Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

14/09/2021

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

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

Statement by the Llywydd

Welcome to this Plenary session. Good afternoon to you all. Before we begin, I need to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in hybrid format, with some Members in the Senedd Chamber and others joining by video-conference. All Members participating in proceedings of the Senedd, wherever they may be, will be treated equitably. A Plenary meeting held using video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and these are set out on your agenda. I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, and apply equally to Members in the Chamber as to those joining virtually.

1. Questions to the First Minister

The first item this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Mabon ap Gwynfor. 

Social Housing

1. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Government's plans for social housing? OQ56811

Well, Llywydd, over this Senedd term, the Government plans to support the provision of 20,000 low-carbon homes for social rent. These will be homes that are fit for the future, built more quickly and to contemporary standards of space and quality.

Thank you for that response, First Minister. Well, I had a meeting recently with officials from the Government of South Tyrol in northern Italy, one of the richest regions in Europe, and a region where there are virtually no second homes and tourism prospers. But despite the prosperity of the area, 60 per cent of the homes there are social housing and respond to community need. Isn't this the kind of ambition that we should be showing here in Wales, and what steps are you going to take in order to change the culture in Wales and to ensure that housing developments and sales respond to community demand rather than being an economic investment for people who are already well off? Thank you.

Well, Llywydd, Mabon ap Gwynfor has raised a series of important questions that are evidently relevant to the part of Wales that he represents, and he's also drawn on evidence from abroad. There are a number of examples from abroad that are relevant to the position here in Wales—for example, there is what some of the political parties are arguing in Switzerland, and likewise in Canada currently in the same field.

I agree with what Mabon ap Gwynfor has said, and I can give an assurance that we will be increasing the number of houses available for rent and as social housing. And it's important that we all collaborate with local communities, because sometimes there are communities where there is a shortage of houses available and some people do not welcome plans to build more houses in that area. So, there's work for us all to do to try to persuade people of the importance of constructing more houses, more social housing, and to give local people more opportunity to purchase and to rent houses and to remain in their locale. And by collaborating with the local authorities, and also by having cross-party collaboration, I am confident that ideas will be forthcoming in Wales, practical ideas that will give more opportunities for local people. 

Diolch, Llywydd, and good afternoon, First Minister. You'll be aware, of course, that housing associations provide around 165,000 homes and related housing services for around 10 per cent of our population. According to Community Housing Cymru, in 2019-20, associations spent £1.3 billion directly into the Welsh economy, and for every one of the around 10,000 full-time staff, another 1.5 jobs were supported elsewhere. Also, in addition to achieving 99 per cent compliance with the Welsh housing quality standard, in comparison to 84 per cent by local authorities, housing associations in Wales are committed to bringing a further £1 billion in private investment during the next five years, matching every pound invested to build new social housing, and increasing its membership spend from 85p to 90p in every pound. 

There are so many good examples, proving that our 59 RSLs are now delivering for our communities. Yet, despite such huge successes, 11 local authorities have not yet transferred their stock. The last local authority to transfer 100 per cent of its stock was Neath Port Talbot, in 2011. Given the benefits that I've mentioned—and, believe me, there are considerably more—what steps are you taking to work with our local authorities to see the further transfer of social housing to a registered social landlord model, given the advantages this could bring? Diolch.

13:35

Llywydd, I agreed with a great deal of what the Member said, right up until her final conclusion. I agree with everything she said about the economic importance of housing associations, of the enormous amount of social good that they do, about the way in which they lever private investment—absolutely necessary private investment—into the development of new housing here in Wales. All of that I think is absolutely to be commended.

Stock transfer, however, is not a matter of a decision of the local authority. It is a matter of the decision of the local tenants—they have to vote on propositions. In Wales, some local authorities have put proposals to their tenants, who have decided to opt for stock transfer, and some have decided to remain with the local authority, because local authorities too do an enormous amount of economic good. Local authorities too have an enormous social impact, and local authorities increasingly in Wales are going to be the direct builders of new social housing for the future.

So, both options are there—they remain there in Wales. It is not a matter for the local authority to decide; it is where tenants feel that there is a more compelling proposition elsewhere, they are able to opt for it. When they choose to remain with the local authority, they will have made that decision too.

First Minister, over recent years, my constituency of Cynon Valley has benefited hugely from the Welsh Government's investment in social housing, with many old and disused buildings being faithfully converted into high-quality accommodation, as well as new builds. One issue that frequently arises, however, is the demand for adapted and adaptable properties. It's often challenging for the local authority to adequately predict demand for such properties and to feed the information through so that sufficient properties are available when needed. What more can Welsh Government do, First Minister, to ensure that all those who require adapted social housing are able to access this, and to access it in a timely manner?

Llywydd, I thank Vikki Howells for that question. She's right to point to a genuine area of challenge for local authorities, because these are not predictable needs. But when the needs occur, they are often very significant, and, from the point of view of the individual, urgent. I was very glad to see that, in the last financial year, with help through the social housing grant, Rhondda Cynon Taf local authority, in the Member's own constituency, was able to carry out specific adaptations to properties in Cwmbach and Penrhiwceiber exactly in order to make sure that properties are properly available for people with specific disabilities.

It's very important thereafter that local authorities maintain the register of those properties. When their current users no longer need to access them, they need to be made available to others who need similarly adapted accommodation. I know Vikki Howells will have seen, Llywydd, that, back on 12 August, the Welsh Government published our new standards for the future of social housing here in Wales. And part of the purpose of those new standards is to make sure that the size of rooms and buildings that will be provided in the social rented sector will make it easier for local authorities to carry out those adaptations in future, so that housing can be more readily and, indeed, more efficiently, from a financial point of view, translated into accommodation that people can use, in exactly the circumstances that the Member for Cynon Valley has referred to.

Food Poverty

2. What action is the Welsh Government taking to alleviate food poverty in Islwyn? OQ56842

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. On 6 September, we announced over £1.9 million-worth of new funding to help tackle food poverty and food insecurity. The Caerphilly Cares About Food project is one of those to benefit from that funding. It will bring communities together—food producers and growing initiatives—to form a network of organisations aimed at tackling food insecurity in the Islwyn area. 

13:40

Diolch, First Minister. Last week, it was announced that over £1.9 million of funding is awarded to organisations across Wales, as you say, to help tackle food poverty and address food insecurity within local communities. In Islwyn, in Pantside, where I was born, local volunteers set up in February 2020 the Pantside foodbank, and volunteers, such as Jayne Jeremiah, Wendy Hussey, Adrian Hussey, Cath Davies, Peter and Chyeran Cho, Simone Hockey, Jackie Ann Simette and Viv Smithey, have been supported by the local community, the Co-ops, the Asdas and David Wood bakeries. During this pandemic, these amazing individuals—and I do mean that will all sincerity—and these companies have stepped forward to co-ordinate the community's giving to help those in food poverty. First Minister, what further actions then can the Welsh Government take to aid local campaigners, like the Pantside foodbank volunteers, who are needed more than ever as the UK Tory Government seek to cut £20 a week from universal credit claimants in October? 

Well, Llywydd, Rhianon Passmore makes a very important point at the very end of her supplementary question. Those fantastic volunteers at the St Peter's Church in the Pantside foodbank—a remarkable foodbank, by the way, Llywydd, because it operates with no referrals, no vouchers, no appointments; people can simply turn up and know that they will be helped—and it is a very sad fact indeed that, as from the removal of that £20 a week, those volunteers, and others like them right across Wales, will find themselves having to respond to the needs of even more families, working families, here in Wales, Llywydd. There are 97,000 families in Wales who are working and receiving universal credit. Nearly 300,000 families who will be worse off every single week, forced, as the Trussell Trust said last week, to choose again between heating, eating or being able to afford to travel to work. It is deliberate, it is calculated and it is callous. It is a decision that this UK Government should, even now, reconsider so that those families and those volunteers right throughout Wales can focus their efforts on the help that is already needed in our communities, without adding thousands more people who will struggle every week to make ends meet. 

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from the party leaders. The leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies.  

Thank you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, vaccine passports have been determined to be necessary in Scotland. The UK Government have indicated they will not be putting vaccine passports into action in England. The people of Wales are waiting to see what action you will be taking later this week. On 13 July, you said that you were fundamentally against the introduction of vaccine passports. Now, I appreciate, if I asked you what your Government will do on Friday, you will say those discussions are still live, so I am specifically asking you, given your previous position of objecting to the use of COVID passports, will you be leading the discussion in the same vein in Cabinet or has your position changed. And are we expecting a change in the Government's overall view of vaccine passports on Friday? 

Well, Llywydd, I start always from a position of scepticism about any measures that place additional barriers in the path of people going about their everyday lives. It should always be a proper discussion, and you need to be persuaded to do something, rather than starting from a position of being in favour of them. There are real ethical issues to be considered in relation to vaccine certification, there are practical issues, there are legal issues, and I think it's right that our starting point in Wales should have been that we would need to be persuaded that there was a public health benefit from vaccine certification. That debate does indeed go on this week in the Cabinet. We've met twice on the issue already. We will meet again on it this week, making sure that we have the best possible information about the public health benefits that vaccine certification might produce, against the disbenefits that come from it.

We've not been helped, Llywydd, I have to say, by the position of the UK Government on this. I have lost count, Llywydd, of the number of meetings that I have sat through with UK Ministers, in which they have lectured me about the necessity of vaccine certification. And when I have raised with them the ethical, the legal, and the practical issues that need to be resolved, I've generally been treated as though these were details that ought not to get in the way of this necessary course of action. As late as the end of last week, we were being told by UK Ministers that they would be going ahead with vaccine certification in England. If I was in the leader of the opposition's position, I would probably wait to hear what they actually say on that matter today, in case there is yet another change in their position since the weekend.

Here in Wales, we will not make a decision on the basis of what is convenient for the Conservative Party and the various factions that exist within it. We will continue to weigh up the public health benefits against the very real concerns that there are with vaccine certification. Then we will come to the best decision that we are able to make.

13:45

Clearly, on these benches, we've been consistent, First Minister. We've always said that vaccine passports should not be introduced in Wales. We've held that position, and we continue to hold that position.

I notice that, in the near two and a half minutes in which you responded to the question—and I am grateful for the detail that you gave—you did not indicate whether your position has changed on the position of vaccine passports, which is what I asked you about. I was asking: would you lead the discussions in Cabinet from your position on 13 July, which was against vaccine passports, or has your position moved now, and you are more favourable to the introduction of vaccine passports?

I think that it is important that people know how the First Minister of Wales will lead those discussions. So, I ask again: will you be sticking to your 13 July position of not accepting the need for vaccine passports, or has your position changed? It's a simple question, First Minister.

My position, Llywydd, is the one that I set out. I start from a position of scepticism about vaccine certification. That doesn't mean that I cannot be persuaded, if the evidence of their public health benefits in September, in a different context to the one that we faced in July, outweighs the disadvantages. That is a very closely balanced set of arguments, which is why the Cabinet will have a third discussion of it all, based on the best evidence that we can secure.

If the balance of advantages has tipped in favour of some use of vaccine certification, then that is what the Cabinet will collectively determine. If the balance remains on the more sceptical side of it—and if we don't see that we've reached the point where it would be beneficial—then the Cabinet will decide that as well. What we don't do is to do what the leader of the opposition appears to do: to take a position and say that, regardless of the evidence and regardless of the context, he knows what he thinks.

I certainly do know what I think, and I asked a second time to see whether I knew what you think, and I don't really now know what the hell you think, First Minister. It was a simple enough question.

The two questions that I have asked on COVID passports indicate clearly that decisions have been taken here in Wales that are different from other parts of the United Kingdom, as rightly they should. We are standing here in the Welsh Parliament. We have a Welsh Government. It is vitally important that we have an independent inquiry. I pushed you on this before the summer recess. The Senedd had the chance to vote on that, and the governing parties came together and voted that motion down, regrettably.

But, it is a fact that, over the summer recess, the Scottish Government has commissioned an independent inquiry. The UK Government has commissioned an independent inquiry. Organisations such as Asthma UK, the British Lung Foundation, Medics4MaskUpWales and COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru have come out asking for this independent inquiry to be commissioned here in Wales.

You have the power to do that, First Minister. The Scottish First Minister has done it. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has done it. Will you today now reflect on that position, and give the assurance to the Welsh Parliament that you will commission a Welsh independent public inquiry that can look into the very matters that your Government Ministers have been making decisions over, so that we can have that scrutiny and we can have that clarity here in Wales, and ultimately get the successes highlighted, but also understand where the failures occurred?

13:50

Well, Llywydd, the Scottish First Minister has honoured a manifesto commitment of her party in the Scottish election. There was no such manifesto commitment from my party—we’re not in the same position at all. We are in the same position as the UK Prime Minister, because the independent inquiry that he has announced was announced with the agreement of the Welsh Government and on the basis that the actions that have been taken here in Wales would be independently and fully scrutinised by that inquiry. That is the agreement that we have come to. I know that he doesn’t agree with the Prime Minister on that, but I have reached an agreement with him, and I intend, provided that the terms on which we have agreed are carried through, to honour the agreement we have made.

I discussed all of this again, Llywydd, in a meeting with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, less than two weeks ago. I’ve written to him since to set out the terms on which I believe we reached our original agreement. I say in my letter to him that I want to be very clear that the Welsh Government’s decisions should be scrutinised in a full and comprehensive manner, that Wales must not be an afterthought or a footnote to a UK inquiry, and that for the UK inquiry to have credibility in Wales it is important it is able to proceed in a way that allows it to focus discretely on Wales as part of its remit. I set out a series of ways in which that can be secured.

I make it clear in the letter that if the UK Government isn’t able to give us assurances that the terms of reference, its membership, its resourcing, its methodology—. If they are not able to give us assurances that the UK inquiry will do what it was intended to do—have a specific focus on the decisions here in Wales in the context of what has happened across the whole of the UK: the common advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies that we have received; the UK chief medical officers network; the decisions of the Treasury; the decisions of the UK Government itself—. All of those create the context in which Welsh decisions have to be understood and can best be understood. An inquiry of that sort will offer people here in Wales the very best insight into decisions that were made fully and independently—made here in Wales, made in the UK context. I’m looking forward to a reply to that letter. Provided that I get the assurances that I think that we’ve had previously, then I will be prepared to go ahead with the agreement we have already reached with the Prime Minister.

Diolch, Llywydd. When faced with the choice of using a regressive tax—like national insurance—to fund public services, or a progressive alternative, then a Tory Westminster Government will always choose the former. Do you think this strengthens the case for devolving national insurance to Wales, particularly given the prime Minister’s insistence on ripping the devolution settlement to shreds in dictating how the additional revenue is to be spent? Given also that the amount of money raised is going to be as inadequate to the task as the Prime Minister is to his job, does the Welsh Government believe there remains merit in pursuing a Welsh-made solution in the form of the Holtham levy or some other alternative? Will this be one of the questions addressed by the inter-ministerial group, which today you’ve announced you are reconvening?

I thank the leader of Plaid Cymru for that question. He reminded me in his opening question that I once, in a different capacity, gave evidence to the Silk commission, just across the corridor here when they were taking evidence in this building, where I argued that the devolution of national insurance would be a more useful tool for a Welsh Government than the devolution of income tax powers. They didn’t agree, as you know. I definitely agree with what Adam Price has said about the choice the UK Government has made to fund the future of health and social care. There were better decisions that could and should have been made that will not add the £20 that is to be lost in universal credit with, now, national insurance contributions that fall regressively, as Adam Price said, more on those who earn the least than on those who earn the most. Nevertheless, we have to recognise that people in Wales now will be making that contribution.

Where the Holtham report is relevant, I believe, is in the advice it gives us as to how the money that is raised could be applied, the use that could be made of it, rather than, I believe at this point, thinking that we could impose a further subvention on people in Wales, raising more money from them, even for this very important purpose. So, the inter-ministerial group, the paying for care group that met regularly during the last Senedd term, will be reconvened. It will look at the sums of money, when we have confirmation of them, that will come to Wales, and will then look at, including the proposals made by Holtham, how that money can be put to best use to secure the future of social care services in Wales.

13:55

It says something about the callousness of this Conservative Government that you've already referenced this afternoon that they believe the right thing to do now is to remove the universal credit uplift when millions of families are facing devastating hardship. So long as our welfare in Wales is the responsibility of the moral vacuum that is Westminster, then families here will continue to suffer.

You and I have discussed this theme many, many times, and I note that the Government's amendment to our Plaid Cymru motion tomorrow refers to you continuing to explore the case for the devolution of the administration of welfare. Could you share with us how that work is progressing and give us some sense of its scope, and particularly a timetable, as many of the families the policy could help are in a state of urgent need?

I again thank the leader of Plaid Cymru for that supplementary question. He'll remember that I welcomed the report of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, chaired by John Griffiths in the last Senedd term, when they produced their report, 'Benefits in Wales: options for better delivery'. That was the start of a debate about the devolution of the administration of welfare benefits. It was followed up, as he will know, by a piece of work that the Government commissioned from the Wales Centre for Public Policy, leading to their report, 'Administering social security in Wales'.

One of the focuses for our action is the inquiry announced by the Welsh Affairs Committee on 15 June. They are to have a benefits inquiry. It's an important inquiry, because it allows us to conduct these arguments in the Westminster context, where, in the end, the decisions about devolution of welfare benefit administration would be made. Officials of the Welsh Government have already supplied evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee at the start of their inquiry. I'm sure that if they invite Ministers to give evidence to it, we'll be happy to do that as well. I think it offers us an opportunity to develop the argument for how, if the devolution of administration of certain benefits could be transferred to Wales, with all the necessary financial costs that would come with it, that would allow us to administer benefits in a way that will be consistent with the preferences of the Senedd and, I believe, the preferences of people in Wales.

These are rights that people have. They are often in difficult circumstances. They deserve to be treated in a way that is fair and is compassionate. I don't think you could think that either of those are characteristics of the way that the benefits system has been administered over the last 10 years.

'The solutions to Wales's problems will never come from Westminster' is, for many us, a foundational truth of Welsh democracy. That's true of the problems that are unique to Wales, but also of the global problems to which Wales is not immune, but which we can make, possibly, our own unique contribution to solving. In that context, it's inspiring to see the momentum growing behind exciting, pioneering ideas like the universal basic income pilot. We in Plaid Cymru welcome the embrace of a new policy experimentalism at the heart of Government, and in that spirit, can I ask: would you be prepared to actively consider extending this to a four-day-working-week pilot that could be run in parallel to that and the UBI? And do you accept, First Minister, if these radical experiments in Welsh social innovation succeed at the pilot stage, then the necessary next step will be identifying those reserved powers in employment, taxation and welfare, which we'll need to fully implement across the country? Wales needs its pilots, but don't we also need a new map and a new shared sense of where we may be heading?

14:00

Well, I agree with two important things in what the leader of Plaid Cymru has said, Llywydd. First of all, I absolutely agree that one of the huge advantages of devolution is that it allows for experimentation; that it allows for policy ideas to be tried out, for radical ideas to be given a practical opportunity to demonstrate what they can achieve. And I definitely want this term and this Government to be part of that living laboratory of devolution, as it was referred to, wasn't it, by Bill Clinton in the American context. And I agree as well that the current settlement is far too full of ragged edges, and frankly inexplicable anomalies. How is it that Wales has responsibility for bus services, for train services, for active travel, but it explicitly in the Government of Wales Act said that we have no responsibility for hovercraft services? Now, who was it in Whitewall who thought that of all the things that we could be in charge of in Wales, we expressly could not be trusted to be in charge of hovercrafts? And that is just one example. The last Act that set out the reserved-powers model is shot through with anomalies of that sort. Indeed, the Welsh Government produced a draft Bill that would have produced a much more coherent line between reserved and devolved responsibilities. So, I agree very much with what the leader of Plaid Cymru said: that that is a debate that nobody sensible could regard as concluded.

COVID-19 in Schools

3. Will the Minister make a statement on COVID-19 safety measures in schools? OQ56807

May I thank Siân Gwenllian for that question, Llywydd? The latest advice on COVID-19 safety measures in schools was published on Friday 27 August. It sets out specific actions to reflect local risk and circumstances. All schools are expected to adopt the approach set out in the advice by 20 September.

On bank holiday Monday, the Minister for education announced a budget of over £3 million for the provision of 1,800 ozone disinfectant machines in our schools, colleges and universities. Two days later, following calls for assurances on the safety of the equipment from Plaid Cymru and others, it became apparent that Ministers had carried out a u-turn on that decision. Can you explain the process that led to that contentious decision to procure and use those machines, and what was behind the decision not to purchase those? Now, would you agree with me that the Government should conduct a review of the process of making these decisions on ozone equipment, and will the Government now provide a focus on ventilation, including providing air-filtration machines used a great deal in other nations?

Well, Llywydd, the origin of the ozone approach to cleanliness comes through work carried out at Swansea University, carried out with an innovation grant from the Welsh Government. The work at Swansea University was focused on the efficiency of using ozone as a cleaning agent in the cleaning of ambulances, and the result of that innovative programme was thought to be successful. It had demonstrated that ozone disinfecting machines had a part to play in making the cleaning of ambulances as effective as it could be and that the learning that had been acquired in that field could be translated to help support schools in their cleaning efforts. That's what the original press release from the Welsh Government referred to. Now, having published that idea, there were, as Siân Gwenllian said, a number of concerns raised as to whether or not the effectiveness of the approach that Swansea University had developed in the ambulance context could simply be translated into school cleaning as well. Because of the concerns raised, we decided that the sensible thing to do was to pause in that programme—no actual machines had been procured at that point—and to get further advice from Swansea University itself, but also from our own technical advisory group, as an independent voice on all of that, to see whether the use of ozone disinfecting machines do present a new technological possibility for cleaning in education settings. There's a rapid review being carried out by the technical advisory cell, therefore, of the technology, of its possibility, because we would not, of course, want to proceed until we were certain that the benefits of doing so had been maximised and any risks mitigated, and that we were able to share that evidence with people who work in the field.

In the meantime, I agree with what Siân Gwenllian said at the end of her question, Llywydd, that of course we need to go on looking for effective ways in making sure that schools are safe. We've invested considerable amounts of money on enhanced cleaning regimes in schools in Wales over the period of the pandemic and through our school social partnership arrangements, we go on working with our partners to make sure that we have the highest possible standards of cleanliness and of safety in schools for teachers, other staff and students alike.

14:05

First Minister, just on the back of that, quickly, I'd like to say, moving forward now, we need to make sure that the Government—it's absolutely paramount that they're forthcoming with any risk assessments on any proposals such as the ozone machines.

First Minister, on safety, due to the massive disruptions over the last year, our emphasis needs to be on keeping children in the classroom as much as possible to prevent further disruption to their education. Headteachers have, however, and constituents raised understandable concerns over children advised to still attend schools when they have tested negative on a lateral flow test but a member of their household has tested positive for COVID-19. We obviously need to ensure schools are a safe environment and to help stop the spread, so can you reassure headteachers and families why your Government's advice is as it is on this and whether you're looking to make any changes to Government advice in this regard?

I thank Laura Jones for that point, which I know has been of concern to some parents, and there are some local authorities who have taken a particular view and provided advice to their own schools on it. The advice of the Welsh Government does remain in place, but, as I said in my answer to Siân Gwenllian's question, we meet regularly through the schools partnership forum. Local authorities are represented there, as are the teacher unions, including headteacher unions, and there will be opportunities this month for that issue and any other issues that have emerged as schools return in September to be considered and a shared approach to them developed.

The good news about the forum, Llywydd, is this: that it starts with a shared belief of all participants that our ambition should be to make sure that the education of our young people is disrupted to the least possible extent during this term, given everything that they've had to live through over the last 18 months, and, of course, we work with partners to try and make sure that everything practical is in place to secure that outcome.

I just want to go back to these ozone disinfecting machines, because I completely understand the rationale for using them in ambulances; these are very expensive pieces of capital equipment and are required to be used 24 hours a day, and ambulance operators are highly trained in the use of complex pieces of equipment. But I struggle to understand how we'd be able to translate that technology into a really different context to be operated by school cleaners, who are very important members of the school community but, in the main, they have had little or no training of any sort at all. So, what training do you think would be required to enable ozone disinfecting machines to be operated safely as a method of cleansing classrooms of COVID?

14:10

Well, it's an important point that Jenny Rathbone makes, Llywydd. Of course, were the outcome of the TAC review to be that ozone cleaning machines have a part to play in the school context, then they would have to be properly prepared, and that would include the training of staff to make sure they can be used safely and effectively. School cleaning staff already use sophisticated equipment in many of our schools, but they only do so because they've been properly prepared and equipped for that task. I'm quite sure that if, and it is a very open question—if the technical advisory cell do conclude that this new innovative technology can have a more widespread use, then making sure that it is deployed safely and with all the training that will be needed will, I'm sure, be part of the advice that they will give us. 

The Rural Economy

4. How is the Welsh Government supporting sustainability in the rural economy? OQ56799

Llywydd, the Welsh Government supports sustainability in the rural economy through the basic payment scheme, the rural development programme and many other sources. Applications to the latest round of farm business grant funding, for example, opened on 1 September.

Diolch. Earlier this month, I visited farm owners Einion and Elliw Jones at Mynydd Mostyn farm in Trelogan near Holywell whose innovative and hugely popular COVID-driven milk vending machine business supplying fresh milk and milkshakes is under threat after Flintshire planning officers said the site was not lawful. In accordance with the Welsh Government's 'Planning Policy Wales' 11—PPW 11—it was clear that this farm-based business represents a small-scale diversification run as part of the farm business. Contrary to the planning officer's report, it was apparent from my visit that the provision of the milk vending machines is an ancillary use to the main dairy farm, not an entirely separate development to the farm, and that the goods being sold are produced primarily on the farm, with welcome sales of additional local and regional products. Rather than having an adverse effect on any other local business, this enterprise is welcomed and supported by the local community, and a petition has already attracted over 9,000 signatures, evidencing an apparent breach with PPW 11's statement that planning authorities should work collaboratively with the local community.

And it stated in the planning officer's report that the site was only accessible by vehicle; I witnessed contrary to that, that the site is accessible to walkers and cyclists in particular, and a wide range of sources or modes of travel. How will you therefore ensure that local planning authorities understand and comply with Welsh Government policy and the clear evidence that would be available to them on a site visit when considering diversification and sustainability in the rural economy?

Llywydd, I thank the Member for that question. I am aware of the case to which he refers, and the points that he has made this afternoon will now be properly on the record. I'm sorry that I'm going to have to disappoint him by not being able to say anything further, but I'm very clearly advised by my officials that the local authority having made its decision, the applicant, the farmer in this question, has a right of appeal to Welsh Ministers. And therefore because anything I might say might prejudice that decision, I should do no more than recognise the points that the Member has made, and I'm sure that they will be taken into account should the applicant choose to appeal.

14:15
GP Services

5. What measures is the Welsh Government taking to improve access to GP services in Wales? OQ56840

I thank the Member for that, Llywydd. GP services across Wales face enormous pressures in dealing with the continuing public health emergency alongside high levels of patient demand for non-COVID conditions. The Welsh Government has made available £18.4 million over the past two years to support the profession in responding to the access challenges it faces.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. As restrictions have eased, our GP practices have faced increased pressures, not only in my constituency, but across Wales and the rest of the UK. Throughout the pandemic, primary care teams have done an incredible job, from being part of the vaccination effort and adapting their services so that patients can be seen remotely. However, it's clear that they are under pressure, and the demand for physical appointments has increased greatly. With the winter months set to only add to this, what short-term measures can the Welsh Government take to ensure that the public are as informed as possible about how the pandemic is impacting primary care, and that people know which service is best to use for their needs? And what long-term measures can we take to ensure that a significant level of the investment in the NHS recovery is focused on securing additional activity in primary care to maximise access to patients to help speed up diagnosis and prevent hospitalisations?

Llywydd, I thank Jayne Bryant for all of those points. She is right, isn't she, to point to the enormous pressure that our primary care colleagues have faced over the pandemic and continue to face today and we're going to be asking these same people now to embark on the flu campaign, which will be more important than ever in Wales this winter, and, as Members will have heard, the primary care community will also be part of delivering the autumn booster vaccination campaign for people in the top priority group. So, we're going to be asking even more of people over the weeks and months ahead, and the public really does have a part to play, as Jayne Bryant said. Remote consultations are here to stay, Llywydd, and a very good thing that is too. We do hear—as the leader of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Professor Martin Marshall, said at the weekend—we do hear a lot from people who feel that they would rather be seen face to face. We hear less of the experience of those people who would much rather be able to have a consultation over the phone or over the video because of the way that that allows them to go about other parts of their daily lives. In that same article, Professor Marshall calculated that over half of consultations by primary care clinicians are now carried out face to face. But we have to persuade the public that there are other parts of the primary care family beyond the GPs themselves—pharmacy, community pharmacy, is particularly important here in Wales—and that we can all help to keep a system that is under significant strain, and when real demands are to be made, we can all help by making sure that we go to the right place. That is why the 'Help Us, Help You' campaign that the Welsh Government has been running recently seeks to persuade people to make sure that they only seek a face-to-face consultation with a GP when that is the right clinical course of action.

And in the longer run, we will continue to pursue the approach we have had in Wales now for a number of years: GPs should see only people who need the level of skill and qualification that a GP possesses. There are many other members of the primary care team—physiotherapists, pharmacists, occupational therapists, paramedics—who are equally capable clinically of providing a service to many people who go to primary care, and that team approach to the delivery of services is one we will continue to promote to secure the long-term health of primary care services in Wales.

Thank you very much, Lywydd; it's nice to see everyone back. First Minister, recently, the Newtown patients' forum has raised concerns about the huge pressures on GP services. Whilst coronavirus has exacerbated the problems in Newtown and beyond, a number of practices in the region have seen huge pressures for years.

I'd like to pay tribute to Russell George, the Aelod of the Senedd for Montgomeryshire, for the work that he has done in pushing forward the north Powys well-being programme, which would help to address some of these problems. May I ask the First Minister, please, for a timetable for when we can see this programme, which would make such a difference to north Powys? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

14:20

May I thank Jane Dodds for the question? Of course, I acknowledge, as I said in the last response, the pressure that people who work in the field have been under in Powys, and I acknowledge what Russell George has done. I've answered a number of questions on the floor of the Senedd about the developments in Newtown.

Llywydd, I was pleased to see the press release put out by the leaders of the north Powys programme on 17 August, a joint press release between the chief executive of the health board and the cabinet member for adult social care in Powys council. It reported on the work that they were doing to take forward the very important plans for development of a primary care campus in the centre of Newtown. It reported on engagement work that had been carried out with Powys residents and goes on to say that that will now feed into the next stage, the strategic outline case for the whole programme, which they hope to complete in the coming months. That's what the press release says. That strategic outline case then gets presented to the Welsh Government, and I repeat what I've said previously on the floor of the Senedd to Mr George, that the Welsh Government looks to support the scheme, and looks forward to having the latest iteration of those plans coming forward as a result of the work that has been carried out to date.

I think I'd better call you, Mr George, after all of that. Russell George.

Thank you, Llywydd. I'm grateful for Jane Dodds and the First Minister raising these points, and for the First Minister's answer. I think there's a great deal of cross-party support for that north Powys hub, and I believe it'll continue in the same vein, so that's very much appreciated.

I was listening very carefully to your response, First Minister, to Jayne Bryant. I can agree with every word you said in response to Jayne, so I ask my question in that context. There is a great pressure, and a number of people who do want to see their GP face to face, and there is of course the considerable issue of misdiagnosis if a GP doesn't see somebody face to face and has a telephone or online consultation. I ask the question, though, in the vein and the spirit of your response to Jayne Bryant and agreeing with what you said, but I wonder, now we are ahead of the winter pressures and of pressures on the ambulance service, whether this is something you can revisit with GPs in terms of more face-to-face consultations being available, in the context of what you've said.

Llywydd, I understand the points that are being made. The proportion of contacts with GPs and the rest of the clinical team that have been carrying out face to face is growing, but nobody, I think, should encourage the belief that a telephone consultation, a video consultation, is somehow a second-class or second-best form of contact with a GP. For many, many people, that will be their preferred route. It will be more effective; it will release GPs' time for other work. I've had reason myself over the summer to speak to a member of the primary care team, and I was able to do it because I didn't have to take myself all the way to the surgery in order to be able to do so, and I got all the advice that I needed very straightforwardly and easily over the telephone. We have to rely on the clinical judgment of our very skilled professionals to know when a face-to-face consultation is clinically necessary, and if we are going to ask them to continue doing all the things that we're asking them to do, and the extra things we're going to be asking them to do as well, then I think we have to show some confidence in their ability to use the new technology that they have effectively and to distinguish between those people who can be properly advised in that way and those people for whom a face-to-face consultation is a necessary part of the clinical investigation. 

14:25
Social Care

6. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's response to the UK Government's reform of social care funding? OQ56834

I thank Hefin David, Llywydd, for that. The Welsh Government continues to seek clarity on a series of issues that lie behind the headlines of last week’s announcement. That includes the quantum of funding available to Wales and, very importantly, the treatment of cross-border cases. Our ministerial paying for care group, as you've heard, will reconvene to bring forward proposals for Wales.

I'd respectfully say to the First Minister it would have been helpful, perhaps, to have had a verbal statement in the Chamber this afternoon on this, given that it was raised by the Deputy Minister for Social Services at the press conference and a written statement's been issued, and I think not least because national insurance is the most regressive way of funding additional social care, and I would have liked to have heard the Conservatives, because I know some of them have reservations about this—. I would like to hear their views on this way of funding social care. There is a better way to do it, and we've heard already the leader of Plaid Cymru make reference to the Holtham levy, which I've already said would have been a far better way to do it. And no doubt, First Minister, you are frustrated that that cannot happen. I think we are seeing the limits now of the devolution settlement that needs radical change.

Can you guarantee that every penny that comes from this rise is directed to social care in Wales? Can you give that guarantee? And we can see that the UK Government spending review is scheduled for 27 October. How soon after that will we then know the detail of the Welsh Government's plans? 

Llywydd, Hefin David points to a very important continuing flaw in the settlement. Health and social care services in England now have certainty about how much money they will have for the rest of this financial year and in the next financial year. No devolved Government has the same certainty. We will not know until 27 October how much money will come to Wales. We know what the product of the recent announcements amounts to, but what we don't know is what other decisions will be made inside the UK Government that would have negative Barnett consequentials. So, we are just as likely to lose money for other decisions as we have been to gain money through this. That isn't the case for the Department of Health in England. They now know that, whatever other spending decisions are made, they're guaranteed to get the money that was announced. We will not know that. We will not know it until after 27 October, and the Member makes a very important point about the unfairness of that. 

Now, last year that was partially mitigated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, because he provided an overall funding guarantee to Wales, to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and we welcomed that because it ironed out some of this uncertainty for us. He's not been willing to do that this year and, as a result, we won't have the certainty that the Member asked for until we know both the money that will come to Wales and other decisions. Members here will remember the completely perverse decision that was made in terms of Barnett comparabilities in relation to the HS2 scheme, where we offered no comparabilities at all, despite the fact that it has direct impacts for us in Wales. We'll be watching for further such decisions over the weeks ahead, and then after 27 October, once we know what we've actually got for health, for social care and for the other very important responsibilities that this Senedd discharges, of course we will return to the floor here with the Government's proposals. 

The North Wales Growth Deal

7. What assessment has the First Minister made of the progress of the North Wales growth deal? OQ56839

Our assessment, Llywydd, is that good progress is being made by the portfolio office of the north Wales growth deal in moving forward into the delivery phase of the deal. Several business cases have now been drafted and presented to the North Wales Economic Ambition Board for their approval.

Thank you, First Minister, for your answer. We all know how important the north Wales growth deal is to the region. I'd like to welcome the work across Governments, with local authorities and other bodies, in seeing this progress that we all seek for the region.

One of the projects, and an important project amongst many, is a project to further develop the port at Holyhead. And you'll know the importance of this in terms of its opportunity to bring prosperity to the region, as well as developing that economic relationship with Ireland. Of course, with complex projects there can be challenges at times in terms of delivery. So, would you, First Minister, commit to working with stakeholders in order to provide continued certainty and appropriate support to ensure this particular project is delivered as quickly as possible?

14:30

Well, Llywydd, I thank the Member for that. Of course, I am aware that the Holyhead gateway project is part of the land and property theme of the growth deal, and we do take a direct and continuing interest in it. The Member will be aware of the significant challenges that there are for Welsh ports as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol, and we continue to raise these matters with colleagues in the UK Government as well. Until some of those matters are properly resolved, then the current levels of trade through Holyhead will not recover to the levels that we saw prior to the agreement of the terms on which we've left the European Union. So, I agree with what the Member said: it is a complex project, and one that has become all the more complex because of the context in which it now operates.

2. Business Statement and Announcement

The next item is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement. Lesley Griffiths. 

Member
Lesley Griffiths MS 14:32:06
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch, Llywydd. I've added three statements to today's agenda, a statement on Afghanistan from the Minister for Social Justice, a statement to update Members on the latest situation with regard to COVID-19 from the Minister for Health and Social Services, and a statement by the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership updating Members on developments with the social partnership and public procurement (Wales) Bill. Finally, the legislative consent motion on the Environment Bill has been postponed until 28 September. Draft business for the next three sitting weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.

Trefnydd, I'd like to call for a statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services on the Welsh ambulance service. I understand that the Welsh ambulance service is currently undertaking a pan-Wales roster review, and I've received representations from worried NHS staff about plans for the service in my own area, in Pembrokeshire. The current plans are to reduce the emergency ambulance capacity within Pembrokeshire from seven down to five. Now, needless to say, this will have a very serious impact on the people of Pembrokeshire, and indeed on our ambulance staff. One member of staff told me that they were 'genuinely frightened' at the impact that these changes would have on them, given that they were already struggling with the current demand, and I'm sure you'll agree with me that this is totally unacceptable.

It's also understood that Hywel Dda University Health Board is the only health board in Wales that will see this level of reduction in emergency ambulance cover. Therefore, given the seriousness of these plans, and the impact that they will have on users and staff in Pembrokeshire, could you please ensure that the health Minister brings forward a statement now as a matter of urgency?

Thank you for that question. As you stated yourself, there is currently a review of the Welsh ambulance service. I think it would be very foolish to pre-empt any outcome of that, but I'm sure, at the most appropriate time, the health Minister will bring forward further information.FootnoteLink

It was good to see pupils from Ysgol Mynydd Bychan in the gallery today, and Heledd Fychan and I took a number of challenging questions from them, including which party we would join other than Plaid Cymru. I can clearly say that the answer was not the Tories.

But, Trefnydd, could I be so bold as to ask for three statements today? First of all, because it is Youth Parliament Week, could the Government outline what collaboration they have with others, including the Commission, to ensure that as many young people as possible from various backgrounds participate in this important activity?

Trefnydd, could I also ask for a statement regarding the issue of building safety in high rises? Does the Welsh Government agree with Plaid Cymru that innocent leaseholders should not pay for defective work by developers? And Trefnydd, could we also have a written statement about the mental health impact this has on leaseholders? I've met many now, and the strain is obvious on their faces. Could you look into the impact on these people's lives, through no fault of their own? Diolch yn fawr.

14:35

Thank you. Just in relation to your first bit, I think it's excellent to see members of the public back in the public gallery, but it's always really good to see children and young people in the public gallery. And as you say, obviously, it's Youth Parliament Week, and it's really important that we do engage with children and young people about the democratic process and politics in general.

In relation to your second question around building safety, you'll be aware that the Minister for Climate Change issued a written statement on 14 July, announcing the grant funding for survey work to be undertaken on some of these residential buildings that you referred to. We anticipate that the scheme will be ready to accept applications in the autumn of this year, so there will be a further announcement.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I wish you'd called me before Rhys ab Owen, because I was also going to raise the problem of problem high rises. I'll still raise it because it is a serious concern to a number of my constituents living in SA1. I believe we are now in the autumn and, as such, how soon can we expect this statement, because it is really affecting a number of people? We talk about mental health issues. I can think of nothing that would have a greater effect on somebody's mental health than the fact they own a property, which they paid £100,000 to £150,000 for, which they're paying interest on their loan for, and the building is now worthless. In fact, they would probably have to pay somebody to take it off their hands. So, it really is a matter of great urgency; I've got a lot of very unhappy constituents, as I'm sure other people in this room have. So, please, can we ask that we get this as soon as is practicable?

The second issue I would like to raise—and it's something we haven't talked about for some time—is regarding enterprise zones. In 2012, the Welsh Government launched seven enterprise zones across Wales; the Port Talbot waterfront was added later. Can we have a Government statement regarding the success of these zones, and which ones are planned to continue after next year?

Thank you. I don't disagree with what you said around the point of cladding and the issue that has just been raised with me. And when I gave my answer, I did think as I said the word 'autumn', I was thinking, 'Well, that could be several months.' And I agree with you, we are in the autumn now, but I know that the Minister is very hopeful to bring forward a statement at the earliest possibility.

In relation to enterprise zones, the Member will be aware that they were introduced and created here to help promote economic activity and development in very distinct zones. And it is absolutely timely, I think, to review that enterprise zone programme, and also the governance structures that were put in to support it when we first brought them forward in light of our priorities. And obviously, we've now had the emergence of a regional approach to economic development, and the end of current terms of appointment for the boards is also nearing as well. So, the Minister for Economy will be making a statement on enterprise zones.

Like my colleague Paul Davies, I have also been contacted by large numbers of constituents, concerned about ambulance waiting times. Our hard-working ambulance crews and accident and emergency teams are amazing, working tirelessly, but ambulance crews are spending all of their shifts sat outside hospitals, waiting to hand over patients, causing long delays, leaving rural communities like mine in Brecon and Radnorshire without adequate cover in case of emergency.

Here's an example of correspondence that I received earlier in the week. A 92-year-old lady, just outside Brecon, fell with a suspected broken hip. The ambulance was called at 4 p.m.. The lady remained in considerable pain, unable to move, unable to travel by car, unable to eat or drink. The ambulance arrived next morning because there were no ambulances across my constituency. This is not isolated. Over 400 people, right across Wales, earlier in the year, were waiting over 12 hours for an ambulance. I'm sure nobody in this Chamber finds that acceptable.

So, Trefnydd, will you please now ask the Minister for Health and Social Services to make an urgent statement on this crisis, and outline the proposals on how the Welsh Government will improve access to ambulances, because people waiting on the floor for 12 hours for an ambulance is absolutely shameful?  

14:40

I would caution the Member. You quote, and I'm going to quote you now, 'All of ambulances are spending their time sitting outside hospitals.' That is completely not true—[Interruption.]—and I think you should be very, very cautious in using those exact words and also the word 'crisis'. You will have heard my answer to Paul Davies about the review. I, personally, and no-one in this Chamber would want to hear the story that you relayed. I can't personally comment on a specific case, and I would ask you to write to the Minister for Health and Social Services.

I'd like a Government statement, please, about the importance of respite for carers and day-care services for people with disabilities. This is an issue that I've raised many times over the past year, and there are lots of families in my region, principally in Caerphilly, that are still without the respite support that they had before the pandemic. Now, I understand that the council has made a statement very recently confirming that there are no plans to close day centres, and that will be a huge relief to families, but they are consulting on current provision, and with the limited services available, families without cars can't always travel to get the help that is available. What I'd like the Government to do, please, is to provide some clarity about what support is being given to local authorities, and what incentives are there to restart these services that provide such significant support for entire families. Many unpaid carers have been looking after their loved ones 24 hours a day for the past 18 months, and that takes a physical toll; it also takes an emotional toll. I'd really welcome a statement from the Government setting out what will be done to help them.

Thank you, and I think the Member raises a very important point. It's absolutely vital that we value our carers and, as you say, COVID-19 has brought another pressure on people who are caring for the vulnerable members of their family or friends. I'm not aware of the consultation by Caerphilly County Borough Council, but I would really urge all constituents in your region to put into that consultation. I think it's very important that the council hear what people's needs and requirements are.

Trefnydd, could we have a statement on emergency mental health provision in Wales? A recent BBC article highlighted that the police are increasingly having to deal with calls from family and friends who fear a loved one may be suicidal and do not know where to turn. My local police force, Gwent Police, has seen the number of 999 and 101 calls increase by a third between January and July. However, more than half of the calls did not report crimes, but are often relating to other services. On average, between 6 per cent and 8 per cent of all contacts with Gwent Police involve concerns for someone's mental health. Gwent Police are adapting admirably, and have a mental health team and a social worker who sit alongside operators in the call room, and I know that Welsh Government have made some really positive announcements and investments on this subject over the summer, and there's some great work being trialled in the Swansea bay area, which includes a 111 mental health crisis helpline team, but the sooner we can improve services across Wales the better, so that individuals who are suffering find the best and most appropriate support. 

Thank you. Again, you raise a very important point and, as you say, we've worked very closely with the NHS and also with the police and other organisations to try and understand the needs of individuals at that point of crisis that you referred to. Most individuals in those circumstances do need a multi-agency response, rather than a specific or a specialist mental health service. So, we will continue to work with our partners in relation to that multi-agency approach and make sure that that pathway is there, and, as part of that commitment, we have committed £6 million this year to support crisis care. That does include the roll-out of the mental health single point of contact, and you mentioned the pilot work that is being undertaken. It's also really important, I think, to improve response times for those crisis situations, and also reduce the need for other forms of transport, and I know from back in the day when I was health Minister that the use of police vehicles is not appropriate for many of these cases. So, I think it's really important that we reduce the need for those other forms of transport. So, we will continue to work with the NHS, with the police and other organisations. 

I wonder if I could ask you to provide a statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services, please, on dentists across Wales, particularly within Mid and West Wales. We have a particular challenge in this very rural area in being able to access NHS dentists, and I'd particularly be interested in the availability of dentists within the Llandrindod Wells and Knighton areas, where there has been cross-party support for us to attempt to improve the situation.

The second statement, I was wondering, could come from the Minister for Climate Change on the state of the River Wye. We all know that this is a very polluted river, from a variety of sources, and I would be grateful for a statement around pollution in the River Wye. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

14:45

Thank you. In relation to your question around dental provision, you mention very specific areas of your region, so I will ask the Minister for Health and Social Services to write to you about that—I think it was Llandrindod Wells and Knighton.

Again, you'll be aware there's a great deal of work being done around pollution of our rivers. It's really important that we improve our waterways in the same way as I think we've already improved sea water around Wales, and that work is ongoing.

Trefnydd, I call for a statement from the Minister for health regarding the redevelopment of the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Rhyl. The redevelopment of the Royal Alex and the creation of a community hospital are integral to providing top quality healthcare to my constituents—constituents who cannot understand the delays. When I last spoke to the chair and chief exec of the health board over the summer, they, like me, were frustrated at the lack of progress and were surprised when my written question revealed that Welsh Government had further questions regarding the full business case. Trefnydd, there are concerns that the Welsh Government are revisiting existing agreed projects in light of a shortage of capital funding. I therefore ask that the health Minister comes forward at the earliest opportunity with a statement to confirm or deny these concerns and provide my residents with an update on the status of the Royal Alexandra redevelopment. Thank you very much.

I don't think that would be appropriate for an oral statement. Clearly, you said yourself that, in the answer to your written question, the Minister for Health and Social Services made it clear that there were further questions to be asked of Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board in relation to the business case. So, I think, obviously, that process will be going through the stages that are required.

I'd like to ask the Trefnydd for a statement to update Members on the support the Welsh Government is giving to the Rhondda Tunnel Society and other similar projects. Like many Members here, I was able to plunge into the depths of the tunnel for a visit organised by Tony and the group, and if you haven't done it already, Trefnydd, I thoroughly recommend it. The project will bring a variety of different benefits to both Blaencwm and Blaengwynfi, both economically and culturally, and the tunnel will provide us with an opportunity to tell the story of the Valleys in a similar way to what is being done in New Zealand, where old gold mine tracks have been turned into walking and cycling routes, and double up as a history walk. I know the team are keen to do something similar, but they need as much help as they can get.

Thank you. I actually haven't done the walk through the Rhondda tunnel, but it is something that certainly—Buffy's left the Chamber now—Buffy Williams and I have discussed. I'm not aware of any specific support that can be given, but I will certainly ask the Minister to have a look into it.

Trefnydd, can I ask for a statement from the economy Minister on the announcement of two factories in the community of Gorseinon that have announced their intention to close over the next year? 3M have announced that 89 jobs will be lost, and Toyoda Gosei have said 228 positions at their site are under threat too. These are two major employers in the community of Gorseinon, and their loss will be felt very significantly in the community, directly by people and families and the supply chain. So, while I'm grateful the Minister issued a written statement on the subject on 3 September, I'm asking whether the economy Minister is able to provide a further update on the floor of the Senedd on the Welsh Government's discussions with these companies, their employees, trade unions and other stakeholders about the future employability of this workforce, and to outline the Welsh Government's plan to help Gorseinon recover.

Thank you. I know officials have been working with the company that you refer to. I don't think there's anything further that the Minister for Economy at this time can add to his written statement.

Thank you, Trefnydd. You'll be aware, I'm sure, that there has been some coverage in the press and fierce opposition and local concerns about the consultation that took place over the summer on charging drivers to use the A470 between Upper Boat and Pontypridd and also on parts of the M4. I know that the Deputy Minister for Climate Change has stated on Twitter that there are no plans or discussions on charging drivers. But, could we have a statement on this, please, particularly in terms of what the Government's plans are to reduce the high level of pollution on this section of the A470, and they continue to be too high despite the speed limits that have already been put in place?

14:50

Thank you. I am aware of the press interest to which you refer and also of the Deputy Minister for Climate Change's comments. There is a significant amount of work going on in relation to clean air zones, and, obviously, the A470 is one of those areas. There were some surveys undertaken that were completed at the end of August—so, just a couple of weeks ago—so I know that, at the time when, obviously, these have been assessed, the results will be reviewed and then shared with the Minister and Deputy Minister. At the moment, there are no intentions to implement clean air zones at either location, but there will be detailed investigations and, obviously, the Ministers will make a statement at the appropriate time.

Trefnydd, I rise to request a statement from the Minister for Climate Change with regard to the Welsh Government's roads review. Recent correspondence obtained from the Deputy Minister for Climate Change appears to suggest now that the administration is progressing the statutory process for junctions 15 and 16 on the A55 despite the possibility that the works could actually be scrapped by the roads review panel. The update also appears to contradict the Deputy Minister's statement made earlier this year that he was freezing all new road projects in Wales. 

Consecutive Welsh Governments have actually repeatedly dragged their feet on pushing forward these proposed improvement works, which has left my residents and businesses in Dwygyfylchi, Penmaenmawr and Llanfairfechan in limbo. It simply cannot be right that the Welsh Government are progressing a statutory process for these junctions, spending more taxpayers' money, only for a roads review panel to then potentially come and scrap the entire project. So, with this in mind, I'm calling now for a statement from the Minister to clarify what is a ridiculous situation. Diolch.

Llywydd, the Deputy Minister will publish a written statement tomorrow that will provide Members with further information about the roads review.

3. Statement by the Minister for Social Justice: Afghanistan

The next statement is from the Minister for Social Justice on Afghanistan—Jane Hutt.

Diolch, Llywydd. Prynhawn da. I am pleased to update the Senedd on the steps we have taken in Wales to respond to the evacuation of Afghan citizens over the past few weeks, with my thanks to Members across this Chamber for their engagement in promoting Wales as a nation of sanctuary. Wales has now welcomed more than 50 families from Afghanistan and work continues to increase this further. I am sure that Members will agree that this is an important milestone we have reached.

I have met with the UK Government and Ministers from Scotland and Northern Ireland on two occasions to support a four-nations approach to resettlement. And yesterday, the Home Secretary and communities Secretary wrote to me to set out more details of the schemes. I was encouraged that some of my requests regarding the eligibility criteria for the new Afghan citizens scheme and the level of funding being made available have been accepted. There are still many questions that need exploring.

Members have also received, I know, a great deal of generosity from their constituents in their responses. This kindness, I believe, is the embodiment of what it means to be a nation of sanctuary. And that concept doesn't belong to the Welsh Government; it belongs to all the people and institutions that make up our country and want to give what they can for a humanitarian purpose. I've been truly heartened by the responses of members of the public, charities and organisations across Wales to support those who need help. We are working hard to find an effective outlet for this support.

I am very grateful to every Welsh local authority that has come forward to pledge their support to the two new schemes—the Afghan relocation and assistance policy, or ARAP, and the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. This support should also be seen in the wider context that every Welsh local authority previously supported and continues to support the Syrian resettlement scheme, and many have continued to support the asylum system day in, day out for the last couple of decades. We will always challenge ourselves to do more, but there can be no doubt that Welsh local government is playing a full part in this endeavour. To that end, approximately 230 individuals from 50 families have so far arrived in Wales. This work has only been possible through the committed work of local authority resettlement teams, dedicated funding from the Home Office to procure the accommodation, and, in some cases, the kindness of landlords and other institutions to make their properties available.

The vast majority of the families that we have accommodated so far have existing links to Wales through their work alongside the Wales-facing armed forces who have been active in Afghanistan over 20 years. They have shown bravery and skill in supporting our armed forces, and we've worked in tandem with the Ministry of Defence to ensure that these families can be accommodated in Wales, alongside the friends whom they worked to protect in Afghanistan. And it will be my privilege to welcome some members of these families to meet Members at the Senedd in the near future.

This made-in-Wales solution has required innovative ways of working. I am particularly grateful to Urdd Gobaith Cymru for genuinely embodying their long humanitarian purpose by stepping up and offering temporary accommodation to those desperately in need. The Urdd’s deep connection to Welsh culture and work with children and young people provides significant added value, which will make their temporary stay far more supportive and helpful to integration than any other temporary arrangement that could be offered.

I want to thank local government for their consent and rapid mobilisation of support, the Home Office for ensuring that we could progress this solution, and the WLGA for their unstinting efforts to co-ordinate such an important humanitarian response. We have worked closely with refugee support organisations, faith leaders, Welsh Afghan communities already living here in Wales, and many more, to ensure that those arriving receive the best support possible.

Providing accommodation is key, but we must also ensure that those who arrive can understand Welsh life and be supported to rebuild their lives. Our collective experience in Wales from the Syrian resettlement scheme and the asylum system puts us in good stead, but we are continuing to discuss ways to ensure the most appropriate welcome that we can. Our commitment to these schemes is clear, but I want to recognise that we have a long-term commitment to supporting people seeking sanctuary in Wales. Anyone who is resettled or dispersed to Wales will be supported, as far as we are able, as a nation of sanctuary.

People living now in our communities have been forced to flee their country for fear of persecution, and this is not just in relation to Afghanistan. We have urged the UK Government to think again about the proposals put forward in the Nationality and Borders Bill, which would create an unhelpful two-tier system between asylum seekers and resettled refugees. These proposals should be scrapped, and we're happy to work with the UK Government on an asylum system that genuinely works and is humane.

Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini once said,

'Refugees are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, with the same hopes and ambitions as us—except that a twist of fate has bound their lives to a global refugee crisis on an unprecedented scale.'

I call upon everyone here to pledge to work with us on our shared nation of sanctuary vision, and I will be happy to update Members further in due course. Diolch.

14:55

We continue to maintain our long-standing commitment to Wales as a nation of sanctuary. As the Minister may recall, I sponsored and hosted the Sanctuary in the Senedd event five years ago. We must ensure that Afghans who have had to flee their homes, including those coming to the UK who worked closely with the British military and the UK Government in Afghanistan, and risked their lives in doing so, receive the vital support they will need to rebuild their lives and have a future with stability and security. Wales must play its full part in this.

However, in late August, I was asked for a press comment by Voice of Wales, after it was reported that the Pontins holiday park in Prestatyn could house refugees from Afghanistan. I was told that the decision didn't seem popular with local residents that they had spoken to. I was subsequently advised that Pontins Prestatyn was not being considered for this purpose. However, in your technical briefing last Thursday, you stated that Urdd Gobaith Cymru accommodation would be used for this purpose, as you have reconfirmed in your statement today. What sites, including this, will therefore be used across Wales? How will you ensure that they all meet the necessary quality standards for individuals and families? And importantly, how will you ensure engagement with local communities to minimise opposition and maximise understanding and support?

Press coverage on 1 September confirmed that each of Wales's 22 councils had pledged to house refugees from Afghanistan, but responses then range from Carmarthenshire saying they would take three families comprising 15 people, and both Monmouthshire and Neath Port Talbot saying they would supply initial support for three families and for two more later, to Pembrokeshire stating, 'Zero but subject to community response', and Bridgend, Caerphilly, Flintshire, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Denbighshire failing to answer the same four questions put to every council. However, Denbighshire subsequently confirmed that it will provide support for five refugee families under the UK Government's Afghan relocation assistance policy, and that the number could be increased to 10 families, dependent on a comprehensive funding settlement or commitment beyond the then one-year time frame.

What, therefore, is your understanding of the number of placements now on offer from councils across Wales? How will you endeavour to ensure that they all take a fair share? And how will you work with the UK Government to ensure that funding support from both Governments reaches the right places, now that the UK Government has announced a funding package under which councils supporting people through the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme or Afghan relocation and assistance policy scheme will receive £20,520 per person over three years for resettlement and integration costs, and local councils and health partners that resettle families will receive up to £4,500 per child for education, £850 to cover English language provision for adults requiring this support, and £2,600 to cover healthcare?

What action will you be taking to ensure wider support from the devolved services for which the Welsh Government is responsible, especially health, education, and social services? And finally, given the key role that the third sector, churches and other faith groups that you referred to will play in supporting the Afghan adults and children settled in Wales after having to flee their homes, how will you ensure that they are directly integrated into the planning, design and delivery of support services from inception?

15:00

I thank Mark Isherwood for those questions and thank him and the Welsh Conservatives for their support for the nation of sanctuary. I’m very happy to respond to the questions, particularly recognising that we are initially talking about that temporary accommodation response. I think it is very helpful for us to, at this point—. Again, I’ve made it quite clear in my statement that it is a made-in-Wales solution that we have got that Urdd Gobaith Cymru involvement, in fact, enabling us to reach to the 50-family milestone as quickly as we have, and so appropriately in terms of the temporary accommodation that is being provided, but very much in the short term. So, obviously, in order to get that commitment, in terms of being able to respond to the Urdd’s humanitarian vision and response and offer, which came very early on when we realised that we would be welcoming refugees—that was done with support from the Home Office, local government, and all those who engaged in terms of responding to them and working with them.

But, obviously, what’s important is that this is temporary accommodation in the short term as we continue to work closely with local government to ensure appropriate onward accommodation. The quality of support, as everyone would understand and recognise, being received by families is high, building on the Urdd’s extensive expertise of working with children. I think it is important to actually talk about where we go from here in terms of moving forward in terms of support, because this is about the temporary accommodation, but the ways in which local authorities are welcoming families under these schemes, I think, should be a source of great pride. As I’ve said, all Welsh local authorities are rising to this challenge. In fact, the leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, Councillor Andrew Morgan—he wrote early on in August to all authorities, and to the UK Government, saying that they were urging all authorities to engage, as they have done, in response. Half of those have already received families; others are working towards the outcome as quickly as possible.

There's an urgent need to ensure that families are accommodated now, so we have the temporary bridging accommodation. But then, of course, we have to move to onward dispersal, to more sustainable accommodation. And that's exactly what local authorities have been doing, playing their part in the asylum accommodation system for so many years. Because we don't want families to be in temporary bridging accommodation any longer than is necessary, because then that, of course, leads to the questions that you've raised, Mark, about ensuring that families then can put down roots, integrate with their communities, with the support of all those organisations who are going to engage and who are fully engaging. I met with all of the third sector organisations, faith groups, churches, as you've indicated, the voluntary sector, like Red Cross, the British legion—everyone who's got a stake in making this work.

I want to just finally comment on your point about funding. You have given the details, Mark Isherwood, about the funding—the integration package that I just received yesterday from the Home Office and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. What is important about that funding is that it does provide some clarity, although, as I said, there are further questions to be asked. But it's important as well in terms of that funding clarity that we look to our responsibilities, the shared responsibilities that we have in terms of devolved services. So, for example, just last week—I think it was only last week—when we knew about the arrival of the families, there was close working co-operation with Cardiff council, with the health board, with local police, with everybody who's got a role to play in integrating and supporting those families, very much following on what we successfully did with the Syrian vulnerable persons resettlement scheme.

15:05

I welcome the opportunity to respond to this statement on the resettlement scheme, given the heart-rending situation in Afghanistan, and to discuss how Wales can and will provide refuge and support to those who need it. And I'd like to thank the Minister for organising a brief for us as Senedd Members last week so that there is an opportunity for an update.

Plaid Cymru opposed the war in Afghanistan from the very outset, questioning the military objectives of the campaign and the tactics used, warning that failing to have specific aims and a strategy could lead to a long-term ineffective intervention. And, unfortunately, that's the situation we find ourselves in today—in the midst of a crisis that is developing and growing worse because of the failings of Labour and Conservative Governments in Westminster. But, although this wasn't a war we supported, I would like to make it clear today our full support in terms of providing asylum and refuge to those fleeing Afghanistan. As a nation of sanctuary, it's crucial that we do everything we can to welcome them and support them.

You noted in your statement that you yesterday received more details about the relocation and resettlement plans, and that some of your requests in terms of criteria had been accepted. Can you confirm or share with us which have now been accepted and which have been rejected? Also, in terms of the citizenship programme, is there any objective in terms of when this will begin, and if there are no dates, how is the Welsh Government intending to help citizens in Afghanistan who need support but can't receive it as part of the current programmes?

You also made reference in your statement, and also in response to Mark Isherwood, to the issue of funding, and that your request in that regard had been accepted. Has that been accepted in full or do you still have ongoing concerns? I would like to know clearly what the latest situation is in terms of providing adequate funding for local authorities. Have you also received confirmation that financial support will be provided from Westminster if there is no sufficient money available in the Welsh Government budget?

We have all referred to the Urdd, and I would like to echo our thanks that the Urdd has committed to providing sanctuary, and that they are also going to arrange a range of activities—sporting, cultural and educational—to support these families as they settle. We saw the value of that, in terms of how communities can resettle here in Wales, over the summer, with interviews through the medium of Welsh with refugees from Syria—something that was very emotional and made me very, very proud to be Welsh. And I very much hope that we will see similar scenes with refugees from Afghanistan in the future too. Does the Minister therefore agree, as part of providing all opportunities for refugees to make a full life here in Wales, that we should also include giving them the opportunity to learn Welsh if they choose to do so? You've also made reference to all of the third sector and voluntary organisations who are very willing to provide support; is there any financial support available from the Welsh Government in that regard?

Of course, the situation in Afghanistan is happening in the context of Westminster Government cuts to the foreign development budgets, and, unfortunately, this was announced earlier this year in the UK Government budget. Dropping this commitment will undermine the UK Government's aims of being a power for good on a global level. Minister, are you therefore concerned that these cuts will mean less support in future for those in need in Afghanistan, and has the Welsh Government carried out any assessment of how this cut will impact the Welsh Government's ability to support people and nations in need across the globe, including Afghanistan, in the future? 

Finally, we can only imagine what these individuals and families have been through, and continue to go through, and it's important today that we as a Senedd send a clear message that there is a warm Welsh welcome for everyone who comes here to Wales. Unfortunately, as became clear in the recent report from Hope Not Hate, although we are a nation of sanctuary, racism continues to be a problem here in Wales, and we all have a responsibility to send a clear message that this is not acceptable. Wales is their home now, and we have a responsibility to ensure that they get the welcome and support that will make them feel safe here.

15:10

Diolch yn fawr, Heledd Fychan. I thank you so much for your strong statements this afternoon in support of our, as we've said, made-in-Wales humanitarian response to the situation with the Afghan citizens who we're now welcoming to Wales, and particular recognition of our ambition and our aspiration to be a nation of sanctuary. We have a lot to do to achieve that, clearly. I think, again, your support and recognition of the role of Urdd Gobaith Cymru—we must express it many times this afternoon, I'm sure. But I think it is very important that you can help me, as your Minister, in this respect, to actually engage fully in what the challenges are. And these are challenges for our local authorities; they're challenges for the third sector organisations who are engaged; they're challenges that they're rising too. So, clarity about the funding was vitally important. And if I could just respond particularly on that, because it relates to your questions about what next, integration and funding levels.

We are pleased that there'll be parity between funding arrangements for the two schemes, the ARAP scheme and the ACRS scheme, and we did want this so that there'll be no perverse outcomes in terms of the support that local authorities could provide to those families arriving. Perhaps I could just say also at this point that I'm very pleased that the UK Government has accepted that anyone arriving under the ARAP or ACRS will receive indefinite leave to remain. I've said I've attended two four-nations meetings. These are issues that we've raised at these meetings. It's an important step to ensure families can then access the services that they need. And also, we are continuing to urge the UK Government to ensure that those with any fear of persecution, which would normally entitle them to refugee status, aren't disadvantaged in terms of access to services—these are our public services—if their status under either of these schemes isn't technically considered to be refugee status. These should not be technical issues; these are key humanitarian issues that we closely watch.

But I also wanted to just say that we've also pressed hard to ensure that, under the citizens' resettlement scheme, special consideration should be made of vulnerable people, including women and girls at risk, members of minority communities at risk, including LGBTQ+, ethnic and religious minorities. That point has been made, and the UK Government has confirmed a recognition of that consideration. But also, having met with Afghan families in Wales who've been living here for many years, many of them are concerned about their relatives, because there may be links, obviously, concerns of risk among our Wales-based Afghan communities with any links that they might have with families in Afghanistan. So, those are the kinds of issues that we are addressing.

But I think what's important in terms of the questions that I asked and that have been answered is that the tariff of the schemes is going to be provided over three years instead of five. Now, obviously, we need to see what happens as we move forward, because that was different from the Syrian scheme, the five-year scheme. But also, the UK Government has agreed that this level of funding is necessary, but we will also have to explore what this means in terms of an integration package.

We still don't have clarity yet about how the funding will be awarded, whether it's going to be directly awarded to Welsh local authorities and Welsh local health boards. So, we're seeking clarity on this. We don't want to have any gaps in support, and we can build on our experience of the Syrian system and resettlement scheme. We are pleased that UK Government has stated a further £20 million fund of flexible funding in the current financial year to support local authorities with higher cost bases with any additional costs in the provision of services. We don't know what this means in practice, but this is something where we'll be working with our colleagues in local government to take this forward.

I think, as we know, there are many refugees in Wales who have wanted and been willing and have learnt Welsh. We must now look at our schemes, our existing schemes, and how we can assure they're good, but I also think children are already, in terms of our education system and their experience with the Urdd already for those who have been temporarily accommodated, who have arrived. They are going to very quickly see they're in Wales and what that means as a bilingual nation. So, we need to address all these issues, and I would want you to help me in terms of scrutiny and questioning as we move forward in our welcome to ensure that we can be a nation of sanctuary, as you support, for these citizens from Afghanistan. 

15:15

Thank you, Minister, for bringing today's statement. I think many of the points I was probably going to raise with you, you've already covered off this afternoon, but I'd like to recognise the exceptional work that's been carried out by our servicemen and women in supporting those fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, alongside Government agencies and those in Afghanistan to ensure those people who need it most were able to escape the Taliban. I also very much welcome the four-nation approach that you highlighted in your statement. It was really quite reassuring to see nations working together in the best interests of those who need it. And also, I was very pleased to see, as you mentioned, all local authorities in Wales taking part in the relocation and assistance policy, and they, as you mentioned, will be supporting and assisting Afghan citizens who've been resettled, I think, here. And I think a huge amount of credit is due to local authorities for the urgency and the speed with which they've reacted to this situation, whilst also managing pressures on the ground in other areas.

My concern, perhaps like yours, Minister, has been to ensure, actually, that there's a long-term plan and integration and opportunity for refugees coming into Wales, and I thank you for recognising the significant difference that the additional money from UK Government will make to ensure this integration and opportunity are available for those refugees. You did mention some lack of clarity around how that funding will arrive at councils and health boards. I was wondering whether today you could commit, if that money is going via Welsh Government, that actually all the money does end up at those councils that need it, rather than some being siphoned off to work in the Welsh Government. And also would you commit to listening to councils and continuing that engagement with councils, not just in these reactive stages now but also over the coming months and perhaps even years to make sure that we do get this real integration of these refugees into our communities and it's not a flash-in-the-pan programme right now? Thanks, Minister.

15:20

Thank you very much, Sam Rowlands, and thank you for acknowledging the way in which we have worked together across the four nations and, indeed, with all our partners in Wales, and also, as much as we can, on a cross-party basis in terms of this humanitarian response—an all-Wales and a made-in-Wales response. I think it's very important that at the meetings that we've had we've included, for example, Sion Walker from the 160th (Welsh) Brigade, Colonel Walker. In his statement, alongside a statement from the Urdd and Cardiff Council leaderships, Sion Walker made the point of the direct historical links with Wales-based, and Wales-facing, units. And many of the families coming to Wales have worked alongside each other during very difficult times in Afghanistan. There's a recognition of the comradeship that has developed during these times and pride in the part that they're playing.

So, I think it has been an extraordinary response that has come forward, with everybody working together, but it is crucially important that we recognise what does this actually mean, particularly at the sharp end for local authorities, because many arriving will have experienced so much trauma as a result of the evacuation. So, we're working with Traumatic Stress Wales and local health boards to ensure mental health support is considered. We've got the local authorities assessing what's needed in terms of school places, what's available, and also language tuition—we've mentioned this—which, for new migrant arrivals, is a crucial component of effective integration. We're assessing, again, what it actually means in terms of the funding support for us in terms of those particular needs. 

I think also that we've got to recognise there are other needs, like COVID-19, and effective support for new arrivals so that they can have access to our effective—highly effective—vaccine roll-out programme, and also that health screening for general health needs is being considered. Every cultural consideration as well, from food to worship needs, are being considered. And also, local authorities are ensuring that citizens are able to register for bank accounts, national insurance numbers, GP and dentists' surgeries, and are able to submit for social security benefits. So, we've got this commitment because of experience, because of long-term experience, here in Wales but I also just want to thank very much, finally, the Wales Strategic Migration Partnership, which is already effectively working in Wales. They're a key conduit between ourselves, local government and the Home Office. So, we're meeting with them. They're engaged with authorities particularly in relation to the move on from temporary to settlement, with more sustainable accommodation. So, it's a close, team Wales approach that we're following through. Diolch. 

The Chair of the Culture, Communications, Welsh Language, Sport, and International Relations Committee, Delyth Jewell.

Diolch, Llywydd. Thank you, Minister, for the statement. In the recent response you sent to a joint letter that was sent from me and the Chair of the Equality and Social Justice Committee, you set out a number of details. Could you tell us more about the discussions you've had with the UK Government about progressing the timeline for the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, building on what Heledd Fychan asked you earlier? I'm particularly concerned about the plight of women and girls who are at risk of dehumanising treatment and human rights abuses by the Taliban. And finally, Minister, in your letter to our committees, you set out that the UK Government, you were hoping, would engage with the Welsh Government and the UN Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, about eligibility for that scheme. Have you had any engagement as yet with the UNHCR itself about this matter from an international relations perspective, please?

15:25

Diolch yn fawr, Delyth Jewell. I was very pleased to have an early letter from both Delyth Jewell and Jenny Rathbone as Chair of the committee for equality and social justice as well as yourself as Chair of your committee, and because it also set out questions that we were ready to be answered as soon as we had the responses from the UK Government and the engagement that we needed, but it also helps prepare, I'm sure, for committee attendance as well with following up these questions.

I think we've got some more clarity now in terms of the Afghan citizens' resettlement scheme. It is going to welcome up to 5,000 people in the first year, up to a total of 20,000 over the coming years. And as I said, there is a recognition that vulnerable refugees from Afghanistan and those that are particularly put at risk by recent events need this route to safety, and I'm pleased also in the letter that I have had from the UK Government that this includes, as they've said, people who've stood up for values such as democracy, women's rights, and freedom of speech: journalists, women's rights activists are vulnerable people; I've mentioned this already, women and girls at risk. I've had representations and concerns raised with me about women in sport and you will have seen some of the concerns and outcomes people have that there is a real issue about who's been left behind and what the circumstances are for them, in terms of their situations.

So, I hope that gives you a starting point in terms of a response, and I've been able to respond to you, Jenny Rathbone, initially, but there's a lot more to respond to, I understand.

Thank you very much, Presiding Officer, and thank you very much, Minister, for a great job. I'm sure that the Minister will join me in recognising the enormous contribution of our armed forces in airlifting 15,000 people from Afghanistan to the United Kingdom. I know that the US and UK handling of the withdrawal is subject to much debate, but for me, as someone who has made his home in this country, our key focus now needs to be on what we are doing to help to ensure we discharge our humanitarian duties to those who have fled the fear, the discrimination and the pain of an Afghanistan that is sadly no longer theirs. I hope the Minister agrees with me that in welcoming people to Wales, we need to do more than merely offer people a building in which to rest, but a home where connections to the local community are forged to help people to readjust to their new lives and where our land of opportunity can reach out to them in offering the chance to study and to work.

Before I ask a couple of questions, I do want to raise one concern, and that is the work that is needed to mitigate the risk of radicalisation. Islam teaches universal brotherhood, freedom from fear, racial equality, fight against despair, and fearlessness. There is urgency for communities to come together and accommodate each other in the greater interest of this country.

Now, going to the questions, Minister: does the Minister have a steer at this point as to how many of those 15,000 we're able to house and support in Wales? Can the Minister detail the level of accommodation she believes is now available to support those who can settle in Wales?

The Prime Minister announced financial support for the NHS and to charities to provide mental health support for our military personnel; can the Minister outline what plans are now in place to ensure support for those who are travelling home?

The Prime Minister also announced free English courses and university scholarships; what discussions has she had with partners in the education and higher education sectors about the scope and resources needed to provide similar support to those settling in Wales?

Last: what contact has she had with colleagues in the United Kingdom Government about the funding requirements for school places, and what assessment has been conducted across Wales to identify capacity? Thank you, Minister. 

15:30

Thank you, Altaf Hussain, and thank you for attending the technical briefing last week with the very relevant questions, as all Members raised with me last week, which has helped us with our planning. The majority of families who've arrived in Wales so far, as I've said, have direct links to those Wales-based and Wales-facing armed forces units. There's actually been, I understand, over the past weekend, some emotional reunions that perhaps I could just comment on between Afghan arrivals and armed forces personnel here in south Wales. And I've mentioned the fact that the Ministry of Defence have been supporting us with planners, and very much reflecting what they helped us with through the COVID-19 pandemic in our vaccination centres, as you will all recall.

We've had a great many offers of support from communities across Wales—obviously, local authorities are at the forefront, but the third sector as well, and I think very much people are motivated by the situation in Afghanistan, but we need to harness that support, and I know many Members are asking me how can they harness the support. In terms of offers of accommodation, that must go to the local authority. I have commented on the fact that local authorities are assessing their needs in terms of school places. You've mentioned higher education as well. That will all be part of the work that they're undertaking at the moment, but I then will be able to, as we assess the needs, make representations as necessary to the UK Government and account for the impact—you know, assess the impact that it's having on local authorities and our public services, and the good response that has already come forward. 

So, again, I think there's much more that will come out over the next few weeks, and, hopefully, I can come back and report to the Senedd here and to the committees as well. 

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I think it's absolutely essential that we support those who've supported us, albeit that they've supported us in another country. We know that we support our own armed forces, and that is absolutely right, yet the work that they do, predominantly, is elsewhere. So, I'm really proud that we here in Wales are a nation of sanctuary. Of course, many of the questions I was going to ask you have already been asked, so I won't restate those. But there are a few obvious questions I think that we need looking at. 

In terms of the settled status, once individuals have achieved that, of course, if they are in a position to do so, they can then share their expertise with the communities they find themselves settled into by working. And that is an advantage, of course, to everybody. And the ongoing support, of course, that has been mentioned several times, is essential. But I'm concerned, and it's been raised elsewhere, about the impact within families, particularly on girls and women, and making sure that they're not cut off from the wider support that's afforded to everybody. I think it's essential that women's voices are heard, and that when we're speaking to leaders in those communities we make absolutely every effort, and that we do speak to the women and to the girls to make sure that they are safe in the homes that they now find themselves in. Thank you. 

Thank you very much, Joyce Watson, and, as I said, thank you for your support for the nation of sanctuary and everything that we are striving to achieve here in Wales in this response. I think it's very important that we recognise that they will have indefinite leave to remain as a result of arriving under either of these two schemes. And that's so crucial in terms of access to services and access to people and access to democratic arrangements that we have here in Wales.

So, I've said that it would be very good if we can meet together; I would hope that, particularly with your experience, we could reach out to the women who are arriving as mothers, workers, as well as partners in families, and the girls and young women as well. There will be lots of outreach, and it's already starting, in terms of the temporary outreach from the Urdd. But I think the point of their concerns as well about what they've left behind, and the concerns that they have that they will be here. But they have skills that we will also—and a voice that we want to hear and learn from.

We do want to support them to re-enter the labour market as soon as possible, and also we've got—. So, as part of that, the Department for Work and Pensions are actually involved with this. There are already businesses and companies who are interested in seeing what employment opportunities there will be. And of course that's why some of that work in terms of getting your national insurance number, et cetera, bank account, is crucially important.

But I think there's—. Many of us have the experience of supporting and working with Syrian refugees in Wales, and the amazing role the women are playing and the ways in which the children and everyone are such an important, vital part—citizens in our communities. And that's what we would want to see progress.

15:35

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

Plenary was suspended at 15:36.

15:45

The Senedd reconvened at 15:48, with the Deputy Presiding Officer (David Rees) in the Chair.

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

Welcome back. The next item is a statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services, an update on COVID-19. I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services, Eluned Morgan.

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. I would like to thank you for this opportunity to update Members about what continues to be a fast-moving and evolving public health situation.

Now, much has changed since the last Senedd, since we last met to discuss coronavirus in Wales before the summer recess. Wales has been at alert level 0 for seven weeks now and, as Members will know, this means that all businesses are able to open and that we have fewer legal restrictions in place than at any time since the pandemic started 18 months ago. But there are still some important protections in place to help keep us all safe, including the requirement for all businesses and employers to carry out a risk assessment.

Most of us have enjoyed this summer, meeting friends and family and holidaying in this beautiful country of ours. Coronavirus is, of course, a virus that thrives on human contact. And as we have gathered in greater numbers over the summer, cases of the virus have predictably increased. Further increases may be seen as the new term begins for schools, colleges and universities.

Wales is at alert level 0, but the pandemic is clearly not yet over. Our modelling would suggest that we are approaching the peak of the third wave of the pandemic, driven by the delta variant. We now have very high rates of coronavirus in all our communities. Our modelling scenarios, which have been carefully calculated by experts at Swansea University, predict that these are likely to get worse over the next few weeks as the wave begins to peak. If the virus continues to spread at its current rate, we can expect to see around 3,200 cases confirmed every day towards the end of the month.

Until now, this rise has been manageable because of our incredible vaccination programme, which has helped to weaken the link between infection and serious illness. But with the rapid spread of coronavirus in our communities, pandemic pressure on the NHS is increasing once again, and there are increasing reports that even people who've been double vaccinated are being admitted to hospital with COVID-19.

At the moment, there are around 40 COVID-19 hospital admissions a day. There are just over 480 confirmed cases in hospitals across Wales—the highest number since March. Now, our modelling suggests there could be 100 new COVID-19 hospital admissions every day as the delta wave peaks. The NHS is already under intense pressure as it responds to emergency healthcare demands, and provides more planned operations and treatment. And our health and care services are already experiencing staffing pressures through a combination of annual leave, staff working in other areas, sickness and isolation. Our health and care staff are exhausted after working so hard and so intensely over the last 18 months.

Now, this week there are two significant developments in relation to vaccination. Today, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has published its final advice for the autumn booster programme, and we will accept that advice that they have given. This is important in light of concerning emerging evidence about the waning effectiveness of vaccines. We will start sending out invitations from 20 September, and our NHS has worked hard to make sure it is ready to start the programme and invite those who had their vaccinations at the earliest point.

At the same time, the four UK chief medical officers have been discussing and taking expert evidence about whether the vaccine should be available to 12 to 15-year-olds. They have now recommended that, due to the likely benefits of reducing educational disruption and the impact this has on children and young people's welfare and mental health, Ministers extend the offer of universal vaccination to these children. This will mean a first dose offer of Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to all children and young people aged to 12 to 15 not already covered by existing JCVI advice.

Now, in considering all the advice, I agree with the CMOs that there is a benefit in offering the vaccine to 12 to 15-year-olds, and we will begin to offer vaccination appointments from next week with the aim of vaccinating all those who wish to come forward by October half term.

Llywydd, if our modelling is correct—and it has been so far—we will be facing a peak in COVID-19 hospital admissions and cases just as the NHS winter period starts. This will put further pressure on our health and care system, a system that, as you know, is already stretched. In some parts of the UK, elective surgery has already been postponed to enable the NHS trusts to cope with pandemic pressures and with the other emergency pressures that we face.

High levels of COVID infection potentially increase the number of people who will suffer from long COVID. We don't know exactly how many people have long COVID and the evidence base is still emerging. High levels of infection also increase the risk of new variants emerging. We all remember the pain and suffering caused by the alpha, or Kent, variant during the winter, and we're now dealing with the delta variant.

As we look further ahead to the winter, there are also threats from other respiratory infections, such as RSV and seasonal flu. If we are to be successful in controlling both coronavirus and other respiratory infections this autumn and winter, we must continue to focus on improving the take-up of COVID vaccination, especially amongst those groups and communities where take-up of the vaccine is relatively low.

Currently, there are around 373,000 unvaccinated people in Wales who could have had the vaccine, and the majority of those are under 50 years of age. We're particularly worried about the low take-up of the vaccine amongst pregnant women. Unfortunately, over the past three weeks, there's been an increase in COVID-related hospital admissions amongst unvaccinated pregnant women. Just as important, we will be making sure everyone who is eligible receives the booster jab. We'll also be working hard to encourage people to receive the flu jab, to build on last year's take-up numbers—the record numbers last year.

Finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, I want to end this statement by reminding everyone about the things that we can all do to protect ourselves and our loved ones. If you're feeling unwell and you have symptoms of COVID, you must stay at home and have a PCR test. If the test is positive, you must self-isolate. This will help to prevent the spread of this awful virus. Please think about who you meet and when. If we can all cut down on the number of people we meet face to face and the time we spend with them, this will help to keep us all safe. Wherever possible, you should meet people outdoors, but if you are indoors, do open the doors and the windows. Wear a face covering in crowded and indoor public spaces, and wash your hands regularly. And, please, continue to work from home when you can. We have all worked together before, and we have changed the course of this pandemic. We can do so again now, and together we will keep Wales safe. Thank you.

15:55

Diolch, Deputy Llywydd. Minister, can I thank you for your statement this afternoon and also for your raft of statements earlier today as well? I very much appreciated that those statements and that information came to us as Members and Members of this Senedd first, before any media outlets. That's very much appreciated.

Can I say, first of all, with regard to the JCVI vaccination advice—? Today I accept that you've made the right decision there. I believe that that's the correct approach that you've taken in following their advice in regard to the booster advice this autumn. Also, I'm very pleased that the chief medical officers of the four UK nations gave united advice together, and that's very much welcome as well. I think you've taken the right approach in that regard and the right decision in that regard of following the CMOs' advice as well.

What I am concerned about, and I'm asking for your feedback on this, is that this group of people, the 12 to 15-year-olds, and the vaccination booster programme will be running roughly round about the same time, I think I'm right to say. So, I'm concerned about the impact that that will have on running those two programmes at the same time, together, of course, with the fact that you've said yourself that the Welsh NHS is under extreme pressure at the moment. So, those three combinations together, I'd appreciate your assessment on that and how you are helping the Welsh NHS and the health boards to cope with delivering those vaccination boosters and the first dose to 12 to 15-year-olds at the same time.

Also, any useful information, as well, would be appreciated with regard to how that's going to be rolled out for 12 to 15-year-olds. Will this take place in mass vaccination centres or within schools? There are various challenges around all of those issues, but I think people will want to know how that is going to work. It certainly is a challenge to get that programme completed by October half term for all those children and parents who want to take that first dose. So, I'd appreciate any information in that regard.

You've said in your statement that, in some parts of the UK, elective surgery has already been postponed. That's happening in Wales, as I understand it, but perhaps I can ask for some confirmation on that. As I understand it, Hywel Dda health board has been postponing elective operations at the Prince Philip and Withybush hospitals to cope with a number of multiple challenges—high demand, COVID-19, staff shortages. Is that correct? Perhaps you could confirm that. Are you aware of any other health boards that are in that same position as well? Any further information on that would be appreciated.

We are seeing ambulances in long queues outside A&E units, and at the Grange, the Government's flagship hospital, at least 15 ambulances were waiting and A&E waiting times there were reportedly up to 18 hours. The Minister probably heard the comments today and questions and examples during the business statement. We're very concerned about this. In July, as I understand it, 400 patients in Wales were waiting more than 12 hours for an ambulance—that is pretty staggering; that is hugely concerning, and I think saying that is an understatement. I would go as far as to say that the ambulance service is in crisis. Does the Minister agree with that assessment? I should put on record that I pay huge tribute to the ambulance staff who are working under great, great pressure, as well.

I've raised with you on a number of occasions that we need COVID-lite surgical hubs to reduce the backlog in the Welsh NHS. We know that one in four patient pathways are now waiting over a year for treatment. The Department for Health and Social Care announced just last week that they were investing in surgical hubs to treat around 30 per cent more elective patients by 2024 and accelerate England's backlog reduction. Given the extra funding that the UK Government is providing to Wales, are you now able to confirm that you are ensuring that initiatives such as this are urgently being brought forward to help the NHS recover?

And lastly, with regard to vaccination passports, Edinburgh has a position, London has a position, Cardiff doesn't. I've heard the First Minister's response to the leader of the opposition today, and I know that you are discussing this in Cabinet this week—that was confirmed by the First Minister this morning. Can I just ask what plans you are making for vaccination passports? I'm somebody who, as a Welsh Conservative, does not agree that vaccination passports are the correct approach for ethical, legal and operational issues—I should put that firmly on the record. But if this is something that the Welsh Government are exploring and investigating, can you confirm what plans and contingencies the Welsh Government have been discussing, if any, with regard to vaccination passports? Finally, will you be bringing this to a vote to the Senedd, Minister, with regard to this important issue of vaccination passports? Diolch, Llywydd.

16:00

I'm very pleased that you agree with our position in relation to the booster vaccination. The fact is that we've been ready to roll out the booster vaccination for a long time in Wales. We've been waiting for that JCVI advice for a very long time, which is why we are able, now, to press the button. Those invitations will be going out at the beginning of next week, and hopefully, the first people will be coming through in the following week. So, we're all ready to run. You're quite right; it's going to be a real challenge to get that done at the same time as the vaccination for the 12 to 15-year-olds. But we have been planning for this; we've got all of the plans in place. We've been working with health boards for a very long time and they're all ready to roll. So, I'm very confident that that is not going to be a problem to run both of those in parallel.

In terms of the practicalities of how that's going to happen, most of it in relation to 12 to 15-year-olds will probably take place via mass vaccination centres, but there will be some examples where this is done, in particular, in some of the larger schools. So, that will be available to them. There will be an opportunity, therefore, in the mass vaccination centres for the children to be accompanied by their parents. Obviously, they will then have the opportunity to hear the pros and cons of this situation. Of course, it is a voluntary situation that we are talking about. We are not talking about compulsory vaccinations.

In relation to elective surgery, you are quite right to point out that, already, some elective surgery has been postponed in Hywel Dda. That is also true in Betsi Cadwaladr. I was speaking to some of the health workers in Glan Clwyd and Ysbyty Gwynedd last week. They are under incredible pressure. As you know, they have now stopped visiting into those hospitals and others around Wales because of the community spread of COVID.

You are quite right; waiting times are extremely difficult at the moment. Actually, a lot of the pressure on the NHS at the moment is because we are unable to get patients from hospital who are ready to be discharged. There are over 1,000 patients in hospital at the moment who could be discharged, but because of the brittle state of the care sector, they are unable to be discharged. So, we are spending a lot of time at the moment really focused on this, having weekly meetings with representatives of the Welsh Local Government Association and with health boards, to make sure that we can address what is actually a short-term issue before we address the longer term plan, now that we have got a better sense of what the future looks like, certainly in terms of financing from the UK Government. 

The same is true for accident and emergency. There is a very active team within the Welsh Government just keeping the pressure on. There is a plan in place to address these issues, so that is being acted upon. But, it is very difficult if there are no beds. That's the bottom line. You can't offload people if there are no beds, so that's something that we are trying to address urgently.

In relation to surgical hubs, you will have heard over the summer that we have announced an extra £140 million to address the situation in relation to the backlog, on top of the £100 million that's already been announced. I was fortunate enough to have a conversation yesterday with representatives from the Royal College of Surgeons, who were giving me their ideas in terms of how we should be addressing this issue. Regional centres are certainly something that we are considering, and we are just working through the proposals that have come from health boards at the moment.

In relation to vaccine passports, we have already been deliberating on this issue. There are, as you say, a lot of practical and ethical issues for us to consider, which is why we haven't come to a conclusion on this yet. What I can tell you is that, if we were to go down this route, it is not something that you can just switch on—make a decision one day, and see it enacted the next. So, that's why you will need to think about putting, possibly, some legislation in place. So, there are lots of things to consider in this space. That is something that is still under consideration. So, I can't give you a final answer on that, but hopefully, by the end of this week, the First Minister will be able to make an announcement on that.    

16:05

Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. Yes, there are things that haven't been decided yet. Vaccine passports are one of those things. I think that the Welsh Government is correct to keep the option open. I note that Sajid Javid in Westminster today has confirmed that the Conservative UK Government will keep this as an option for plan B for the winter. So, a difference of opinion between the Welsh Conservatives and the Conservatives in the UK Government in that regard.

But, if I can turn to the things that have been announced today and over the past few days, I welcome the announcement with regard to the boosters. I welcome the decision too in terms of vaccination, and offering the vaccine to children between 12 and 15 years of age. I note, in particular, the warm welcome of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health for this as a step to safeguard the wellbeing of children and young people. May I ask this question on that: what resources and support will be given to parents and families and children to enable them to make a decision regarding vaccination?

This will take time now, of course. I look forward to seeing more detail on the vaccination process for this cohort. But, we know in the meantime, of course, that the number of cases is still increasing. There are two counties today that have placed schools in the highest risk category—Neath Port Talbot and Swansea—with a number of restrictions expected to be introduced in schools in those counties. Do you expect this to become a common step to be taken in all parts of Wales?

And also, as we are still seeking the emergency protections for schools, I am pleased that the Government has made a u-turn on the announcement on ozone machines. I raised concerns, as did many other people, regarding this strange choice of that technology. I ask you, as Minister, to look at the other technologies that we have more experience of using. I’ve talked to the Minister before about UV light; I’ve been reading and taking an interest in air filtration machines, which are used very widely now, including in New York, where they’re used very widely. Is the Minister willing to look at that and willing to listen to and read information that I could provide to the Minister, in terms of potential providers of those kinds of machines?

A few other issues. I welcome the reference to long COVID and I still press the Government to ensure that Wales is in the vanguard in trying to understand more about this condition and the steps that need to be taken to safeguard people who have suffered for a very long time, some of them, and very intensely, some of them, as a result of contracting this virus.

But I want to conclude by looking at the wider pressure on the NHS. My thanks to everyone are so great, to everyone within the health services and care. We heard earlier reference to the ambulance service, which is under huge pressure at the moment, but across all of the health services and care services, our thanks are great, and there are questions about the steps that need to be taken as a matter of urgency to protect our health services.

One thing that I would like to hear more about is a commitment to provide much better data to understand what is happening in hospitals, particularly the relationship between the number of people in hospitals, in intensive care units, who lose their lives even, who’ve received the vaccine and those who haven’t. I think that would be useful for us to get a better picture and a more informed picture in terms of what’s happening with regard to the virus at the moment.

In terms of the pressure on our hospitals, I understand that Abergele Hospital has decided to close because of pressure in general hospitals. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that, along with the fact that elective orthopaedic surgeries there have again been postponed. We can’t afford to lose more time in treating non-COVID cases because we already have a crisis in that regard. I appeal here for a plan that safeguards that element of our health provision, because as we face the winter, where we always have a problem, there is a danger now that the problems will become even more intensive, and that’s why it’s high time to ensure that non-COVID activity can continue without more barriers than are needed.

16:10

Thank you very much. I can confirm that, whatever the decision taken this week in Cabinet, I’m sure vaccine passports will remain on the table. If we don’t progress with them, they will remain an option for the future. We’ve yet to come to a decision. It is a difficult decision.

I’m pleased that you agree with us in terms of the decision on boosters and vaccinations for 12 to 15-year-olds. The CMOs have made it clear that they want to see information made available to parents, provided by experts, so that we get the right information out there, so that people can weigh up what needs to be considered before their child is vaccinated. I have also spoken to the children’s commissioner, who’s very eager to ensure that the way in which this is presented to children can be understood by them. That is certainly something we will be doing.

In terms of schools, of course, there is a framework in place, because we had anticipated that a situation similar to the one in Swansea and Neath Port Talbot would arise. So, I’m pleased that that has started even before the timetable that we had anticipated. I know that the Member has been eager to ensure that we do take steps to improve air quality in our schools. So, I'm pleased that you've seen that we made an announcement on how we're going to do that. I am willing to look at issues around air filtration, so if you do have any information, I'd be pleased if you'd send that to me.

In terms of long COVID, I am highly aware that there is a problem here. We don't quite know the extent of the problem, and one of the reasons that I was willing to accept guidance from the CMOs was because I had read that one in seven children could suffer long COVID. So, that was a factor in my decision making.

In terms of data, I'm sure we could provide more data in terms of how many of the people in our hospitals have been vaccinated and have not, and how many in our ITUs. From what I've seen, there's a great deal of comorbidity too. So, people who have been vaccinated, they also have other problems, and they seem to be the ones suffering from COVID and are entering our hospitals; they are suffering the most, perhaps. But I'll be happy to look at whether we could break that down. Because, of course, every health board works slightly differently in that regard.

It's true to say that hospitals across north Wales have started to postpone elective surgery now. This was a clear message that I received from the Royal College of Surgeons yesterday as to whether this would be something we would be willing to see, where we just ensure that there are beds retained so that we can continue with elective surgeries. So, certainly, after yesterday evening's discussion, it's something I'd be ready to discuss further with my officials.

16:15

Thank you for the statement, Minister. I'd firstly like to commend those who have been at the fore of rolling out the vaccine across Wales, and those staff working to keep us safe, as well, with the number, as you say, of COVID cases and hospitalisations continuing to rise.

I note that health boards in our region have spoken over the weekend about a perfect storm of COVID hospitalisations, sickness absence and staff vacancies. It is, as I'm sure you would agree, absolutely essential that staff and patients are clear on what the recovery plan looks like, not least for those 600,000 people who are still waiting for treatments. People in Wales have stuck to the rules to help to keep them, their families and their communities safe, but despite that, COVID cases and hospitalisations have continued to rise.

Minister, I just have this question: could you please comment on the working relationship with the UK Government with regard to public messaging around the prevalence of COVID in our communities? Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Diolch yn fawr. Thank you, Jane, and lovely to see you back, as it is to see so many people back, and it's great to see a few more people in the Chamber.

I would like to extend my thanks, as you've extended yours, to the incredible vaccination teams we have, up and down the country, who have done a truly magnificent job, and I hope they're all ready to go at it again with the enthusiasm that they have in the past. It's been slightly frustrating, if I'm honest, to have been at the front of the pack, although we know it wasn't a race, but we were at the front of the pack and then having to wait for this decision from the JCVI. But we will get up and running as soon as we can.

I did note the comments of the chair of the Hywel Dda health board also, talking about the perfect storm, and I think she's correct to describe this storm that is hitting our NHS at the moment as the perfect storm, noting of course, some of the points that you've made, that there are real recruitment issues; that there are real staffing issues; that there are issues in terms of people who've been waiting a long time for surgery; people who have acute illnesses. So, there are all kinds of issues that are hitting our health boards currently, and, of course, we need to stand by them. And the best way we can stand by them is by making sure that the constituents that we represent actually do their very best to try and avoid going to A&E or to GP surgeries unless they have to, because the pressure is genuinely intense at the moment. Of course, those services do remain open always for emergencies, and I'd just like to underline that as well.

In terms of recovery plans, of course we do have a broad recovery plan that we had set out before the election. It's very difficult to get going with that recovery plan if you keep on getting battered by another wave, but, of course, we will keep an eye on those and we'll update those where necessary.

In terms of the working relationship with the UK Government, let's just say it ebbs and flows. So, I do have fairly regular meetings with the Minister of the four nations of the UK, in particular in relation to health. I think the messages, if I were honest, I think ours are slightly stricter, I hope, to the Welsh public, just to make sure that they do understand the very real dangers of the spread of COVID at the moment within our communities. But, ultimately, we've got to understand that we are very interconnected as a nation, and what happens in England is likely to have an impact on us here in Wales. So, we do need those rates in England to come down, as we do need them to come down in Wales.

16:20

Minister, I hear your comments around elective surgery and getting people out of hospital to free up beds, but my colleague Russell George asked you a question—do you agree that the Welsh ambulance service is in crisis—and I'd be really grateful if you could answer that comment.

But, Minister, even before the pandemic, we were seeing waiting list times increasing, with people right across Wales living with life-changing pain. Over the pandemic, people understood that there would be delays, but it comes to a point where we do need to start to treat people. I know first hand what this is like. Someone very close to me was a fit and health person no more than two years ago. They've been waiting for a hip operation, and now, they're on the strongest type of painkillers that doctors can prescribe, and they cannot even get out of bed in the morning without assistance from friends and family. I hear cases like this on a daily basis from my constituents, who are taking out loans and remortgaging their homes so they can access private treatment, so that they can live a pain-free life. After years of paying into the system, this simply cannot continue to happen. You told me months ago that people would need to be understanding, you've put extra money into the system and that we would need to manage expectations. But I think the time has now come to take urgent action, and I ask you: what steps can you take to address this issue before some people will be confined to a life of agony and suffering? Diolch, Deputy Llywydd.

Thanks very much, James. And I acknowledge that there is real pressure on the ambulance service at the moment, but, no, I wouldn't describe it as a crisis at the moment. I think it's really important for us to understand that the pressures are very much intense. The issue, of course—. I'm very understanding of the fact that there are 620,000 operations that need to be carried out in Wales. I'm acutely aware of that, let me tell you, as the health Minister. I know that every one of those people is an individual who, like your friend, is suffering in pain, and it's my responsibility to relieve them of that pain, and I don't want to be in a situation where you can only be relieved of that pain if you can access the private sector. That is not the place we want to be as a Government, and certainly we are determined to address this issue.

You will have heard that we have announced £240 million over this summer to address these issues, but, frankly, the biggest problem that we're confronting at the moment is the fact that there are no beds in the hospitals because we can't get them out of hospital because there is an issue within the care service. Although I wouldn't describe it as a crisis at the moment—the care service—it's coming pretty close, and therefore my attention at the moment, along with my colleague Julie Morgan, is absolutely to try and do what we can to get through this winter in relation to care. We've had a massive recruitment campaign over the past three weeks, trying to attract people to what is an incredibly rewarding job, trying to get more people into that sector, so that we can release the over 1,000 people who are in our hospitals at the moment who are ready to go home. So, we need to provide that support, and that's what we're focusing our attention on at the moment. We are having weekly meetings, as I say, with representatives of the Welsh Local Government Association and health boards to make sure that everybody understands where the responsibility lies, and the fact that this needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

16:25

You will be aware that a number of health boards, including Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board, have put measures in place once again to restrict visitors to their sites, which, of course, is understandable. But, once again, we've seen restrictions in terms of when a partner or another individual can be with a woman giving birth, and it's only during birth and immediately afterwards that can happen—during active labour, as it's described. There are no visitors to prenatal or postnatal wards either, and there's only one person in terms of paediatric and neonatal appointments. With over 20,000 people in the stadium last week watching Wales, and I was one of them, I have received phone calls and e-mails that are very emotional from mothers talking about the impact of this on their own mental health, fathers saying that this impacts that important bond between themselves and their children, and in terms of paediatrics, children wanting both parents there, and children in tears because that can't happen. Is there anything that we can do to provide those assurances and to ensure that people get the support when they are most vulnerable and in most need of that company and to have that bond with their children so that this doesn't become a responsibility for mothers alone?

Well, thank you very much. I'm aware that a number of the health boards have now restricted visitors. I'm very pleased to see that there are exceptions, and that people do have a right to attend the birth, and I have to say that that is already an exception. I think that, of course, is very important. And I understand too that people are looking at the stadium, but the stadium is an outdoor venue, and what we're talking about here is an indoor environment where there is a great deal of infection already, and part of our job is to protect people from this infection. So, I'm very aware that there are possibilities that you will stand up again next week and ask, 'Well, why are there so many infections in our hospitals? Why is there so much COVID around still in our hospitals?' So, this balance is really difficult to strike, and that's why I'm very pleased that there's an exception that at least people can attend to see their children being born. But I understand the sensitivity, that they want to be there post-birth as well, but we do have to allow the health boards to look at the situation in their communities and to make that call, because that call is a clinical decision, it's very important, and they have to consider that.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Thank you for that statement, Minister. I welcome and support the decision that you've come to that 12 to 15-year-olds should have the opportunity now to be vaccinated, and it's also great to see the importance of keeping our children in schools and educated in schools as being a factor in making that decision. It is paramount, obviously, that we keep our children in school as much as possible, and it's also important that, as the child makes that final decision on whether to be vaccinated, parents and children work together on coming to that conclusion on whether they should have the vaccination. As we know, in some cases, that won't happen. Now, as the parent of an 11-year-old, a nearly 12-year-old, I'm a little concerned about him coming to a different conclusion than I would want for him, and my concerns are centred around the information that will be given to him and how that's presented to him as has already been outlined by Rhun and Russell. But it's how we are going to reach out to those children and how we are going to engage with them, and expanding on the children commissioner's concerns as well, we need to ensure that the quality of information is there and the impact of their decision is also included. Are we going to use videos? Because I can't see my child, for example, reading through reams of paper, or the equivalent online. So, I just wanted your reassurance on that, that we are going to actively engage children in a way that they will respond to—

The Member's had her time. I'm sorry, but we'll have to stop and ask the question there.

Diolch yn fawr, Laura. I'm delighted that we are going to, hopefully, be able to keep more of our children in school. We're intensely aware of the fact that for a child, if they lose six months of schooling, then they will, over the course of their lifetime, be likely to lose about £37,000 in terms of earnings. So, there's a direct impact on these children, and I just think it's really important we don't lose sight of that. That's why we are so keen to keep our children in school. 

In terms of the information that's given out, we'll be making sure we bounce off our ideas with the children's commissioner to make sure that we get feedback directly, perhaps, from children before we send things out. We have to send these things out pretty quickly, but a lot of that work has already been commissioned. I'm sure you'll be interested to know as well that, when you receive the Pfizer jab, you've got about 15 minutes to wait. And one of the things I'm very pleased that we're going to be able to do is to use that 15 minutes to give much broader health advice to people. The public health issue in Wales is something I'm absolutely determined to address. So, while people are waiting, hopefully they will have access to a lot of public health advice. Certainly, videos have been commissioned for that, but I will check to make sure that we have got those videos commissioned for children as well. 

16:30
5. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership: Update on the Social Partnership and Public Procurement (Wales) Bill

Item 5, a statement by the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership: an update on the social partnership and public procurement (Wales) Bill. And I call on the Deputy Minister, Hannah Blythyn. 

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. The Welsh Government is committed to using every lever available to us to improve working lives and workplaces across the country. We are resolute in our ambition to become a nation of fair work, working together to ensure decent and dignified work that brings broader benefits for our communities, our economy and our environment. The social partnership and public procurement (Wales) Bill is an important part of this. 

Consultation on our draft Bill closed shortly before the Senedd elections in May. The response was very positive, with 85 responses broadly endorsing our proposals and a summary analysis of responses was published on 13 July. The draft Bill included provisions to strengthen and promote consistency in social partnership in Wales. It will put social partnership on a more formal footing by creating a statutory social partnership council and place a new duty on specified public bodies in Wales to involve the recognised trade unions when carrying out certain functions.

The draft Bill included measures to allow us to achieve socially responsible public procurement. As my colleague the Minister for Finance and Local Government confirmed, we are working closely with the UK Government on public procurement reform and will use their legislation for the basic processes that underpin procurement. But we believe that decisions on the policy outcomes from procurement should be made in Wales. We will establish a statutory framework that will place our priorities of fair work, decarbonisation and well-being at the heart of our procurement. The legislation will improve the link between procurement processes and the delivery of better outcomes through stronger contract management provisions to improve transparency. This will highlight areas for improvement and allow the sharing of good practice. Our aim is to establish a system in which organisations can be held to account for ensuring that contract conditions support socially responsible practices throughout supply chains, particularly in large construction contracts and outsourcing services contracts.

Finally, the Bill will introduce a specific duty on Welsh Ministers to take action to promote and encourage fair work when we are undertaking activity to improve the delivery of public services or the economic, social, environmental or cultural well-being of Wales. In practical terms, the Bill's fair work duty will mean that Welsh Ministers will be under a legal obligation to take action that promotes and encourages fair work as defined by the Fair Work Commission's report. The Bill will strengthen how we approach fair work across Government, providing us with a common approach underpinned by legislation. Promoting and encouraging fair work will no longer be a policy choice, where 'do nothing' is a potential option for Ministers and officials, because we will be under a duty to take action.

The Bill will also introduce a duty on Welsh Ministers to report annually on the activities we have taken to promote and encourage fair work. These specific fair work provisions, alongside the social partnership and sustainable procurement duties in the Bill, will provide added impetus, certainty and clarity to the actions we take to advance fair work.

The social partnership and public procurement Bill will therefore make good on a central recommendation of the Fair Work Commission by providing a framework to use all of our influence and policy levers to advance fair work. However, it's not just about legislation alone. We are already demonstrating how we will interpret the fair work duty and put our commitment to fair work into practice to ensure a better deal for workers, something which we are committed to building on.

The social care forum is at the forefront of informing our approach to delivering our programme for government commitment to pay social care workers the real living wage. The coronavirus pandemic has shone a spotlight on those workers whom we depend on for so much, from caring for our nearest and dearest to going about our daily lives. In response to this, we are exploring how a social partnership approach in other sectors can help respond to challenges not solely in terms of pay and conditions but also the sustainability of those sectors as a whole, such as hospitality and retail. And we are continuing to work with others to safeguard against a regression on workers' rights. We're working with social partners and a range of stakeholders to raise knowledge and awareness of workers' rights and where to access support and advice. We're also working to build and communicate the business benefits of fair work, including promoting real living wage adoption and accreditation. The ongoing refresh and strengthening of the economic contract and the fair work pillar within it will be an essential tool in our ongoing conversations and engagement with business.

In all of this, we are seeking to promote that, by working together, both employers and workers have a collective interest in the shared benefits of fair work. Trade unions should be front and centre of this work; they are the best route for collective representation in the workplace and have a central part to play not simply in driving up terms and conditions but more broadly in unlocking our economy as whole. With this in mind, alongside the Bill, we are committed to continuing to make the social and economic case for trade union membership and trade unions within workplaces in Wales.

Over the course of devolution, social partnership has very much come to be seen as a Welsh way of working. The past 18 months have demonstrated beyond any doubt the value of working in social partnership to tackle the big issues facing Wales. The social partnership and public procurement (Wales) Bill is an ambitious and progressive piece of legislation that places these values at the heart of decision making in Government, in Welsh public services and in taking forward our commitment to a more equal Wales. Throughout the summer, we have worked with social partners and key stakeholders to refine the provisions and we remain on track to introduce the legislation in the first year of this Senedd term.

I look forward to bringing the social partnership and public procurement (Wales) Bill before the Senedd and working together to deliver these benefits for workers in Wales and for the delivery of public services. But this is an important agenda that cannot wait, and we will continue to use non-legislative opportunities to progress fair work in the meantime.

16:35

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. The first Bill this Welsh Government has chosen to put forward to the sixth Senedd is not one that deals with the ambulance response crisis or the thousands of people waiting more than two years for an operation, nor does it even deal with the current COVID pandemic. [Interruption.] Instead, this Government is chiefly concerned with looking after their trade union paymasters. [Interruption.] The major issue with this Bill is that it demands a public body to consult with trade unions and requires a sign-off from them in order for procurement contracts to proceed.

In itself, consulting with an outside body to ensure full impartiality and to make sure that fair processes are enforced is not a new development. However, surely the Deputy Minister can see that there is a clear issue in how trade unions will now have undue influence over public procurement and how trade unions will now effectively police the public procurement system in Wales. Under this proposed legislation, any social partnership report must be agreed with the public body's recognised trade unions or the public body will have to answer to the Welsh Government, writing a full report explaining why they have failed to meet the trade union demands. [Interruption.] This Welsh Government, using this Bill, will effectively be setting themselves up to act as Tartarus, punishing those who stand up to their trade union gods.

In your own consultation, several local authority employers felt the benefits of fair work are already recognised, and they could not see what benefits this legislation would bring. Therefore, can the Deputy Minister explain what, if any, are the benefits of this legislation—[Interruption.]—that cannot already be achieved under current legislation? Can the Deputy Minister also clarify if trade unions will receive remuneration for their involvement with meeting the requirements of the Bill and who will ultimately fund this? [Interruption.] I presume that the trade unions will seek remuneration for their endeavours, and so what this Bill is creating is a Government-backed income stream for the trade unions, because no doubt they will be tasked with employing and I also presume training the necessary people to scrutinise public contracts. I suspect that many trade unions are therefore not staffed to meet the requirements of this Bill. This Government will be funnelling public money to increase the working capacity of these trade unions who will then be directly funding, through their subscriptions and donations, the Welsh Labour Party. The Deputy Minister must clearly see how this is not only unethical behaviour, but a tremendous slap in the face of hospitals, charities, schools and councils who are crying out for extra funding to deliver basic services. The Deputy Minister should no doubt be able to see another glaring problem in that the whole system, by its very nature, can be subjected to accusations of corruption, whereby trade unions could be seen to favour one employer or contract over another. This is seeding the bed of corruption and is something that I am—and, I'm sure, many other Members here—exceptionally concerned about.

The view that trade unions will now have undue influence over public contracts can also be clearly seen in the fact that the social partnership council for Wales will have a third of its membership made up of them, while you propose only three representatives from the whole of the private sector, on whom this Bill will have a direct influence. Unquestionably, the Deputy Minister would have already recognised this, so therefore I can only assume it has been done with deliberate intention, and highlights once again that the Welsh Government is primarily concerned with increasing the power of the trade unions in this nation. The Minister must surely agree with me that the private sector is massively under-represented, and I would ask them if they can explain why so few private sector representatives are on the social partnership council.

Furthermore, because the Bill will rely so heavily on trade union involvement, there is a risk that workers within sectors where unionisation rates are low or non-existent would be excluded from the social partnership arrangements and their associated benefits. Knowing this, can the Deputy Minister explain why this Bill relies so heavily on trade unions and asks them to scrutinise and sign off public procurement and construction contracts? Why couldn't an independent body be given the same powers of review? Existing arrangements with trade unions would still be in place, and therefore, in my mind, there is no good reason to task trade unions with signing off social partnership contracts.

Finally, I would like to say that I agree with, and my party supports, the benefits that fair work and fair pay—

16:40

—can bring to companies in construction in Wales.

Surely, Deputy Minister, given what has been said, you recognise that there are higher priorities for the people of Wales that need far more urgent attention than this social partnership and procurement Bill. Thank you.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I'm not quite sure where to start with that—it's straight out of the Conservative caricature playbook in reverting back to the 1970s narrative when it comes to trade unions and working people. It's disappointing, but sadly unsurprising. The Member seems to either completely misunderstand the purposes of the Bill—and I'm more than happy to offer a technical briefing at a later stage to enlighten him around that—but also seeks to deliberately misinterpret the purpose of the Bill and the role of trade unions within working within this country. The social partnership council gives an equal footing and equal say around the table to trade unions, to employers from the private, public and voluntary sectors and to Welsh Government. It's about working together to make a difference. You said you support fair work. This is using the levers that we have at our disposal to make a difference, and we've seen during the pandemic just how important that is as we build back not just better, but fairer, and achieve a Wales of fair work.

Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you very much for that update from the Minister today. I very much welcome the recognition that there has been work over the summer with key partners to refine the proposals within the early draft of the Bill. There is a great deal within the draft that we welcome in general, and Plaid Cymru has promoted local procurement for several years as a way of supporting local businesses and encouraging economic growth.

Since 2012, Plaid Cymru has continually called for increased public procurement, a policy we featured once again in our most recent manifesto. We want to increase Welsh firms' share of contracts from 52 per cent to 75 per cent of the public procurement budget. It is estimated that this would create 46,000 additional jobs and safeguard many existing jobs in the Welsh economy. That is a potential benefit that would be transformational for our local economy, our local businesses and our local communities. This Government should finally grasp the opportunity that public procurement presents, and I hope this Bill, when finalised, will do just that.

I note from the consultation responses released earlier this year that several issues of concern were raised by key partners. The Bevan Foundation raised a number of important points during their consultation response, including the need to address the wider labour market context in which the social partnership Bill will operate. This context includes the nature and supply of other jobs in the labour market, the skills and qualifications of the workforce, the UK regulatory context, and the ownership and business models of employers. Without addressing these matters, the Bevan Foundation say that the Bill will not reach its full potential.

The Bevan Foundation also call for the conditions of the social partnership to be attached to all those employers in receipt of public funds, rather than just public bodies only. They also expressed disappointment that the paper does not go into supply chains with Welsh suppliers, something that is essential if this Bill is to have the kind of transformational impact on our economy, as I mentioned earlier. The Trades Union Congress also proffered a new definition of social responsible public procurement to ensure that no workers are exploited through public funds, something this Bill should be very careful to guard against.

These are just some of the points highlighted during the consultation, so I would like to know now how much has been, to quote your statement, refined over the summer to make this legislation the strongest, the fairest and the most effective it can possibly be. Diolch yn fawr.

16:45

Thank you for your questions.

I'll try my best to address some of the key points there. You touched on, at the outset of your contribution, the potential, the power and the leverage that's there with procurement within Wales. As I said in the statement, we think the policy direction of procurement should be set here in Wales, but we're working closely across Government with my colleague the Minister for Finance and Local Government on how we can take the opportunity of procurement reform to take that policy direction to look at actually how we can maximise its potential, its outputs and the opportunities there, but also, actually, to support the procurement profession and the sector as well. One of the things we said in this Bill was to try to simplify things rather than create extra layers, and actually how we can support the profession to maximise, to grow and to develop as part of that. So, I'm sure as we move down the course of this Bill and wider procurement reform, there will be further updates and opportunities for Members to influence and shape that direction as well.

I'm familiar with the Bevan Foundation's response and a number of other consultation responses. I think I spent a half-term recess trying to read myself through all the consultation responses, as I find it really helpful to personally get to grips with the points that people are raising. And I think there were a number of things there, too. I said within the statement that legislation alone isn't going to address all these things, so there will probably be policy that can sit around the legislation too, to address some of those challenges and issues as well. For example, looking at those sectors that we know are facing particular challenges and, really, there's a business case for the businesses to get around the table too, to talk about actually how we can perhaps upskill and support workers, and that will provide them with more stable and decent employment, but will also provide stability for the sectors as well. So, within the points that the Bevan Foundation made around the wider labour market and upskilling, the fair work duty around the things that we can do within our devolved responsibilities around supporting skills and training, I think that will bring opportunities and, like you said, place that duty on Welsh Ministers to have to consider that and have to do something about it, and be a cross-Government priority as well.

You mentioned the social partnership duty and the calls for that to cover other bodies and other organisations. As is set out in the draft Bill, it was in line with the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the public bodies over there and, of course, people have pointed out that since that Bill was enacted, other public bodies have come into force. So, as part of this process of working with stakeholders over the summer, and other partners, to refine the Bill and to move things forward to be in a position to actually introduce it in this place, there was actually, alongside this, going to be a review of the bodies as recommended by the committee report, to review those bodies that are covered by the well-being of future generations Act. That work will go alongside us progressing the Bill and will then help to shape how we can better align that and look if the right bodies are covered by this Act.

So, there's been a lot of work going on over the summer, predominantly around the fair work duty, of course, and also around actually how the procurement will work in practice. That has been done in partnership with stakeholders and social partners, and that is something that we'll continue as we look more now to bring the Bill forward, but also, actually, look at the operational nature of the legislation as well.

16:50

I think, for the record, I'll state that I'm a proud trade union member, and I would consider people in this Chamber, Members in this Chamber, reflecting on some of the comments made during today's contributions, because in fact it was trade unions like Unite Wales in my constituency who supported Airbus and saved hundreds of jobs at Airbus throughout the pandemic, whilst the UK Conservative Government continued to let them down and failed the workforce yet again.

So, I thank the Minister for today's statement. These are great proposals and a great opportunity to make workplaces throughout the length and breadth of Wales fairer and more collaborative places. What is crucial to me, Minister, is that this Act does have teeth to make a real difference to the workforce, whether it's trade union members or individual workers who seek a voice for better terms and conditions and even proper recognition. Now, one of the steps, Minister, to achieving this, is a robust definition of fair work, so perhaps, Minister, you could update the Chamber on what that is and how confident you are that that will work for workers.

I thank the Member, Jack Sargeant, for his contribution, and for actually using the opportunity to highlight the positive case for trade unions and actually to disabuse the reality from the rhetoric and the myths around it. We saw in north-east Wales thousands of well-paid jobs saved because, in social partnership, the trade unions worked with the employer to actually come up with a solution to safeguard those jobs for the future as well.

The Member is absolutely right to make sure we've got a piece of legislation that can make the difference we want it to make. So, as you'll be familiar with, in the draft Bill we left the definition around the fair work duty open, and from the conversations we have had with partners and stakeholders, the definition that will be on the Bill will be the definition as recommended by the Fair Work Commission, which we're already signed up to. Then, of course, around that, we will have to explore what the levers are that we have that we are responsible for, where we can make those practical differences, whether that be through things that we said before like skills, training or other opportunities as well.

Deputy Minister, this Bill, I think, does also present opportunities for Wales, I think especially around public procurement. As a previous local government cabinet member for economy, one of the things that I used to have all the time from businesses across Powys was, 'How can we get into public procurement? How can we help develop the local economy?' And I do think we need to be bold here and actually try and be world leading in public procurement. Public procurement can add massive benefits to the local economy in terms of jobs and opportunities; also in our schools, providing locally sourced meals, educating young people on where their food actually comes from, and chapter 7 of the Bill, I think, is very, very important to do that in the wider education of our children. I'd just like to know what conversations you've had with local government colleagues to prepare them for if this Bill is passed here and also with the Ministry of Defence, who do have a big presence in Wales and are a big part of public procurement within the country. I think it's very, very important that we get them on board early to make sure that the