Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

09/11/2021

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

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

Statement by the Llywydd

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

1. Questions to the First Minister

Our first item today is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Hefin David. 

COVID-19 in Caerphilly County Borough

1. Will the First Minister provide an update on Welsh Government measures to tackle COVID-19 in the Caerphilly county borough area? OQ57168

Llywydd, I thank Hefin David for that question. Vaccination remains the most effective action to tackle coronavirus. Take-up rates in the Member’s constituency remain high, with 75 per cent of 16 and 17-year-olds already having had their first vaccine. I continue to thank Caerphilly residents for their support in this and other actions needed to reduce current levels of the virus.

Before I move to my supplementary, Llywydd, with your permission, I'm sure Members are aware of the tragic events that took place yesterday in Penyrheol in my constituency, where a young 10-year-old boy was attacked and killed by a domestic dog. The boy's been named as Jack Lis, and I'm sure that everyone in this Chamber would wish to send their condolences and best thoughts to the family and the community of Penyrheol, who undoubtedly will rally round in these circumstances. I'd also like to say that on behalf of my fellow regional colleagues in the Conservative Party and in Plaid Cymru as well, because I know we all feel the same. Diolch, Llywydd. 

So, my supplementary question: the issue of COVID passes will be debated today. I'll be voting for the extension to cinemas and concert halls. I'll be doing that not because of the whip, but because I think it's absolutely the right thing to do. And the majority of people who've contacted me have said exactly the same thing. The purpose of these is to prevent further lockdowns and keep us all safe. With that in mind, will the First Minister give us an outline of the success so far of COVID passes, and an outline of how we'll proceed in the future?

Llywydd, I thank Hefin David, and can I also begin just by associating myself with what he said about the very sad events in his constituency? Members here will be thinking about Jack and his family, I know. I read what the headteacher of Cwm Ifor Primary School had to say about him, and you can just imagine the impact that this will have on those very young children who will have known him and would have, in some case, very sadly, witnessed those awful events. 

As to the COVID pass, I thank Hefin David for what he said about it. I think it has gone as well as we could have hoped for in its implementation here in Wales. I heard many of the things that were said in the previous debate about the practicality of the COVID pass, and, in practice, it has turned out to be as straightforward as we could have imagined. We've had a series of major events with thousands and thousands of people attending. I attended myself at the Arms Park only a week ago. I looked very carefully to see how people were behaving as they got near the turnstiles and was hugely encouraged at the way in which people had thought ahead, were well prepared, knew what they were doing. Every person attending was checked as they went through, and, more than that, Llywydd, I was absolutely struck by the number of people who came up to say me at that event that they had been nervous about attending. 'Seventy thousand people', somebody said to me; 'I've been so careful. I barely go out, and I knew I was coming here knowing that the person I was sitting next to, the person behind me and the person in front of me had all been doubly vaccinated or taken a very recent test. That gave me the confidence to come here today.'

And that's why I think the COVID passes are popular amongst people here in Wales, because, as Hefin David said, they are helping to keep Wales safe and they are helping to keep Wales open. That is the purpose of them—to allow those more vulnerable settings to continue to be open into the autumn, through the winter, because that extra protection is now in place. 

The numbers of people falling ill with coronavirus, thankfully, have reduced a little over the last 10 days, and if they continue to do that, then there will be no need to extend the pass beyond the extension that the Senedd will be debating this afternoon. But if numbers were to rise again, and if the protection of that pass were needed in more settings, then this Welsh Government will not hesitate to take those actions that help to keep people in Wales safe and help to keep those businesses trading.

13:35

First Minister, I appreciate your response to my honourable colleague. Caerphilly continues to have the highest number of newly recorded cases of COVID in my region of South Wales East. You are a learned person, and I'm sure you've seen the stories that the UK medicines regulator has recently approved the first antiviral medication for COVID that can be taken as a pill, rather than injected or given intravenously. In clinical trials, the pill cut the risk of hospitalisation, or death, by about half, but needs to be given within five days of symptoms developing to be the most effective. The treatment has been described as a game changer, and the UK Government agreed to purchase 480,000 doses. First Minister, what discussions has your Government had about obtaining supplies of this drug for COVID patients here in Wales, and when can we expect this treatment to begin, and will priority be given to areas such as Caerphilly, where COVID rates remain stubbornly high? Thank you very much.

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. The news that the regulator has approved a new antiviral oral medicine is good news. We have been in discussions with the UK department of health. What is planned is a large-scale study, using those 480,000 doses. And that study will be used to identify, in the way that the Member suggested, the clinical circumstances in which that treatment can most effectively be delivered. Wales will be part of that pilot. There will be patients in Wales who will be part of the work that will be carried out to make sure that we are learning everything we need to about this new possibility and then put it to best use. And we continue to work closely with the UK department on this matter to make sure that Welsh patients have access to the treatment and that we all benefit from the work that will be carried out.

I associate myself entirely with what Hefin said about the community in Penyrheol.

First Minister, last month, Public Health Wales launched a campaign encouraging pregnant women to have the COVID-19 vaccine because of how many unvaccinated women end up needing hospital treatment. One in six COVID patients requiring the highest form of life support in England are unvaccinated pregnant women, but PHW haven't released equivalent figures for Wales. They say misinformation may be making women reluctant to have the vaccine, even though it's safe, while the risk the virus poses to them is severe. Only around 15 per cent of pregnant women in the UK have been fully vaccinated, compared with 79 per cent of people in the general population. I'd be grateful, First Minister, if you could tell us what the figures are like for Wales, and could you also tell us what the Welsh Government will be doing to tackle misinformation so that pregnant women in Caerphilly county, and right across Wales, can hear about how getting the vaccine could help save their life?

I thank Delyth Jewell for making exactly that point, Llywydd. The Chief Medical Officer for Wales has led efforts to try to combat misinformation, and particularly to appeal to pregnant women to be vaccinated. They are far, far more at risk from coronavirus than they ever will be from the vaccine. And this is one of those examples where deliberate misinformation causes real harm. I don't have the actual figures in front of me, Llywydd, but I do know that unvaccinated pregnant women are very significantly over-represented in critical care beds in Wales, as well as across the border. In other words, women are not just falling ill with coronavirus and suffering from it in the community, but they are at the most severe end of the illness that coronavirus can create, and that causes a risk to them and to the circumstances in which they find themselves, and which, in any other circumstances, would be a matter of huge celebration to them.

So, I repeat exactly the appeal that Delyth Jewell has made, Llywydd: if there are women in Wales who have not been vaccinated and are being out off being vaccinated because of some of the things that they read on social media about vaccination, please look at what the real facts will tell you, and the chief medical officer has set those out absolutely clearly here in Wales. You are far better off, far safer by getting vaccination, and in Wales we would absolutely urge you to do so.

13:40
The Gender Pay Gap

2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the gender pay gap in South Wales West? OQ57167

Thank you, Llywydd, for that question. The Office for National Statistics does not publish separate figures on the gender pay gap in South Wales West. According to recent ONS figures, the Wales-wide figure was 5.0 per cent in April 2021. This compares to 7.9 per cent in the United Kingdom. The gap has widened in the UK over the previous year, but it has remained unchanged in Wales. 

Thank you, First Minister. We see clearly in our workplaces just how economic inequalities do merge with other inequalities, such as gender inequality, and figures published recently reveal that the gender pay gap is 12.3 per cent in Wales—a figure that Chwarae Teg has described as disappointing, as it is 0.7 per cent higher in Wales than it was last year. This goes up to 20.7 per cent in the area in which I live and I represent, namely Neath Port Talbot. The figures have been broken down by local authority, and that local authority is the one with the fifth highest pay gap in Wales. So, how is the Government going to close this gap in those sectors that it has control over, and to encourage other sectors to do likewise? And given particularly the Government's aim of encouraging 30 per cent of the workforce to work from home in future, what plans are in place in order to ensure that the change in working habits is one that eradicates inequalities rather than one that deepens and widens the gender pay gap and other long-established structural inequalities? Thank you.

Diolch, Llywydd. Well, I’m sure that we could rehearse different sets of figures, but the fundamental point is that we want to see the gender pay gap in Wales continuing to narrow to the point where it’s eliminated, and that is a shared ambition in many parts of this Chamber. The gender pay gap for the Welsh Government is part of our approach to social partnership and to fair work, and we pursue it through the social partnership forum and in partnership with employers and trade unions here in Wales. The Welsh Government takes practical action across a range of our responsibilities. The childcare offer is particularly, we know, useful to women in the workplace, and I’m glad to say that the latest figures we have show the highest ever uptake in Wales of the childcare offer—the most generous childcare offer for working families anywhere in the United Kingdom.

As to the policy of working from home or through remote working hubs, then I think there are real advantages that can be gained from that in the sphere of gaps between men and women, but other groups in the workplace as well. We know, Llywydd, that disabled people particularly have found the ability to work from home has eroded some of the disadvantages that they faced otherwise, and through our system, which is to create remote working hubs in different localities throughout Wales, then, for people for whom working from their own home is not a viable proposition, there will be alternatives that they can use. I think that will mean that there will be people who will, in future, be able to take advantage of employment opportunities and better paid opportunities than might have been the case in the past, and it can be, used properly, another weapon in the armoury to reduce the pay gap.

13:45

Can I thank my South Wales West colleague Sioned Williams for tabling this important question as well? And, First Minister, I share her ambition to eliminate the gender pay gap in Wales, particularly as we know that the pay gap is wider in Wales than it is in the rest—compared to the UK average. But, one of the ways we can help to tackle the gender pay gap is by ensuring women and girls are not put off courses in well-paid careers in sectors of the economy that are traditionally seen as male sectors. In the Welsh Government review into gender equality in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, we saw that of those work-based placements in the STEM sector registered with the Education Workforce Council just 22 per cent of those placements were occupied by women. The review also stated that Wales also had the lowest percentage of women enrolling onto higher education STEM courses anywhere in the UK. So, what action is the Welsh Government taking to improve access to the STEM sector for women and to better encourage them to pursue STEM courses in higher education?

I thank the Member for the question. For the record, Llywydd, it's important to say that the pay gap in Wales is higher than it is in Scotland or Northern Ireland but lower than in any region of England. So, you know, the position is a little less bleak than the Member suggested in opening his question. But the point he makes is a very important one.

Huge efforts have been made in Wales to encourage young women to enter further and higher education in the STEM subjects. Our previous Chief Scientific Officer for Wales led that herself; she created a group of women in the STEM subjects in academic institutions, but in industry as well, to come together to be role models for young women. And that work goes on, I think, in a very practical way in many parts of Wales. In Thales, in my colleague Alun Davies's constituency, the company there makes enormous efforts to make sure that opportunities in those new and emerging industries are advertised to young women who live in that part of Wales, and that a pathway is created for them, from the classroom, through further and higher education, and directly into employment as well.

In our new degree-level apprenticeships, more young women are entering STEM-related employment than young men, and I think given the historical patterns that the Member quite rightly pointed to, that is a very significant achievement. There is a cultural change that we are trying to bring about here and that won't happen rapidly everywhere. But the combined efforts that are being made across the education sector and the employment sector, I think, are beginning to show real erosion of those more traditional ways of thinking about opportunities that are available.

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from the party leaders, and on behalf of the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Paul Davies.

Llywydd, can I also associate myself with the comments made by the Member for Caerphilly? And our thoughts and prayers are with Jack Lis's family today.

First Minister, in your view, how long should an 85-year-old wait for an ambulance after suffering a stroke?

Well, Llywydd, I know the case to which the Member refers, and it's clearly not acceptable that someone was left to wait for as long as that individual was. The ambulance service, as the Member will know, is under enormous strain from the highest ever level of calls that it has experienced in its history; from staff sickness levels, which affect the number of people it's able to put into ambulances and on the road, and a significant amount of that is coronavirus-related itself; and from coronavirus conditions, which mean that ambulance staff have to get in and out of PPE between calls and ambulances delayed by the need to clean them between journeys, because of COVID conditions. All of that helps to explain some of the stress the system is under, but nobody is satisfied when individuals are left waiting too long for an ambulance to arrive.

Yes, First Minister, the reality was that David Evans waited for more than half a day for an ambulance, and that is simply not acceptable. I'm sure you'll be aware of the comments of Darren Panniers, the head of ambulance services in south-east Wales, who has said that

'Prolonged hospital handover delays, high call volume and staff absence have significantly hampered'

the ambulance service's

'ability to get to patients quickly in recent weeks.'

He went on to say that as Mr Evans waited for help, more than 840 hours were lost at hospitals in south Wales alone. So, First Minister, will you now apologise to Mr Evans and his family for the unacceptable amount of time he had to wait for an ambulance? Will you now consider setting targets against all ambulance calls, regardless of their categorisation, and will you tell us what the Welsh Government is now doing specifically to ensure that people across Wales aren't having to wait more than half a day for an ambulance?

13:50

Llywydd, I have no difficulty at all in apologising to anybody who hasn't received the service that we would wish them to receive, and I know that the ambulance trust has already done that on behalf of the service directly. In terms of the explanations that the trust offered, I've already referred to the high volumes of calls and the staffing situation that the ambulance trust faces, but the third explanation is also a really important part of this picture: our hospitals are full of people who do not need to be there, but where it is simply impossible to discharge them safely to their own home or into the community, because of the enormous pressure that the social care system is also under at this time. And that does mean that when ambulances arrive at a hospital, they are coming into a system that itself is full of stresses and strains at this time. So, setting targets simply for the ambulance service doesn't result in the improvements that the Member would want to see and I would want to see as well. We have to be able to improve the flow of patients through the hospital so that there is greater capacity to receive people on arrival.

A huge amount of work is going on to try to respond to the stresses and strains that the health service is facing. At the Grange hospital and in Morriston Hospital, where some of these pressures have been greatest, new areas are being devised so that people can be safely taken from an ambulance and into the hospital, start their journey and allow that ambulance to get back on the road again. We are recruiting more people to the ambulance service itself—over 250 additional whole-time posts in the last two years. And there is an unremitting focus, through the ambulance trust and with their colleagues in the district general hospitals, to find ways of preventing the need for people to be transported to a hospital in the first place. All of that is going on all the time.

Despite the pressures that the system is under, Llywydd, in September, over 1,000 red calls were responded to within five minutes, over 2,000 red calls were responded to within eight minutes, and the median response time for a red call in Wales was seven and a half minutes. Despite the enormous pressures that the system is under, I just want to give the Member an assurance that, in all parts of the system, efforts go on every day to try and make sure that people get the service they need and get it in as timely a fashion as possible.

Of course, it's not just ambulance waiting times that need to be urgently prioritised, there's also a need to tackle referral-to-treatment times too. According to the latest figures, the number of patients waiting more than 36 weeks has grown from just under 26,000 in February last year to just under 244,000 by August this year. Indeed, the longest waits included around 56,000 people who need orthopaedic or trauma treatment, and, as a result, we've seen people choose to fly to countries like Lithuania because of the impact that waiting for treatment has had on their lives.

First Minister, you said earlier that people are in hospital who shouldn't be there, but the number of beds in hospitals has been cut by 30 per cent since 1999 under successive Labour and Labour-led Governments. And we also know that there's a staff recruitment crisis that currently means around 3,000 healthcare posts are unfilled. The problems of capacity have occurred on your watch, even before the pandemic. For over a year, we on these benches have been calling for the introduction of regional surgical hubs to help with waiting-list backlogs, and it's not just us saying that, the Royal College of Surgeons have also been calling for the very same thing.

So, First Minister, the Welsh Government's winter plan talks about the development of COVID-lite regional hubs for some settings, and so will you confirm today that surgical hubs will be established across Wales, and if so, when? Also, can you tell us what other urgent short-term measures the Welsh Government is taking to treat those who have been waiting on a list for months and months so that they don't have to travel to Lithuania for treatment in the future?

13:55

Well, Llywydd, there are more people working in the NHS today than at any time in its history, and that is true of clinical staff, nurses, doctors and other forms of specialists who help to keep our NHS the place that it is. And on the Member's comments on beds, I saw the material that the Conservative Party in Wales put out on beds, and it is so deeply mistaken that it's hard to imagine that they don't know that it's mistaken when they put it out. The fall in beds in Wales has been slower than it is in England under his Conservative Government in the last 10 years. Falls in bed numbers are characteristic of all advanced health services, as we aim to look after more people with learning disabilities in the community, more people with mental health conditions in the community, and more elderly people in their own homes than in hospital beds. As the length of stay for patients in a hospital bed reduces, the number of beds in the health service has fallen as well. It's fallen more slowly in Wales than under his Government in England over the last decade. And more beds are not the answer in the modern health service, albeit the fact, as I've noticed that his press releases never mentioned once, that there were 6,000 extra beds created in the health service last year in order to deal with the pandemic crisis.

As to future arrangements and the sorts of regional provision that could be put in place in order to help deal with the backlog, then, of course, the Welsh Government is working with the Royal College of Surgeons and others to make plans for that sort of provision here in Wales. We will be, as will every other part of the United Kingdom, looking for scarce resources in order to deal with the backlog. The whole of the United Kingdom has seen the sorts of rises in numbers waiting for treatment that the Member refers to here. There is no easy spare capacity waiting to be used for any part of the United Kingdom. We will create capacity here in Wales, we will reform some of the working practices that can result in greater productivity, and we'll work with others in other parts of the United Kingdom to learn from any experiments that are being mounted there in order to try to do what any Member of this Senedd would wish to see done: that people get the treatment they need as quickly as that is possible in the extraordinary circumstances of a continuing public health pandemic that the health service is dealing with here in Wales today.

Diolch, Llywydd. May I, first of all, also, on behalf of Plaid Cymru extend our deepest condolences to the family of Jack Lis? One can only begin to comprehend the grief that that family must be experiencing, and our thoughts and prayers are with them, with Jack's friends, with the community and with the staff of the school, who I know are also terribly affected by this awful tragedy.

First Minister, in the last week, a majority of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons voted to overturn the verdict of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to protect a former Minister. Another former Minister, Lord Bethell, admitted to deleting WhatsApp messages in which he discussed the granting of COVID contracts, and the Conservative Government now stands accused of handing out not just contracts but seats in the House of Lords in return for political donations. We have seen accusations of political sleaze in the past, but given the scale and the scope of the current wave of cronyism, contracts running into hundreds of millions of pounds, and the blatant attempt to undermine the independent watchdogs that are the hallmarks of a functioning democracy, is Westminster as a political system, as even a former Conservative Prime Minister has argued, now plainly and simply corrupt?

14:00

Well, Llywydd, I heard the interview that Sir John Major gave at the weekend, and it was a very powerful indictment of the more recent developments at Westminster. If Members haven't had an opportunity to hear it, I think it's worth 20 minutes of anybody's time. The accumulating evidence of the way in which the current Conservative Government discharges its responsibilities, I think, would shock anybody who has the interests of a healthy, functioning democracy at heart. And it's not just in these areas. You'll remember that Sir John Major began his interview by saying that there was a whiff of this Government acting in a way that, 'We are the masters now.' In other words, 'We can do what we like, where we like, how we like.' And that is just as true of their treatment of the devolution settlement as it is of the issues to which the leader of Plaid Cymru has referred today. In the end, it risks bringing not just themselves into disrepute but the institutions on which we all rely into disrepute as well, and there is a great deal of recovery to be done if the events of the last 10 days are not to leave a lasting legacy.

Of course, this superiority complex that this current Westminster Government has is expressed not just in undermining the independence of the standards commissioner but also that of the Electoral Commission, the appointments commission, of all the independent checks and balances on its power. Our solution to that, of course, is to demonstrate what a healthy, modern, world-class democracy could look like in the twenty-first century by becoming our own independent nation. But, while we remain trapped in a Westminster system that is rotten to the core, what can we do to insulate ourselves from its most egregious consequences? Will you add your voice, Prif Weinidog, to those calling for the abolition of a House of Lords based on political patronage rather than merely its reform? And do you agree that the Metropolitan police should treat allegations of the sale of honours at least as seriously now as it has done under previous administrations?

Adam Price is quite right to say that, during the last Labour administration, Scotland Yard took allegations of the sale of honours so seriously that they sent very senior members of Scotland Yard into Downing Street without any notice of their arrival. It would be interesting to see whether they do indeed take the same approach with the current instances.

I have long believed in the abolition of the House of Lords. I believe in its replacement by an elected second chamber in which the position of the nations is protected—in some ways, as the Senate operates in the United States system. But, some of the things that we have heard recently are not simply to do with the House of Lords; they are to do with the extraordinary ways in which some Members of Parliament also appear to operate. The case of Geoffrey Cox that we have been reading about today defies belief—a man being paid nearly £0.5 million to work for a foreign Government that is under investigation for corruption by the UK Government and doing all of that when he appears to have a full-time job representing his own constituents. You could not make it up. 

I do think, in a way, Llywydd, that it is almost, for me, trumped by the news about another former Minister, Chris Grayling—a man, you'll remember, where the National Audit Office said that the cost of compensating people for the contracts that he had negotiated for ferries would be £56 million. You'll remember his deal with Seaborne Freight: £14 million to a company that didn't even own a ferry—not a single one—and £1 million paid to consultants in order to secure that contract. I lie awake at night wondering how you can pay £1 million to a consultant to land you with a contract with a company for ferry purposes that didn't even have a ferry. But, the good news is that Chris Grayling is now earning £100,000 over and above his salary as a consultant to a ports company. Well, he's a man with a lot of expertise to draw on, as we know. 

14:05

It says something—Geoffrey Cox is the former Attorney-General, isn't he? How low have they gone? As Westminster sinks deeper into the mire of its own corruption, what can we do here in this Senedd to uphold the highest levels of public integrity in our own democracy? This month, the Nolan committee, following on from the Boardman review, published new recommendations to strengthen public integrity, which includes some that we could enact independently. These include placing the independent adviser on the ministerial code, or its equivalent here, on a statutory basis and giving them the authority both to initiate and determine breaches of the code. This would strengthen public confidence in Wales's democratic institutions at a time of plummeting trust elsewhere. And, of course, when we devolve the criminal justice system, finally, we could go further in creating a new law of corruption in public office, as the Law Commission of England and Wales currently has proposed. If the Prime Minister refuses to explore these ideas, are you prepared to do so as Prif Weinidog instead?

I thank Adam Price for that. Could I begin by saying that I think that successive tests of public opinion carried out annually by Aberystwyth University show that the Welsh public holds this institution in a different place in their minds than they do Westminster? As I look around the Chamber, I see people who work very hard on behalf of their constituents, who have no other jobs that they do at the same time and where people discharge their responsibilities with a genuine sense of integrity and with the public interest at heart. And I think that is true in all parts of this Chamber. Is there more that we can do to make sure that we sustain that reputation, that we make sure that people in Wales go on having confidence that what happens in their name, in their Senedd, is conducted in a way that they would be willing to regard as consistent with the standards that they think would be right? Well, of course, if there are—and I'm interested in the reports of the Nolan review—more things that we can do to make sure that we continue to secure that reputation, then of course I think we should do them. But I think that we should have some confidence that the way in which successive terms post devolution have been conducted gives us a different platform and a different reputation in the minds of the Welsh public. We should jealously guard that and go on doing things to make sure we continue to secure it into the future. 

The Care Sector

3. How is the Welsh Government supporting the care sector during the pandemic? OQ57132

I thank the Member for that, Llywydd. The social care sector has made an enormous collective effort to protect those who rely upon it during the pandemic. In support, we have provided over £185 million through hardship funding and free personal protective equipment. Since September, a further £90 million for the sector has been announced, recognising the continuation of the pandemic.

On 28 April 2020, the UK Government announced that COVID testing would be extended to all care home staff and residents in England. That was not the case in Wales, with you, First Minister, saying you saw no value to providing tests to everybody in care homes at the time. That was a pivotal moment for Mr and Mrs Hough, who ran Gwastad Hall nursing home in Cefn-y-Bedd, Flintshire. It was not until 16 May 2020 that your then health Minister brought in blanket testing for staff and care home residents. Five days later, on 21 May, Mr Hough killed himself. Twelve of their residents had died in those first few months of the pandemic. His widow, Mrs Hough, said she believed her husband's distress at seeing the patients struggling led directly to his death, adding that her husband was a victim of COVID and that she wanted the Welsh Government held to account and wants answers. The chief executive of Care Forum Wales said the issues they encountered were not atypical. How, therefore, do you justify to care sector professionals like Mrs Hough your continued rejection of their call for a Wales-specific public inquiry into the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic?

I do so by reference to my agreement with the Prime Minister, who is the leader of the party that the Member here represents.

14:10

Tomorrow, First Minister, the cross-party group on dementia will publish a report on hospital care, and at this point, I would like to pay a very deserved tribute to Lynne Neagle for her excellent work on this report before she joined Government. First Minister, the pandemic has once again demonstrated the huge importance of close collaboration between the health and social care sectors. There are recommendations in this report, having spoken to health professionals and families suffering dementia, there are recommendations that are very practical in nature, for example, specific time slots for people to be released from hospital that enables families and care homes and carers to contribute to the system, and to understand that system better. Also, designated teams in hospitals to ensure that everything is ready by the time someone is released from hospital; that all the medicine, the paperwork and the transport is all ready. So, First Minister, would you be willing to read this report by the cross-party group on dementia and then consider creating a pilot to implement these practical recommendations?

I thank the Member for that additional question, and I'm looking forward to reading the report. It's great to hear about the practical recommendations included in the pages of the report and as the Member said, the Minister, Lynne Neagle, will be very eager to see the report and to see where there are practical steps that we can take here in Wales. We know that during the pandemic, people who suffer from dementia and the people caring for them have had a very difficult time, and the work that the cross-party group is doing will help us to plan and to provide most services for those suffering from dementia in the future.

Remembrance Day

4. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to help Welsh communities to engage with remembrance day? OQ57135

I thank the Member for that, Llywydd. This week, we all recognise the sacrifices of those who have been lost in conflict or suffered injury. Members attend key remembrance events in person and our armed forces liaison officers support local remembrance activity in communities across Wales.

First Minister, as the years pass, it becomes a challenge to ensure that communities are engaged with what Remembrance Day is about, and, indeed, the days leading to it. As an adopted Welshman, I am proud of our nation's contribution to defending our freedom, for the sacrifices made then and now. The Royal British Legion has a range of free educational resources for schools to share the importance of remembrance with people. What discussions has the First Minister had with the Royal British Legion to assess its impact in our schools? Thank you.

I thank the Member for that, Llywydd. We're very glad indeed to have him as an adopted citizen here in Wales. I was privileged to attend the one-hundredth anniversary service in Westminster Abbey of the Royal British Legion. The work that they do here in Wales is outstanding, I believe, both in the welfare services that they provide to ex-service personnel, but in the work that they do in making sure that succeeding generations remain aware of the sacrifices that were made here in the past. I know the Member will be especially interested in an exhibition that the British legion has been involved in; it was opened by the Chief of the Air Staff and my colleague Hannah Blythyn here in Cardiff back in September, and it focuses in part on the experience in Swansea 80 years ago this year, back in February 1941. I remember, Llywydd, myself growing up and my father would tell me about how he was called out of his house in Carmarthen to watch the sky where Swansea was burning as a result of those air raids, and the exhibition is designed to remind people today of the experiences that people underwent then—it's part of that effort that the Royal British Legion makes, and the Welsh Government is very pleased indeed to be associated with them. 

14:15

Like most if not all Members of the Senedd, I will be attending remembrance services on Thursday and Sunday. I congratulate and thank the Royal British Legion and others such as the Morriston salvation band and Llansamlet historical society who will be putting on events within my own constituency. A request for the Welsh Government: could you provide a list of events on your website, so that people can look on it and find out what is happening in their area?

I thank Mike Hedges for that. He draws attention, Llywydd, to the importance of those local events that happen in so many communities across Wales, and so many Members of this Senedd will be involved in them. I know very much that the Morriston salvation army band, for example, has very long played a part in Swansea in the commemoration events that will be taking place there. We are at the moment exploring with our armed forces liaison officers the possibility that such local events could be publicised through the new Covenant Wales website. That website is under development, it's due to be in place by the end of this year, and it would be, I think, a very appropriate place for events of the sort that Mike Hedges referred to, to be listed and publicised and drawn to the attention of more people as a result. 

Remote Working

5. Will the First Minister make a statement on the future of remote working in Wales? OQ57142

I thank the Member for that. Llywydd, Welsh Government’s remote working policy aims to secure 30 per cent of the workforce working remotely on a regular basis during this Senedd term. There are many environmental and economic benefits to remote working, which only gain in significance in the context of climate change.

Thank you, First Minister. Now, in a recent freedom of information reply your officials detailed that in spite of the fact that just over 390 people are presently contracted to work at the Welsh Government buildings in Llandudno Junction, the average daily attendance level for September was recorded as just 18 employees. This is unsustainable given the size and scope of that building. Now, policy 30 of the Net Zero Wales carbon budget 2 reiterates your long-term ambition to enable around 30 per cent of Welsh workers to work remotely beyond COVID-19, with £0.5 million going to be invested in six flexible working sites on locations in the Welsh Valleys. But First Minister, I'm concerned that no sites in north Wales have yet been earmarked to support similar working. So, with a wish to see taxpayers' money used more wisely, and in recognising that around £23 million was spent on this iconic building in Llandudno Junction, and £1 million on maintenance and repairs since, I was just wondering whether you would be so kind as to conduct a review and explain why we do not have any flexible working hubs, and whether you could actually look at this building to repurpose it and partially convert its use to become a flexible working hub for businesses and even entrepreneurs in north Wales, who may wish to have a set-up as working from home. I'm very keen to see this building better used. Thank you. 

Llywydd, I thank the Member for drawing attention to the success of the Welsh Government's policy of minimising the number of people who need to be in the workplace during a global pandemic. Personally, I think it is a terrific achievement that Welsh Government has been able to go on providing all the services we do while keeping our staff safe, with only essential people being brought together with the increased risk that people congregating inevitably means in a COVID context. I'm glad as well to be able to help the Member by letting her know that there are three remote working hubs planned for north Wales, in Colwyn Bay, in Rhyl and in the M-SParc space on Ynys Môn. I thank her for the constructive suggestion she made towards the end of her supplementary question about alternative uses that could be thought of for the Llandudno Junction building. She's right—it is an iconic building and it was a considerable investment by a Welsh Labour Government to make sure that the Government of Wales is represented in all parts of our nation. In a post-COVID world and in the context of climate change, we do need to look at the future use of those buildings, and I'll make sure that the suggestions the Member made are taken into account in that consideration. 

14:20
Full Fibre Broadband

6. Will the First Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government’s programme for rolling out full fibre broadband? OQ57129

I thank Peter Fox for that, Llywydd. Responsibility for connectivity lies with the UK Government. Where there are gaps, we continue to step in. Over 27,000 premises have now secured access to full fibre across Wales under our £56 million full fibre roll-out programme, and that includes over 1,000 premises in Monmouthshire.

Thank you for that response, First Minister. Increasingly, more and more work and, indeed, other daily activities are shifting online, meaning having a fast broadband speed is absolutely crucial for families. And that is why the Welsh Government-funded full fibre broadband roll-out is to be welcomed. But recently, multiple constituents have contacted me to air their concerns over the Welsh Government removing the ability for them to type in their postcode on its website to ascertain whether their properties will be included and, indeed, when in the roll-out programme. The concerns surfaced when the postcode checker on the Welsh Government website was removed. I note people can use the Openreach checker, but this doesn't provide much information and doesn't distinguish, arguably, correctly from the perspective of the general public between being connected through the Welsh Government's funded roll-out programme and Openreach's commercial roll-out. Understandably, this transparency issue is causing huge concern and unnecessary worry. First Minister, will the Government address this shortcoming quickly to prevent any further stress to constituents and, no doubt, many others across Wales? And once this has been addressed, can you outline any plans to deliver a follow-up full fibre roll-out programme when the current one finishes? Thank you.

I thank Peter Fox for that, Llywydd. I'll make an enquiry into the postcode facility and what has happened to it, and I'll make sure that I write to the Member with a reply on that. 

It's an interesting question about what lies beyond the current round of Welsh Government funding. Our funding over recent years has largely been used to fill gaps in the provision that the UK Government was embarked upon, but it is fair to say that in the last 12 months the UK Government has announced a significant increase in its programme—its UK-funded 'Project Gigabit'. We've recently learned from the UK Government that they believe that there are 234,000 properties likely to be in scope now for its funding, and there are discussions going on at the moment to work through the question of whether it will be preferable for the UK Government now simply to press ahead with its own scheme—to run it, to deliver it, to operate it here in Wales—or whether it would be preferable to use the on-the-ground machinery that the Welsh Government has set up, and then use the UK Government funding to continue to provide in that way. Those conversations are going on at the moment, and I expect them to be concluded before the end of this calendar year. 

In order for the future of the port of Holyhead to flourish, good communications infrastructure based on fibre broadband will be needed in order to meet demand. I have been contacted by FibreSpeed, who already have installed a point of presence close to where the proposed customs and excise building is to be built. I've been told their technology could help frictionless transport of goods and unlock automation using 5G technology, but they are struggling to get their voices heard. UK Government is totally uninterested in making the most of this opportunity, and are not responding to their correspondence. First Minister, may I ask what discussions the Welsh Government has had with UK Government about development of a high tech and efficient customs infrastructure base at the port of Holyhead to help with the frictionless transport? Diolch.

14:25

I thank Carolyn Thomas for that, Llywydd, and I thank her for writing to the Welsh Government, to my colleague Vaughan Gething, on behalf of the company, and as a result of her letter I know that the economy Minister's officials met with FibreSpeed last week, and part of what they will be doing now will be to make sure that relations between them and UK Government action on the ground at Holyhead is improved, and that the company are able to make their case. The general point that the Member makes, of course, is a very important one; Holyhead remains a pivotal port for the United Kingdom. The impact of Brexit on it and the Northern Ireland protocol is very real. The need for new infrastructure at the port to deal with the new obligations that we will now have to discharge as a result of leaving the European Union are very important to the port. We aim to work collaboratively with the UK Government on that matter. But it was, Llywydd, deeply concerning to see in the comprehensive spending review that the Chancellor declined directly to offer a commitment to fund that infrastructure once the capital investment has been concluded. The running costs of those facilities, which have never been provided to the Welsh Government and are not a consequence of our own decision making, will be considerable, and it is a genuine obligation on the UK Government to make sure that that activity goes on being funded.

Serving and Ex-Service Personnel

7. What is the Welsh Government doing to support serving and ex-service personnel? OQ57159

Llywydd, the practical actions taken by the Welsh Government to support service and ex-service personnel are set out annually in our armed forces covenant report. The latest edition, published in June, highlights the progress made, as well as our future plans to provide support to this important community.

I thank you for that answer, First Minister. Wales has traditionally provided disproportionate support to our armed forces, and that commitment and sacrifice needs to be honoured, especially this coming Remembrance Week. That is why your Government's increased funding for Veterans' NHS Wales, providing mental health support to ex-service personnel, and for the position of armed forces liaison officers, is so important. But the Financial Times assessment of last week's UK budget identified a real-terms drop of 1.4 per cent in the annual growth of day-to-day defence spending over the next four years—yet more Tory military cuts. Have you discussed that with UK Ministers, because the defence industry supports lots of good, high-skilled jobs in my region and Wales more widely, and we must protect the future and the quality of our armed forces' footprint?

I thank Joyce Watson for that, Llywydd. She is right about the disproportionate contribution that Wales makes to the armed forces. Wales is 5 per cent of the UK population, but we provide 9 per cent of service personnel, and yet only 2.5 per cent of service personnel are stationed here in Wales. We provide more and we get less. And Joyce Watson, I completely understand that locally she will be concerned about 14 Signal Regiment at Brawdy, and its future, given its significant contribution to the local community, economically and in other ways too. Forty-five thousand personnel, Llywydd, have been cut from the armed forces in the United Kingdom since the Conservative Party took over the UK Government in 2010, and their latest plans will see a further reduction in the size of the army to just 72,500 personnel by 2025. That will be the smallest size of the army in the United Kingdom since the eighteenth century, and lies behind the figures that the Member cited from the budget. I have had discussions with Baronness Goldie, the Minister responsible for the UK Government's integrated review of armed services. We expect the result of that review to be published this autumn. I'm unable to confirm what the implications of that review will be for Wales, but I can certainly assure the Member that I made all those points about the need for the UK Government to go on investing here in Wales to recognise the contribution that Wales makes to the armed forces, and we look forward to seeing that recognised in the results of the review. 

14:30
COP26

8. Will the First Minister outline how his attendance at COP26 will benefit residents in the Vale of Clwyd? OQ57171

Llywydd, residents of the Vale of Clwyd have already experienced the impact of climate change in river flooding and flooding by the sea. COP26 brings new ideas and a chance to learn from experiences elsewhere in the world, so that those can be put to work to the benefit of Welsh citizens.

Thank you very much, First Minister, for that reply. My constituents, particularly those ones living on the coast in Rhyl and Prestatyn, are highly susceptible to flooding from rising sea levels. According to the International Energy Agency, commitments made at COP26 will still result in a 1.8 per cent rise in global temperatures. This is terrible news for coastal regions and those living there, as it means that their homes will be underwater. First Minister, I accept that the Welsh Government can't force the likes of China, Russia and the US to drastically cut their emissions, so the residents of Rhyl and Prestatyn will have to contend with flood waters in the coming decades. However, the Welsh Government can mitigate against rising sea levels. So, First Minister, I ask you: what actions will the Welsh Government be taking to defend coastal regions against rising flood waters from both the sea and our rivers?

Well, Llywydd, the Welsh Government is investing £27 million, one of the largest ever coastal risk management projects in Wales at east Rhyl, in the Member's constituency—a two-year project that will see 600m of new sea defence wall and promenade constructed there, and a really major investment to defend the population of that part of the Welsh coast from the effects of climate change. 

The Member is right, though, that the actions agreed so far at the climate conference will not be sufficient to achieve the Paris goals of a 1.5 maximum rise in global temperatures, and unless we can see further agreements and further commitments—we want to play our part here in Wales, but we can only do that as part of a global effort—unless we see those agreements made in the final days of the conference, then we will be left dealing with the consequences. 

Llywydd, when I was at Glasgow, I was able to meet the governor of Louisiana in the United States, and I particularly met him because that state is still dealing with the impact of coastal and other flooding from major weather events. It was a sobering meeting. They have tens of thousands of people still living in hotel rooms because of the impact of events some many, many months ago. There is depopulation in their coastal communities, as people move away, feeling they cannot face another event of the sort that they've now had to cope with twice in 10 years.

Now, there was a lot to learn from the way in which the government of Louisiana is helping its citizens, and we'll continue to have a dialogue with them. But unless the world is prepared to act, then the experiences that other parts of the world are already having to deal with will be seen here in Wales as well. And that's why the work of the remaining days of COP26 are particularly important. 

2. Business Statement and Announcement

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

Member
Lesley Griffiths MS 14:34:38
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch, Llywydd. There are no changes to this week's business. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically. 

Minister, can I call for a statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services on the use of face coverings in churches? I was at the Principality Stadium over the weekend, along with over 70,000 other people, and I was able to sing 'Bread of Heaven' without a face covering in sight. Why is it that churches can still not sing hymns, and sing 'Bread of Heaven', unless they have a face covering worn at the same time? It seems ridiculous to me that there is such a significant inconsistency. And I would like the Welsh Government to reconsider their position on this, to give those people who attend churches and other places of worship around the country the opportunity to be able to sing freely, without the need for face coverings to be worn.

14:35

Well, obviously, the Welsh Government continually monitor and look at all of the mitigating circumstances we've brought in to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. We do, obviously, have a debate this afternoon also.

I'd like an update from the Welsh Government, please, about next steps relating to the 327 high-risk coal tips in Wales. The Government, and I, had hoped that money for this would be forthcoming from the UK budget last month, but Wales was once again let down by Westminster. Trefnydd, the finance Minister has said that the UK Government has a legal and a moral responsibility to make the tips safe. Now, the moral obligation I think is clear—roughly £200 billion-worth of coal was extracted from Wales, and was not ever reinvested into the communities. It beggars belief that the Treasury now claims Welsh taxpayers should foot that bill for clearing up the mess and the danger, when they took the lion's share of the profits of coal. So, I'd like a statement, please, to explain more about the Welsh Government's analysis of the legal obligation the UK Government has to clear the tips, and what can be done to ensure they hold true to that obligation, but what the plan B is if Westminster continues to shirk responsibility. And finally, Trefnydd, there has been a recent suggestion of implementing an early-warning system for when tips start to move. I think that that merits further discussion on the floor of the Chamber, especially whether this will be in addition to or instead of safety work. So, I'd welcome a further statement from the Government about this issue, please.

Thank you very much. Delyth Jewell raises a very important point, and we were all incredibly disappointed that further funding wasn't announced in the UK Government's comprehensive spending review last week, as you said yourself. The coal tips predate devolution in 1999, and I'm very surprised—and I've certainly had dealings with the UK Government in the previous term of Government around this issue. You'll be aware that the coal tip safety technology trials programme is under way to explore the instrumentation and the monitoring technology and techniques that are available for us with potential warning functions. And I think we really need to understand the condition indicators and triggering events in relation to coal tip safety. You'll also probably be aware that the Law Commission undertook a significant piece of work for the Welsh Government, and the Minister with responsibility now is looking at that and will update Members at the most appropriate time.

Could I ask for a debate on environment legislation in Government time, Minister? The United Kingdom Government amended the Environment Bill yesterday to include sewerage undertakers whose area is wholly or mainly in England. Now, this clearly makes policy for England, but it doesn't make policy for Wales. And, with all the chaos that's been going on in Westminster over the last few weeks, I think there's a real sense of dislocation—what is the policy for discharges, what is the law, where does the law stand at the moment for Wales in all of this? We've seen a number of legislative consent motions seeking our approval for powers to be enacted in Westminster, without scrutiny in this place, but I think we need a level of coherence in this debate, and a coherence in the legislation that underpins environmental regulation, so that we here can debate these matters, and people in Wales can understand them.

I'd also like to ask for a statement on the ability of the general public to access this building. I understand there was an event taking place here at lunchtime, but this building is now closed as a consequence of a proposed demonstration outside. Now, in a democracy, people have the right to demonstrate; no matter how uncomfortable that may be for Members in here, the public have an absolute right to come here, to witness our debates, and to hold us all to account. It is unacceptable in a democracy, except in very, very narrow circumstances, that this building be closed to the people we seek to represent. I believe that, notwithstanding the public health issues that we have to deal with at the moment—and I accept that—on all other occasions, this place has to be open to the general public, and the general public have an absolute right to come here and watch our debates and watch our votes and how we represent those people.

14:40

Thank you. In relation to your request regarding the environment Bill—and, as you say, we've had a number of LCMs that have been debated in this Chamber—the Minister is considering what steps we need to take. You'll be aware of our programme for government commitments focusing on improving our inland waters particularly, and we're working very closely with water companies around discharges, particularly from combined storm overflows—that work has been undertaken for several years now.

In relation to your second point, the Llywydd has heard your comments. Obviously, this was discussed in Business Committee this morning; there have been closures, as you say, of the Senedd, around public health issues in relation to COVID-19, but I'm sure that the Llywydd, if she feels that there is any need for any further information, will write to you to update you.

I'm sorely tempted to respond myself at that point. I'm sure that I shouldn't, but just to reassure the Member and any other Members that no decision on the closure of this building is taken in order to make life more comfortable for Members and to lessen our accountability to the citizens of Wales. I take professional security and safety advice in these matters in order to keep Members, members of the public and staff safe, and that's the decision I've taken for today. But, as always, the views of Members are influential on my thinking, as is the professional advice that I receive. So, I'm grateful that the matter has been raised, believe it or not, in order to make sure that people are aware that it's not for the comfort of Members here, but is for the security of everybody who is outside or inside this building. And all our proceedings are available to be witnessed by Members virtually, of course, and the decisions we will take and the words that we will speak later on this afternoon, they will all be accountable to the people of Wales.

Peter Fox.

Diolch, Llywydd. Trefnydd, could I please request a statement by the Minister for Climate Change for an update on what action the Welsh Government is taking on the issue of unsafe cladding on high-rise buildings? Recently, some constituents who own properties in the Celestia complex have contacted me about their concerns over a lack of direct support for leaseholders. I understand that this is a complex issue, but it's important that all those affected have certainty and clarity. I recognise that the Government has set up phase 1 of the Welsh buildings safety fund, and I think that Members would be interested in knowing more about what impact this fund has had so far. Now, as I understand it, details about phase 2 of the fund were meant to be announced this autumn, but nothing has been published yet. It is important that details about the next stage of support for those affected are announced as soon as possible. Finally, the written statement published by the Government in July 2021 stated that it was considering introducing 

'a buyout scheme to support leaseholders who are impacted by building safety and would prefer to sell their property.'

I think many residents would appreciate an update as to whether such a scheme will be introduced here in Wales. Thank you.

Well, I'm sure that the Member appreciates that this is a very complex area and this work is ongoing and the Minister will update Members before Christmas.

Trefnydd, many in this Siambr will know that this Senedd has been built on a dry dock, and it's probably right to say that this building wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for the port of Cardiff and the coal of the Valleys. Therefore, it's apt for me to ask for a statement today from the Welsh Government about their ports and maritime strategy. As during the industrial revolution, our port has a key role to play during the green revolution. Now, my colleagues Luke Fletcher, Heledd Fychan and I went to visit Cardiff port today; we had a tour, we had a virtual tour, and spoke to the management there. I encourage any Member to go and visit the port, which is literally just around the corner from us. Management there were keen to highlight to us the role that the port can play towards a greener and a decarbonised Wales. So, can we have a statement about your strategy for ports?

14:45

Thank you. I would certainly encourage Members to undertake the visit that you just referred to. I will ask the Minister what work is ongoing in relation to our ports and maritime strategy and ask for an update.

Last Sunday, I attended a remembrance service at the Armenian monument in Cathays Park, which was the first monument in memory of the holocaust suffered by the Armenian community in 1915. Llywydd, I’m sure you will recall that this institution and the Welsh Government at the time were the first to recognise the genocide of the Armenians during the first world war, and the first to put up a monument to the Armenian slaughter, which was unveiled by your predecessor, Dafydd Elis-Thomas. So, I hope we will all continue to remember the Armenian genocide, both this weekend and when we come to mark Holocaust Memorial Day at the end of January.

Trefnydd, in light of the earlier comments of the First Minister about the disturbing levels of corruption this UK Government is quickly becoming synonymous with, I’d like to request a statement from the Welsh Government about the damage done to Welsh citizens as a result of the awarding of the contract for PCR testing to Immensa Health Clinic in Wolverhampton just weeks after it was incorporated. An initial grant of £119 million last year and a further £50 million this August has been given to a company that is not capable of providing accurate PCR tests. Forty-three thousand PCR tests were declared negative when in fact they were positive in September and the beginning of October alone. So, in this statement, may we be told how many of the false-negative tests affected people living in Wales? And what steps is the Welsh Government taking to seek compensation for the false-negative tests, which we know, from recent remarks from the director of public health, have contributed to the spread of COVID in south-east Wales?

Thank you. It was certainly very concerning that, as you say, there were 43,000 false-negative COVID tests. I should say the UK Health Security Agency have confirmed that people from Wales who did have tests analysed at that private laboratory in England were all contacted between 15 and 17 October. This is an ongoing piece of work. We are working with the UK HSA to look at the reviews. We’re working with Public Health Wales as well, and supporting the technical advisory group to asses the potential impact of those incidents on our case rates in epidemiology. The Minister will need to await the results of those investigations and reviews before coming forward with a statement.

Minister, recent figures demonstrate our emergency services are facing a crisis, with ambulance response time reaching life-endangering levels in Wales. This is true not just for red calls. In September, only 52 per cent of red calls reached their patient within eight minutes, but, for amber calls, 5,228 patients had to wait over three hours and, of these, for 1,608 the ambulances took over five hours. Amber calls can include strokes as well as fractures. Recently, the Minister called a climate emergency, but what is clear now is that the life chances of Welsh patients are facing a greater immediate threat—an ambulance emergency. Will the Minister set aside time for a debate on this crisis for the health Minister to address this issue? Thank you.  

We know that excessive waits for an ambulance response are not acceptable, and you will have heard the First Minister answer questions during First Minister's questions around our ambulance waiting times. The Welsh ambulance service, like all our NHS services, not just in Wales but right across the UK, is working very hard to respond to the ongoing and significant challenges that the global pandemic has presented to us. We heard the First Minister saying that, obviously, when ambulances are responding to calls now, invariably, they have to put PPE on, and this is taking much longer, unfortunately, and also the cleaning of the ambulances. I don't think we need a specific debate on ambulance times at the moment, but the health Minister is in the Chamber most weeks, where she can answer specific questions.

14:50

Trefnydd, I'd like to raise the plight of residents and businesses in the wider Brynmawr area who have been affected by the ongoing work on the Heads of the Valleys road. This has been a long-running saga for the local people because works have dragged on and on. What was promised to be a three-months closure of the slip road turned into 15 months. I'm pleased that, as of Monday, the slip road has now opened between 6 a.m and 8 p.m, but there's still work to do on this section of the road, which is down to one lane currently. It's been said by contractors, for what that's worth, that the section will be completed some time this autumn, which officially ends less than a week before Christmas.

Local residents and businesses have suffered long enough already. Many local traders are on the brink. Can the matter of business support be explored? I submitted written questions on the matter, but the answers that came back were not substantial. One local resident told me this week, 'We've been patient enough'. As the crucial Christmas period approaches, can resources also be directed to this section of the road, to ensure that works are completed ahead of the 20 December deadline, which, if it runs to that date, will be no good for the town centre, which has already suffered enough and is looking to recover in the run-up to Christmas? Diolch.

I don't have any information to hand around the road that the Member refers to. I'm very pleased that the slip road has opened, and I will certainly ask—I assume it's the Deputy Minister for Climate Change who answered you—him to revisit your written questions to see if there is any further information that can be given and reassurance to your constituents.

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

I seek your wise counsel on how we can get a very specific matter raised here in the Siambr. It could be through a debate on community land ownership, or, indeed, the role of the Crown Estate, or something else that could help resolve a long-standing issue in the gorgeous Garw valley. We've got a former colliery rail line that is now a much-loved but somewhat neglected community footpath and cycle path, which has an active interest from a heritage rail company, a separate local heritage and history society, and environmental groups, and is part of the national cycle network, so Sustrans has an interest too, yet it has contested ownership, and leasehold and maintenance responsibility and public liability accountability falling between various stakeholders and the local authority, and the former and now defunct groundwork organisation, and—wait for it—Crown Estates too. So, as of this moment, this vital community wildlife and recreation corridor risks falling into disrepair because no-one is able to step up and take responsibility for it. So, after years of frustration for all involved, I'm pulling together a meeting of all the stakeholders to see if we can agree a way forward, but a debate on this would be helpful indeed. So, what would the Trefnydd advise if I wanted to seek to air this matter on the floor of the Senedd to encourage a resolution to this long-running saga?

Possibly a short debate; I've always found if you've got a specific issue like that, it's quite a useful way forward. I mean, it's clearly a complicated issue that you've just set out, so I think there are obviously some contested land ownership issues. I think it's very important in the first place to try and get a better understanding of those issues, so that will inform the options available. You could write to the Minister, or raise a question during their question time, but I think we need to look at the legal issues as well, and that might then open up more opportunities to look at what powers are available, including compulsory purchase, for instance. So, I would certainly suggest that the Member does that in the first instance.

Good afternoon, Trefnydd. I would like to call for a statement from the Minister for health regarding fair pay for NHS staff, as I've been contacted by a number of constituents, given that Ysbyty Glan Clwyd is a major employer in the Vale of Clwyd, as is Wrexham Maelor Hospital in your own constituency. And they've raised concerns about the announced 3 per cent pay increase for NHS staff and the fact that they've yet to receive the increase. It appears that many staff on band 2 haven't received the backdated pay uplift, and they're staff who provide vital services such as microbiology, phlebotomy and a whole range of essential diagnostics. This is affecting morale in some of the lowest paid NHS workers and essential workers, who are just as important as our doctors and nurses. And, like many parts of our NHS, these services are understaffed and they've been under immense pressure and strain throughout the pandemic. Staff have had to take extra workloads on during the past 18 months to ensure our NHS continues to operate. So, Trefnydd, will you ask the Minister for health to come to this Chamber and inform my constituents when they will be able to see the promised uplift in their pay? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

14:55

Thank you. Well, you'll be aware the Minister for Health and Social Services did issue a written statement to show her commitment to following the recommendations from the independent NHS pay review body in relation to the 3 per cent pay rise. I think it's very important that we never miss an opportunity to say how much we value the work and appreciate everything our NHS Wales staff have done, particularly over the very difficult 18 months. I know that negotiations are ongoing. I will certainly ask the Minister if there is any further information to update us, but I know her officials are working very closely with NHS Wales to ensure all staff receive that pay rise as soon as possible.

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. Trefnydd, could I ask you for an oral statement on the latest situation in terms of the impact of the NRW advice on rivers in special areas of conservation that are sensitive to phosphates? This, of course, is having a major impact across the Mid and West Wales region. I'm sure that we all understand the need for clean rivers and unpolluted rivers, but it's clear to me that these guidelines are going to have a major impact on the ability of local authorities and you as a Government—I'll take off my mask so you can hear me better—to achieve a number of very important plans, such as building affordable homes, economic development schemes, the mid Wales deal and so forth. Now, I understand that you have established a national working group to bring the major agencies together to plan a way ahead. Could we have a statement from you on the work of this working group that would allow us, as Members in the Chamber, to discuss these issues? Thank you very much.

Thank you. Well, this issue actually falls within the portfolio of the Minister for Climate Change, not mine, and I know she has been considering the report from NRW. The Minister has oral questions tomorrow, so it might be most appropriate if you raise it with her then.

3. Statement by the Minister for Economy: The Foundational Economy

The next item is a statement by the Minister for Economy—and I call on the Minister for Economy—on the foundational economy.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. During the last Senedd term, we made significant progress in our support for the foundational economy here in Wales. This is a cross-Government priority, and we have focused our attention on businesses offering services and products that affect our daily lives: the food that we eat, the homes we live in, the energy we use and the care we receive. Estimates suggest that four in 10 jobs, and £1 in every £3 spent, fall into the foundational economy category. And nurturing the foundational economy is a fundamental part of our plans for the future. It underpins our economic resilience and reconstruction mission. At the economic summit last month, I outlined my vision for the Welsh economy and made clear the role that our economy has in creating vibrant places throughout Wales—places where young people can realise their ambitions and reach their potential, places where anyone can launch and develop a thriving business.

The foundational economy in Wales, as I say, accounts for four in 10 jobs, but they cover a broad spectrum of professions and career pathway opportunities. Fortifying the foundational economy will enhance and enrich employment opportunities and will enable us to focus on retaining Welsh talent in Wales to conserve local life and the economies in our cities and in our rural and coastal communities.

A critical cog of the foundational economy is social care. It enables so many people to live fulfilled lives, whether they are the recipients of care, or relatives and close friends of those receiving care, as well of course as the significant number of people who work in the sector. The sector is facing unprecedented resource pressure, so we're channelling assistance to try to help address this challenge.

Social Care Wales is being supported to help tackle the current recruitment crisis. We have a focused national programme that is helping care providers to reduce recruitment costs, and return-to-work opportunities are being offered to both those furthest away from employment and those facing unexpected life changes, such as redundancy.

We're supporting Flintshire council to become the first council in Wales to directly commission care from microcarers. Recruiting microcarers in outlying villages could help to build rural economies and offer more local solutions, it can also reduce travel requirements and associated carbon emissions, as well of course as supporting the Welsh language. It could help to encourage growth of Welsh-owned businesses, and it is an approach that we will look to promote across Wales.

We are also helping the retail sector to respond to changed shopping habits by providing access to an electronic platform to help enhance the digital presence of smaller retailers and also to help identify opportunities again for reducing the carbon impact. This development is being introduced initially across three local authorities, and I do then expect that to be followed by an all-Wales roll-out.

The pandemic and the ongoing impact of Brexit have emphasised the importance of resilient, local food supply chains. Food is critical within the foundational economy and can help to deliver multiple benefits, providing opportunities for local food suppliers and producers, as well as enhancing health and well-being. It can also play a major role in helping to realise our net-zero ambitions. We've continued to support work to help build local food-producing capacity. Hywel Dda health board has been funded to explore the development of a freeze-cook facility targeted at local food producers.

We're also supporting controlled environment agriculture production. This should help to improve our capacity for year-round crops and will help small businesses to compete fairly to supply food locally, at the same time as contributing to the growth of our green economy. I am determined that we will increase the amount of Welsh food served on public plates. We're working with a range of partners to enable this, including Caerphilly council, who lead on the food frameworks for the Welsh public sector, and we continue to work with major food wholesalers and suppliers to help them to transition to increased Welsh supply.

To successfully and collectively nurture the foundational economy, we must acknowledge the wider benefits that come from local purchasing. This includes supporting fair work, strengthening communities and reducing our carbon impact, as well as improving well-being. Public procurement is worth approximately £7 billion each year in Wales. I am determined that we'll push forward initiatives that ensure that our public money is spent here and to champion a wider recognition of the role that the foundational economy plays in helping to sustain and strengthen our unique ways of life.

I'm pleased to outline that, through support allocated for an NHS Wales foundational economy procurement programme, Welsh suppliers have been able to win an additional £11 million-worth of healthcare contracts from April to October within this year. Social value is now a mandatory criterion in many NHS contracts and we will work with partners to mainstream this further.

We have visibility of NHS Wales's forward contract plan for the next two years and local government has produced a progressive, collaborative contracting pipeline. So, we will work closely together to clarify contract opportunities for the foundational economy and the business support that will give our local suppliers every opportunity of winning these contracts. We'll encourage the involvement of co-operatives, social enterprises and other employee-owned businesses in the delivery of public spending.

Improved visibility of future contract opportunities tackles a significant barrier, which has traditionally limited the chance of local suppliers successfully accessing public procurement. Other requirements, including accreditation and qualifications, can also limit the chances of local businesses in winning contracts. To help address this, I can confirm that I will launch a backing local firms fund this month; it will initially provide support to businesses in the food, social care and optimised retrofit sectors. The £1 million backing local firms fund will build on the success of the challenge fund. As well as accreditation and qualifications, the fund will promote the broad range of career opportunities that these sectors offer. This can appeal to all parts of our rich and diverse population.

Deputy Llywydd, we have achieved some encouraging progress. There remains great scope to accelerate growth in the foundational economy and to fully engage those businesses in our ambitions to deliver programmes such as the optimised retrofit programme, the manufacturing action plan and to help achieve net zero. Realising the potential of the foundational economy requires joined-up working across Government, with business, the wider public sector and our social partners.

In the coming months, I will continue to work with Cabinet colleagues to build on cross-portfolio collaboration that has already been established and to develop approaches that further underline our recognition of the vital contribution that the foundational economy makes to well-being here in Wales.

15:05

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and I'm pleased that the Minister has brought forward a statement on how the Welsh Government is supporting the foundational economy today. Of course, the foundational economy is so vitally important to how we live; as has been said, it covers everything from the social care that's available in our communities to the food we eat, and so it's really encouraging to see the Welsh Government embedding the language of the foundational economy and its principles into its economic policies.

Today's statement has highlighted some of the projects funded via the foundational economy challenge fund, and I know that the impact of that funding has led to some really innovative projects being developed. The statement makes it clear that a £1 million backing local firms fund will build on the success of the challenge fund, which is really positive. Perhaps now is the time, therefore, to review the challenge fund to ensure that there is genuine value for money and that local economies are being transformed as a result of that investment. Therefore, can the Minister tell us how the Welsh Government is monitoring the effectiveness of spend via the foundational economy challenge fund and can he also confirm that he will be publishing an assessment of those projects that have received funding? And can he also clarify whether the backing local firms fund will now replace the challenge fund or, indeed, work alongside it?

Today's statement talks about progressive procurement, and that's something that the Minister knows I'm keen to see delivered right across Wales. We need to see improvements to our procurement practices to ensure small businesses are able to fairly compete for contracts. The Minister says he's determined to push forward initiatives that ensure that our public money is spent here and to champion a wider recognition of the role that the foundational economy plays in helping to sustain and strengthen our unique ways of life, and I'm pleased to hear that. Perhaps he can tell us a little bit more about the NHS Wales foundational economy procurement programme, and given that social value is now a mandatory criterion in many NHS contracts, can he tell us how he'll be monitoring this to ensure that contracts are awarded to the right businesses?

Of course, in order to identify opportunities to localise spend, it's crucial that business support is indeed reviewed. The previous Minister believed that there should be a review of business support, including Business Wales, to ensure that Welsh companies could fulfil public contracts and supply voids. Therefore, can the Minister confirm that that review is taking place, and if so, can he also share with us the outcomes of that review?

The Minister will be aware of the Federation of Small Businesses calls for a foundational economy lens to guide policy making, and I believe there's merit to this idea. One aspect of their lens is to encourage larger businesses to support small and medium-sized enterprises in sectors that are dominated by large firms that have disproportionate influence. The example they use is, of course, in the food industry, and today's statement also considers the importance of the food sector. For example, I'm pleased to see that Hywel Dda University Health Board has been funded to explore development of a freeze-cook facility targeted at local food producers. It's so important that we help local producers in the region and also retain more of the added value from local production.

The Minister will, no doubt, be aware of the Pembrokeshire food park in Haverfordwest, which is a great example of a way of providing opportunities for producers to acquire plots to develop food production and processing facilities that will create added value, and, indeed, create new jobs in the region. Can the Minister tell us what the Welsh Government is doing to develop a foundational economy lens? And can he also tell us what the Welsh Government is doing to support projects like the Pembrokeshire food park and to ensure that good practice like this is being rolled out in other areas?

The Minister may be aware of the report published by the Bevan Foundation last year, which focused on the capacity and potential of businesses in three communities in the south Wales Valleys: Treharris in Merthyr Tydfil, Treherbert in Rhondda Cynon Taf, and Cwmafan in Neath Port Talbot. That report found that support needs to be targeted to microfirms with much more effective communications and networks between businesses themselves and between business, local government and indeed Welsh Government. And so I hope the Minister will take the opportunity today to tell us more about how the Welsh Government is strengthening its communication and networks with businesses, particularly in those areas where local economies are weak.

The Minister will be aware of the work done by Preston City Council in building community wealth, which has successfully promoted inclusive growth of the local economy since 2012, and we can learn lessons from the way in which others are developing the foundational economy. As the Welsh Government is also a significant owner of land and property, it's vital that it's using those assets to deliver social and environmental benefits. Therefore, can the Minister tell us what work has been done to examine how the Welsh Government can use its own assets to develop the foundational economy in Wales? And, as the Minister has reminded us today, the foundational economy accounts for four in 10 jobs and £1 in every £3 that we spend, so we're not talking about small amounts of money here. Of course, the COVID pandemic has impacted resilience in some communities, and it's vital that we understand just how much of an impact it's had on the foundational economy. So, perhaps the Minister will agree to publish an assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on the foundational economy.

Therefore, finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, can I thank the Minister for his statement and say that I look forward to hearing more about how the Welsh Government is developing and scaling up the foundational economy here in Wales? Diolch.

15:10

Thank you for the series of questions. I'll start with your point about the challenge fund and the assessment. Fifty-two projects were supported, 47 of those completed at March, and the assessment of those has helped to inform the activity we're now moving forward with as well. There's also, though, plenty to learn from the community of practice internally, which Cynnal Cymru have helped to run for us, and I'll certainly consider whether it would make sense to publish something, perhaps a written statement, providing more information on what we've learned from the challenge fund and to set out more clearly how that's helped to inform the backing local firms fund, which will take forward much of the learning from the initial challenge fund phase, which of course came from a previous budget agreement.

I think you asked later on about food as a sector, and it's something that I've already made choices on, investing in the food sector, not just in west Wales but right across Wales. It's one of the positive advantages that I see for the future of the Welsh economy and people's continuing understanding of where produce comes from and how we then use it. I actually think there's a big opportunity to persuade more people to make use of Welsh food in their own choices, as well as frankly other public procurement choices that I've mentioned as well. So, as I said, food, the retrofit programme and social care are the three areas we're initially targeting the backing local firms fund on, to try to take forward some of the lessons on how we understand what looking at the wider question of social value is. So, it's not simply about the price, but it's the value of what we do when we're spending public money. I do expect that we'll learn more from this next stage as we then continue to roll this forward. And, in many ways, the backing local firms fund, from an external point of view, is probably easier to understand than the foundational economy. It is exactly what it says on the tin: back local firms for them to be successful, to gain more from public procurement, to actually the help that will provide in terms of local jobs, but also that broader point about our impact on the wider world. 

And on the NHS, which again is another—. And I see this from the perspective of being the health Minister, and again within the foundational economy and looking again at local procurement, and now in my current role. The health Minister and I have already issued a written statement on a foundational economy approach within the NHS, so I think it's really encouraging that, within six months, more than £11 million has been spent with Welsh firms who weren't previously engaged and delivering work from NHS procurement. So, that's a really positive step, and I expect us to be able to do more in that space progressively in the future. I know the now Deputy Minister for Climate Change regularly made the point internally within the Government, as well as externally, about how and where you get the money spent on food contracts within the NHS, but much more widely, and where that supply is coming from. So, there is more work that I think we can do, not just in food but a wide range of other areas too. And that will involve monitoring and understanding success and, again, making sure that the lessons from that are rolled out.

I think this goes through to your point about a foundational economy lens, so there are a number of things we're doing. We have a community wealth-building approach in Gwent that takes on board lessons from Preston and others, and our external partners in the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, otherwise known as CLES. That is looking at community wealth building across Gwent, but it definitely includes the NHS, so Aneurin Bevan health board are very much involved in that in looking to understand what we could do better and their understanding of their impact within their local economy and the communities in which they not just provide services but spend lots and lots of public money.

That will also include us looking again at the business support we provide—both the support that Business Wales provides, but when we're talking about the backing local firms fund, some of that will be about business advice for those businesses. So, we're looking to see how we can help them to understand how they can get through the gate and be more successful in procurement in its widest sense. You talked a bit about Welsh Government assets—these aren't just physical assets, of course; I think one of our biggest levers is what we're prepared to do progressively with procurement and our understanding of what we expect people to do, in both direct Welsh Government, but more broadly across the public sector.

I'll consider his point with interest about COVID-19 and its impact on the foundational economy and how that might and might not be, but I'm thinking more clearly about how the business restrictions that we've had have had an impact, and then the success of the interventions we've provided more generally. There is work ongoing on that, but I'm thinking more broadly about the recovery, and how we make sure that the foundational economy actually grows—not just survives, but grows the sector with better paid jobs and better conditions for local firms and local businesses.

15:15

Thank you, Deputy Llywydd, and thank you to the Minister for the statement this afternoon.

Traditional macro-economic approaches to economic development have failed to deliver economic gains and social benefits within environmentally sustainable limits or spread fairly those gains throughout Welsh localities. The current model that relies on continual growth, the accumulation of capital and extraction for profit is impossible to sustain on a finite planet with finite resources.

Turning to the statement, current attempts by the Welsh Government to prioritise social utility when awarding contracts—which I wholeheartedly welcome—risks seeing some businesses simply rewording their bids to incorporate the new requirements at paper level only, rather than demonstrating how they embed social value within their proposed work practices. Could the Minister outline what measures the Welsh Government are taking to guard against this?

We also must move away from obsessions with high-value sectors and inward investment to a more holistic view that focuses more attention to the foundational economy. This could be achieved by harnessing the power of community wealth building and anchor institutions encouraging plural ownership of the economy by locally owned or socially minded businesses, who are more likely to employ, buy and invest locally rather than extracting wealth. In Preston—as we've heard already today—community wealth building has been used to tackle the inequalities present in the region and ensure economic development in the area is shared more equally amongst residents. Through this approach, an extra £4 million was spent locally by Preston council over a four-year period.

It's welcome that Welsh suppliers have been able to win an additional £11 million-worth of healthcare contracts, but I'm sure the Minister shares my ambition for us to go even further. It's welcome that the Minister has announced the backing local firms fund. I would welcome further details on that fund, and would echo Paul Davies's calls for a review of the challenge fund. And further, could the Minister outline the Welsh Government's position on creating a Welsh model of local public procurement, built on the foundational economy, specifically through setting a target of increasing the level of public sector procurement to 75 per cent of the total spend of the Government procurement budget?

A new green industrial strategy must not only cease carbon-intensive practices, but provide a just transition with shovel-ready green jobs and a local jobs guarantee that will help revitalise Wales's rural and ex-industrial local economies. Following the lead of the Scottish Government, a just transition commission should be developed to oversee the green industrial transition, and we should establish an alliance of Welsh businesses—which includes the Welsh Government—to focus on co-ordinating action, not just policy, that will achieve social, economic and environmental growth. A just transition is key for the foundational economy in Wales, as so many sectors in the foundational economy suffer from issues stemming from below-average hourly wages and relatively unstable hours of work. This results in more people living in poverty or being at risk from falling into poverty, and has a negative effect on family life, health and spending in the local economy. I think the Chamber can guess where I'm going with this, but could the Minister confirm whether or not the Welsh Government has considered the possibility of establishing a just transition commission?

Of course, increasing pay and providing more secure and stable hours must be an integral part of any policy aiming to grow the foundational economy, and may help us in tackling some of those recruitment issues the Minister outlined in his statement. In food and beverage services, accommodation and retail, for example, workers receive at least £3 an hour less than the average Welsh worker, but these sectors employ around four out of 10 of all employees in Wales. In the retail, food, accommodation and social care sectors, even the best paid employees earn less than £500 a week. What measures will the Government take to improve earnings and hours in the foundational economy, and has the Minister given consideration to how we might be able to incorporate a four-day work week into the foundational economy? I mentioned procurement earlier on—well, there is an opportunity to use the Wales fair work Act and incentivise shorter working weeks by building it into procurement strategy, which is of course all above board, according to section 60 of the Wales Act 2006.

And finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, the gender pay gap is also of concern in the foundational economy, as the largest gender pay gap is seen in the energy industry and is also very substantial in education, health and non-residential social care. There is a notable gap in gross weekly earnings between women and men in all foundational economy sectors, which worsens as pay increases. Chwarae Teg's recently published figures on the Welsh gender pay gap between 2020 and 2021 show that the gender pay gap has actually worsened in this time, increasing by 0.7 per cent to a total gap of 12.3 per cent. As we transition to a greener economy, where much of the focus will be on sectors such as energy, construction and housing, how does the Welsh Government plan to rectify this pay gap and ensure that everyone gets a fair stake and fair work in Wales's future green economy?

15:20

Thank you for the comments and questions. I hope that we heard a more positive Luke Fletcher than last week, when he talked about how he self-described as rather negative and seeing the downside. Actually, I think there's a lot to be positive about in the foundational economy, and as I say, we started the challenge fund in particular following a budget agreement with his party in the previous Senedd, and that's allowed us then to start the challenge fund.

Again, much of what he said at the start of his contribution about recognising the value of anchor institutions and how they can have a much bigger impact on the local economy was definitely at the heart of our thinking. It's why we were able to reach agreements on doing that previously. That's part of what I'm looking to take forward. I'm not going to try to unpick the lessons we've learned, but how can we do more and be more—not just enthusiastic, but actually more ambitious about what we can do in practice. That's why I'm really pleased that, within six months, we've done what I've said with the £11 million of extra NHS spending in Wales that, previously, was going outside Wales. That's significant, and I expect us to be able to identify more NHS spend coming back into Wales in the future, progressively. As I've said to Paul Davies, I'm certainly looking to monitor that together with the health Minister, because I want to understand how we've done that successfully in practice, and then to reset our objectives to do more in the future, rather than simply saying, 'We've done enough, let's forget about this and move on.' This is part of the future, not simply something for one statement and then move on.

On your point about how that value needs to be there, I think your points about procurement and supply chain are really important. We know we've made a difference on procurement over the last term and before. We know that there are more Welsh businesses and more Welsh jobs because of the way we've changed our approach in procurement. But the challenge is, again, how we do more, not to be defensive about what we've done or haven't done so far, but how do we say we can do even better. The backing local firms fund is part of that, but it's all the other things that I've outlined earlier today. The work that CLES have done with us, the lesson learning they're already doing with public services boards—they're doing lesson learning to get to the end of this financial year for us to understand more about what we already have done, to then be able to move on and make greater progress. It's already the case that we understand that, within the supply chain, there are some businesses that have a postcode for payment, but all of the activity certainly isn't in Wales. That's, again, part of our challenge—how do we understand as we go through the management of the supply chain itself that we're not just getting primary contractors who are based here, but as you go to the next two steps down, are those businesses genuinely located in Wales, and the jobs are here? And crucially, how do we get Welsh businesses further up that chain within the supply chain so that they're the primary contractor and not the third or the fourth iteration of it?

I expect you will see more of that as we go through what the backing local firms fund will help us to do—and more of the advice that Business Wales will continue to provide within the sector as well. So, I think there is room for optimism because we have already done some of this. A good example of the backing local firms fund is the optimised retrofit programme, similar to your point about the green economy. We've announced £150 million to spend with an objective that should make a big difference for the homes that people live in. That's part of our objective, and the bills and the costs for people that live in those homes. But from this perspective, it's the jobs that will go in that. Where is that £150 million going to be spent? How do we positively identify Welsh firms, Welsh businesses, Welsh jobs that will be taking advantage of that money? And again, that's very clear, and this is a good example of a much more joined-up approach between my colleagues in climate change, Julie James and Lee Waters, and this department to make sure we take advantage of those opportunities.  

I'm not persuaded that we necessarily need a just transition commission, but I think what we have set out, with your points about fair work and also the objectives we have with the social partnership and procurement Bill—fair work will be at the heart of that. There will be lots more to talk about in the scrutiny of that piece of legislation, as well as our approach in a range of other areas. But I do recognise that we have more that I think we can do in the way we choose to spend money, and how we persuade businesses to come along with us—that's by exhortation but it's also about the requirements we have of how we expect Welsh public money to be spent. And that will include our ambitions on reducing the gender pay gap, because I recognise that as the economy is structured, there are many jobs that people assume are jobs for men or for women and yet, actually, we know that that divide need not be the case. We are looking to positively encourage people to consider different careers, as well as, with our foundational economy approach, looking to raise the pay of areas where we know that there are often low-paid women. So, that's why we're talking about social care as a really important sector, but it is also why we'll continue to take proactive and positive steps to encourage women into careers, into skills and training to get those jobs, and for employers to change the workplace. 

I'll finish on this point, Deputy Llywydd. I can honestly say that I have worked in workplaces with different groups of people in different teams, and the best teams that I have worked in are teams that are more balanced between men and women—the most enjoyable teams, the best culture within the teams, the best way to get the most out of each other. So, it isn't just about wanting to do the right thing from an ideological perspective; there's good evidence, not just in my experience but more generally, that businesses tend to do better if they can address this issue about who works for them and, crucially, the fairness of how people get paid. 

15:25

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Backing local businesses is vital and that is why I am so happy to see the £1 million investment for the backing local firms fund from you today, Minister. I know in my constituency of Bridgend the difference that strong local businesses make, and they are the lifeblood of our communities all across Wales. I am especially pleased that this fund will prioritise businesses in the food, social care and optimised retrofit sectors, of which we have many in my constituency. It really highlights how the Welsh Government is truly investing to strengthen our foundational economy and, by extension, the well-being of the people of Wales. Sorry, I haven't got my glasses. Winning more value and better jobs from the food we eat to the care we receive and the homes that we live in is what it should be all about, and this fund, of course, is an addition and builds upon the announcement from our Minister earlier this summer with the £2.5 million funding boost to back businesses in the everyday local economy. So, as you said, we are building all the time. I am also very keen to know, as Luke Fletcher said, more about this fund, how my constituents can engage in it and apply for it as soon as they possibly can.

And finally, I really appreciate the fact that the Welsh Government's backing local firms fund is based on evidence and partnership. This is the reason why I wanted to be elected to represent the people of my constituency—to ensure that when we do have this funding, this really important funding that makes a huge difference, that that is exactly how it is decided. Because, sadly, this has not been the case for Bridgend or Wales when it comes to the UK Government's levelling-up funding, which, frankly, might as well be called the 'backing loyal Tories fund'. So, whilst I am absolutely delighted that we have this additional funding for local businesses today, Minister, I hope the UK Government can learn from Welsh Government on this.   

Thank you. There are two points there. The first is the really positive point for Bridgend and Porthcawl and other constituencies—that you can expect more business to go to local firms to support local jobs. The three sectors initially are the three areas in the backing local firms fund—food, social care and optimised retrofit suppliers, which I'm sure you have a number of within your constituency. It's about how we roll out the understanding of how people can look for the support and the access to business advice for them, but, crucially, for people who are then running those contracts and tendering those contracts to make sure that they're taking up opportunities to invest within their local communities. And I am confident that we will see not just money being spent, but also greater value in local communities as a result of the choice we're making. 

And your second point is about the continuing challenge of the way that the levelling-up fund agenda is being run. The Prime Minister has ditched his previous manifesto promise for Wales not to lose a penny. Those funds are being raided when they should be spent here in Wales. This institution, both the parliamentary side and the Government, should have a say on how that money is spent as decision makers, and it is costing Wales hundreds of millions of pounds at this point within this year. And you're also quite right to point out that money is being spent in a way that looks very much like the UK Member of Parliament you elect makes a difference as to where money is spent, not need, and that simply isn't acceptable or justifiable, and this Government will not take a backward step in making the case for Wales to receive what it deserves. I certainly hope that other parties in this place would actually find it within themselves to do the same. 

15:30

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

Plenary was suspended at 15:31.

15:35

The Senedd reconvened at 15:39, with the Llywydd in the Chair.

4. Statement by the Minister for Social Justice: Wales and Africa

The next item on our agenda this afternoon is a statement by the Minister for Social Justice on Wales and Africa, and I call on the Minister to make her statement. Jane Hutt.

15:40

Llywydd, Wales is an outward-looking nation, and we will always strive to be globally responsible. Our Wales and Africa programme is an important demonstration of that.

This year, we are celebrating 15 years of the Wales and Africa programme, which continues to adapt to challenges and opportunities. It has a prominent place in our international strategy launched in 2020. In this statement, I will focus on two of the biggest challenges we are facing—COVID-19 and the climate emergency—and how the Wales and Africa programme is responding.

The pandemic has left an enormous amount of devastation and loss in its wake—and it's not over yet. Many African countries are still in the eye of the storm, with COVID cases and repeated waves of infection sweeping through communities. Vaccination rates in sub-Saharan Africa average only 6 per cent. Truly none of us is safe until all of us are safe.

Vaccine inequity is the biggest obstacle stopping the world emerging from this pandemic. Although the vaccine distribution is not devolved, the First Minister has urged the UK Government to accelerate the supply of vaccines to the developing world, and, in particular, to places with strong links to Wales such as Uganda, Namibia and Lesotho. And I make that call again today, Llywydd. Here in the UK, millions of doses will be thrown away, even when with better planning they could be used in sub-Saharan Africa, as the People's Vaccine Alliance has identified. Whilst we can't send vaccines ourselves, as a Government, there is important work we can support, and this is why, over the last two years, the Welsh Government has made available an extra £2.5 million for Welsh organisations to work in partnership with many countries in Africa to fight against COVID.

Vaccine hesitancy and lack of awareness, lack of oxygen, PPE and the training to use it properly—all of these are areas of concern. This is why I am proud we have been able to support a number of different projects with this extra funding. One example is Cardiff-based United Purpose, which has been providing a rapid emergency response to COVID in Nigeria, the Gambia, Senegal and Guinea, reaching over 4 million of the poorest people in the world. Thanks to this work, clean sanitation areas are being provided, vaccine awareness is being raised, and people who have lost their entire livelihoods as a result of COVID are getting training in other ways to support themselves.

Another example is Teams4U. They've been doing excellent work in Uganda, improving sanitation and menstrual provision in health centres and schools, and ensuring hot running water is being plumbed into health centres, which is critical for treating patients effectively and safely.

The Phoenix Project is a remarkable project with Cardiff University and the University of Namibia, working in partnership to roll out a vaccination promotion programme in Namibia in the most disadvantaged communities, and then delivering the vaccination programme itself, saving many lives. The Phoenix Project was also recently awarded a grant to support Namibia to ensure better oxygen supplies are in the right places, at the right time, with training also being delivered to hundreds of nurses and doctors to manage those oxygen supplies.

Similarly, we also provided a grant to the Partnerships Overseas Networking Trust, or PONT, who are working in partnership with the Mbale Regional Referral Hospital in Uganda, to buy essential PPE, equipment and oxygen generators. Of course, it's not just by providing funding that we can demonstrate our commitment to supporting countries where it's most needed. The recent donation to Namibia of surplus equipment and lateral flow tests has helped with its third wave of COVID.

With COP26 taking place in Glasgow, I also want to highlight the ongoing work our support for tree-planting programmes plays in tackling climate change. Our partner projects work to alleviate poverty and support climate change adaptation and mitigation. I'm delighted that earlier this year we reached the milestone of planting 15 million trees this year, towards the target of distributing 25 million trees by 2025.

Linked to this work is Jenipher's Coffi, a partnership we're proud to support, which is importing top quality fair-trade and organic coffee to Wales and helping Ugandan farmers work in harmony with nature, as they face the climate crisis. Jenipher Sambazi heads up this project, leading the way for women and their communities. I look forward to meeting her when she visits Wales later this month. I was delighted we were able to support her to attend COP26. She's speaking this afternoon at a COP26 Welsh Government event in Glasgow, along with representatives from Namibia and Uganda. They will be talking about the impact of tree planting and reforestation activity that the Welsh Government has funded.

We remain committed to supporting the UN's sustainable development goals and tackling the climate emergency, and the Wales and Africa programme will continue to play its part in that. We are using our small and larger grant schemes to provide support to these global challenges. The second round of the Wales and Africa small grants scheme and the remaining £700,000 of the £2.5 million COVID emergency response funding both opened for applications last week. The small grants will continue to fund Wales-based organisations and their work with African partners to deliver projects under the four themes of lifelong learning, health, sustainable livelihoods and climate change.

As it is a gender day theme at COP26 today, I wanted to mark some of the projects across our grants and programmes supporting gender equality initiatives—projects such as our Mothers of Africa, the Chomuzangari Women's Cooperative and the Hub Cymru Africa women’s empowerment project that is looking into the experience of gender-based violence victims in Lesotho, how the reporting system needs to be assessed. Later this month, Hub Cymru Africa will launch a grant scheme for organisations to submit project proposals to work with their partners in Uganda on this gender equality activity. Can I take the opportunity to praise the Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate, who has said this week at COP26 in Glasgow:

'Some of us come from communities where women and girls are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis'? 

It's also important that we see more work with our diaspora communities in Wales. Any activity undertaken in Africa should be less about us making decisions and doing the work and more about supporting people in these communities to identify and deliver what’s needed. Every constituency in Wales has partnerships in Africa, and we will continue to support these partnerships through the Wales and Africa programme. Now, more than ever, this is needed. For the first time in over 20 years, global extreme poverty actually went up in 2020. Now is the time to boost aid to nations that need it most. We stand by our principles as a globally responsible nation, and we stand by our friends. Diolch.

15:45

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. It's great to see that the Wales and Africa programme continues to benefit some of the poorest nations in the world, and that another round of small-scale funding has been launched. This has been a crucial source of income to provide help and support for many small charities and community groups on the African continent. And I would also like to put on record my thanks and support for all the work that they do.

Reflecting upon how best to maximise the grant funding, I would like to raise the issue of currency conversion and exchange, which is a vital component for funding projects abroad. As the Minister will know, and if we take Uganda as an example, the British pound over the last decade has been worth anything from 3,600 Ugandan shillings right up to 5,700 shillings, and this rather large difference will have a huge knock-on effect on the amount of money that a project is able to spend. Five thousand pounds, for example, can be worth anything from 18 million to 28 million shillings, depending on when funds are exchanged, and this means that projects may struggle to meet their full potential.

The Minister will undoubtedly be aware that you can't buy Ugandan shillings and many other African currencies in the United Kingdom, and the most cost-efficient way for charities to transport funds to these countries is to physically take it there themselves in cash and then to exchange it on arrival. Not only is carrying cash in such large quantities potentially dangerous, but charity and community projects are at the mercy of high exchange fees, which makes costing and budget management extremely difficult. With this in mind, can the Minister confirm if she has considered the possibility of allowing these charities and community groups to draw down project funds directly in their respective countries, rather than running the risks of physically importing their finances?

I'm conscious that the Minister hasn't mentioned it, but, last week, I was able to listen to some of the talks at the annual Wales and Africa Health Links conference, GlobalCitizenship2021, and I was struck by the discussion on the maximising potential for future benefit report, which analyses health partnership relationships in relation to the Wales and Africa programme and the international work carried out by health staff in Wales. Not surprisingly, the report has criticisms, and it highlighted several areas that need improvement, and I would very much welcome the Minister’s comments on two of those points.

Firstly, in a survey conducted by the report, participants highlighted their concerns over barriers that are in place that reduce the likelihood of diaspora comminutes in Wales becoming involved in health partnership work. One of the fundamental issues identified, and I quote, is 'a sense of exclusion from a too-white international development sector'. Indeed, if we scratch the surface, as they say, we can find some element of truth in this. For example, all nine trustees of the Size of Wales, led by a former First Minister, Carwyn Jones, are white; the Wales in Africa Health Links Network has four out of six white trustees; and on the Hub Cymru Africa web page, 10 out of 12 of those listed are also white. Whilst I have no doubt that there is engagement with diaspora communities in Wales, and you have specifically mentioned it in your statement today, it is obvious why communities believe that they have no voice at the top table. Reflecting upon the Welsh Government’s pronouncements on creating and encouraging greater diversity in public life in Wales, I am keen to know what the Minister is actually doing to address this issue.

Secondly, as the report outlines, the proposals of the Welsh Government are supported by patchy and fragmented policy implementation, which creates an obvious gap between what the Welsh Government intend and actual practice. This is an issue that seems to come up time and time again with this Government. For example, after eight years of adoption, the charter for international health partnerships is still not fully implemented, because Welsh Government has failed to provide sufficient resources for organisations to dedicate responsibility for international work within their organisational structures—quite ironic, given that ‘international’ is included within the charter’s name. Moreover, despite the charter’s perceived benefits, there is a lack of communication strategy, which means organisations have not built the charter into their forward work plans. In fact, there is very limited awareness of the charter beyond the board level, clearly implying that few people think it’s worth talking about.

We know the benefits that international work can bring to the NHS, and there are dedicated people investing their time and energy in trying to make this work and to develop international health partnerships, but they’re being let down by this Government’s unhealthy obsession with overcomplicating everything. The maximising potential for future benefit report is littered with accusations that the Government lacks a clear strategy in international health, with no co-ordinated aims or objectives. Furthermore, you seem to have an almost psychotic compulsion to create more and more partnership agreements in the face of duplicating effort and the pleading of those involved to reduce the number of meetings they have to attend. This is shown by the mind-boggling interdependency chart shown in the report, which would give nightmares to even the most hardened horror movie enthusiast.

So, it begs the question as to why you are involved in this at all. The report clearly shows that the health partnership community is crying out for leadership and political will to resolve these issues. Therefore, as Minister for Social Justice, who is responsible for the Wales and Africa programme, the responsibility for addressing these issues is upon your shoulders. How do you propose to tackle these concerns? Thank you.

15:50

Well, I thank the Member for his outline opening support for Wales and Africa and for the partnerships, which, of course, extend in every constituency, of which many Members here are very proud and which have received our all-important small grants funding.

Of course, you raise important points about conversion, exchange and currency issues, issues that, of course, affect all work to support international development, in terms of exchange rates and access to currencies, and that’s an important point, in terms of ensuring that our partner organisations can draw down the funding that, of course, we are sharing and allocating to meet their needs.

I’m very glad you were able to attend the Wales and Africa Health Links Network conference, which I also attended, as you know, and delivered a keynote speech last week. And the theme of this conference for colleagues was global citizenship. Of course, we had representation from all those health boards, the Welsh organisations and African partners, universities, and NHS and health workers from across the UK, who recognise the work that we are doing and the importance of it. And I think it is, actually, useful just to reflect on the strength of international learning opportunities. That scheme has been provided to nearly 200 people from Wales, with eight-week placements in either Lesotho, Uganda or Namibia, and they've assisted partner organisations with their efforts to deliver aspects of the UN sustainable development goals. If any of you have met people within our health boards who've actually taken—and, indeed, public services who've taken—part in this international learning opportunities scheme, you will know how transformational it is on a mutual-learning basis in terms of those opportunities.

It is very important that we look at the delivery and the support that is given as a result of our small grants programme and the work of Hub Cymru Africa, and I think, just in terms of looking at Hub Cymru Africa, supporting the Wales-Africa community, I mentioned the diaspora, and we work very closely together with the Wales and Africa Health Links Network, the Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel and Fair Trade Wales, and, just to give you one example, last month, Hub Cymru Africa received £40,000 from the Wales and Africa programme to deliver the women's empowerment project. And it is about empowerment that is so—. The Member draws important attention to the fact this is about empowering those communities and empowering, particularly, women, and that allows Welsh groups to contribute towards gender equality outcomes in Uganda.

I am disappointed in the fact that you don't seem to recognise the impact of the Wales and Africa programme for so many years. I just want to just remind the Member that the vision of the Welsh Government's Wales and Africa programme is to support Wales to be a globally responsible nation through building and growing sustainable partnerships, and it is actually delivering those sustainable partnerships in sub-Saharan Africa, or in the role of supporting our UN sustainable development goals. And, of course, there is a huge demand within Wales for an identifiably Welsh response to contributing to international development. And, of course, that response is because we see that we're supporting dozens of small civil society groups who work with African partners on education and on community needs, promoting health and well-being, culture, sport and business, like Jenipher's Coffi, and we are demonstrating the impact of our most successful sustainable development and climate change activities across Wales.

And I would hope that, as I said at the end of my statement, we would see that now is the time for us to come together, and particularly with COP26 and the challenge of climate change. You will have seen what's happening to Africa as a result of climate change, and I made the point in my statement: now is the time for us to do everything we can to share our resources and look to aid. So, I would ask you to raise with your UK Government the concerns that we have that both the UK Government abolished the Department for International Development and absorbed its budget into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last year—and we knew that the world's poorest would suffer—and then reneged on the Conservative manifesto commitment, cutting £4 billion from the overseas budget, having a devastating effect on so many lives in the poorest of countries. And to give you one example, Bees for Development in Monmouth—their three-year £250,000 community partnership grant funding for work in Ethiopia has been cut as a result of the cuts from the overseas aid development budget. And, of course, that closes an important project, cutting 41 per cent from the budget. I hope you will listen to Jenipher, as she talks about her work today in Glasgow, at COP26. She's going to be talking about what it means for her to have the support of the Welsh Government and Wales and Africa in support of her work as a coffee grower in Uganda.

15:55

I thank the Minister for the statement. A number of important points were raised by you, and it was great to be reminded of all the strong links that exist between Wales and Africa, and the wealth of projects that are already being realised.

As you'll be aware, the People's Vaccine campaign is something that we in Plaid Cymru fully support, and I agree with you entirely: everyone's safety does depend on everyone having the same chance of obtaining a vaccine, wherever they live in the world, and it is a disgrace that the British Government has not acted more quickly on this. 

It was very evident that Joel James had decided not to refer to that part of your statement, and I think that if the people in the Conservative Party who are here today can take that message back to Westminster that would make a genuine difference to all of us.

You noted in your statement, Minister, that the First Minister has urged the UK Government to accelerate the supply of vaccines to the developing world. Are you able to advise what response the First Minister has received to this request and, in addition to making the call today, if you yourself have also written or will be writing to the UK Government on this matter? You would have our full support on this.

Of course, as you mentioned as well, the international aid cut by the UK Government, leading to the lowest it's been for nine years, with the cut to foreign aid spending totalling around £4 billion. This cut is not set to be reversed until 2024-25 at the earliest, and the impact will not only be felt in terms of the COVID response and recovery, but also, as you rightly outline, the detrimental impact on health in all sorts of different ways. To add to your examples, the World Health Organization’s global polio eradication initiative will lose essentially all of its UK funding, from £110 million to £5 million. Similarly, WaterAid have voiced concerns that this cut will mean at least three more years of dirty water and infant mortalities in vulnerable communities. UNICEF is also set to see its UK funding cut by 60 per cent. So, therefore, whilst we hope that the UK Government will change its mind, will the Welsh Government use the Wales and Africa programme to try and rectify the impact of these harsh aid cuts imposed by the UK Government and, if so, how?

And of course, this cut will also impact negatively on how these countries will be able to respond to the climate and nature emergency—something that you also referenced, Minister, as being absolutely essential in your statement—and it was good to hear that Welsh Government has been utilising opportunities created by COP26 to promote Wales as a globally responsible nation. Obviously, this was noted as an action as part of the Wales and Africa action plan, which also stated that COP26 would be an opportunity to forge new partnerships. I’d be interested to know what progress has been made by Welsh Government in realising these objectives so far. Obviously, COP26 is ongoing, so I would be grateful in the future for an update as well.

One of the key factors driving the global climate change and nature emergency, as we know, is deforestation and habitat loss. According to the recently published WWF Cymru, Size of Wales and RSPB Cymru study, 'Wales and Global Responsibility' report, an area equivalent to 40 per cent of the size of Wales is used overseas to grow commodities imported into Wales. For example, the average land required each year to produce Wales's demand for cocoa alone is equivalent to the size of Wrexham county or double the land area of Bridgend. Wales imports the majority of its cocoa from west African countries, where there are high risks of deforestation and social issues, while 55 per cent of cocoa import land falls in countries that are high or very high risk for deforestation and social issues. Also, the greenhouse gas emissions from the production of cocoa for Welsh imports totals about 68,800 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. Does the Welsh Government have any plans to expand initiatives such as Coffee 2020 and Fair Do's/Siopa Teg to tackle deforestation and social issues associated with Wales's imports? And will the Welsh Government strengthen their economic contract and procurement policies to ensure that supply chains are free of deforestation and social exploitation?

As you stated, Minister, global extreme poverty went up in 2020, and if we are to be a truly globally responsible nation then we need action from all Governments, not just warm words. The future of our planet demands this from us.

16:00

Diolch yn fawr, Heledd Fychan. I'm very grateful for your support for my statement today. You started by raising the issue about access to vaccines. I will repeat again what I said in terms of vaccination rates in sub-Saharan Africa averaging only 6 per cent. And the point that we all make is that none of us is safe until all of us are safe, and we are global citizens and we have those responsibilities. It's a huge obstacle to stopping the world emerging from the pandemic. Yes, the First Minister has written and has urged the UK Government to accelerate the supply of vaccines to the developing world. He's written to the former Foreign Secretary, and has written to the new Foreign Secretary as well, to ensure that we get our voice heard clearly at the UK Government. And I've made that call again—and I'm quoting the People's Vaccine Alliance—because we are throwing away vaccines. We can't send the vaccines abroad ourselves, but we can help in terms of reaching out and saying, 'Well, what is it?' And I've already described many ways in which we're supporting our partners in Africa.

I just want to give you an example of the Phoenix Project again with Cardiff University. Many of you will know Professor Judith Hall who leads that partnership. We were able to give a grant of £125,000 to roll out a vaccination programme in Namibia—this was from us to enable them to do that work, which was crucial; it's their programme, it's enabling them—because they have a major COVID-19 vaccination resistance, especially among the vulnerable, remote and disadvantaged communities. But what they did—. In partnership, the Namibian Ministry of Health and Social Services, the University of Namibia and Cardiff University have co-produced help, promotion and awareness campaigns for 90,000 of the most disadvantaged people, and that included disabled people, elderly people and prison inmates, and then they were able, in Namibia, to deliver the vaccination programme itself, saving many lives. But also, the People's Vaccine Alliance is a coalition of organisations and activists. It's campaigning for a people's vaccine for COVID-19. And I thank you for your support for this, because this should be based on that shared knowledge and making it freely available to everyone. It's a global common good, and it's also backed by past and present world leaders, health experts, faith leaders and economists.

I think it is very important that we look at all of the issues around deforestation and the work that's been—. There's so much of a profile about this in the last few days and the last week in COP26. To look at the Mbale tree programme in Uganda, which clearly demonstrates our commitment to tackling change. It's about climate justice, isn't it? Rural Ugandans who've done very little to cause the climate change that is now causing them so many problems. So, this is an Ugandan-led project—we're helping some of the very poorest people in the world adapt to climate change—delivered by the Size of Wales charity in partnership with the Welsh Government. It's a Mount Elgon tree-growing enterprise, locally delivered and for local NGOs in the Mbale region of eastern Uganda.

And what's very important in terms of the tree planting as well is to link this to the work that's being undertaken in other parts of our Africa with our support, which is addressing the very key points you make about deforestation and reforestation. So, if you look at the Ogongo indigenous forest park project, that's another collaboration between Cardiff University, the Phoenix Project and the University of Namibia, supporting reforestation in the Ogongo indigenous forest park, working in partnership, again, creating 100 hectares of restored woodland in the far north of Namibia. And that's about establishing a whole ecosystem in an area that was once green and fertile, and it's about encouraging this self-sustaining project to take this forward in partnership with the Phoenix Project. Again, the Bore community forest in Kenya, we've been supporting over the last 13 years, and that's again a locally managed project to plant 2.4 million climate-cooling, tropical trees, expanding current annual capacity, with 1 million seedlings distributed to 3,000 family farmers and 460 schools. This is, again, a very large expansion in terms of addressing these issues.

It's very important that we look to ways in which we can link our procurement policy to the importance in terms of supply chains and recognise that this has to be ethical. We have a code of practice on ethical procurement that we've developed, and that has an impact and, of course, is important as we take forward our social partnership and procurement Bill, new legislation, in the near future.

So, I just want to again say that Africa has been hit by COVID-19 and climate change. We see the first climate change famine in Madagascar, but we see a professor from Bangor University working in Madagascar to address these issues. So, we've got experts and we've got partners across Wales who are working to address these issues, and, of course, it is about sustainability, and it's about a partnership approach that will deliver the transformational change with our partners, alongside our partners.

16:10

First of all, I'm delighted that Jenipher Sambazi has gone to Glasgow to put the views of Ugandans to COP. I just hope she's still there when I get there tomorrow night, because she is completely amazing, as those of us who were privileged to meet her before the pandemic—and just a wonderful advocate for her community and the work they're doing.

But I'm still trying to process the information that you have shared with us about the vaccines, because I raised this with the health Minister a few months ago, and I was assured, or I was given the impression that all the AstraZeneca that we had previously used in Wales was now going to go to Africa, which seemed to me entirely the right place for it. So, are we saying that the UK Government has actually banned the use of the vaccines that we might have used in Wales that we had decided should go to Africa? Because it really is a very, very uncomfortable situation, I feel, in myself, having had a booster last week, when I read that only 2 per cent of people in Kenya have had a vaccine, and that would include, therefore, health workers who are trying to look after people with COVID not being protected in any way. So, this is just the most uncomfortable situation, which really just highlights the very unequal world we all live in. So, this is completely unacceptable, and where is the media on telling everybody about this? Hello, guys, you really do need to be promoting this; this is a really, really important issue. If the UK Government is refusing to act, then they need to be required to speak on why they're refusing to act.

A couple of specific questions: you talk about the menstrual products that Teams4U are sending to Africa, and I just wondered if you could tell us whether these are reusable menstrual products, because reusable menstrual products are an essential ingredient of ensuring that girls stay in school once they reach puberty. But I accept that if you haven't got clean running water, you're going to have to use disposables, with all the problems that they cause about disposal. So, it seems to me that—. I spoke about this to Jenipher Sambazi two years ago, and we need to ensure that all the communities that we're working with in Africa have access to reusable menstrual products that they are making themselves. It's not rocket science: people just need the basic design and how to do it and the materials in order to do it, but it's a fantastically important feminist issue.

On tree planting, how is our tree-planting programme diversifying diets, because coffee is a useful export crop, but it's not the basis for a healthy, varied diet? Therefore, it seems to me that if we are profiting from the wonderful Ugandan coffee, we need to be ensuring that there are other products that reinforce the health and well-being of the communities that make them for us.

And I think that may be the last thing that I had. Thank you very much for your statement. I think this is a really important issue. I think, on the booster programme, we clearly collectively need to shout out loud that it is completely unacceptable that the UK Government has not stepped up to the plate on this important issue. Not only do they cut everything that DFID was famous for in providing really good development aid, but they just absorb it into the foreign office to promote the union jack. It is a total disaster. 

16:15

Thank you very much, Jenny Rathbone. Can I just start by echoing your admiration and support for Jenipher, who is actually speaking, probably as we speak, this afternoon in Glasgow? Jenipher's Coffi is a project that is a partnership between a Cardiff fair-trade shop, Fair Do's, which I mentioned earlier on, Ferrari's coffee roasters in Pontyclun, the Wales Co-operative Centre and a Ugandan coffee co-operative. It is a partnership that imports top-quality fair-trade and organic coffee. Many of us here today will remember Jenipher's visits to the Senedd, and recognise that this is now being imported into Wales and is highly regarded, particularly as a result of Ferrari's coffee roasters' impact on that coffee. But also, of course, this goes back to your point and question about tree planting. The organic coffee is grown by our tree-planting partners. She's talking about that this afternoon. It's a great way for us to help the Ugandan farmers, as they face the climate crisis, but also she heads up this project in Uganda, leading the way for women and their communities. She is coming to Cardiff, and has been before she went to Glasgow, and I hope that she will be able to come and meet with colleagues and Members across the Chamber again next week. 

You do raise an important point about access to vaccines. We cannot, unfortunately, export or give our vaccines. I've given you an example with the Namibian project where we can help facilitate the vaccination programme in different ways. As you know, we've done what we can in terms of providing equipment, PPE, but also oxygen, where we were asked, 'Well, what can you do?' It is important that we don't just say, 'Well, we can't do this, so we're not doing anything.' We've got to do what we can do practically. But actually, the vaccine programme is delivered through the global mechanism, COVAX. The UK Government has the influence on COVAX to answer our questions about why we are not ensuring that the vaccine that we've got is properly shared. It is intolerable that it is being destroyed. It's appalling that it's being destroyed, and I'm glad that we can raise that point here today. I think the People's Vaccine alliance is important. I'm sure Members will want to find out more about this.

There are other issues about the vaccine as well, which relate to cost. Because if you actually look at Pfizer, it's selling its COVID-19 vaccine candidate for around $39 for two doses, at around an 80 per cent profit margin. And, of course, this puts it beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest of countries. So, it's important that we do take these points back, that we make these issues available, that people are aware of how we can influence COVAX and the UK Government. Developing countries' governments must increase financing for the health service so that they can deliver the vaccine when it's available. And let's just reflect on the fact that vaccination is one of the most successful health victories in human history. 

I have answered some questions about the importance of the tree-planting schemes that we're already supporting, and your points about sustainability are crucial, as indeed are your points about the work that we're doing in terms of menstrual well-being and period products. Certainly, this is something where we're just going out for some more gender-based projects coming through the small grants schemes, where we're looking particularly at gender issues. Some of those projects that we're already funding, and certainly the reusable approach, I think will be a key part of that ecological and sustainable objective.

16:20

Thank you, Minister, for your detailed statement about COVID and climate change, aiding nations who need it most, standing by our principles and standing by our friends. Can the Minister confirm how much the Welsh Government has spent over the past 15 years supporting this programme, not just through grant allocations, but also in terms of the cost of employing officials in Government? Can the Minister set out in detail how the objectives of the Government's international strategy to grow the economy by increasing exports and attracting inward investment has been achieved through this programme and whether the people of Wales have any tangible benefit? Lastly, has the Government commissioned an independent evaluation of this programme to ensure value for money? Thank you very much.

Thank you very much, Altaf Hussain, and thank you for your support of the Wales and Africa programme. What is very clear is that this is a 15-year programme—I remember it being launched in this Chamber by former First Minister Rhodri Morgan—and it is a programme that has been hugely successful in terms of its impact. We have a very small Wales and Africa team in the Welsh Government to take this forward, but it has formed part of the international strategy, which was published in 2020 before you joined us. Many of the new Members will know that we have an international strategy with action plans, and the Wales and Africa programme is one of the action plans.

Certainly, I can provide more information on the total spend over the last 15 years.FootnoteLink But I think you've given me the opportunity to again remind our Members and to inform you of the impact of some of the funding that we have given, particularly in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The three large grants that we awarded through the extra £1 million allocated to the Wales and Africa programme in March of this year included United Purpose from Cardiff. That was a £600,000 grant for the rapid emergency response in Nigeria, the Gambia, Senegal and Guinea; it reached 4.4 million people. And also, Teams4U in Wrexham is a very important partnership; Members in north Wales will be aware of this. The charity provided £125,000 grant funding for improving sanitation, menstrual provision and health facilities and schools in Uganda in response to COVID-19—hot running water plumbed directly into operating theatres, two 24/7 health centres seeing up to 300 patients daily, covering all aspects of community healthcare, including HIV testing and treatment, TB treatment, immunisation, family planning, general care, antenatal and postnatal care. This is a partnership between the people of Wrexham and Uganda, with Teams4U. And, you know, the feedback has been that healthcare workers, particularly women and girls, feel a lot safer using these facilities than the old ones, which were often outside and in unlit areas.

I just want to say that this is working with Governments as well as local projects. So, the Mbale Regional Referral Hospital I mentioned—I will say that when we were able to provide support for the provision of oxygen, the new oxygen plant, which is being planned by the Ministry of Health in Uganda, will be complemented by our contribution. And also the fact that the impact of the investments that we've made have meant that people have actually said—and it's good to have a quote from a beneficiary of the water, sanitation and hygiene project—'I used to fear going to the latrine on my night shift as I would have to move out of the ward, and it was very dark outside. Now, I can use the inside toilet and I'm safe and it does not take me away from the patients.' That's Lydia, from Mukongoro health centre. So, this is the impact that our funding and our support for Wales and Africa makes. 

16:25

Diolch, Llywydd. I can certainly say, having been to Mbale myself, that the programme for Africa money is money well spent, because the health links, the educational links between that region of Uganda and PONT, for example, in Pontypridd in Wales were so strong, and both countries and areas gained very much from the reciprocal relationship and exchange visits. It was so heart-warming to see the schoolchildren dancing together as well as the staff there in Mbale at particular events, and of course all the fundraising that went on back in Wales for new classrooms and new facilities. So, there was the health sector, there was the education sector, there was the Gumutindo fair-trade coffee co-op, and all the community development work that went on around the subsistence farming as well. There were so many strands to it, it just showed the value of this programme, and it's really pleasing that we've had 15 years now of Wales for Africa doing this very good work, and recognising that Wales is lucky—we're lucky to be part of the peaceful, relatively prosperous world, and that does give us a moral responsibility to work with other countries that are not in those favourable circumstances to help them, and by doing so we also help ourselves. And of course it's part of that internationalisation of Wales that I think has been a strong feature of devolution since 1999, and is a thoroughly good thing for everybody in our country. 

More locally for me now, we have Love Zimbabwe, who are doing some really good work in that part of Africa, and they tell me that there are some issues, just as the Minister has mentioned, obviously around the pandemic and, indeed, climate change. So, as far as climate change is concerned, those new factors that farmers have to take into account are really worrying them and making it more difficult for them to produce the food that they rely on, and there is a real worry about increasing crop failure. At the same time, during the pandemic they found it more difficult to import food into the country as well, so there are great difficulties there that have to be recognised. And they're not really in a very good position to estimate the number of COVID cases, I'm told, because lateral flow tests cost around £25, which obviously very many people are unable to afford. So, that aspect of identifying cases is problematic in Zimbabwe, and that has made it difficult to know the extent of infection in the country. 

There's also an issue with vaccination. I was told only around 1 million out of about 15 million have been vaccinated, and the vaccine being used is the Chinese one, which is not recognised by the UK Government, which itself creates a number of difficulties. So, I would be grateful, Minister, if in your contact and joint work with UK Government you could help to make those points. I think it has been very, very disappointing that the current UK Government has broken with that consensus to maintain international development funding for the developing world. I think it's entirely wrong-headed, misplaced, immoral, and indeed counterproductive in terms of what UK Government say their objective is. I hope very much that they will rethink, even at this late stage, and adopt a more moral and defensible policy and approach.

The other matter I would mention, Minister, is Somaliland, because we do have quite a number of people, in Cardiff particularly, but also Newport, with links to Somalia and Somaliland. Somaliland has made great strides in proving itself to be a functioning democracy and committed to stability and progressive development in the country. But obviously they have great difficulties with COVID, as do the rest of the world, and more so because of the great poverty in the country. So, I know we have developing links with Somaliland, Minister, and I would be grateful if you could say a little bit about how Welsh Government sees that relationship evolving and developing, particularly in light of the current difficulties with the pandemic. 

16:30

Diolch yn fawr, John Griffiths, and John, I recall when you went to Uganda, you probably planted some trees yourself when you went there and came back and reported to us. We have got a strong consensus. We certainly have had in the past in this Chamber in support of Wales and Africa, and I recall Rhun ap Iorwerth chairing the development group where we had cross-party support for what we were doing in Wales and Africa. I'm pleased that you've mentioned Zimbabwe because I'm very aware of the Zimbabwe Newport Volunteering Association, and we were able to give some funding, as you know, out of the COVID-19 grant, buying food for community kitchens, sanitisers for 18 stations, personal protective equipment for volunteers, volunteer expenses, for combating misinformation which, of course, we know is a huge issue, but also foodbank support, face masks. We've done a lot to support the Newport volunteering association, every constituency—. And many times we've had visits from Love Zimbabwe, and I know colleagues have welcomed Love Zimbabwe to the Senedd. And we've given them funding as well, again to improve hygiene, access to clean water for hand washing, community engagement, training people to sew face masks, social distancing, understanding hand washing, et cetera. We have responded to the proposals that have come from these communities. 

Finally, I'll just say that I think there's a strong consensus, there's a strong majority support in this Chamber today for us to continue to press the UK Government to make use of the vaccine that isn't being used in this country. That's a strong message I believe that's come through today; a huge disappointment and regret at the cut of the funding to the overseas budget. And just to finally say that closing a project in Malawi as a result of that cut, United Purpose in Cardiff said that the largest climate-resilience building project in Malawi has been terminated at short notice directly because of this cut, huge losses for development activities and partnership outcomes, including 23 Malawian redundancies at United Purpose alone, cutting £1 million from the project. So, we have got a strong voice, I believe, across this Chamber in support of Wales and Africa, in support of our approaches to the UK Government to ensure we get those vaccines to Africa and globally across the world to where they're needed, and again our continued deep concern and disappointment at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office cuts. Thank you.   

5. The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 19) Regulations 2021

The next item is item 5, the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 19) Regulations 2021, and I call first on the Minister for Health and Social Services to move the motion, Eluned Morgan. 

Motion NDM7822 Lesley Griffiths

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 27.5:

1. Approves that the draft The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 19) Regulations 2021 is made in accordance with the draft laid in the Table Office on 29 October 2021.

Motion moved.

Thank you very much, Llywydd, and I move the motion before us this afternoon. I stand here in sadness today in bringing forward regulations to increase the use of the COVID pass. However, I must once again emphasise that coronavirus has not disappeared, and unfortunately the situation in Wales remains very serious. The number of cases of COVID-19 is still very high and has been increasing in some areas. In the current wave, we have seen the highest number ever of cases confirmed in Wales. At the moment, the transmission rate is 527 for every 100,000. These consistently high rates do lead to serious illness for increasing numbers of people. This is also putting pressure on our health service, which is already under huge pressure.

Although the link between cases of COVID-19 and hospital admissions has been weakened by the vaccination programme, the link has not been entirely broken. The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) Regulations 2020 did introduce the legislative framework for the alert levels in the coronavirus control plan. Members will now be highly aware of the process for reviewing these restrictions on a three-weekly cycle. After the last review on 28 October, and in response to an increase in the number of cases across Wales, the First Minister, Mark Drakeford, announced our intention to expand the requirement to show a COVID pass.

If the requirement to present a COVID pass is passed today, it will mean that from 15 November, people over the age of 18 in Wales will need to show a pass before they are allowed entry to cinemas, theatres and concert halls. This will prove they are either fully vaccinated or have had a negative lateral flow test in the last 48 hours. Now, I'm aware that this decision has not been universally welcomed by stakeholders, but let me tell you that this decision was not taken lightly, and these venues have been chosen because they are indoors and they see large numbers of people congregating closely together for a prolonged period of time. As we know, the longer large numbers of people are close together, especially indoors, the greater the risk of transmission. I must stress that these measures have been designed to keep these businesses open during the difficult autumn and winter months ahead, and the alternative in the current climate will mean a return to more stringent controls and restrictions in the run-up to Christmas.

Members will be aware that since 11 October people have been required to show an NHS COVID pass to enter nightclubs, similar venues and events. Officials have been working closely with stakeholders in these sectors, and I think it's important that we acknowledge that the service is working well and that we have received largely positive feedback from a range of businesses and organisers of major events, including following the recent rugby internationals. It is also clear that the majority of the public support the use of the COVID pass and the added assurance that the system provides for them.

Wales currently remains at alert level 0, and our aim is to avoid having to close sectors or reintroduce restrictions. However, the situation is serious, and in order to remain at alert level 0, it is critical that organisations and businesses comply with the baseline measures at this alert level, and what that means is that wearing face coverings in most indoor public places remains a legal requirement. We're asking employers to do more to help people work from home wherever possible. When case rates in the community are high, contacts in the workplace can be a significant driver of transmission. Businesses must also continue to carry out a specific coronavirus risk assessment and take responsible measures to minimise risk.

Vaccination remains our most effective defence. Our aim is to reach as many people as possible with the first, second, and booster doses. To keep Wales safe and open over the winter, we need a concerted effort from all parts of Welsh society, and I urge Members to support this motion. Diolch.

16:35

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

Thank you very much, Llywydd, and I speak as the committee Chair now. We considered these regulations at our meeting yesterday, following a request from the Welsh Government to expedite our scrutiny, and our report was laid immediately afterwards.

Our report raised what Members will now recognise as quite familiar merits points under Standing Order 21.3, namely highlighting any potential interference with human rights, and the lack of formal consultation and equality impact assessment for the regulations. We acknowledged the Welsh Government’s justification in relation to these points, as set out in the explanatory memorandum. However, for the purpose of today's debate, I would like to highlight our subsequent discussion on the regulations and in particular, on the wording used in the accompanying written statement from the Welsh Government. I know that the issue of what is guidance and what is law was raised with the Minister for Health and Social Services in this Chamber last Tuesday. If I draw attention of the Chamber to the written statement, it says that, and I quote:

'Fully vaccinated adults and children aged five to 17 must self-isolate if someone in their household has symptoms or tests positive for Covid-19 until they have had a negative PCR test result.'

However, neither these regulations, nor the No. 20 regulations, which we also considered yesterday, require isolation as described in the statement. Now, our committee thinks that this presents a concerning lack of clarity over what is law and what may, indeed, be sensible Government advice. Similar concerns were raised by our predecessor committee in its scrutiny of some COVID-related regulations during the fifth Senedd, and they were noted in the legacy report.

So, on this occasion, we agreed to write to the Welsh Government to seek clarification, and to highlight the importance of Welsh citizens being able to understand the law that applies to them. Thank you very much, Llywydd.

16:40

The Welsh Conservatives warned that the introduction of COVID passports in Wales would set a dangerous precedent, and it gives me no pleasure today to say that we were right.

It's just a few short weeks since the introduction of COVID passports here in Wales, and yet, in spite of no clear or credible evidence that they have an ability to stop the spread of coronavirus, we find ourselves today debating yet another proposal to extend their use beyond the large events and night-time economy, now to cinemas, theatres and concert halls, and this is in spite of the fact that there's no evidence to suggest that these venues are the hotbed of virus infection.

Llywydd, as you are well aware, the Welsh Conservatives have been opposed to the introduction of vaccine passports from the outset. The mandatory use of domestic vaccination passports has wide-ranging ethical, equality, privacy, legal and operational ramifications. We, like other Members of this Senedd, are absolutely committed to protecting lives and livelihoods. We understand that the final stages of unlocking society and the economy have to be done carefully. But, with the vaccination rate in Wales being so high and the link between cases and hospitalisations being severely weakened, we do not believe that the introduction of barriers that impact on people's freedoms and privacy is the right thing to do.

Vaccine passports are not a route out of restrictions, they are restrictions. They should not be expanded into other premises when they should never have been introduced or put on the table in the first place. Vaccine passports are coercive, ineffective and anti-business; they limit our freedoms but they do not limit the spread of COVID-19.

Now, we're often told by Labour Ministers that they are listening to the experts, so let's consider what the experts have been saying. The Welsh Government's technical advisory cell on coronavirus said that COVID passes will have a minimal impact on the spread of the virus. And Dr Frank Atherton, the Welsh Government's own chief medical officer, said just last week that the actual direct impact of COVID passes is probably quite small. And he went further than that, he actually said that the evidence is still building around COVID passes, and that the bigger impact was over messaging and using COVID passes alongside other restrictions such as face coverings. Now, if the Welsh Government's own chief medical officer is not convinced that they make a real difference, then how on earth can you expect Members of this Senedd today, along with the public and businesses the length and breadth of this country, to be convinced that they are? The idea of a COVID pass was outlined and implemented in Wales at very short notice, and these latest proposals are similar, with very little consideration of how it will actually impact those businesses and organisations that will be affected. The entertainment industry has already been ravaged by COVID-19 restrictions, and the extension of COVID passports to cinemas, theatres and concert halls will only punish them further. The chief executive officer of the UK Cinema Association has warned that this move could lead to the closure of many smaller venues, stating that, and I quote,

‘where similar schemes have been introduced in...European territories, we have seen admissions drop by as much as 50%.'

This is people’s jobs and livelihoods on the line. 

16:45

And the chief executive of the Creative Hospitality Group had said that there was a huge lack of trust in the Welsh Government, and that, despite employing 10 per cent of the Welsh population, the industry feels belittled by the First Minister. Why is an industry that is so important to the Welsh economy being singled out by the Welsh Government? Why are Ministers failing so spectacularly to work with these important stakeholders?

Our first duty as Members of this Senedd, as legislators, is to make good law and to strike down bad law. [Interruption.] Yet we are being asked today to extend the use of COVID passports to other settings without any evidence that they’re actually saving any lives, Mike Hedges, without any detailed assessment of their impact. So, it is wrong.

So, what would we do differently? Well, we would focus on getting the jabs—the booster jabs—into people’s arms. We’ve always been clear that the way out of this pandemic is through vaccination, and that still remains the case. [Interruption.] The Government’s energy, every single bit of your energy, should be focused on delivering the vaccination programme to those who are eligible.

Yes, I’ll happily take an intervention.

You've spoken passionately about the importance of liberty and freedom of choice of individuals, and you've spoken about vaccination. Your colleagues across the border in England are making vaccinations mandatory. Would you go down that route? Would you support that?

I don't support that. I don't support that, and we’ve been clear on these benches that we don't support it, and that’s why we’ve supported the First Minister in his position not to make compulsory vaccination a requirement of workers in care homes or the NHS here in Wales.

So, we should be looking to expand that vaccination programme and make it easier for people to get those vaccines. Let’s talk about establishing walk-in centres for those who are eligible, for example. We don’t have them here in many parts of Wales. [Interruption.] Well, we certainly don’t in my neck of the country, and perhaps if you went up there more regularly you’d be able to see.

So, to conclude, Llywydd, there are many ethical and equality issues with COVID passes. Alongside their impact on civil liberties, the Labour Government has failed spectacularly to provide any evidence whatsoever that these COVID passes actually limit the spread of the virus or increase the uptake of the vaccine, and meanwhile the loophole of self-certification, in terms of lateral flow tests, is nonsensical, it’s open to abuse. You can swab your dog and put its result in that system and still get your vaccine passport to be able to attend any event, nightclub, cinema, theatre, or anywhere else. It is ridiculous. So, given this, there’s absolutely nothing that we can do but vote against this extension to the COVID pass regime.

Thank you very much, Llywydd. Well, once again today, there is great interest in what we're discussing here, and I'm very pleased about that. These, like everything we've discussed over the last 20 months, are very difficult decisions that have been taken, and very important issues. I said last week that Plaid Cymru would likely vote in favour of these regulations today. We will do that, and it's important that there is an explanation not just of how we're voting on issues like this, but why.

When we discussed the first regulations on COVID passes on 5 October, you'll remember that Plaid Cymru voted against them. We supported the principle, as we made it clear, of insisting on evidence that people are less likely to transmit the virus to other people before having access to some places—not to vital services, but some settings. But we did ask for evidence about the effectiveness of the specific policy that had been presented by the Welsh Government. We were concerned, for example, about the element of self-certification for the results of lateral flow tests. We offered further discussions with the Government on how to strengthen those regulations, but for very well-known reasons at that time the regulations were approved. So, COVID passes based on this model are what we have in Wales, and, even though we voted against those, for the reasons that I've outlined, in the hope of being able to bring another model in, a stronger model, possibly, we do accept that this is better than nothing, of course.

The question before us today is whether we should extend the list of settings where you have to show a pass. Again, we asked for evidence. For example, there was one piece of specific research that was drawn to my attention, and it was very important to give that consideration, and I'm very grateful to people who do pass on evidence to me. It was research done by Imperial College, which was published in The Lancet, about how transmissible the virus is in people who have been double vaccinated, compared with those who haven't been vaccinated. And we have to ensure, after all, that there is a benefit to the vaccine in terms of helping to prevent transmission. And one of the findings of the research was that transmission by a vaccinated person was nearly as much as someone who hadn't been vaccinated, but only when they're at their most infectious. And, from discussions with the Minister—and I'm grateful for those discussions—and asking the opinions of the Government's scientists and through further studies, one weighs that against the finding that the viral load of a person who is vaccinated does reduce more quickly than someone who isn't vaccinated, and that does show the value of the vaccine in terms of reducing transmission. That was the evidence that was presented to me. I've read another study by the Dutch health administration, which comes to a similar conclusion.

In addition, the Minister notes very correctly that people who have been fully vaccinated are less likely to be infectious in the first place; I'm grateful for a letter explaining that. That is also something that is confirmed in the Imperial study, and I am still convinced, like many of the experts and scientists internationally, that vaccines are the best barrier to being infected. It is voluntary, of course, but I do encourage people to have the vaccine, and measures that can influence people's decisions to have the vaccine or not, in my opinion, can be very valuable.

A quick word about the practical support that will be needed by broader groups of organisations, if these regulations are approved today. I do think that it's vital that the Government recognises, whatever the Minister says in terms of how smoothly the passes have gone so far, that this does create concern. Voluntary organisations will be among those included—community theatres and cinemas and so forth—and we have to ensure that every support is available in terms of implementing the passes.

And to close, let us remember that trying to avoid further restrictions is what the aim of this is. The Government would agree with me on that, I'm sure. But if the Government does feel, for example, that we need to make the case for extending COVID passes further in the future, something that could offer further challenges in terms of implementation, then we will again insist that the evidence is stronger again. None of these decisions are easy, and while it's important to be able to justify any further restrictions, we have to keep our eyes on the prize, namely keeping people, including very vulnerable people, as safe as possible. And, remember, passes and other things don't work in isolation, and now, like throughout the pandemic, we have to emphasise the importance—and the Government has to enforce it as best it can—of those basic things, such as wearing face masks, social distancing and ventilation and so forth, which are vital in the battle against this virus, and I ask the Government to strengthen its work in that area.

16:50

Well, good luck to Darren Millar trying to swab their dog. It's difficult enough getting a child to do it, so I think swabbing your dog might be difficult. It doesn't mean to say that your dog won't have COVID. Remember, this disease came from bats, so this is not a completely ridiculous idea. But I think the point that you are trying to make, that this is in some way an authoritarian Government, who is trying to protect our public from the worst ravages of this disease—the case is not made, in my view.

The point I was making was not so much about this being an authoritarian Government; I don't think I used those words. The point is that the system has a big flaw in it, and that is that you can self-certify in terms of your lateral flow test result. That is the problem with the system. It basically means that anybody can put anything into the system, even if they haven't had a test of their own. And that, quite frankly, is a ridiculous system.

16:55

Okay. I acknowledge that that is a flaw in the system, but the alternative is to ban those who cannot have a vaccination from attending any of these events where a COVID pass will be required. And I don't think that's right, because there are people who simply cannot have a COVID vaccination for one health reason or another. So, we have to just acknowledge that that is a small, tiny minority of the population, but, nevertheless, one we need to consider. So, I understand completely what you're saying, but it's always possible, if a hostelry is concerned about that, or an organisation is concerned, to lay on lateral flow testing outside the venue that they want to control people going into. So, that is an option open to people.

But I think—. We heard earlier from the First Minister just how difficult the situation is in the health service, with ambulance crews not being able to turn up to work because they've got COVID, and that will also apply to other health professionals, who are therefore making life much more difficult for their colleagues. And it seems to me that we have to do everything possible to ensure that we have a suite of things. As Frank Atherton pointed out in his recent media interview, this is about a series of initiatives that help remind people that the pandemic is not over.

So, of course, top of the list comes vaccination—and the Government seems to be doing absolutely everything possible to ensure that the maximum number of people are taking it up, certainly in Cardiff and the Vale health board—but also things like this, masks, which were not worn on the train that I went on to England last week, and there was no reminder on it as well. I know, on other trains, there are reminders and people are wearing them. The social distancing is, obviously, the second thing. Every time we meet in close quarters, we are risking transmitting COVID. That's just a fact. So, it is a balance between the liberty of being and the need to meet other people with suppressing the disease. And it seems to me that it is a pretty minor thing to ask people to present a COVID pass or to do a lateral flow test. In fact, businesses—

Jenny Rathbone, if I can just intervene, there's an intervention on Zoom. If you wish to take it—

I'm happy to take it. Thank you, Llywydd. Yes, Janet, I'll take it.

Thank you, Member Jenny, for taking the intervention. But given that the Chief Medical Officer for Wales has described these passes as having quite a small impact, as well as the Welsh Government's own NHS COVID pass impact assessment warning that it could provide an additional barrier to accessing those events for those on low incomes, and our smaller establishments really are not prepared or geared up for this, we could be looking here at sustaining and creating greater well-being inequality. So, do you honestly stand there with all courage and conviction, Jenny, that you can actually support this and you wouldn't support holding back on this vote today—in fact, voting against it—until we've had more evidence as to how the COVID passports have worked in some of our bigger venues? Because the First Minister was not convincing at all earlier regarding this.

Thank you. Listen, people on the lowest incomes are not able to go to the matches, either the rugby, the football, or the cinema; let's get real on this one. The fact is that it is a suite of measures that is what enables us to have the maximum impact on bringing down the infection rates, and that is what we're trying to do here. I do not think that the Welsh Government is going to continue with these regulations any longer than they are required, but, in the meantime, businesses are missing a trick. I do not regard it is anti-business, I think this is pro-business, because businesses are at liberty to adopt COVID passes, say in their hostelry or in their restaurant, and then parade it as a unique selling point for why people might want to go to their restaurant or their pub, because they would be comfortable, just as the First Minister described. People at the matches said, 'I felt better able to come here with confidence today, because I knew that everybody would either have had their jabs, or they would have been tested.' So, I think you are looking at it down the wrong end of the telescope on this one, and this is something that does no harm and does plenty of good. Frank Atherton supports this as part of a suite of measures to enable people to realise that the pandemic has not gone away and people are still dying of it.

17:00

Minister, at the beginning of your statement, you outlined the extremely high case rates that we still unfortunately have here in Wales, and these rates are still continuing to impact education. Over a month ago, I asked the education Minister if the Welsh Government would be making provision for free loop-mediated isothermal amplification non-intrusive saliva tests for those additional learning needs learners who cannot undertake intrusive swab testing. The Minister said he would write to me on the point, but I haven't yet received an answer, and parents of additional learning needs pupils in my region have therefore asked me to urge you to facilitate this as a matter of urgency in order to ensure that these children who have suffered months of lost education—. Because let's remember not many of these children can learn at home, and they've also lost, of course, all-important development during the pandemic and they are continuing to do so, because every day these children are being sent home for 10 days to isolate, missing even more school and crucial educational support, because they can't currently take the available free tests. So, I'd ask you: can you please provide clarity on this matter? Diolch.