Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

28/09/2021

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

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

Statement by the Llywydd

Welcome to this Plenary session. 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, and those are noted on your agenda. I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, and apply equally to Members in the Chamber as to those joining virtually.

1. Questions to the First Minister

The first item is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Rhianon Passmore.

High-skilled Jobs

1. What is the Welsh Government doing to safeguard high-skilled jobs in Islwyn? OQ56941

I thank the Member for that question. Llywydd, the Welsh Government invests in the Cardiff capital city deal, provides new powers to local authorities, supports our ambitious apprenticeship programme, and works directly with businesses in Islwyn. All these actions help safeguard high-skilled jobs in the constituency.

Diolch, First Minister. The people of Islwyn are rightly proud of the proactive nature of their Welsh Labour Government in moving decisively to support Hawker Siddeley Switchgear, with £0.5 million of investment to relocate within the constituency of Islwyn, from their current site in Pontllanfraith to the former British Airways interior seat assembly factory in nearby Blackwood. First Minister, the reaction to your Government's action to support a company that has been anchored within Islwyn for 80 years has been tremendous. You personally visited Risca, in Islwyn, during the Senedd election campaign, as did the economy Minister, who visited also with me in Crosskeys. Both of you delivered the message that the Welsh Labour Government would help me in putting Islwyn first. The people of Islwyn cemented that relationship by re-electing a Welsh Labour Government. First Minister, what message do you have for the people of Islwyn in how the Welsh Labour Government will continue to put Islwyn first, back the people of the Gwent valleys, as they seek to live in a community that supports highly skilled employment for future generations?

I thank the Member for that question. She's absolutely right to point to the very long history of the Hawker Siddeley Switchgear company in her constituency. And the Welsh Government was indeed very pleased to be able to support its relocation, because that relocation safeguards the future of those jobs in the constituency for years to come. Not only is it a company with a very secure reputation for what it does already, but importantly to us in making investment decisions, it has real future prospects in the green growth area, helping to make UK infrastructure fit for electric vehicles, for example. So, Rhianon Passmore is absolutely right, Llywydd—the decision to make that investment is an investment in the future prosperity of that part of Wales, and the many, many people who rely on that employment already. That is, of course, only a part of the help that the Welsh Government has provided to businesses in Islwyn during the pandemic—over 300 offers of help to businesses in the constituency, £4.6 million invested in Islwyn alone, helping those businesses that had a successful future in front of them before the pandemic struck us to be there ready to pick up that success story now that the pandemic, as we hope, is beginning to come to an end.

First Minister, I hope you'll join me, and the Member, in congratulating the Conservative UK Government who are protecting millions of jobs across the UK thanks to the furlough scheme. But it is glaringly apparent at the moment that there is a skills shortage in Islwyn, and across our country, including the problems we're all currently experiencing, compounded by the fact there's a lack of skilled lorry drivers. How is this Government looking to address this, First Minister?  

13:35

Llywydd, of course, every time I have this question asked of me, I do say that the UK Government acted on a considerable scale to help protect the economy from the impact of coronavirus. I am fearful of the end of the furlough scheme on Thursday of this week. I think, in all the circumstances, it is premature to have pulled away in a wholesale fashion from all the help that different businesses and the self-employed have had from those schemes. We would have preferred, and have advocated to the UK Government, a more targeted approach, in which those sectors that still are furthest away from being able to operate on a non-COVID basis would continue to get help into the future. I think time will tell, Llywydd, whether or not the relatively swift recovery of the Welsh economy will be sustained beyond Thursday and the end of that scheme.

I was a little bit taken aback by what I thought the Member said in the final part of her question. Here is a UK Government—it is hard to imagine a Government that has made a more derisory attempt to solve a problem of their own creation. Of course we are short of HGV drivers, because your Government took us out of the European Union, where we were previously supplied by drivers—[Interruption.] I know it suits Members of the Conservative Party to cover the lack of their arguments just by making a noise, but it honestly doesn't wash. When we were in a single market and the customs union, people were able to move freely across the continent of Europe and to do jobs here in this country. Those people are no longer available to us. The idea that people are going to be willing to uproot themselves and come back and work in this country for a matter of weeks, only to be told by the UK Government they will be discarded again on Christmas eve, when they no longer have any use for them, it simply—. Well, the arrogance of it is breathtaking, but it just isn't going to work. 

Now, there's a lot that can be done domestically to train more people. Eight hundred individuals, Llywydd, through the ReAct programme, have been retrained as HGV drivers since 2015. So, we are doing our bit here in Wales to grow domestic capacity in that area. That is not going to be a solution to the short-term problems, but neither is a scheme that is so exploitative of others that there is no prospect at all that it can deliver what is needed. 

As far as Plaid Cymru is concerned, social care is highly skilled work, and should be treated as such in terms of pay and conditions. It is unfair and unjust that social care workers are not given the respect that they deserve. You may remember, last week, I raised the changes to day-care provision for disabled adults in Caerphilly county borough, from the perspective of the families they affect. We also need to remember that there is a dedicated team of workers that has also been affected by the Labour council's plans. As one union official said in a meeting yesterday, 'These front-line workers went above and beyond the call of duty to work throughout the COVID pandemic, and are now being thanked with redeployment and the threat of being made redundant if they don't accept lesser terms and conditions'. First Minister, how can we expect people to be attracted to the social care sector, and, equally as importantly, how are people with experience expected to remain in the sector, where they are being treated so poorly? 

Well, Llywydd, I am in a position to respond to the general point that the Member makes. As I tried to explain to him gently last week, questions for Caerphilly County Borough Council are best placed to Caerphilly County Borough Council. The Welsh Government's policy in relation to social care, though, is the one that he articulated at the beginning of his question. We absolutely regard the workforce as highly skilled, hugely motivated, deserving of proper recognition. That's why we have a registered workforce here in Wales, to give people the professional status that they deserve. That is why this Government will fund the real living wage for social care workers in Wales during this Senedd term. I much regret that the UK Government were not prepared to put social care workers on their list of occupations that people could come to the United Kingdom to work in, because they do not regard them as highly skilled. I think that's an offensive distinction. I think people who do social care work are absolutely as skilled in what they do as some of the people who are able to come to the United Kingdom because the UK Government regards them differently. When people are in Wales, this Government's policy is to treat them with the respect and with the remuneration, as much as we are able, that they deserve.

13:40
Mid Wales Growth Deal

2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the progress of the mid Wales growth deal? OQ56937

I thank the Member for that, Llywydd. The region’s joint committee approved the portfolio business case on 21 September. Subject to confirmation by both local authority cabinets, we expect it to be submitted to both Governments in early October, and if all goes well, the full deal agreement could be completed by the end of this year.

Thank you, First Minister, for that. Across mid Wales and Brecon and Radnorshire, we have the largest amount of small and medium-sized businesses in the whole of the country, which is a true testament to the hard-working people of our rural communities, who are the powerhouse of the Welsh economy. Many business owners I speak to across Wales always raise the issue with me of business rates. With the business rate holiday coming to an end next year, many businesses have told me that they would like to have a rethink of business rates and that we need a level playing field across the United Kingdom. For example, in England, businesses have 100 per cent rate relief for the first £12,000, compared to only the first £6,000 in Wales. That's a £6,000 difference that could make a huge difference, with employers being able to give more money to staff, to give them more money. So, First Minister, will you now follow the announcement that was made at the UK Labour conference and abolish business rates in Wales for small businesses so our businesses can then fire up the Welsh economy?

Llywydd, I think the Member has picked up the wrong supplementary, because, as far as I am aware, business rates are not a responsibility of the mid Wales growth deal, which is the question on the order paper. So, I am struggling to understand the relevance of what he's just asked me to what I believed his question was to be about.

Here in Wales, of course, businesses still have a rates holiday for the rest of this financial year. Where his party is in charge, in England, that is no longer the case. Their business rates holiday is over, having been withdrawn by the Conservative Government. I hugely welcome the announcement that was made at my party's conference, because when a Labour Government is able to implement that policy for England, then the money will flow to Wales to allow us to continue to develop the scheme we have, which supports a far higher percentage of Welsh businesses than are supported by the equivalent scheme of his Government in England.

That's a perfectly fair assessment by the First Minister on the remit of the question and the supplementary as asked. So, thank you for clarifying that for all of us.

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from the party leaders. On behalf of the Welsh Conservatives, Paul Davies.

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, on the BBC Sunday Politics show over the weekend, the MP for Cynon Valley, Beth Winter, said there was a lack of radical progressive policies in the Labour Party. Do you agree with her?

Well, as usual, I thank the Member for his close interest in the workings of the Labour Party. [Laughter.] It's good to know that he was following that carefully at the weekend. Let me be clear here, Llywydd, there is no absence of radical policies in Wales by this Welsh Labour Government. During this term alone, we will, as I explained in an earlier answer, provide funding for the real living wage for social care workers and provide the guarantee of education, training or employment for our young people. We will create the first national park in Wales for 57 years, we will move forward with the national forest, we will transform the school year and the school day, and, if we are able to, we will do something similarly radical in the reform of the council tax here in Wales. There is no absence at all of a reforming and radical agenda for Labour in Wales.

13:45

Well, clearly, the MP for Cynon Valley disagrees with you, First Minister, and it's not hard to see how your colleague has reached the conclusion that you have no radical or progressive policies. Last week, people in Wales continued to wait for NHS treatments in a week when the worst-ever waiting performances were recorded by Welsh hospital A&E units. With rising waiting times across the country, NHS backlogs that could take years to clear, and now the military enlisted to support struggling ambulance services, our NHS is under severe pressure, and it seems there are no radical, progressive policies to tackle winter pressures this year, either. 

Last week, when questioned, you said that the Welsh Government's plan on winter pressures was just to update its COVID alert plan, but this is very different to the comments made by Dr Andrew Goodall, who told the Health and Social Care Committee that, and I quote,

'on the winter side, just to bring together the range of different activities and the particular context at this stage, we will be ensuring that there is a very clear winter plan that is visible, that connects all of these things together, during October.'

So, which is it, First Minister? Will the Welsh Government be bringing forward a specific plan on how it will tackle winter pressures in the NHS, or was the future Permanent Secretary right and you were wrong?

Llywydd, let me try to respond to the serious point in the Member's question, because somewhere in there there was something of that sort. The NHS in Wales is under huge pressure—huge pressure in everything that it is trying to do to provide a service for people in Wales. Recovering from coronavirus, activity is still not back to pre-pandemic levels because people are still having to wear PPE, people are still having to work in physical circumstances where, in order to keep them safe, they don't have access to the sorts of facilities they would have had previously. We're asking them at the same time to carry out a record flu vaccination programme, a booster vaccination programme, and we're asking them to try to catch up on some of the treatments that were unavoidably delayed during the pandemic. All of that, I agree with the Member, puts enormous pressure, and enormous pressure on a workforce that is exhausted from the harrowing experiences that they will have had to work with over the last 18 months. 

Of course the Welsh Government will work with them. We will have an updated coronavirus control plan, and that will be a very important part of how we face this winter. And there will be plans beyond that for the other aspects of what the NHS has to manage. In order to do so, we have invested £1 billion more—£1 billion—£991 million of revenue and £40 million-worth of capital in this financial year alone, over and above what would otherwise have been available to the health service. And if we are serious in this Chamber about doing everything we can to recognise the challenge that the health service faces and to work where we can together to find solutions to that, then you will find that the Government will always be willing to have those sorts of conversations. 

I'm still not clear from your answer, First Minister, whether you will be bringing forward a plan to deal with winter pressures, so perhaps you'd like to respond after I sit down. The reality is that, after 22 years of Welsh Labour rule, the Government has run out of ideas on how to manage the NHS, has run out of ideas on how to drive innovation and boost the economy, and has run out of ideas on how to support and nurture our education system.

This afternoon, there are two statements on the Senedd's agenda, and a debate, all focused in some way on Westminster. There is nothing on the Welsh Government's plans to urgently support our NHS, our businesses or our schools. As these sectors call for leadership and support, the Welsh Government instead turns its attention to party politics and fighting with the UK Government, a fight that has sunk so low in the gutter this week that the deputy leader of the Labour Party now resorts to name calling. First Minister, will you join me in condemning Angela Rayner's use of the word 'scum'? Instead of your Government focusing its attention on Westminster, can you now tell us when the Welsh Government will be bringing forward plans on the people's priorities, such as tackling NHS backlogs, driving innovation and creating jobs?

13:50

The people's priorities in Wales are the priorities that they voted for in May. If ever there was a party that had ran out of ideas—. The Conservative Party in Wales is never going to succeed in persuading people if all they do is to criticise the Government the people in Wales have elected time after time. People in Wales didn't think that Labour had run out of ideas, and they voted for us in larger numbers than at any point in the whole of devolution. If you think that that is the way to persuade them to vote for you, constantly saying that their judgment was suspect, then it's never going to succeed. Nor, Llywydd, do I regard a debate on coal tip safety as an issue that doesn't have anything to do with Wales. If ever there was a subject that this Chamber ought to be taking a direct interest in, in advance of this autumn and winter, then coal tip safety, with all our history—I don't regard that as somehow a waste of time on the floor of the Senedd. We will continue, Llywydd, to bring forward ideas that are rooted in the support that this party and this Government has had from people in Wales. It's precisely because they regard the Labour Party as the party that speaks in a voice and with values that they recognise and want to support that we are in the position we are in, and he is once again in the position that he finds himself in.

First Minister, last week you wrote to Senedd party leaders sharing the latest Swansea University modelling that showed NHS pandemic pressure peaking at the beginning of November. You explained that the Labour Party's decision to cancel its Welsh conference was influenced by this modelling and the need for all of us to do whatever we can to protect the NHS in the months ahead. The clear implication, I think, is that others should follow your example. Is the scientific advice to you, and therefore your advice to others organising large-scale events, that it would be better were they to be cancelled in the months ahead? Does it apply only to indoor events, or does it also encompass sporting fixtures like the autumn internationals? Will you be writing to the heads of other organisations hosting or holding major events in the months ahead with advice similar to that you have given to the political parties?

I thank Adam Price for that. He's right, of course, Llywydd; we do share the advice that we get on the modelling and the advice we receive from the chief medical officer and others as we go into the final decision-making phase of the three-week review. I thank the leader of Plaid Cymru for the fact that, in my memory, there's never been one of those briefing sessions that hasn't been attended by his party, either by him or by another senior member of the party, and that does mean that opposition party leaders are as informed as we are about the background to the decisions we take.

The modelling shows, Llywydd, as Adam Price has said, that numbers of people falling ill with coronavirus in Wales are not due to peak until into the month of October. I look at those figures every day, and to me, they are still a matter of considerable anxiety, but our scientific advisers continue to say to us that that is what they would have expected—that this is still consistent with what the modelling would have led them to believe would be the case, and we can hope that during the month of October, we will see those numbers plateau, and hopefully begin to reduce.

My party took the view that, against the background of that modelling, it was not sensible to bring large numbers of people from all around Wales travelling together to a location where, inevitably, people spend lengthy periods of time in relatively crowded conditions indoors, and that the risk was one that was better avoided. I think it is for individuals and organisations then to weigh up the position for themselves. The position will be influenced by timing—whether they're planning an event at the point where numbers will be still rising, rather than hopefully when things have stabilised and began to decline, whether their event is indeed a large-scale event with many hundreds of people attending, whether it is indoors or outdoors, to what extent it can be susceptible to other mitigation measures such as ventilation. We will make and are making all that advice that we see available to others, and then I think there will be decisions that others will make, but, as I say, in the specific contexts that they themselves are facing.

13:55

Some practical questions, if I may, about the proposed COVID pass. Lateral flow tests, we know, are less reliable than PCR tests, and self-administered tests are currently the most unreliable of all because they can be falsified. The technology does exist to upload home lateral flow tests directly in a way that they cannot be falsified. Do you propose using that technology? Given increasing evidence of waning vaccine immunity after six months, do you envisage that evidence of a booster vaccine will become necessary at some stage to maintain your COVID pass status? And since it was reported yesterday that, due to adverse weather conditions, the UK Labour Party conference had to move to a random selection process for COVID pass testing, will that flexibility also be afforded for event organisers in Wales?

Thank you again for those questions. A COVID pass system is a compromise. If you had vaccine passport certification, then some of the points that the Member makes about the limitations of lateral flow tests wouldn't arise, but as we know, vaccine passports come with a series of other considerations—they've been raised here by the leader of the Welsh Conservatives on a number of occasions—to do with the ethics of it, and whether they discriminate against people who would be unable to do that.

A COVID pass allows those people to demonstrate they've taken reasonable measures to protect themselves, but it comes with the vulnerability that, at the moment, a lateral flow device particularly could be vulnerable to exploitation. In our regulations, which the Senedd will have an opportunity to debate next week, we will make it a specific offence, a criminal offence, knowingly to falsify the results of a lateral flow device, to make it clear to people that to do so is to put other people directly in danger. I'm aware of the technology the Member raises. We've been in some discussions with the UK Government about it as well, and if it becomes possible, through technology, to move lateral flow devices beyond self-certification, then I agree that that would certainly be an important step forward.

On the booster programme, we continue to learn a lot, I think, about the extent to which there is a waning impact from vaccination, and the booster programme is going to be with us for many months ahead because you will not be offered a booster until six months has elapsed since your second vaccine. I think that will give us an opportunity to learn a bit more from the actual evidence as to whether or not you'd expect a booster vaccine to be part of any COVID pass.

I failed to write down the final point that the Member made—[Interruption.]

I've been reminded of it. Yes, it's an important point. At large-scale events—let's take the obvious example of a rugby international in Cardiff—the public health adverse impacts of checking everybody's pass would outweigh the advantages of the pass itself, because you would have long queues of people spending lots of time jostling next door to one another. We are clear in the guidance that we will publish that, in those circumstances, it will be possible for event organisers randomly to check people's COVID pass. So, anybody could be asked to demonstrate it, but not everybody. That is what happened yesterday in the Labour Party conference, when the adverse effects of having lots and lots of people queuing outside in very bad weather were thought to outweigh the advantages of the pass itself. But the fact that it could be you, or that you're in that queue and you see people being called out and having to demonstrate it, and know that you could be the next one—I don't think that that impact was slight on people. You could see that it did mean something significant to them.

SAGE has concluded that, even with careful planning, there may not be any net benefit to COVID immunity certification, and indeed a paper of one of its sub-committees has argued that a domestic certificate—which is what we're talking about, rather than a travel certificate—has the potential to cause harm. The technical advisory cell, in its summary, cites two major UK studies that conclude that vaccine certification and COVID certification could be counter-productive, reducing the likelihood of vaccination amongst groups with lower take-up. Do you accept that limiting people's ability to engage in certain activities, based on their certified health status, sets a very uncomfortable precedent? We only have to think back, don't we, to the AIDS epidemic to realise why.

Under these circumstances, I think it is reasonable to expect the evidential case to be clear and cast iron, whereas in the words of one of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies's most prominent members, at best at the moment it's very mixed. To enable us as a party to come to a final decision, an informed decision, would you agree to our being presented with an impartial assessment of the COVID pass proposal by the chair of the technical advisory cell? 

14:00

Llywydd, I'm absolutely happy for Members who wish to have a further briefing on this to have it. Important, just to be clear, we are not proposing vaccine certification. You can get a COVID pass without a vaccine certificate. This is a very, very difficult issue. Arguments are very closely balanced. Plaid Cymru's sister party in Scotland is insisting on vaccine certification, full certification, and that Government will not have come to that conclusion lightly and will have seen all the SAGE evidence and all the other evidence that is there. The evidence often doesn't point unambiguously in a single direction and say all the advantages are down that road, and none of the advantages are down the other. 

I've listened carefully to what Members here have said about compulsory vaccine certification, and I share many of the anxieties that people have. That doesn't mean that I could not be persuaded by the public health evidence that that might still be a necessary, if regrettable, course of action in Wales. The COVID pass is not a certificate. You can get a COVID pass without being vaccinated at all, but you do have to demonstrate that you have other evidence that your presence at an event would not be causing a risk to other people. Like all compromises, it has some strengths and it has some downsides as well, but in Wales the Government has come to the conclusion that, for now, this strikes the best balance between the arguments that Adam Price has rightly drawn attention to this afternoon, but the advantages that come, as I saw very clearly myself over the last few days, of having a system in which you have to demonstrate that you have taken the necessary action to make yourself, and therefore others, safe.

Personal Protective Equipment

3. Will the First Minister provide an update on the use of personal protective equipment in care homes in Arfon? OQ56933

Thank you very much to Siân Gwenllian for that question. Care home staff will still need to wear personal protective equipment to protect residents and themselves from the risk of COVID‑19. This includes staff in Arfon care homes. We continue to provide free PPE to care homes, for as long as is needed, to deal with the pandemic. 

It's still not clear what the situation is in terms of those providing care in the community and the use of one part of PPE, namely the gowns. Many have been in touch with me given their concerns that they are being treated as second class in relation to their colleagues in clinical settings, because they don't have to wear gowns. This is one message that I received: 

'When we try to keep positive clients out of hospital and protect others in the community, we are refused a vital piece of PPE'. 

Can you confirm what the situation is exactly as to why workers are being treated differently, and will you reconsider this? In the words of my constituent once again, this is what she said: 

'Social care is already at crisis point. The recruitment and retention of care staff is at an all-time low, and this will only compound the situation further as staff will feel they're not being protected, and will seek alternative employment'. 

14:05

Well, Llywydd, I thank Siân Gwenllian very much for those supplementary points. They're important, and I've heard myself that people working in the field feel the same way. But throughout the pandemic, the nature of the PPE that has been provided to social care has been led by the specialist expert committee that provides advice to this Government here in Wales and to every other Government in the United Kingdom. They look at everything that emanates from the field, every report available, and their advice then goes to the four chief medical officers and the four chief nursing officers, and they then reflect that advice to us and tell us, 'That is the PPE that is appropriate for people working in context A, context B and so on and so forth'. Everything they tell us we then ensure that we actually give that equipment—we fund it and we issue it. If the advice changes—and they monitor and look at this advice regularly—then this Government's standpoint here in Wales will also change. But it's not down to me to go against the advice that we receive from people who are much more familiar with the field than myself. When they say, 'That is what is appropriate in that context,' then that's what we do.

Thank you, First Minister, for your response to Siân Gwenllian there. I certainly sympathise with the comments made via Siân Gwenllian with the words from care home owners and care home workers. It's difficult, I think, for many of us to understand that significant difference in protection for roles and tasks that seem quite similar, between a health worker and a care support worker, but clearly you've answered the question to you in regard to that.

On a slightly wider point, in regard to PPE and its supply, you mentioned there the free supply into care homes, which of course is welcome. But of course throughout the pandemic it's been the role of local authorities and county councils to ensure the supply does end up at the doorstep of care homes and domiciliary care workers as well, and I'm sure you'll agree they've done an amazing job through that time in terms of logistics and getting that equipment to the places that need it. In light of that, what plans do you have to ensure that this supply is able to continue and that there aren't any surprises, especially over the winter months, in demand for this supply, so that social care workers are properly protected? Thanks.

Llywydd, I thank the Member for that. I entirely agree with what he said about the amazing job that local authorities in all parts of Wales have done, suddenly having to gear themselves up to provide a service that they had never hitherto had to provide. I think sometimes members of the public don't quite realise that, until the pandemic, the responsibility for sourcing and paying for PPE in a care home was entirely the responsibility of the care home owner or manager themselves. Between us, between the Welsh Government, between the shared services department, and between local authorities, we managed to put into place a very complex supply chain. There are hundreds and hundreds of care homes in Wales, let alone the domiciliary care settings that Siân Gwenllian referred to, so I entirely share the Member's views of the amazing job that was done to put that in place. We have guaranteed until the end of this financial year, Llywydd, that we will continue to fund PPE through local authorities to care homes; 450 million items have already been supplied to the care sector here in Wales, and we currently have a 24-week supply of PPE, across all the different ranges, in all warehouses, as we go into this winter. The Member will know, in the very early days of the pandemic, there were some supply chain vulnerabilities in Wales and across the United Kingdom. Those have been very carefully addressed, and with 24 weeks already in the warehouse I think we can be confident through the winter.

What happens beyond the end of March this year will depend a great deal on what we learn from the comprehensive spending review at the end of October, and whether there are to be continued funds across the United Kingdom to go on providing the supplies that we are currently able to provide. 

14:10
Economic Development in the Valleys

4. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's economic development initiatives in the south Wales valleys? OQ56899

Ministers take a direct interest in the economic development of the south Wales Valleys. My colleague Dawn Bowden co-ordinates actions that continue to flow from the work of the Valleys taskforce. Last week, the economy Minister and I were both separately in the Member’s constituency, pursuing investment in jobs, skills and economic futures.

Thank you very much, First Minister. It was good to see you visiting Ciner in Ebbw Vale and looking at the potential of that £350 million investment taking place in the constituency, and good, then, the following day, to see Vaughan Gething continuing a close relationship with Thales, which is a part of the £100 million Tech Valleys investment in the economy of Blaenau Gwent.

Taken together, of course, what this does is demonstrate once again why the people of Blaenau Gwent supported the Welsh Government last May and continue to support the investment programme that the Welsh Government is leading within Blaenau Gwent and across the Heads of the Valleys.

Would he be prepared to meet with me now to discuss how we can ratchet this up to another level to ensure that the benefits that we will see from the completion of the dualling of the A465 Heads of the Valleys road in my constituency can now ensure that we do get the jobs plan and the economic benefit that can lead to a real renaissance in the towns at the Heads of the Valleys? 

Llywydd, I'm very grateful to Alun Davies for that supplementary question. I was very pleased indeed to be in Ebbw Vale last week. I was there because it was the day on which Ciner, the company that plan to come to invest in Ebbw Vale, were submitting their formal planning application. I was able to hear from them about the pre-application exercise that they'd been involved in and the various views that they had collected as part of it. That application will now move to its formal consideration. It's an enormous opportunity, if it can be made to happen, and I was very glad to be there.

I've heard Alun Davies many times make the point that the Heads of the Valleys road is an awful lot more than a road; it is a catalyst for economic opportunity right across the Heads of the Valleys and the communities there. We do have to—I agree with him entirely—make sure that we use that £1 billion worth of investment that successive Labour Governments have made in completing the dualling of the road—of the A465—and that we then put that to work to make sure that it is that catalyst for economic futures. I'm very happy indeed to meet with him for a conversation about how we can make that happen.

First Minister, I'm pleased to hear you mention roads in your answer there to Alun Davies. I'm sure you'll be aware that 78 per cent of goods moved in the UK are being transported by roads, and I'm sure you'll agree that one of the keys to efficient economic development in the south Wales Valleys is good transport infrastructure.

You'll recall that the UK Conservative Government abolished tolls on the Severn crossings in 2018. So, the news that the Welsh Government is considering introducing tolls or road-charging schemes on Welsh roads is a bitter disappointment. How will you ensure that any tolls or road-charging schemes will not adversely impact economic development, and what assurance can you provide that the aim of these schemes will not simply be to raise revenue?

Llywydd, I could spend some time, really, trying to make sure the Member's understood what is actually being proposed, but I'm sure you wouldn't want me to. Let me try to summarise as briefly as I can: there are no proposals for road charging in any general sense. We are under a legal obligation to make sure that those parts of the network where nitrogen dioxide concentrations are above legal limits—that we are taking all of the necessary actions to reduce them.

We have a plan—a funded plan—to do that, but the law requires us to consider a further range of measures should what we are doing not succeed. And it is a legal obligation for us to consider those further potential mitigation measures. That is why there has been talk of road charging, because that is one of the alternative things that we have to consider in order to demonstrate that we are meeting our legal obligations—not because we plan to do so; there are no such plans. We hope that what we're already doing—the 50 mph speed limits and other mitigation measures—will be sufficient to bring air quality within the limits of the law. But the law requires us, in case that should not succeed, to work through, with local communities, other measures that may be necessary, and that's where this story finds its origin.

14:15
Supporting Town Centres

5. What are the Welsh Government's priorities for supporting town centres? OQ56935

I thank the Member, Llywydd. Our priority for town centres is to support the reinvention necessary to secure their long-term future. That requires a new mix of town-centre purposes, including retail, leisure, culture, public services, shared work facilities and living spaces, making these places once again sources of civic pride and identity, confidence and well-being.

I thank the First Minister for that answer. Town centres are, of course, the beating heart of our communities, but some recent reports, such as the Audit Wales report, 'Regenerating Town Centres in Wales', sketch out the challenges that they face. I welcome the robust comments from Welsh Government on how Ministers will address many of these issues through, for example, town centres first and the streamlining of funding processes. However, Audit Wales also noted issues around capacity at local government level. When there are already so many pressures on this tier, how is Welsh Government working with councils and the Welsh Local Government Association to ensure that they can support town centres in their areas?

I thank the Member for that, Llywydd, and I agree that of course local authorities are absolutely crucial to the town-centre regeneration agenda right across Wales. There are many, many fine examples of actions that are led by our local authorities bringing life back into those places.

Now, on a Wales-wide basis, responsibility for this rests with the ministerial town centre action group. It's chaired by my colleague Lee Waters; it met yesterday. Amongst its members are senior politicians from local government, senior officers from the WLGA, and the chief executive of One Voice Wales, making sure that the voice of local government is very clearly heard in those deliberations. The group is now going to focus on the recommendations of the Audit Wales report to which Vikki Howells referred, and also the recent report of Professor Karel Williams, which, as some Members here will know, took a particular interest in towns such as Haverfordwest, and to find a way of securing a vibrant future for them as well. Those two reports will form the agenda for that action group, and local authorities, in the way that Vikki Howells suggested, will be integral to that work.

Access to GP Services

6. Will the First Minister make a statement on access to GP services in the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board region? OQ56936

I thank the Member. Primary care services across Wales are facing increased demand from non-COVID related illnesses, delivery of the flu and booster vaccination programme, as well as the challenges of the ongoing pandemic. GPs and their clinical colleagues in north Wales make enormous efforts to keep their populations safe in these extraordinary times.

Thank you. First Minister, an increasing number of constituents have raised concerns about their ability to secure a face-to-face appointment with locals GPs, with some being repeatedly told that all appointments at their practice are frequently booked—numerous phone calls on a daily basis and yet unable to secure any appointments. Of course, the use of online and telephone appointments have been a key part of the response in tackling the demand caused by COVID, however not everyone can or will consider these methods for such private and sensitive personal health issues. The year before, Age Cymru found that nine out of 10 people aged 75 and over actually consulted their GP during this time. So, when you look at the numbers now receiving these consultations, these measures are acting as a barrier. I've got GPs raising their concerns with me as well regarding the lack of ambulances when they need to make referrals. So, will you commit today to reviewing the guidance and support available to our GPs to enable a much easier and greater interface with patients? And also, with cervical screenings being of utmost importance in our GP practices, and the vital nature of ensuring that everyone with a cervix receives critical screening, does the First Minister agree with Sir Keir Starmer—[Interruption.]—that it is transphobic to say that only women have a cervix?

14:20

You can choose to answer one of those two questions; you don't need to answer the two.

Thank you, Llywydd. Well, I'll answer the question that wasn't just an attempt to make a naked political point, because the Member did make a series of important points in the first part of her question. Look, technological solutions to GP consultations are here to stay. They are now an important and integral part of the way in which primary care services will be provided in the future. But the proportion of consultations that are carried out face to face is growing all the time; I think it's back to about half of consultations in Wales are now face-to-face consultations. And I think the answer I have to give to the Member is that we just have to be prepared to trust the judgment of clinicians. They are best placed to know whether somebody can be just as effectively provided with a service by a telephone conversation or a consultation via video link, or whether it is necessary for the person to be seen face to face. Now, you need the technology to underpin that, and I know that there are some GP practices in the Member's own constituency where there's been recent investment to make sure there's an improved telephone service so people are able to get through on the phone and get the consultation that they need. But when that is properly in place, I think it is a clinical judgment as to whether or not the patient can be just as effectively treated via the technological route, or whether or not someone needs—for very good reasons, often—to be seen face to face.

National Insurance

7. What assessment has the Welsh Government undertaken of the impact of the planned national insurance rises on the public sector in Wales? OQ56934

I thank Joyce Watson, Llywydd. Planned national insurance rises will adversely affect Welsh public services in a number of ways. Employer national insurance contributions, for example, will drive up costs for all public services, while employee contributions will fall disproportionately on lower-paid workers who do so much to provide these services in Wales.

Thank you for that. It's bad enough that this is an enforced tax rise on working people in Wales, but it mustn't be a financial and administrative burden on our public services as well. So, what discussions has your administration had with the Westminster Government to ensure that the Welsh public sector employers are fully compensated and supported to pay for and administer the incoming tax charges? 

I thank Joyce Watson for what is a very important question. Our initial estimate is that the direct cost to Welsh public services of employer national insurance contributions will be somewhere between £80 million and £90 million a year, and that does not include any contracted staff that they may have, as will be very common in social care. I'm afraid, Llywydd, the answer to the Member's question probably is, 'We'll never know', because we will have the opacity of the Barnett formula wrapped up in a comprehensive spending review, and I have no doubt at all that the UK Government will claim that all those costs have somehow been covered by the sums that they then derive from that exercise. It will be very difficult indeed to see whether that is in reality the case, or whether it is just the normal smoke and mirrors that we see around spending times. What is certain, Llywydd, is this: that of the money that the UK Government says will be invested in health and social care after April of next year, fully 12 per cent of it will come from the national insurance contributions of people who work in health and social care. So, it is the people who are doing the job who are being asked to pay for the money that is being provided. That is why we have said all along that national insurance was not the right vehicle through which to provide the very necessary funding for those vital public services.

14:25
Rural Crime

8. What action is the Welsh Government taking to help reduce rural crime? OQ56909

I thank the Member. In addition to increasing the number of Welsh Government-funded police community support officers to 600, we are also investing in a new national rural crime co-ordinator for Wales. That post will establish a Wales-specific training programme for police officers and improve multi-agency efforts to tackle rural crime.

Diolch, First Minister. Crime in the countryside causes serious distress to our rural communities, with agricultural vehicle thefts, sheep worrying and the vandalism of wildlife nesting areas all being reported in recent months. As a member of Wales YFC, these are issues that I'm all too aware of, and, as you mention, we are fortunate that Rob Taylor, Wales's wildlife and rural crime co-ordinator, has a passion and dogged determination to cut rural crime across Wales through a cohesive and collaborative approach between Welsh police forces. And while this role is being funded by the Welsh Government, that funding is due to stop in only a few short months. Therefore, what reassurances can you give to Wales's rural communities that the wildlife and rural crime co-ordinator will receive longer term funding to ensure Rob, his expertise and enthusiasm, aren't lost in the battle against rural crime? Diolch.

Diolch yn fawr. Thank you for what Samuel Kurtz said about the person appointed to the post, because you're absolutely right, he is someone with an enormous track record and a huge passion for this work. We said in the beginning that we would do this, Llywydd, on a pilot basis to see whether it delivered the advantages we think are there to be delivered. We will evaluate the pilot, of course, and then we will have to make the difficult decisions that are there when we come to set our own budget in the light of the comprehensive spending review. If the evidence is there of success, and I know the Member will have seen—. This is not to devalue at all the important points he made about the nature of rural crime, but it was encouraging to see the National Farmers Union report that Wales had seen the biggest reduction in rural theft between 2019 and 2020 of any part of the United Kingdom. When it does happen, it is deeply distressing to people in the way that the Member said. The national rural crime co-ordinator is one of the ways in which we can try to build further on that achievement of recent times.

2. Business Statement and Announcement

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

Member
Lesley Griffiths 14:27:55
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Thank you. I've no changes to announce to this week's business. Draft business for the next three sitting weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.

Thank you for the business statement. Can I call for two Government statements, please—the first from the Minister for education on the availability or unavailability of examination certificates from the WJEC? I've been contacted by a constituent this week who's very eager to embark on a nursing degree, but has had to put it off twice because he is unable to access the copies of his examination certificates from the WJEC. They say that they're unable to issue them because of COVID and the pandemic, but it does seem to be an extraordinary thing that someone's had to postpone things now for two academic years as a result of the unavailability of these, so I'd be grateful if the Minister could make a statement on that.

Secondly, can I call for a statement on town centre heritage? I took note of the First Minister's comments earlier on, and, of course, we do need to make an effort to regenerate our town centres here in Wales, but that must not be at the expense of local heritage in our communities, and there are some fantastic examples of people in my own constituency in Colwyn Bay with the Imagine Colwyn Bay heritage app, which goes live this week, and in Ruthin with the Peers memorial refurbishment project, which is currently getting under way. The Peers memorial is the town clock in Ruthin, for those who've visited, on St Peter's square, very much a focal point of the town. But these sorts of projects need funding, they need support, in order to keep up the maintenance of these important aspects of our heritage. So, perhaps we can have a statement on these things and how we can complement our town-centre regeneration with heritage in the future.

Thank you. In relation to your first question around people not receiving certificates from the WJEC, I will certainly ask the Minister for education if he or any of his officials have had discussions around this issue, and, if there is anything positive he can come back with following those discussions, I will ask him to write to you.

I think you make a really important point around heritage in our town centres. I was really pleased—with my north Wales Minister's hat on—to visit the museum, which has been refurbished, in Llandudno last Thursday. And I think it is really important that our town centres do keep the amazing heritage that so many of them have.

14:30

Thank you, Trefnydd. You'll be aware of the huge growth in the number of cases of COVID in our schools. Over the last week, there have been 9,500 cases among young people under the age of 20—most of them in our schools. A year ago, there was clear guidance for schools in terms of face coverings, ventilation, social distancing, and so on. And indeed, independent SAGE scientists highly recommend that such measures should be reintroduced in our schools today. With children away from school, being ill, without digital learning, many are missing out on their education, and a number of teachers can't attend schools either, and schools are having difficulty in staging classes. Currently, the rules aren't clear to parents as to who should isolate and who should attend school if they are in a class with someone who's tested positive. The system is a mess. It's leading some to think whether the intention is to have herd immunity among children and pupils. Trefnydd, in light of this, will you ensure that the Ministers for education and health bring urgent statements to the Senedd, including clear guidance as to how COVID should be managed in our educational establishments, please?

Thank you. I disagree with the Member that the system is a mess. We obviously understand the concerns that have been raised in relation to issues around self-isolation and household contacts within our schools. Our priority is absolutely to ensure that as many young people are in education as possible, so that we don't have the issues that you referred to in relation to home learning. We're very clear what our current position is, and this has been fed back to all the schools. I did a school visit myself, in my own constituency, on Friday, and asked the headteacher there if he felt the current guidance was clear, and he answered, 'yes'.

I've been contacted by a constituent who lives with ME, a condition otherwise known as chronic fatigue syndrome, and she's concerned about the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence's decision to delay the publication of its new revised guidelines for the treatment of ME. And campaign groups for people living with ME believe this delay has been caused by a small number of professional bodies pushing back against changes in the revised guidance. I wrote to NICE, who responded that they are convening a round table next month, to try and reach a compromise position, but some of the campaign groups are not satisfied and believe that NICE are breaking its own protocols in delaying publication. So, could we have a statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services to provide an update on what, if anything, Welsh Government can do that's appropriate to bring pressure on NICE to publish its revised guidelines as soon as possible, for the benefit of people living with chronic fatigue syndrome?

And I'd also like to ask for a statement on people who are at risk of flooding. I've got constituents who live near a river that is causing erosion at the rear of their properties. We met with Natural Resources Wales at their properties. One resident would be expected to pay £36,000 just to prevent erosion. Natural Resources Wales say they've got no powers to issue any kind of funding for erosion issues. We feel that there's a group of residents who are stuck in the middle. They're not subject to immediate flooding, but must take action now to prevent it in future, but there's no funding available for them to support what would be otherwise unaffordable long-term flood risk prevention. So, please could we have a statement about those people who are stuck in the middle between immediate flooding now and possible flooding in the future?

Thank you. As a Government, we were very disappointed that the NICE guidance wasn't published. It's not a judgment on the content or the proposed treatment, it's simply around the manner in which the publication was then postponed. I know the health Minister's officials did contact NICE to raise Welsh Government's concerns, and try and determine what their next steps are going to be to overcome the issue. There is an independently chaired round-table discussion to be held with NICE and key stakeholders in October, and we certainly look forward to a consensus being reached, and I think that time would be the most appropriate time for the health Minister to make a statement, if she felt it the right direction to go.

In relation to your second question, I would advise you to write directly to the Minister for Climate Change, because it could be that she will be able to advise your constituents around any specific funding that might be available. 

14:35

Can I call for a debate in this Chamber on the issue of what can be done to provide safer travel for horse riders in Wales? Equine ownership in Wales is worth over £0.5 billion to the Welsh economy, and is a vital part of the health and well-being of many people. For horse owners, riding and exercising their horses is integral to their lives, and one that needs more protection put into place. Riding horses on the roads has become increasingly dangerous. The British Horse Society has reported, through their Dead Slow campaign, that there have been 1,010 instances involving horses this year; 46 horses have been killed; and 118 horses injured in the UK. Although the Welsh Government has proposed changes to the highway code, this does not change the fact that 80 per cent of instances occur because drivers travel too close to horses.

The debate will also be very timely, because, as some Members will be aware, on Sunday, 19 September, horse riders right across Wales staged a protest to call for active travel plans to include them. They argue that many bridleways have been downgraded to footpaths, which have taken away vital routes for horses and their riders, forcing them to use roads to travel upon. I would ask for this debate as an urgent matter. It would allow Members to present experiences of horse riders from across their regions and discuss proposals that could be put into place to help protect horses and riders. The debate should also discuss including horse riders in the Welsh Government's active travel plans. Thank you.

Thank you. I was aware of the campaign that took place on 19 September, and I know several colleagues attended events in their constituencies around the issue. As you say, currently, as a Government, we are looking at what we can do around the highway code, for instance, and other forms of active travel. So, I don't think a statement would be appropriate at this current time.

Trefnydd, everyone has a right to feel safe in public spaces, be that on public transport, as they walk along the street, or anywhere else. But, unfortunately, time and time again, we hear of cases of male violence against women in these spaces. We are all aware, of course, of what happened in London to Sabina Nessa, a 28-year-old teacher who was murdered whilst walking from her home at around 8.30 in the evening, a five-minute journey, to a local pub. 

Male violence against women is a problem here in Wales, as it is across the UK of course, and we must end it. We must prevent it, rather than managing it. Will the Government make a statement to update us on the work that's being done to strengthen the national strategy on violence against women, domestic violence and sexual violence, outlining the steps to safeguard women on public transport, in public spaces and online as part of that strategy? And can we have a timetable on the delivery of this? Thank you.

Diolch. The Minister for Social Justice will be making a statement this afternoon—a written statement. 

Alun Davies. Sorry, Alun, it wasn't that I was reluctant to call you, it was just that I couldn't find the name on my list. [Laughter.]

I'm sure it wasn't. Not this time, no. [Laughter.] Minister, I asked, last week, for a statement on civil contingencies. Since last week's business statement, of course, we've seen further chaos across Wales, and constituents have been telling me that people who work in the emergency services, people who work in the caring services, are unable to reach their places of work because of the problems in getting fuel. This has been an utter disaster and has been caused by—. We know there have been policy failures from the United Kingdom Government, but the failure to recognise, and to plan for Brexit, is, of course, at the heart of this. The Welsh Government's civil contingencies planning did plan for a number of different eventualities, including these matters, as part of 'no deal' Brexit planning. I would like to have a statement, if possible, about how the Welsh Government can help people across the country who are being faced by the chaos that they are facing at the moment.

I'd also like to ask for a statement on business support post furlough ending, and how we can support people in work, as we see support from the United Kingdom Government ending at the moment. There are a number of businesses that have approached me, in Blaenau Gwent, who are very concerned about their ability to maintain employment, and it is important that we are able to support and sustain businesses, as the United Kingdom Government walks away from their responsibilities and those businesses.

14:40

Thank you. I think you're certainly correct in the fact that the UK Government did not have that long-term planning that we should have had, and we have certainly seen chaotic scenes over the weekend. I think it's really important to say there is no shortage of fuel in the UK, and we continue to encourage people to buy fuel as they normally would. The civil contingencies part of Welsh Government are currently having discussions. I'm aware of meetings this morning, and I will certainly ask the Minister at the most appropriate time to come forward with a statement for Members.

I think we all recognise that, again, furlough finishing on Thursday is too soon. We would have preferred to see it continue, because clearly we are still in the midst of the COVID pandemic. Obviously, as a Government, we have limited funding and limited levers in relation to this. So, I know that the Minister for Economy continues to have discussions with the UK Government about what we can do to support our businesses.

Minister, a few weeks ago I asked for an investigation into how seven patients at Maesteg hospital died in a COVID outbreak last autumn that affected every patient in the hospital. I understand that patients transferred into Maesteg from other hospitals would have tested negative for COVID before admission. So, this means that someone coming into the hospital from a care home or from the community might have brought it in. Why were they not tested? By last autumn, the dangers of sending people into closed environments like care homes or hospitals were well known, so testing should have been done. I would like a statement by the health Minister setting out how infection control is now being managed so that we avoid such disastrous consequences going forward. Thank you very much.

Well, the Minister for Health and Social Services will be giving an oral statement every three weeks in the Chamber around the COVID-19 pandemic, and it might be the most appropriate time for you to question her then.

Could I ask for a statement on the learner transport review, please, Trefnydd? According to the Welsh Government's own website, it was indicated that the review was due to be published in March of this year. However, colleagues in local government have told me that they have been advised that the review is delayed and will be delivered within the life of this Government. Meanwhile, in my region, specifically in the Llynfi valley, in Caerau, a community that has consistently ranked highly in the index of deprivation, and often in the top five in Wales, there are pupils who face a walk of 45 minutes to an hour to get to school, and scenarios like this are being repeated elsewhere in Swansea and Port Talbot. Does the Welsh Government believe that removing school transport for some of the most disadvantaged communities in Wales is the right way forward?

Thank you. Well, the review to which you referred, as you said, we were expecting to have it at the beginning of this year. I think we got it around March, and obviously in the previous administration, we then ran out of time. And I think what that initial review did conclude was that there were very complex—. We had very in-depth discussions with stakeholders, and engagement with them, obviously, and I think what came out was that there were a lot of complex needs, obviously, for people who need that home-to-school transport. And it wasn't just the Measure that needed reviewing, but I think the whole scope of the legislation. So, this is something obviously this Government will be taking forward, and you referred to it in your opening remarks.

Last week, we learned that, as a result of the disastrous decision not to proceed with the electrification of the main railway line up to Swansea, we now have more pollution on these bi-mode trains that were foisted upon us than they have on the worst polluted streets in central London. This is a really serious issue for my constituents, as Cardiff Central Station is where the electrification grinds to a halt, so they are the biggest victims of this belching diesel pollution. And on top of that, this week, we learned that the decision made by the UK Government back in 2017—. We were given the sop that they were going to produce improvements to the railway lines in other ways, but they haven't even completed the outline business case, and that's nearly five years later. How are we going to be able to go ahead with the excellent recommendations of the Burns commission for the south-east Wales metro if we don't have any idea what the UK Government is proposing? So, I wondered if we could have a statement on how this dithering UK Government is affecting our plans for the south-east Wales metro, given that the spine of the whole business is the way we use the relief lines between Newport and Cardiff, and beyond.

14:45

Thank you. I absolutely share your dismay to see that those levels of onboard nitrogen dioxide were the highest on GWR. I think it's absolutely a direct consequence of the UK Government stopping electrification short of Cardiff, rather than electrifying the whole line. I was looking at some figures around electrification, and if there's any other example that the UK Government absolutely let Wales down: England, 41 per cent of the track's electrified; Scotland, 25 per cent of the track is electrified; and Wales, only 2 per cent of the track is currently electrified.

So, the Welsh Government's really doing its bit on our infrastructure, but we really need the UK Government to step up and complete electrification between Cardiff and Swansea as a starting point, and then commit to a rolling programme of electrification across Wales, and that includes the north Wales coastline, so that we can have those electric services. I think the best way, really, would be for them to devolve rail infrastructure to us, but, of course, with a fair funding settlement so that we can prioritise and deliver the decarbonisation of our rail services in Wales.

As climate change spokesperson, I am a passionate supporter of the renewable energy sector. Indeed, my constituency is home to many offshore easily visible wind turbines—one of the largest—so I'm looking for a statement from the Minister for Climate Change and energy regarding Awel y Môr offshore wind farm. This proposal will see 91 new massive turbines off the coast if permissions are granted. These turbines are planned for 10.6 kilometres off the coast of Llandudno, with a height of 332m to their tip; that's the size of the Eiffel Tower. These plans are currently going ahead with very little participation of stakeholders, so could I request a statement on the following: whether Awel y Môr has already been given pre-consent by this Welsh Government, as it is suggested? What measures are in place to protect biodiversity, especially given concerns about the negative marine impacts of the previous, existing Gwynt y Môr scheme in terms of species decline, with bird and marine life disturbance? What protections might the Welsh Government consider for seaside communities where the main tourist attraction is the coastal horizon, so that we can help to protect our valued tourism industry? And also, just how can our residents have absolute confidence in a planning process that apparently currently appears to pay more lip service than hold meaningful and accessible consultation events for those wanting to contribute their thoughts. Diolch.

I'm very pleased you clarified you're in support of renewable energy, because certainly the rest of your question didn't give me the impression at all that you were. Clearly, renewable energy is part of our solution in mitigating climate change, which I do think you share our ambition around.

I'm not going to ask the Minister to do a specific statement about the project that you refer to, because I don't think that would be appropriate, but, obviously, at certain times during Government business, we do update Members in relation to our plans for renewable energy. And you're quite right—north Wales is absolutely a prime spot, and certainly, when I was the energy Minister, we had many, many developers and companies who wanted to come and capture the great potential that there is in north Wales.

Could I ask for two statements? One of them is actually echoing the point made earlier on—it would be great to get a statement on the timing of the outcome of the extended consultation on school transport. It's been extended to look at this issue over the free travel aspects and the distance. Bridgend traditionally provided more generous than most local authorities in Wales transport in Wales, but it had a decade of austerity funding. I noticed that, when this was debated in the council chamber, no alternative was put forward by any politician in the chamber to actually move into the statutory minimum. However, I'm looking forward with high expectation to the outcome of the Welsh Government consultation to see whether it puts forward any new proposals in Wales. I know my constituents are looking forward to that as well.

Secondly, could we have a statement on the issue of HGV class 1 testing and training? I've got constituents who are ready to actually go through, to leap through, that final hoop to drive articulated lorries, but the cost can be up to and in excess of £2,000, plus the test fee on top of that as well. I wonder whether there is UK Government support or Welsh Government support, or whether there are companies in Wales that can be spoken to by Welsh Government, as I know there are in England, who will actually sponsor candidates now to go through this to fill in some of that backlog in the absence of hauliers that we currently have. 

14:50

Thank you. You will have heard my answer to Luke Fletcher around the review of the learner transport Measure, and I mentioned that we need to look at the wider issues that that review threw up at the end of the previous term of government, and whether we need to have a look at the scope of the legislation more widely to ensure we do have those effective services. 

In relation to support for HGV drivers to be trained to a class 1 level, there is the ReAct programme, which you will be very aware of, and certainly there is grant of up to £1,500 available that will cover all aspects of training, testing and licensing. So, there's that funding, which has been available now for about six years, I think. Also, Jobcentre Plus is running a pilot programme across the UK, and that does include Flintshire and south-west Wales, in collaboration with local authorities and local transport companies. That answers the second part of your question around working with, particularly, unemployed people who are looking to be HGV drivers. 

I would like to call for an urgent Welsh Government statement on GP services in Wales. Although the COVID pandemic has shone a light on these, warnings to the Welsh Government of a GP crisis in Wales long predate this. In 2012, both BMA Cymru and the Royal College of General Practitioners relaunched campaigns warning that Wales faced a GP crisis, that 90 per cent of patient contacts were with general practice and yet funding as a share of the NHS cake had fallen, and that they had relaunched their campaigns because the Welsh Government didn't listen.

At a 2014 BMA Cymru briefing in the Assembly, the chair of the north Wales local medical committee said general practice in north Wales was in crisis, several practices had been unable to fill vacancies, and many GPs were seriously considering retirement because of the currently expanding workload. Jump forward and, last Thursday, the north Wales community health council said that people were facing a crisis of access to GPs. The chair of the Welsh GPs committee at the BMA, representing doctors, said problems were developing before COVID, with more GPs being lost to early retirement. I call for an urgent statement accordingly.

I really wish Members would perhaps be a little bit more measured when they use the word 'crisis'. Whilst of course we have seen our GPs asked to so much more work, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic—and we're extremely grateful for the amazing roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine programme—as you will have heard the First Minister say, we're now asking them to do the winter flu vaccination programme, and we're asking them to do the COVID booster vaccination programme, too. So, our GPs are absolutely out there working with our populations and patients to ensure they have that protection.

Of course we see GPs retiring, just like we do in any other sector across Wales, and it is really important that there is that planning, which perhaps we haven't seen as much of in the health service. But, of course, GPs are self-employed, and I know from my own discussions, working with GPs, it is really important that they have that planning within their own practice to make sure that there isn't that gap.

It's also really important that we continue to work very hard with our health boards, because they are responsible for ensuring that their populations have access to GP services. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Trefnydd, children's hospices in Wales provide an absolutely invaluable service to the children they care for and their families. The vast majority of the funding that children's hospices rely on comes through donations. In the spring, the Welsh Government gave encouraging news that they were working with the end-of-life care board to review funding for hospices. Please can we have an update on the progress of that review, and how children's hospices in particular, and the children with life-limiting conditions themselves, will be considered within it?

14:55

Thank you. Yes, that review is due to be completed by the end of next month, i.e. October 2021. I know that recommendations will be coming forward to the health Minister, and I will certainly ask her to update Members when that review is complete. 

3. Statement by the First Minister: Inter-governmental Relations

The next item is a statement by the First Minister on inter-governmental relations, and I call on the First Minister to make that statement. 

Thank you, Llywydd. Today, I publish the Welsh Government’s annual report on inter-governmental relations for the period 2020-21. The report is part of this Government's commitment to transparency with the Senedd on inter-institutional and inter-governmental relations. I will continue to report on our relations and joint working with other Governments in the UK as well as with our British-Irish Council partners. I recently agreed with the Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee to renew our inter-institutional relations agreement for this sixth Senedd, and our officials are working on this.

Llywydd, it will come as a surprise to no-one to hear that there are major differences in outlook between the Welsh Government and the United Kingdom Government. However, the relationship is a vitally important one. When it is characterised by mutual respect, flexibility and a focus on where agreement can be found, the relationship can produce benefits for Wales and for the UK as a whole. When it falters, the results are inevitably disappointing. 

The period of this report focuses on the twin challenges of COVID-19 and the European transition period. Both challenges underlined the need for strong structures and a reliable rhythm of communication between Governments. The extent to which this was achieved in practice was variable, with some positive outcomes in some aspects of COVID-19 but a more uniformly dismal story on European transition. 

The pandemic has highlighted the way in which devolved and reserved responsibilities are interconnected. As a Welsh Government and as a Senedd we have had to make decisions, and we continue to do so, in what we believe to be the best interests of Wales. But we have approached those decisions in the context of shared scientific, economic and social links between Wales and the rest of the UK. Our public services too have, of course, co-operated in the same way in very many practical aspects. 

Wherever there is a reciprocal willingness to do so, the Welsh Government aims to continue co-operation with the UK Government on the next phase of COVID response and recovery, including operational and financial implications. Earlier in the summer, a COVID summit took place that illustrated the value of joint working in areas of common interest, and we in Wales are particularly interested in ensuring that our green agenda is central to the approach to recovery.

It's in that context that the UK comprehensive spending review is critical to our relationship with the UK Government. We need genuine partnership and an agreed approach to an investment-driven recovery that benefits Wales. Where it is sensible to work on a four-nations basis, we should do so, and it is essential that the UK Government establishes adequate structures to allow that to happen. 

Now, as a very practical example of inter-governmental solidarity, we have called on the UK Government to work urgently with us to develop a joint strategy and a funding programme for long-term remediation of coal tip sites. The Senedd will debate this issue this afternoon. Coal tips were created long before devolution was even envisaged. It is nonsensical to argue, as the UK Government does, that here in Wales we have either the responsibility or the resource to deal alone with this quintessentially legacy issue. Llywydd, instead of this highly sensitive matter being a subject of contention, it ought to be a defining example of how the UK Government can work with us to develop effective benefits from inter-governmental working, and that particularly so in the context of the UK hosting COP26.

As I said earlier, Llywydd, collaboration during the pandemic has yielded some positive examples of inter-governmental working. This year, we have had regular meetings between devolved Governments and the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, covering COVID-19 and other business. I look forward to this continuing following the recent reshuffle, where Michael Gove retains, as I understand it, responsibility for inter-governmental relations. The vaccination programme is a further example of how things can be done well, with agreement on central procurement, shared on a population basis across the UK, but with delivery managed by each nation. Beyond COVID, Llywydd, we have worked jointly on common frameworks, devised as a result of leaving the European Union, with provisional agreement between the Governments, hopefully to be followed by final agreement later this year.

The Welsh Government continues to enjoy strong relationships with other devolved Governments, and particularly with the British-Irish Council members. I look forward to welcoming the BIC to Wales, later this autumn, for its thirty-sixth summit, and I will return to the Senedd at a later date with further information for Members on the British-Irish Council meeting in Wales. Earlier this month, I attended the annual meeting of the British-Irish Association. There was an opportunity there to share a platform with the Northern Ireland First Minister, Paul Givan, and to meet with representatives of other parties within the Executive. In November, Welsh Ministers will take part in the COP26 discussions in Glasgow, working with the Scottish Government to maximise the contribution we can make to combating climate change alongside other regional Governments.

These relationships with other UK nations are a very important component of our inter-governmental efforts and ones that allow us both to work closely with others and to promote Welsh interests. What we need, however, is for these positive examples to become the norm in inter-governmental relations. A voluntary union of four nations is far more likely to be sustained into the future where we have a pattern of respectful, regular and reliable engagement, with clearly established robust and rules-based inter-governmental machinery. What we have in practice is piecemeal, ad hoc and sporadic co-operation. At best, it's capable of delivering useful outcomes, but far too often it leaves frustration and silence where dialogue and delivery were needed.

I regret that our bilateral relations with the UK Government are too often poor and difficult. Their muscular unionism, their hostility to devolution, and their aggressive unilateralism is entirely counter-productive and at odds with sentiment here in Wales. It is very difficult to reconcile the positive overtures made some of the time, by some UK Ministers, with the aggressive incursions they make into devolved areas, for example through their legislative programme and their spending plans, holding back money that should come to Wales, and taking back responsibilities that are clearly devolved.

Llywydd, it does not have to be this way. The Welsh Government wants a strong Wales in a successful United Kingdom. Our document 'Reforming our Union: Shared Governance in the UK', published in its second edition in June of this year, outlines such a positive future. It envisages an enduring union, utilising devolution as a strength and working together in ways that would persuade citizens in all four nations to want to belong to it. To take this work forward here in Wales, we will soon announce some details of our own new constitutional commission. The 'Reforming our Union' document will be available to it as it begins its deliberations, and I hope, of course, that others too will come forward with creative and workable ideas.

Llywydd, I had hoped to be able to set out today for the Senedd the culmination of the inter-governmental relations review, commissioned as long ago as 2018. Earlier this year, the publication of a draft package of reforms showed a growing level of consensus between the Governments, with relatively few remaining areas to be agreed. That is not to say that each Government will get everything it wanted, because, inevitably and quite rightly, this has been a process of negotiation and compromise. But, progress has been made and I try to remain optimistic that the review is finally ready to be concluded. Final details were being negotiated as the UK Government reshuffle took place, and now it remains to be seen whether this has implications for concluding the review satisfactorily. 

The draft reform programme represents a significant improvement and it includes new structures to facilitate better dialogue. In spite of a generally challenging relationship with the UK Government, here are some important steps set out in the review: it will establish a new inter-governmental machinery for regular meetings at all levels of Government; it would see increased parity of esteem and participation; for the first time, it would create an impartial secretariat; and it sets out an improved dispute avoidance and resolution mechanism, with the ability to include independent input into disputes and with greater transparency about their resolution. 

For this afternoon, Llywydd, I'd like to end on that positive note. The context of inter-governmental relations is difficult, but progress can be made. I hope that next year I will be able to report that issues as profound as the future of the United Kingdom are being addressed with the seriousness that they so urgently deserve.

15:05

Thank you, First Minister, for your statement. As you say, it should come to no-one's surprise in this Chamber that because of the political differences between the Welsh Labour Government and the UK Conservative Government there are, at times, tensions; that's understandable in a democracy that throws up Governments of different colours in Wales and at a UK level. So, I am a little disappointed, looking at some of the phrases and words in your statement today, because they don't entirely marry up to the document that you've published, which I thought, by and large, highlighted lots of positive engagement that was taking place at all sorts of levels between Ministers and officials in the Welsh Government, the UK Government and, indeed, the other devolved nations across the whole of the United Kingdom.

The document talks about the Joint Biosecurity Centre, it talks about the good work on the vaccination programme, the collaboration around the pandemic, the weekly meetings that are taking place between many Government departments here and Government departments at a UK level, the fact that Welsh Ministers have been participating in COBRA meetings, the engagement that there has been on the common frameworks, and the good, positive work that has been done as well in terms of engaging the Welsh Government in discussions on new trade deals. So, I thought it was a little bit disappointing to hear the First Minister commenting on lots of the negative aspects of the report, which, by and large—and I would encourage anybody to read it—goes against the grain of what you're saying in the fuller document.

It is important that we do have good working relationships, for the sake of the people of Wales, between the Welsh Government and the UK Government, and that's why I'm pleased that the UK Government did commission the inter-governmental review and that there has been a great deal of progress and agreement between the devolved nations and the UK Government on a framework for engagement in the future. You outlined, very positively I thought, some of the aspects of that that have already been agreed, and we very much look forward to seeing the final outcome. Of course, the delay in the publication of that document and the finalisation of that document is largely down to the pandemic, which has been a significant distraction, of course, for everybody, understandably so. But I do think that many of the challenges that we have experienced in the past as a result of the two different political parties being in Government at both ends of the M4 will be overcome as a result of the frameworks that will, hopefully, be put in place.

I noted that the First Minister made reference to coal tips, and I have to say, First Minister, that I and my colleagues on the Welsh Conservative benches completely agree that there needs to be a joint, collaborative approach to addressing the concerns about coal tips here in Wales, given that they are indeed a legacy from the pre-devolution era. That is entirely appropriate and I don’t recognise the reluctance that you seem to suggest is there in terms of the engagement of the UK Government on that particular issue.

You also made reference, of course, to the need for Wales to get its fair share of funding. I would remind you and everybody else in this Chamber today that Wales has received £8.6 billion extra from the UK Government as a result of the pandemic. That’s a membership dividend, if you like, from the fact that Wales is an important part of the United Kingdom—a constituent part of the United Kingdom. I make no apologies for the fact that I think the UK Government has done a very good job in terms of making that cash available to Wales when it needed it in order that it could plan an effective response. So, I do think that, at times, Welsh Government Ministers need to have a bit of a thicker skin when it comes to the occasional disagreement, which is entirely predictable because of the fact that there are political differences between the two political parties.

Can I ask you, First Minister: do you accept some responsibility for the occasional souring of relationships between the Welsh Government and the UK Government, particularly given the disruption and the disruptive way that your party behaved in trying to prevent the UK’s departure from the European Union? I think that that process—that did sour relationships, it was divisive, and I think at times very unnecessary, given that everybody had to get on and deliver on the outcome of that referendum. There were people in the Labour Party here in Wales, and indeed in England, who are still wanting to go back and reverse the decision of the British people and, remember, the people of Wales, because the majority of people here in Wales voted to leave the EU. But that actually did sour relationships. I don’t think it was always necessary, but, of course, I would hope that you would accept some responsibility on the part of your party for the souring of those relationships at that time.

Now, those things, of course, are behind us, hopefully, and we can press on and make sure that the relationships are improved in the future. And with your indulgence, Llywydd, if I may—

15:10

I was very pleased, First Minister, to hear your references to engagement with Ireland through the British-Irish Council and indeed the other work that you’ve been doing. Obviously, I’m a proud Irish citizen as well as being a British citizen, and I think that those relationships are extremely important for Wales, given the fact that we have a fellow Celtic nation that wants to engage positively with us, and I think that the collaboration with the Republic of Ireland will be extremely important into the future. So, I do look forward to you making further statements on the British-Irish Council, and look forward, hopefully, to the outcome of the inter-governmental review being implemented so that these relationships can prosper in the future.

I thank Darren Millar for that. My own assessment of my statement would be that I was doing my best to err on the side of generosity through it all. I struck out references to the shared prosperity fund, to the poisonous impact of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, to the struggles to persuade the Treasury to operate the rules by which it itself ought to be bound, because I wanted—I'm going to do that as much as I can—to emphasise the need for positive relationships between all Governments across the United Kingdom. And that is what I was attempting to do.

The IGR, when it reports, I hope it will do what Darren Millar said: I hope it will set out a set of structures that will give us the robustness of inter-governmental machinery that will avoid some of the ad hoc nature of contact between the four nations in recent times. But structures are only one part of inter-governmental relationships; culture is another, and we will have to see the spirit with which that is approached.

I notice with great interest what the Member said about coal tips, and we have had some joint approach here. The coal tips group that was established in the aftermath of flooding in 2019 has been jointly chaired by the Secretary of State and myself. Here is where the rub comes, Llywydd: the Coal Authority, an entirely non-devolved body, entirely the responsibility of the UK Government, has done fantastic work. We have a much better sense of where we have vulnerabilities with coal tips, and we have a much better sense of what it will cost to put those right. The Coal Authority has been—it's still working on it, I know, but it's been proposing a programme of £600-million worth of investment over a 10-year period to put right the things that were left when this institution came into being. And despite the fact that there is no funding stream at all in Wales for that purpose, the Treasury writes letters of astonishing arrogance to us, saying that as far as they're concerned, there won't be a penny piece towards it, and that we are going to have to find ourselves that £600 million from budgets that come to us to build hospitals, to build roads, to build schools and to do all the other things for which we are responsible. And that's why I pointed to it as an area where, if ever there was an opportunity for a UK Government to be able to demonstrate to people in Wales the dividend that comes with being in the United Kingdom, joint working with us on that issue would surely be it.

You see—two last points, Llywydd—the way the Member talked about the cash that came to Wales during the pandemic, I think, just illustrates the gulf that separates us. Wales didn't get that money by the generosity of some UK Government; we are not a client state of the UK Government. The money comes to Wales because Welsh citizens pay into the pot from which we then draw out. It's that whole sense of—you know, the absence of any sense of an equality of the relationship that I think distinguishes the way we think about it on our side and the way that the Conservative Party conceptualises things.

But let me end, as Darren Millar did, with a positive note: he will know that we have a new agreement with the Government of the Republic of Ireland to strengthen relationships between us. We expect a delegation of a number of Ministers from that Government to come to Wales in October, to spend a whole day here in Wales, meeting others, looking at projects of mutual interest and strengthening our ability to work on essential issues, like the joint use of the Celtic sea and the marine possibilities that it offers us, and I look forward to being able to report to Members on that work.

15:15

As you would expect, I think you were overly generous and too fair in your assessment of the situation, as far as the attitude of the UK Government towards us, is. It's true for you, as it is for all of us, that your greatest strength is your cautious approach in trying to persuade people. But that can become a weakness when you face the UK Government, which has such an unreasonable and arrogant attitude to the perfectly reasonable ideas that you've set out once again this afternoon. And the question is: what do you do in that situation?

I am familiar with Westminster, unfortunately. I was there recently and it hasn't changed at all: this cathedral on the banks of the Thames full of arrogance. Don't think for a moment that they believe in the potential of some equal partnership with us here in Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland. They see us as servile, and that's their attitude. They believe in the sovereignty of Westminster and Westminster alone. So, what do we do in this situation? That's the question, and I would urge you—. There's another example this afternoon, the LCM; there's a flotilla of LCMs approaching us now. And, of course, they know that they can't abolish this Senedd, but what they do, of course, is to seek to undermine us step by step—the subsidy Bill last week, the internal market Bill—removing our financial foundations time and time again. But surely we have to stand together and reject this.

May I suggest a few things, because I think the report is useful, and I am still enough of an economist to believe in the value of data? So, why not have transparency? Why not demonstrate in these reports the number of times, First Minister, you've asked for meetings to discuss important issues, and where they've either rejected those calls or ignored them? How many times have you been invited very late in the day to meetings covering devolved areas, when the agenda hasn't been shared with you and neither have the background papers, and that prevents you, therefore, from making a meaningful contribution to the discussion? So, let us see the real nature of that relationship, and have some sort of log, if you like, of the nature of the arrogance shown by the Government in Westminster towards us here in Wales.

May I also ask you whether you would be willing to build on what is the foundation of this report and show transparency on the relationship, but also to open that out to the public in Wales? So, not only a report to the Senedd as we have here, but engagement with the people of Wales, who should know the facts about the attitudes demonstrated by the UK Government, and perhaps through the constitutional commission and the national conversation that you've referred to, that could be done. 

And finally, isn't the only way in which we're going to demonstrate our opposition to this kind of attitude that we collaborate, here in Wales across parties, even, of course, where we disagree on the answer in terms of the constitutional future for Wales—and it's very important, following on from what the independence bodies said yesterday that they should be part of the national conversation, and that should be reflected in the national conversation's remit—but also that there should be collaboration across the Celtic nations? And if they have their muscular unionism, then let's have muscular collaboration across the Celtic nations, across parties—yes, including with the Scottish Government, who, of course, have a different perspective on the constitutional future of these islands. But, in this sense, we are united; we oppose this conservatism from Westminster that denies our right here in Wales and in the other nations to plough our own furrow.

15:20

Thank you very much to Adam Price. And when I responded to Darren Millar, I expected Darren Millar to say I was being too mean to the UK Government, and I was expecting Adam Price to say that I was being too friendly. There are a number of important points that Adam Price has raised, and there are a number of examples where I can draw attention to examples where the UK Government hasn't been reasonable with us at all. It's something small but it does show the context. We are responsible for the next meeting of the British-Irish Council. The subject to be discussed in the council is minority languages. So, we will be leading in Wales on the work that is going on, and it's important work, and it's important in Ireland, in the whole island. We wanted to invite people from Cornwall to attend the council, not to speak, because they're not members of the council, but just to listen to the discussion and, when they had things to say, outwith the council, they would have an opportunity to do so. The UK Government weren't willing for that to happen at all. So, it was a small idea, which is relevant to us in Wales, because we're responsible for that subject in the council, and reasonable, as Adam Price said, but no, nothing. A complete lack of willingness to allow that, and we're the ones planning the meeting and were responsible for that meeting. They weren't willing to agree on that small idea. I use that as an example of the thinking or the mindset that you find when you try to do reasonable things, as Adam Price said.

In terms of the LCMs, one of the things that are vital for next year is the Sewel convention. Now, we have set out in our document ways to strengthen that convention, and we have worked with others on those ideas as well. If the UK Government thinks that Sewel means nothing, well, that's going to cause more and more problems.

And, Llywydd, Adam Price suggested a number of possibilities to strengthen the report and to use the report for other purposes, and I welcome those ideas, and we're willing to consider those. When you work with Scotland and Northern Ireland, you work with people from very different political backgrounds, and that's a great thing, isn't it, because you learn things and you find ways of collaborating with people from those different backgrounds, and to do that alongside the people who live in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, that's something I'm eager to strengthen over the coming year.

15:25

First Minister, thank you for the statement but also for this report, which I would thoroughly recommend to any student of current constitutional arrangements looking at this moment in time at what it means for Wales and the UK. I think it is fair to say, as Darren pointed out, there are some good bits in here, but I have to say it's a mixed picture as well, and it does, within the reading of this report, actually show some of—a bit like the current weather, there are lots of storms in here and then the occasional glimpse of good weather coming through those storms. I haven't got time to go through them today, I want to focus on one issue in particular, but I do note that within this report, Welsh Government lays out once again its vision of seeing a strong Wales in a successful UK—the need to reset inter-governmental relations based on a vision of a reformed and strengthened UK where all the Governments work together for mutual benefit.

Which brings us, in the absence of being able to go through all of this, which I've thoroughly enjoyed reading, and I know the committee will be interested in reading, to turn to the issue of the inter-governmental relations review, which may be one of those glimpses of sunshine through the storm, But I wasn't clear from the First Minister's statement. The Counsel General, when he was in front of the committee the other day, seemed to hold out some hope that we might indeed be progressing and there might be something to be cheerful about. But what hope does he have that the inter-governmental relations review, which could be that major reset in the relations between the nations of the UK, could be that opportunity to go beyond the storm clouds and into something that looks a little bit more sunny, or should we temper our expectations?

15:30

Llywydd, I thank Huw Irranca-Davies. I tried to say in my opening statement that I wanted to be optimistic about the IGR, because a huge amount of work has gone into it, by officials particularly. And some of the biggest breakthroughs in the IGR have been in areas for which the Welsh Government, and our officials, have been responsible. So, the fact that it includes an independent element in dispute resolution is a complete breakthrough—we've never had that at all. The UK Government has been the judge, the jury, the sentencer, the Court of Appeal all by itself, and now that won't be the case. When we tried, with the Scottish Government, Llywydd—you may remember—to raise a dispute over the £1 billion that went to Northern Ireland, without any comparable sums coming to Wales, Scotland, or indeed to England, the UK Government simply told us that, in their view, there was not a dispute. So, we had written, saying, declaring a dispute, and they wrote back and said, 'In our view, there isn't a dispute, and so we won't be taking it any further.' Well, that won't be possible if the IGR is concluded. Why do I hesitate? Because we were—. I've been told, for several months now, that we are just on the brink of signing it. We were due to sign it before the summer recess; it didn't happen. We were due to sign it before we came back; it didn't happen. We were due to sign it just before the reshuffle, and it didn't happen. So, I want to be optimistic, because I think that a huge amount of work has been done, and it gives us a new platform and a new chance to reset those relationships, but until it's in the bag, I won't be putting any flags out of any description.

I'd like to thank the First Minister for his statement. I think it's right to highlight areas in which the Welsh Government and the UK Government, working together, have benefited Wales. We've seen the vaccine roll-out, which has been an absolute great success in keeping the residents of Wales safe. As I've mentioned earlier, about growth deals, they have been a great success in growing the economy of Wales and actually the two Governments working together and the additional moneys that have been sent to Wales to support businesses, and the work you've done with the UK Government together on that has really benefited businesses.

But I think a lot of what you've talked about here, First Minister, is respect. And I think respect could be reciprocated, I believe, on both sides of the M4—both up and down. And respect is key to good relationships and the work we do in this place, and it goes to the core of what we all believe. But comments made by the deputy leader of the Labour Party over the past couple of days haven't gone any further to actually building any relationships between your party and mine, and it's actually created a lot of deep hurt and upset.

First Minister, I know you're a very decent and honourable person, and, as the leader of the Welsh Government, comments that were made by your deputy leader in Westminster go no way to helping inter-governmental relationships. So, I do believe, First Minister, if you were to condemn these comments, I do believe it would bring our parties closer together and really help with inter-government relationships, because people being called 'scum' is not nice and it's not kinder and it's not gentle politics.

Llywydd, I've heard everything the Member has to say.

My constituents, like many people in north-east Wales, have closer ties to Chester, Liverpool and Manchester than what they do to Cardiff. How is the Welsh Government working with metro mayors in the north-west of England to achieve common goals and promote shared services? Cross-border issues are of particular concern in the Vale of Clwyd, so how are the Welsh Government looking to work with the UK Government and English local authorities to address greater cross-border working, particularly in health and care? Finally, First Minister, what impact is the Mersey Dee Alliance having on the north Wales growth deal, and how is the Welsh Government working to improve closer working between local authorities, such as Denbighshire County Council, the Welsh and UK Governments to improve the economic fortunes of the entire region on both sides of Offa's Dyke? Thank you very much.

I thank the Member, because I think those are genuinely important points. And I think, as we design inter-governmental arrangements for the future, then ways of being able to draw in regional voices in England will be very important in all of that. Now, in the last few days, I've had opportunities to meet with metro mayors from many parts of England, and that includes the north-west as well, and the Mersey Dee Alliance is a very important part of the landscape for the economy of north-east Wales. 

One of the difficulties of finding a way of acting—I'm thinking of the right word, for a moment, Llywydd—in a thoroughgoing way with metro mayors is they're all different—they all have different powers, they all have different responsibilities; there's no pattern. So, you can't have just a single approach that is easy to take from one set of relations to another. But I think the general point that the Member makes is an important one, and that, as metro mayors and English devolution mature, then, those relationships along our border, in the north-east with Liverpool and Manchester, but with the south-west of England as well, will be very important to Wales. 

15:35

I thank the First Minister. That concludes that item. We will now take a short break to allow changeovers in the Chamber. 

Plenary was suspended at 15:36.

15:45

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

4. Statement by the Minister for Economy: The Shared Prosperity Fund and Levelling-up Fund

Thank you, and welcome back. The next item is a statement by the Minister for Economy on the shared prosperity fund and the levelling-up fund. I call on the Minister for Economy, Vaughan Gething.

Thank you, Deputy Llywydd. In June, this Senedd overwhelmingly agreed that the UK Government’s approach to European Union successor funds represented an assault on Welsh devolution. It is clear that these distant and poorly defined plans at present systematically exclude this Senedd on matters that its Members are elected to take decisions upon. We now face a vast reduction in funding this year despite repeated promises that Wales would not be worse off financially after Brexit.

Around £10 million, or an average of £450,000 for each Welsh local authority, is expected this year from the community renewal fund. Some areas, including Bridgend, Caerphilly and Flintshire are excluded from the priority funding list whilst more prosperous English areas are included. Deputy Llywydd, the UK Government cannot maintain the myth that all parts of Wales will benefit and that we are no worse off.

The UK Government continue to point to the availability of remaining funds from the 2014-20 EU programmes, but it is clear that new EU programmes would already have started by now. And removing this overlap matters. It represents an average annual loss to Wales of £375 million at the same time as making the ability to plan impossible. Delivery partners are already looking to dismantle the infrastructure needed to deliver longer term interventions because they need to know now that funding will still be there beyond 2023. 

And by making these funds solely available to competing local authority bids, the UK Government is also wilfully creating sector funding gaps, including among higher and further education, the third sector, and business. These sectors have previously maximised European Union funds to help close disparities in research and innovation, to support vulnerable people in society, and to help boost competitiveness.

We also have real concerns about the threat of UK Government plans on the future scale of EU-funded schemes, including what that means for Business Wales, the Development Bank of Wales, and apprenticeships. Neither does the levelling-up fund currently live up to its name, with each Welsh local authority set to receive around £1.3 million this year. It is clear that these UK funds amount to a levelling down for Wales.

Despite this contradiction and the urgent risks that we now face, there have been no signs of improvement since we last debated these funds in June. Only six months remain of this financial year, and the UK Government has still not announced any successful bids for the community renewal and the levelling-up funds. That is despite the promises previously made to announce bids in July. And partners are right to ask how projects are supposed to deliver by March as required. This is a delay that leaves communities in the dark and badly compromises what can be achieved for people and businesses here in Wales.

Neither have we had any genuine engagement with the bidding assessment exercise, and with our proposed input being restricted to entirely unacceptable terms. This is an opaque and distant process that does not represent devolution to local communities. The UK Government have forced councils to compete and act as administrators, with bids being assessed in Whitehall and funding decisions made by UK Ministers in Westminster.

And plans for the shared prosperity fund are equally concerning. Eighteen months after Brexit, we can still expect no more than a high-level spending framework in next month’s spending review. Yet we remain unclear about what role devolved Governments will have. We are also unsure if the shared prosperity fund will even be open for business next year due to the ongoing delays. In no way can the UK Government’s approach to post-Brexit funding be described as acceptable partnership working, let alone effective inter-governmental relations.

This is disappointing, given the Prime Minister’s commitments following the summit in June that I attended with the First Minister regarding more effective inter-governmental relations across the UK, and the willingness of this Government and our First Minister to collaborate effectively in doing so.

The UK Government’s incoherent and chaotic action have also failed to impress UK cross-party parliamentary groups, the Institute for Government and devolved Parliaments and Governments. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee recently published a report on the levelling-up programme, and I quote:

'The funding available to achieve levelling up is disparate and lacking any overall coherent strategic purpose or focus';

'the apparent absence of any meaningful strategic engagement with the devolved administrations around the levelling up agenda, amplifies the lack of clarity and focus around this major policy.'

And on the shared prosperity fund, the Institute for Government said in July:

'the UK government will be spending on policy functions that are predominantly devolved responsibilities. We have outlined the risk that this will produce unhelpful duplication of functions and fragmentation of service provision.'

The High Court have also agreed to hear a legal challenge brought by the Good Law Project about the UK Government using the levelling-up fund for political benefit, rather than need.

Increasing concerns about the emerging problems and the funding gaps facing sectors have also been raised with me by Welsh partners, including the Welsh Local Government Association, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, Federation of Small Businesses Wales and Universities Wales. Despite such warnings and honest advice, the UK Government has failed to listen, a decision which will cost Wales job opportunities and undermine badly needed projects.

Deputy Llywydd, it is not yet clear what the impact of this approach will be, but I was happy to support the Plaid Cymru amendments during the June debate. I can confirm once more today that we will undertake an impact assessment when practicable, as agreed at that time. The clear majority position in this Senedd should be noted by UK Ministers. Indeed, the people of Wales were offered a manifesto that endorsed the UK Government's plans at this year's Senedd elections, but that did not win the support of the Welsh public, as we know. There is a clear majority for a 'made in Wales' approach that respects devolution.

Our own framework for investing replacement EU funds builds on years of partner engagement. It is based on evidence and agreement, with clear priorities for Wales, and this is what a team Wales approach looks like. Our plans bring power and funding closer to communities by transferring funding and responsibilities to the new corporate joint committees. The framework also recognises that some interventions, like apprenticeships and business support, are most cost-effective and accessible at a national level. We have also commissioned further advice from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to help design the best multilevel governance structures for economic development within Wales. And again, this is what a real partnership approach looks like.

Deputy Llywydd, I have made clear in a letter to the new Secretary of State Michael Gove that we are open to meaningful discussions on how best to work together to make these funds a success. The UK Government has an opportunity to show it has listened and to end an era where it says to Wales, 'You'll get what you're given.' No Welsh Government of any political leadership could or should accept that approach from any UK Government.

15:55

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. It may surprise the Minister that I start off on a note of agreement with him regarding the lack of pace in responding to bids that have been submitted to the community renewal fund. We need to see much more progress.

Now, today's statement calls for further information and detail from the UK Government, and, in fairness, if the funds are to be delivered effectively then clearly collaboration is crucial. Whilst I appreciate that a new Secretary of State for housing, communities and local government has been appointed to oversee this funding, local communities across Wales are still waiting for vital information regarding their bids, and it's essential that that information is forthcoming. Now, the Minister has made it clear today that he has written to the new Secretary of State to say that he is open to meaningful engagement. However, given the tone of his statement, perhaps he can confirm whether he has requested an urgent meeting so that he can make these points directly to the Secretary of State.

Dirprwy Lywydd, we all want to see this funding reach communities in Wales and make a big difference. At its core, the community renewal fund empowers local communities by giving local authorities a direct role in delivering that investment. We have just seen how resilient our local authorities have been during the pandemic, and I believe they are perfectly placed to deliver this investment. Devolving the delivery of these funds to local authorities is something the Welsh Government should be supporting. And yet, today's statement shows again that the Welsh Government has used the levelling-up agenda to continue a constitutional conflict with counterparts at Westminster. And so, I want to remind the Minister that the people of Wales are served by two Governments, not one, and it has never been part of the devolution settlement that local government in Wales should become a no-go area for the UK Government. Indeed, rather than the usual 'blame Westminster' rhetoric, perhaps the Minister could tell us what engagement and support the Welsh Government has offered to local authorities to support them through this process.

Now, the Minister has repeatedly said that if the UK Government is serious about future prosperity here in Wales then it must provide Wales with a fair share of UK spending, and he reiterated those comments again today. Well, the UK Government has made it very clear that Wales will not lose out via the shared prosperity fund, and the profile of spending will be set out in the next UK spending review, which is expected this autumn. In the meantime, there are opportunities here for the Welsh Government to support the UK Government by encouraging the continued use of the experience, and indeed expertise, that has been built up during decades of delivering EU funds here in Wales. So, I'd be grateful if the Minister could tell us what he and his officials are doing to promote that expertise and ensure that it's retained under these new funding streams.

Now, I think it's fair to say that the community renewal fund and the wider shared prosperity fund will be judged on their outcomes, and it is very early days to form any serious assessment, but we have to look at where opportunities lie to constructively engage on this agenda, rather than spending time and effort politically point scoring. The Welsh Government could be using its time to tell us its own plans for supporting community renewal and delivering economic prosperity, but instead we're treated to another anti-Westminster lecture. The FSB are right to say this should not stop Welsh Government from outlining its economic development strategy for the future in detail, including where business support sits within it and aligns with its vision, values and principles. Therefore, I hope the Minister will take the opportunity today to tell us what the Welsh Government is doing to rebuild Wales's economy, what is being done to drive innovation, to create jobs and to drive lasting economic change.

Today's statement also refers to the FSB's calls, and one of those is for the Welsh Government to use this opportunity to outline its vision through an economic development Bill. As they suggest, this would also set the parameters and principles underpinning all of its institutions, remits and goals, and its approach to business support and its aims. Of course, it's vital that Business Wales is protected under the shared prosperity fund, at least at its current levels, and that there's longer term funding stability for the Development Bank of Wales. I'd be grateful if the Minister could confirm whether he will be introducing an economic development Bill, what internal discussions are taking place to discuss the future of Business Wales, and what action the Welsh Government is taking to support the Development Bank of Wales in the longer term.

In closing, Dirprwy Lywydd, I accept that there are some justified concerns in the Minister's statement today, and I hope that the Welsh Government will push for meaningful engagement to take place so that these funds can be delivered as effectively as possible for us here in Wales.

16:00

Thank your for the series of questions. I'm pleased to note that he recognises the very practical concern that, regardless of the policy framework, the lack of decision making is a real handicap for local authorities of any and every political leadership here in Wales. I hope that decisions can be made, but, as I say, that is already compromising the ability to spend that money in time and effectively in any and every part of Wales.

I have also asked to meet Michael Gove ahead of the spending review. I would like to have the urgent meeting that he referred to. I'm not sure whether Michael Gove has people listening, but it's helpful to hear that there's support from the Conservative benches for him to meet me to discuss these issues themselves. I do think that there is a moment of opportunity in having a conversation about what really can be done, because much of what the Member said mattered to him is directly compromised by the current approach.

If you think about what you said about local authorities, actually, we designed a new framework for economic investment with local authorities as one of our key partners. We've built on those relationships and we've worked with them to design a new framework, and local authorities run those corporate joint committees. They would have a significant say in the way in which future funds would be spent and would design local priorities with us as partners. In fact, CJCs are looking to take on responsibilities sooner rather than later, and, in many ways, there are some consistencies there with the growth deals that the UK Government has jointly funded together with us. It learns lessons from previous rounds of European Union funding to try to make sure that we have larger and more strategic interventions to make a real difference.

Splintering that approach into a local-authority-only bidding process doesn't guarantee that areas in need will be successful in a competitive bidding process—that's one challenge. At the current point, we know that we are losing a significant amount of money—more than £300 million short of what we'll get if the small amounts of money in the pilot funds are actually delivered within this year. That's simply a matter of fact; it's unavoidable and undeniable, regardless of how much the Member shakes his head.

When it comes to the challenges of trying to provide lessons from 20 years of making choices here in Wales, that really underscores the point: 20 years of Ministers in this place making choices and being accountable to this institution for those choices is set to end if the current approach that the previous Secretary of State was headed down continues, because we have no meaningful role in the way that the funds are being designed. One of the few choices that has been made was to deliberately carve out Welsh Government Ministers, so, actually, there's no opportunity to share what's happened, because the UK Government are not interested in listening, or at least they weren't with the previous Secretary of State.

I would say that when the Member talks about Business Wales and the value of it, a significant part of Business Wales's funding comes from these funds. With the way that the current approach is designed, that money won't be there. I can tell you there isn't spare cash down the back of the ministerial sofa that my good friend and colleague Rebecca Evans has to simply make good those funds in that area, or the third of funds that would disappear from apprenticeships that can't be spent under the current approach, or, indeed, the funds for supporting jobs in every single constituency across Wales with the development bank as well.

The current approach, as it is, is significantly flawed and will cost jobs and opportunities in every community in Wales. I hope that Michael Gove will take the opportunity to talk with us and to work with us and to look at how we’re going to have a framework that Wales can work properly within and will not compromise the work we have done, learning the lessons from more than 20 years of making choices here in Wales, and for us and everybody to work effectively with partners here in Wales to create jobs and opportunity as we wish to do so.

16:05

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. As Plaid Cymru made clear in the debate on this topic before recess, Westminster’s levelling-up agenda has so far meant more powers for Westminster, more money for Tory seats, and less democracy, funding and representation for Wales. We deserve better than this, and our amendments, of course, reflected that. During that debate we sought to make explicit points regarding the process behind the selection criteria for these funds, and called for detailed assessments as to the impact these funds will have on Wales. We were, of course, glad that the Government supported those amendments at the time. 

If these funds are not replaced in full and implemented by devolved decision makers, then Wales will be left short changed and worse off. Far from proving the strength of the union, the UK’s pandemic response was in fact one huge subsidy to the south of England. The Centre for Progressive Policy has calculated that the UK Government spent £1,000 more per London resident than in Wales, and £6.9 billion more on London than if each nation and region had been allocated emergency spending equally. The Welsh Government can’t let the same thing happen with these funds. Wales must get its fair share from Westminster.

Turning to your statement, Minister, FSB Cymru have noted that there remains uncertainty around what budgets will look like in 2022-23, meaning that the ability to plan for the long term is hindered. Does the Minister agree that, as a matter of urgency, the UK Government should set out its detailed plan for funding and the design of these funds so that there is clarity and certainly for all stakeholders to plan for the years ahead?

In terms of a timetable for the publication of an impact assessment, in response to a written question submitted over the summer asking when will the Government lay before the Senedd an impact assessment showing the effect of these funding arrangements on the distribution of funding across Wales, you answered saying that

'given the ongoing delays and uncertainties regarding this funding, it is currently not feasible to set a firm timetable on when an effective assessment of the impact of these funding arrangements can be carried out.'

Of course, this position has been reiterated in the statement today. But does the Minister agree that further delays on the Westminster side of things represents yet another affront to our Welsh Parliament’s ability to implement policy and funding solutions that work for Wales?

My colleague Rhys ab Owen also raised with the Minister for the constitution last week the new levelling-up department in Whitehall. As he noted, the UK Government has previously said that when they consider it appropriate, they will seek advice from the Welsh Government on projects in Wales. Has the Minister had any early talks with the Secretary of State for levelling up regarding how both their departments will be working together? How confident is the Minister that this new Whitehall department will genuinely engage with Welsh Ministers?

And finally, over the recess, Cardiff University raised concerns that broken promises from the UK Government on future funding could heavily impact Wales’s research and innovation base. Wales’s research base was critical in supporting the nation’s initial response to COVID-19 and would be vital in preparations for future pandemics, a point recognised, of course, by Wales’s chief medical officer. Whilst Westminster has a clear role to play, it is also imperative that Wales makes better use of its research base to tackle the damage brought by COVID-19, with help from the Welsh Government, to make best use of our expertise and infrastructure. Welsh universities, of course, are vital to the economy, generating over £5 billion and almost 50,000 jobs. The economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and post-EU agenda mean that we now need to move on the recommendations in both the Diamond and Reid reviews, sooner rather than later, in particular: to maintain quality-related research funding; to preserve academic autonomy; to increase the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales’s innovation and engagement to £25 million—as it currently stands, it’s at £15 million; to create a £30 million future of Wales fund, rewarding institutions that attract investment into Wales; and to establish a £35 million St David’s investment fund, including innovation, competitions and hubs.

The last Senedd’s Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee supported the implementation of these recommendations as a matter of urgency in its legacy report. Does the Minister accept that the Welsh Government have outstanding commitments in this matter that they can resolve without the need for support from Westminster, and what actions are the Welsh Government taking to ensure that the already accepted recommendations are implemented as soon as possible?

16:10

Thank you for the questions. I'll deal with your last point first, and that is that I'm afraid that it does matter what happens over the next month with the spending review, about our ability to take forward the commitments we've made. Our commitment to having a forward-looking science strategy and to maximise our opportunities in research, development and innovation is still there. But we need to understand the tools that we'll have to do that. So, it's partly about the levelling-up fund; it's also about what's going to happen in the spending review and the budget. There'll be scrutiny for committees when our own budget is presented, and I'm sure the finance Minister has been listening with interest for yet more bids for money, which is always par for the course when you're a Minister in the Government. But the serious point is that we have a commitment that we will look to meet, as far as we can, with the resources we have, and we'll set out how we're able to do that when we have a clearer picture about resources.

At this point in time, we are heading on a path of having less say over less money. That's not a great place to be, and I don't understand how anyone elected to this place could celebrate the fact that there is a deliberate approach to take away powers and resources from this institution. If people want to have a different approach from the Welsh Government, well, that's what people decide when we have elections. We've had elections with manifestos, people have voted, we have an agenda that we want to get on with, because that's the responsibility the people of Wales have chosen to give us. I can't assess the new funds. I'm committed to assessing the new funds when we're in a position to do so, but, as the Conservative spokesperson acknowledged, none of the new funds have been allocated yet, even in the trial phase. So, we can't even assess the impact of the trial phase, because the decisions haven't been made, let alone any spending decisions being made. When we do have a framework, when we do have more decisions about what that means, we will meet the commitment that we've made to provide an assessment of what we think that will do, as well as what then does happen when choices are made about that broader spend.

I think there is still a point of opportunity, as I said, for the new Secretary of State, and that partly comes back to the points you were making about what do we understand about the implementation, the design and the plan such as it is. The reality is there isn't one. The key points that were made were that decisions would be made by UK Ministers. There were decisions made about not listening to and not working with the Welsh Government, in a way that was pretty staggering, in ignoring the opportunity to work with us in way that could and should be constructive. After all, because of the risks that are being run, who on earth wants to be responsible for making choices that could see the apprenticeship programme being reduced as a direct result of the choices made in a ministerial office in Whitehall? I don't believe that's what Conservative Members in this place or any other would be proud to stand up and say that they have delivered. But the fact that there isn't really a plan, not just for Wales but for the UK—. So, if you were talking with English representatives, they would tell you that they don't understand how this is going to work, because there isn't a plan at present. The opportunity for Michael Gove is to work with us on what a UK framework could look like, in exactly the same way where you've had frameworks across the European Union in the past, but to be really clear about choices being made here in Wales over what we do with the money and being clear about the sums of money that are available, so Ministers here can still be properly held to account for choices that we should be making with the powers that the Welsh public expect us to have and to exercise.

In the letter, in my request to meet Michael Gove—I should say, perhaps, to balance up some of the criticism of the UK Government and Conservative Ministers, that I'm not Michael Gove's biggest fan, and I probably wouldn't go out dancing with him, but when it comes to the way that he has operated between the UK Government and devolved Governments in the pandemic, he's had union responsibilities that he retains, and I hope that means that, perhaps more than other Ministers in the UK Government, he understands the realities of working with devolved Governments, and, actually, that when you work with devolved Governments, you'll get more done more quickly. I should say that, in meetings that he has run, they have always been professionally run and conducted. I would hope that a can-do approach is one that he will take, to want to get things done—for his own objectives, I understand, as well—but, equally, to do so in a way that, from my point of view, would strengthen the case for the union and make sure that we undertake our responsibilities and are properly held to account where we should be, within this national Parliament.

I'm grateful to you, Minister, for the statement. I've found the process of the last few years deeply and profoundly disappointing. When I was first elected to this place, and when I joined the Welsh Government for the first time, we had a good and cordial relationship with the United Kingdom Government. We didn't agree on everything, as you'd expect with different political perspectives, but UK Ministers always sought agreement, included us in conversations, and ensured that all the Governments of the United Kingdom felt that they had the space and the opportunity to debate and discuss policy before agreeing a UK position—and agreeing, rather than imposing. As a Member of this Parliament today, when I try to cross-examine UK Ministers, I find them to be evasive, I find them evading scrutiny, and when they are in front of committee, I find that they evade answering questions. And that is a very, very bad place to be.

I would be grateful, Minister, if you could—yourself, as a Minister, and the Welsh Government more widely; I'm glad the finance Minister is in her place for this—publish figures about what money is being delivered to Wales through these different schemes and compare that with the funds that have been made available over the last decade or so, so we can hold UK Ministers to account and ensure that they learn the lessons of previous rounds. The acting leader of the opposition Paul Davies was absolutely right in what he said about the expertise that exists in this place and in the Welsh Government. From what I can see, the United Kingdom Government is using these funds as a means of delivering a political objective, rather than economic and social development, and from what I can see—

16:15

And I'll finish with this, if you'll be kind. What I can see is that they are repeating the mistakes of the past, and not learning the lessons of the past.

Thank you for the comments and the questions. I do recall being a new Member to this institution, and shortly after the Member had been appointed to the Government, talking exactly of that experience—of working in the Council of Ministers, and having an agreed UK line, where Scottish and Welsh Ministers of different political persuasions to the UK Ministers still had a constructive and purposeful discussion before going in to talk as a UK member state to European Union countries at the time. And there is no reason why we can't have those conversations. In fact, during the pandemic, where we have had our best outcomes, I think, in terms of work across the UK, it has been because there has been an openness and a willingness from some UK Ministers to talk with counterparts in Governments here, in Belfast and in Edinburgh as well. I can say that we do take up opportunities to go to select committee appearances, and Welsh Ministers try to be honest and constructive in the way that we answer questions at those committees. I've certainly not heard any of the criticism you make of UK Ministers when it comes to select committees and how they view Welsh Ministers when we appear before them.

I do think, though, that there is some point and purpose to what the Member says, and I think it would be helpful to try to compare and contrast, when we do get choices about how money is going to be spent, how it compares to how they spent money previously, and the facts and figures on what we have done and achieved with previous European Union rounds of money. Because there is a point about the outcomes we achieve and the lessons we've learnt from not having an approach that spreads the money out as thinly as possible, but is more strategic and purposeful in what we are trying to do with that to make a strategic difference to the future of the Welsh economy, and more than that. So, I'd be very happy to see how we can meet the Member's main point there in the future.

Can I remind Members to please keep to your time limit so we can get as many people to speak as have requested? Sam Rowlands.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and thank you, Minister, for your statement today on these important funds. As you referenced, back in June, we had the Government debate on this topic, and as you'd expect, I focused my attention and time in that debate on the role of local authorities and how they can play their part in drawing down this important money for our communities. And as we've seen, despite perhaps the more dour assessment you put on this, the vast majority of councils have submitted bids through the levelling-up fund, and the community renewal fund has seen bids in the hundreds for that money, which shows the engagement of local communities and local authorities in this process. Many local authorities have also welcomed the opportunity to apply for this funding directly.

One of the things you mentioned in a previous response was the introduction of corporate joint committees as a part of the future structure of delivery here in Wales, but this, of course, does carry the risk of skills and capacity being taken away from local authorities into these more regional structures—

And one of the elements that UK Government has provided is funding for this capacity to the tune of £125,000 to these local authorities to enable that capacity, so local authorities can draw down this funding. What sort of support would you be looking to provide to local authorities to expand this capacity to ensure that this funding is made the most of in our communities? Thank you.

16:20

We've had a constructive and grown-up conversation with the WLGA, with the varieties of political leadership that it represents, and, actually, one of the key asks of local government has been about the fact that they are significantly unimpressed with the time frame to put bids in, and, actually, the money itself you referred to didn't really make much difference, it was time. But it's also to build up capacity to go into a competitive bidding process rather than looking at a needs-based approach, and when you look at what that then means, you write the best bid, you're more likely to get money. That doesn't mean that people with real needs are going to get access to that money, and that's a big flaw in the way that the process is currently being designed.

And I should say this is not new money; this is significantly less money than would otherwise have been available, and you just can't deny the reality that in this year there will be more than £300 million less coming into Wales, even if the pilot funds pay out at some point within this year and even if local authorities can spend the money before the end of the financial year. If you were still leading a local authority, I think you would be incredibly frustrated at not having a decision made, and you'd be worried about more than extra money for the capacity of your local authority to do this, but also the capacity of the UK department to manage direct relationships with every local authority in the UK. It's an enterprise that is fraught with difficulty, and it just isn't the right way to operate, because you're trying to recreate an entirely new relationship while breaking down those that have worked, delivered funds and learnt lessons in more than two decades. So, we'll continue to talk with local authorities, but we need a plan of some sort from the UK Government that everyone understands and understands the rules of. It's better to have a plan we disagree with than no plan at all, which is where we find ourselves now.

Minister, I know you recently met with the Industrial Communities Alliance to discuss their concerns about the shared prosperity and levelling-up funds, funds that are so important to the economic future of constituencies like mine, the Cynon Valley. The ICA have long argued that any funding from the schemes must be both long term and sustainable if it is to deliver transformative change. Would you agree with me that this is a clear message that needs to be sent from this Senedd and listened to by the UK Ministers? And furthermore, Minister, would you agree with me that it is a very worrying signal that local government has been deleted from the title of the UK Government department that is now responsible for levelling up?

It's odd about how long a departmental title is, and Michael Gove's LUHC department isn't one that I think will be judged on its title, but what it's actually prepared to do. I do know that Welsh local government has felt excluded from the process of even the engagement that took place up to this point in time, and that in itself is not at all helpful. The requests for meetings with Luke Hall when he was the then Minister before being removed at the last UK reshuffle were not ones that any local authority in Wales would say worked well, and also the way that evidence was given to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, which, of course, is led by a Conservative Member of Parliament, with a majority of Conservative MPs—they have recognised an amount of incoherence in the previous approach. So, I am concerned about how the headlines about local authorities having a better deal because they're going to directly engage at this point in time are really trying to hide the fact there's less money, less capacity and less say over what to do.

I do take seriously the Industrial Communities Alliance and what they've had to say to me. Their work with counterparts in England and across Wales is something that I want to keep on engaging with and listening to to try to make sure that we can have a framework that will work for Wales and, indeed, other parts of the UK in making sure we really do see significant benefit spread to communities that really need it.

Minister, would you agree that this is another kind of chumocracy, which is a characteristic of this Conservative Government, where they try and retain wealth among their privileged friends whilst denying the poorest areas of the UK funding that they so badly need? How else can you explain why Gwynedd is at the bottom of level 3 and an area such as the Chancellor's is in the highest level for funding? As a former county councillor, I was part of the local campaign to try to get projects for this funding, and it was incredible to see the mess in terms of finding projects. The levelling-up fund looks at spending on schemes that will allow Tory MPs to be re-elected and get good salaries whilst this cruel Government in London is cutting universal credit to the most vulnerable in society. Westminster isn't levelling up, but rather it is punching down. Minister, would you agree with that analysis?

16:25

I think there are significant flaws in the way that the current process has worked, and it's certainly not a process that this Government supports at all. And I recognise what the Member says about where Gwynedd is, and also I see a Member representing the county of Bridgend who will also know about the exclusion of areas of Wales that are objectively less well-off than parts of England that have been put into priority areas. Now, that just isn't levelling up. On any analysis, you can't say that is a levelling-up approach.

And for me the challenge is whether we'll get some unity in this place, not just to support the Government but to support the country and to recognise that, actually, this is about Wales and whether we're going to be treated fairly and properly. And I would say to Conservative Members, there is something here about the mandate you have in this place from people and whether you're prepared to stand up for Wales on something where, transparently, the current approach does not work for Wales, or whether you'll go in to bat for Ministers in Whitehall. And I would ask you to think again about the approach you take and to take a constructive approach with us to try to generate the best possible deal for Wales rather than the significant funding cut we are already receiving within this year. 

Dirprwy Lywydd, I declare my interest as a former chair of the regional investment for Wales steering group and as the current chair of the strategic forum for regional investment in Wales, both non-remunerated. That's taken a minute, Chair, to actually say that. 

Could I say, I was actually heartened by Paul Davies's comments about the 20 years of experience of delivering investment? But, of course, that investment is actually delivered not simply by Welsh Government but also by those partners and the Welsh European Funding Office, with their European experience of actually co-ordinating payments as well, and it's these same partners that have actually raised the issues of a lack of strategic planning in this competitive bidding process, the sector funding gaps, the duplication, the service continuity, the dismantling of services that are currently going ahead. It is those people with 20 years' experience of actually delivering on the ground who are saying, 'We've got some issues coming up.' It is those same partners, Minister, and Paul and others, who equally stand ready to help the UK Government, as well as the Welsh Government, to put in place that funding, delivered through a Welsh policy context, delivered through, actually, co-operation and co-ordination on the ground to achieve meeting the needs, rather than a competitive bidding process, and they stand ready to help, they really do.

I stand ready as former chair and now chair of the forum going forward to meet with Michael Gove and to speak with him and to say, 'We can assist you in this.' It's not about badging it—

Thank you. My apologies, Dirprwy Lywydd. It isn't about badging it either 'UK' or 'Wales'; it's about delivering for the people who we are sent here to represent, and there is a better way to do it than this. We can help. Would you take that message forward?

That is the message that we have tried to offer on a number of occasions and, to date, we have not had prompt or timely replies from the previous ministerial team. And I do hope that, with a new Secretary of State, there will be an opportunity to reset what we are able to do. And the point the Member makes about other partners is well put and, in many respects, those partners are trying to say, 'Look, we don't want to get involved in disagreements between the two Governments, but we do want to know what the rules are and we want to know we're not going to be excluded.'

For example, higher and further education, in the last six years of European programmes, £405 million, they spent. At present, with the current design, they wouldn't get anything. For the private sector, £272 million in the last six years, and the third sector £113 million. At the moment, there's no route for them to have any access under the current design of the programme, and that just doesn't make sense, as well as the points I made earlier about undermining apprenticeships, Business Wales and the development bank. So, there is an opportunity to reset and to come up with a much better answer and deliver much better outcomes for the people we are here to represent. 

Well, 'Not a penny worse off' is echoing rather emptily around this devolved Chamber. Two months after the UK Government stated that projects that had been approved would be announced, there has been silence. And, as you rightly point out, Minister, the local authority area of Caerphilly is excluded from the priority funding list, in favour—in favour—of richer English areas, even though the communities of Islwyn have some deep areas of deprivation—Objective 1, Objective 2, Objective 3. I could go on on the Welsh index of multiple deprivation indices. Once again, despite devolution, on the outside of Tory Britain looking in. Minister, so far, all that I can see that has been achieved is a Tory rebrand, the renaming of the UK's Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to the totally laughable Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and accompanied, as we said, with the sacking of the lead Minister Robert Jenrick, to be replaced with Michael Gove—an interesting choice.

Minister, what representations will the Welsh Government make to the newly empowered UK Minister to get the communities of Islwyn included and not excluded in the UK Government's priority funding list? And will the Minister also invite Michael Gove—in his new clothes, and preferably not invisible—to come to Islwyn and see for himself the very real need that is prevalent in my community and which he now in Whitehall has the power to end?

16:30

I really don't think it's helpful to have Janet Finch-Saunders saying, 'Find deprivation, find Labour'. I think many people who live in less well-off communities will find that insulting. People make choices about how to vote and we are here to represent them.

I do think, though, that, when it comes to the challenges that Michael Gove now faces, as I say, I think there is a point of opportunity. I don't shed any tears at the end of Robert Jenrick's political career; there have been choices he's made that I don't think are defensible in the way that some areas have been advantaged. And actually, it is in the interests of Conservative Members to make the case for that as well. I don't think regional representatives or constituency representatives could stand by and say they're happy to see Bridgend, Caerphilly, Flintshire, Gwynedd and other areas and the Vale of Glamorgan excluded in favour of much better-off parts of the rest of the UK, including in England. Now, there are Conservatives representing some of those areas too, so this isn't just about Labour versus Tory; it's actually about what's the right thing to do for people, and that's the conversation I want to have with Michael Gove, and it will directly affect all the areas I've mentioned, but, more than that, the whole country. And actually, as someone who believes the union could and should have a future, I think it would help us to make the case for a reformed and a better union where Wales is a key and integral part of it. Not to do so, I'm afraid, makes that case harder still.

I'll do my best. Diolch. Wales only continued to be eligible for European structural funding because, despite billions in subsequent rounds, it failed to close the prosperity gap it was intended for, unlike other nations that entered the project at the same time, like Poland, which of course did and excluded themselves. You say Flintshire excluded itself from the priority funding list. Do you therefore recognise that the structural funds programme in Wales was focused on west Wales and the Valleys and prioritised 15 counties, but Flintshire and Wrexham were outside those? And how, finally, do you respond to the charities and community-interest organisations in Flintshire that told me this summer that they contacted Welsh Government officials asking if Flintshire could be added to the levelling-up fund list—your officials made enquiries and came back confirming that they could and, of course, they've now been included in the bids?

I think the Member will find that, if you compare the county of Flintshire to areas of England that are included, you'll find there is a significant disparity in wealth and opportunity, and it does not make sense that Flintshire is not included in the priority areas when more wealthy and prosperous areas of England are. If he wants to make an alternative case and celebrate the fact that Flintshire is excluded, that's a matter for him.

I'd also point out that, when it comes to the outcomes that we've achieved with European funds, there are significant outcomes in terms of the jobs, the outcomes of jobs that have been saved and created, and I'm proud of what we've done and the lessons that we've learned—a point that his colleague Paul Davies made. There are lots of lessons we have learned that are being ignored in the current approach. And it's about learning lessons here, the choices we make in this Government, it's about learning lessons in the previous approach to austerity and the damage that caused in terms of our economic future as well, and trying to do the right thing now for the people that we're here to represent. And I would welcome a constructive approach from the UK Government and indeed from Conservative Members in this institution as well. I look forward of course, Deputy Llywydd, to reporting back on those matters as we make, I hope, some progress for the benefit of the people of Wales.

5. Legislative Consent Motion on the Environment Bill

The next item is item 5—the legislative consent motion on the Environment Bill. I call on the Minister for Climate Change to move the motion. Julie James.

Motion NDM7781 Julie James

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 29.6, agrees that provisions in the Environment Bill in so far as they fall within the legislative competence of the Senedd, should be considered by the UK Parliament.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I move the motion. I thank the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee and the Climate Change, Environment, and Infrastructure Committee for considering the legislative consent memoranda. I am sorry the full six weeks usually allocated for scrutiny was not possible; however, I was pleased to negotiate timetabling changes to the Bill, allowing for more scrutiny time and the opportunity to provide oral and written evidence to the committee.

Amendments to the Environment Bill by the UK Government required a supplementary legislative consent memorandum, laid on 3 September. I am grateful to the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee for their consideration of the supplementary memorandum. As a result, I advise the Senedd that consideration of consent should include clause 144, which amends Schedule 7B to the Government of Wales Act 2006. The amendment, which was referenced in memorandum 1, ensures the Senedd can remove the concurrent plus powers without requiring Minister of the Crown consent.

In light of the committee's report, I asked officials to look again at this issue. The provision falls within the Standing Order 29.1(ii) in that it modifies the legislative competence of the Senedd. I agreed with the committee that consent is required and should be considered today. The committee also asked me to consider amendments to Schedules 4, 5, 6, 7 and 11 to require relevant national authorities to consult before making regulations. Memorandum 1 advised that the relevant national authority in relation to Wales is the Welsh Ministers, and outlined the need for the consent of the Senedd to the powers within these Schedules. I consider the amendments added to these provisions were covered by the general requirement for consent outlined in memorandum 1.

The Bill has taken some time to progress through Parliament since its original introduction in January 2020. Both Parliaments have seen their legislative programmes severely impacted because of Brexit and COVID. Despite the delays, the Bill remains a viable route to progress Welsh Government policies and programme for government commitments. Devolved powers are sought in relation to waste and resource efficiency, air quality, water and the regulation of chemicals. We also consider consent is needed for clause 21, which was previously 19, 'Statements about Bills containing new environment law', and clause 119, previously 109, on forest risk commodities. Members will note we have agreed an approach with UK Government on these issues.

Generally, primary legislation in devolved areas should be enacted by the Senedd. In this instance it is, however, sensible and advantageous to seek provisions in the UK Bill with the consent of the Senedd. We have sought powers in the Bill in areas where there is value in adopting co-operative approaches to deliver across the UK administrations. Part 3 of the Bill will provide the legislative framework to meet commitments in 'Beyond Recycling' to deliver an extended producer responsibility scheme for packaging waste and a deposit-return scheme for drinks containers. Given businesses subject to the schemes will operate across the nations, consistency is required. The timetable for introduction of these schemes can only be achieved if we take powers in this Bill. To provide flexibility in developing future schemes for other materials, we are seeking the option of legislating on a Wales-only basis, bringing forward mirror regulations or allowing the Secretary of State to legislate on our behalf for UK-wide schemes. Our default will be to legislate in the Senedd wherever possible.

Part 3 also provides the Welsh Government with the ability to introduce charges for single-use plastic items. This will help deliver our programme for government commitment to abolish the use of commonly littered single-use plastics. Clause 69, which was previously 67, allows the Welsh Ministers to prescribe conditions in respect of litter enforcement. The amendment to this provision, included in the supplementary consent memorandum, will require that guidance is laid before the Senedd. Taking these powers at the same time as England mitigates the risk of a lower standard in Wales.

Powers to develop a UK-wide digital waste tracking system will enable the tracking of waste across borders and the gathering of data to tackle waste crime. It will help develop extended producer responsibility controls for other materials. The powers to tackle waste crime include strengthening NRW's powers to prevent illegal activity and the unauthorised deposit of waste.

Part 4 clarifies the Welsh Ministers' responsibility for producing clean air plans for Wales. The Wales-only provision in the Bill seeks to improve our smoke-control regime, contributing to the reduction of emissions in the atmosphere.

The powers in Part 5 update the regulatory process for water resources management plans. These plans will enable us to continue to plan for the future and regulate the quality of our drinking water and water bodies. The concurrent plus power under clause 90, previously clause 83, relates to river basin districts, including the Rivers Severn, Wye and Dee, which are cross border and where it is necessary to be aligned with DEFRA to ensure a common approach.

Clause 143, previously 133, and Schedule 21 are required as a result of the UK's departure from the EU. The regulation of chemicals features a combination of UK-wide and domestic provisions. The Welsh Ministers had powers under the European Communities Act 1972 to amend these regulations, which have been lost as a result of leaving the EU. The provisions enable Ministers to keep the UK-GB REACH regime up to date, including mirroring changes to EU REACH if required. They also allow the Secretary of State, where appropriate, to legislate on behalf of the Welsh Ministers with their consent, providing for a unified regulatory system. Our approach to legislating is to maximise outcomes for the people of Wales by considering the capacity we have to introduce our own legislation and opportunities available in the UK Government's legislative programme. 

I consider these provisions fall within the legislative competence, and therefore recommend the Senedd provides consent. Diolch.

16:40

I call the Chair of the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee, Llyr Gruffydd. 

Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'm pleased to contribute to today's debate on behalf of the Climate Change, Environment, and Infrastructure Committee, as you said. Before I turn to the motion before us today, I'd like to thank the Minister for responding to the committee's report in advance of the debate. Having said that, Members will see that there is still a lack of clarity around several key issues, and I'm afraid the response doesn't move things forward in a way that we would have liked to see. 

As a committee, we have been clear that the most appropriate way to legislate for Wales on environmental matters, of course, is through a Bill made by the Senedd. We understand that the Welsh Government plans to bring forward such a Bill to the Senedd, but we also know that that could be some years away. So, we find ourselves in a position of having to choose between the UK Bill or the possibility or likelihood of a delay of two or three years while we wait for a Welsh Bill. It's no wonder therefore that some Members will feel that consenting to the provisions in the UK Bill is the only choice that they have if they want to see important environmental policies on the statute book.

In this Chamber last week, the Counsel General said that it was disrespectful, and I will quote, to announce

'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.'

Now, the Counsel General was talking about the way in which the UK Government often treats the Welsh Government, but he could quite easily have been talking about the way in which the Welsh Government uses the LCM process in this Senedd. As a committee, we are concerned that there may be a pattern emerging: the Welsh Government recognises the need for legislation, but is very slow to bring forward its own proposals, if at all. 

Let us consider the issue of environmental governance. The Welsh Government has been aware of the potential for gaps in environmental governance in Wales since the result of the referendum back in 2016. Before long, Wales will be the only UK nation without legislation in place for a bespoke environmental governance system. There will be no environmental governance Bill in year one of the legislative programme of the Government, and that's five years after the referendum. 

Another policy area covered in the UK Bill is clean air, as we heard from the Minister earlier. This is a subject that has cross-party support in this Chamber. Now, the Welsh Government consulted on a White Paper on this subject before the election but, again, there will be no Welsh Bill in the first year of the legislative programme. Minister, where are these important Welsh Bills? The committee recommended that you should commit to bringing these Bills forward in the second year of the legislative programme, if not in the first year. You have accepted these recommendations in principle only, therefore there is no commitment of any sort to do that and we are therefore no further forward, in truth. 

We are concerned that the reason for this may be a lack of capacity in the legal department of the Welsh Government, and we appreciate, of course, the need to balance priorities and manage resources. This must have been very difficult over recent years, first with Brexit and then, of course, more recently with COVID. But that doesn't change the fact that we remain concerned that a lack of capacity may be delaying the introduction of key environmental legislation. But we would be even more concerned if the Welsh Government, because of staffing shortages, chose to use Westminster Bills rather than Welsh Bills to legislate in devolved areas.  

On this matter, the Minister tells us that resources are reviewed regularly to mitigate risks. Apparently, 'There is nothing to see here, and there are no issues with a lack of capacity.' But in response to a later recommendation, the Minister says that other work is on hold due to resource constraints. Again, we are no further forward.

Given the choice before us, we as a committee have recommended that the Senedd consents to the provisions in the UK Bill. But—and this is a very significant and important 'but'—we have been very clear that this should be conditional on a satisfactory response by the Welsh Government to specific recommendations in our report, as a committee of this Senedd. So, let me set out briefly our thinking behind some of those recommendations.

First, recommendations 1 and 2, which relate to the concurrent plus powers in several parts of the UK Bill. Now, these powers would enable the UK Secretary of State to make important environmental regulations for Wales on behalf of Welsh Ministers, albeit with their consent. The effect of this would be, of course, to bypass Senedd scrutiny of those regulations. Instead, scrutiny would be undertaken by the UK Parliament.

We've been clear in our report that we're not averse to a UK-wide approach to regulation making, where appropriate, but it has to be exactly that. It has to involve all of the UK legislatures, not just the UK Parliament. Now, we seek to address that, but what we have of course is that the Minister rejects recommendation 1. She will not, or maybe can not, secure amendments to the Bill. She tells us that instead of a formal procedure, the Senedd will be given an opportunity to express a view, and only then where time allows. Well, this doesn't go far enough, and will be of no reassurance to members of our committee, or indeed Members of the wider Senedd, and yes, I know you're going to call me to order because time has passed.

So, look, this is a significant and wide-ranging Bill, covering a key devolved policy area. It will affect all our constituents. But I'm afraid it's becoming apparent that the Welsh Government is using the LCM process as some sort of means of brokering an agreement between inter-governmental negotiations, rather than being about agreements between the legislatures. It can't be right that the Member of Parliament for Orkney and Shetland will be able to scrutinise environmental policy for Wales, which is supposedly devolved, where Members of the Senedd for Monmouth, Ceredigion and Aberconwy cannot.

16:45

Chairs have a duty and a right to ensure that Members are fully aware of the conclusions in their reports, but I ask all Chairs to ensure that they do so in a timely manner.

I call on the Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, Huw Irranca-Davies.

I'll do my best, Dirprwy Lywydd. Can I preface my remarks by thanking my committee members for their scrutiny, and our clerking team as well, and note, in advance of my comments, that when our committee does its job well, it will sometimes make for challenging listening for the Government as well?

As the Minister told us, the Bill has got a long history, and our predecessor committee