that helps operators to invest in electric buses.

I have noticed that 'Llwybr Newydd' includes a commitment to adapt existing infrastructure to climate change by addressing issues such as flooding. This aim is applaudable, and I will take this opportunity today to highlight the fantastic work undertaken by Network Rail to make Dolgarrog railway station more resilient to flooding. Staying with that example, while there is bus stop by the station too, and I am currently working with key stakeholders to safely reopen the bridge, it is essential that the path leading to the small transport hub is upgraded. This would be in line with the commitment in 'Llwybr Newydd' to upgrade existing infrastructure to meet legal obligations on accessibility and safety, and it goes to show how important it is that we help residents not just to access buses, but bus stops too.

I have great hope that the strategy will deliver not only bus service improvements but positive changes for walking and cycling, as they are also top of your hierarchy. It is time to get the wheels of this strategy rolling, so I support calls for timescales for the delivery of these commitments, and I look forward to working with anyone who wants to on restoring a good community bus provision in all our constituencies. Thank you. Diolch.

16:00

I'm pleased to say, Dirprwy Lywydd, that throughout the pandemic I was able to make contact with Stagecoach and their director for south Wales, Nigel Winter, who is a very, very good person to talk to. One of the things he said was that the bus emergency scheme that the Welsh Government introduced saved the bus industry in Wales through the pandemic. I think the Dirprwy Weinidog, and also the former Minister, Ken Skates, should take credit for that, because without that service, without that scheme and its successors, we wouldn't be talking today about a public transport service, because we wouldn't have that base on which it would exist.

I was also a member, in the previous Senedd, of the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee, and we did numerous reports—I think the Deputy Minister was a member of the committee for a period of time, before he was promoted to the current level of stardom he currently occupies, and a very good committee member he was. One of the things that he, as part of that committee, instituted were reports on things like traffic congestion, on the structure and role of Transport for Wales, and on the decarbonisation of transport. These reports are in the Senedd archive for us to read, and they are key, I think, to the direction of thinking in which the Welsh Government needs to go. I'm particularly pleased about flexibility.

I want to see a flexible service to connect communities such as Ystrad Mynach and Nelson, for example. It's important that people can hop on and hop off when they need to. It would also be good to have an app and a phone number to book a bus. A pilot scheme like this is happening in Ebbw Vale at the moment, and that's good to see. It would be great to see that happening in Caerphilly, and we can sort out any problems that could arise.

As Alun Davies said, there have been problems. Well, let's sort those out before we bring the pilot into Caerphilly, shall we? That's probably the best way to do it. I've been hounding the Minister for a Fflecsi service. Perhaps we can sort the problems out in Ebbw Vale first and then we'll perfect it in Caerphilly. That's the way things should happen.

I think the Bill that we are expecting to see, and we would have seen—I think the last interview I did on Sharp End before the pandemic that wasn't about the pandemic was on the bus Bill that we were expecting to see in the last Senedd. The reregulation Bill, I think, is going to be something really, really important. And the key issue, I think, will be how do you provide for people who work out of hours, how do you infill those services that are not profitable. How do you do that? I think reregulation—as has already been said by many speakers, particularly on these benches, because I think this is a core belief of our pursuit of social justice—will be key to that Bill.

Another question will also be—and perhaps this is one that the Minister can respond to in his answer—how are the regulatory structures going to fit in. Because I've talked to Carolyn Thomas, who was the Cabinet member for transport in Flintshire council. I've learned a lot today from speaking to her. One of the things she raised with me is what is the role of Transport for Wales, what will be the role of joint transport authorities, and what will be the role of local authorities. Because there are many specific roles you can allocate to those different groups that you have to get right, and we still aren't clear on exactly what they will be. I think some detail from the Minister, in his response, would be very helpful there and enable us to understand what this Bill is trying to achieve in the future.

This is a very welcome debate. I thought, Natasha Asghar, it was great to see your first speech, and it was a really good speech. It was perhaps a little bit too partisan for my taste in parts, but definitely, the direction we want to have is getting this improvement in public transport through on a cross-party basis in this Senedd. I think this debate paves the way for that.

Across my region of South Wales Central, countless constituents have been in touch on this very issue, and it is clear that there's an inconsistent service across Wales. And even though there are issues linked to the pandemic that have resulted in reduced services and reduced capacity, the reality is that the bus services have been completely inadequate even prior to this. COVID should not be used as an excuse. It is crucial that we secure from the Welsh Government detailed plans and timescales on when improvements will be made as soon as possible, and, more importantly, that the Welsh Government delivers on those.

If you own a car, and you've planned on using a bus on a certain day, its cancellation or delay is an inconvenience at most. But, for those who don't own a car, or are unable to drive because of age or a medical condition, and rely on buses to get to work, to medical appointments, to go shopping, to take their children to school or to socialise, it can severely impact on their lives. And though there is a specific problem with bus services in rural areas, I think we need to be honest that this is a widespread problem and also affects people living in our towns and cities. If we are serious about tackling climate change and supporting more people in using public transport, this cannot continue.

To illustrate this, I would like to use an example of my own community of Pontypridd. I live in the Graigwen area, which is 1 mile from the town centre but up a very steep hill. Many elderly people live in my community, and are completely reliant on the bus to access basic services. Prior to the pandemic, we had been calling for improvements. The hourly bus service was unreliable, it finished at 5.30 p.m. daily, it did not run on a Sunday or a bank holiday and neither did it run right to the top of the hill to serve those living in the streets at the top of the estate. People complained to me about feeling isolated and restricted to their homes, and could not rely on the bus service. They even struggled to find a taxi to take them to medical appointments if the appointment clashed with the school run, and were anxious anytime they had to go anywhere as they could not be certain a bus would turn up. Even the bus stop is inadequate and provides no shelter from the rain.

As I said, these are the problems that we faced prior to the pandemic, and they are not unique to Graigwen. There are also similar issues in relation to the bus services serving other nearby communities to the town, such as Cilfynydd and Glyncoch, which have progressively worsened, with services cancelled frequently due to a lack of drivers. In fact, on 19 June, the 109, 107 and 105 services did not run at all, with no communication with passengers. I've received similar complaints today about people stranded in the bus station in Pontypridd.

One mother living in Cilfynydd contacted me this morning, having heard about today's debate on the news, and shared this with me:

'I rely on the bus services to get my daughter to school. Very often buses haven’t turned up or are running late. This has resulted in me getting my daughter to school nearly an hour later than when she should be there.'

Another, also living in Cilfynydd, shared a similar story, stating:

'Being a single working mother I rely on the buses to get me to work to do a shift while my kids are in school as well as at the weekend. Very often the bus that’s timed to get to the school for pick up is cancelled and my children are left waiting for me to arrive. This has meant that I have had to allow them to walk home from school earlier than I am comfortable with as it's just not possible to get there on time due to these bus delays and cancellations being so frequent.'

A resident from Glyncoch shared with me her reliance on a bus to get to work in Nantgarw, and that as a result of buses being cancelled or delayed, she has been late to work on a number of occasions over the past couple of weeks, resulting in less wages for her and her two boys. Others speak of missed medical appointments, including COVID vaccinations and hospital appointments at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, despite leaving two or three hours to make what should be a 20-minute journey at most.

A common thread runs through all of the correspondence I have received on the issue of local buses: people feel forgotten about, undervalued and don't feel listened to. They are anxious and isolated. This Government can change this. This Government should change this. We need action, not just words, and those actions are needed now.

16:05

I represent a constituency of contrast: some of the wealthiest wards in Wales, alongside some of the poorest super-output areas of deprivation. In one of my poorest wards, the medical centre decided to downgrade the surgery in Pentwyn, disinvesting from the local community, and so patients who are either ill themselves or have children who are ill are having to walk a couple of miles just to get to the doctor's—and they're not feeling well, or their child isn't. Some of them are so poor they don't even have any credit on their phones, so they definitely can't afford a taxi. So, the absence of a bus is unbelievably difficult for them.

It isn't just poor households, however, whose lives shrink when bus services are withdrawn. I can recall three years ago when Cyncoed lost the bus service down the west side of the Roath lake that you'll all be familiar with—the devastating impact on elderly and disabled people, who simply are unable to comfortably walk across the park in order to get the single bus that runs on the east side of the lake once an hour. This means that their lives shrink, because they are so careful with their money, mainly, that they won't hire a taxi in order to go and meet a friend or some other social occasion, and they stop going out. Yes, they can get food delivered, but if they don't have relatives nearby who are going to take them places, they simply don't go anywhere.

So, this is just a massive issue, and the cause of this is very much down to the fact that we are unable to control exactly where the routes are that serve what is a very urban constituency. Even in urban constituencies, we have massive problems of people becoming socially isolated as a result of the shortage of buses and the lack of control over where we need buses to go. It is pointless in such circumstances to have a bus pass—a freedom pass—if there are no buses. So, I do hope that, together, we can move forward on ensuring that the money we spend on buses, which is considerable, can be better organised so that we can ensure that everybody has equity in their access to a bus. 

16:10

It's a pleasure to support this motion tabled by my friend the Member for Ogmore today. As I was doing some preparation for this debate, I found a figure on StatsWales that shocked me and underscored the importance of today's debate, and that's the passenger journeys on local bus services by country per head of population in 2019-20. For England, this was 72.3, for Scotland 67, and for Wales the figure was just 28.2, and that's before we factor in the impact of COVID.

In the context of the pandemic, though, it's only fair to start by recognising the considerable support that the Welsh Government provided—support such as the multimillion pound bus emergency scheme. It's not an understatement to say that the bus industry would not be standing without that support. But that, in itself, poses questions, as the second part of the motion suggests—questions as to the sustainability of the current model, as to whether services meet local demand, and how we are mapping and determining routes in our communities. We need a radical rethink as to what we want from bus provision and what we think is good bus provision.

Firstly, we must provide bus services our communities want, and I'll illustrate this by an example from my constituency. From the village of Cwmbach to a local supermarket is under 1 mile. Lots of older people live in the village, car ownership rates are low, and since that supermarket was built over 20 years ago, there had always been a direct bus service. Recently, however, the bus operator decided to remove it, and now people need to take two or three buses to get to that supermarket, which can be up to 5 miles each way—a 10-mile journey for a journey that should take under 2 miles. Obviously, this can be a real challenge with heavy shopping bags. How will we encourage people to get on buses if this is the kind of service that is being provided? I really support point 6 of the motion for meaningful conversation with communities. Local people need and deserve a direct voice in the determining of provision that meets their needs.

Secondly, we must offer different ways of responding to those needs. Like all Members, I receive regular communication from constituents about the services they want or need, and I receive the same responses from bus operators when I raise these concerns in turn. 'Those routes are not economically viable', they say, 'There aren't the passenger numbers to justify them'. I think demand-responsive travel could be the means to cut through that impasse that never allows us to explore whether new bus service routes are actually viable and would be used. It may not be feasible to have big, empty buses rattling around, but smaller vehicles operating in a smarter way may be the solution. A Fflecsi scheme was trialled in the Senedd last term, including in parts of RCT, and under that scheme, people could request a demand-responsive bus picked them up from home, work, or the shops. I'd be really keen to see much more of this. It must operate alongside the work of community transport providers so that their work is complemented.

Thirdly, bus routes must link up. This is a particular challenge around longer routes, for example from my constituency to Swansea—a popular shopping destination and employment area, yet there is no direct public transport service. A direct bus service was replaced several years ago by two connecting services, Aberdare to Glyn Neath and Glyn Neath to Swansea. Initially, there was a 15-minute wait between buses, but then that changed to an hour as different companies provided either leg of the journey, and weren't prepared to compromise or work together for a joined-up service. Such a wait is not realistic; how can we encourage more people onto public transport with such impractical arrangements? Similarly, there is no direct bus route to Cardiff from my constituency. Okay, we have the trains, but even when the metro is at full capacity, rail will only carry 25 per cent of current Valley commuter traffic into Cardiff. So, there needs to be a big push on bus service provision if we want to get people out of their cars, and this question of the metro is key for my constituency. At its inception, the metro concept was not just about a train service, but also a comprehensive feeder bus service offering a fully joined-up transport service. This is key for communities such as those I represent where people can live some distance from a train station in comparative isolation. I've been encouraged by recent discussions on the metro which talk about buses as a bigger part of the scheme in its next phases. Similarly, the Deputy Minister's comments in his statement yesterday around integration of services was welcome.

To close, I'd just like to say a few words of appreciation to our bus drivers. During the pandemic, they've been essential workers who have kept those services operating. Key to any future provision is ensuring the highest employment standards and that staff have a say in the future of their industry. Diolch.

16:15

I welcome this debate and this discussion very much and thank you to everyone who has submitted the motion. I'm eager to see the Deputy Minister and this Government looking specifically at bus services in our rural communities and I want to endorse what Alun Davies said earlier, because it appears that there is a disconnect between what the Government and Governments have said and what they achieve on the ground. If you consider over the past few decades, we have seen a very urban model forced on the communities of Wales, with services isolated from our rural areas. If you consider how many community hospitals have closed and if somebody needs a blood test or physiotherapy, they have to travel further. How many care homes are far away from our rural communities? If somebody wants to see a loved one, then you have to consider that distance. Think about the bus stations, the post offices, the banks, the job centres and the courts that have been lost or closed in our communities, forcing people to travel further and further. But, again, because of the nature of our rural communities and there are so few people living in those communities, it's these routes that are cut first, those rural routes, because they're not being seen as profitable. We've seen more of that happening because of this austerity that has been imposed upon us by the two Governments.

So, services have gone further away whilst, at the same time, we're seeing the funding to bus services decreasing, and I'll give you an example: there’s a constituent from Aberdaron who has contacted me this week—Aberdaron in the Llŷn peninsula—and they have to receive further education in Coleg Meirion Dwyfor in Dolgellau, which is a good long way away, and they have to travel hours on public transport. Or, another constituent who contacted me, in Harlech, having to travel to the hospital in Bangor. Now, that's 35 miles between Bangor and Harlech, but in order to get there on public transport, something that would take around an hour in a car, it takes three and a half hours, and almost four hours on a bus. So, we have to see solutions, and we have to see rural communities being considered in these plans. That would be my plea as the Deputy Minister responds to this debate. Thank you very much.

16:20

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and thank you for the debate.

I'm really encouraged by the degree of consensus there is, both on the importance of buses and on some of the measures that we need to take collectively to improve the situation. As Huw Irranca-Davies said at the outset, we need to restore the public purpose of public transport, and I thought that was a very powerful and insightful comment. And Heledd Fychan set out very powerfully how some people are currently let down by a service that is not always functional and certainly isn't always easy. As I made clear yesterday, to tackle the imperative of climate change we need to make the right thing to do the easiest thing to do, and currently it is not. It is much easier if you have a car, and bear in mind something like 20 per cent of households don't have a car, but if you have a car it is the simplest way to get around. If we are all sincere in our objectives to meet the climate emergency, we have to shift that, so the obvious, easy way to get about for most everyday journeys is public transport. We are some way off that, and I think we all need to be honest about that. There are many and complex reasons why we are some way off that, and they've been captured by many people in this debate.

We have a system that is very complex. The privatisation in the early 80s has been a disaster, and has made things extremely difficult to co-ordinate. The public transport system in London works because it is regulated. Outside of London it rarely works, because it is not regulated. It's not that complex. We had hoped to introduce legislation in the last Senedd to introduce franchising into Wales. We were not able to do that, but we are determined to do it in this Senedd, and we'll be publishing a plan later in this year on how we intend to do that. I want us to work together, given the shared ambition in this Chamber, to make that the most ambitious plan that we can, not to do the minimum that we need to do, but to see if we can stretch ourselves to really achieve a seamless, end-to-end public transport system that works for most people.

I'd echo the comments in the Chamber about how public transport and bus services were the quiet heroes of the pandemic, and Vikki Howells's tribute particularly to the bus drivers who enabled key workers, NHS staff and children to return to school—we couldn't have done it without them. I think it's also right to recognise the role of the Welsh Government in stepping in and saving an industry, as Hefin David acknowledged Nigel Winter from Stagecoach has pointed out. I pay tribute to my colleague Ken Skates, who I see on the screen, who worked closely with the bus industry alongside me through the pandemic to make sure the package of measures was there to stop this essential ecosystem disappearing before our eyes.

We have put significant money in, and through putting that money in we have enhanced relationships, we have enhanced the underpinning arrangements, and we're now in a far stronger position than when we went in, having a relationship and contracts in place with commercial operators, which I think puts us in a far better position to realise the ambition we'll be setting out later th