Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

07/07/2021

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 equally. A Plenary meeting held using video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and these are noted on your agenda. I would also remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, and apply equally to Members in the Chamber and to those joining virtually.

1. Questions to the Minister for Economy

The first item this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Economy, and the first question is from Jack Sargeant.

Support for Businesses

1. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government support for businesses in Alyn and Deeside? OQ56721

Thank you. We have made unprecedented levels of funding available to support Welsh businesses through the pandemic. Flintshire businesses have received £69.7 million in grant support since April 2020, which is in addition to our extensive support provided by Business Wales and the development bank.

Thank you for that answer, Minister, and thank you for the support to date. Minister, previous Welsh Labour Governments have had a strong focus on apprenticeships, a fact I should know better than most as a time-served engineer. We must train the next generation in order to deliver a green recovery and to develop the green products of the future. The Minister will know I want to see a green new deal for manufacturing in Wales. To ensure that happens, we must work with businesses to deliver highly skilled apprenticeships, and to also upskill the current workforce. Minister, do you agree with me, and can you update the Chamber on your plans to ensure this happens?

Yes, and, of course, in the manifesto that we stood on, we talked about having a greener, fairer and more prosperous Wales. And I have met a range of the coming generations of apprentices and engineers during my visits both to Airbus and Toyota, and I look forward to meeting more of our new range of people coming in with skills into the workforce. And in fact, the manufacturing action plan provides a focus to support futureproofing of our manufacturing capabilities, and also, of course, the need to decarbonise the way that industry works here in Wales. And yesterday's steel statement—you'll recall in the question you asked yesterday—is a significant part of this. It's a challenge, but also an opportunity. So ,I look forward to seeing more of those skills, to green our economy as well as to grow it in the future, and this Government is certainly committed to that greener, fairer and more prosperous Wales.

Thank you, Minister, for your response to questions from the Member for Alyn and Deeside. As you will know, Alyn and Deeside is a strategic location in north Wales, with its border and important transport links into the north-west of England. Many businesses in Mr Sargeant's constituency, and across north Wales, do rely heavily on strong cross-border collaboration, which needs the UK and Welsh Governments working closely together in the best interest of businesses throughout north Wales. Minister, you will know that you and I attended a launch event for the Mersey Dee Alliance fiscal stimulus package recently, and it's a really important partnership to see that continued cross-border collaboration. So, what assessment would you make of the work of the Mersey Dee Alliance, and what plans does the Welsh Government have to improve that cross-border collaboration? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Well, it's something that my predecessor, Ken Skates, has recognised, about the importance of north-east Wales and north-west England, and some common economic interests. And we do think the Mersey Dee Alliance is helping to make the case for that. I have met them twice now since becoming the economy Minister, and I actually think that their stimulus package is worth serious consideration. The advice that I have given them, and the steer I've given, is we want to see this work—we recognise that investing in this part of Wales, and over the border, will benefit businesses and employees from Wales and from England too. And the challenge is whether, within the next comprehensive spending review, we'll see the sort of financial support that is required to make the stimulus package, and the real economic benefit it can bring to both north-east Wales and north-west England, a reality. And we stand ready to be constructive partners in doing just that.

Tourism in Denbighshire

2. Will the Minister make a statement on the promotion of tourism in Denbighshire? OQ56749

Denbighshire, and the whole of north Wales, feature prominently in Visit Wales’s promotional activities. We will continue to promote Denbighshire’s significant tourist offer, both on the coast and in the countryside, including, of course, signature events such as the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod.

Thank you for that response. I want to draw your attention to a campaign that's afoot to put plans in place for a cycle route from Ruthin to Denbigh through the Vale of Clwyd. That would not only link the two towns for local residents—

13:35

Sorry, Llyr. Can I just cut across you? I think we have a problem with the translation. So, can we just pause a while, while we see if there's a button that the Minister can press to make it work?

So, I will speak to ensure that things are working properly. Is it working? Can we continue? Yes, we can. So, everything is now sorted. Llyr, you can continue. 

Thank you, Llywydd. What I wanted to do was draw the Minister's attention to plans that are afoot to create a cycle route from Ruthin to Denbigh through the vale of Clwyd. Now, this route, of course, would link the towns for local residents, in terms of active travel, which we know is an important part of what the Government is keen to promote. But it would also be an additional attraction for tourists in linking two historic market towns, two medieval castles, and follow the old railway track hopefully down the valley. So, what I want to do is to invite the Minister, when he is in the region, to join with me to meet the group that is trying to deliver this route, led by Councillor Emrys Wynne, to see those plans in action and to see the proposed route for himself, bearing in mind, too, that there are exciting plans to build an open-air velodrome in north Wales in Ruthin. The creation of a cycle route to link the town with the broader area would certainly be a great benefit in environmental terms, but, as the Minister would also acknowledge, in terms of tourism and the local economy too. 

Yes, I recognise the reality that active travel opens up new opportunities to promote tourism in many parts of Wales, and the initiative that the Member identifies is a good example of that potential. I'm not sure I can give him a cast iron guarantee to visit; I have lots of opportunities and invitations to visit different parts of Wales. But I'd be more than happy to take more of an interest in not just the tourism potential, but obviously with colleagues with responsibility for active travel to see how we can support the initiative that the Member has highlighted.FootnoteLink 

Minister, tourism businesses in Denbighshire, particularly those in my constituency in the Vale of Clwyd, have been decimated by the pandemic. The sector's recovery is going to be long and slow, particularly as there appears to be very little detail in terms of opening up from COVID over the summer, which is essentially the peak time for the trade. Minister, without a relaxation of COVID restrictions, the likes of Rhyl, Prestatyn, Bodelwyddan and St Asaph are going to find it hard to compete with their English counterparts, who will face little to no social distancing rules. Even Scotland have plans to fully relax their restrictions. How will the Welsh Government ensure tourism businesses in my constituency aren't disadvantaged as a result of ongoing restrictions, and will you publish a road map for recovery? Thank you. 

I think there are a couple of points to make in response. The first is, of course, that we have a much more generous offer to support businesses here in Wales, including the tourism sector, than over the border, and not just the general support that we've provided—at least £400 million more than the consequentials that would come from spending in England—but the fact that we continue to provide rate relief for a range of businesses, when England have already reduced that support for businesses across the border.

The second point that I'd make is that, actually, there is already high demand for tourism businesses through the summer already. And in the conversations that I have directly with the sector, their challenge is actually about getting enough staff to work within the sector itself, and we're working alongside the sector to promote people to look to work not just on a seasonal basis, but on a more permanent basis in an industry that pays perhaps more than people may realise, with the rewards that the broader sector may bring to them.

And I think the third point is that, when you come to the broad demand to end social distancing and to have dates in place, you will have heard consistently for more than a year now the approach we've taken in Wales is generally being driven by data not dates. We're considering the advice that we are getting from our own scientific advisers and public health advisers, and we need to take a balance in our public health risks, which we know are there still, even as we look to hopefully exit the pandemic, and we'll continue to make choices alongside the industry about what the future will look like. I'm optimistic about the choices that we'll get to make, but we'll do so in a manner that is responsible and not driven by demands to simply blow the doors off and allow everything to happen at the same time as other parts of the United Kingdom. We'll provide dates and data when the time is right, and the Member shouldn't have to wait very long for the Cabinet to make those choices.

13:40
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Tom Giffard.

Diolch, Llywydd. Can I start by welcoming the written statement issued by the Deputy Minister that was provided to all Members last week on the Football Association of Wales's proposals to restructure the women's league in Wales? I'm sure all of us in this Chamber agree with the vision of developing and improving the women's game in Wales, but, unfortunately, in order to achieve this goal, the FAW have decided to reorganise the league structure of the women's game in Wales in a way that many of us have serious reservations about. 

Sport is, and should be, about merit, and promotion and relegation is a part of the game, but it should be decided on results on the field. So, with that in mind, I wanted to express my disappointment that Briton Ferry Llansawel Ladies, Cascade YC Ladies and Abergavenny Women FC were all relegated from the top division of the women's game as part of the restructure. Whilst I know it's a decision made, Minister, by the FAW and not by Welsh Government, can I ask what discussions you've had with the FAW on this matter and what support is the FAW and Welsh Government offering to those clubs that have been unfairly affected by the change?

Can I thank the Member for that question and for the meeting that I had with him on 24 June, when we discussed this issue? Subsequently, I did meet with the FAW and they made several commitments that I expect them to deliver on. Firstly, they agreed to meet the clubs affected by the changes and to discuss any further support that they may need. And I understand that a positive meeting has already been held with Cascade Ladies, and the FAW have also said that they're going to be setting up a players' forum for tiers 1 and 2, which will meet monthly and will enable the FAW to better understand issues from a player's perspective. And they are also giving feedback to FIFA that women players need to be more involved in the decisions that affect their game. 

The FAW do accept that they need to reflect on how they communicated these changes publicly and they are also committed to closer dialogue with Welsh Government through monthly meetings with officials and with myself as well. But ultimately, the matter of the restructuring of the women's game in Wales is a matter for the FAW, but I do expect them to deliver on the commitments that they've given to me.

Can I thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister? So, keeping to the theme of sport, I'd like to now turn to sporting pilot events that have taken place in Wales. In a question to the First Minister a month ago, I asked for an update on sporting pilot events that have taken place across Wales over the previous few weeks. In his reply, he said there would be a further set of pilot events. But, unfortunately, since he answered that question, no further timetable has emerged and he was not specific about when this timetable would emerge either. So, can I ask you when the Senedd can expect more information on the further set of pilots the First Minister promised?

And, secondly, we've also seen in England, with the Events Research Programme, where over 58,000 participants attended indoor and outdoor events, including matches at Wembley stadium, that no substantial outbreaks were linked to these events. So, we know that sporting events can be conducted safely in England. Whilst we've seen detailed findings from these phase 1 events, we're yet to see the findings from the Welsh Government's pilots. So, can the Minister confirm what support there is for clubs that are still having to limit the amount of fans that enter their stadiums? And will the Welsh Government publish the findings from its initial events pilot so that we can see whether these sporting events can be run safely in Wales, as they have been in England, and so that Members of this Senedd and the public can understand the rationale for any future decisions?

As the Member knows, phase 2 of the pilot events involved nine events here in Wales, including Eid and Tafwyl at Cardiff castle, We Need Bees in Brecon, and Wales versus Albania. All of those were completed successfully and work on the final report will be completed shortly. Ahead of that, many of the findings have informed some of the revised events guidance. We're still in detailed discussions with events organisers regarding a third phase of pilot events, with a focus on indoor events. So, the decisions on the way forward on any further relaxation of restrictions on events are going to be taking place at the 21-day review and we fully appreciate, of course, that the value of events to our visitor economy is significant and, therefore, we need to continue to support the sector throughout the next phase.

I think it's probably important to say that, when we are looking at the report that we've had from the English test pilots, they don't yet give us as much information as we need about the transmission of the virus at those events. The post-events testing was very, very small. There's a lot that we need to take into account when we are still dealing with the rise in the delta variant at the moment. But the programme for the third phase is ongoing, there are further test events planned, and the details will be published as soon as we're in a position to do so.  

13:45

Thank you for that answer. Unfortunately, there's still a bit of inconsistency when it comes to the return of spectators to sporting events and sports clubs across Wales. So, as fans return to stadia in smaller numbers, it's also been raised with me some of the inconsistencies of the COVID regulations surrounding sport. Whilst it's a welcome sight to see some Wales fans returning to support the Welsh rugby team at the Principality stadium for the most recent set of internationals, as well as some fans returning to other sporting events, the rules around them remain unclear. So, for example, at the Principality stadium, fans are being asked to wear masks around the venue but they can be removed in their seat. Meanwhile, the Football Association of Wales has announced that up to 100 fans can return to the Welsh Premier League fixtures. They have also said that masks must be worn at all times, as well as a temperature check and a medical questionnaire upon entry, none of which the Welsh Rugby Union deems are requirements for its fixtures. Glamorgan Cricket have said that masks do not need to be worn whilst seated but, like the WRU, do need to be worn whilst walking around the stadium, whilst temperature checks are being undertaken upon entry, like the FAW but unlike the WRU. So, there's also an issue of a clear inconsistency there. 

There's also an issue around household bubbles. The FAW in its Welsh Premier League guidance and Glamorgan Cricket have both said that those not living in the same household cannot sit together, whereas the WRU website for ticketholders for Saturday's game says, 'As per Welsh Government guidelines, there is no restriction on who you can attend with', which is different again from the rule of six, for example, in pubs and restaurants. Whilst I understand the designing of the COVID regulations are the responsibility of the health Minister, your role as the Deputy Minister responsible for sport is to ensure that sporting organisations have a consistent understanding of Welsh Government regulations and, at the moment, some of our biggest sporting organisations in Wales have vastly different interpretations of Welsh Government regulations in this area. So, can I ask: what action are you taking to ensure not only a consistent understanding of the regulations by all sporting bodies, but also that fans attending sporting events are treated equitably as people attending other venues, such as pubs and restaurants? 

I think the guidance that has been issued to all of these organisations is consistent. What is a matter for the organisations themselves is to undertake their own risk assessments based on their venues, their numbers and how they are going to mitigate against the infection. So, whether it's an indoor or an outdoor event. So, the guidance is consistent. What are not, necessarily, are the decisions that the organisers of those events make in terms of the venues and the numbers involved, because that is dependent upon the individual risk assessment for each event. 

Diolch, Llywydd. The Minister will know that I welcome the extension of current business support until the end of August, and I was grateful for the opportunity, of course, provided by the Minister for a briefing before the announcement was made. But of course, some of the hardest-hit sectors are those that depend on members of the public mixing together both indoors and in close proximity, all of which are activities that have been either severely restricted or prohibited in law for much of the past year. For example, the effects of these restrictions have fallen heavily on businesses and organisations in the culture sector, such as theatres, live music venues and nightclubs. The night-time industry is the UK's fifth-biggest industry but it's estimated that by the time nightclubs can reopen, there will be 40 per cent to 50 per cent fewer operating compared to pre-COVID figures. Whilst nightclubs understand they are closed to protect public health, they feel like there's a significant lack of clarity regarding reopening.

Of course, the pandemic is unpredictable and we can't fall into the trap of giving arbitrary dates for reopening but, as things stand, the culture sector have no idea what reopening will look like. Whilst the financial support provided to the sector is, of course, welcome, businesses will need time to prepare to operate them; from personal experience, that's often around four weeks' notice and, in some cases, several months. Even if they can't fully open right now, it would be very helpful to know some details. So, could the Government provide an outline of what exact conditions will allow for reopening, and would it be linked to the vaccination programme and/or the infection rate, for example, and what will reopening look like for venues that require close proximity?  

I think the challenge in giving an honest answer to that question is that we don't know all of the issues around that, and we've just got to be honest about this. We know that we're in the midst of a significant spike in coronavirus infections. We know that there is a different relationship between infections and harm. It's why the hospitalisation and the death rate have not climbed in the way that we've seen in the past. And, to be frank, with the rates we see today, if we didn't have the success of the vaccination programme, we'd have already gone into reverse. Now that's good news, because it shows we have got more latitude. What we can't say, though, is, 'We have an exact formula now that tells us about the amount of harm that would be caused and the extra latitude we have.' We're working through that, though, and what I can't do is pre-empt the conversations that we have not finished within the Government with the advice we have still not had finalised from our scientific advisers, and indeed our public health advisers too. We do, though, understand right across the Government that we're in a phase now where the balancing of the health harms and the economic harms and others we've always had to look at is now shifting towards the greater harms in terms of economic activity. That doesn't mean to say there's no balance to be struck, but we do think we're in a different relationship.

So, yes, we will continue to look at the emerging evidence on the changed, not broken, relationship between infections and harm. We will continue to look at pressure within the NHS. We will continue to look at the impact on the economy. And we will continue to look at the success of the vaccination programme. That will allow us to have the conversations that are already taking place with the events sector, with hospitality, with others. Nightclubs are one of the few sectors that still remain closed, and we're looking to give them the sort of perspective they will need to allow themselves to reopen safely and, as the Deputy Minister said in answer to previous questions, to think about their own processes for the guidance that will be in place, for their own risk assessment that they will need to undertake for their staff and their customers.

13:50

Thank you, Minister, and I'd hope, of course, that conversations continue with the night-time industry so that they can gain some clarity as we go forward. If I could move on to the job retention scheme, of course the Minister again will be aware that we've had several discussions outside this Chamber on this subject. The UK Government has begun the gradual process of winding up the retention scheme. As of 1 July, the Government will drop its contribution to furloughed workers' salaries from 80 per cent to 70 per cent, and from 1 August it will pay 60 per cent of a furloughed employee's wage, leaving employers to pick up the missing 10 per cent for the first time—a decision with significant consequences for thousands of Welsh firms across Wales. While young people made up the majority of workers initially placed on furlough, the reopening of shops, bars and restaurants has allowed many under-25s to return to work or find new jobs in those sectors in recent months, but many workers and businesses are still struggling. Older employees could face an increased risk, given that around half of those still on furlough are 45 or over, according to the Resolution Foundation, which has said in its annual living standards audit for 2021, that this pattern of younger workers more swiftly returning from furlough has resulted in older workers on full furlough bearing the highest risk of having been out of work for long time periods. It's estimated that as many as one in four staff who are still reliant on the scheme are aged 55 to 64. What analysis has the Welsh Government made of the demographic breakdown of people in Wales who remain on furlough, and does the Minister share the concerns of the Resolution Foundation that it is older employees who could face higher levels of unemployment with the end of the furlough scheme approaching?

Our position on labour market intelligence and relationships that we have not just with the broader surveys but from business sectors themselves is one that we continue to look at, as we discuss the further path to opening up parts of our economy, as restrictions, we still think, can be eased in the future. That's the incomplete conversation that I referred to in your first question.

I don't think it's quite as simple as saying that it will be older or younger workers who will be affected, because actually we know that lots of younger workers have been hit extremely hard during the pandemic as well, and in the sectors you mentioned some people are going back to work, but also those sectors face a real labour challenge in that some people have moved on to different industries and different jobs. So, we have a challenge across a range of ages, and the risk for younger people is that if they're not able to re-enter the world of work, that can have a scarring effect on their future potential and ability to achieve. And older workers, if they're out of work for a long time, and if firms do make choices of either reducing head count or closing their business, as we see the stepped down support from furlough, then there is a real risk, and we've seen this many times with economic shocks in the past, that it can be very difficult for people, particularly higher skilled people, to return to the world of work on salaries that are commensurate, and that in itself has a real impact. So, at more than one age range, we recognise there are significant risks that we're managing in the economy at present. It's why we've called for the UK Government to reconsider its approach to furlough and to think about a more agile way of supporting businesses as those choices are made, and the opening up of our economy is not complete in any part of the UK, and we're equally not entirely certain what will happen in the pandemic and what that may mean about future economic activity as well.

13:55

Of course, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has also warned that an extra cost being assumed by struggling businesses could result in tens of thousands of workers facing redundancies. To ensure the possible outcome outlined by the IFS of a reduction and ending of furlough does not occur in Wales, has the Welsh Government undertaken any contingency planning to enable them to continue supporting Welsh workers and businesses through furlough if support from Westminster is cut off?

And further to this, of course, in Wales, despite the number of people on furlough reducing steadily over the past few months, as of last week, there are still 88,000 jobs in Wales still furloughed. Of course, you yourself have warned that furlough should not be withdrawn before the Welsh economy is ready, and at Westminster, my colleague Ben Lake has accused the UK Treasury of rigidly sticking to dates with regard to financial support even though uncertainty continues to loom large over the economy. With a continued risk of economic instability as we emerge from the pandemic, it is crucial that the Treasury keeps maximum flexibility to its approach if it is to truly support people and businesses out of this crisis.

The TUC has also warned Ministers not to pull the plug on the UK's economic recovery by cutting off support for workers and businesses too soon. Should the public health situation unexpectedly deteriorate as we approach autumn and winter, is the Welsh Government prepared to step up to the mark and support Welsh workers and businesses? And with the Chancellor's decisions weaving in with the Prime Minister's announcement this week of England easing all restrictions from 19 July, will the Welsh Government be modelling not only how this will impact the public health situation in Wales but the economic environment as well? Does the Minister also agree that if Westminster gets this wrong, with both the economic and health situation deteriorating, this could end up costing us in the long run?

Obviously, if the UK Government don't take proper account of what will happen next with the pandemic that we all want to see come to an end, then it could have significant public health and economic consequences, and there's plenty of commentary about that and about the balance of risk in the choice the Prime Minister has made for England in terms of its reopening and what that may mean for infections, which they themselves have modelled will rise significantly.

Now, here in Wales, we have made deliberate choices about supporting businesses with more generous business support to get through the pandemic. It's why I was able to announce the further stage of business support to get through to the end of August, so there's a bit more certainty for businesses as we still make choices about reopening. And I was happy to provide a briefing to yourself and, indeed, the offer was made to the Conservative spokesperson as well.

Our challenge, though, will be to think about how we're able to do that more successfully in the future and the resources that we still have retained to support businesses. Now, we're in this position because we have managed other parts of the pandemic in a different way. So, we have more latitude because we've managed our PPE acquisition in a different way, with less cost and more efficiently and you haven't seen any kind of a whiff of a VIP lane in Wales because it doesn't exist. We've also got a test, trace and protect service that is much more efficient and doesn't cost anything like as much as the system in England. Those have given us more latitude to be more generous in our support to businesses. I'm already working through with officials and having conversations with business sectors about how we might support them during the recovery with the resources that we have available.

Of course, all of those things could take a different point. Rather than investing in the recovery and investing in future skills and innovation, we may need to return to investing in more emergency support. We have some ability to do that, but if the pandemic does take another unexpected course, then we would, of course, expect that the UK Government would provide UK resources for businesses right across the UK if that's the position we were in. But I am optimistic that we will be able to make positive choices in the future and properly balancing public health together with our economic future.

Innovative Technology

3. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of innovative technology on the workforce? OQ56729

Thank you for the question. Our economic and reconstruction mission builds on the 2019 findings from Professor Phillip Brown’s review, with a focus on accelerating industrial transformation by embracing new and disruptive technologies, such as artificial intelligence.

Thank you, Minister. According to the TUC, one in four workers in Wales say that monitoring and surveillance at work has increased since the COVID-19 crisis began. This includes tracking and logging workers as they move via wristbands, including when they're on toilet breaks; forcing drivers to have to urinate in bottles because an algorithm has set them an impossible number of deliveries in a day, so they cannot afford to take a break; and people working from home having facial recognition technology used on them via their laptop without their consent. 

Whilst conducting my own research with Professor Lina Dencik at the data justice lab at Cardiff University, we interviewed over 10 different trade unions and found that this oppressive and widespread surveillance is resulting in workers feeling stressed, demotivated, unappreciated and distrusted, breaking down the necessary respect between workers and employers. How can Welsh Government ensure that as new technology is introduced into the workplace it improves workers' lives and does not rob them of their dignity?

14:00

I think that's the important point that the Member makes at the end, because, when deployed responsibly, technology can provide workers with greater flexibility and enable them to be more productive, as many businesses have found during the pandemic. That innovative use of technology has given people that freedom and ability to work remotely in a way that they value.

Now, that doesn't work for every single employee or every business, but it's the inappropriate use of technology that the Member is highlighting, with unscrupulous employers, that can create an environment of fear and distrust. This Welsh Government does not want to see and won't endorse emerging tech and COVID-related working practices being used to create an oppressive or controlling environment for workers.

I can say that, as we continue to have our discussions in the social partnership approach that we have built, which has been of significant benefit to Wales through the pandemic, we'll continue to set out our expectations for a fair work economy, where we balance the needs of businesses to turn a profit, but also their responsibilities to look after their own workers. That's why we continue to work with businesses themselves and with trade unions that represent the interests of the workforce, and I'll be sure to pay this particular area more attention, and I'm grateful to the Member for highlighting the research she's already done on this issue.

Minister, the conversation concerning artificial intelligence has often focused on its impact on the workforce and how it can cost jobs. However, the reality is that over 96 per cent of all manufacturing in Wales comes from small business enterprises, and we, as a country, are very much behind the curve in terms of productivity when compared to competitors across the United Kingdom and Europe.

Innovative technology provides a perfect opportunity to reduce the investment costs that companies need in order to make them competitive, and Wales has some fantastic businesses that are well positioned to be able to do this, such as Nightingale HQ, based in Pontypridd. Can the Minister highlight what proposals the Welsh Government are considering to help small businesses integrate artificial intelligence into their businesses and help them increase their productivity?

We're actually looking at digital innovation in manufacturing. We've already created a hub in Wales that we're supporting as well, so we're looking at how this works for different businesses in different sectors. It's also part of the work that we're looking to develop on a properly regional approach to understand what will work in different parts of Wales, and that's about empowering different regions in Wales to make choices together. So, the work that Julie James did in her previous ministerial role in creating joint committees—how that work is overlaid with the work that we've been doing with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on regional economic development as well.

The challenge is to make sure that our ability to invest in those choices being made at the most appropriate level isn't undercut by changes in the way that funding structures work as well. So, there are challenges both for the Welsh Government in what we can do, but also levers that are outside our control and the differences of view we have with the UK Government on how those funding sources to replace European funds are actually used—that will be of crucial importance to make a practical difference to support more businesses and more jobs here in Wales.

The Retail Sector

4. What are the Welsh Government's priorities for supporting the retail sector in Wales over the next 12 months? OQ56717

Thank you. We fully recognise the COVID pandemic has had a tremendous impact on the retail sector. That's why we're working closely with them to develop a retail strategy, which will outline our priorities and a shared vision for the future of the sector.

Thank you for that response, Minister. I'm sure that you'll be aware that the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, of which I'm a member, has produced a retail recovery plan, setting out some key interventions to support the sector. Acknowledging, of course, that some of the levers are reserved and that the Welsh Government has already delivered on some key asks, such as full rates relief for retail businesses in Wales, I'd welcome your reflections on that report and what further measures you could take in order to ensure that the needs of the retail sector are at the heart of Welsh Government economic policy during the next 12 months. 

Yes. In fact, in my initial response, I should have been clear that, when I talk about working with them, the retail sector, I do mean businesses and trade unions. USDAW have been very constructive in their retail recovery plan that they've proposed, and I'm actually going to be meeting with businesses and the trade union side over the next week. Because what we have been doing already is looking at what we can do here, within Wales, to make sure that we help the retail sector recover as far as possible. And the future vision relies both on what we're prepared to do, as well as what businesses are prepared to do as well, to think about the offer and how they survived in the pandemic. But it also relies on the behaviour of us as consumers. For a long time during the pandemic, people bought into buying local and supporting local traders. The challenge is that if more people move to online and remote purchasing that can have an impact on high street and in-person retail. So, we've got to think about what we're prepared to do and how people feel about going back into environments that many of us haven't been in for some time. So, there's a challenge here about personal behaviour, but we look forward to working with the retail sector, both businesses and trade unions, to make sure that there is a positive future for retail here in Wales.

14:05

Can I thank Vikki Howells for bringing this question today? And I think, whilst we all welcome the business support that has been offered to date, as we begin to emerge from the pandemic, it's crucial that certain existing support packages are reformed to instil confidence and encourage consumer spending in the retail sector on our high streets and town centres. And the transforming towns fund is vital for retail across Wales and, indeed, in my own constituency, but its funding streams are only short term. Therefore, Minister, will you address this by ensuring those eligible can access the fund in the longer term? Thank you.

Well, longer term choices will need to be subject to our budget considerations, but I'm proud that this Government has taken a serious view on investing in the future of towns—and retail is an important part of a sense of place for people who live in those towns—and how we drive more footfall into town centres to make sure those businesses are viable. So, yes, I expect we'll be making further choices about how to further support towns in the future, as opposed to funding that will only end after a limited period of time, but I can't give you a definitive view about the budgetary future. As you know, we'll be going through budget setting over the coming months, and I look forward to talking about that with you, and no doubt there'll be many opportunities to do so.

Free Ports

5. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Climate Change about the economic impact of free ports? OQ56751

I've had a range of discussions on free ports with ministerial colleagues, including the Minister for Climate Change. However, no offer has been presented to the Welsh Government for a Welsh free port by the UK Government. Welsh Ministers have, though, clearly set out conditions where a joint approach could be taken, including, importantly, funding parity with English free ports.

Thank you for that response. We need to consider every option for new opportunities for the port of Holyhead in my constituency; I've looked at the possibilities of creating a free port for many years. But we need to be very clear about the possible benefits and disbenefits, and that's difficult when things are muddied by political rhetoric. As the Welsh Affairs Select Committee in Westminster said: 

The UK Government mustn't

'create a 'Welsh Freeport'...for optical or political purposes.'

It's important that people understand that it's not some kind of Brexit dividend, for example, because, in principle, one could have had free-port status while still in the European Union. And, as the Minister said, people need to understand that the UK Conservative Government are offering far less for free ports in Wales as compared to England—some £8 million, as compared to £25 million in England. But, yes, we need to look at the opportunities. So, can the Welsh Government, whilst insisting on a level playing field in terms of possible financial support, ensure that work is done to understand exactly what benefits could come to Holyhead on a practical level, in which sectors, and to balance that with the negative impacts that are also possible?

I should start by saying that, as we don't have a firm proposal, we don't have a proposal to work with. We have written to the UK Government, the previous Minister has written, and myself and the finance Minister will be writing again, ahead of our meeting with the Welsh Affairs Select Committee tomorrow, to set out, again, the parameters in which we are prepared to work with the UK Government to look at a free port in Wales. One of those points is funding parity. This isn't something where a Barnettised share should be provided; this is a place-based intervention, and the same funding given to any free port in England should come to any free port in Wales. I should gently say to the Member that Holyhead is one port that may wish to bid to be a free port, because, actually, what the UK Government have done is they've undertaken a competitive bidding process. Now, part of my concern is that you could end up—. Already we're seeing some activity taking place in getting ready to bid for a process that we don't understand, that isn't actually live yet, and there'll be wasted resources in doing so, because other ports would be interested in bidding to do that as well. And our challenge then is, if we were going to do this, we do want to understand more clearly about whether we genuinely create more activity or displace activity that is already taking place.

It is, of course, a matter of fact, not opinion, that free ports already existed when we were members of the European Union; it was Prime Minister Cameron who ended the free ports existing in the UK in 2012. So, it's not a new idea. And actually, what we really need is direct engagement with the Treasury, because it's a Treasury-driven project. It's something that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is very personally wedded to, and he's perfectly entitled to have individual areas of interest that he wants to see happen, but, for a free port, there has to be proper engagement with the Welsh Government as decision-taking Ministers here with the decision-taking Ministers in the UK Government to make sure we understand what we are being asked to commit to and what the full offer actually looks like. And I would like to be able to have a more detailed discussion with the Member and others, but I'm not able to do so, because, as I say, we don't have a proper offer to engage with.

14:10

Janet Finch-Saunders.

Oh, we can't hear you at the moment, Janet Finch-Saunders. Can you see if there's a button you can press? Say something, Janet, to see if we can hear you now. Say something. No. We'll come back to you. I'll call Joyce Watson next.

Diolch, Llywydd. As you said, Minister, free ports policy does, indeed, predate Brexit. It was proposed in Britannia Unchained, the 2012 manifesto for turning the UK into a low-tax, deregulated economy, written by right-wing Members of the current Tory Brexit Government, and the Prime Minister just happened to receive a £25,000 donation from Bristol port too, so I'm sceptical of the policy, to say the least. But my immediate concern is the impact of Brexit on Welsh ports. Truckers travelling to or from Ireland are increasingly met by delays and bureaucracy, leading some to bypass Welsh ports, and we've seen a significant decrease in-year in terms of volume. So, my question to you, Minister, is: what is the Welsh Government doing to safeguard the short-term viability of our ports?

We have real challenges in this area, as Joyce Watson highlights. We have a reduction of about a quarter to a third of activity through our ports. Now, that's not just an issue in Holyhead; it's certainly a big issue for the trade with the island of Ireland that comes through south-west Wales as well, through the ports in Pembrokeshire. So, this is an issue I have raised repeatedly in engagements with the UK Government to understand that this doesn't appear to be a passing matter; it's certainly not just a matter of teething problems.

Through the rest of this summer, there's going to be quite intensive engagement between the Welsh Government and all other Governments within the UK and the European Union as we look to see what happens following the free trade deal that's been agreed. There's quite a lot that's still left to agree, and that will have a real impact on the viability and the future of ports across the UK, but particularly here in Wales, where people are looking to avoid the bridge that previously existed between the island of Ireland and our ports here in Wales. It's a matter of real concern to me, and I'd like to see, as we look to create border control posts in Wales, as a direct consequence of Brexit—we need to have those in place, because of the extra checks that we need to undertake as a third country—that we actually have a broader agreement on how we're going to support ports and the economic activity that goes through them. That requires some straight answers from the UK Government, as well as clarity on the in-principle things they say they are prepared to do to support ports in the short, medium and longer term as well.

I can no longer see Janet Finch-Saunders in Zoom, so I'm presuming we've not been able to resume contact. Let's give it one other go. Yes, I can now see you, Janet; can I hear you, though? No, I don't think we can. I'm sure we'll resume contact at some point later with Janet Finch-Saunders.

Question 6, Cefin Campbell. Oh—. Question 6, Cefin Campbell.

The Hospitality Industry

6. Will the Minister make a statement on the financial support provided to the hospitality industry over recent months? OQ56745

14:15

To date, not including the recently announced support, the Welsh Government has provided the tourism and hospitality industry with nearly £56 million in support through the economic resilience fund, and emergency funding will, of course, now be available until the end of August. The sector will continue to benefit from our 100 per cent rate relief scheme for the entire financial year, unlike their colleague businesses in England.

Thank you, Minister. You will remember that I wrote to you on the issue in terms of the lack of funding available to the hospitality sector for April specifically. In your letter to me on 25 June, you note, and I do quote, that 'the financial support package for Welsh businesses has continued throughout April and into May.' However, businesses in my region tell me that this is not right. Indeed, a document on the Business Wales website notes that funding for sector-specific support, the ERF fund phase 2, encompasses the period 25 January 2021 to 31 March 2021. The next fund wasn't available until May, so how do you explain the inconsistency between the information available to the public on the Business Wales website and the information that you gave to me in your letter on 25 June?

We've been round this track several times, as the Member is aware, on when the choices are made and how the schemes actually look to provide cover for the costs that businesses have incurred. So, the scheme that we're in the application process of now, where the eligibility checker is open, and applications will open next week, will look to cover costs from the end of the last period of business support through to the end of August. That's the way we've done things consistently, and it's a matter of fact, not opinion, that we do provide a more generous package of support to the relevant businesses that the Member raises here in Wales compared to England.

Our big challenge, though, is our ability to continue to support businesses through this emergency period of time, where the pandemic has had a material impact on their ability to trade successfully, and what we're going to be able to do as we hope to be able to take further steps forward in easing restrictions and opening up more economic activity. That goes back to the points that were made in previous questions about the balance between the public health position here in Wales, the success of our world-beating, world-leading vaccination programme, and the economic activity we want to safely restore and the next stage in our approach. As the Member will know, as part of our 21-day review process, it's only a short period of time before we're able to make further concrete decisions to help support businesses in the next stage of the recovery.

Minister, you'll be aware that UK Hospitality Cymru has been calling for a new, nine-month, smart funding strategy to help businesses survive, recover and to protect jobs going forward. Now, hospitality business in my constituency continue to tell me that they're still in a critical and fragile position. Therefore, could you tell us whether you will actually consider taking on UK Hospitality Cymru's suggestion by looking to actually develop a nine-month strategy?

Well, I've had a recent constructive engagement with the hospitality sector and others. We continue to talk, my officials are in regular conversations with representatives from the hospitality sector, and, as I've said previously, it's a matter of fact, not opinion, that hospitality businesses in Wales have a more generous package of financial support compared with hospitality businesses in England. Actually, their concerns are—they do recognise they're in a position where there is real fragility, still—challenges about staff, being able to invest in future skills, and if we're able to move forward further, what that means in terms of the ability to adapt to either the easing of restrictions or changes in the way in which their business operates. It's about how we provide as stable a footing as possible.

The challenge with looking to set out a plan over, say, a nine-month period of time is that I couldn't tell the Member or anyone else, and with absolute certainty, what trading will be like over the Christmas period, because we're not in a position to forecast that far ahead with real certainty. We're going to make choices over the coming days and weeks, over the next stage in our journey, hopefully, out of the pandemic. We'll do that with the sort of future forecasts we can give responsibly, and we'll need to continue to re-evaluate where we are in terms of the pandemic. But the choice that I made to provide emergency support up to the end of August provides some certainty for the rest of the summer about the support that will be in place, and I look forward to working on the future vision with them at a time when we're able to do so with enough certainty. Until then, I look forward to the continuing constructive conversations we have about how we support this particular sector of the Welsh economy.

14:20

I know, Minister, that one of the most welcome parts of financial support to hospitality providers in Ogmore has been the COVID-19 outdoor improvements recovery fund, and its benefits are going to be felt long beyond the pandemic. When hospitality shifted outside and COVID restrictions were firmly in place, grants of up to £10,000 were made available to cover 80 per cent of the costs of business adaptation across Wales. So, a dozen sports and social clubs across my area, from Pencoed to Heol-y-Cyw, to Maesteg and right across the piece, but also cafes and restaurants and bars, from Blaenogwr to Bryncethin, Bettws to Blackmill, Llanharan to Llangeinor and Llangynwyd, they all took advantage of that grant and they've produced fantastic outdoor provision now.

So, will the Minister, during the summer, take the time and accept my invitation to visit one or more of these hostelries with me during the summer, share a pint, chat with the staff and the owners about the help they've had, but also what more they might need in the months ahead, after such challenging times? And just to reassure the Minister, if he takes my invitation up, I will buy the first pint. [Laughter.]

It sounded like a bit of an invitation for a pub crawl to me. [Laughter.]

Well, I praise the Member for mentioning so many different venues within his constituency. That was an impressive act that I'm sure others will look to emulate.

I have seen the real impact, and I think the Member's right on the fact that the use of outdoor space as a necessity in the pandemic is helping to change some behaviour and, in the future, I think more people will take advantage of the outdoor space that's been created. And I see some of that in the venue that my own son goes to for cricket and rugby, with the way that they've significantly expanded their outdoor offer, and it's been of real benefit and value. I should say, though, when I take my son to such events I don't take alcoholic beverages as I need to drive the car. 

I can't promise to accompany the Member on his very tempting invitation, but I do really take on board the point he's raising about the adaptability of businesses and the longer term benefit, and it does show that the choices being made to protect businesses now will hopefully have a much longer term benefit for businesses and jobs, and the Member's ability to visit hostelries within his constituency. [Laughter.]

The North Wales Growth Deal

7. Will the Minister provide an update on the north Wales growth deal? OQ56732

Thank you. The final deal agreement was signed by Welsh Government, UK Government and the North Wales Economic Ambition Board in December 2020. I think a Member in this place would have been one of the signatories. The first tranche of Government funding was paid to the North Wales Economic Ambition Board in March 2021. The deal is owned and delivered by the North Wales Economic Ambition Board.

Thank you very much for that answer, Minister, and it's great to see how the UK and Welsh Governments can work together to deliver real benefits to businesses and residents across north Wales. Minister, one of the key planks of the growth deal is around securing better digital connectivity. Will you join me in welcoming the news of the UK Government's shared rural network, which will see a massive boost to mobile communications in rural parts of my constituency, as well as the latest projects in the £5 billion Project Gigabit, which will see rural towns and villages in the Vale of Clwyd get access to lightning-fast fixed broadband connections? How will your Government maximise the benefits of this new investment and work with businesses to ensure they fully utilise the boost to rural broadband? Thank you.

Well, we know that broadband is a regular utility for businesses in urban and rural Wales, and I'm very pleased to welcome investment in the future of the economy—in north Wales, in other parts of Wales. And it really does show that it is possible for the Welsh Government and the UK Government to have a programme of work where we agree on how to support businesses and don't get drawn into a needless conflict. I would like to see a similar approach taken in the way that successor European Union funds are not only used but how they're determined for use, to allow us to invest in the broader area, because at present the projects that the Member is describing are undertaken and agreed on a whole-north-Wales basis. The current community renewal fund, of course, pits authorities against each other in a competitive bidding process. I do think that there is a much better opportunity to look at how we could work together, and the growth deals and our regional agenda here in Wales, supported by the work of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, provides just that.

City Deals

8. Will the Minister provide an update on city deals in south Wales? OQ56747

Yes. Both city deals are making good progress. The Swansea bay city deal is progressing well, with five projects approved and £54 million of city deal funding released. In Cardiff, the investment fund has so far committed £198 million across 12 projects, nine of which are already in delivery.

14:25

Thank you, Minister, for the answer and I'd first of all just like to declare that I'm a member of Bridgend County Borough Council, and to declare that interest where I'm a member. 

As you'll know, my region of South Wales West consists of Swansea and Neath Port Talbot councils, which form part of the Swansea bay city region deal, and also Bridgend County Borough Council, which is part of the Cardiff city deal. These areas are not exclusive to each other and many residents in Neath Port Talbot—or Swansea, for that matter—would benefit from some of the projects in the pipeline in Bridgend, and the same vice versa. An example of this is the park-and-ride project at Pyle railway station, which is situated in the Bridgend county borough, but it will have a significant benefit for many people living in Neath Port Talbot too, given its close geographical proximity.

So, can I ask what action is the Welsh Government taking to ensure co-operation between the various city deal projects, particularly on border projects that will impact more than one city deal area? And what else can be done to improve co-operation, so that residents, businesses and the wider public are aware of the investment that may not necessarily fall in their region?

I think there's a really pragmatic approach to be taken here, and actually the work that has been done on gathering regions together to recognise their common interests is part of doing this. And, look, we understand very well that Bridgend is in a position where it broadly looks east but not exclusively—that was a conversation we had about health board boundaries, for example—and making sure that Bridgend looks broadly in one direction for its regional strategic partnership does not mean that activity that goes across in more than one direction is somehow forgotten or put to one side. So, yes, I expect we can do more and, in fact, the way that officials from the Welsh Government and the UK Government work with the city deal areas is a good example of looking at how they can positively impact upon each other.

I again reiterate the point that I made to Gareth Davies: there is a good example here of how the UK Government and the Welsh Government can work collaboratively together with stakeholders and partners here in Wales, with an agreed programme of work on boundaries and areas we have agreement on how to proceed. That is exactly what we wish to do for the future and not get drawn into a competitive approach where individual local authorities bid against and compete with each other in a way that I think will deliver less benefit for jobs and businesses here in Wales.

2. Questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services

The next item, therefore, is the questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services, and the first question is from Rhys ab Owen.

Social Care

1. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's plans to reform social care? OQ56719

The Welsh Government published a summary of the consultation responses to our White Paper, 'Rebalancing care and support', on 29 June. The White Paper set out proposals to reform social care and to improve well-being. Our programme for government includes commitments to take forward these proposals, in partnership with the sector.

Thank you for that update, and thank you for the White Paper. May I encourage you, please, not to wait for the UK Government to do something? They've made pledges in the past, but have delivered nothing. Wales was in the vanguard with the national health service—Tredegar, Wales, and you in the Labour Party, to be fair. If Nye Bevan had waited for the Tories, then we wouldn't have had a health service. So, please take action now.

Minister, I'd like to ask a pressing issue with regard to the social care system, which can be resolved now, and this is a personal issue to me. In response to my colleague Gareth Davies last week, you said there hadn't been a blanket ban on care home visits. Technically, that might have been true, but the reality was very different and I can say that from a personal point of view, because my father, who was a Member here for two terms, is a resident of a care home nearby here in Cardiff Bay. He has advanced dementia. I'll never forget that Tuesday before the Scottish game, going there and being told by a tearful receptionist that the care home had been closed half an hour earlier, and it was closed then until August. Of course, it was then closed again for the second wave, and it's been closed again now for the last two months because of positive COVID tests by residents and care home workers, despite them all having two jabs, despite not showing any symptoms and despite not being hospitalised.

Deputy Minister, I appreciate it's very difficult; I appreciate the need to protect residents like my father, but we want to see our loved ones. I know the concerns about the delta variant, I know the concerns about the third wave, but, please, could you look again at the Public Health Wales guidance towards visiting care homes, so people like me and many others can visit their loved ones? Diolch yn fawr.

Diolch. And I thank Rhys ab Owen for that very heartfelt question. To start with his opening comments about not waiting for the UK Government, we would prefer a solution for England and Wales, but I absolutely agree we can't wait forever. We'd like a joint solution because of the interface with the benefits system and the taxation system. So, that's why we'd like that. But we have been waiting a long time, and I absolutely acknowledge that.

In terms of the care home visits, those have been some of the most difficult decisions that have been made, and it is a really difficult situation. I absolutely understand how hard it must have been in terms of visiting his father, who I knew well, and worked with when he was a Member here. What we have tried to do is we have tried to balance the safety of the residents with their need to see their family, and of course with the family's need to see the residents. Throughout the whole of the pandemic, at every stage, our guidance has not had a blanket refusal for any visits—there has always been the scope for visits when the situation is very difficult or desperate. So, there always has been that option.

At the moment, the guidance is clear that two visitors can go in to visit a care home resident. There is no approved list of people who can go in now; it has opened up more than that. But obviously, individual care homes are interpreting the guidance as they think is safest for their residents. I think the important thing really is to look at how this is being interpreted in individual care homes. But certainly, we do want families to be able to see their loved ones, and we want loved ones to see their families, because obviously, that is the essence of family life. I know how awful it has been for so many residents and their families.

14:30

Thank you, Deputy Minister, for your comments so far. May I add my support to the learned Member for South Wales Central in regard to care home visits as well? It's certainly a frustrating experience for many individuals at the moment. Minister, during the pandemic, we have seen the importance and the incredible work of many care workers, who have gone above and beyond to provide an exceptional service of support to some of the most vulnerable, particularly those on the front line in care homes, and carrying out domiciliary care support as well. I think the pandemic has highlighted the value and importance of our social care workers, but also the opportunities to enhance careers in the sector, by upskilling these workers, who could perhaps in turn relieve some of the pressures that are on our health service. As part of your review and reform of plans for the social care sector, I'd ask what views you have in regard to the remit of those front-line social care workers. What support would you provide to see them upskilled and to see this important workforce enhanced? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Diolch. I think the pandemic has really highlighted the importance of social care workers, and I think many of the public were not aware of the value of the work that they do. So, I think we have to use this opportunity to make sure that we do use every opportunity to upskill them, as the Member said, and also to ensure that they get a better reward for what they're doing. That is why, of course, we are bringing in the real living wage for social care workers. We have set up the social care fair work forum, which is a group made up of trade unions, employers, and other relevant organisations. That group will be looking at all these issues related to social care workers. Because as well as wanting to raise the amount of money they earn, we want to see the job of a social care worker valued and seen as the really important work that it is. That group will be looking at all these issues, and certainly, training on the job and other types of training is one very important part of that. I think this is the opportunity to try to see that social care workers—their professional standing improves, and there is a much greater awareness of the job that they do. 

14:35
Palliative Care for Children

2. How is the Welsh Government ensuring that children in need of palliative care get the best possible care? OQ56741

Thank you very much. The Welsh Government works closely with the end-of-life care board and the all-Wales paediatric palliative care network to drive continuous improvements in palliative care and end-of-life care for adults, children and young people across Wales.

Diolch yn fawr. My question is in two parts. Can the Welsh Government outline how much of the £8.4 million invested into the end-of-life care sector each year in Wales goes towards paediatric palliative care services? Secondly, Tŷ Hafan and Tŷ Gobaith receive less than 10 per cent of their funding from the Welsh Government. This is a significantly lower proportion than children's hospices in England and Scotland receive from their respective Governments. Can this Government therefore commit to increasing state funding for Wales's two children's hospices in the long term, and to meeting with Tŷ Hafan and Tŷ Gobaith to ensure their needs are considered in the upcoming funding review for hospices? Diolch yn fawr.  

Diolch yn fawr. Thank you. I can't give you the exact breakdown for the £8.4 million, but I can give it to you for the additional funding we gave during the pandemic. You'll be aware that we gave an extra £12.3 million to hospices during the pandemic, and of that, £2.3 million was specifically for our two children's hospices in Wales. So, that should give you an idea of what it would be proportionately also for that £8.4 million. You'll be aware that in our manifesto we made it clear that we do want to revise the way that we fund hospices in Wales, and we do want to strengthen our end-of-life care. That work has already started. There is a new programme for end-of-life care. We will be publishing the revised proposal and we will be sharing that proposal with stakeholders in Wales towards the end of the month. We expect that to take about three to four months, so hopefully that will report then in the autumn. 

Minister, hospice care, especially for children, is a sensitive and emotive subject, but the pandemic and lockdowns have made a difficult subject worse. Last year, Tŷ Hafan and Tŷ Gobaith jointly published 'Family Voices', a report that gave voice to the most important concerns of families who have children with life-limiting conditions. They stressed that they urgently needed more of the care that only the hospices could provide, especially in relation to respite. Do you agree, Minister, that a sustainable model of funding would give the children's hospices in Wales confidence to plan and expand their services to better meet the needs of all children with life-limiting conditions and their families across Wales?  

Thanks very much, Natasha. You're quite right that the 'Family Voices' report does highlight the importance of supporting those children with life-limiting conditions and, of course, their families as well, who are going through a very traumatic time supporting them. It does propose that lifeline fund for Wales; that's precisely what we're looking at in this revision that is being undertaken at the moment and that, as I say, will be reporting in the autumn.

I think you might also be interested to hear that actually I met with the Ministers from the four UK nations to share best practice, and to discuss in particular how teenagers and young adults affected by cancer are properly supported during their appointments. It was good to compare notes with the different health Ministers across the UK in terms of what they're doing to respond, and learning from each other to make sure that we're all doing the very best for people in this most difficult, sensitive area. It is important, in particular, I think, in the middle of a pandemic, to just deal with this situation as sensitively as we can. 

Minister, I just want to continue with the theme of funding. I'm afraid I'm going to come back to it, because I do really want to pin you down. Thank you very much to Peredur and to Natasha as well for raising this important issue. I was really shocked to hear from Tŷ Gobaith and Tŷ Hafan that they only got 10 per cent of their funding from the Welsh Government. Let's just pin this one down: in Scotland, 50 per cent of their funding comes from the Scottish Government; Northern Ireland, 25 per cent; England, 21 per cent. And yet we only give 10 per cent. I'm sure we really could do better. So, my appeal to you is: can we really commit ourselves to increasing that in this really important area and can you be just much clearer about timelines? The autumn is four months; it's from September through to Christmas. Can you just be really a little bit clearer about how much you're looking at and when we'll get that result? Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

14:40

Thanks very much, Jane, and just to make it clear that we recognise that we do need to do better in this space and that's why we're undertaking this review; that's why it was in our manifesto and that's why we've moved on very quickly—we were only elected a few weeks ago on that manifesto and already, we've got that workshop in place that is going to happen later this month. So, if you want more specifics, it's anticipated that that review will take about three to four months. So, I can be that specific. You're quite right: the autumn can go on for a long period, but that should give you a better idea of exactly when we hope to report on this situation, which we have made a commitment to.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Russell George.

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, do you feel it would be appropriate to apologise on behalf of the Welsh Government for its failure to contain hospital transmissions during the first and second waves of the pandemic?

Thanks very much, Russell. Of course, every death in this pandemic has been difficult, and for those who've caught COVID in hospital it's even more tragic. We are very aware of the difficulties of the situation. Of course, what we have to remember is that the people who are serving in those hospitals also belong to the community, and when transmissions were high in those communities, there was always a possibility that COVID could get in in that way. Also, we just heard, passionately, how Rhys ab Owen was keen to see his loved one; there are also people who wanted to see loved ones in hospital. That should demonstrate to you the difficult balance and the difficult calls we have to make in this situation. Every time you let somebody in, there is a risk. And that risk, in particular in a hospital—you're allowing people to go into one of the most difficult and sensitive areas, where, if people catch COVID, the problems could be catastrophic, and have been. So, I just think that this balance has been extremely difficult. Of course, if you're already in hospital, you are likely to be more vulnerable, and therefore if it gets into hospital, as it has, and as, I'm afraid, it will continue to—. But we have put all measures in place; we've set out very, very strict guidelines. We have tried to learn as we've gone along in this area, and, of course, with all of those infections, where we've had those incidents of patient safety, each case has been investigated thoroughly to see what we can learn.

Thank you for your answer, Minister. I appreciate what you've said. I think, from my perspective, we as Welsh Conservatives were raising deep concerns about the level of hospital-acquired infections in Wales from last summer onwards. There was a sense, I feel, that the Welsh Government was shrugging its shoulders at the time, with your predecessor saying that lessons had been learnt. [Interruption.] I can hear the former health Minister; he should be listening to what I'm saying rather than dismissing what I'm saying. But what I would say to you, Minister, is that there was a great focus last year on community transmission—and I wouldn't dismiss that; that is correct, there should be that focus—but there wasn't that focus last summer and last year in terms of infection in hospital settings. 

Now, we now know that one in four deaths across Wales were probably or definitely as a direct result of ward-to-ward transmission. In Hywel Dda itself, it's one in three deaths. That's significant, and I'm sure, Minister, you wouldn't disagree how significant those figures are. That's 1,000 people who have sadly died, with countless loved ones bereaved, when this could have been avoided to a large extent, or to some extent, if the Welsh Government had acted differently. Now, a group of 35 clinicians have also written to the Welsh Government calling for a Welsh public inquiry, and they believe that one of the questions for that investigation should be how healthcare organisations can be guided to reduce this death rate. This is a specific Wales issue, so will you and the First Minister heed the growing concerns and calls, and agree to a public inquiry into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wales? You yourself said in your answer that you're learning as you go along. That's the right approach, but that's surely a reason why we need a public inquiry to properly scrutinise the process. 

14:45

Thanks very much. I, too, would refute the implication that we haven't been taking seriously the nosocomial transmission in hospitals, this infection transmission in hospitals. We've been taking very careful steps, and anybody who's been to hospital will understand how strict they are in terms of who's allowed in and wearing PPE, and I absolutely refute that. As you say, we are investigating every case, and we are trying to learn as we go along. I know and I hear the calls for a public inquiry, and I have read carefully the letter that has been written, but I've got to tell you that we are still in the middle of a pandemic. We have all our hands at the pump at the moment, and this is not over. We know, if you look at the projections in particular in England, they're talking now of the possibility of two million cases a day. So, we've got to be really serious, and take this seriously and understand that this is not the time for us to get involved in a public inquiry, but we are learning as we go along.

I also refute the fact that this is a specific Welsh issue. Let's not pretend that there haven't been deaths in hospitals as a result of COVID in hospitals in England and that transmission in hospitals in England. That is simply not the case.

Well, I wasn't suggesting that is the case at all. That'll be the case in countries around the world, but I was suggesting it was to a greater extent in Wales and that lessons need to be learned from that specifically. Now, a Wales-only inquiry, and not being willing to bring that forward—. I was very careful in my question not to say an inquiry immediately now. I specifically asked about agreeing to a public inquiry—that's what I should add to that. But not agreeing to that, I suspect, I believe, shows a lack of transparency in terms of the Welsh Government's role in looking into how it has handled the pandemic. 

This leads me on to my final question, Minister, with regard to the confidence in a COVID-lite environment, and I would be very concerned—I know you are—about the over 4,000 people who have not turned up for cancer diagnosis treatment. I would suggest, is there any wonder that there's a concern about turning up into a hospital setting when we hear about the figures I've outlined and that we're aware of. Now, you and I will both know, and both agree, that it's going to be a real challenging situation where we've got coming forward now people with advanced cancer and more complex treatment, and the Welsh Government was again warned about this last summer by medical professionals, but we've not seen any significant work in terms of COVID-green sites or COVID-lite cancer hubs, which have been present in England for over a year. I would suggest, after the context of my earlier questions, that there's a greater need now to have COVID-lite hubs here in Wales. Sadly, these decisions will bring more pressure onto palliative care services as cancer becomes untreatable at later diagnosis, of course. So, can I ask finally, Minister, will you therefore tell us how many people your department has calculated are missing from diagnosis, and how long are the backlogs? Will you bring forward before this Senedd specific plans on tackling the backlog of cancer patients as well as telling us when the cancer quality statement implementation plan will be published? Thank you, Minister. 

Thanks very much. It's interesting that this has been presented as some big, sensational news story. It's not. We have been transparent about this the whole way through, about how many people are contracting COVID in hospitals. It's published on the Public Health Wales website on a regular basis. That is not done in England or elsewhere. So, if anybody wanted to see these, this is not new, it is not sensational, it has been there the whole time and you could have been tracking it. 

When it comes to the public inquiry, it is very difficult to disaggregate what was going on in the rest of the UK from what's going on here. If you just take PPE, there was a relationship there. In fact, the relationship, very interestingly, was us giving parts of England some PPE. On vaccines, we were dependent on the supply working together across the United Kingdom. So, it is really difficult to disaggregate this, and that's why I do think the right approach is to have a UK inquiry but with a kind of subsection for Wales, where there will be a need to look in detail at what we can learn. But I can tell you that we are trying to learn as we go along as well.

We are very concerned about the number of people who haven't turned up in relation to cancer diagnosis and the fewer people who have presented relative to other years. That's why we have undertaken a very comprehensive advertising campaign to try and encourage people to come forward. And, of course, cancer treatment has never been stopped. We've been making sure that that has been seen as an essential service throughout the pandemic.

When it comes to COVID-lite hubs, I absolutely don't object to this in principle. The problem we have is that the implication of that is that you have to separate them off from A&E and the kind of hot issues that are coming into hospitals. Now, Russell, you might want to go around closing A&E departments, but I don't. So, I just think we've got to be really careful about the practicalities of making that happen, but we are trying to look at what alternatives there are, and I'm pleased to say that health boards have come forward with some ideas and we're analysing those at the moment.

14:50

Thank you very much, Llywydd. I want to ask about the recovery of the health service too and reference a number of areas. I, too, will refer to this backlog in terms of cancer diagnosis, looking at a different aspect of that. It's a concern to think that thousands of people—over 4,000 people according to Macmillan—who haven't had a diagnosis. But it's a concern to me that what's happened over the past year is that we've exacerbated a problem that already existed, and one problem we had in cancer services was a shortage of workers to do that diagnostic work. I think the Royal College of Radiologists has mentioned that we we are 97 radiologists short here in Wales. You can't have an effective diagnosis and a swift diagnosis service without those staff in place. So, in looking to recovery, can you tell us what resources you will put in place to deliver specifically on resolving some of the workforce problems we have? 

Thank you very much. As it happens, I've just come from a call with HIW where we were talking about the problems specifically in relation to radiologists. Now, they have put a system in place where we do produce about 20 new radiologists every year, so that is quite a big increase from where we've been in the past. And of course, what's important is the quality of training that they receive, and I've asked them to also consider what else we can do. Is it possible, for example, for us to send some of the images that we get abroad so that they are analysed overseas?

So, I think that there is scope for us to be imaginative in terms of how we approach the issue of dealing with this backlog, particularly when it comes to cancer. But you'll be aware as well that we have provided £25 million in additional funding in order to ensure that the equipment is available, so that we can increase and accelerate that process, and that has already gone into some of our hospitals. 

If I could turn next to orthopaedic services, there are huge challenges facing you in building capacity. I and every other Member here, I'm sure, will have heard about far too many patients waiting far, far too long in pain. In April of this year, there were 88,000 people waiting for trauma and orthopaedic treatment, with 60 per cent waiting over 36 weeks. The figure back in 2019 was around 11 per cent. Over half now wait for longer than 12 months. Of course, these waiting lists, again, were too long prior to the pandemic, so what assurance can you give us that, in trying to deal with the acute problem of the backlog caused by the pandemic, you will do far more than just restore services to where they were previously? How will you now try to create services that are more sustainable for the longer term, because that is what we are looking for in coming out of this pandemic?

14:55

Well, I want to ensure that we don't miss this opportunity presented by the pandemic to change things. A lot has already changed, and we need to tie in what's good as regards the changes that have happened in terms of how the workforce operates, but also the systems that we use. I was pleased to be part of a conference over the weekend with an orthopaedic society from India. A lot of our orthopaedic surgeons in Wales come from India, and it was good to hear their ideas about how we should be accelerating the process. And, of course, that will include the possibility of having direct hubs or centres—these cold centres, the direct centres that I was talking about. So, we're just analysing how that could happen in practice and how that could be funded. But we're very eager to see how we can use this pandemic to deal with this problem and to get us to a different place in the medium term.

I want to finish, Llywydd, if I may, by turning to long COVID. It's a huge concern for me. I have huge concerns about young people, if truth be told, at the moment, as restrictions are relaxed. We'll have an opportunity to discuss that again. But I want to look specifically at the impact of long COVID on the health and care workforce. From my work as joint chair of the cross-party group on long COVID, I see that an incredible percentage of the people I speak to are people who have fallen ill as a result of their work in health and care. We need to look at this. We need to provide support to them, and I want to know what the Government will do to support them, because they deserve that support for the work that they have done and the fact that they put themselves in harm's way during this pandemic. But if we look at the recovery work, will the Minister tell us what she is going to do in order to push for assurances that these people get the support they need to return to the workplace, because we need to ensure that our workforce is fully staffed, and sufferers of long COVID within the health and care service want to return to work to do what they've been trained to do? We can't wait any longer for an assurance that treatment will be provided to the high number, I fear, of workers who are suffering in this way, and that they will be treated fairly.

Thank you very much. You'll be aware, in our publication on the new recovery plan, that we did give specific attention to those working in our health and care system who are suffering from long COVID, and we did ensure that guidance is available in order to give employers an idea as regards ensuring that they know how the health and care system should be responding to those suffering from long COVID. So, I would hope that that is clear in that report.

Domiciliary Care

3. Will the Minister make a statement on the provision of domiciliary care in the Bridgend area? OQ56727

I am pleased the council is moving toward commissioning services that have person-centred care as the focus. I am also pleased to note the consideration of staff remuneration, in line with my recent oral statement setting out our Welsh Government's commitment to the introduction of the real living wage.

Well, I really welcome that response to my question, because I draw the Minister's attention to the letter that was sent by Bridgend on 16 June, where they put forward, I thought, an interesting offer in their recommissioning of domiciliary care, which will take place this year, not only to pilot a move towards the real living wage—it's a timely moment to do it—but also to introduce more flexibility into the way they provide domiciliary care, based on the approach of what matters to you as the end user, much more flexible, based around not just the care needs but the social needs of that individual as well. And we've seen this work well in other areas I visited when I was doing the role that you're now doing in Cardiff and the Vale, and seeing how that worked so well not only for the user, but also for staff themselves to feel empowered and to use their skills and experience properly. So, I wonder if you've had time to consider that, and also the invitation in that letter that they made to come and visit the integrated care teams that they're running with Cwm Taf that have been the subject of excellent reports and feedback from Care Inspectorate Wales.

15:00

I'd like to thank Huw Irranca-Davies very much for that question. I am aware and have received the letter from Bridgend, and I was very interested to read about their proposed pilot to pay domiciliary care workers at the level of the real living wage and also to introduce more flexibility into the provision. I think he's described how flexibility can be of great advantage to users of the service.

He knows that we have set up the fair work social care forum and I'll be asking them to consider which part or parts of the sector should be our starting point for rolling out the commitment, because we are very keen to do this in a co-productive way, working with the trade unions and employers and, of course, working with local government. I mean, of course, our overall aim is that all eligible social care workers will be receiving the real living wage within the term of this Government. But in terms of where we start, I will be discussing that with the forum and I'm very grateful indeed to Bridgend for putting forward their proposal.

Thank you to Huw Irranca-Davies for tabling this question. I think it's very important, and as Huw correctly says, domiciliary care workers in Bridgend and social care workers across Wales have played a really important part in this pandemic.

But I think domiciliary care doesn't just start and end with those social care workers. One aspect of domiciliary care—and it's sometimes overlooked, actually—is the role of community pharmacies and their provision of medicines and other services for those who are either shielding or can't leave their homes. I recently visited Porthcawl pharmacy, which provides services to those shielding or can't leave their homes to deliver medication or other services across the local area into the wider community. Very often, the people who are receiving domiciliary care are most likely to receive services like this, but despite the good work being done by Porthcawl pharmacy on this issue, the provision is quite patchy across Wales, which means that many vulnerable people in other areas are left out of accessing these vital services. So, can I ask what assessment you have made of the role of community pharmacies in the provision of certain services for those receiving domiciliary care and what action the Welsh Government is taking to improve these services to standardise them across Wales?

I thank you very much for that question. Obviously, community pharmacy is absolutely crucial in terms of delivering services and delivering services to those who are in receipt of domiciliary care as well.

I think community pharmacies have got a very good record in terms of providing services, and I'm personally aware of many individuals and families who have depended on community pharmacies in delivering the medication and in being a link to other services. So, we're certainly very well aware and very supportive of the role of community pharmacies, and we'll be looking to do all we can to increase their role, because I think it's absolutely key that we do reach all those people who need this additional help in having the services. We see community pharmacies as absolutely crucial.

Private Treatment in the NHS

4. Will the Minister make a statement on the use of private treatment within the NHS? OQ56718

It is the responsibility of health boards to ensure that they provide services to meet the needs of their local populations. It's a requirement for health boards to use the local capacity of the health service in the first instance, and then, any capacity available in the English health service, using capacity in the independent sector only when there is no other option.

Thank you for that.

We've heard already this afternoon of the tremendous pain and suffering of people across the whole country who are waiting for services, following the pandemic or as the pandemic dominates the national health service. Is it not time now, Minister, that we consider suspending the use of NHS resources for private work to ensure that all of the resources of the national health service are provided for those who are most in need and most in pain who require services, and not for those who are able to pay? 

It's the anniversary of the national health service, of course, this week, and when Nye Bevan was creating the national health service, he wanted to create a service that met the needs of people who were in need, and not those who can afford to pay. So, is it not time, in this crisis that the national health service is facing today, that we suspend all of the use of the private sector and private work within the national health service to ensure that those in need have their needs met?

15:05

Diolch yn fawr, Alun. I'm very aware of the fact that there are literally hundreds of thousands of patients, many waiting in severe pain for an operation. I can assure you that apart from COVID and preparing the NHS for winter, addressing this backlog is absolutely my top priority. 

Now, I think it's fair to say that the vast majority of NHS staff have gone way beyond and above the call of duty in this past year. When it comes to consultants, they are contracted to carry out a certain number of sessions that they provide to the NHS, and they have to undertake that before they offer anything in terms of additional work outside of the NHS.

The Wales Audit Office report found that the level of private sector activity in NHS facilities is about 0.02 per cent of all activity, so it's a very low level anyway. I think what's important is that we recognise that long waits at the moment mean that some patients are making those really difficult decisions to go private, but I can assure you that all patients are being seen in an order of clinical priority.

Our priority at the moment is to get those who need the urgent care to be seen first. But, I think it is important that we put our measures in place, as we talked about earlier, to prepare the NHS to get us into a better place for the medium term, not just to address the immediate crisis that we're facing today.

Minister, the Bridgend Clinic is a private clinic located within the Princess of Wales Hospital. It is unique to Wales, and for the past 24 years it has worked in partnership with the NHS, with more than 50 consultants practising in both the clinic and the Princess of Wales Hospital, while profits are put back into the local NHS.

We all know that the NHS is an amazing institution, but we should not hide it from meaningful and beneficial partnerships that deliver for patients. Will the Minister examine the outcomes achieved by this partnership so that other health boards may consider the advantages of building capacity in this way? Thank you.

Thanks very much for that question, Altaf. I don't know enough about this particular partnership to comment on it, but I will make sure that I go and investigate further. I know that some of the people involved in the call that I was on on Saturday are involved in the Princess of Wales Hospital, so I will investigate further and see whether there is anything that we can learn from that. Thank you.

GP Services

5. Will the Minister make a statement on access to GP services in Alyn and Deeside? OQ56720

GP practices across Wales are providing a wide range of options for patients to access services through the use of digital technology. Clinical triage is a key tool to ensure patients receive the care they need, at the right time, from the right person.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Access to GP services is an increasing issue in Alyn and Deeside, and this has been highlighted in recent weeks—twice, actually—at St Mark's surgery in Connah's Quay, where there is clearly a shortage of doctors, and in Queensferry, where residents are seeing their practice being moved, or potentially being moved, to Connah's Quay, because the current building is not fit for purpose. 

Minister, with this in mind, will you meet with the health board to address the issue at St Mark's and make sure they do have an adequate number of GPs? Will you also ask your officials to look into the potential of building a new purpose-built medical centre that serves Queensferry and the surrounding communities? 

Diolch yn fawr, Jack. I know there have been some issues in particular with surgery at Connah's Quay in recent weeks. I think some of the issues that we saw outlined there, where, actually, a message went out that the practice was actually closed, and advising patients to call an alternative number, that should not have happened. The health board is very aware of that. I think we've got to remember, of course, that our clinicians and our services are built on the people who deliver them, and they are also susceptible to falling ill, and that's what happened in this particular case.

And I think it's important that we have a situation where of course we're looking at the infrastructure relating to surgeries around Wales. I've got to tell you that there's a huge amount of work to do in relation to upgrading surgeries around Wales. We have a commitment in our manifesto to create twenty-first century surgeries. We're hoping to do that on a kind of hub system so that we're working with local authorities and other partners to put that in place. It will be up to the local health board to determine the priority in which those should be set out. So, we will be in further discussions with them, but we are looking for how we can fulfil that commitment that was very clearly set out in our manifesto.

15:10

Well, I was copied in on a patient's e-mail to Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board last week, complaining that a lack of permanent GPs at St Mark's surgery in Connah's Quay is, quote, 'now causing major problems as unable to book an appointment to see a doctor'. They tried to get through to the switchboard from 8 a.m. on 22, 23 and 24 June, and on each occasion, they were kept waiting for 45 minutes before being told that no appointments were left. On 28 June, a voicemail said the surgery was closed. Responding to me, the health board said the root of the problem was the unexpected sickness of two GPs due to be physically present and on duty on Monday, adding that this was the consequence of unplanned sickness, and this is now subject to the intervention of the area team to ensure this situation does not recur. However, this did not address the problem identified before 28 June, and similar problems are being raised by constituents who are patients at other practices.

What engagement are you therefore now having or planning with the relevant professional bodies, where it's now nine years since both the British Medical Association Cymru and the Royal College of General Practitioners Wales first launched campaigns warning members of a ticking time bomb, and seven years since the north Wales medical committee came to the Assembly, warning that general practice in north Wales was in crisis?

Well, thanks very much. Now, since the launch of our ‘Train. Work. Live.’ campaign, north Wales in particular has benefited from a higher number of appointments into GP training. So, last year saw 29 new trainees who were recruited to speciality training schemes in Bangor, in Dyffryn Clwyd and in Wrexham. So, I think that should demonstrate to you that, actually, there is a lot of work being done on this, specifically by Health Education and Improvement Wales.

The other issue, which you touch upon, is about access to GPs, and we did set out some standards that we announced back in March 2019, and there were a whole series of standards that GPs needed to respond to, if they were to get that enhanced payment that was due—and I have written to Members today to set out who received what and who achieved what in relation to meeting those standards. So, we do have measures and ways of trying to interact and engage, and we will be doing that in the next few weeks, with general medical services, to make sure that we can drive up access for our patients around the whole of Wales. Just to let you know that about 76 per cent of practices across Wales achieved all of the GMS in-hours access standards, and that compares to 65 per cent last year. But I'm very well aware that that suggests that 24 per cent didn't, and those are the ones we need to focus on.

Dementia Services

6. Will the Minister make a statement on efforts to improve dementia services in Wales? OQ56738

Thank you, Luke. Delivering the actions set out in our dementia action plan 2018 to 2022 continues to be a priority for the Welsh Government. We continue to work with regional partnership boards and stakeholders to do this, and to identify areas where further progress is needed.

15:15

Thank you, Deputy Minister, and, as I'm sure you're aware, there are several different types of dementia in addition to Alzheimer's disease, which is the most common form, affecting around 75 per cent of people in Wales. Lewy body dementia is the second most common type of dementia in older people, a type that my grandmother lived with, but it's relatively unknown and has very different symptoms to Alzheimer's disease. What strategies are in place to ensure that the sub-types of dementia are accurately diagnosed and recorded by health boards to ensure that patients get the best possible treatment, and carers and families get the right support?

Thank you very much, Luke, for that supplementary. And you've raised a very important issue, because we too often talk about dementia as an all-encompassing condition, whereas, as you've correctly highlighted, it does cover a range of different conditions. It is absolutely vital that we ensure that people have an accurate diagnosis, and also that that accurate diagnosis is properly recorded. Last year, a Welsh health circular was issued, requiring memory assessment services and primary care services to accurately record someone's dementia diagnosis according to set READ codes that are issued. Also, a new all-Wales pathway of dementia standards has recently been issued, which reinforces the need to do that, and, in order to attract funding from the dementia action plan, it is required that organisations align with those standards. So, that will help drive that progress, but also there's further work ongoing to embed the need to properly record the diagnosis being taking forward. But I'm also very happy if you would like to write to me with more detail about your concerns, as I recognise this is something you feel strongly about. I'd be very happy to look further at this and to meet you to discuss it further. Thank you.

Digital Systems in the Welsh NHS

7. What are the Welsh Government's priorities for improving digital systems within the Welsh NHS? OQ56716

Our priority is to build on the impressive digital response to the COVID pandemic, and to lock in new ways of working that enabled us to use digital platforms to support our outstanding contact tracing and vaccine delivery services in Wales.

Thank you, Minister, for that answer. I'm sure that you know that, for many years now, IT workarounds have been devised by practitioners within the NHS, such as a bespoke app that two GPs in my constituency are developing with a local company. This particular app will enable patients to access their records, better medicate their own conditions and order repeat prescriptions, whilst also empowering the GPs to push out public health information. How are you, Minister, ensuring, though, that the NHS Wales Informatics Service has oversight of these kind of workarounds and is able to extrapolate best practice and then embed this into their 'once for Wales' approach?

Thanks very much, Vikki, and I know that some GPs have been incredibly innovative in the way that they've responded to the pandemic, and knowing that it's difficult to meet people face to face under some conditions, and therefore they have been really inventive, and it's great to hear that is happening in your constituency. I'm certainly very happy to pass on—if you could pass on that information to me, I'll make sure that that gets to Digital Health and Care Wales, who, of course, have now taken over from NWIS, and I know they work hard to identify new and emerging technologies that have the potential to improve health and care services. So, I'm very happy to look at that, and I'll be meeting with the head of Digital Health and Care Wales next week.

The Delta Variant

8. What is the Minister's current assessment of the spread of the delta variant in Bridgend? OQ56742

The delta variant continues to spread both in Bridgend and elsewhere in Wales, but Bridgend does currently have comparatively low rates of infection compared to a lot of other local authority areas in Wales. Our vaccination programme continues to offer the best means of combating the spread.

Diolch, Minister. During the election campaign, I met a lot of people who are very appreciative of the Welsh Government's handling of the pandemic, and particularly the First Minister's cautious approach to easing restrictions, as they are very scared and anxious about relaxing restrictions too quickly. The area I represent, Bridgend and Porthcawl, was one of the worst affected areas during the second wave of the pandemic, and that's an experience that we don't want to repeat. Many of the most vulnerable in our community are only just getting the confidence to go back out and about again, and when I met with staff at the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend a few weeks ago, they too are very concerned about another wave of COVID cases. So, with that in mind, could you outline what the Welsh Government is doing to ensure as many people as possible are protected against this terrible virus and its many variants before we look to relax restrictions further?

15:20

Well, thanks very much, Sarah, and can I assure you that there is not going to be any big liberation day here in Wales when it comes to COVID, not when rates are increasing at the rate they are? It really defies belief to look at what's happening in England, when you see the rates increasing at the rate they are. Our decisions will be based on science, they'll be based on evidence, and we are very pleased to see the number of people in Wales who have taken the opportunity to have the vaccine, and we know now that there is definitely a weakening when we see the relationship between contracting the virus and having the vaccine and hospitalisations and deaths. So, that's the good news.

The other good news is that, actually, adults have been taking up this opportunity. There's still an issue with younger people, which is why we have set up walk-in centres, which were set up across Wales last weekend. But I think we have also got to be realistic and get to a place to understand that we are going to have to live with COVID; it's not going to disappear. But we will need to do that in a cautious way, understanding that there will always be vulnerable people within our communities and we need to be sensitive to them as well, whilst, of course, understanding the other harms that people are experiencing. In particular, there are economic harms, mental health harms and social harms that we also have to bear in mind. So, next week, we as a Government will be setting out our next steps in terms of the virus and our route-map in Wales.

I thank the Minister. We will now suspend proceedings to allow changeovers in the Chamber.

Plenary was suspended at 15:22.

15:30

The Senedd reconvened at 15:31, with the Deputy Presiding Officer (David Rees) in the Chair.

3. Topical Questions
Natural Resources Wales

1. Will the Minister make a statement in response to calls from the leaders of Wales's 22 local authorities for the Welsh Government to review the powers and remit of Natural Resources Wales? TQ562

I welcome feedback from the Welsh Local Government Association. We certainly need to ensure our bodies, including NRW, are best placed to achieve our significant environmental ambitions. We're starting with the review of the delivery of flood risk management functions, to which the Welsh Government committed in the national flood strategy.

Thank you. I wouldn't have exactly called it 'welcome feedback'. I was shocked, and I'm sure those employees on the front line were shocked also, working for NRW, that all of Wales's 22 local authorities have now called for a review. The letter sent by the leader of the WLGA had scathing comments on it, Minister, such as,

'when dealing with events at a local level there can still be tensions over decisions and choices'.

And a number of leaders suggested that not all is well. Local authorities are calling for you to question how well the functions undertaken by NRW are being performed, and if there might be an alternative, more effective model of working. We believe there most certainly is. As we said in 2018, the quango should be split up. It has simply gone from crisis to crisis.

The timber deal scandal lost the Welsh taxpayer at least £1 million. Despite compiling an evidence-based report at a cost of £45,000 to the taxpayer, NRW ignored the advice and banned game shooting on public land. The Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, at their inquiry into the February flooding, found that NRW's role and services were stretched beyond capacity, and only around half the 70 additional staff needed—and that was according to the chief executive and the 'February 2020 Floods in Wales: Flood Incident Management Review'—only 30 had been appointed.

The recent section 19 report by Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council found that flooding at Pentre was caused by wooded debris washing off the mountainside and blocking a local culvert. They very robustly pointed the finger at NRW. Another failing. In Aberconwy, local landowners were forced to carry out works to the Tan Lan embankment, after NRW would not pay. They were quoting £150,000 for this work to be done, and my constituents have managed to have the work done for £15,000. And our community request for dredging of the afon Conwy, protection of Gwydir Castle, and removal of the large build-up of shale around Llanrwst bridge, remain unaddressed.

I am not alone in having no confidence whatsoever in NRW's ability to respond effectively to flood events, and, as such, have made clear that we should have a national flood agency for Wales, 100 per cent focused on flooding. Do you agree on that?

NRW and Welsh Government should pay compensation to the residents affected in Rhondda. Are you looking into the possibility of doing so? And, do you agree with me that you should respond to Councillor Andrew Morgan's letter by committing to review how NRW might be better modelled going forward?

The number of complaints coming into my mailbag now about NRW, and the lack of trust that the public have in this organisation now, is becoming quite concerning. Will you please listen to the words of those 22 local authority leaders, who have their own local intelligence and know what works for them and what doesn't? And will you look, please, Minister, once and for all, at restructuring NRW? Thank you. Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd.

15:35

Thank you for that, Janet Finch-Saunders. I'm not sure which of your very many questions you wanted me to focus on, so I will just focus on the ones that I think are the most important. First of all, I've already had a meeting with NRW's leadership team, in which I've been extremely clear about my expectations for their future resource management, management in general, and their relationships with public authorities across Wales in a team Wales approach.

We're already conducting a review of the flood management arrangements, as I have said. We have a large number of regulatory arrangements coming back from Europe, and I've already asked for a review of the structure and delivery of those new regulatory powers to be arranged. We also need to be mindful of NRW's capacity to look at all of these reviews at the same time as delivering their vital services on the ground.

I've asked all flood management authorities to review their processes as we approach the next winter. We've already conducted two emergency exercises to ensure that everybody knows who should be doing what in the event of extreme flooding or other weather events during the next winter. And I am, of course, in close liaison with the local government association, with whom I have an excellent relationship, via my good friend and colleague Rebecca Evans's good offices as local government Minister, to continue a robust discussion with them and with NRW.

I need to declare an interest in this issue, as I live in the community of Pentre, and was personally affected by the 2020 floods.

Minister, as you're aware, I have my own anxieties and frustrations with NRW. Over 200 properties and businesses flooded in the Rhondda last year. Immediate action was taken by Welsh Government, Welsh Water and RCT council to put right the culvert and drainage systems. Clear dialogue has been provided to residents throughout. Sadly, this can't be said of NRW. Flood-affected residents frankly feel ignored by NRW and feel that the public body lacks accountability. I share these views.

The behaviour of NRW following the release of RCT council's section 19 report into the Pentre floods was appalling. Refusing to take any responsibility for the dreadful events of last year is insulting, given the fact there's clear photo and video evidence of wooded debris from NRW land blocking the culvert above Pentre. Public bodies should willingly co-operate with other public bodies for the benefit of residents. We've seen anything but from NRW in the Rhondda. It's for these reasons that I believe NRW needs an urgent review, and I'd appreciate a meeting with the Minister to further discuss this for the benefit of the flood-affected residents and businesses.

Thank you, Buffy, for those comments and remarks. I've certainly already welcomed Rhondda Cynon Taf's section 19 report in relation to the 2020 flooding in Pentre, and my sympathies go to all of the residents, including yourself, who suffered from the flooding in that extreme weather event last year.

There are clearly some very concerning findings, and lessons clearly need to be learned following those devastating floods. Both NRW and RCT have acknowledged this in their respective reports, and I know they are working together to address recommendations to improve the level of flood protection provided to the community. I can't comment on the individual issues around compensation and so on for obvious reasons. I am more than happy to meet with you and the local authority leaders, and, in fact, I believe we have such a meeting immediately following this topical question. So, I'll be very delighted to take part in that meeting and consider further what we can do.

I am very keen to consider the feedback from local authority leaders, other delivery partners, and the public in the context of the lessons we need to learn. We also need to make absolutely certain that all flood risk management authorities work together to develop a plan of action for the Pentre community and for the other communities across Wales, to provide clarity on the action they have taken since the floods in 2020 and to provide reassurance that we will not see recurrences of that in the forthcoming winter.

However, as you know, we have declared a climate and nature emergency in the Senedd because of our changing climate and the necessary need to protect against extreme weather events becoming much more common. So, I understand and accept the urgency of the remarks that you've made and we certainly will be working with NRW and all of the relevant flood risk management authorities to ensure that we have those robust emergency plans in place, and that we've taken all the necessary steps to do everything we can do to be as ready as possible for the forthcoming winter.

15:40

It is right that questions are asked of NRW and I raised this very issue yesterday in the Senedd, but I am concerned by the tone of the comments made today. At the end of the day, I think we need to remember that Natural Resources Wales are a Welsh Government sponsored body. In their own review and report into the floods, they stated that they have been underfunded and this has been on record for a number of years, and, as Janet Finch-Saunders referenced, they need an additional 60 to 70 members of staff, which they still don't have.

So, therefore, can I ask that we don't make a scapegoat of Natural Resources Wales solely on this, but that it is time now that we have that full independent inquiry into the floods? Because as the rest of the section 19 report will be published, the fault won't just lie with Natural Resources Wales—questions will be asked of Welsh Government; questions will be asked of local authorities; questions will be asked of Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water. There are a number of organisations with responsibility for flooding and it's a very complex picture, and there are different reasons. Even in the section 19 report, there is some fault directed towards RCT council in terms of the drains in Pentre as well, so not solely focused on NRW.

Can we please, given this public fallout and given all of these concerns raised, have that independent inquiry into the floods, so that people get justice and the answers they deserve, and we tackle flooding for the future once and for all, rather than commissioning review after review and rather than tackling the root cause and getting to grips with this issue as a matter of urgency?

Well, thank you very much, Heledd, for those remarks. I certainly agree with the remarks in which you praised the action of the many staff in NRW who worked above and beyond the call of duty during the flooding. And I want to add my thanks to those staff, including the staff who work specifically on these particular issues. There were staff from across the public sector working very hard both in the run-up to the flood events and indeed in the crisis afterwards—well above and beyond the call of duty, and I certainly add my thanks to them for doing so.

As I said, we are already in the process of reviewing the flood management arrangements. We've already reviewed that with a number of public bodies and I have already met with the NRW leadership team in order to discuss my requirements going forward for their liaison as part of our team Wales approach, exactly as you outlined.

As I've already explained several times in the Senedd to you, I don't agree with your call for an independent inquiry. I think that just diverts resources away from the issue at hand. I appreciate that you don't agree with that, but I'm afraid I don't agree with you on that point. We will be working very hard with NRW and all other partners across Wales to ensure that we have all the lessons learned in place and that we have the right resources available in the right place for the forthcoming winter.

Just to remind everyone that NRW is a great deal more than just a flood defences authority. They employ 1,900 staff and have a budget of £180 million. This is not a small, under-resourced organisation and I do think the public of Wales need to understand that in the light of the comments being made today.

4. 90-second Statements

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. This weekend, I took my first steps on Prostate Cymru's The Big Walk 2021 as part of Carol Vorderman's celebrity team. Now, I think I speak for everyone in this Chamber when I expressed my shock as being thought of as a celebrity at all, despite having the honour to represent the people of Ogmore for many years. But the really important people in this are the many, many people taking part in The Big Walk 2021 right across Wales, walking 26 miles over the month of July, in many little strolls or big treks, raising funds to aid the research and to support all of the families facing the impact that a prostate cancer diagnosis brings and raising awareness too, and often doing it because they themselves or someone they know and love has had that diagnosis.

One in eight men—that's one in eight—will suffer with prostate health, and for those with a family history, it's a one in three chance. So, people can still register to walk 26 miles over the month of July, and to do a mile a day or do it all at once, whatever suits them. Whilst we might not be able to all walk together again this year, due to COVID restrictions, we can be together in spirit every single step of the way. So, go to prostatecymru.com to find out more, and even sign yourself up. Then, stride out, experience the beautiful walks we have here in Wales, and help us secure in Wales the best care, support and medical attention for those battling the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the UK. My thanks to all at Prostate Cymru for all the work they do, and to the walkers and sponsors who are putting their best foot forward to save the males in Wales.

15:45

The eleventh of July 2021 marks the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, in which over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered in the worst atrocity on European soil since the second world war. Today, I join hundreds of others across the country to pledge to ensure that we never forget about that genocide. This year's Srebrenica Memorial Day theme is rebuilding lives. In albeit very different ways, the COVID pandemic has brought loss and difficulties to millions, shattering individuals and communities who are now looking to rebuild their lives. As we move forward to rebuild our communities in the wake of many health and economic challenges, which people with divisive agendas are all too keen to exploit, we will remember the spirit of genocide survivors who, despite the horrendous hatred and destruction they were subjected to themselves, have been rebuilding their lives with dignity, humanity and without calling for retribution or promoting division or hatred. This is all the more remarkable and inspiring given what they went through. I therefore reaffirm the commitment to working towards the elimination of discrimination, rejecting hatred and intolerance and helping to build a safer, stronger and more cohesive society here in Wales. Thank you. 

Motions to Elect Members to Committees

The next item is the motions to agree committee membership. There are 12 motions under this item, which will be discussed together. I call on a member of the Business Committee to move the motions formally—Darren Millar.

Motion NDM7753 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects:

Sarah Murphy (Welsh Labour), Ken Skates (Welsh Labour), Altaf Hussain (Welsh Conservatives) Sioned Williams (Plaid Cymru) and Jane Dodds (Welsh Liberal Democrat) as members of the Equality and Social Justice Committee.

Motion NDM7754 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects:

Ken Skates (Welsh Labour), Buffy Williams (Welsh Labour), Laura Anne Jones (Welsh Conservatives), James Evans (Welsh Conservatives) and Siân Gwenllian (Plaid Cymru) as members of the Children, Young People and Education Committee.

Motion NDM7755 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects:

Alun Davies (Welsh Labour), Carolyn Thomas (Welsh Labour), Joel James (Welsh Conservatives), Sam Rowlands (Welsh Conservatives) and Mabon ap Gwynfor (Plaid Cymru) as members of the Local Government and Housing Committee.

Motion NDM7756 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects:

Hefin David (Welsh Labour), Vikki Howells (Welsh Labour), Sarah Murphy (Welsh Labour), Samuel Kurtz (Welsh Conservatives) and Luke Fletcher (Plaid Cymru) as members of the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee.

Motion NDM7757 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects:

Mike Hedges (Welsh Labour), Jack Sargeant (Welsh Labour), Joyce Watson (Welsh Labour), Gareth Davies (Welsh Conservatives) and Rhun ap Iorwerth (Plaid Cymru) as members of the Health and Social Care Committee.

Motion NDM7758 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects:

Huw Irranca-Davies (Welsh Labour), Jenny Rathbone (Welsh Labour), Joyce Watson (Welsh Labour), Janet Finch-Saunders (Welsh Conservatives) and Delyth Jewell (Plaid Cymru) as members of the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee.

Motion NDM7759 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects:

Hefin David (Welsh Labour), Alun Davies (Welsh Labour), Carolyn Thomas (Welsh Labour), Tom Giffard (Welsh Conservatives) and Heledd Fychan (Plaid Cymru) as members of the Culture, Communications, Welsh Language, Sport and International Relations Committee.

Motion NDM7760 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects:

Mike Hedges (Welsh Labour), Rhianon Passmore (Welsh Labour), Natasha Asghar (Welsh Conservatives) and Cefin Campbell (Plaid Cymru) as members of the Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee.

Motion NDM7761 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects:

Buffy Williams (Welsh Labour), Joel James (Welsh Conservatives) and Luke Fletcher (Plaid Cymru) as members of the Petitions Committee.

Motion NDM7762 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects:

1. John Griffiths (Welsh Labour), Andrew R.T. Davies (Welsh Conservatives) and Heledd Fychan (Plaid Cymru) as members of the Standards of Conduct Committee.

2. Rhianon Passmore (Welsh Labour) for Vikki Howells (Welsh Labour), Jack Sargeant (Welsh Labour) for John Griffiths (Welsh Labour), Natasha Asghar (Welsh Conservatives) for Andrew R.T. Davies (Welsh Conservatives) and Rhun ap Iorwerth (Plaid Cymru) for Heledd Fychan (Plaid Cymru), as alternate members of the Standards of Conduct Committee.

Motion NDM7763 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Mike Hedges (Welsh Labour) as a Member of the Finance Committee in place of Alun Davies (Welsh Labour).

Motion NDM7764 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Jane Bryant (Welsh Labour) in place of Jack Sargeant (Welsh Labour), and Peter Fox (Welsh Conservatives) in place of Mark Isherwood (Welsh Conservatives) as members of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee.

Motions moved.

Thank you. If there are no objections, I propose that the votes on the motions to elect Members to committees are grouped. The proposal is to agree the motions. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, the motions are agreed under Standing Order 12.36.

Motions agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

5. Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv): Small businesses and tourism

Item 5, Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv) on small businesses and tourism. I call on Hefin David to move the motion.

Motion NDM7744 Hefin David, John Griffiths, Delyth Jewell

Supported by Carolyn Thomas, Paul Davies, Peredur Owen Griffiths, Rhun ap Iorwerth, Sarah Murphy, Vikki Howells

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes the significant role played by small businesses in sustaining local economies throughout the coronavirus pandemic by adapting to unprecedented circumstances.

2. Notes the importance of local small businesses, particularly those in the tourism and associated sectors, as we recover from the pandemic and start to re-build our communities and local economies.

3. Further notes the strong encouragement from the Welsh Government for people to holiday in Wales this year and enjoy its many attractions and sites of outstanding natural beauty.

4. Calls on the Welsh Government to work with representatives of the small business and tourism community to promote Wales as a sustainable tourism destination year-round. 

5. Calls on the Welsh Government to work with the same stakeholders in order to integrate both sectors into its economic strategy and COVID-19 recovery plans in the sixth Senedd term to ensure that both are adequately supported and have the necessary resilience to sustain any future shocks. 

Motion moved.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Excellent Welsh, by the way. 

I don't know whether I'm delighted or disappointed that I see from the voting advice from the whips that the Welsh Government is voting in favour of our motion today. I think I'd probably be a bit worried if they changed their minds at the end of the debate. The aim of the debate today is to hear Members' views. I want to try and open this up and hear Members' views on this key issue as we talk about rebuilding and recovering from the pandemic. I'd be interested to hear Members' views from across the Chamber, so I haven't written a closing speech; I'm going to try and summarise the key things that are said through the debate. 

What I'd like to focus on in opening, though, is particularly the role of small businesses in supply chains, and the role that they can play in recovery. I'd like to look at the role and nature of the foundational tourism sector, and particularly some of the less-remembered parts of that. You can imagine where they are, given that I've tabled this debate. I want to thank everyone who signed up to it as well. I'd like to look at the consequences of easing restrictions, which I think is topical given what's happened this week in the UK, and what will happen next week from the Welsh Government when they announce on Wednesday, and the implications of a tourism levy I would like to consider.  

On the nature and the role of the small business, I think we often misunderstand the role of small businesses. They aren't engines of employment. In fact, the number of small businesses relative to population size is fairly static over time. I think we've got something like 6 million small businesses in the UK at this point in time—heading towards 6 million—and of those, the vast majority of them, more than half, employ fewer than 10 people. So, we cannot expect small businesses to be this engine of employment. I hear people say small businesses are the lifeblood of the economy, but, actually, they are a fairly foundational part of the economy. They exist, but they don't provide an engine of rapid growth. They provide stability. They used to say in the 1970s that if every small business takes on an extra employee, the unemployment problem would be solved. Well, if that was going to happen, it would have happened by now, and it just isn't going to happen. But neither is employment the sole objective, because we know about in-work poverty too. 

I think one of the key things that small businesses have is social capital. It's one of the key options they've got when it comes to the alternative to employment. Social capital is key because that is where the creative spark happens, when people interact. That's where businesses that are sustainable are created. When people have interactions with their family and friends, that's called bonding social capital. That's when small businesses find their feet and find their foundation. But the growth of small businesses happens through bridging social capital. That's when we talk to other small businesses, other networks. My concern about the pandemic is that it has shrunk networks right down in a way that will take a long time to rebuild. So, rebuilding those business networks over time is really, really important. I would like to see that as a key part of the Welsh Government's economic strategy, not only creating business but creating business networks. I think if businesses are to grow and succeed, that will be absolutely key.

It won't just be the SMEs on their own in the tourism sector itself that will enable us to recover; we aren't naive enough to think that that is simply going to be enough. We need to see the tourism sector play a part in the recovery, and a bigger role than it did pre pandemic. I think that is important. We often think of tourism as being the seaside in Wales, the Brecon Beacons, Yr Wyddfa, Snowdonia. We see those as the key tourism areas. But you will know that the south Wales Valleys—and I can that see the Minister, Dawn Bowden, will agree—have a huge amount to offer. Our community in Caerphilly borough has a huge amount to offer, and I think it's underplayed as a tourism venue. We talk about day trips to Caerphilly castle, but it's so much more than that. There is so much more that Caerphilly has to offer. I met the Minister at Caerphilly castle—when was it, three weeks ago—and we were welcoming £5 million of Welsh Government investment that Cadw is going to put into Caerphilly castle to transform the castle as a venue next year. But what we also want to see is the streetscapes improved, we want to see the tourism trail improved, because those social networks that small businesses rely on are also dependent upon the society in which they operate. Therefore, it's not just about improving one venue, but improving the environment as a whole. 

We've also got Llancaiach Fawr seventeenth century manor house. That was actually brought into operation by my father when he was chair of the planning committee of Rhymney Valley District Council in 1982, and I can prove it to you. If you don't believe me—I see that the frontbench is looking sceptical—I can prove it to you, because there's a plaque there with his name on it. And if the Deputy Minister wants to come and visit, I'll show her the plaque as well, although it could do with a clean if the Welsh Government's got some money for that. We've also got Penallta park and we've got Parc Cwm Darran. We've got the Welsh national mining memorial and gardens in Senghenydd. That is well worth a visit, and I know it's had royal visits from the Prince of Wales in the past; I've seen the signature in the visitors book. We've also got Cwmcarn forest and scenic drive; that's actually in Rhianon Passmore's constituency, but she wouldn't forgive me if I didn't mention that. We've got golf courses such as Bryn Meadows and Bargoed. We've got accommodation like Llechwen Hall. Murray's pub in Bargoed is pretty amazing, and the Aber Hotel is now serving food. I have to say these things because I've seen them, they exist and they're amazing. And also, by the way, if you want to treat yourself to a spa, you can go to Pwllypant Captiva spa, reflexology provided by Emma Burns Complementary Therapies, or to Lisa Morgan Beauty at the Caerphilly Miners Centre.

So, we are looking at the challenges—[Interruption.] This is all going on Facebook; you are right. We are thinking about the challenges that we are facing in our communities as a result of COVID. One of the things that somebody said to me on my Facebook page when I told them about the announcement in England not applying to Wales was, 'I have very large groups of friends now booking hotels and travelling to England. I also have plenty of friends in London who are now travelling for holidays in Devon and Cornwall. Welsh tourism will not get any bookings under the current restrictions. Jobs will be lost sadly'. Well, I did a search. Actually, it's incredibly difficult to find somewhere to stay in Wales this summer. People are holidaying at home, and I don't think this year we have to worry about the tourism sector not having visitors. 

I want to say something about the relaxation of rules as well. Polls show that the majority of us don't want the rules to be relaxed too radically, particularly with regard to masks. There is a very real danger that the majority of us will stay away from hospitality venues when mask wearing is no longer compulsory. This would have a damaging effect on the tourism sector. I'd be interested to hear what the Conservatives would say about that. But I think there are consequences, and I would like the Government to consider that in part of their review next week. I know it's about clinical evidence and I know it's exactly about what the medical officer says, but there will be consequences of withdrawing compulsory mask wearing that may be unintended by the Prime Minister.

Finally, I'd like to mention the tourism levy, because undoubtedly I'm sure the Conservatives are going to mention this, and I'd like to hear what Plaid Cymru have as a view on this too. I am supportive, actually, of a tourism levy in the way that it's being proposed via local authorities by the Welsh Government. But we do need, Minister, more clarity on the purpose of the levy, as it's been said that it won't be hypothecated. So, how will that work? How is the proposed levy going to work? The Federation of Small Businesses has told us that the Welsh Government needs to recognise the caution and concern of many in the sector about the proposal. We wouldn't want to see it threaten viability, but at the same time, I've already mentioned the street scene in Caerphilly. If Caerphilly council had an extra source of funding to resolve some of those issues that can be directly targeted towards tourism, I think that would be something we should welcome. As a result, I think a tourism levy, if properly done, is not going to damage tourism. It might actually enhance tourism in that sense. But I think what we really want is more detail about that. I think we need to hear how that is going to be done. I notice Adam Price said in 2017 that it was an idea that deserved to be explored. So, I would like to know Plaid Cymru's position, and I'm more than happy to hear more from the Conservatives about why it shouldn't be done. Perhaps I'll come back to it, then, in my summing up at the end.

Finally, a key part of our motion is about stakeholders, and I think you need, in a recovery that's going to work, the voice of small businesses playing a part in what comes next. The tourism sector has a huge voice in what they want to see. I would be concerned if this year we are seeing a boom that is followed by, next year, a bust, when everybody decides to go abroad again. I think tourism venues have to be careful, because if they're overpricing this year they will put people off next year, but at the same time we also need to look at the consequences of an inflated market this year that is then reduced next year. I wonder what the Welsh Government's strategy is to deal with that issue. How are they planning ahead, not for 2021, but 2022, and what stakeholders will they speak to in order to resolve that issue and plan for that cyclical eventuality?

So, it's over to you—over to Members. I want to hear what's going to be said today. I'm going to make furious notes, and hopefully I will do justice to what has been said at the end of the debate.

15:55

I welcome this debate today and the opportunity to talk about the role of small businesses in sustaining local economies. As the Member for Caerphilly has said, small businesses are at the heart of our villages and towns, and in areas like my own constituency, those small businesses are part of a dominant tourism and hospitality sector. Unfortunately, the pandemic hit many of those businesses hard, and while some were able to weather the storm, others were not so fortunate. I appreciate that the Welsh Government has provided support to businesses, and that support has been gratefully received by businesses in Pembrokeshire. However, for many, this funding did not go far enough to cover the loss of revenue throughout the pandemic. I'm also aware that many businesses fell through the cracks and were unable to access support quickly, threatening the sustainability of their businesses. 

During the pandemic, I hosted a series of virtual local tourism forums, along with my local MP, to hear from businesses about the challenges that they were facing, and they made it pretty clear that what they needed most from the Welsh Government was support and, indeed, clarity. Many felt like the Welsh Government simply wasn't listening to them and that Government policies and regulations were being made without a thought for the impact they would have on smaller businesses.

Now, today's motion calls on the Welsh Government to work with the small business and tourism sectors to integrate both sectors into its economic strategy and COVID-19 recovery plans, and it's vital that the Welsh Government does just that. Our economic strategy needs to focus on sustaining and developing our tourism industry as one of the nationally significant foundations of our economy. We are rich in heritage, language, seascapes, countryside, sports and castles, and with so many businesses reliant on tourism, we should never underestimate how important it is for us in Wales. Those businesses that are part of our tourism sector are heavily reliant on other industries, such as hospitality, farming and food production as well as the development of town centres, particularly in rural and coastal areas. We can't underestimate the importance of road developments, public transport links and investment in those town centres to maintain and keep these attractive to visitors.

I agree with stakeholders like the Federation of Small Businesses that Ministers need to work with industry to establish what a recovery from the pandemic looks like and how the future will be shaped, not just as a response to COVID, but because all our futures are dependent on a strong economy underpinned by small businesses as the lifeblood of our communities. 

Now, the motion recognises the Welsh Government's push for people to holiday in Wales this year and support our domestic tourism sector. As the Welsh Government focuses on promoting staycations within Wales, it's vital that Ministers work with representatives of the small business and tourism community to promote Wales as a sustainable tourism destination all year round. To fully recognise the potential of our tourism offer, there has to be collaboration with the sector. Unfortunately, instead of that, the Welsh Government's programme for government outlined plans to consult on legislation permitting local authorities to raise a tourism levy, despite the detrimental impact that that tax will have on the sector. Now, the Member for Caerphilly, at the outset of this debate, asked us to express a view on a possible tourism tax. Well, he probably won't be surprised to hear that I oppose a tourism tax; it's something that businesses in Pembrokeshire are against and I agree with them that this could have a devastating impact on the sector at a time when it's trying to stabilise following the pandemic.

Now, we have an opportunity, post pandemic, to be innovative in how we support small businesses and in particular start-ups, and perhaps the Minister will tell us in responding to this debate what the Welsh Government's plans are in relation to start-ups in existing sectors like tourism and hospitality, which are vital to us as a country.

Earlier this year, Professor Dylan Jones-Evans observed that emerging from the pandemic

'there is an opportunity to build a new Wales that is driven by home-grown, innovative and entrepreneurial businesses that have social and environmental ideals at the heart of everything they do.'

Of course, he's absolutely right: the Welsh Government must take advantage of the upswing in entrepreneurial activity and encourage business start-ups as a way to drive economic recovery. Wales needs new strategies and ideas to support new businesses and it also needs a strategy that seeks to grow our economy by recognising the importance of small businesses and the Welsh Government must come up with that new thinking now.

Dirprwy Lywydd, the tourism economy supports around 16,000 full-time jobs and brings in £585 million to Pembrokeshire alone, and it's an interconnected sector that supports our farming, hospitality and creative industries. And right at the heart of those figures are small businesses, therefore, we must remind ourselves just how important small businesses are to our local economies in terms of providing vital jobs and developing local supply chains and I urge Members to support this motion. 

16:00

The point has already been made in this debate that when we think of the tourism industry, we tend to focus mainly on our coastlines, our mountains and our national parks. However, Wales is blessed with so many beautiful hidden places, perhaps; jewels that shimmer under the surface and deserve to attract more visitors.

We've already also heard in this debate about how vital it is to help the tourism industry—a sector that's facing three winters, as the FSB has reminded us. A quarter of the businesses in this sector in Wales lost over 80 per cent of their normal revenue in 2020, so it's clear that we need a strategy to aid the recovery of these businesses.

But, I would like to see part of that strategy focusing on helping small businesses in regions such as the south east, which is trying to attract visitors to our delightful and vibrant communities; a strategy that helps hostels that provide services to those who walk or cycle along the Taff trail; a strategy that assists the restaurants and tea rooms that overlook our glorious castles and scenery, and that supports the groups that celebrate our industrial heritage—this point has already been made by Hefin—with the pitheads, the viaducts, and the majestic masonry that was once so glorious.

I would like to see that strategy clarify how it will work with local groups and with small businesses that are embedded in their communities, that promote awareness of Welsh traditions and that use local supply chains and local produce. We have an opportunity here to showcase more local produce and to support so many small supply chains that have suffered so much as a result of Brexit and the pandemic.

Any discussion on post-COVID recovery should find ways to empower our communities—perhaps through a levy; yes, we have to consider that—and to foster ethical tourism, which doesn't just use our scenery as a backdrop only for events that could be happening anywhere. This is tourism that does not exacerbate our climate and nature emergencies.

For the benefit of employers and our communities, I very much hope that the strategy stemming from all of this reflects the points that I have raised. More people will be going on holiday closer to home this year, and they are likely to encounter the most magnificent aspects of our glorious nation anew. Let us find a way of ensuring that people can always feel that same sense of wonder when they visit us in Wales, and that they can learn about our fascinating stories.

16:05

Thank you, Hefin, for proposing this debate. Inspired by you, I'd like to tell you about the wonders available in Cardiff Central; for example, the treasures available for free at our national museum in Cathays Park, much of it there thanks to the ingenuity, love of art and entrepreneurial attitude of the Davies sisters. Their extraordinary collection of impressionist paintings, bequeathed to the nation, is one of the most important collections of impressionists outside London.

Cardiff castle is free to enter for residents of Cardiff. Bute park contains wonderful herbaceous borders, as well as a fantastic bike and walking route along the Taff, all the way to Caerphilly castle.

So, it is most unfortunate that many families who live a mere bus ride away from these wonderful attractions never visit them. It is one of the definitions of poverty that people never leave the confines of their own communities. I know that the national museum is doing a lot of work to broaden the number and diversity of their visitors to both the national museum and the prize-winning St Fagans, and its other assets. But, many people still don't know how to get there, and we have to recognise that people living in poverty are restrained by the cost of public transport for a family day out.

According to the most recent Office for National Statistics figures, about a quarter of all households across Britain cannot afford one week's annual holiday, and the figure for Wales alone is likely to be higher because the level of deprivation is higher in Wales. So, we need to bear that in mind, this year of all years, when there are such opportunities for the Welsh tourism business, to ensure that we are endeavouring to do the maximum possible, so that everybody gets some sort of a holiday after what has been the most challenging 16 months that all of us have ever experienced.

I agree, absolutely: we need sustainable all-round tourism so that greater numbers of people who are not locked into school holidays can enjoy Wales's many sites of outstanding natural beauty, which are with us all year round. Edwards Coaches, I know, do a fantastic job of getting people who don't have the means of transport to go places on their own, and that's a really valuable service valued by many, particularly older people who don't wish to go places by car. But if we all go to Barry Island when the sun shines, all we'll get is a traffic jam. So, it's really important that we support people like Natural Resources Wales, Snowdonia National Park and Brecon Beacons National Park, to ensure that we are encouraging people to go to the lesser-known places and everybody's not trying to go up Snowdon, and we've seen some of the appalling sights that happened in Easter last year.

So, given the strong encouragement from the Welsh Government for people to holiday in Wales this year, I'd just like to probe what loans are available to expand the capacity to accommodate people in Wales, given that, for most people, endeavouring to book a B&B or a hotel is completely outside their possibilities, what loans might be available. For example, for farmers who might want to build toilets and showers to enable them to offer camping to families who live in our cities, or other businesses who might want to expand their caravanning provision and need to ensure that it meets the requirements for public health restrictions. So, I think it's a really important debate, but, I think, we really, really do need to realise that holidays are such an important part of people's well-being, and for probably a quarter of our households, it is something completely beyond their reach.

16:10

Thank you, Mr Hefin David, for submitting today's debate. As we all know, and has been outlined already, the tourism industry is vital to Wales's economic prosperity. For me in north Wales and for the region I represent, it employs around 40,000 people, contributes around £3.5 billion a year to the local economy and, as such, it's really welcome, the cross-party focus and support for the sector here this afternoon.

It is worth reflecting that the pressures in this sector from the COVID-19 pandemic haven't gone away and they are still there. I mean, it was this time last year when there were real pressures in the sector. And we're talking about nearly 100 per cent of businesses within the tourism and hospitality sector having to close for a prolonged period of time, with around 80 per cent of staff being furloughed. So, whilst it's been mentioned, the positives around seeing a boom here this summer, that is off the back of a very, very difficult time for the sector, and that can't be dismissed quickly. And, as the motion states, now is the time for Welsh Government to work with representatives of the small business and tourism community to promote Wales as a tourism destination all year round. Because holidaying abroad, as we know, is unclear at the moment and not easy to achieve, I suppose. It's a big opportunity now to make Wales a destination, and, as we know, once you go somewhere on holiday, you're very likely to repeat going there. So, attracting a new audience, a new group of customers into Wales, is a huge opportunity over this summer and years to come.

On the year-round point—and I thank the Member for including that within the motion today—because I think that's one of the key strategic items that should be explored, because that is what's going to make the sector and industry more sustainable throughout Wales. And, indeed, Members have taken the opportunity to mention some of the tourism businesses in their patch, and I'll mention a couple that I went to recently. It was really good to see the Penderyn whisky distillery open up in Llandudno, which I'm sure Members would appreciate a visit to from time to time, but that is an indoor attraction in a seaside resort, which actually allows an all-year-round visitor attraction. Similarly, Surf Snowdonia or Adventure Parc Snowdonia down the Conwy valley—I had the privilege of opening their new hotel, the Hilton hotel, there, alongside their indoor adrenaline activities. It's an all-year-round experience, which will make that business and the whole sector more sustainable. So, I think that's a real key point that the Member has brought forward today, and I welcome and appreciate the Government support for those businesses as well.

The other part that is worth mentioning—and I certainly welcome Welsh Government's support on, in collaboration with the UK Government—is work on the economic ambition board in north Wales, because, within that, for example, there's a tourism academy proposed to be built. The skills needed in the tourism sector are really important, because, if we upskill that sector, we'll create better jobs and better quality tourism attractions, which then, in turn, creates a stronger economy for that sector. So, I think they're the two big strategic areas that I would ask the Member, in his furious note taking, to put under the strategic section.

Under the immediate areas, I'm not going to comment on a tourism tax, because I'm sure you're quite clear on the position on this side of the Chamber, but I think there are three quick points that I'll make that would make an immediate impact to the sector. The first is a real clear road map through the summer and beyond for those businesses, because they need to plan as long as possible into the future. The second is a review of the social-distancing measures, because actually that particular regulation in Wales is making things less competitive compared to other countries within the United Kingdom. And the third is that there is a desperate need for support in recruitment into the industry at the moment. Many of those businesses are struggling to recruit staff, and, if there are actions that Welsh Government could take to support that, that would be welcome.

So, just to bring things to a conclusion, it is a vitally important sector for us here in Wales. I am delighted, of course—a quick plug here—to hold the inaugural meeting of the cross-party group on tourism tomorrow. So, all those Members, I'm sure it's in your diary; I look forward to seeing you there tomorrow afternoon. There are huge opportunities for us to take over the coming months to support the tourism sector, see growth, but also see some sustainable growth as well through those key strategic items that I mentioned as well. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

16:15

Can I begin by thanking Hefin David for bringing this important debate to the Senedd today? And I know a number of Members have used it to highlight wonderful tourism destinations in their constituencies and regions; you'll be pleased to know I won't be doing that. I will not even mention Aberavon seafront in an attempt to curry favour with the Dirprwy Lywydd in my region. [Laughter.] Wouldn't dream of it.

In particular, the tourism and hospitality industry has been one of the worst hit since the pandemic struck, and I'd like to welcome the unprecedented levels of support given to the industry by both Welsh and UK Governments. Tourism and hospitality are arguably the sectors of our economy that have suffered the most over the last 18 months or so, having either severe differences or adaptations placed upon the sector, or being forced to closed entirely. The mere fact that some of them are still standing and operating today is testament to the resilience of those small business owners, their staff and the sector as a whole, and, as has already been discussed, we know how important the hospitality sector is to the Welsh economy.

Pre pandemic, the sector employed, either directly or indirectly, some 174,000 people, and added around £3.6 billion to Wales's GVA. This makes hospitality one of the largest employers in Wales, accounting for around 10 per cent of the national workforce. We also know that this is a sector that has disproportionately benefited from the UK Government's furlough scheme. But the most recent Wales tourism barometer highlighted the welcome news that some 69 per cent of operators are in some way confident they can run their business profitably for the remainder of the year, but that confidence isn't consistent across the sector. So, despite the economy starting to reopen, some businesses are still struggling as a consequence of continued restrictions. For example, the majority—62 per cent—of businesses in the tourism sector are operating at less than full capacity, had fewer visitors than normal, and whilst about 40 per cent of businesses that had taken advance bookings into 2021 have more than normal at this point of the year, this promise is not shared amongst all sectors. So, amongst serviced accommodation, only 60 per cent of available capacity has been booked, compared to 90 per cent in the self-catering sector.

So, this summer, above all summers, should be the summer of the staycation in the UK and across Wales, and, while I share Hefin David's optimism for the sector in 2021, it's a summer of opportunity and challenges for the sector, because there are sectors still struggling with visitor numbers. Pubs and cafes operated with 63 per cent fewer visitors than usual during the May half term, and activity providers operated at 82 per cent fewer visitors than usual.

The pandemic has further emphasised the reliance on tourism and the hospitality sector as well as other small businesses to support jobs and local economies in Welsh communities. However, many of these jobs continue to be at risk, despite the economy beginning to reopen. Research undertaken by the Learning and Work Institute found that nearly one in five jobs in Wales are in shut-down sectors, most often travel, tourism, hospitality and non-essential retail, which are the ones that have been most impacted by the COVID-19 restrictions. According to the Development Bank of Wales, around 21 per cent of Welsh SMEs had temporarily closed or paused trading during the pandemic, with most of these, again, being in leisure and hospitality, whilst a third of SMEs had either no cash reserves, or cash flow remaining for just three months.

So, with all this in mind, the question remains: what can we do to support the sector that is both, as we know, so vital to the Welsh economy, but has also faced significant disruption at the same time? Whilst grants and Government support packages by both Governments have been very, very welcome, most businesses in this area I've spoken to don't want to rely on these grants forever. So, one of the things the Welsh Government could consider in its next review is to look at if it's within the leverage available to them to look at lowering the 2m social distancing requirement to the 1m plus rule, as is already the case in England and Scotland. This would likely go further than any financial measures offered to businesses and allow them to be able to operate safely, but also as close to normal as possible. Because, as our vaccination drive in Wales and across the UK continues, we need to ask ourselves, 'Well, if not now, when?' A small change like this would make a huge difference to a sector that has struggled over the past 18 months.

While I'm aware that there are other industries that have been affected by the COVID pandemic, it's often tourism and hospitality that are the ones that have seen the most severe impacts, and I hope that there's a key recovery plan to help the industry thrive, not only this summer, but in 2022 and beyond.

16:20
Member
Vaughan Gething MS 16:22:31
Minister for Economy