Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

22/09/2021

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

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

Before we move to the first item, it is my pleasure the announce of the first Member Bill ballot of the sixth Senedd which was held today. I'm pleased to announce that Peter Fox may seek the Senedd's agreement on his proposal for a food (Wales) Bill. So, congratulations to you, Peter Fox, and I wish you well in promoting this particular Bill. 

1. Questions to the Minister for Social Justice

The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Social Justice, and the first question is to be asked by Jayne Bryant. 

Support for Veterans

1. How is the Welsh Government supporting veterans in Wales? OQ56885

The Welsh Government is committed to continuing and building upon the support and services provided for our veterans in Wales. Our work and continued progress are highlighted in our third armed forces covenant annual report, which was published on 22 June.

Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. We owe a debt of gratitude and our support to the men and women in our armed forces. Recent events in Afghanistan will have brought back difficult feelings for those who have served there and their families. There are groups in my constituency, such as the Newport armed forces and veterans breakfast club and the Newport Veterans Hub, who provide mutual support. On top of their usual support in helping veterans, I know that the veterans hub have arranged for open sessions with clinical therapists to help those who have found the events of the last few months difficult. They have also provided a peer support scheme to connect veterans with one another to share experiences and offer mutual support. Awareness of these support networks is crucial. How can the Welsh Government help to link up veterans and their families to support that is available to ensure that we are there for them as they have been for us?

Can I thank the Member, Jayne Bryant, for her question? I know the Member is very much committed to supporting veterans not just in her own constituency, in her own community, but across the country. I agree with her absolutely in saying that Wales is a nation that is proud of our armed forces and veterans, and I completely agree that we owe that debt of gratitude to all those men and women who have served our nation in Afghanistan. 

In collaboration with our partners, we continue to provide support to former members of the UK armed forces in Wales who've served in Afghanistan. Support is available from Veterans' NHS Wales for veterans living in Wales, who provide support with mental health issues, along with our CALL mental health helpline. The Member also raises the incredible role that those voluntary and community organisations take in supporting veterans in communities across the country, and we also owe a debt of gratitude to them actually. And we know from our armed forces expert group that, in Wales, the way that we are able to do what we do in supporting veterans is actually by working collaboratively, which is something we continue to do. We do have the Veterans' Gateway, which is a one-stop shop, but we make sure that we continue to push that message out there to make sure people are aware of the support available, both at a Wales level, but also at a local level. And can I thank the Member again, and pass on my thanks, and that of the Welsh Government, to the work of those organisations in her constituency?

Minister, I completely echo what you say, as well as my colleague from Newport West, in that we owe an incredible debt to veterans. Research from the Royal British Legion revealed that members of the armed forces community are exposed to events and challenges that make them more vulnerable to loneliness and isolation. They found that one in six members of the ex-service community reported experiencing some relationship or isolation difficulty, the equivalent of around 770,000 people in the United Kingdom. As we all know, and I'm sure many of you have heard, loneliness is linked to high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, Alzheimer's, and an increase in the risk of premature death by 30 per cent. People experiencing loneliness are more likely to visit GPs and hospitals, and more likely to enter local authority care, so tackling loneliness and social isolation not only alleviates the suffering of local residents, but is also an important part of preventative public health work. Local authorities, I'm sure you can appreciate, do play a key role in helping to reduce loneliness and social isolation in communities, and are ideally placed to understand the levels of loneliness in their areas specifically, and identify who is at risk and also to act upon it. What discussions have you had, Minister, with local authorities to improve the measures they can take to help members of the armed forces who are feeling lonely and socially isolated? Thank you. 

13:35

Thank you. Can I thank the Member, too, for her question and her words of support for our armed forces communities and veterans in Wales? And she rightly points out some of the challenges that those who've served may face when they transition to civilian life as a consequence of their experience as well. And that's why we've made sure we've invested in things like Veterans' NHS Wales, including a 35 per cent increase in investment support. But at a local authority level too, we are very proud of the work that our armed forces liaison officers are doing and, indeed, in conversations with counterparts in the UK Government, they've been very keen to look at actually how we're doing that on the ground and how we can have that point of contact and to co-ordinate. So, we do work closely with the AFLOs who are represented on the armed forces expert group, but also through the Welsh Local Government Association. But, as always, we're always keen to build on that support, identify any continuing gaps and make sure veterans have that access to support. And I think one way to do it maybe is to make sure that we share with Members more regularly things like the Veterans' Gateway, so we can all use our own networks to make sure people are aware of that as well. 

The Boards of Public Bodies

2. What action is the Welsh Government taking to ensure that the membership of the boards of public bodies reflect society? OQ56872

Thank you for that question. Work is ongoing to implement the recommendations of the diversity and inclusion strategy for public appointments in Wales, which is designed to increase the diversity of our public leaders, 'reflecting Wales in running Wales'. 

Thank you very much to the Minister for her response. In looking at the website of the Welsh Government, anyone can apply for a public appointment. But it is a complex process, with several forms and you need several qualifications too. There is inconsistency in terms of the roles and the wages as well. If we take an example on the website of Welsh Government at the moment, there is an advertisement for the vice-president of the National Library of Wales with no wage but the requirement for 18 days' work per year. So, what steps are the Welsh Government taking to ensure that anyone can apply, but that they can afford to do the work if they are appointed? 

Thank you very much for your question.  

This is very important indeed, because we are trying to break down the barriers in access to these all-important public bodies and to ensure that we are doing this. This is why we have developed a diversity and inclusion strategy, which was published last February. That particularly identified from a great deal of consultation that people from black, Asian and ethnic minority communities and disabled people are underrepresented groups on boards of public bodies. But we also know there are socioeconomic barriers as well in terms of accessing these public appointments.

You mentioned complex processes. That's something that we are constantly looking at. We do have to abide by the governance of the code on public appointments, but I'm constantly grilling that code in terms of looking at ways in which we can simplify it and make it more accessible. So, there are many things that we're doing in terms of enabling people to apply for public appointments, and I'm very pleased to welcome the all-Wales mentoring scheme called Equal Power, Equal Voice, run by Women's Equality Network Wales, Ethnic Minorities and Youth Support Team Wales, Disability Wales and Stonewall Cymru, and that's specifically targeting to recruit and mentor women, black, Asian, minority ethnic people, disabled people, LGBT people to be involved in public leadership and political office. 

I, too, believe that we need to have diversity in our public appointments. I do declare an interest: I was a previous member of Brecon Beacons National Park Authority, and I was sent there by my local authority to represent the residents of Powys. When I got there, I was shocked and dismayed to see that some of the appointees to the national park didn't even reside within the park boundary, and some of them were not even residents of Wales. And there was also a serious lack of representation from different backgrounds, such as young people, LGBT and BAME. And I always I do wonder how people who aren't from a community, who do not represent the diversity in that community, know what is best for the people who live there.

On public appointments, for example, only recently, a former senior political adviser to the Welsh Labour group and a Labour councillor was given a position on the board of Natural Resources Wales, and I am sure he was the best person for the job. But, surely, there must be a way in which this Senedd can scrutinise the appointments to our public bodies, because, to some, practices like this just look like jobs for the boys. We've been told in this place that we can do things differently here in Wales. So, Minister, will you look at exploring ways in which this Senedd can get more people and this Senedd involved in public appointments, to make sure the whole process increases diversity and is as open and transparent as possible? Diolch, Llywydd.  

13:40

The Member raises some important, pertinent questions, and others that I would dispute, because we abide by the code on public appointments—that governance. In fact, I'm very happy to share that with Members, to remind them of the process, the open and transparent arrangements, for appointment to public bodies. Of course, in terms of the body that you sat on—the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority—there are other routes into becoming a member, as you know. You were appointed by a local authority. And, of course, that applies to other public bodies in Wales.

But your experience, I think, in terms of recognising a lack of diversity, a lack of young people, is very relevant. So, I would also urge you to look at the report—the diversity and inclusion strategy—because it actually rigorously looks at ways in which we can improve the public appointments process. As a result of it, we are training cohorts of people, particularly those under-represented, to ensure that they can feel more able and supported in terms of applying for public bodies.

We have to also influence the public bodies themselves, so that they recognise they need to make a change in terms of leadership. We have a leadership training programme, fair recruitment practices, diversity and inclusion training, including anti-racism training, which is crucially important. But we also last year recruited 13 senior independent panel members from diverse backgrounds to sit on recruitment panels for public appointments in Wales. And that, again, was reaching out to not the great and the good, who often sit on those kinds of panels and bodies, as they're deemed to be; this is about people with lived experience of their local communities, of Wales, and indeed to make sure that we have more diversity.

I would urge you to back Equal Power, Equal Voice. You actually could mentor people coming forward for Equal Power, Equal Voice, because a lot of people need to have that mentoring and shadowing experience—they could shadow you. And in fact, colleagues from across this Chamber have mentored various schemes to enable people to get into public appointments. Some of us were at the very inspiring Ethnic Minority Welsh Women Achievement Association awards event on Friday night. And Rajma Begum, who won an award for arts, culture and sport, I was very pleased to see that she, as a result of mentoring, actually was able to be appointed—she put herself forward and was appointed to Sport Wales. So, you know, it can be done, and we all need, across this Chamber, to play our part in it.

I agree it's very important that membership of public bodies reflects society, but it's not only about protected characteristics; it's about life experiences. Too often, diversity deals with protected characteristics, not diversity of life experiences. What is being done to get members on boards from different life experiences in different parts of Wales, including different parts of towns and cities? And how many appointees come from the 20 most disadvantaged communities? My guess is none.

Diolch yn fawr, Mike Hedges. That's a really important question. I actually did mention earlier on that it's not just about protected characteristics and lack of diversity as far as that's concerned; it's also about socioeconomic experience. In the summer, as you know, I visited many projects to listen and meet people with lived experience of living in very disadvantaged communities, including Faith in Families in Swansea, in your constituency. The women I met there, the parents—the women with their children—they would be ideal to be sitting on public bodies. So, I'm very interested in the Swansea Poverty Truth Commission, because I think people, whether you be a school governor, there are ways in also, which of course we're encouraging. It's very good to start on the step, if you're going to community council, local government, school governors or community health councils, which have recently been advertising as well. So, that's a very relevant point that we will take back. 

13:45
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Joel James.

Thank you, Llywydd. It has been reported that between 1990 and 2015 approximately 63 per cent of Uganda's forest was cut down. Esther Mbayo, Minister of the Presidency, stated in 2016 that a lot of illegal logging, and I quote, had involved

'security personnel, some politicians, [forest] officers, timber traders, charcoal dealers and the locals.'

Just before recess, the Size of Wales project, which is responding to the global need to reforest, and is part funded by the Welsh Government, recently celebrated the planting of 15 million trees in the Mount Elgon region of Mbale in Uganda—a feat well worth recognising by everyone in Wales.

A written question to the Minister for Social Justice has revealed that the Welsh Government have memorandums of understanding with four district Governments in the Mbale region of Uganda, however, these are not specifically for the long-term protection of the trees planted through the Size of Wales project. On the one hand, I can clearly see this Government's attempt to help reforest our planet and create sustainable livelihoods for subsistence farmers in Uganda, but on the other hand, I can see that you have failed to put in place any measures to safeguard the trees that this Government has extensively invested in. Can the Deputy Minister, or the Minister, explain why this Government would spend millions of pounds of public money planting trees in another country, and then not bother to put into place any agreement with the Ugandan Government—local or otherwise—to protect the Mount Elgon site from being targeted by illegal loggers?

Well, I thank the Member for that question. We did receive a question in the summer, to which I replied. I am very proud of the Size of Wales initiative here—a pioneering initiative in terms of the Wales and Africa programme. I urge you to actually meet those who are involved and have been involved in Size of Wales to learn from them the hugely important and constructive impact of Size of Wales. And, of course, what we do in terms of supporting this initiative is to provide funding and expertise to local and indigenous communities in tropical regions, and it's helping to support them to secure and sustain their precious forests, grow more trees and establish sustainable livelihoods. And that's about education, community engagement and advocacy, and Size of Wales does raise that awareness in Wales of the importance of tropical forests and trees in tackling climate change with local people and with local governments. And the fact that the £450,000 a year from Wales and Africa—. We were recently able to announce that partners in Uganda have now distributed over 15 million trees, working towards their target of 25 million by 2025.

Thank you, Minister, for confirming that you've got no agreements with the Ugandan authorities.

There are several major tree-planting projects in Uganda that have set out with the aim of planting forests and selling the carbon credits. The Minister will be aware that for every tonne of carbon kept in the trees and not released into the atmosphere, a carbon offset credit is produced. A carbon values literature review undertaken by the UK Government, published on 2 September this year, estimates that a tonne of carbon dioxide has the potential to be worth over £200 by 2030. Given the number of trees being planted in Mount Elgon, this means that there is a potential for the forest to be worth billions of pounds in carbon credits. It is interesting that this Government has chosen to place its policy of providing fruit, shade and fuel trees for the entire Mount Elgon region of Uganda by 2030 into its 'Prosperity for All: a Low Carbon Wales' report, and one of the project aims of the Size of Wales is exploring opportunities for sequestering carbon and the use of voluntary carbon markets.

First, Minister, can you confirm that this Government, through its Wales and Africa programme, will not be using the forest planted in Uganda to offset Welsh carbon emissions? And secondly, can you confirm what agreement you have in place to prevent the Ugandan Government from selling the carbon credits that will be generated from this 30 million tree project? Thank you.

Well, I'm very disappointed in your questions this afternoon. We have already responded in written form. And I'm very surprised because, you know, the Wales and Africa programme has always received cross-party support in this Senedd, including the Size of Wales, which, I have to say, was supported at the outset by many non-governmental organisations, including the Waterloo Foundation, who put in substantial funding to the Size of Wales, and indeed the governance of it, which we're very pleased—. I'm sure they will be ready to meet with you to put the record straight in terms of all the points that you have made. There is strong support and agreement as a result of a locally managed organisation in terms of the Size of Wales.

And can I just say how important this is? We have a conference about this in the coming weeks, and Lee Waters will be speaking at that conference, because it's directly linked also to our ambitions, our connections and partnerships in terms of the national forest. Every time a tree is planted in Uganda by the Size of Wales, a tree is planted in Wales. Every time a child is born in Wales, they will get a certificate saying that a tree has been planted in Uganda and a tree has been planted here in Wales. I was certainly very proud when I saw that those were coming through to every child in Wales. So, let's get the record straight, let's get the information to you from the Size of Wales directly, and I'm very disappointed that there appears to be this lack of understanding of what has always had strong cross-party support.

13:50

I agree with the Minister that the Wales and Africa programme is a very important programme. Sadly, carbon colonialism is on the rise in Africa, and the Minister will be aware that Uganda has a major issue with subsistence farmers being forcibly removed from their land to provide space for tree planting that, in turn, can be used for the selling of carbon credits and offsetting carbon emissions of western countries. Indeed, a report analysing Ugandan forestry policy highlighted that existing legal frameworks were found to be deficient in vital provisions such as the enforcement of tenure rights for local communities and in providing adequate and effective remedies in case these rights are violated.

Not all of the Mount Elgon area is in a protected zone. A considerable area is under private ownership. This Government's policy of reforesting the entire Mount Elgon region with fruit, shade and fuel trees would call for the removal of local farmers who operate on deforested land. Mount Elgon is a site where considerable bamboo farming and processing takes place. Removing these farmers would not only impact livelihoods, but the local culture of the Gisu community who see bamboo as a local delicacy. Can the Minister explain how it will ensure that no farmer is removed from their land to plant these trees? How will the Minister ensure that the Ugandan Government does not appropriate private land to meet the demands of the Size of Wales project? And finally, what steps will the Minister take so that this Parliament or the Welsh nation will not be accused of carbon colonialism on an international stage? Thank you.

Well, Llywydd, I have no evidence in terms of the script that is being ably read out by the Member this afternoon. Yes, clearly, we need to put the record straight on Size of Wales and the Wales and Africa programme. I'm glad you have returned to recognising support for the Wales and Africa programme, which has been running for 15 years with very strong mutually beneficial links with sub-Saharan Africa and with the memorandum of understanding and the links to the Government. You couldn't do this without that kind of recognition, but also, crucially, this is very linked to the United Nations' sustainable development goals and the decade of action towards agenda 2030.

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, the programme for government contains few new commitments in relation to the issue of childcare. While the inclusion of continued investment in Flying Start and expanding the current offer to those in education and training are to be welcomed, this will do little to address the challenges faced by those with younger children who live on low incomes or who require wraparound care. Tackling gender inequality and closing the gender pay gap through improving access to childcare will not only mean better outcomes for women and their families, but also deliver economic benefits to Wales. The current childcare offer doesn't work for everyone, and by coming into effect from age three, many families have already by then had to take decisions about working arrangements. With that in mind, can the Minister advise what conversations she has had with colleagues about further investment in childcare provision during this Senedd term? Are there any plans to expand subsidised provision to younger children in recognition of the potential this has to improve both gender and social equality? Diolch.

Diolch, Sioned Williams. A crucially important question in terms of our objectives to tackle poverty and to recognise that the provision of childcare is an equality issue. Clearly, it's an anti-poverty issue and policy area, but it's also about early intervention into a child's life and, indeed, the whole family, as it is in terms of Flying Start. So, the programme for government continues to support our flagship Flying Start programme, but also additional funding is being made available for childcare where parents are in education and training, and that's recognised in the programme for government.

I was pleased to be able to come before the new Equality and Social Justice Committee on Monday this week, and we discussed these issues around looking at the importance of childcare and how we could address this in terms of reaching out. The responsibility of course lies with the Deputy Minister for Social Services, Julie Morgan, and I can confirm that I met with Julie Morgan very early after taking on this responsibility to look at the issues of childcare. I was very proud that we were the only country in the UK that provided free childcare for key workers during the lockdown. Seventeen thousand people work in the childcare sector, so it's also an employment issue. It's part of our economy. So, tackling barriers, improving chances for children, young people and their families are absolutely right at the top of my agenda and, indeed, that of the Welsh Government.

13:55

Thank you, Minister. Although steps to fund childcare for more families where parents are in education or training is to be welcomed—and you made reference to that—could you provide us with any further information about the nature of this additional funding and how consideration of inequalities steers these current plans?

I think it would be appropriate if the Deputy Minister for Social Services was able to update on the implementation of that addition, in terms of funding for parents who are in education and training in terms of access to childcare. But also, of course, there are other routes to support for parents in this, particularly in terms of further education and higher education. Although they weren't able to function last year, we have crèches and nurseries in many of our FE colleges across Wales, and indeed provide support in terms of access to childcare. But the childcare offer, of course, is crucially important in terms of the 30 hours that are offered to those in work and, indeed, during the school holiday programmes.

In the summer, I went to many projects—and I've mentioned one already in Swansea, Betws, and Caia Park was another, in Wrexham—where childcare is provided through our SHEP scheme, in terms of our school holiday enrichment programme, and also through the play schemes we've been funding, and the Summer of Fun. But clearly this is all part of having a holistic approach to childcare. I will just finally mention, Llywydd, that the free school breakfast programme, which again is back functioning, is also and has always been, I've felt, a really good way in which childcare for many is offered at the early start of the day with a nutritious breakfast.

Thank you, Minister. Of course, that isn't going to tackle the problems and gaps that there are for those children not at school.

I would also appreciate further information from you, perhaps, in relation to another challenge in this area. In a way, your last answer outlined that, because finding information is still a significant barrier for many parents. As you depicted in your response, the provision of childcare and financial support is a complex patchwork that is administered by various different organisations. So, has the Government given any consideration to how access to information could be improved, perhaps by having a one-stop digital shop, where parents could input their information and then get a full picture of the support that they are qualified for and where to access that support?

Thank you for the question. 

Every local authority does have, as I'm sure you will know, a duty to provide a family information service, including information about childcare availability. And I think your question has prompted the point about making sure that that's accessible and that parents are aware of it. So, I'll certainly take that back and also ask that question of my colleague Julie Morgan.

But I think it's also very important that we look to ways in which we are trying to support families in terms of tackling child poverty. Flying Start does give the best start in life, there's no question about that, improving the learning environment and outcomes as well. But it is also very important that we look at our income maximisation programme, where we're reaching out and have succeeded in ensuring that more families are able to increase their household income. And that does include also not just take-up of benefits but debt and financial advice and action to address the poverty premium where households pay disproportionately more for goods and services. Of course, this is a huge issue as we face the oncoming £20 cut to universal credit, a totally unnecessary cut by the UK Government, with all of the other issues that face families in need and poverty. 

14:00
Banking Services for Voluntary Bodies and Organisations

3. Will the Minister make a statement on banking services for voluntary bodies and organisations in Wales? OQ56880

Diolch yn fawr, Llyr Gruffydd. I am concerned at the reduction of banking services in Wales due to the ever-increasing numbers of bank closures. We continue to use our influence with the banking sector and UK Government to ensure that banking services for voluntary bodies and organisations in Wales are maintained.

Thank you very much for that. Banks are starting to charge voluntary organisations for banking services, even though very often they don't have many financial transactions happening from one year to the next, and they don't have many funds in the account, so having to pay to have a bank account is disproportionate. It's going to have a significant impact on them as bodies. Some of these banks at the same time of course are trying to portray themselves as local banks that support the communities of Wales, but the truth is, they're closing branches, they're withdrawing from these communities and now they're punishing voluntary organisations in local areas for banking with them. So, can you as a Government send a clear message to these major banks that this is unacceptable? Can you also give us an update on where we are with establishing Banc Cambria, and when do you foresee that that, perhaps, will be able to step into the breach and provide alternative services for the thousands of voluntary organisations that we have, as well as the wider population?

Diolch yn fawr, Llyr. I am aware that a number of voluntary organisations are experiencing difficulties with regard to banking services. That could be, as you say, identifying an account that is free—another burden for the voluntary sector—and also suitable to the needs of the voluntary organisations, as well as if there's one anyway now, with the closure of banks in the first place.

I think it is important that we look to our 19 county voluntary councils, particularly for the third sector—the voluntary organisations that do provide advice and guidance to the sector in their areas, in their communities—but also look to credit unions in Wales. They're able to provide accounts and banking facilities to charitable organisations. I do want to just mention a great voluntary organisation, a charity called Purple Shoots. They've been working with credit unions to promote opportunities to promote services with the credit unions for this purpose. And also, we've just appointed WCVA to establish the community asset loan fund on our behalf. We will meet with banks very shortly to remind them of their need to ensure that people in Wales are not disadvantaged by their decisions to keep closing branches, and we will raise this issue that the Member has raised with them in terms of the opportunities for voluntary organisations.

We do obviously have our commitment to our community bank. It's very tightly regulated; I think I responded in previous questions about this. Establishing the community bank for Wales is under way and, in fact, the Minister for Economy, Vaughan Gething, has got the oversight of the creation of the community bank for Wales in its development phase through to the establishment by the private sector. Of course, it's Banc Cambria, and it's subject to regulatory approval when we get to that point. It is going to be a mutual bank headquartered in Wales, owned by and run for the benefit of its members with 30 new outlets over the next decade. I know that we will be able to update Members on progress, starting, of course, with the update from the Minister for Economy.

Minister, our charities, voluntary groups and church groups rely on small-bank-balance accounts, so it is disheartening to hear that from November, one high-street bank will be charging these small-scale organisations £60 annually just to keep the accounts open. I'm informed that they also will be introducing new charges for branch transactions, including a fee to pay in and withdraw cash, with 40p to deposit just a cheque. The concern is that other banks will follow suit either by implementing similar charges or removing local in-branch services altogether. In just the last week I've received reports that a group in my constituency is now having to keep their money in a safe, as increased bank account charges have become such a worry. Many treasurers of these cherished community groups and churches can be quite elderly, and they are now contemplating relinquishing these responsibilities because of the lack of face-to-face local services and increasingly complicated procedures. With this in mind, Minister, what more support can you provide to assist these small groups? Would you be prepared to use the Development Bank of Wales or, as Llyr Gruffydd has suggested as well, Banc Cambria, as a means through which small community groups can open and maintain bank accounts on a much easier basis? Thank you.

14:05

I'm grateful again to Janet Finch-Saunders for identifying, through experience fed back by voluntary organisations, the impact of these charges, as well as, obviously, just accessing banking services being increasingly difficult. Can I just repeat that it is very important that we link to our councils for voluntary service, who are engaging with this? We are meeting with the banks shortly and we will put this on the agenda. 

Pre-appointment Hearings

4. Will the Minister make a statement on pre-appointment hearings for public appointments? OQ56845

I thank the Member for the question. In 2019, the First Minister and Llywydd agreed that some significant public appointments of chairs would include a pre-scrutiny hearing, which would be undertaken by the relevant Senedd subject committee. This procedure has been implemented to improve further the scrutiny and transparency of the public appointment-making process.

In the diversity and inclusion strategy for public appointments in Wales, it outlines that the Welsh Government will develop guidance for undertaking pre-appointment hearings. The rationale, quite rightly in my mind, is to ensure that the recruitment process is as transparent and robust as possible. From 2018 to the present there have been 296 public appointments in Wales, 30 of which were chairs. The research department informs me that only three had pre-appointment hearings during this time. I understand that, in 2018, it was the First Minister's leadership manifesto pledge to introduce routine pre-appointment hearings. I am sure that the Minister will agree with me that three hearings out of 296 public appointments is disappointing and does not represent the level of transparency that the First Minister has committed to. Given the three years this Government has had to establish routine pre-appointment hearings, can the Minister now confirm to the Chamber which public appointments will have a pre-appointment hearing? Thank you. 

I have to say, Llywydd, I do note a note of desperation to find something to pick a quarrel with. This is not a quarrel, this is good news. In 2019 we agreed, the Llywydd and the First Minister—this is also a parliamentary responsibility. Pre-appointment hearings of course are now available and they have taken place when an appointment has been made of a chair of a significant body, to ensure that that transparency can take place. I think it is important that, perhaps, the committees that have been involved in those pre-appointment hearings can share their experience, because it has been very valuable. The committee has to publish a report within 48 hours of the hearing setting out its view on the candidate's suitability. But also, this is something that is about improving—and I'm grateful for your comment in support of the diversity and inclusion programme—the diversity of public leaders in Wales. Holding pre-appointment hearings is quite significant and it does reassure people that these appointments are not—I've mentioned the great and the good, and they're not jobs for the boys, either. 

Racism in the Justice System

5. What discussions has the Minister held with the police and crime commissioners, the police, and criminal justice agencies about racism in the justice system? OQ56864

I meet regularly with police and crime commissioners and chief constables to discuss a range of important issues, including race equality. Our consultation on the race equality action plan closed on 15 July. Hate crime and justice is a key priority in the plan.

14:10

Diolch yn fawr, Gweinidog. I want to mention three reports that you'll be well versed with in my suppementary question. Firstly, the report by Dr Robert Jones of the Wales Governance Centre. In that report it says that in 2017, the level of racial disproportionality in the prison population was higher amongst Welsh prisoners than English prisoners. Shamefully, we here in Wales have the highest level of incarceration in western Europe, but also black people are six times more likely to be in Welsh prisons than white people. Then the Lammy report, that pointed out that the number of the causes of over-representation of BAME people within the criminal justice system lie within the devolved competencies of the Senedd. And finally, the third report, the Commission on Justice in Wales report, and that noted that continued monitoring and reform is needed in areas such as school exclusions, adverse childhood experiences and employment opportunities. So, what actions is the Welsh Government taking to ensure that the recommendations within these reports are implemented to address the over-representation of BAME people within the criminal justice system? Diolch yn fawr. 

Diolch yn fawr. I'm really glad that you mentioned those three reports. I met with Dr Robert Jones from the Wales Governance Centre when he published that report back in 2019. It did give us a very clear picture of the criminal justice system in Wales, and highlighted that trend, as you've identified, of over-representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic people within the criminal justice system. 

In terms of actions to be taken as far as that's concerned, the race equality action plan provided us with an opportunity, and, in fact, as a result of pre-consultation, advancing race equality within the criminal justice system is one of the five top priorities in the race equality action plan. So, we've engaged; we have a group that's working on that, with the deputy police and crime commissioner of south Wales, Emma Wools, Chris Jennings, executive director for HM Prison and Probation Service and chief constable Pam Kelly all engaged. It's crucial that that is part of the plan, which is out for consultation, in terms of taking action. 

I think also you were mentioning David Lammy's report. And this is also mentioned, of course, in terms of the commission on justice, the John Thomas report. I look to my colleague the Counsel General; these are all being considered in the justice sub-committee of the Cabinet. I'd just draw attention to the fact that the David Lammy report particularly was looking at, for example, reforms of the youth justice system, but diversifying the workforce as well. 

So, I think we're in a better place now that we're looking at those three reports that you've identified to take action. The race equality action plan and the Thomas commission, and our response to it, are crucial.  

Tackling racism is and must be everyone's business. There are sectors in Wales that are supported financially by the Welsh Government, but are not public bodies and will therefore not be required to adhere to the public sector equality duty. Will the Minister consider legislation to mandate this where bodies are receiving financial support from Government? 

Thank you very much, Altaf Hussain. The public sector equality duty, for which the regulator is the Equality and Human Rights Commission, is a duty in law. We're actually just revising it; we're considering it now. We've enacted the socioeconomic duty as well. In many cases, we have legislation that should be tackling this discrimination, particularly in relation to access to public services, but we now need to respond and deliver on the race equality action plan. 

Just to follow on from my colleague Rhys ab Owen's question, I also am very interested in the issue of the criminal justice system and the over-representation of those with protected characteristics, particularly black and minority ethnic prisoners. Twenty-six per cent of the prison population in England and Wales are from a minority ethnic group. That's compared to 16 per cent of the entire population across England and Wales. I'm sure we would all agree that this is not acceptable, and there is no doubt that our criminal justice system is not working for those people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. I'd just like to follow up Rhys ab Owen's request around data and information to ask how we can get more efficient data around Welsh prisons, particularly the prison population who are from protected characteristic backgrounds, including those from Welsh-speaking backgrounds as well, and from LGBTQI backgrounds. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

14:15

Diolch yn fawr, Jane Dodds, and you've given us shocking statistics. I won't repeat them, but they are in Dr Robert Jones's report. I think I want to just make one quick point, which actually does reflect on Rhys ab Owen's question as well, that we have a major issue in the justice system about a lack of specific data for Wales, and you commented on that in terms of other protected characteristics. This was focusing particularly on black, Asian and minority ethnic people in terms of the Wales Governance Centre, but we need to look at this from a wider perspective. I have made this point regularly with the Ministry of Justice, and I raised it in a meeting in July with the then justice Minister, Alex Chalk. He indicated that, actually, there was progress being made on this issue, because in fact Robert Jones was stymied by this, in terms of his research, having to go to an FOI to get the data. We need that data. We need more power. And we need to address the ways in which the criminal justice system is failing so many with protected characteristics and with other characteristics, including socioeconomic.

Economic and Social Inequality

6. What is the Welsh Government’s latest assessment of economic and social inequality in Wales? OQ56888

The pandemic has highlighted the stark inequalities between those with protected characteristics and their peers. Analysis of the socioeconomic impact of coronavirus shows that those who were already vulnerable have been hardest hit. The damaging decision by the UK Government to end the £20 uplift will further entrench these disparities. 

Minister, we have lived through an extended period of austerity, with all the damage that has brought. We now live and continue to live through the pandemic, and, as you say, that has further damaged prospects for those who are most disadvantaged in Wales. We see prices for food and energy going up and set to go up further. It really is a very difficult time for people who are struggling in Wales, and the Bevan Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation made it clear that what needs to be done is to increase income and reduce outgoings for families in these circumstances. It's frustrating that many of the tax and benefit levers are not in the hands of Welsh Government, but there are of course things that can be done in Wales. Minister, will Welsh Government continue to work to look at devolving the administration of benefits, which would help in many respects; consider a Wales-wide roll-out of the pilots on increasing benefit take-up, because we know that sadly there is still a lot to be done to persuade and enable people to take up benefits, which they badly need and which they will spend in their local communities for the good of the local economy; and also, will Welsh Government carefully look and continue to look at extending eligibility for free school meals? All of these would help with increasing income and reducing outgoings.

Thank you very much, John Griffiths, for your question. You've identified the disproportionate impact and the deepening inequalities as a result of COVID-19, and also the impact of UK Government further cuts—the cut in the £20-per-week increase to universal credit—and of course we'll hear more, indeed, in terms of the impact of fuel prices and food costs going up as well. So, we need to, as the Bevan Foundation have said, make sure that we can increase income where we can. So, that's why the income maximisation action plan has been so important, getting money into people's pockets, and also the fact that we are extending the discretionary assistance fund as well. But I certainly will be taking back your views in terms of the second national welfare benefit take-up campaign later this autumn, so we can press on with that in terms of the pilots, and also make sure that we deliver on your previous report from when you were Chair of the committee that looked at 'Benefits in Wales: options for better delivery' in terms of our social security welfare system and the impact it has on Wales. But also, of course, the review of free school meals is under way in terms of eligibility.

14:20

Question 7 [OQ56876] was transferred for written answer by the Government. Question 8, finally, Vikki Howells.

Food Pantry Schemes

8. How is the Welsh Government supporting the creation of food pantry schemes in Cynon Valley? OQ56851

Diolch yn fawr, Vikki Howells, for the question. On 6 September, we announced over £1.9 million of funding to tackle food poverty and food insecurity. Penywaun Primary School pantry received £6,254.82 to invest in a cabin that will house fridges and freezers, enabling them to reach more families and supply a more nutritious range of fresh and frozen items.

Thank you, Minister, for your answer. I've visited quite a few food pantry schemes in my constituency lately, including a really great scheme at Glyncoch last month, where I was really impressed by the variety of fresh and staple foodstuffs on offer, along with other advice services too. It's clear that food pantries have a significant and sustainable long-term role to play in the battle against food poverty and food waste. So, Minister, can you reassure me that support for the creation of food pantries is here to stay as part of the Welsh Government's long-term plans to address social inequality and environmental issues?

Thank you very much, Vikki. You've seen what the food pantry can do in your constituency, and the £2 million-worth of funding that I recently announced—and many Members here will be aware of initiatives in the country—the grant is designed to support sustainable projects and to help people access healthy and reasonably priced food. We obviously have an issue in terms of the fact that this was an EU grant and we're uncertain what future years will bring in relation to that funding, but we're committed to supporting these initiatives and, of course, it does link, as you say, to other key goals, like our aim to halve food waste by 2025 and the major impact that cutting food waste has on climate change emissions. The role of community food that our programme for government commits us to is the development of a community food strategy.

2. Questions to the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution

The next item, therefore, is questions to the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution, and the first question comes from Peredur Owen Griffiths.

The Use of Technology in Elections

1. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to encourage the use of technology in Welsh elections? OQ56891

Thank you for the question. We are actively looking at how we can use technology to improve voters' experiences at all stages of Welsh elections, from how they register, how they vote and how we count those votes. We are working with local authorities to identify whether these innovations could be tested in next May's elections.

Diolch. During the recent Senedd elections, there was some innovative use of technology in one constituency around the way in which the voting was marked on the register. Traditionally, the record of who has voted has been done by pen and paper, but this was carried out on tablets by polling station staff in Blaenau Gwent. For the avoidance of any doubt, I'm referring to the record of who has voted, rather than electronic voting, which is another matter altogether. I can only see positives from the use of technology in this facet of the voting process, as it cuts down on human error and results in more accurate data when it comes to producing the marked register. Is the Welsh Government, therefore, going to promote the use of good practice with technology during elections along the lines that I've outlined?

Thank you very much for that supplementary question. You are absolutely right, there are very exciting opportunities for innovation within our electoral system, with many examples of new systems not just being employed in Blaenau Gwent, but other parts of Wales as well. There were examples of that, but also around the world, from systems that allow voters to track their postal ballots to electronic registers at polling stations. So, we are developing an ambitious programme for improvement with a number of electoral pilots that will likely require the use of new technologies next year. They will enable local authorities to consider flexible voting options such as early voting or voting hubs in central locations. We have invited all the local authorities in Wales to bring forward their ideas for electoral pilots, including those in your own region. We will be working closely with them and supporting them in testing these innovations at next May's local government elections.

So, I will be working closely with all local authorities and the electoral community to ensure that these innovations are taken forward collaboratively and with the integrity of Welsh elections as the highest priority, as always. I look forward to working with colleagues here in taking this forward, and I'd add one further comment—that, very interestingly, the Welsh Centre for Public Policy is currently undertaking research on electoral innovations around the world, which I hope will further inform our thinking and introduce new ideas.

14:25

Firstly, unfortunately, we have to accept that a large number of people do not want to vote for any of us. [Laughter.] For a generation brought up on using their phones for everything, asking them to queue and put a cross on a piece of paper appears very old fashioned. Has the Government considered trialling online voting to engage younger people? If online banking can be made safe, I'm sure that online voting can.

Well, I think that the Member is absolutely right. One of the objectives of the pilots that I referred to earlier is, for example—. Where we have introduced voting for 16-year-olds in our election system, when people come on to the register, why should we not be able to use technology that, for example, would allow them to vote in their schools? What about voting in workplaces? What about voting in supermarkets—voting where it is convenient for people to vote, with the objective of maximising the accessibility of the voting system? The voting system is the core of our democracy, and the number of people who participate in that, and the quality of that system, is really a true test, I think, of the strength of our democracy.    

The Proposed Constitutional Convention

2. Will the Counsel General make a statement on the proposed constitutional convention? OQ56856

Thank you for that question. The discussions on the establishment of the independent commission on the constitutional future of Wales are continuing. I shall make a fuller statement to the Senedd in due course. 

I'm grateful for that full and comprehensive answer, Minister. It would be useful if you were able to provide us with a little more detail in terms of the timescale for that. You, like myself, have seen a number of commissions come, and their reports go. How will you ensure that this process is different? Because the one thing that we have all learnt over the last, certainly, two years is that devolution is dead. The process of devolution is over. What we need now is an entrenched constitution that provides this Parliament with the entrenched powers to enable it to get on with its job.

Well, listen, thank you again for that supplementary question. I do apologise if my immediate response was considered too brief. I have been giving quite a lot of quite detailed answers in scrutiny sessions with the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee and, indeed, when I made the statement earlier and on other occasions.

Before the summer recess, I announced that we would be delivering on our manifesto commitment and establishing an independent commission to consider the constitutional future of Wales. The Member is absolutely right about the dysfunction that exists within our constitutional structure. And of course, events may further intrude within those over the course of the coming few years. Those are all obvious to everyone.

When the First Minister has said in the past that he is concerned that the UK is closer to breaking up than at any stage in his lifetime, he is not just reflecting his views, he is reflecting views that exist, I believe, across parties. The only area where they don't seem to exist very consistently, actually, seems to be in No. 10 Downing Street at this particular stage.

But, you raise a very important point about what the purpose and the function will be and how it will operate. The stage that we are at at the moment is that we are in discussions with regard to the appointment of co-chairs, which I think is an innovation in itself, and also with members of the commission. I have been engaged also with my colleague Jane Hutt, the Minister for Social Justice, to ensure that what we do establish is a commission that, when it operates, as far as you can within the size of a commission of about 11 people, is one that will reflect the geography, the languages, the diversity and the equality of Wales. The key test, as I think you're really getting to with your supplementary question, is going to be the process of engagement with the people of Wales, particularly that section of society that does not normally engage in these processes, and the crux of it will be to establish a commission that people see as relevant to their future and the decisions that impact on their lives. 

There will be further statements over the coming weeks. The Member will understand that, when we are in the process of the establishment of the commission, it is not possible to say everything that is under way. But progress is being made, and I would hope that we will bring these matters to a conclusion within the course of the next six weeks or so. 

14:30

I'm grateful to the Member for Blaenau Gwent for raising this important issue today. Plaid Cymru has been calling for a constitution commission for some time. Our idea was for a commission to consult with citizens about the different constitutional options for our future as a nation. Now, Minister, the remit of the Government's commission hasn't been published yet, so I believe that this is an appropriate time to urge you to ensure that this remit isn't too narrowly drawn by ignoring independence. Given that around a third of the population now supports independence, it is entirely appropriate that it is included as part of the wider discussion, as well as other options, such as the current devolution settlement, or some form of federalism, as you support. 

Can you, Minister, therefore say whether you agree that a wide-ranging constitutional discussion is needed, so that it is truly meaningful, and that you won't omit independence from that discussion?

Well, I can give you the assurance that I think I gave also when I originally issued the statement on this issue, that the commission, when it goes out to engage with people, has to be inclusive. It cannot say to people, 'There are certain things you can or that you can't discuss.' I think one of the problems with how the commission may present its work is that it is very easy to fall into, I suppose, the trap of preconceived positions that political parties have, that we all have, in terms of our own views and sometimes forget that the purpose of this commission is to engage across Wales, with the people of Wales, to try and develop an understanding and a consensus of those key issues that impact on people's lives, how those decision-making processes can be better, how we can engage better with the nations around us, what changes need to take place, and I think, importantly—which probably comes to the area that you're more focusing on—in the event of there being changes in the constitutional structure of the UK, for whatever reason, that we are able to consider, and we are in a position to consider, the options that are open to the people of Wales.

So, I don't know if that answers adequately your question, but I think the point I'm making is that it has to be inclusive, it has to be far-reaching, but we mustn't fall into the trap, I think, of preconceived positions that are pejorative and that might hamper the commission from actually doing its job, which is to engage with the people of Wales and to identify with those issues that are most important and that impact on the lives of the people of Wales. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Mark Isherwood. 

Diolch, Llywydd. The Law Commission issued a consultation paper, as you'll know, on devolved tribunals in Wales last December to help shape the tribunal Bill for Wales, designed to regulate a single system for tribunals in Wales. This is now at policy development stage. Given your responsibility for tribunals, what's your initial response to the consultation paper's proposals to, in particular, reform the Welsh Tribunals unit, the part of the Welsh Government that currently administers most devolved tribunals, into a non-ministerial department, but also to standardise the processes for appointing and dismissing members of the tribunals, and introducing a greater role for the president of Welsh Tribunals, to standardise procedural rules across the tribunals and introduce a new tribunal procedure committee to ensure that rules are kept up to date, to replace the existing separate tribunals with a single unified first-tier tribunal broken down into chambers catering for similar claims, and, finally, to bring the Valuation Tribunal for Wales and school exclusion appeals panels within the unified new first-tier tribunal?

14:35

Well, thank you for that very relevant question, and, as you've already identified, the Law Commission is working on this issue at the moment. We are anticipating the report of the Law Commission on the reformation, or the recommendations in respect of issues around reform, of the tribunal system, and, of course, it's worth recognising, isn't it, that this is a significant part of the judicial system. It is a system that directly relates to many of our citizens across a whole wide range where the administration of justice is really important. Some we have inherited as a consequence of devolution, others have developed and others we have created, and it is very timely now, I think, in terms of all the developments taking place around the development of the Welsh jurisdiction, that we now look at the tribunals, we look at how they can be more effective, how they can be streamlined, how they can deliver justice more effectively, more accessibly. And I look forward to the recommendations of the commission and also with a view to, as I think I mentioned yesterday, in my report on accessibility, the possible introduction of legislation on the reform of the tribunal system. The annual report of the president of Welsh Tribunals, Sir Wyn Williams, is due imminently, and I will be meeting with the president of Welsh Tribunals, I think along with the First Minister, in order to discuss the content of his report, and, of course, his report will appear—it will be tabled—in the Senedd for discussion on the floor. 

Diolch. Of course, we'll be particularly interested to hear how you respond to the proposal for the Welsh Tribunals unit to become a non-ministerial department.

At the time of the EU withdrawal Bill, the UK Government agreed that UK-wide frameworks—which are also within your area of responsibility—to replace the EU rule book would be freely negotiated between the four UK Governments in areas such as food, animal welfare and the environment, setting standards below which none can fall, with the existing common arrangements maintained until these are agreed. And, in a statement on the UK Government's latest report on common frameworks three months ago, the Welsh Government stated:

'The report outlines continued positive work on Common Frameworks, and confirms that the UK Government has not used the "freezing powers".'

Of course, that's clearly both positive and reassuring, providing confidence with regard to standards now and in the future, without which the essential UK internal market could not operate. Will the Counsel General therefore provide an update on progress with common frameworks, and confirm what mechanism for adjudicating alleged breaches by individual UK nations is currently being considered? 

Well, thank you very much, and, again, a very topical issue, one where I've been in discussion with my counterparts, both in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the UK Government, on this issue, building on a considerable amount of work that was done by my predecessor. Can I say, first of all, on the frameworks, the frameworks are an example, I believe, of how the four nations of the UK have been able to work together collaboratively, in the spirit of recognition of common interest? I think the problem with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 is that it drove a coach and horses through that process. It was unnecessary, and, of course, one of the biggest issues it causes, along with other issues around the trade and co-operation agreement and issues around international trade agreements, is that it actually undermined progress and agreements that could be achieved collaboratively. That having been said, you also are aware that there's a legal challenge that will be heard in the Court of Appeal, brought by myself on behalf of the Welsh Government as Counsel General, and that will be heard in January 2022.

On the issues around the lawfulness of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act, that having been said, we've been able to carry on discussions and negotiations on a without-prejudice basis in the spirit of co-operation. I can also say that there are encouraging signs that considerable progress has been made. There are, of course, ongoing discussions with officials over the wording, the precise wording that is so important in these matters, and we are hoping to move to a position where, if agreement can be reached on the right terms, and without prejudice to the legal challenge, we start the process of the publication of some of those frameworks, because the process of scrutiny in this Chamber and in committees is going to be very, very important. So, that work is well under way, and I think, despite a number of difficulties, it is fair to say that there is progress being made.

14:40

Thank you. Finally, moving to another topical issue within your range of responsibilities, UK Government Ministers have repeatedly stated that the amount of money going to be spent in Wales when the shared prosperity fund comes in will be identical to or higher than the amount that was spent in Wales that came directly from the European Union, underpinned by the not-a-penny-less guarantee. The UK Government's plan for Wales states that projects include implementing the new levelling-up fund, which will invest up to £4.8 billion in local infrastructure across the UK that has a visible impact on people and their communities.

And I note, for example, that, during Prime Minister's questions in May, the MP for Clwyd South, Simon Baynes MP, praised Wrexham and Denbighshire councils for their dynamic proposals for the Dee valley in their joint bid for the levelling-up fund, including regeneration of the Trevor basin, improvements for Chirk and Llangollen, and investment in Corwen station and surrounding areas. I also note that the MP for Wrexham, Sarah Atherton MP, is working in the UK Parliament to ensure that Wrexham receives the funding it needs and deserves from the levelling-up fund, focused on the gateway area around the Wrexham racecourse.

Through their positive engagement with Welsh Government officials, I am pleased to have been advised by several organisations in north Wales that these officials are directly involved in the UK Government's community renewal fund, levelling-up fund, UK shared prosperity fund and community ownership fund, and that these are at last delivering internal devolution in Wales by involving local authorities and communities in the design and delivery of programmes, playing an important role in levelling up and strengthening our union of British peoples as we build back better from the pandemic.

Perfectly timed. Will the Counsel General therefore tell us what direct involvement—[Interruption.]—what direct involvement with this funding his officials are having in practice with the UK Government and other Governments within the UK?

Well, what I can tell the Member is, of course, this is essentially a matter that is within the portfolio of the Minister for finance. Perhaps, if I comment just on one or two of the general points that perhaps do, to some extent, come on to the very edge of my portfolio, I do think that the failure to engage with Welsh Government on money that was previously within the jurisdiction of Welsh Government and this place, but is now deliberately being used to bypass the elected Chamber here, is, I think, shameful and undermines democracy, and has a very clear political strategic purpose to undermine devolution. And I think it also means that money that is spent that doesn't respect the democratic processes here, and the democratic mandate on which we have all been elected, undermines democracy within the UK as a whole. In terms of the amounts of money, I have heard the not-a-penny-less guarantee; I will believe it when I see it.

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. As you know, Counsel General, when the UK Government introduces a Bill in Westminster that is within the devolved powers of the Senedd, the Welsh Government need to lay down a legislative consent memorandum. In the whole of the fourth Senedd, only eight Bills were within the devolved areas. Already, in this sixth Senedd, we are up to 13. Now, I am glad that the Welsh Government are not consenting to eight—I wish it would be 13, as I implied yesterday, but I'm glad you're not consenting to eight. But do you agree with me that this increase in the need to have legislative consent memoranda is a blatant example of the power grab that is happening with the Westminster Government? And what steps are you and the Welsh Government taking to combat that blatant encroaching on our devolution settlement?

Firstly, thank you for your question. And I think the increase in the number of LCMs where we are not recommending consent is a result of a number of things. Firstly, the scale of UK Government legislation, but secondly, the extent to which that legislation seeks to intrude very directly into devolved areas. The position that we are taking on those is to understand collectively what is happening as a result of that legislation, but also to identify within it a number of principles. That is, we won’t refuse consent just as a matter of course; we will look to see what benefit there is in Wales to a particular proposal in legislation and will it benefit the citizens of Wales. Of course, if it relates to a devolved power, our priority is, as far as is reasonably practicable, to deal with legislation within Wales on those matters through Welsh legislation. Sometimes that is not possible because of the scale of legislation, because of the priorities, and sometimes because there are common interests, and sometimes even concurrent powers that are valid.

What I can say also is that what is very clear from what I have seen in the few months that I’ve been Counsel General, that builds a little bit on what I saw in my previous role in the last Senedd as Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, is that there is an incredible degree of inconsistency. There are areas where it is possible to work with UK Ministers and where progress is being made, where there is an understanding of Sewel, and there has been very collaborative work, and there is a respect towards Sewel. But, of course, there are other areas where there is a complete disregard. We saw, for example, during the Senedd elections, a piece of legislation on the animal welfare sentencing provisions, which clearly required Senedd consent but they decided to proceed irrespective.

The other area of disrespect is, of course, announcing legislation that clearly is going to impact on us but where we do not have any proper engagement on that legislation, on those issues that may affect us, and we are presented with that legislation almost at the last minute, almost as though it is a fait accompli. Of course, the demands then that that has on Welsh Government resources in order to tackle that are extremely difficult.

Now, what I do think is important, where there is some progress being made, is again in terms of the inter-governmental review, where discussions between the four nations have been taking place, where it is hoped that we may achieve—and let's say 'we may achieve', and we have to wait and see what that progress is—what we desperately need, and that is a proper system for the four nations to meet together, a proper secretariat to support the work of that, an independent secretariat, and a proper disputes process. As the Member will well know, and it’s something I’ve referred to on a number of occasions, it is no good having a system where we write and say, 'This is a matter of our competence, therefore it requires legislative consent', and UK Government replies to us and says, 'We don’t agree, and that’s the end of the matter.' That is not a proper constitutional way for Governments to work together. So, there has been a lot of work behind the scenes. There is progress being made. I’m hoping that there will be positive announcements in due course, but we’ve been down this road before and we tread very cautiously.

14:45

I’m glad to hear some positivity in your answer, Counsel General. That makes me wonder what evidence those on that side of the Chamber need to see before they realise that No. 10 is undermining our devolution settlement.

I want to move on now to the boundary commission and their announcement on reducing the number of Welsh seats to 32. It's clear to everyone what's happening here—it's the same as what happened with the elections Bill, where ID will be needed. The Conservatives are once again trying to strengthen their hold on Westminster and undermine the Welsh voice. Does the Welsh Government intend to respond to the boundary commission consultation? Are they going to raise concerns about the negative impact that this will have on the people of Wales?

Certainly, the issue of the boundary commission is not within my portfolio of responsibility. I’m sure there has been engagement. I will happily look into it and ensure that you are briefed on the level of engagement that there actually is.FootnoteLink I think the important political points that you made in respect of your question are this: what is proposed does reduce the voice of Wales within the UK Parliament. It does have a direct impact on the relationship that exists within the UK Parliament, and it's not simply a matter of the numbers of constituencies or the size of constituencies, but the fact that it impacts on the recognition of the actual relationship between the four nations of the UK. What I think it also does, though, is highlight how important it is that we look at the issue of Senedd reform, the role of this place, the demands that are made on this place, and our role within that parliamentary process, and the need for further constitutional reform.

14:50

Thank you, Counsel General.

My final question is similar to that of Mark Isherwood, but, of course, from a different perspective, as you probably won't be surprised. It's about the newly named levelling-up department, under the leadership of Michael Gove, probably a hero of some people over there. Now, they're in charge of distributing the levelling-up fund and, as has been mentioned, it appears that the fund will probably be supporting Tory constituencies by most, and it will bypass the Senedd in the process. The UK Government previously said these words, 'When they consider it appropriate, they will seek advice from the Welsh Government on projects in Wales.' How very kind of the Westminster Government to consider, when they think appropriate, the elected Government of the people of Wales. Is the Counsel General aware of any discussions between the Welsh Government and this newly named department, and does he agree with me that this is a third example of a power grab by the Tory Government in Westminster?

Well, I certainly know that this is a matter of considerable concern, and that officials within Welsh Government, the Minister for Economy, the First Minister and the Minister for finance, and, I think, the Cabinet generally, are concerned about the situation, and that there are obviously discussions taking place, and I'm sure there will be further statements on that in due course. But you are absolutely right: they are an undermining of democracy. They undermine the democratic mandates that are given to this place. When we stand in a Welsh general election on the basis of, 'These are the powers of the Senedd and this is therefore what we can do', and then when UK Government basically says, 'We are going to bypass that and we are not going to engage with you,' what other interpretation can you have, that it is a deliberate ploy, a deliberate step, in undermining devolution, devolved responsibility and the devolved powers that we have already been given by the UK Parliament? So, I think there is an abuse there.

And we have also seen, from the evidence we have so far, the way in which these so-called levelling-up funds have actually been used. It will probably not surprise the Member—it may surprise across the Chamber— that 85 per cent of all the money that was allocated somehow went to the impoverished shire Conservative constituencies. So, I think there is a long way to go. Now, there has been a reshuffle. Michael Gove has the responsibility; he has the new title—I think he's the Minister for levelling up. I will no doubt be meeting with him in due course in respect of the common frameworks, and the proof of the pudding as to whether there is going to be a genuine levelling-up process, we will see over the coming few months. But what I would say is, 'Don't hold your breath'.

Question 3, or in this case, question 4, Rhys ab Owen. [Laughter.

Let me just get it up.

I apologise.

I was getting so excited with the—[Interruption.]

No, I've got it here, Llywydd. Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd.

Women's State Pension Age

3. What discussions has the Counsel General had with law officers regarding the recent findings of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman's report, 'Women's State Pension Age: Our Findings on the Department for Work and Pensions' Communication of Changes'? OQ56875

Thank you. Again on a very important issue, the Welsh Government has repeatedly expressed concerns to the UK Government about women who had their state pension age raised without effective or sufficient notification. We await the result of the ongoing ombudsman's investigation, which will determine whether the communication failings led to an injustice.

Diolch yn fawr. The Counsel General will be aware, from his own constituency inbox and surgeries, the difficulties of many ladies born in the 1950s who find themselves, because of the lack of communication by the Department for Work and Pensions about the changes to the state pension, in this awful situation. And tragically, many of these women died before they received a penny of the pensions they deserve. I'm aware in the last Senedd that there was cross-party support to help these ladies get justice. Does the new Welsh Government have any plans to provide support for these women?

14:55

The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Rees) took the Chair.

Can I just, first of all, in response to that further question—and I'm sure you'd want to join in—actually praise the work of the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign and those women who have so assiduously campaigned against what is a very, very gross injustice? And I'm sure there's probably not a single Member of this Senedd who does not know a large number of people who've been affected by this injustice. 

The findings from the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman report were published in July, and they've highlighted the concerns that have been expressed by the Member and, I think, by many other Senedd Members and, I believe, across parties. What I can say is that this is nothing new to Welsh Government. Welsh Government Ministers in this devolved area have been making representations since 2016 on the issue of the injustice and the need for that to be resolved—Lesley Griffiths wrote on 23 February 2016; Julie James wrote in February 2018. There were further letters on 16 May 2019, 21 June 2019, 23 November 2020 and 12 February 2021. So, I think we are all watching very closely to see what the outcome will be of the further investigations that are taking place by the ombudsman, and if there is a confirmation that there has been an injustice, then that injustice must be remedied. And that will be the position of the Welsh Government: to actually support all the women within Wales to ensure that justice is delivered by the UK Government in the area that's within their responsibility and obligation.

Planning Applications

4. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Minister for Climate Change regarding calling in planning applications in Wales? OQ56870

Thank you for your question. Whether legal advice is required in relation to a request to call in a planning application is decided on an individual basis and is subject to legal professional privilege. 

Thank you. Now, as of 3 September, the Welsh Government has 56 call-in planning applications without any final decision. Examples: live application case 1236, commenced in 2017; case 1069, 2016; and, shockingly, two open cases, of 319 and 320, commenced on 2 August 2012. Now, in reviewing the situation, 'awaiting site of LPA officers' report' seems a reason for delay on at least 18 cases. Some others remain 'under consideration', despite being received in 2019. The backlog of cases with Welsh Ministers is a real point of concern and one that highlights that our clunky and complex planning process is non-functioning here at the highest level, and is reputationally damaging. Welsh Government guidance states that anyone could submit a request for a planning application to be called in for determination. Anyone can write in, but I'm aware of many that feel that the complexity of planning policy enacted by this Government is acting as a deterrent for some to participate. So, what steps, Minister, will you take, with the Minister for Climate Change, to ensure that we do have a more efficient, speedier and accessible call-in system, and one that gives a real chance to residents wishing to engage with our planning process here in Wales? Thank you.

Well, thank you for those comments. I'm sure the Minister for Climate Change is listening at this very moment to the points, and I'm sure, if not, that the details of the points you have made will be drawn to her attention. You will appreciate that it's not possible for me to comment on any individual applications, and applications where it would be totally inappropriate for me in terms of my responsibilities to comment further. But I'm sure you will also be pleased on the proposals that I announced yesterday—that we are looking at a consolidation Bill in respect of planning law to at least make the planning system simpler, clearer and more accessible.

15:00
Workers' Rights

5. Will the Counsel General make a statement on how the current devolution settlement enables the Welsh Government to promote workers' rights? OQ56861

I thank the Member for his question on an issue that he knows is close to my heart. We can raise knowledge and awareness of workers' rights and promote access to support and advice. As part of our commitments to fair work, we collaborated with social partners on a workers' rights and responsibilities campaign, and we will build on this as we continue to advance fair work.

Well, I'm grateful to the Counsel General for that answer, and as he is, I'm a proud member of a trade union. I think we all should be, and I'll just point that out to my colleagues on the corner benches. [Laughter.]

But the Counsel General will know that I have spoken before in this Chamber about the importance and the need to use the social partnership Bill to empower workers and trade union representatives within the workplace, and, ultimately, that's how they and we should judge any change, and the change we should judge by, ultimately, is: how does it affect and make working class lives better? The expectations could be, Counsel General, high for this, and they should be high for this. So, are you confident that the social partnership Bill can deliver this? Do you agree with me that the definition of fair work is crucial in delivering this Bill? Do we have the levers to ensure that that definition is robust enough so that this Bill delivers for working people?

I think, just on the very general point in terms of the way in which we can influence workplace rights and so on, it is worth recognising first of all that the record of this Welsh Labour Government in these areas has been very, very significant, whether it be the Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017, whether it be the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Act 2014, whether it be legislation in respect of ending zero-hours contracts in respect of the social care sector, and in many other areas, and particularly in respect of social partnership, which is where your question was leading to.

The social partnership Bill, I think, is an important piece of legislation. Of course, the Minister with responsibility for that Bill is sat here, and I'm sure she hears the comments that you make, but I think there is a very common position that we do have, and that is, certainly in this post-Brexit, this inter-COVID environment that we're in, the quality of work is absolutely fundamental to the quality of life of our citizens and is therefore something that we cannot disregard. The social partnership Bill seeks to use the resources and powers that we have in order to influence progressive change along those particular lines.

And, of course, you referred to the role of trade unions within this. I think one of the messages Welsh Government has always had—a very clear message—is that joining and being collectively represented through a trade union is the best way for workers to ensure and to protect their rights at work. I think that is one of the fundamental messages that go through all the issues relating to fair work. So, I certainly myself look forward to the further progress in respect of the social partnership Bill, and of course you should recognise also the work that we've done in terms of equality and the Minister who answered questions earlier, Jane Hutt, in respect of section 1 of the Equality Act 2010, the implementation of that, which I think was a further important step.

Just one final point is actually to recognise the actual work that you have been doing in this area, because your work in respect of well-being in work, universal basic income and, in fact, the issues around the four-day week are all areas where there are opportunities now to explore new opportunities, new ways of working, new ways where we live to work, not work to live. So, I think that is very much to your credit, and I very much look forward to the outcome of your discussions that are going to be taking place on Thursday on the four-day working week, and, of course, there is a debate tomorrow in the Chamber where that issue is being raised as well, and I look forward to that as well.

It's today, Minister. [Laughter.]

Question 6 [OQ56877] is withdrawn. Question 7, Huw Irranca-Davies.

Legal Aid and the Means Test

7. What representations has the Counsel General made to the UK Government regarding restoring legal aid for early advice and reassessing the means test? OQ56853

Thank you, again, on a very important area. We are continuing to make strong representations to the UK Government about a range of issues relating to the adverse impacts of legal aid reforms by engaging with the means testing and criminal legal aid reviews.

15:05

I welcome that response. The Counsel General will know that, since legal aid was cut and the means testing made more stringent as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the LASPO Act, that has meant that many of these cases now are coming into our surgeries—all of us. We're seeing it in increasing debt, we're seeing it in mental health problems, we are seeing it even going as far as homelessness as a result of the inability to access early legal aid. It's also an increasing burden on the taxpayer and an increasing burden on the courts system as well. So, I wonder whether the Counsel General would agree to meet with not only the Law Society, not only with Citizens Advice, but also other advice organisations in Wales to discuss the rise in clamour for reform and for change in this sphere, and to reinstate early access to legal aid advice and to reform as well the stringent—too stringent—tests that there are in means tests for legal aid. It's not only causing stresses on the legal system, it's causing distress for our constituents.

Thank you. The points are very well made, ones that we have rehearsed on many occasions. The cuts to legal aid have been shameful. They have disempowered many citizens of Wales in what is, I believe, a fundamental right, and that is to access the law. I commented on this yesterday, and you'll know that my view is that, in the longer term, I would like to see a Welsh legal aid system. At the moment, the reforms that are being considered solely relate to the issue of the means testing of legal aid. I am due to meet with Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, who is leading the independent review of criminal legal aid in October, where I intend to raise concerns about the impact of the many cuts to legal aid in recent years, which has caused a decline in criminal legal aid work, adversely impacting on providers, as has been highlighted in the report of the Commission on Justice in Wales. 

The direct answer to some of the points you raise is: yes, I will happily meet with any people who are involved in the provision of advice services. In fact, I would welcome the opportunity to do so and to increasingly do so. I have some meetings, I believe, already arranged, but I am keen to see how we can effectively co-ordinate the provision of advice within Wales. Welsh Government, as you know, puts in considerable amounts of money actually to make up some of that deficit, through the various advice services, and so on. And, of course, in meeting with the new Lord Chancellor, Dominic Raab, I will be raising there some of the issues that I was going to raise with his predecessor, which also relate to access to justice, which also reflect on the issues of legal aid. But the issue of accessibility, the extent to which people are now participating in court proceedings, either directly or even by mobile phone, on serious issues as litigants in person, with no legal representation, is an absolute scandal for the fifth richest country in the world.

The New Political Architecture of the UK

8. What is the Welsh Government doing to ensure constitutional arrangements reflect the new political architecture of the UK? OQ56887

Thank you, John Griffiths, for that question. The constitution has undergone considerable change in recent years, with devolution coming under attack from an increasingly assertive UK Government. That is why we are establishing a constitutional commission, which will be reaching out into civic society and the public to find a consensus on devolution and the wider constitution.

I very much welcome that constitutional convention, and look forward to its work and findings, Counsel General, but I think there is widespread recognition of a lack of useful UK arrangements and mechanisms to reflect this new UK that we have following devolution in 1999 and then the other developments, including elected mayors. There's a real gap at a UK level, which I think is very frustrating, because it would be useful to bring levels of government together, to discuss ways forward, to prevent and deal with disputes, and recognise the new UK that we have in Government, and what should be constitutional to it. So, given that we've just had a reshuffle of the UK Government, Counsel General, I just wonder whether you see any hope of an end to the frustrating period we've had, where the UK Government has simply failed to properly embrace this agenda and take steps that would benefit the whole of the UK.

15:10

I think that goes to the core of the challenge that we actually have. The proposals that we put forward through 'Reforming our Union' and through other mechanisms, whether it be on individual legislation or in terms of inter-governmental relations, is an effort to resolve the constitutional dysfunction that exists, but in order for that to happen, there has to be common agreement.

It has been extremely challenging, extremely difficult, and I think there are many hurdles. Many of the things we do—. When you live in a combination of four nations, where effectively the constitution is largely unwritten, the issue of goodwill and trust is absolutely fundamental to making that work. My view is that we actually need to move to a position where we actually have a written constitution, but in terms of what can be done in the interim—. I suppose what I should say is: despite all the difficulty and challenges, and I don't want to rehearse and go through them as we've done quite a bit of that already this afternoon, I do think that the considerable skilled work that Welsh officials and Ministers have been carrying out with regard to inter-governmental relations—and I'd say that across all four nations of the UK—is at least encouraging in developing what may be an interim way of resolving some of those dysfunctions, and addressing some of the concerns we have. The key challenge is going to be that the devil is always in the detail, and as I've said earlier, there are some grounds to be a bit more optimistic, but we've been down this road before and we have to tread cautiously.

3. Questions to the Senedd Commission

Item 3, questions to the Senedd Commission. And question 1 from Gareth Davies.

Attending the Senedd Estate

1. Will the Commission make a statement on plans to enable every Member to attend the Senedd estate to participate in Senedd business? OQ56865

The Commission is able to support virtual, hybrid and in-person Senedd business. This ensures the continuity of our Parliament and the ability of all Members to participate at all levels of coronavirus restrictions. Members have been able to attend the Senedd estate to participate in Senedd business since hybrid Plenary proceedings were introduced in July 2020.

Under current arrangements, the number of Members who can be physically present in the Chamber at any time has increased to 30. Members participating remotely may do so from any location, including their offices in Tŷ Hywel or in the Senedd, where I am at the moment.

Diolch, Commissioner. The fact that we're still operating in the Chamber at half capacity, I believe, is nonsensical. We expect our children to go to school and rightly so because it's harmful to keep taking them out. Thanks to a terrific vaccine programme, we have severely impacted the virus's ability to cause serious illness and death. We are all fully vaccinated, so what's the risk? We can have four people in a lift, yet this vast Chamber remains at half capacity. As both a new Member and one representing a north Wales constituency, I find it disheartening: I spent five and a half hours travelling down this week to spend half the time contributing over video link. Commissioner, will you work with the Business Committee to ensure that for those who wish it, Members can participate in Plenary and committee meetings in person?

It's anything but nonsensical to take precautionary measures where Members feel that they would benefit from those precautionary measures. The Business Committee took the decision that it would continue in a hybrid form that would enable any Member choosing to work from home, either through choice, through preference or because they are needing to self-isolate, to continue to do so, and then took the subsequent decision by majority view that it felt that, given the length of time of proceedings of the Senedd, a 1m social distance would be preferable to be retained. Therefore, 30 Members are able to contribute physically in the Chamber. It is for us as politicians who pass the laws on coronavirus to make sure at all times that how we behave as well looks at precautionary measures, and how we as Members in that Chamber are able to keep each other as safe as possible, and then keep the people we come into contact with as safe as possible also. But we'll continue to keep these matters under review, of course, as the coronavirus situation changes and hopefully improves from where it is at the moment in Wales. 

15:15
A Carbon Neutral Senedd Estate

3. What proposals does the Senedd Commission have to make the Senedd estate carbon neutral? OQ56847

Thank you for that question. The Senedd Commission agreed its carbon neutral strategy in March 2021. This strategy details our commitment to becoming net carbon neutral by 2030. The strategy is available on our website. Within this strategy, we will detail the actions to take to reduce our carbon emissions, including on electricity consumption, heating, cooling, travel and cultural change. I’m pleased to be able to use this opportunity to tell Members that the Senedd is the first UK Parliament to publish a road map to a carbon-free operation. This strategy includes a mixture of behavioural change and efficiency savings to ensure our energy use is as low as possible before investment is required.

Thank you—Janet, I suppose. I believe that if any Government is to enforce a policy of decarbonisation of buildings, they should lead by example, and as you mentioned about the road map, they should also be pioneers in using innovative technology so they can in effect showcase the technology for other organisations. This point has recently been highlighted by the fact that the Department for Transport has received criticism for using diesel and petrol cars in their fleet whilst promoting conversion to electric vehicles for others. In many ways, I see that the Welsh Government should be at the forefront of innovation, particularly in decarbonisation of buildings. I acknowledge that this is a complex and often expensive undertaking, but what financial provisions does the Senedd Commission expect will be needed to make all Welsh Government buildings completely carbon neutral?

Thank you. Again, a really good question. Our strategy does include a mixture of behavioural change and efficiency savings, as I've mentioned. Whilst some offsetting is required at the end of this strategy to ensure, for example, that we can still travel across the country, we see this as a last resort, and we will seek to cut our current footprint by more than half by that point. I notice your reference to Welsh Government and its duty towards our carbon zero targets, but I can assure you, as the new Commissioner with this in my portfolio, climate change, that I will be pushing the Commission to ensure that we do cut our current footprint. The strategy follows two other successful strategies, which themselves have seen our energy footprint reduced by 60 per cent in a decade, even excluding the past pandemic year. Thank you. 

A Dementia-friendly Senedd Estate

4. What work is the Commission undertaking to make the Senedd estate dementia friendly? OQ56844

I thank you for that question. In 2015, the Assembly committed to becoming a dementia-friendly organisation. In line with that commitment, the Commission continues to work closely with Alzheimer’s Society Cymru’s dementia-friendly team and has delivered Dementia Friends training and awareness sessions for Members, their staff, Commission staff, and particularly for public-facing staff and contractors working on the estate. We have also ensured staff who have caring responsibilities for people living with dementia are directed to support available through the Alzheimer's Society, and increased awareness further through published guidance, blogs and articles promoting dementia awareness. 

Thank you for that answer, Commissioner. I'm grateful that there is work being undertaken by the Commission to ensure that those who live with dementia are able to access the Senedd estate. After all, those who are living with dementia should be equally as able as anyone else to access the estate. I'm sure the Commissioner is aware that the perception of those living with dementia is often altered, and simple things such as a dark mat or a carpet on the floor can be seen as a hole that they can fall into. The sooner we make some simple changes in the Senedd, such as changing mats around the building, the better, so I'd be grateful if the Commission could outline a timetable for these simple changes, and when they plan to be finished with them.

15:20

You make a really important point. Of course, one of the other issues for people with dementia is finding a quiet room. We have made sure that those quiet rooms and calming spaces are here to help enable people to de-stress. As I said, the public-facing staff are trained so they are able to help deal with any issues that come forward. The Commission has also marked Dementia Action Week as an opportunity to raise awareness further, and this question today, of course, will facilitate that. A group of people affected by dementia visited the Senedd to assess its dementia friendliness and put together a report outlining their findings, and that's informed our development of an action plan. We are going to build on that in the sixth Senedd and we will quite happily, with the question that you particularly raise, send you further information. I thank you for your question. 

4. Topical Questions
Gas Prices

1. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of significant gas price increases and the concurrent increase in energy prices on Welsh consumers? TQ565

Diolch, Delyth. Families in Wales are facing a perfect storm of increased energy prices, the freeze on the local housing allowance and the removal of the £20 uplift in universal credit. We have called on the UK Government to reverse these decisions and protect households from potentially devastating impacts this winter.

Thank you, Minister, and diolch, Llywydd, for accepting this topical question. This crisis is global, of course, in nature, but the UK is in a particularly perilous situation due to unusually low gas storage, the loss of the IFA interconnecter, hampering our ability to import electricity from Europe, and lower-than-usual wind energy production. We're seeing a crisis that sits within many interlinked crises and, Minister, as I'm sure you'll agree, we shouldn't underestimate the scale of the crisis. The head of Ofgem said today to MPs that the price increase was unprecedented, and that gas prices are already six times higher than last year, having increased 70 per cent in August alone. He also contradicted the Prime Minister's assurance by saying the problem is unlikely to be temporary. However global or complicated the causes of the crisis are, the impact will be very simple and it could be devastating for low-income households.

As you've set out, Minister, this won't be visited on them alone. Thousands of families will see their universal credit cut, they'll face increased living costs, and now bigger energy bills. Minister, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that a couple with two children on universal credit will be £130 a month worse off by October, and the budget gap will increase to £1,750 by the end of the next financial year. These are people that cannot afford to take this kind of hit. Could the Minister tell us please what the Welsh Government can do to support people who face this imminent financial hardship? I'm especially concerned about people using prepayment meters who could have their supply cut off if they can't afford to top up. And will she also press UK Ministers about the need to take immediate financial action to support these families, like Spain, France and Italy have already announced?

Further, could the Minister also tell us whether she's held discussions with Welsh steel makers and other heavy industries that face cost increases, and whether she's relayed their concerns to the UK Government? I'd also be grateful, Minister, to hear about any action being taken to protect the agricultural sector in the face of the carbon dioxide shortage. The UK Government deal announced last night to resume production is only for a fortnight, and I know that the National Farmers Union has called for immediate assurance.

Finally, Minister, the crisis is bringing home to us just how urgent it is, of course, for us to switch to more renewable energy, but I know that the questions that will be at the forefront of people's minds will be about how we'll keep the lights on, and how people will be fed and kept warm. I'm sure many will listen to the Minister's answers with keen interest. 

15:25

Diolch, Delyth. Well, absolutely. We've done a number of things since the crisis has hit. I completely agree with your analysis as to the impact on lower income families and, indeed, a number of our businesses, and agricultural businesses in particular.

I met the chief executive at Ofgem just yesterday to discuss the impacts on Welsh consumers and Welsh businesses of the global wholesale gas price rise and the side effect of the carbon dioxide production—extraordinary that it is a side effect, but that's where we are. We know that some energy companies will try and push the prices right up to the cap, and others will unfortunately go out of business, so we were very concerned to understand whether any of those were Welsh-based businesses and whether there was anything we could do specifically to help them. We were also very concerned to understand, just for continuity of supply, never mind price, whether we had sufficient numbers of larger companies able to take across Welsh consumers who are currently receiving supply off companies likely to go out of business in the very short term. So, we're working on assurances to that and to make sure that we have that information from Ofgem so that we can help make that transition happen.

This is leaving aside the issue of whether people can pay for it. This is actually just making sure the gas stays on so they can cook and, indeed, heat their homes. I've written to Ofgem subsequent to the meeting, seeking their assurance in writing of the continuity of supply for Welsh consumers and that consumer rights will be protected. I've also written to the UK Secretary of State on the need for urgent action by the UK Government to manage market stability and consumer costs. I met with the Secretary of State last night—no, the night before last, sorry. It's all been so fast moving I can barely remember. It's Wednesday. Monday night, I met with the Secretary of State, just to have a sort of emergency meeting about what could be done, and then our officials have been in touch all day yesterday and today, and no doubt there will be another ministerial meeting at some point this week, which either myself or Lesley Griffiths will be attending. I made the point forcibly in that meeting that this wasn't just about supply, that this was about affordability, and that we had a perfect storm of Conservative policies all hitting at once.

We've got the removal of the £20 universal credit, which, extraordinarily, Thérèse Coffey seemed to feel people could just work two hours to make up, which just shows how out of touch they are. No doubt there are one or two people in the country for whom that is the case, but most people are already using all of their allowances well up past the cap for the taper to kick in. So, it just shows a complete inability to understand the situation, to my way of thinking. The Minister for Economy, myself, and the Minister for finance are also all writing to the UK Government to highlight our concerns about rising prices, the effect on budgets and so on. Delyth, you highlighted quite rightly the potential effect on a number of businesses—agricultural businesses, farmers and so on. There's also an impact on public services, of course, because not only will they have the national insurance rises, but now they also have increased gas prices to run hospital heating systems, school heating systems and so on. So, this is a whammy right across the entire economy, really.

You're quite right in saying what the modelling is for the impact on families of the rising gas and electricity costs—around £3 a week, and living costs up by about £8 a week on top of the £20-a-week universal credit cut, so around £130 worse off from October. Without intervention from us, that is a really big hit on people's incomes. So, we are very seriously using our levers as fast as we can in Wales. We've got our Warm Homes programme supporting lower income families; just under 62,000 households benefit from a saving of around £280 on their annual bills through that programme. We also continue to provide all the flexibilities that we have added to the discretionary assistance fund this winter, including the reintroduction of fuel support for off-grid clients—so, the people on oil as well, because that's also rising in price.

We've also invested an additional £25.4 million in the discretionary assistance fund to allow people who are suffering extreme financial hardship to have crisis payments. They're not intended to meet ongoing expenses, but major crisis expenses, but if there's no other way of them meeting the immediate costs of living then we will look to flex those issues as well. We also have a number of other things that I could detail, which you'll be familiar with, such as discretionary housing payments, which we're still topping up for local authorities and so on. So, I assure you we are very alert to the issues you raise. We're completely on the same page as you in terms of the impact, and we're looking to use all the levers we have to make sure that people have as least impact as possible from this really quite appalling convergence of very cruel Tory policies. 

15:30

Prepayment meters are amongst the most cruel of things because people don't put their heating on because they've got no money to put the heating on. It doesn't show as being cut off; they just don't have any heating. And I think that, sometimes, that is underestimated, but people will be going cold tonight. 

As do you, Deputy Presiding Officer, I have a serious concern about the steel industry. In the steel industry, a major cost is energy cost, and as that goes up, the price of steel doesn't go up as fast, and then it puts pressure on the steel industry, not just in your constituency, but in other constituencies around Wales, where many of my constituents work. 

But what I want to ask is: what is the estimated cost of the energy price increase to the public sector in Wales, and what additional funding will be given by the Welsh Government to Welsh Government-funded public sector organisations to help cover this additional cost? And by that I mean, effectively, mainly the health service and local government. 

Thank you, Mike. I agree with your assessment of prepayment meters. Part of the conversation with Ofgem—I had an already scheduled meeting with them in the diary, and I've had an additional meeting as well—part of the scheduled meeting with Ofgem is to discuss with them the plight of people on prepayment meters and what we can do to make sure that they register as people without a service, and how we can get them on to a better kind of a tariff. That's an ongoing issue. 

In terms of the steel industry, and other industries affected around Wales, that's part of the ongoing conversation with Ofgem. A number of Ministers, not just myself, are now engaged in discussions across various sectors to find out quite what the impact is. The gas price has gone up by five times as much, as Delyth said, in her introductory remarks, so that's five times higher bills in the short term. We will be working right across the public sector to understand the impact of this and the rise in national insurance and a number of other things that will impact our ability to deliver public services.

We've also made the point forcibly to the UK Government, via my colleague Rebecca Evans, that these things need to be taken account of in the comprehensive spending review, and then, the allocation to Wales, because these are clearly issues that are not going away. I personally made the point to the Secretary of State in the meeting on Monday night that, in looking for the market to realign itself, as he put it, that doesn't just mean more expensive carbon dioxide. That means more expensive everything, including public services, and that the Government needs to take account of it in relying on the market, quite extraordinarily in my view, to sort out these kinds of sustainability issues. 

Of course this is a very important issue for people across the whole of the UK, and I welcome the action that the UK Government is now taking. Crucially, I very much welcome that the UK Government's energy cap will remain in place, continuing to provide protection to those that need it most. I also welcome that the UK Government has said it is considering offering emergency state-backed loans to energy companies to encourage them to take on customers from any companies that sadly may let consumers down. However, regardless of these current issues facing us, fuel poverty is still a persistent issue in Wales, and it is clear that more needs to be done to address it. 

So, would the Minister consider using the levers that she has available to her to relax the rules around the emergency assistance payment, to ensure that there is additional support available to those who need it over the coming months, particularly to those who would usually not be eligible for support? Alongside this, the increase in the price of gas is affecting food producers, supermarkets and other key industries who rely on the stable supply of carbon dioxide for food production. So, I'm sure the Minister, well, I hope the Minister will join me in welcoming the news that the UK Government has now signed an arrangement to provide financial support to CF Fertilisers UK Ltd who produce around 60 per cent of the UK's carbon dioxide. 

So, with that in mind, what considerations has the Welsh Government given to providing support to businesses in the food industry in order to ensure the current and continued production of Welsh food? Diolch. 

Well, I have to say, Janet, I absolutely admire the brass neck that you have in asking me that question in light of the convergence of Conservative policies that have brought us to this state. The UK Government has indeed made a deal with the company. It lasts for two weeks. After that, they expect the prices to rise and the market to sort it out. That's what it means, 'The markets will sort it out': the prices rising. So, they have done absolutely nothing of any lasting impact.

Of course, we will use all the levers that are at our disposal to mitigate the impact on both consumers and industries across Wales, but that impact is absolutely enhanced by the changes to universal credit, the freeze on local housing allowance, the increase in national insurance and so on. So, the least you could do, Janet, is implore your Government to make sure that, as part of the comprehensive spending review, they take into account the impact of their policies on this Government's ability to protect its people and its industries. And I really do think you've got quite a cheek to ask me what we're going to do in light of the policies that you presumably support in devastating the incomes of low-income families and businesses across Wales. 

15:35
5. 90-second Statements

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Offa’s Dyke path or Clawdd Offa yn Gymraeg. This historic national path runs from my hometown of Prestatyn, winding its way through the beautiful countryside in the Vale of Clwyd, up into the Clwydian range area of outstanding natural beauty, before snaking its way south. On its 177-mile journey to Chepstow, the Offa’s Dyke path crosses the England and Wales border 20 times and weaves its way through eight different counties.

Opened in 1971, the path is named after and closely follows Offa’s Dyke. The path is a national treasure, and I ask Members to join me in celebrating the fiftieth anniversary. And, for those more adventurous amongst you, you are more than welcome to join me and the Friends of the Clwydian Range and Dee Valley in walking the Bodfari to Prestatyn leg of the path on Sunday 31 October. Diolch yn fawr.

This week, my community is celebrating Pontypridd Green Week, which is part of a UK-wide Great Big Green Week, celebrating action on climate change. This is a grass-roots event organised by local community activists of all ages who are determined to make a difference and inspire others to take action, as we respond to the climate and nature emergency. And, unfortunately, for Pontypridd and its nearby communities the emergency is very real and at the forefront of everyone's minds following the devastating flooding of February 2020. 

Already, this week, there's been a fancy dress litter pick, a gig, a discussion with the youth forum about the actions they'd like to see taken, a visit to the Senedd, hosted by Mick Antoniw MS, and a volunteer community garden session. Tomorrow, at Meadow Street at 5 p.m. there will be planting using recycled material. On Saturday, a repair cafe, permaculture workshop and a plant and seed swap at Clwb y Bont, followed by a riverside litter pick at Ynysangharad Park on Sunday afternoon. This will culminate with a celebration of the Taff river's rights at 4.30 p.m. on Sunday near the old bridge. Given that communities either side of the river, on both Sion Street and Berw Road, were flooded, this will be emotional for many who still live in fear of the river every time it rains.

Though we cannot provide them with assurances that their homes will be safe in the future, there is one thing that is certain: the people of Pontypridd understand the role each of us must play in responding to the climate and nature emergency. Doing nothing is not an option.  

We will now suspend proceedings to allow changeovers in the Chamber. If you are leaving the Chamber, please do so promptly. The bell will be rung two minutes before proceedings restart. Any Members arriving after a changeover should wait until then before entering the Chamber.

Plenary was suspended at 15:39. 

15:45

The Senedd reconvened at 15:49, with the Deputy Presiding Officer in the Chair.

6. Welsh Conservatives Debate: Ambulance response times

The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Lesley Griffiths, and amendment 2 in the name of Siân Gwenllian. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendment 2 will be deselected.

The next item is item 6, the Welsh Conservatives' debate on ambulance response times. I call on Russell George to move the motion.

Motion NDM7779 Darren Millar

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes that just over half of red ambulance calls met the Welsh Government’s target of eight minutes in July 2021.

2. Further notes the immense pressure the Welsh Ambulance Service is under with increasing transfer-of-care times of up to 18 hours.

3. Recognises the hard work and dedication of Welsh Ambulance Service staff in such challenging circumstances.

4. Acknowledges the pressures in social and primary care and the knock-on effects on the ambulance service.

5. Calls on the Welsh Government to:

a) declare an emergency in the Welsh Ambulance Service.

b) bring forward a comprehensive plan to improve ambulance response times, including action to:

i) ensure an adequate social care workforce; 

ii) improve access to face-to-face primary care appointments; and

iii) increase hospital bed capacity.   

c) set out a clear plan and timetable for raising the wage of care workers across Wales.

d) consider engaging the support of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces to assist with increasing ambulance response capacity.

e) redouble efforts for the rapid recruitment of paramedics.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Deputy Llywydd. I move the motion this afternoon in the name of my colleague Darren Millar. Can I, at the outset of this debate, first of all thank paramedics and ambulance staff for their work, especially during the course of the pandemic? I know that I speak on behalf of all my Conservative colleagues, but I know that Members from across the Chamber will agree that we thank sincerely our ambulance staff and paramedics for all the work they do in very difficult and challenging circumstances.

Our debate today is couched in that way. It's about support for the ambulance service and making sure that they receive the support that they need from the Welsh Government. But, be in no doubt: the ambulance service is in crisis. It's not just in near-crisis. It's in crisis now, and it has been in crisis for some months. We need immediate action from the Welsh Government to support the ambulance service and also to ensure that the people of Wales get the ambulance service that they deserve and need.

Now, I think that the Government first of all need to accept that the ambulance service is in crisis. You can't resolve a problem unless you accept that there is a problem. Now, I hope that this Chamber will know that I am not somebody who throws around statements and words easily; I choose my words carefully. So, I stand by that: the ambulance service is in a crisis.

In my own case, in a constituency issue, recently, a constituent was asked by the ambulance service themselves to take their family member with a suspected heart attack to hospital themselves. Now, I say that we've been in crisis not just now, but for some months, and I stand by that. Because we know that, in July of this year, 400 people across Wales were waiting for more than 12 hours for an ambulance—hundreds of people waiting for more than 12 hours for an ambulance. In the past, in this Chamber, we may have raised cases with Ministers, and Ministers may have said, 'Send me the examples.' We've gone beyond that. These are examples that are happening every single day throughout Wales, sadly.

Now, I was only speaking to the Stroke Association earlier today, and they were discussing the latest figures from the sentinel stroke national audit programme. Scotland's not a member of the programme, so there's no comparison there. We know how critical it is, don't we—we know how crucial it is—to make sure that, from the onset of stroke symptoms, you get to hospital. Now, the latest figures tell us—. And this is from the onset of symptoms to not just getting to the hospital, but getting to the right facility, so this is not just about the ambulance service; this takes into account some of the wider issues. From the onset of symptoms to getting to the appropriate place in hospital, in England, the latest figures say that the time is three hours, 25 minutes; in Northern Ireland, it's three hours, 23 minutes; and, in Wales, it's five hours, 17 minutes. Now, I welcome the Government's stroke quality statement today. However, the Government's own statement today emphasises the need for rapid treatment for stroke—but it's not happening.

My colleague Paul Davies was outlining in First Minister's questions yesterday his concerns about proposed cover being reduced in Pembrokeshire for ambulance services. Reducing cover for the ambulance service is not something that should be being discussed or debated at this time. That's not appropriate, not when we're in the position that we're in. Now, the First Minister dismissed Paul Davies's comments yesterday, but Paul Davies was relaying comments that were raised to him by constituents, by ambulance service staff on the front line.

Now, in terms of the amendments today, we will support the amendment from Plaid. We agree, of course, that the integration of services is important, and we of course agree with the additional staff that are required within the NHS. We won't, of course, be supporting the Government's amendment today. I'm disappointed. Disappointingly, it's a 'delete all' motion.

Now, our motion today sets out our thanks for our paramedics and ambulance staff, and it sets out a number of factual positions of where we are at, which I don't think that the Government will deny—if so, let's hear them today. So, why is it that the Government could not have supported our motion as tabled today?

As an opposition party, we do want to bring forward some constructive suggestions today to the Government. We've done so in our motion. There are short- and long-term issues that need to be addressed. So, first of all, the use of Her Majesty's armed forces to help support the ambulance service—I am pleased that we suggested this in our motion last week, and that's been brought forward. The Government have made that request, so I'm pleased that that is the position. But I don't think that anyone should be in any doubt that this action will resolve the issues that we’re facing in the ambulance service, because, of course, it won’t. There are other actions that are needed as well. First of all, we need to improve access to primary care appointments and change the current guidance to telephone triage. Secondly, we need to redouble our efforts for rapid recruitment of paramedics, and I know that Welsh Government has announced 136 new recruits for this financial year, and the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust has committed to a further 127 this year also. However, in the light of the looming winter pressures, and we haven’t had a statement yet on winter pressures, the Welsh Government needs to provide support for rapid recruitment to cover any potential gaps. Thirdly, we need to mobilise members of the public and former healthcare professionals to join their local NHS teams. Fourthly, we need to establish routes of support for NHS staff, care workers and families who have experienced the trauma of the pandemic. And fifthly, we need to set out a plan and timetable to raise the wages of care workers, as we called for also in our manifesto earlier this year.

Then there are a number of medium- and long-term plans that need to be addressed also: we need to focus on the time-to-treatment for patients, we need to develop a clear plan for the Welsh NHS to clear the waiting list backlog, which has deteriorated during the pandemic, utilising cross-border and independent facilities as well as COVID-lite hubs to speed up treatment. We need to establish long COVID clinics to support people experiencing long-term effects of COVID, and we need to build upon the 10-year plan and social care workforce plan to introduce a plan across the whole of the health and social care sector. We need to expand the role of occupational therapists as part of the wraparound care to maintain patient independence. We need to promote independent living, offering online self-assessments to support the early identification of support needs, and we need to establish a fund for care innovation to promote joint working between the NHS and social care.

I commend our plan to the Senedd today, and I very much call on all Senedd Members to support our motion today as tabled. Diolch yn fawr.

15:55

I have selected the two amendments to the motion. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendment 2 will be deselected.

I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services to formally move amendment 1, tabled in the name of Lesley Griffiths.

Amendment 1—Lesley Griffiths

Delete all and replace with:

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes that in the context of record levels of demand, just over half of red ambulance calls met the Welsh Government’s target in July 2021

2. Further notes the immense pressure on all health and care services in Wales including the Welsh Ambulance Service and the range of national and local challenges that impact patient flow

3. Recognises the hard work and dedication of Welsh Ambulance Service staff and all health and care service staff in such challenging circumstances

4. Calls on the Welsh Government to:

a) ensure the actions identified in the Emergency Ambulance Service Committee delivery plan are delivered with pace and purpose;

b) support a range of initiatives to drive recruitment and retention within the social care sector and provide support to social care employers;

c) improve access to face-to-face primary care appointments where clinically appropriate;

d) deliver on its Programme for Government commitment to pay care workers the real living wage;

e) continue engagement with Her Majesty’s Armed Forces to assist with increasing ambulance response capacity; and

f) redouble efforts for the rapid recruitment of ambulance clinicians.

Amendment 1 moved.

I call on Mabon ap Gwynfor to move amendment 2, tabled in the name of Siân Gwenllian.

Amendment 2—Siân Gwenllian

Add as new sub-points at end of point 5:

Genuinely integrate health and care services nationally;

Train and recruit 6,000 additional staff into the NHS, including doctors, nurses and other allied health professionals.

Amendment 2 moved.

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. I formally move the amendment in the name of Siân Gwenllian. I’m sure that all of our inboxes include a number of examples of people suffering in their communities because they have to wait for an ambulance. For example, a constituent of mine in Abererch had to wait for 15 hours for an ambulance and she was in distress and her family were concerned for her life. And look at the staff, who often have to travel great distances the length and breadth of the country because there isn’t an ambulance available nearby. In addition to this, there are concerns that there are cuts to ambulance services in some areas, for example, Aberystwyth and Cardigan, as we’ve heard recently.

But why is this happening? Well, certainly it’s not the fault of the staff of the ambulance service, who are stretched beyond all reason. Indeed it is a symptom of a deep-seated problem. Let’s follow the journey of the patient. The patient goes into the ambulance, having waited for many hours, queues outside a hospital for hours, often behind a dozen or more other ambulances, and then, after a period in hospital, having made a sufficient recovery to return to the community, rather than being returned to the community, they can’t release the patient because there isn’t a community bed available or there is no social carer available for them. It is one crisis on top of another, emerging from the fact that there has been a historic shortage in terms of recruitment, retention and fair pay for health service staff. Of course, it would be wonderful to see more ambulances and paramedics available to respond on the front line, but I fear that all this would do would be to add to the queues of ambulances outside accident and emergency departments, because we need to look further up the system to see why it is overwhelmed.

Back in 2012, we saw a number of significant changes to health services the length and breadth of Wales. In north Wales, a programme called 'Healthcare in North Wales is Changing' was sanctioned by the then Labour Government, and that led in turn to the closure of a number of community hospitals, such as Blaenau Ffestiniog, Llangollen and Flint, centralising and downgrading some services, with a pledge that there would be more care available in the community. Yes, health services in north Wales and across Wales changed, but not always for the better. This discussion here today is the upshot of all of those changes.

In order to maintain an effective and sustainable health service, you need spare capacity in terms of beds. It's not me saying this but the specialists in this area. This is what the BMA told the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee in 2016, and I will quote in English:

'Once you go above 85 per cent bed occupancy, you can predict that you can’t cope with fluctuations. You need about a 20 per cent surplus of beds to cope with the kind of fluctuations that we’re talking about. When you’ve got bed occupancies running at 86 or 87 per cent, you start getting...delays...[in] the discharge of patients as well.'

And this is what we're seeing today.

Back in 1989, there were almost 20,000 hospital beds in Wales working at a capacity of around 77 per cent. By today, the numbers have halved to around 10,000 beds and are working to a capacity of 87 per cent, and that's been the case consistently over the past 10 years. And this pandemic, of course, has exacerbated the problems. Many of our community hospitals were closed because of a failure to maintain the beds with the required number of nurses, which brings us back to that fundamental weakness in our secondary healthcare system: a shortage of staff leads to a system that is struggling, as we are seeing today. With an ageing population, a tired workforce and delays in diagnostics and treatments because of the pandemic, we need more professional health workers more than ever.

So, what can we do? The first solution, of course, is to invest in preventative services to keep people healthy and out of our hospitals in the first instance. But the main issues that led us to introduce this amendment and that will strengthen the foundations of our healthcare system is the need to integrate health and care services and to train and recruit 6,000 additional staff. And I thank Russell George for stating that his party will support our amendment.

In terms of the health and care service, we need to take steps to plan the workforce, including attracting and keeping practitioners and paying social care staff health service wages. We should launch a national review to establish statutory care standards in care homes, and we need a commitment to plan immediately to scrap social care charges. We need to recruit 6,000 additional staff, as I mentioned, and we need to develop a five-year plan, which includes incentives for GPs, the creation of more GP roles, the creation of a recruitment and retention strategy for nurses, and investment in our medical schools.

It's fair to say that we all appreciate our health and care services more than ever before. We have seen for ourselves the selflessness of the staff who have travelled that extra mile day after day to keep us all safe, to save lives and to care for the most vulnerable in our communities. But we are also seeing the fragility and the inability of those services, the lack of investment that's led to an overreliance—

16:00

—on goodwill and the full commitment of our health and care workforce. It's a duty, therefore, on us all to alleviate those pressures and to repay them for their commitment in their hour of need. And when I say that, I mean more than standing in front of cameras and clapping. In doing this, it'll have a positive impact, seen in all parts of our health and care services, including the ambulance services that are so crucially important. Thank you.

I thank the Conservatives for bringing this debate today. As Members who were present in the last Senedd know, I rarely spoke in health debates. Fortunately, for the first time since I was elected, we have a health Minister who I am confident will address the problems.

I also recognise the hard work and dedication of the Welsh ambulance staff in very, very challenging circumstances. I also accept the immense pressure the Welsh ambulance service is under, with increasing transfer-of-care times. I, like many Members, have been contacted by angry relatives when ambulances have failed to attend. One constituent with a suspected heart attack was told to get a taxi. Another constituent, at a pub quiz, had a suspected stroke. There was no ambulance available; the pub landlady took him to A&E. I mean, is it bad luck that the two health providers that have provided the worst service over several years are the Welsh ambulance service and Betsi Cadwaladr, which are, geographically, the two biggest direct providers?

Providing more ambulances or getting the army involved, as proposed, what that will do is increase the number of patients waiting outside. I mean, you then have five more ambulances, you have five more ambulances waiting outside. The visible bottleneck in the system is A&E, and ambulances queuing outside is a symptom of this, not the cause.

Too many people go to A&E when their medical need is neither an accident or an emergency. Why do they do this? Because it's the only place you can guarantee to see a doctor. So, after several days of failing to see their GP, patients go to A&E for the long queue, but knowing at the end of that long queue, a doctor will see them. Also, doctors in A&E are risk averse, and rather than sending patients home and telling them to seek medical help if they get worse, they keep them in for 24 hours of observation. One of the problems with beds being used up is that people are being kept in, observed and released. How many patients have actually spent 24 hours in observation and then been sent home?

A proposal I put privately to the Minister previously is out-of-hours GPs being installed in every A&E department to help the—

16:05

Thank you, Mike. Would you not agree with me that there's also a crisis in our social care, whereby there aren't the number of social care beds, so beds are being occupied by people really now who are desperately wanting to either get home or actually facilitate appropriate social care, and that's making the condition worse?

I agree with you entirely. I've only got five minutes, so I will not be addressing social care; I'm just sticking with hospitals and A&E and health. But, yes, I agree entirely. 

To help deal with patients who attend, the GP out-of-hours service should be given the job of assessing patients upon arrival, deciding in what order they should be treated and dealing with non-medical emergencies. And this, by the way, is not a complaint about GPs in general. Most of them work incredibly hard and are seeing more and more patients. They are at capacity in many areas. The problem is that the first person who a patient contacts in their GP surgery is the receptionist, who normally lacks any medical training whatsoever, and just collects patients' requests and books them to a doctor's slot until all slots are full. One GP estimated that 10 per cent of their appointments per day were for advice and treatment for common ailments; another noted that practice GPs are concerned that they spend a significant portion of their time treating common ailments and conditions such as cold and flu. A further suggestion I made to the Minister previously is to train receptionists to the level of paramedics. They could then triage patients to the local pharmacy, the GP urgently, GP non-urgently or to A&E. I think it really is important that people don't have a sort of good luck or bad luck on phoning the GP: 'You were forty-first. You might be seriously ill, but the GP cannot see you.' That's got nothing to do with GPs; they are sat in there waiting to deal with people, but if you're the forty-first you don't get seen, if you're the fortieth you do, and the fortieth person might just have a cold or a cough or something that could easily be dealt with by the pharmacy. We don't use pharmacies enough.

Certainly. But it's the last intervention I will take.

Thank you. I welcome your comments, but do you share the concern of the senior clinician who also works as a GP, who wrote to me saying:

'Waiting times at Wrexham Maelor A&E department have got to atrocious levels. I've been discussing this with one of our junior doctors who does locum in the department. He confirmed that waiting times are indeed extremely long and said the issue was that there is no space to see patients'?

He said that there are commonly several doctors sitting around doing nothing because there is nowhere to see the patients, and surely physical space should be one of the easiest things to solve.

I agree it should be one of the easiest things to solve. I can't talk about Wrexham Maelor, but I can talk about Morriston Hospital, and the thing that causes the problem there is the physical number of people. They haven't got doctors sitting around doing nothing in Morriston, but if Wrexham Maelor would like to send some of their doctors down to Morriston, we'd very much welcome them. We haven't got people sitting around doing nothing; what we've just got is a huge queue. You can have 50 or 60 people there. Some are seriously ill, they've had a stroke, they've had a heart attack, they've had a serious accident, they need to be checked whether they've broken their neck or not, and others have turned up who are not feeling very well and they just can't see a doctor.

I sent this to the Minister regarding one of my constituents—and I was talking to the health board—who had a growth on his neck, which kept on getting bigger and bigger. He spent four days failing to see his GP, because he was forty-first or forty-second in line. We cannot have this sort of, 'You join a queue and you're either lucky or unlucky.'

Finally, the Welsh ambulance service is not working effectively. I believe, to get the best out of the ambulance service, it should be split up and run by the individual health boards, like it used to be, so the health board has ownership of the ambulance service. It's their fault, not somebody else's.

16:10

I just want to put on record that our ambulance crews and NHS workers are doing a fantastic job in the extremely difficult circumstances facing the NHS, and I want to thank every single one of them for the amazing work that they do. Last week, I raised the issue of poor ambulance response times in this Chamber. I was joined by a number of my Conservative colleagues and others, who are also facing a similar situation across their constituencies. I have personally received large volumes of correspondence from constituents and our NHS staff who are extremely concerned about the current situation. There is clearly an issue here that is not getting addressed. Yet when I asked the Welsh Government to tackle this issue last week, their heads seemed to be buried in the sand.

This seems to be an issue not just affecting Wales, but other parts of the United Kingdom. The Scottish Government have had to call in the army to support their NHS with the unprecedented pressure that they are under. I am pleased that the Welsh Government has acknowledged a request from the Welsh ambulance service and will now send the request on to the Ministry of Defence for assistance from the army.

I speak to paramedics in Brecon and Radnorshire and across Wales, and they have informed me that it's not due to a lack of ambulances that there is a problem, but any additional help is welcomed; it is the fact that they can't get patients from the ambulances into A&E and onto the wards, due to the lack of beds and problems in our social care sector. Someone somewhere in Government has got to take responsibility for this, because at the moment all everybody across Government seems to be saying is that throwing more money at the problem is the only way to solve the situation.

But we have seen significant increases in the NHS budget since the pandemic began, and things aren't getting any better. Can I ask the Minister to tell me, after the Welsh Government has received £8.6 billion to combat COVID-19, £2.9 billion announced in the 2021 budget making its way to to Wales and £1.9 billion over three years, a Barnett consequential from the English NHS, where has this money been spent to improve bed capacity and access to A&E treatments? Minister, are you going to take responsibility for this? Are you going to accept the fact that this needs to be addressed? The Welsh Government must now step up to the task and deal with this unacceptable situation. Lives are at risk, and people waiting for 12 hours plus is just not acceptable. We would not let animals suffer like this, so why are we letting the people of Wales suffer?

With power comes great responsibility, and we must all play our part to support those working in our NHS and the Welsh ambulance service. We now face a winter of NHS pressures, and you have been found wanting. No plan, no strategy to address those pending problems. However, it is not too late. Take this opportunity to reassure this Senedd and the Welsh public that you accept the circumstances our ambulance service and NHS are facing, and set out plans to improve the services that our public are entitled to receive. Let us explore opening up the Nightingale field hospitals to free up space in our current hospitals. Will you look to reopen currently closed wards so that people can go back into their community hospitals? Let's have a comprehensive plan for recruiting more social care staff, paying them a proper wage and doing more to support our front-line NHS staff.

The time for excuses is over. The time for blaming others is over. The time for action is now. For years you have campaigned for greater powers, you now have those powers; it's time for you to use them wisely and in the interests of the people of Wales. Minister, over to you, the public are watching. Diolch.

Can I firstly thank Russell George for bringing forward this very important debate? I know as well as he does about the long-standing challenges faced by the residents of Montgomeryshire in accessing health services. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn. Like other speakers, I would also like to record my thanks and my appreciation and gratitude to all of our health workers, ambulance drivers, volunteers, care workers across Wales. During these past 18 months, they have worked relentlessly throughout this COVID time. As we're heading into winter, with COVID cases sadly starting to rise, we need to really address this issue together. 

It's no wonder that we hear so often now that some in the ambulance service are saying that morale is at rock bottom. From my understanding, this is a perfect storm of ambulance waiting times, patients needing to stay in hospital due to the lack of social care, increased use of our health services because of COVID and other issues that have been waiting for the health services to open up, and our health and social care workers being stressed and exhausted and taking time off sick. 

My frustration is that this isn't a new problem. In the region of Mid and West Wales, all three of the local health boards now fall short of the Government's target for ambulance response times, according to the most recently published figures. It's clear that there needs to be long-term reform. We cannot wait another decade to see change. The health Minister helpfully said earlier this month that it would take significant time to introduce the reforms necessary for the NHS and social care system, but this needs to be about people. And I would just appeal to us all to work together to develop a plan and support that plan that clearly addresses this health and social care crisis. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

16:15

I stand and wish to place on record my formal and utmost thanks and gratitude to our ambulance staff and crew, our switchboard operators, and those nursing staff waiting at the other side of the A&E doors who are collectively attempting to combat the handover waiting times. We all know that handovers from ambulance to our A&E staff are crucial to ensuring that patients receive the emergency care they need, including appropriate equipment and beds for recovery and treatment. 

Over recent weeks, I have witnessed the aftermath of a lady who fell backwards on a moving escalator in a local store, who was then waiting for several hours injured and bleeding from the head. After intervening with the Welsh Ambulance Service NHS Trust myself, such was my concern, I was so relieved to see paramedics arrive, only to find that they then had to wait themselves for an ambulance because they were unable to offer the appropriate treatment required.

Another of my constituents was left in considerable pain and unable to move for approximately five hours whilst awaiting an ambulance, having fractured their hip at a well-known local adventure park. They had to close the ride for all that time, and she was stuck on this ride. 

Another of my elderly constituents, 96 years old, fell at approximately 10 o'clock in the morning, but was waiting until 6 o'clock for an ambulance to arrive, only then to be stuck outside A&E for a further six hours, due to the practice of ambulance stacking. And another lady was left injured in a rural lane after badly falling off a horse at 11 o'clock in the morning, only to have to wait until 4.30 p.m. for the ambulance to arrive, and then endured a further five and a half hours outside Ysbyty Glan Clwyd.

This isn't rumour or conjecture, these are real-life scenarios and situations that are now being caused by a lack of Welsh Government intervention and support for this much-valued emergency service. 

During the first six months of 2021, a staggering 47,871 hours were lost by ambulance crews waiting more than 15 hours to hand over to A&E staff. In my own health board, Betsi Cadwaladr, 16,937 hours were lost between January and June 2021. This Welsh Government's so-called NHS recovery plan leaves much of the detail up to local health boards and clinicians to deliver. With winter pressures already appearing to bite in September, Minister, what steps are you taking to review this plan so that a renewed focus can be placed on the stacking-up issue of ambulances?

In terms of the service itself, with 8.4 per cent of the workforce being absent due to sickness between January and March 2021, and a high staff turnover—is it any wonder that there is a high staff turnover with, as has been mentioned, morale being so low—a comprehensive workforce plan is now required, and this is actually endorsed by Healthcare Inspectorate Wales. So, Minister, what inroads are you making—tell us today, please—to bring forward such a plan? This is needed now. As noted by my colleague Peter Fox yesterday, the lack of ambulance support is now having a horrific impact on the ability of our education facilities—

16:20

Thanks, Janet. On that, it's completely clear from what you said, and other Members of this Chamber today, that we are in a crisis and it's not a crisis you can hide from, Minister. But you're right to address the wider impact of this and it also needs to be addressed, and I'd like the Minister to address it later on and tell us what the Government are going to do on the wider impacts. Peter Fox quite rightly highlighted yesterday in the Chamber that the impact on education is a concern, as a chief executive highlighted to both of us that he was seriously considering stopping all practical courses within all our colleges because of the length of the ambulance waiting times. That is an impact that we need to address as it has a severe impact on education throughout Wales, and it's something that you could look into, Minister. Thank you very much for giving way.

Thank you, Laura Anne Jones, for making those very valid points.

Lack of bed capacity, staff shortages and an increase in the number of patients turning to the ambulance service due to trouble accessing a face-to-face appointment with a GP are all contributing to this issue. Welsh Labour's guidance for GP surgeries to continue using online or telephone services is placing further pressure on our emergency services, as is the current advice in my constituency on people presenting with mental health concerns told to go straight to A&E, instead of there being local access to such much-needed specialised support. So, Minister, what conversations have you had with the GP sector to ensure that the number of telephone, video and face-to-face appointments is being monitored so that the trend is moving in the right direction?

Finally, we as Welsh Conservatives welcome the ambulance service's asking the army for assistance. It is a sign that circumstances have moved well beyond normal levels of difficulty, and I hope that this will be the start of getting the help required by these essential front-line teams. Wales needs action on these points now, so that our ambulance services can be empowered to work, their reputation restored and those patients most in need get the care and treatment they so deserve. Diolch.