Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

16/11/2021

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 13:29 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

Statement by the Llywydd

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

13:30
1. Questions to the First Minister

The first item this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from John Griffiths. 

COP26 and Reaching Net Zero

1. What impact does the Welsh Government anticipate COP26 will have on Wales reaching net zero? OQ57192

I thank John Griffiths for that question, Llywydd. COP26 will provide opportunities for Wales to innovate, collaborate and develop international partnerships to help us achieve our net-zero by 2050 ambition. We will increase our exports of green skills and services and attract investment into Wales in pursuit of a just transition to net zero.

First Minister, I was fortunate to attend COP26 last week, and I was pleased to see there the importance of integrated public transport being highlighted in the global effort to combat climate change. And, of course, locally in south-east Wales we have the Burns commission recommendations, many of which point to that need for more integrated public transport as the way forward for our area. I just wonder, when you reflect on COP26 and the Burns commission, and how they relate to each other, what you would see as the way forward for those recommendations from Burns, and particularly perhaps initial measures over the next year or so if we are to play our part in south-east Wales in making the necessary progress on integrated transport, which is an important part of the overall effort to combat climate change.

Also, given that taxis are an important part of the mix and, indeed, significant for air quality, when can we expect to see taxi fleets across Wales converted to electric vehicles?

Llywydd, I thank John Griffiths for that, and thank him for being at COP to represent his own committee and to make sure that, at the parliamentary level, Wales was represented and able to hold conversations, I know, with parliamentary representatives from other parts of the United Kingdom and around the world.

Well, the Burns committee report, Llywydd, seems to me entirely consistent with the COP26 message, that we have to change the way in which we travel, that we have to find new and better ways to make sure that we emphasise public transport routes to transport rather than a reliance on the car. Now, the 58 recommendations of the Burns review are being taken forward by the unit that has been established by Transport for Wales, and we expect shortly its first annual report from the two independent people who've been appointed to oversee the work of that unit. It will focus on immediate actions that can be taken—improving active travel routes to rail stations, for example, making sure that there are innovative new cycle ways to allow people to move by cycle as well as by public transport, and it will continue its work to place more detail around the recommendations of the review that rely on the reopening of the other line available from south Wales across the border. And, in that way, we continue to look forward to the results of the UK Government's connectivity review. It will be a real test of the UK Government and its willingness to invest in things for which it has responsibility and which make such a direct difference here in Wales. 

As to taxis, Llywydd, the Welsh Government has an ambition that all taxis and private-hire vehicles will be zero emission by tailpipe by 2028. We are assisting in that transition with funding as well as policy measures, and I know John Griffiths will have seen that, last week, on 10 November, we launched a 'try before you buy' pilot. It's a scheme that allows taxi drivers and owners in the Cardiff capital region, in Denbighshire, and in Pembrokeshire to try out a fully electric wheelchair-compliant vehicle free of charge for 30 days in order to advertise the advantages of the electric vehicles to which John Griffiths drew attention.

13:35

First Minister, we all want Wales to achieve net zero as soon as possible, and I welcome some of the schemes that you've just outlined. But whilst the Welsh Government have been big on talk, declaring a climate emergency here in 2019, policies and change have been slow and cumbersome, key targets have been missed or changed, and successive budgets have been far from green. The state of nature report 2020 has highlighted that Wales has not met any of its four aims for the sustainable management of natural resources approach, and the latest electric vehicle plan is both overdue and lacks the detail that the people of Wales need. First Minister, when will you invest the money needed to hit the targets that your own Government has set itself?

Llywydd, I simply don't recognise the dismal picture the Member paints; a little more cheerfulness about Wales and our prospects for the future would not go amiss. This Government has taken radical action, usually opposed, of course, by her Members; whenever there is change, Members of the Conservative Party are on their feet to oppose it, and they're in that mode where climate change comes along. Let's hear another series of speeches in favour of a major road around Newport and see what good that will do for climate change. [Interruption.] That's exactly what I mean. The question that I'm asked comes from a party whose track record is always to oppose the necessary actions that are required, whether that's in transport, whether that's in the way that we will need to change our diets in the future—we'll hear another speech in a minute in favour of reactionary policies in the agriculture field. You name it, they oppose it, we do it.

The Rising Cost of Living

2. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of the rising cost of living on people in Wales? OQ57215

Llywydd, households are under unprecedented financial pressure resulting from the pandemic, our exit from the European Union, the rising cost of living and cuts to welfare support. Deliberate and damaging decisions made by the UK Government are plunging many more vulnerable households in Wales into poverty.

I'm grateful to the First Minister for that. The toxic mixture of Brexit and Tory incompetence and economic mismanagement is hitting families hard. I see that every day in Blaenau Gwent. I'm sure Members across the whole Chamber will see the impact on real families, real people, real lives. We are seeing spiralling energy costs, the costs of food increasing, inflation across the whole of the household budget, and we are seeing cuts to universal credit hitting the poorest hardest, but that's what you expect from a Tory Government. First Minister, what is it that a Welsh Government can do to step in and help support families across Wales who are struggling as a consequence of this Tory incompetence?

I thank Alun Davies for that. I think he's generous to describe the policies of the Conservative Government as the result of incompetence. My view is that they are very often the deliberate decisions of a Government that knows what it is doing, knows that there will be thousands more children in poverty in Wales because of their cuts to universal credit, but simply don't care. Now, here in the Welsh Government today, we have announced £51 million more to support families in Wales during the difficult months of the winter—months in which the Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, told me last week we would see inflation rise to 5 per cent, over the winter months, just as people have less money to spend on those basics of energy and food, as Alun Davies said. That £51 million will provide £100 to families on the lowest income in Wales to help them with those costs over this winter. It will allow us to build further on our single advice fund services, services that in the last six months have resulted in £17.5 million extra being claimed by Welsh citizens from the benefit system. And we will continue to invest in the discretionary assistance fund.

Llywydd, when you look now to see the decisions that were made here in this Chamber, when the Conservative Government decided to rip up the social fund, the final safety net of the welfare state, here in this Chamber we decided to invest in a Welsh scheme that is the same across the whole of Wales, that is rules based, that allows people to appeal against decisions where they think they've not been made fairly. In England, they are having to reinvent a system that has long been abandoned, whereas, here in Wales, we will continue to put money into the discretionary assistance fund. A fund that, in the pandemic period alone, has paid out nearly a quarter of a million payments to our poorest citizens, at a cost of £15.9 million, to help those people to deal with the direct consequences of a global pandemic. Those are the things that this Welsh Government is determined to go on doing to protect our vulnerable households from the decisions being made elsewhere.   

13:40

In addition to continued cold weather payments and winter fuel payments across the UK, and to the £0.5 billion to support people into jobs announced by the UK Government last month, with £25 million of this going to the Welsh Government, the UK Government announced a new £0.5 billion household support fund for vulnerable households over the winter to be distributed by councils in England, with the Welsh Government also receiving £25 million of this. Last month, I asked your social justice Minister how the Welsh Government will ensure that its share of this money ends up helping those most in need in Wales. I, therefore, welcome the Welsh Government's announcement of a £51 million package to support people this winter, presumably match funded from the extra £2.5 billion annually for the Welsh Government announced in the recent UK budget. How will you, therefore, spend the £11.9 million of your £51 million household support fund not yet announced? And how will you work in real partnership with and empower councils, the voluntary sector, community groups and other social entrepreneurs to help deliver the solutions to the long-term problems of our most deprived communities?  

Well, Llywydd, it's no great celebration in Wales to be offered £25 million by a Government that is taking nearly £250 million out of the pockets of our poorest citizens. That's what I call very small change indeed. I'm glad that the Welsh Government has been able to more than double the sum of money that we received in that consequential. And the answer to the Member's question is to be found in the statement that the Welsh Government has already published today, because, in addition to the £100 cash payment towards the payment of winter fuel bills, the statement details investments to support and bolster food banks, to invest in public transport assistance schemes, to put further money into the discretionary assistance fund, and to go on, as I said, supporting Welsh citizens to make sure that they receive the help they need from the UK benefit system through our Advicelink Cymru—Advicelink Cymru, Llywydd, where we are employing 35 new full-time equivalent welfare benefit advisers to deal with what we hope will be a very strong uptake from our Claim what's yours campaign, which we will be running from now until the end of March of next year. All of those things are covered in my colleague Jane Hutt's statement, and I commend it to the Member.

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from the party leaders. The Welsh Conservatives' leader, Paul Davies. 

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, later this week you will give the Welsh Government's latest review of COVID-19 in Wales. Of course, during this current review period, the Welsh Government has pushed ahead with further measures in the form of COVID passes to many entertainment settings, and concerns have rightly been raised about the legal and ethical impacts of COVID passes. And the fact remains that there is no evidence to show that vaccine passports limit the spread of the virus or, indeed, increase uptake of the vaccine. This week, there are genuine fears that the Welsh Government will extend COVID passes out to hospitality settings too. First Minister, vaccine passports are not a route out of restrictions; they are, indeed, restrictions. Therefore, First Minister, as vaccine take-up continues to increase and COVID cases continue to go down, will you today confirm that you will not roll out these COVID passes to hospitality settings? And what criteria now have to be met to scrap the COVID passes that you've recently introduced?

13:45

Well, Llywydd, the Member has got it completely wrong. COVID passes are there to help to keep Wales open. They are there to follow the advice that we have from SAGE that Governments should take those low-intensity early measures that you can put in place to try to deal with the spread of coronavirus, which has been far, far too high in Wales, and simple measures that, cumulatively, can make a real difference. That is why they've been introduced in Wales—very successfully introduced in Wales. I remember all the shroud waving from his benches about how we wouldn't be able to do it, about how difficult it would be and what a mess there'd be when we did it—none of that is true. None of that is true, and the Member ought to know better than to suggest it. It is done very successfully, very smoothly and done by people who work hard to protect the Welsh public. It will help to keep businesses open. That's what it's designed to do, and I make no apologies for it whatsoever. It was the right thing to do, and I'm very glad that we have used that additional tool in the armoury to help to keep Wales safe and keep Wales open.

Three weeks ago, when the Cabinet was making its decisions, we had just reached a peak of 730 cases per 100,000 in Wales—the highest figure on any day in the whole of the pandemic period. You wouldn't think from his question that Wales was facing that sort of emergency, but that's the position we were in. Thankfully, because of the efforts that people in Wales have made, because of the extra things that we have put in place, those numbers have now reduced, and as the numbers reduce, then the need to take extra measures beyond those in place now reduces as well. But in the last two days, Llywydd, those numbers have turned up again. They are up significantly in Scotland in the last week; they are up very significantly in countries very close to the United Kingdom. So, nobody should think that we are somehow out of the woods on this yet. The Cabinet will look very carefully at the numbers. We are thankfully in a better position than we were three weeks ago, and that will form the context for the decisions that we will announce at the end of this week.

First Minister, you know as well as I do that there's simply no scientific evidence to show that COVID passes are effective. The chief medical officer himself has said that the actual direct impact of COVID passes is probably quite small, so there is no scientific evidence to suggest that COVID passes are actually working.

Now, another way of helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is through testing, and so it was really disappointing last week to hear the deputy chief medical officer say he does not think that twice-weekly lateral flow testing of NHS staff is particularly important in the whole scheme of things. First Minister, it's crucial that NHS staff are routinely tested so that we can curb any hospital-acquired infections and provide people with confidence that, when they enter a health setting, they will treated by staff who have been regularly checked. It's absolutely critical that the Welsh Government urgently addresses this problem and starts seriously considering its approach to infection control in hospital settings, so we can better protect patients in the Welsh NHS. Of course, testing more generally remains an important part of the COVID puzzle. Through regular testing, we can understand where cases are and ensure local services are able to respond, and more effectively cope with demand on intensive care units. So, First Minister, how is the Welsh Government tackling hospital-acquired infections in Wales? Do you agree with the comments of the deputy chief medical officer, and can you tell us what the Welsh Government is doing to promote and encourage NHS staff to take regular lateral flow tests? And given the importance of testing the wider public to mitigate the risk of passing the virus on to others, what are you doing to strengthen the testing system in Wales to ensure that it is as effective as possible?

Well, Llywydd, the Member wanted to suggest that we weren't taking the advice of the chief medical officer on one score—he's wrong there, by the way: we do follow the chief medical officer's advice, and he supports our position on the COVID pass—but then he wants me to ignore the advice of the deputy chief medical officer when it comes to the testing regime. We will follow the best advice that we can have, we will continue to protect our health workers and our social care workers. I'm very encouraged by the take-up of the booster vaccine in both of those sectors, and we will continue to have a testing regime in both of those locations that is consistent with the best advice that we get.

On the broader point that the Member asks about testing, well, I agree with him there, of course, that testing is a very important part of our armoury in dealing with coronavirus. We encourage people to be tested whenever they have symptoms or they've been in touch with somebody who has been confirmed as a coronavirus case, and, of course, our COVID pass regime allows somebody to demonstrate that they have taken the measures they need to to keep themselves and others safe by taking a test within a short period of attending at a particularly high-risk venue. So, we will continue to do that. I will say this to the Member, that the biggest anxiety that I have about testing in Wales are the signs that we're getting from the UK Government and from the Treasury that they intend to withdraw funding from the testing regime across the United Kingdom, and that their plan for the post-winter period is to reduce testing to a residual part of the protection rather than the central part of the protection that it is at the moment across the United Kingdom, and certainly here in Wales.

13:50

Well, First Minister, the reason that routine testing of NHS staff is so important, and, of course, regular testing in the community, is because people have lost loved ones to COVID-19. In Wales, one in four COVID deaths are from hospital-acquired infections, and so comments like that of the deputy chief medical officer have been understandably met with anger by those who have lost loved ones. Now, First Minister, it's yet another reason why we need to have a Wales-wide COVID inquiry, an inquiry that transcends party politics and gives people the answers that they need. The Member of the UK Parliament for Islwyn, Chris Evans, is absolutely right to highlight that devolution of powers cannot mean the evasion of accountability by the Welsh Government, and I urge all Members of this Chamber from every party to put politics to one side and support a Wales-wide COVID inquiry. So, First Minister, in the spirit of genuine co-operation across political lines and given you have members from your own party now calling for one, will you and your Government now reconsider your position and support a Wales-wide specific COVID inquiry to ensure that the people of Wales get the answers that they deserve in relation to the Government's handling of COVID-19 here in Wales?

Llywydd,  there is a depth of cynicism in that question that I think is genuinely concerning. The Member makes partisan political points while pretending that he does nothing of the sort. The attacks on the Welsh Government on this matter from his party are nakedly political in nature. I wrote to the Prime Minister again last week, Llywydd, setting out the prospectus that the Welsh Government expects to be delivered through the UK-wide inquiry that the Prime Minister has promised. I will meet the Secretary of State responsible for that this week. I will meet the families again at the start of December. It is still my view that the best way in which they will get the answers that they are looking for and deserve to pursue is in an inquiry that places the experience here in Wales under the microscope, but does it within the context within which those decisions were made. That is the only way, I believe, that they will get the sorts of answers that they are looking for. I say again, as I've said before, Llywydd, that if we don't get the assurances we need from the UK Government, then we would have to think again. But everything that I have been told by the Prime Minister directly and by the Ministers who work on his behalf is that they share our view that the inquiry should be shaped in a way that delivers the sort of investigation of decisions that were made here in Wales but does it in a way that allows those decisions to be understood in the wider context within which they were always taken.

13:55

Prif Weinidog, I should like to raise with you the appalling consequences that the Westminster Government's pursuit of a hard Brexit is beginning to wreak on our living standards here in Wales and across these islands, and ask what your Government, in collaboration with the other devolved administrations, could do to persuade this lamentable London Government to change course. In its economic and fiscal outlook last month, the Office for Budget Responsibility concluded that, as a result of a hard Brexit, trade between the UK and the EU will be 15 per cent lower than had we stayed in the EU. That's twice the estimated long-run costs of COVID. It amounts to £80 billion a year, more than four times the Welsh Government's annual budget. Indeed, evidence before the House of Lords European Affairs Committee this week has pointed out that it's actually a 25 per cent reduction in trade since 2015. Inevitably, this will impact on Wales more than most other parts of the UK, given the relatively higher dependence of our economy on manufacturing and agriculture, and therefore trade with the EU. What is the Welsh Government's strategic approach to addressing this mounting long-term problem?

I want to thank the leader of Plaid Cymru for that question. I think the point he made is worth repeating, Llywydd, isn't it, that the OBR, the Government's own advisers, in the run-up to the budget two weeks ago, concluded that the impact of Brexit in shrinking the UK economy would be twice the size of the global pandemic. And while the global pandemic is something from which we can recover, the Brexit impact is baked in to the agreement that the Prime Minister reached—an agreement without, as we would have wished to see, an economic relationship with the European Union with access to the single market, a customs union, to support it. And the result is that people in Wales will be permanently—permanently—poorer as a result of the deal that the Prime Minister struck. And we see it, as the leader of Plaid Cymru said, across the range of the Welsh economy. We see it in the care home sector, where we're no longer able to recruit people who did such valuable work here in Wales. We see it in the HGV driver shortage, which is a UK-wide phenomenon and where the paltry measures that the UK Government introduced are having a negligible effect on that set of difficulties. We have a manufacturing industry in Wales unable to operate at full strength because of supply chain bottlenecks, because trade no longer flows without barriers with our nearest and most important neighbours.

Llywydd, we approach it as a Welsh Government in two specific ways. There are the particular problems that are caused at Welsh ports, in Holyhead and in Pembrokeshire, with trade depressed and new difficulties in its path. And there we try to persuade the UK Government to do the things that would allow the land bridge, the most effective way of transporting goods between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and the UK and on to Europe, to make that function again as it did before their deal was struck. And then, more widely, we work with others, we work with our colleagues in Scotland and in Northern Ireland, to try to put pressure on the UK Government to approach relationships with our most important trading partners on the basis of mutual respect, on the basis that, if there are difficulties in agreements that need to be sorted out, you come around the table, you see the position from the other person's point of view as well as your own, and then you reach a formula that brings about improvement. What you don't do is to approach it as this UK Government does, where everything is an argument, where everything is a chance to fall out, where everything, as it seems to me, is a chance to make a difficult situation even worse.  

Prif Weinidog, you mentioned Holyhead there and, of course, the Northern Ireland dimension of the UK Government's intransigence in pursuing the hardest of hard Brexits is calculated to make things much, much worse. The Westminster Government is now threatening, as we know, to suspend parts of the Northern Ireland deal that protect the EU's single market, article 16 of the trade and co-operation agreement. Indeed, even last night, Boris Johnson was saying that such a suspension would be legitimate, reasonable and appropriate, when of course it is none of these things at all; it is the very opposite. If that were to happen then, in response, the EU would undoubtedly retaliate by suspending or repudiating part or whole of the post Brexit trade deal that Britain has with the EU. That would make our trading losses in Wales even worse, quite apart from the complete breakdown of trust that would occur between Britain and the EU. What additional mitigating actions are the Welsh Government planning if the UK Government does indeed pursue this course, which appears increasingly likely?

14:00

Well, Llywydd, first of all, let us hope that they don't pursue such a course, because, as Adam Price has said, it would simply be to make a difficult situation even more damaging—economically, in terms of trade, but also in terms of the situation on the island of Ireland.

Llywydd, later this week, Wales will host the next meeting of the British-Irish Council. It will bring the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste here to Wales. It'll bring the First Minister of Scotland and Ministers from Northern Ireland as well as the other participants. I really hope that that meeting will not take place against the background of unilateral action by the UK Government on article 16, because that is a forum where, historically, people have worked very hard to make sure that the right things are done, the relationships are improved not damaged. And there'll be opportunities there, because the Prime Minister doesn't choose to attend the British-Irish Council anymore, but Michael Gove will be there, and there will be opportunities for discussions on these difficult issues to take place there and avoid the breakdown of trust that Adam Price referred to.

As the chair of the British-Irish Council this week, then Wales has been working hard already and will continue to work hard at the council to make sure that we use that opportunity in the most constructive way possible, recognising the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland and the damage that would be done were article 16 to be triggered.

In a BBC interview just over a week ago, your counterpart in Westminster, Sir Keir Starmer, said he wants to make Brexit work. First Minister, can I ask you what you understand by that phrase or how you interpret it? Will you be advising him that, in the best interests of Wales, as well as the UK, it should mean, at the very least, rejoining the EU's customs union and single market?

Well, Llywydd, I think Sir Keir Starmer, who led for Labour during those long months of the exit negotiations, will have been pointing to a distinction that the UK Government was so reluctant to recognise. The United Kingdom has left the European Union. That battle is over. There was an opportunity to strike a new economic relationship—no longer part of the political union, no longer part of the social union, but an economic relationship—which would have been absolutely acceptable to Mrs Thatcher, who negotiated most of it, and which would have preserved the ability of businesses here in Wales to go on trading and to go on developing markets that they had invested so much in over the 40 years. That was an argument that Sir Keir Starmer made regularly and routinely during all of those negotiations. I heard him myself. I had the opportunity to be in meetings with him where he made that point to UK Ministers—that you could leave the European Union in the political sense, in the way the referendum had determined, but that did not mean that you had to damage your economic interests in the process. Rebuilding an economic set of arrangements that allows trade to flow, that allows businesses to thrive, seems to me to be the most modest ambition that anybody looking at the current state of play would want to pursue. 

14:05
The Real Living Wage

3. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the percentage of the Welsh workforce earning at or above the real living wage? OQ57177

I thank Mike Hedges for that question, Llywydd. According to the Living Wage Foundation, in 2021, the proportion of employee jobs in Wales paid at least the real living wage was 82.1 per cent. Yesterday’s announcement of an increase in the hourly rate of the real living wage will benefit almost 13,000 workers in Wales at 359 accredited employers.

Can I thank you, First Minister, for your reply? Making Wales a nation where everybody gets paid at least the real living wage is one of my ambitions. Whilst the Welsh Government cannot instruct private companies that have no funding from the Welsh Government, they have influence over directly funded organisations and those who contract with Welsh Government-funded organisations and those who get Welsh Government funding. How does the Welsh Government influence such companies to pay the real living wage, which I believe everybody deserves?

I thank Mike Hedges for that. It's an ambition he set out that I certainly share, and, Llywydd, the good news was that there was a larger move forward in the number of employers accredited as paying the real living wage last year than for a number of years past, and that's despite all the difficulties that companies have faced in that period, and there were significant new accreditations this year—the Wales Millennium Centre, Techniquest, the Village Bakery in Wrexham, all joining that growing list of employers who recognise not just the social justice case that Mike Hedges set out, but the economic case for business. It's not just a reputational gain by being a real living wage employer; it means that you're more likely to recruit, you're more likely to retain, you're more likely to have people who want to contribute to the success of that company. There is a business argument for the real living wage.

I intend to write, Llywydd, to all public sector employers in Wales, following yesterday's announcement of the uplift in the real living wage, to urge them once again to commit to being on that accreditation journey. I'm happy to recognise, or at least I'm willing to recognise, that that journey will take longer for some bodies than others; what I'm not willing to accept is that you haven't committed to beginning that journey. And once you're in the process, then we have seen from events here in Cardiff—where we have a health board that is accredited, a council that is accredited, an ambition to be a real living wage city—once you're on the journey, then there will be a wind in your sails that will take you to the position that Mike Hedges set out in his supplementary question.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llywydd, and good afternoon, First Minister. First Minister, your Government says it aims to pay those working in social care the real living wage. While there is still no clarity as to when this will happen, there is no doubt that it's much needed. As we've just discussed, the Living Wage Foundation increased the living wage and it now stands at £9.90 per hour. But this is still below the level that we in the Welsh Conservatives and other opposition parties would pay our care staff—we pledge £10 per hour. First Minister, do you think it's right that somebody collecting trolleys in a supermarket earns as much as those caring for our most vulnerable citizens here in Wales? Do you think that's right?

Well, I imagine the Member is a good deal stronger a supporter of the market economy than I would be, but he appears willing to intervene in it when he thinks that it's to his advantage. I was pleased, Llywydd, to see that six care companies announced yesterday that they had joined the accredited list of companies in Wales who pay the real living wage. Our party, my party, made a commitment at the last election that we would pay carers in Wales the real living wage, and that is what we will do. We have now received the advice of the social care fair work forum; it met eight times in order to fashion that advice for us. There will be a ministerial meeting with the forum next week, and, when we publish our draft budget on 20 December, Members will see how we plan to put that pledge into action. 

14:10

Prif Weinidog, I share Mike Hedges's ambition, and agree with you with regard to the economic benefit of the real living wage. I'm dismayed by the Conservatives' comments, always trying to pit people against each other—it's sad and it's totally unnecessary.

Prif Weinidog, there are 300 accredited living wage employers in Wales, including every single higher education sector in Wales—the only country in the United Kingdom. I was pleased yesterday with Dafydd Llywelyn's announcement—Plaid Cymru's Police and Crime Commissioner in Dyfed-Powys—that Dyfed-Powys is following down that route, but the only police force in Wales. And, as you mentioned, Cwm Taf, Cwm Taf is the only—. Sorry, Cardiff and Vale is the only health board, but Cwm Taf is starting on that journey.

I note that you said that you'd write a letter to them, but what more can you do, Prif Weinidog, to urge these public bodies to make sure that, by the next Living Wage Week next year, all public bodies in Wales can be accredited, or certainly be starting that important journey forward? Diolch yn fawr.

I thank the Member for that supplementary question, and I agree with much of what he said. I too welcome the decision by the PCC of Dyfed-Powys to become an accredited employer, and Rhys ab Owen is right to point to the success of the higher education sector in Wales. In Swansea, in Mike Hedges's own city, it's a leading example of what can be done. The Welsh Government ourselves try to lead by example. We are an accredited real living wage employer. We fund Cynnal Cymru to be the vehicle that campaigns on this issue, that has had the success that I outlined earlier. The gap between the percentage of employees in Wales who are covered by the real living wage and elsewhere shrank again last year. It's been shrinking year by year, and we're now very close indeed to the UK position as well. We use the influence that we have through our economic contract, and certainly, in the letter that I will be writing to public bodies in Wales, I'll be making all the points that Members here have made about the benefits of doing so. 

The Impact of COP26

4. What is the First Minister's assessment of the impact of COP26 for Wales? OQ57202

I thank the Member. Llywydd, a major impact of COP26 will have been the increased public consciousness it has created in Wales of the need for urgent action. Through COP Cymru and Wales Climate Week we aim to galvanise the collective effort required of Welsh citizens post COP26 in pursuit of a planet fit for future generations.

First Minister, I very much look forward to taking part in COP Cymru, because I'm sure that's absolutely right—we need to engage everybody in this venture to save the world from climate disaster. 

Clearly, COP is a work in progress in persuading all countries that we have to radically change in order to avert the climate disaster that is staring us in the face. The UK retains its leadership of COP and yet, in this country, the UK continues to spend £10 billion a year on fuel subsidies. So, I very much welcome Wales joining the end oil and gas coalition. How do you think you can help persuade the UK Government of the need to end the scandal of fossil fuel subsidies, which is such a major contributor to the problems we now face?

I thank Jenny Rathbone for that, and thank her as well for having taken the time to travel to Glasgow and to be part of the COP discussions, as I know other Members in other parts of the Chamber did too. I agree, Llywydd, with what Jenny Rathbone said—COP did deliver a number of very important outcomes. The steps ahead in relation to deforestation, on methane, on the sums of money that have been put together now to support those countries in other parts of the world that are already at the sharp end of climate change—those were successes of the COP process, and they were successes of the leadership of the COP process shown by Alok Sharma as well. There were things, however, that we would have hoped that COP would have been able to grapple with that now are deferred to another day. And certainly, the curbing of fossil fuel extraction is one of the things that COP didn't bring off in the way that its initial ambitions would have suggested.

So, I'm very glad, Llywydd, that Wales is one of the eight founding core members of the end oil and gas coalition. It was one of the high spots of our participation in the conference. We are members alongside member states such as Costa Rica, Denmark, France, Ireland, Sweden and New Zealand, and we're there with other sub-national Governments from California and Quebec. The alliance will become the vehicle, we believe, through which we will collectively, with those other partners, be able to do more to end the extraction of fossil fuels. Here in Wales, we have the hierarchy that my colleague Lesley Griffiths developed during the time that she was responsible for these things, in which fossil fuels are at the bottom of our fuel and energy hierarchy. And in Wales, we are committed to reducing and then preventing further extraction of those inevitably limited and finite resources. We will bring the policies that we have delivered and the determination we have to implement them to be part of that alliance, and then attract others to the same cause, because that is an absolutely necessary part of the follow-up work that now will have to be conducted beyond the conference in Glasgow.

14:15
Public Transport in South Wales East

5. How is the Welsh Government encouraging the growth of public transport use in South Wales East? OQ57211

I thank the Member. Llywydd, the greatest contribution to growth in public transport use in South Wales East will come through a sustained fall in the rate of coronavirus in the area. Since the start of the pandemic, use of public transport has recovered but remains well below pre-pandemic levels.

Diolch, Prif Weinidog. I was recently at COP26 and the overriding theme was that we need radical action to change our fate on this planet. This includes the way we approach public transport. It needs to be more attractive if people are to ditch their cars. Unfortunately, this much-needed culture change has been hampered by crowded scenes like the ones we saw after the Wales versus Belarus game, the issues that seem to have been resolved with Stagecoach not paying drivers a fair wage, which have seriously impacted services in my region, and some pre-COVID services disappearing off the timetable. The Welsh transport strategy that you unveiled earlier this year includes a target that 45 per cent of journeys will be made by public transport by 2040, an increase from 32 per cent in the pre-pandemic period. What would you say to someone in my region who remains to be convinced that public transport is the clean, comfortable and reliable service that they need it to be?

I thank the Member for that important supplementary question, which I think raises a series of really important issues. The COVID context is still very real indeed for public transport, Llywydd. In the last financial year, the Welsh Government spent £176 million over and above what we would normally have spent on rail services simply to keep the rail service going. In the last 15 months, we have spent £108 million in sustaining bus services, and yet patronage outside those major event days is still very significantly below where it would have been in the month before coronavirus hit. Bus patronage fell by up to 95 per cent at the bleakest days of the pandemic; it's recovered to 66 per cent. Rail journeys did recover and are recovering this year, but in the last quarter for which figures are available, there were 182 million rail passenger journeys across the United Kingdom, and in the same quarter in 2019, the figure was 437 million. At the moment, that is still the shaping context for our public transport providers. They have far fewer people, their farebox is radically down, they are depending on our limited ability to go on providing subsidies, and it is difficult for them to shape that future.

Nevertheless, as a Welsh Government, we go on doing the things we said we would do to create the south Wales metro, which will be relevant to the Member's region. We will publish a bus plan in January, which will be the precursor to the White Paper and the Bill that we will then bring forward here in the Senedd to re-regulate bus services. We will go on investing in the electric fleet, which is there to be seen in Newport and Cardiff and outside as well. So, despite the difficulties, which are very real and still press very hard on the industry, we will go on investing in the conditions that will allow the person to whom Peredur Owen Griffiths referred, that we have to convince that leaving the car behind and getting on a bus or a train, that we will have answers for them that they will find convincing.

14:20
Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board

6. What assessment has the First Minister made of the management of Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board? OQ57214

Llywydd, a new chief executive, a new medical director and two new independent members have been appointed this year to strengthen the leadership of Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, as required by the current level of intervention set by the Welsh Government.

Thank you. First Minister, in addition to the chief exec, chairman, vice-chairman, seven independent members, seven executive directors, the board also pays eight pan-regional directors and 36 directors, heads and leads for the individual regions—in total, 66 directors. In spite of this top-heavy management structure, you will be aware of letters received last week by doctors working at emergency departments at Ysbyty Gwynedd, Glan Clwyd and Maelor, and they warned you and others that our medical and nursing leadership has failed to address patterns of behaviour that cripple efficiency and that have not evolved for decades.

These alarming letters underline that departments have become routinely crowded to the point where delivering even the most fundamental aspects of emergency medicine, such as rapid ambulance offload, triage, early assessment and investigations, and time-critical interventions in sepsis, stroke, cardiac care, major trauma and resuscitation are well compromised. And that's despite a current vacancy rate of 670 vacancies for front-line nurses. Given this chaos that exists within this board, will you liaise with your Minister for Health and Social Services to establish an inquiry into the management to determine whether taking them out of special measures, just before an election, was in fact the right decision?

Well, Llywydd, last week the Member was complaining that there were not enough bureaucrats behind their desk, and this weeks she wants to complain that there are too many. [Interruption.] I was in the Chamber last week when the Member complained about the lack of people behind their desks in north Wales, and I'm listening carefully to what she is saying today when she complains there are too many people doing those jobs. There was no letter received last week, Llywydd. Those letters were written in December of last year and June of this year—[Interruption.] And the letters to which the Member referred, Llywydd—. I'm listening carefully to her, even if she doesn't listen to herself. The letters to which she referred were written in December last year and June of last year—

I'll take it seriously, because I have also seen the reply that the board made to those letters in July of this year—the board paper, the very detailed board paper, and the very serious board paper that went through the points that those clinicians raised, because they are genuinely very important points, and the board is taking them with the seriousness that they deserve. They have 800 more nurses in place in Betsi Cadwaladr than they did at the start of the last Senedd term, so that's 800 more people able to help the board in providing the services that people in the Member's constituency and across north Wales rely on and deserve.

The health service, in every part of Wales and in every part of the United Kingdom, is under the most enormous pressure, and she can be assured and the people—[Interruption.] It may not be good enough for the Member, but she has no magic wand and she has no easy answers to these problems and neither does anybody else. She can be assured and, more importantly, residents of north Wales can be assured that the whole effort of the board and its senior management is directed to doing everything they can to deal with the daily pressures that the health service is experiencing, and to make sure that the thousands of people who, just today, in this single day, the thousands of people in north Wales who will have used the health service and used it successfully, go on receiving that service.

14:25
The Community Renewal Fund

7. What discussions has the First Minister had with UK Government Ministers about the community renewal fund? OQ57196

Llywydd, the UK Government has made a deliberate decision to exclude the Senedd from the design and delivery of that fund. It continues to trample over the devolution settlement and to abandon its promise that Wales would not be a penny worse off as a result of leaving the European Union.

First Minister, the difficulty with this and the lack of engagement is the lack of fit within the policy framework in Wales, with the future generations Act, our approach to economic investment, our approach to jobs and skills and our approach to developing and integrating the higher education sector within the work that we do to power the economy forward. If we have random input of funding from the UK Government without any engagement with that, then it's a recipe for chaos, quite frankly. Could I ask the First Minister: does he hold out any hope whatsoever that the Wales Office, UK departmental Ministers and, indeed, the Prime Minister himself will actually wake up to the reality of working with Wales, not just with local authorities and individual organisations on the ground, but with the Welsh Government, the elected Welsh Government, in order to make sure that the investment delivers what it's meant to deliver?

Well, Llywydd, I have repeatedly offered the UK Government to become involved in this programme on the basis of co-decision making. I did that reluctantly, Llywydd, because those decisions should be made here; these are devolved responsibilities, confirmed in two referendums by the people of Wales. It is funding that belongs here for this Senedd to decide on, but because of all the arguments that Huw Irranca-Davies makes, Chair—and he makes them with authority because he is chair of the strategic forum for regional investment in Wales—because of all those arguments about wanting public money to be used to best effect, to make sure that the projects that are selected are in tune with the other things that are being funded in that area, I have offered Welsh Government engagement in it, provided that we are co-decision makers. The UK Government is not interested in that offer. It wishes to proceed as it has demonstrated in recent weeks; it wants decisions about Wales to be made in London. It wants Whitehall to know better than we do about the things that matter the most here in Wales, and while that continues to be the way in which it approaches these things, I'm afraid that whatever offers we would make as a Welsh Government to assist, they're unlikely—and I'm very sad; I'm genuinely sad to say—they're very unlikely to be heard with any receptivity.

Neonatal Parents

8. What is the Welsh Government doing to support neonatal parents? OQ57209

I thank Joyce Watson, Llywydd. In the last Senedd term, the Welsh Government invested £110 million in neonatal developments across Wales. That includes specialist perinatal mental health services, which are now available in every health board in Wales, supported by over £3 million in annual mental health improvement funding.

I thank you for that answer, First Minister. Tomorrow marks World Prematurity Day, when we turn our thoughts and our focus to premature birth, which, sadly, sometimes has an overwhelming impact on families. I know that this is something your Government has paid special attention to through the First 1000 Days programme, and with consistent investment in perinatal mental health services, which you've mentioned. The Welsh Government's latest update on this to the Children, Young People and Education Committee set out the good progress that has been made on bereavement support, but is there an update on what is being done to improve psychological support for neonatal parents as well, which the committee had also recommended?

14:30

I thank Joyce Watson for that, Llywydd, and for drawing attention to World Prematurity Day tomorrow. One in 10 babies in Wales will need neonatal care, and I think many people would be surprised to learn that in 2020, 2,800 babies in Wales were admitted to neonatal care. I'm very grateful to organisations such as Bliss for the support they offer to families in those circumstances, and I'm hugely grateful to those members of staff, because neonatal services in Wales have been under huge pressure, alongside the rest of the health service, Llywydd, in recent weeks, with absence rates of up to 30 per cent—staff falling ill with coronavirus, affected by it in other ways.

When I was the health Minister, Llywydd, I had the opportunity to visit a number of neonatal units. You barely want to breathe when you're there with babies as tiny as you see being successfully looked after there. Meeting parents, it is a deeply distressing experience for many of them, and psychological support, as Joyce Watson has said, is very important for them too. There are royal college standards in this area, which every health board is working to meet, and where new funding has been made available by the Welsh Government to assist them in doing so. Improved access to psychological therapies remains a priority for service improvement funding in this area, alongside the physical infrastructure, which is very much evident in Joyce Watson's part of Wales. But the therapeutic side is also receiving that investment. 

2. Business Statement and Announcement

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

Member
Lesley Griffiths 14:32:42
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch, Llywydd. I've added one statement to today's agenda on COP26, which will be delivered by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change. The statements on second homes and affordability and the Welsh language communities housing plan have been postponed. 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. 

Thank you for your business statement, Minister. Can I call for a statement to mark Inter Faith Week? This week is Inter Faith Week, and, of course, faith groups across Wales make a huge contribution to society. I think it would be an opportune time to mark the week if a Government statement was issued. It would also be helpful, I think, in that statement, if you could explain why the First Minister was able to celebrate Diwali, an important Hindu festival, this week without a face covering, while people across the country are still having to cover their mouths in order to sing hymns in places of worship across the country. That clearly is very much a double standard and needs to be addressed. So, I would welcome a statement on these important issues. 

Thank you. I don't think it's appropriate to make a statement, but I certainly would pay tribute to all the organisations that support us as a Welsh Government. You'll be aware of the incredible work that they do with the Minister for Social Justice. I know that you lead prayer meetings every week, and, again, I will say thank you, particularly to David Emery. 

I'd like to ask for a statement relating to the Welsh Government's guidance on international travel. Specifically, a constituent in the Llynfi valley recently contracted COVID-19, but has been out of isolation since Tuesday 9 November. She is planning to travel to San Francisco on Wednesday 24 November, but in order to make that journey is in need of medical certification in addition to the COVID pass. She has tried every avenue, and has been signposted by several services to her local GP surgery in Maesteg, but they are telling her that they have not been given any indication that they are able to provide medical certification by higher authorities. I can imagine this is an issue not just for my constituent in the Llynfi valley, but also for a number of people who are looking to travel. It seems to me that the relevant services are not communicating with each other at the moment, and I'm not aware of any specific guidance from the Welsh Government to the NHS in Wales about issuing letters or medical certificates for the purpose of travel. Both myself and my constituent in the Llynfi valley would greatly appreciate guidance from the Minister for health as soon as possible.

14:35

The Minister for Health and Social Services did issue a written statement, I think it was last week, on international travel. I will certainly ask her if there is anything further with specific regard to the query that you raise, and, if there is, I will ask her to do a further written statement.

I would like to ask for two statements, the first on the Welsh Government's policy on outsourcing—directly or by Welsh Government-funded bodies in Wales, such as Sport Wales. I am opposed to outsourcing, because I believe there is a serious danger of either a reduction in the quality of provision, or a reduction in the terms and conditions of those employed, or often both.

I would also like a statement on IT upgrades for Welsh Government-funded organisations. It is the view of the Senedd Commission that it can be more difficult to install security upgrades on older computers; they find that older laptops also fail on a more regular basis, causing disruption. They say their way of working is in line with industry best practice. Their definition of an older computer is one that is five years old. How many computers in Welsh Government-funded organisations are over five years old, and what programme have you got to upgrade them?

Thank you. With regard to your first query, around outsourcing, we're keen to explore where services and contracts can sustainably and affordably be brought back into a strengthened public sector. It's one of our programme for government commitments, and we are expecting delivery of that at an early stage in this governmental term, certainly looking at year 2, I would say—2022-23. We'll continue to work with stakeholders, and clearly we have a social partnership Bill team to ensure consistency of approach with the Bill.

In relation to your second question, I'm not quite sure how many computers are over the age of five years—certainly, my personal one is a lot older than that. It is really important that we have a digital strategy, and the Member will be aware of our digital strategy, which we published in March, just before the election. That does set a very clear vision and ambition for a co-ordinated digital approach here in Wales.

Minister, may I ask for a statement from the Deputy Minister for Climate Change on the importance of the logistics industry in our everyday lives? The logistics industry is worth over £127 billion to the UK economy, but its true value is in the role it plays in making sure we get everything we need—from those all-important toilet rolls to turkeys on our tables, and, in the name of equality, nut roasts for those of you who are vegetarians and vegans amongst us. As such, it is fundamental to the way that we live our lives. Last week, I met with representatives of the Road Haulage Association to hear what is being done to encourage people into the industry as a career choice, and, in particular, for young people, to show the vast range of employment opportunities in the logistics sector, including administration, driving, warehouse work, workshop work, and also management. During the visit, they expressed the view that the Welsh Government does not appreciate the work that they do, which is demonstrated by the failure to appoint anyone from the industry to the roads review panel. May I ask for a statement from the Deputy Minister that recognises the importance of the logistics industry to the Welsh economy, and what action is he taking to support this vital sector of the economy, to ensure fairness and equality actually exist in the decision-making process right here in Wales? Thank you, Minister.

The Welsh Government certainly appreciates our logistics industry. Clearly, the pandemic showed the vulnerabilities of it, and Brexit, unfortunately, has had a significant impact on it. I think the UK Government need to really get a grip of the logistics issues that we are facing. They've come forward with stop-gap measures; I'm aware they've written, I think, to everybody who holds a HGV licence to see if they can encourage them back in. You'll be aware that we've just recently held Blas Cymru, and, obviously, the food industry and sector here in Wales absolutely relies on our logistics staff. It was good to see some of them represented there. It's how we make it attractive for it to be a career option and an opportunity. So, again, within my portfolio, from the food section, we're certainly doing a great deal of work, but I know the Deputy Minister certainly does value the industry very much.

Trefnydd, over the past fortnight, I have raised twice with the Minister for health the concerns of those with autism and their families regarding the COVID pass. Even though the COVID guidelines were updated last week to state that locations should be available to those who can't take lateral flow tests, this isn't strong enough as compared to the system in England. The Government's website states that you are still updating the system that will update the COVID pass automatically, to note that people can't be vaccinated for medical purposes. Can we have a statement and clarity from the Minister on this situation, please, including a timescale in terms of when this system will have been updated, and when more detailed guidance will be available to ensure access to venues for those who can't take LFTs and can't be vaccinated? 

May I also ask the Minister for Climate Change for an update on the inconsistency that we see in terms of Transport for Wales services, in terms of announcements with regard to the importance of wearing face coverings? I have received several complaints from people being very concerned that they don't feel safe on the trains at the moment, and I would be grateful to know what is being done to ensure that the announcements are consistent and that the messages are entirely clear in terms of how vital these are. Thank you. 

14:40

Thank you. In relation to your first question, I am aware that work is in progress around the COVID pass in the way you suggest. So, I will ask the Minister for Health and Social Services to issue a written statement when that work has been completed. 

With regard to your second point, I think it is absolutely vital that Transport for Wales continue to have announcements and to ensure that people are wearing face coverings. I know the Deputy Minister for Climate Change is certainly working with Transport for Wales around that. I came down by train yesterday from north Wales. I had to ask the conductor to remind people that a mask was mandatory in Wales, because you'll appreciate coming down from Wrexham you cross into England. I have to say, when he asked people, they all put their masks on, every single one of them. So, people are making the choice, or maybe they don't know it's mandatory in Wales. So, it is absolutely vital that announcements are made on our trains to ensure that people are aware it's mandatory and law here in Wales. 

Thank you, Trefnydd. I'd like to request two statements, please, from the Minister for health. Firstly, Wednesday is World COPD Day, and across Wales over 76,000 people live with COPD, which can have a considerable impact on a person's quality of life. Constituencies like mine, with an industrial heritage, have above-average rates. So, can we have a statement on how the Welsh Government is supporting people in Wales with this condition?

Secondly, Thursday marks a year since the World Health Organization launched a global strategy to accelerate the elimination of cervical cancer as a public health issue. Working with Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, I tabled a statement of opinion welcoming this anniversary. But could we have an update on Welsh Government interventions to eliminate cervical cancer? And what in particular is being done to improve access to cervical screening? 

Thank you. As you say, today we do mark World COPD Day. It's an opportunity to highlight the impact of COPD and consider the impact that the pandemic is also having on people with COPD. We're very much committed to improving care and outcomes for people living with this condition, and we've got a number of nationally led programmes in place. We've also announced £240 million of in-year funding to support NHS recovery, and that includes £1 million for chronic condition management in primary care. It's really important that people with COPD make use of the COPD app that's currently being developed here in Wales by the NHS, as I think that will help both individuals who have the condition and also the NHS work together better. 

In relation to your second point around cervical cancer, as you say, it's a year on Thursday since the WHO committed to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health issue, and we fully support their strategy to have elimination of cervical cancer by 2030. We know that will be achieved by vaccination, by screening, and by the treatment of pre-cancerous lesions. We're really proud that Cervical Screening Wales was the first UK cervical screening programme to fully roll out high-risk HPV testing as a primary scheme back in 2018. And since 2008, girls here in Wales aged 12 and 13 have been offered the HPV vaccine. We know that that combination of immunisation and screening is really having a positive impact, and I think it's down to us all to make sure we encourage our constituents to take full advantage of that screening. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Thank you, business Minister. I'd like to call for a statement by the Minister for education given the recent news and worrying news that teachers are being recorded during lessons and that the footage is being uploaded to the social media platform TikTok. It is a situation that is getting out of hand, and I'm aware of many schools now having written to parents to increase awareness of what is going on. It is becoming increasingly apparent that governments need to take action now, working with social media organisations, to crack down on offensive videos aimed at teachers. Teachers across Wales have been targeted with defamatory and offensive videos posted by these pupils on TikTok. This is causing significant concern among teachers and school staff. Teachers do a wonderful job educating our children. We are all to quick to praise the job that they do. Their role in schools needs to be a safe space for them, as well as the pupils. So, could the Minister make a statement on how the Government is looking to help our education providers combat this, and to clarify what guidance you will issue to teachers to try and help them in this regard?

14:45

Thank you. It's completely unacceptable that teachers are facing such behaviour. There are behaviours such as creating hoax accounts, for instance, that can cause great harm, and they have a devastating impact on individuals. I know that the Minister has liaised with the UK Council for Internet Safety to ensure that we have a co-ordinated approach across the UK on this matter, and the UK CIS has contacted TikTok regarding this issue.

We have also updated our guidance on viral challenges to show the support available to teachers in order to be able to protect their well-being. As colleagues, I'm sure, are aware, it's Anti-Bullying Week this week, so we are working with the office of the children's commissioner to promote the range of classroom resources that are available on the Hwb to support respectful behaviour online. But, I do think that it's absolutely critical that social media platforms recognise their responsibility and their duty of care to their users.

3. Statement by the Minister for Rural Affairs, North Wales, and Trefnydd: The Bovine TB Eradication Programme

The next item, therefore, is a statement by the Minister for rural affairs on the bovine TB eradication programme. I call on the Minister to switch over her files and to present the statement on TB. Lesley Griffiths.

Member
Lesley Griffiths 14:47:32
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch, Llywydd. Today, I am giving my annual update on progress of our TB eradication programme. It is four years since the launch of the regionalised approach and we have continually refined our policies, particularly with regard to the changing disease picture. I am also announcing a 12-week consultation on a refreshed TB eradication programme. We have seen good progress since our programme was first established, with long-term decreases in incidence and prevalence. The 48 per cent decrease in new TB incidents since 2009 demonstrates that our programme is making a real difference to farming families and businesses.

Unfortunately, we are currently tackling spikes in disease in north Wales's intermediate TB area north, and low TB area, by implementing enhanced measures. On 1 November, herds located in hotspots in Denbighshire and the Conwy valley were assigned intermediate TB area north status. This will require pre-movement testing, a key risk-reduction measure to stop disease spreading. Additional testing around breakdown herds is also now required, with veterinary 'keep it out' visits available to contiguous herds testing clear in these hotspots, and the small cluster around Pennal, with further measures in train.

In response to changes in milk contracts, we allowed the establishment of orange markets and rearing approved finishing units, giving farmers outlets for surplus dairy calves. Having received many representations from farmers wanting these outlets, it is disappointing to see low use. I would encourage the industry to consider setting up more to maximise their potential.

A key aim of our programme is the rapid, accurate, early identification of infection. We strive to improve TB diagnostics, embracing new research and being open to new validated tests. In collaboration with our programme board and Aberystwyth University, we are considering the future of TB diagnostics. We are seeking views in the consultation on testing protocols, initially in relation to the pre-movement test, to minimise the risk of moving infected cattle.

Learning from experiences in north Wales, we have a toolkit of measures ready to deploy in hotspot areas if required, to assertively tackle spikes in disease. In the new year, we are strengthening our TB breakdown controls across Wales, and keepers will receive further information beforehand.

Whilst we consider testing arrangements, we recognise the resourcing challenges being faced by the veterinary profession. In response, I am commissioning a review of the options to supplement our veterinary capacity for TB testing through greater use of appropriately trained and supervised paraprofessional staff.

Eight in 10 confirmed breakdowns in the low TB area are primarily attributable to cattle movements. Building on our earlier funding to markets, we continue to urge keepers to take account of TB information when purchasing cattle. We understand not all keepers are offering such information, as demonstrated by the large number of high-risk movements during 2020. We also encourage membership of accreditation schemes, such as TB CHeCS, to promote herd health and give assurance to prospective purchasers.

In 2019, I announced a review of payments made to farmers for cattle slaughtered because of TB. This followed continued year-on-year overspends against the budget, loss of EU income and the need to encourage good farming practice. Options reviewed by the programme board are included in the consultation, and I urge farmers to respond.

A new task and finish group will consider the best ways of communicating with cattle keepers to help them protect their herds, and also throughout a TB breakdown. They will consider the potential role of TB champions in Wales. Farming and veterinary organisations have been approached to nominate members for this group, and I look forward to seeing their recommendations.

I will be phasing out the badger trap-and-test work in persistent herd breakdowns from this year. From an epidemiological perspective, the small sample size and short follow-up period provide limited meaningful results to gauge the impact of interventions on cattle TB. Work will be completed on existing farms, but new ones will not be recruited.

I am keen to explore further the contribution badger vaccination can make to our programme, assessing the most appropriate, cost effective deployment of the badger BCG vaccine. Badger vaccination has been part of our programme since 2012, first deployed in the intensive action area as part of a suite of measures. This has resulted in significant and sustained annual reductions in incidence and prevalence in the IAA. From 2014, we have supported private badger vaccination through a grant and part funded the industry-led initiative on the Gower peninsular. I congratulate Cefn Gwlad Solutions, which has undertaken a huge amount of work to successfully deliver this project.

Funding saved from phasing out the badger trap-and-test work will allow us to build on vaccination efforts, and I welcome the interest shown already in taking forward private projects. I am initially making an additional £100,000 available for expanding badger vaccination across Wales through the grant scheme. I also intend to continue the all-Wales badger-found-dead survey to increase our knowledge on the disease in badgers.

We continue supporting the development of a deployable cattle TB vaccine, with a test to differentiate infected from vaccinated animals to be in place by 2025. It is disappointing no Welsh farms are participating in the trials as yet, and I would encourage interest from the low TB area. Cattle vaccination has the potential to become a powerful tool in the battle against the disease, and we are engaging with the TB centre of excellence to plan its most appropriate deployment in Wales.

Collaboration and partnership working, taking ownership and recognising we all have a role to play are key to the success of our programme. Bovine TB has a devastating impact on the farming industry, with a huge emotional cost. We must do all we can to protect our cattle herds from this disease. I look forward to hearing your views on a refreshed TB eradication programme.

14:50

I would like to thank the Minister for giving me advance sight of today’s statement, and I refer to my register of interests. I’d like to begin, firstly, by paying tribute to our farmers across Wales for continuing to feed a nation even in the face of the physical, mental and economic stresses caused by bovine TB. Unfortunately, for some farmers, that continued battle against this horrific disease has been too much and they have taken their own lives. There is undeniably a seriousness to this situation that many outside of rural Wales will not fully understand nor indeed appreciate. Bovine TB casts a long shadow over our farming industry, acting as one of the main barriers to achieving a productive, progressive and profitable agricultural sector. A TB outbreak on a family farm impacts every aspect of that farm's ability to operate a viable business model. And so, we're not just discussing the tragic infection of cattle, but we also need to take into account the livelihoods that are at stake.

Minister, you mention in your statement a 48 per cent decrease in new TB incidents since 2009, but I'd be interested to know what the statistics say about the re-occurrence of the disease within infected herds and how many herds have been classified as TB free after a prolonged period of being under restrictions. Preventing new herds from catching the disease is important, but for those farmers who have long been under TB restrictions, they are the ones bearing the brunt of the economic and mental impact of the disease, and they must not be forgotten about. And whilst I'm grateful for your statement this afternoon, it does come after 13 years of policy that has made slow progress in achieving the ultimate goal of Wales being recognised as an officially TB-free region in the UK.

If I may, I'd like to touch on three specific points in responding to your statement: vaccines, testing and compensation. Your update on the progress Wales is making in establishing a vaccination scheme will, I'm sure, be cautiously welcomed by the sector. However, we must be honest with the agricultural industry: a vaccine will not stop the disease dead in its tracks. If the global pandemic has taught us anything, it's that, even with the common use of a vaccine, a disease can remain prevalent and be transmitted, even if at a lower number. A cattle vaccine will see farmers continue to combat the possible presence of bovine TB in their herd. Therefore, it's important that we aren't presenting the vaccine as the silver bullet to end bovine TB. However, it certainly can be another tool at our disposal. And whilst I welcome the news that the Welsh Government is going to continue to support the development of a deployable cattle TB vaccine, this mustn't hide the fact that we remain several years away from a viable programme—that's at least four years where TB continues to infect our cattle, killing off our livestock and damaging yet another generation of family businesses.

In order to mitigate this, we have to be innovative and ambitious in our testing regime. That means expanding upon the Welsh Government's current testing regime and optimising some of the industry alternatives that are currently available. We already know that the current Welsh Government-endorsed skin test provides false negatives, and this is noted in the refreshed TB eradication programme, as it states it is not possible to fully eliminate the risk of TB spreading through undetected infection. But, by improving testing, it will reduce the number of undetected infections. You mention in your statement that the new consultation will seek views on testing protocols, however no mention on the tests used. I'd like further information from you on the roll-out of these new tests, including Enferplex and IDEXX, to remove false negatives from skin-fold testing.

Finally, compensation. I was concerned to read that the TB payments budget has forecast a £7 million overspend by the end of this financial year. This is a budget that has seen overspend every year since 2015-16. Had the Welsh Government addressed bovine TB, tackled the root cause of the disease sooner, then the overspends would not have happened, as the disease would not have been allowed to spread into all four corners of Wales, seeing 10,000-plus cattle slaughtered in the last 12 months alone.

Minister, I reiterate that we must take strategic long-term decisions when it comes to tackling the impact of this disease. It is irresponsible to not properly fund the compensation scheme to farmers, complain about an overspend and look at ways of reducing payouts to compensate for loss of livestock rather than focus on sustainable ways to reduce the spread of the disease in the first place. I note with interest the three options that are being suggested by the Welsh Government, and, whilst any compensation scheme must reflect value for money for taxpayers, it is just as vital that we settle on a scheme that provides a fair and proportionate TB payment to cattle keepers. I await with interest the outcome of the consultation next spring, but I am worried that we are focusing on how much money can be saved rather than fixing the problem, which is bovine TB.

Minister, you make reference to TB champions in your statement. Could I ask you reconsider this phrasing, please? No-one wishes to champion such a deadly disease, which has caused so much turmoil to farmers across Wales.

Should we want to tackle bovine TB, we must seek to improve the quality of our testing regime, continue to invest in a vaccine roll-out project, and ensure that our farmers are fittingly supported. Minister, you're correct when you say collaboration and partnership are key, but this must be met with equal measures by Welsh Government. And so I urge you, let's not let another 13 years pass; let's work urgently with the industry to implement a full and comprehensive TB eradication strategy that rids Wales of this hideous disease in our cattle and wildlife once and for all. Diolch.

15:00

Thank you very much to Sam Kurtz for those questions. It is a horrific disease, I absolutely agree with you, and it is vital that we work in partnership. I would never, ever present one thing within the toolbox as being—I don't like the phrase 'a silver bullet', but that was your phrase. But, it isn't, it is about a suite of measures, and certainly since the five years I've been in portfolio, I came to learn that very, very quickly. When you look at the science, there isn't one thing; if there were, how much easier life would be. There isn't. So, it is about making sure that the measures we have in place are absolutely correct. 

You asked about statistics in your first question and certainly, looking at short-term trends, on 30 June this year, there were 81 fewer herds under movement restrictions compared with the previous year, so the previous 30 June 2020. I think it is really important that we don't read too much into short-term trends, as we do expect short-term fluctuations in the figures. So, I think it's really important that we do have a look at the figures, and I mentioned in my statement around the 48 per cent which you referred to.

I don't agree with you that there's been slow progress. I do think since we have had this programme we have made some significant progress, but of course if you're in a long-term breakdown—that is one over 18 months—that's of very small comfort to you, and I absolutely appreciate that. When we refreshed the programme four years ago, we brought in the bespoke action plans, which I think have helped some farmers. Not all farmers have welcomed it, but I certainly think it has helped them. But I do think it's now time for a refresh and, as you say, in the consultation, we have brought forward several things that we're going to look at, and I'm proposing that we change them.

In relation to the cattle vaccination that you referred to—as I say, I don't think there is any one thing, it has to be a combination—the aim is to have a deployable cattle TB vaccine with a test that can differentiate infected from vaccinated animals by 2025. Certainly, when I met with Professor Glyn Hewinson in the summer in Aberystwyth University, he was very excited about this because he said it's always been 10 years hence, and now it's four years, which I appreciate is quite a long time, but we are getting closer to that. I certainly think the UK Government are keen to have a cattle vaccination, and there is definitely an impetus now, I would say, across the UK. 

I mentioned in my statement that I am disappointed there are no Welsh farms taking part in these trials, they are all English farms at the moment. Anything we can do to encourage farms from low TB areas to participate in these trials would be really good. Certainly, as a Government, we are working closely with DEFRA and the Scottish Government, and there have been about 20 years now of research into this vaccination, and I know the Welsh Government, way before my time, really led on this. 

You asked about skin tests and testing in general. Certainly, the skin test is a long-established test and it's used worldwide. It's the main surveillance test in all, as far as I can see, TB controlled programmes, and it's likely to identify only one false positive animal in every 5,000 of non-infected cattle tested. I'm very keen to look at new testing, and I mentioned it's part of the consultation, and I really look forward to views coming forward around testing. There are tests that aren't validated yet, but again I know my officials have engaged with people around that. I think collectively we all want to improve testing, and this is a real opportunity now to have a look. 

You mentioned the—I think it was the IDEXX antibody test specifically, which as you know is a blood test and it has to be performed between 10 and 30 days after a skin TB test. The high positivity rate in 2020 that we did see is likely to be the fact that we targeted that test, and of course then it's our higher risk animals. So, we have been using it, and the gamma test, in our TB hotspots in north Wales for the first time. So, it's interesting to see the results we are getting there.

In relation to compensation, again, I'm consulting on three options, and I hope you've had time to have a look at the consultation. We are consulting on three options. They've been recommended to me by the programme board. So, I was very keen to have the table valuations plus a top-up for being a member of an accreditation scheme, and then the TB levy. Those three options are set out in the consultation document.

You mentioned the overspend and you're right: it's a demand-led scheme, so, obviously—. I think, every year, we have oversubscribed for it, but, as a Government, we have a statutory duty to pay farmers for animals that have been slaughtered under the programme, and we always find that funding. I reprioritise, I redirect and I divert funding away from it, but we do need to reduce that funding—and, again, it is part of the consultation. So, again, I would urge Members to encourage farmers, certainly, and all their constituents, if they have an interest in this, to participate in the consultation.

15:05

May I also thank the Minister for her statement? I will keep this quite brief because I don't want to rehearse many of the things that Sam Kurtz has already said that I happen to agree with. 

Let me start by saying that bovine TB continues to have a destructive impact on agriculture in Wales, not only in terms of its economic impact, but also the emotional and mental health impact that the disease has, as we've already heard. So, clearly, we need a number of different approaches in dealing with this issue, based on local needs and disease status. We must manage the disease in wildlife too, as well as placing restrictions on the movement of animals and testing cattle. 

I welcome the consultation, of course, and it's an opportunity for people to contribute on the basis of their expertise in this complex issue. I welcome the fact that there's been a reduction in the number of cases, but one also must realise that that is just one indicator alone.

You and the First Minister have said on a number of occasions that badger culling is not an option for you, so we have to concentrate on a different approach in working as effectively as possible, whilst reducing any inconvenience to farmers. 

Now, what I would have liked to have seen in this statement is some kind of solution where you acknowledge that there has been an increase in TB cases in certain areas, referring specifically to north Wales, but we're familiar, over a period of 20 years, of areas where there have been spikes from time to time in terms of bovine TB.

In moving forward, I don't understand why there isn't a greater commitment here to vaccinate badgers in those areas that are problematic to us, and why not have a more systematic approach to testing badgers on farms where cases are consistently arising, and linking that to a local vaccination programme. That would have been welcomed, in my view. You referred to a vaccination programme in the Gower area; I would have liked to have heard more about the outcomes of that particular project.

You mention a 'toolkit of measures in hotspot areas'—well, once again, more detail as to what exactly that toolkit includes would be useful.

In terms of compensation, again, I agree entirely with the comments made by Sam Kurtz: cases of TB on farms impact every aspect of farming life—buying and selling livestock and so on. And in our view, the compensation arrangements do have to reflect the individual value of every animal, and only through having individual assessments can we achieve this. So, does the Minister accept that if an animal is not priced according to its own characteristics, then there is a risk of overcompensation or, on the other hand, undercompensation, something that would be very unfair for taxpayers and farmers alike?

But what is central to the statement is that if you are determined to press ahead with the current strategy, it's inevitable that we will see tens of thousands of cattle continue to be slaughtered over the next years, just as we have seen over 30,000 cattle slaughtered over the past three years, yes, 30,000, and the economic and emotional impact of that on farms and farmers.

And in returning to compensation, this inevitably will mean an increase in costs and there's a suggestion that you see this as being unsustainable. Whilst leaving the European Union and losing funds as a result of that could exacerbate the situation, does the Minister accept that it's the responsibility of the Government to balance the books in this area and that we shouldn't expect farmers to pay the bill for having a fair price for those cattle that do have to be slaughtered?

And the last point, Minister, is around vaccination. Where vaccination is available, it has a role to play, clearly, in TB eradication, but it can only be used to prevent and not to cure the disease. Field trials with cattle TB vaccination, as you've already outlined, are under way, and you are hoping an effective vaccine will be available by 2025, so my question is: how confident are you we can achieve this goal, given the low number of farms that are currently participating in the trials?

And my final point is this: by ruling out other measures such as controlling the disease within the wildlife population, is the Minister accepting, therefore, that the Government is content with keeping the situation as static as it is currently for at least another three or four years, which won't reduce the emotional or financial burden on farmers one bit, or reduce the prevalence of the disease to the same extent we've seen in other countries? And my final point as well is the found-dead survey, in my opinion, is ineffective and rather ad hoc and doesn't teach us anything about this disease at all. Diolch yn fawr.

15:10

I'll start with the second final point around the survey, I don't—

No, it's fine. I don't agree with you, I think it has given us some really good evidence, and it should be finishing in February next year, but I have committed to doing it for another two years, because I'm told by our advisers, by the chief veterinary officer and by the scientists that it is absolutely vital that we keep that work going, because they do think it's worthwhile.

But I thank you for your questions, and I do not want to keep it static, of course not, and one of the reasons for bringing in the targets back in 2017 and the regionalisation approach was to get that TB-free status as quickly as possible. Certainly, discussions I had, particularly when we were in the European Union, with people at European agricultural councils, et cetera, was that to achieve that the regionalisation approach would really help us. So, if you could have one area in Wales that could be declared TB-free, what a boost that would be to the rest of Wales. So, I was very keen to bring the regionalisation approach into the TB eradication programme back in 2017, and will certainly be keeping it.

You mentioned spikes in disease over the previous years. The reason I mentioned north Wales is because this is my annual update, and I appreciate, for the Member, this is the first one you have been in the Chamber for, but every year I do commit to a statement. So, whilst I'm also looking at a refresh of the TB eradication programme, because we haven't had one for four years, it is, actually, my annual statement, so that was the reason why I focused on that.

I am aware you're having a technical briefing with the chief veterinary officer, and I'm sure she will certainly be able to provide you with far more detail than I can in the short amount of time I've got got around the Gower project, but it's certainly been very encouraging, and we have used badger vaccination. It's been one of the things that we have had as part of our toolkit since 2012; it's been part of our programme, and it was first deployed, as I said in my original statement, in the IAA, as part of that suite of measures. And we did see a drop in the incidence and prevalence rates in the IAA. And, fortunately, that position has been sustained. 

It is about having that suite of measures that I mentioned. And we have the testing regime, we have the vaccination regime, and I think it's really important to use that word 'partnership' again. And I'm really pleased—I met with the NFU last week, and they've got their own TB focus group now, and it was really encouraging to hear the progress they think they're making within that group. They've had the chief veterinary officer there to talk to them, they've met with Professor Glyn Hewinson to listen to his views, and it's great to have that ownership, and I think it's really important that we continue to work in partnership, because we can't do it on our own and they can't do it on their own; it's about working together. It's also about improved biosecurity, good husbandry, and, of course, we have Cymorth TB, which we fund, and that seeks to provide practical support to our farmers, to our herd keepers who are affected by TB. They provide bespoke veterinary interventions at different stages during the breakdown. I am going to ask the task and finish group that I've announced today to have a look at how we do engage with our farmers and our herd keepers to see what we can do to improve that engagement, to show that it is absolutely a partnership, and I very much recognise that. 

We also work very closely with other Welsh Government departments to offer business continuity advice to farmers and, importantly, their families, because it's not just the farmer, is it, who is impacted; it's the whole family that are suffering in a TB breakdown. And I really would strongly encourage farmers and their vets to take advantage of that bespoke Government-funded veterinary advice programme and for farmers to speak to their private vets about it too, and about how they can access it. And, again, the future of Cymorth TB and any other initiatives that we have will be included within the remit of the task and finish group, and I will ask them to look at that. 

Around your questions in relation to compensation, no, it's for Welsh Government to balance the books. It's my job to make sure I have that funding. I don't expect the farmers to have any part in that. It is absolutely our statutory duty. However, what I do expect is, if someone thinks—. So, the bar now is £5,000, so if you think you've got cattle that are worth more than that, then you should look at insurance. I think that's very important to do. 

The cattle vaccination, as I said in my answer to Sam, is, I think, within reach now—three, four years and I think we will have it. You mentioned there is a low number of farms, and I mentioned there were no Welsh farms, and I really would encourage Welsh farms to participate in the trial, because I want to be part of it. As I say, I work with DEFRA and I work with the Scottish Government, and there are many farms in England involved in the trial, but what I really want to see are some Welsh farms as part of those trials.

15:15

Thank you for your annual update, Minister. As the chief veterinary officer notes in the foreword to the consultation document, the eradication programme was always a long road and the long-term trends remain positive. We've allowed the science to navigate and our key stakeholders—farmers, vets and representative bodies—to drive that forward. Successive Welsh Labour Governments have been flexible in adapting the delivery plan, but we did draw a line at badger culling, and I'm proud that the Welsh Government's programme for government forbids the culling of badgers to control the spread of TB in cattle. The UK Government, by contrast, will only start phasing out badger culling in England next year. The Wildlife Trusts estimate that, by the time it ends, 300,000 out of an estimated population of 485,000 badgers may have been killed, wiping out populations in areas they had inhabited since the ice age.

But back to today's statement and back to that long road that you mention—and there has been plenty of talk here this afternoon about the cattle vaccination trial. And, as you said, an effective cattle TB vaccine would be a hugely powerful tool. You've mentioned also that it's only one part of the toolbox. So, I share your disappointment about the lack of participation by Welsh farmers. I'm assuming that you have discussed that with farming unions, and it would be very useful if you could give any update on that, either now or in the near future. Thank you.

15:20

Thank you. So, in relation to your comments around our programme for government commitment that we will not permit the culling of badgers as part of the measures to deal with bovine TB, recent scientific studies have not provided conclusive evidence that culling badgers would reduce incidence levels in cattle herds. And you mentioned England, which have killed a huge number of badgers, but now they're withdrawing and backing down from that. And I do think the emphasis on cattle vaccination, which I very much welcome, is because the UK Government are looking at what alternatives they have. And if you look at the areas where they have culled badgers, they still have bovine TB. So, I think that is a very important point.

I have raised the lack of farms—well, no farms—participating in Wales in the trials with both the NFU and the FUW, and I mentioned in my earlier answer to Cefin Campbell that the chief veterinary officer had attended NFU's TB focus group and it was raised there, and I'm sure they will do all they can to encourage farms in the low TB area to participate. 

Thank you, Minister, for today's statement. Minister, as you will be aware, farms throughout north Wales play a huge role in supporting our local economy, communities and indeed our food chain. Many farmers that I've met with in recent months alongside the NFU have raised their concerns of the bovine TB eradication programme simply not being robust enough and not doing enough to deal with the root cause of the problem. And this concern links to the spikes in cases in north Wales, something you've acknowledged in your statement today and something which Mr Campbell referred to earlier in his contribution. Of course, we know the prospect of having to slaughter entire herds of cattle following a TB outbreak is a very real concern for farmers in my region, and, although compensation is available, it does not make up for the business disruption, which could make a farm unviable, let alone the emotional strain on hard-working farmers. So, Minister, what focused support will you provide to farmers in north Wales where spikes in TB have been experienced and how will you work with those farmers to ensure business disruption is kept as low as possible? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Thank you, and I did refer to the spikes that we've, unfortunately, had, and I certainly was extremely concerned to see that, because I mentioned about the targets that we've set to be bovine TB free. The low TB areas were obviously very important as part of that.

There were the three spikes in Conwy, Denbighshire and Pennal, and we've been working with them. We've introduced enhanced measures, testing et cetera, and we continue to work with them. But I think, again, it's really important to note that eight out of 10 of those outbreaks in those spikes were due to movement of cattle, so it's important that we continue to work, that farmers access that support, that it's available, that guidance and advice that's available, going forward.

Thank you for your statement, Minister. I wasn't really intending to respond to the statement, but I've been sitting here listening intently to what you've had to say, and, fundamentally, nothing has changed, has it, really? You could have delivered that statement 10 years ago, and, in the meantime, of course, we're still culling 10,000 cattle every year. It really smacks of contentment with the situation. So, come on, let's be brave here. Let's be radical. Let's bite the bullet and stop going around in circles. Isn't it time this Government stepped up to the mark and really confronted the issue of TB in wildlife? Because, if you don't, then I bet we'll be back here in another 12 months when you deliver your next annual statement. And do you know what? It'll be 10 years all over again.

So, I fundamentally disagree with probably everything that Llyr Huws Gruffydd said. You talk about wildlife and, absolutely, if you look in the bespoke action plans, one of the the areas that we specifically said we would target with the herds that were in long-term breakdown was the wildlife. And if you look at the bespoke action plans that we brought forward—and I'm trying to remember the percentage, but it's a significant number—wildlife did not play any part in that breakdown. And one of the reasons I'm stopping the test and trap—sorry, the trap and test—of badgers in bespoke action plans in the long-term breakdown is because it really hasn't proved popular. Some farmers didn't want us to do that, and I think that money is better spent on vaccinating badgers. So, I absolutely agree with you about that we must do things, and one of the things we're doing—and I've announced the extra £100,000 today, because that is proving to be very beneficial.

15:25

As a farmer's daughter, Minister, I've seen first-hand the devastating impact that bovine TB has had on farmers and our rural communities, and I have to agree with Llyr; it literally feels like groundhog day to me in this Senedd. I stood here responding to a very similar statement back in 2003, hearing very, very similar arguments, and yet I stand here today and I've noted that hardly anything has changed, Minister. It's just not good enough. There has been no substantial progress made at all, and Wales is crying out for a proper solution to bovine TB.

It baffles me, this Government's inherent lack of understanding of our rural communities and what they need. You can use the stats, as we've said today, to back up either side of the argument today, but what faces us all is that there's still a very real problem when it comes to bovine TB. Eleven thousand cattle are being slaughtered per annum for TB control. This is clearly not sustainable, that cattle are slaughtered in these numbers year on year. Vaccinations for badgers, which you seem to think is an answer to this, is too open to supply issue problems and high costs, and doesn't actually, as my colleague Sam Kurtz said earlier, cure the animal of the disease. It isn't a silver bullet, and there's obviously a whole host of things that need to be done collectively in order to tackle bovine TB, as you outlined earlier.

There has been talk of a vaccine for cattle for nearly 30 years now, Minister. I'm very, very pleased to hear you say that progress is finally being made and we seem to be getting somewhere on that, but you said, and I quote, 'I think we'll have it in the future.' 'I think we'll have it'—so, there's no concrete timeline at all. I just wonder if you could give us something a bit more substantial on that, because it is exciting, because that would, I think, make a real difference.

Across the border in England they've been piloting culling badgers recently in certain areas, with a 66 per cent reduction in TB in Gloucestershire; a 37 per cent reduction in TB in Somerset. The First Minister's ruled out culling whilst he's in charge, apparently, but the results are there, Minister. It's working. We have talked and talked and talked, have consulted, consulted, consulted in this Chamber, Minister, but Wales needs hard action. Surely, looking at the results across the border, culling has to form part of the solution now, as we cannot leave the wildlife reservoir unaddressed any longer.

You missed out the word 'collectively'—we need to do this collectively. You seem to be laying all blame at the Welsh Government's feet, and that's absolutely not the case. I specifically said we have to do this in partnership. I haven't got all the answers, Welsh Government hasn't, and farmers haven't either, and it's really important they work collectively.

I didn't say I think we will have it in the future—I said I think we will have it in 2025, and one of the reasons I think we will have it in 2025—and, again, I said, if you'd been listening—is that Welsh Government has really led on the research in relation to that—way before my time, I'm not taking any credit, but Welsh Government has. But DEFRA are now taking a keen interest, and one of the reasons DEFRA are taking a keen interest, in my view, is because they don't think that culling has worked. So, if—you know, you're quoting figures at me. Why are they stopping culling? If it's so successful, why are England backing down and not carrying on with their culling? Why are they looking for something different to do? The reason is because they still have TB in the areas that you just referred to.

So, this TB eradication programme has now gone out to consultation, it's now there for people to put their views to it. I forget who said they didn't think it was robust enough; I think it might have been Llyr. I think it's important now that we hear people's views. But I never said any one thing was—. As I say, I really don't like the phrase 'silver bullet', I'm using the words that you as Conservatives are using, but there isn't one. If there was one, we would have all found it by now, wouldn't we?

One of the things I do think will help is a mandatory informed purchasing system. Certainly, it worked in New Zealand. They tell me that was probably the one thing that worked the best—so, again, out to consultation on that. We gave grant funding and, unfortunately, I don't think markets are providing that information, or maybe it's the purchasers who aren't providing it to the markets so that everybody can make that informed purchase.

15:30

Diolch, Llywydd. There's a close friend of mine who has had their business decimated by TB; I'll just put that as an interest.

Minister, Labour's TB eradication programme has been established for some years, with a long-term goal of eradicating bovine TB. Yet, in Wales, things are not improving, they're getting worse, because you will not take the steps that are needed to tackle the root cause of the problem in infected wildlife. That wildlife has no natural predators in this country. Bovine TB has become a massive industry in its own right, employing vast amounts of civil servants and costing the taxpayer millions of pounds each year. We're now seeing cows in calf and heifers being slaughtered on the yard, whilst the unborn calf inside them kicks out while choking to death. It's not a pleasant experience for anybody to witness and the mental strain that puts on our farmers is huge. 

So, Minister, will you look again at this part of the legislation to allow flexibility to allow calves, if that's wanted, to be born and tested after the mother has given birth? And, also, will you and this Government take the bold steps that need to be taken to address bovine TB in Wales and stop many farming families across our country being devastated by mental health and emotional loss because of bovine TB in Wales? We've been talking about a vaccine for bovine TB since the early 2010s. It's still not here. Please, Minister, please get on with the job, and let's deliver a vaccine and actually something that eradicates TB in Wales.

So, again, I don't think the Member's been listening because I've mentioned several times that we are working with DEFRA, with the Scottish Government, to bring forward a cattle vaccination. And, again, I mention that Glyn Hewinson always said to me he thought it was 10 years in advance, and he really believes, because DEFRA have now put emphasis on this, that we will have it by 2025. But, again, that won't be the one thing; it needs to be a suite of things. The TB eradication programme has brought improvement. I mentioned the figures in my statement. People don't seem to want to accept statistics, so I won't say it again.

Regarding on-farm slaughter, I absolutely agree with you how distressing that can be. I had representations made to me from the industry, and I thought it was really important that we looked to find a solution for on-farm slaughter. And we piloted—and you might be aware of this—farm euthanasia of TB cattle by a lethal injection. It did prove to be very difficult to deliver practically on the farm. You had to co-ordinate vet and haulier presence. There were some farmers who found that even more distressing, they told me, and they preferred to have their cattle shot. So, again, I think it is something that is down to personal choice for the farmer. 

I also found that the pilot did cause delays in removing infected cattle. Of course, we know of the importance of doing that. So, we stopped the pilot after some consideration—I think it was in the summer of last year. I looked at England and what they were doing and they didn't seem to have the same issues that we did, but I think it's because they have extended the react-to-removal time. I think that's contrary to disease control, and certainly that was the advice that I was given by the chief veterinary officer. But I'm very open to look at what we can do, because I absolutely agree with you, that must be one of the most distressing things for a farmer.

4. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change: COP26

The next item therefore is the statement by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change on COP26. And I call on the Minister to make a statement. Lee Waters.

Diolch, Llywydd. Ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that the latest data signals a code red for humanity. This year, Canada registered its highest ever temperature, shattering the previous record by around 5 full degrees. It rained rather than snowed for the first time at the peak of the Greenland ice sheet.

Closer to home, we've seen the severe impact of heavy rain, resulting in increased flash flooding. Climate change is not just a problem we will face in 2050; it's a problem we face now. As the Met Office has told us, because of carbon emissions already in the atmosphere, sea level rises of 0.5m are already locked in. And according to Professor Richard Betts, the Met Office chief scientist, we are facing sea levels rises of a metre in the next 80 years based on current policies.

Llywydd, we have rightly declared a climate emergency and we now need to act accordingly. We have seen some progress in responding to the scale of the challenge. This Senedd agreed in March to change our legislative targets. Wales now has a net-zero target and, just a few weeks ago, we published our Net Zero Wales plan—a credible, practical way of driving down carbon emissions over the next five years, setting us on the path to a stronger, fairer and greener future.

We brought forward our plan, even though we faced delays in the advice we've received from the UK Climate Change Committee, because we wanted to go to COP with a credible plan, setting out Wales's commitment to play our part. COP26 needed to be a pivotal moment, not just for Wales but globally. It was the fifth summit since the Paris agreement in 2015, and the first reckoning on the world’s collective ambition and action to tackle climate change. This means action both on emissions, but also on adaptation and how we support developing countries to deal with the consequences of wildfires, droughts, storm surges, flooding and rising sea levels.

The Welsh Government was an active presence throughout the COP summit, as part of the UK delegation. I know many other Members of the Senedd were also in Glasgow, representing our Parliament. And I hope their experiences were as challenging and inspiring as mine and Julie James's were. We heard directly from the Guarani people in the rainforest of Brazil, and from the Wampis people in Peru. Their forests capture the equivalent of all Welsh emissions on an annual basis. We were both struck by the challenges they face as their homes and cultures are threatened by farmers and loggers, in direct response to consumer demand from our countries and others. And the message from COP is that we need to change.

Throughout the summit, we engaged with young people and were inspired by their determination and their outrage. We exchanged notes with leaders from places such as Sao Paulo, Quebec, and California, sharing the lessons we have learned and exchanging insights. Amongst many memorable encounters, the First Minister spoke bilaterally with the Governor of Louisiana, who has tens of thousands of people living in hotel rooms after hurricane Aida. He took the opportunity to use our membership of the well-being economy network to ensure that transition to a greener future is one with people at its heart. I met with Jenipher Sambazi from Mbale in Uganda, who is an inspirational example of how women are leading the way in fighting climate change, and supporting their communities to make them resilient for the future.

We also played our part in encouraging others to step up and take action. Our active membership in networks such as RegionsAdapt and the Under2 Coalition is a key mechanism for this. In 2015, Wales was a founding member of the Under2 Coalition, which has now grown to bring together 260 governments, representing 50 per cent of the global economy and some 1.75 billion people. Focused at the so-called sub-national level, the coalition offers us a chance to engage and connect with, and to learn from and be inspired by, nations worldwide. The group is particularly important where the national governments are reluctant to take difficult decisions, or action is slow. For example, while President Trump was in power, and he took America out of the Paris agreement, the coalition that we helped create allowed dozens of states to stay connected to the global climate change agenda and make progress. In times of global adversity and change, the role of the state and regional governments is even more important as so much of the change needed is at a local level.

Likewise, I was proud that we were part of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, which was launched at the summit, led by Costa Rica and Denmark, which is the European Union's largest oil producer. We were the only UK nation to be part of the 10 core membership. And I think, by creating momentum, we will help others to join in that alliance to show a practical way forward. Regardless of the outcomes at COP it is something that we can do.

As part of her programme, the Minister for Climate Change attended the Under2 Coalition general assembly, where we looked at how we could increase our outreach, prioritise action and further share and learn from one another. For example, we are working through partnerships such as south Australia’s net-zero emission policy forum, which looks at accelerating the transition to net zero. At the assembly, she emphasised the need for a fair and just transition, leaving no one and no place behind as we move to a greener future. She also spoke about how we are supporting the Future Fund, which enables voices to be heard at events such as COP, and how we are committed to working with others, such as the Scottish Government, through the Financing a Just Transition Alliance.

Now that COP26 has drawn to a close, I want to draw the Senedd’s attention both to what has been achieved as well as, crucially, the next steps. There was genuine progress made on methane, on global finance and to start shifting countries beyond coal, oil and gas. But we have far more to do to stimulate the ambition and the action needed to avoid catastrophic global warming in the lifetimes of our children. This Government is committed to taking the action needed to play our fair role on the global stage, and I encourage Senedd Members to join in that commitment. Diolch. 

15:40

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

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you, Deputy Minister for your statement. I'm sure though that you would want to join with me in congratulating COP26 president, Alok Sharma, for what has been a successful global event. I think, it's fair to say, there was some nail biting on his part towards the very end. But we have to be realistic, and the world was on course for a devastating 4 degrees of warming this century. After Paris, we were heading for 3 degrees and, following Glasgow, we are now facing 1.8 degrees. However, as the Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, our Prime Minister, has stated, that's still far too high. In fact, Prime Minister Mia Mottley has advised that for Barbados and other small island states 2 degrees is a death sentence. So, we must, as you conclude, do more and stick to promises, so to keep the goal of restricting the growth of temperatures to 1.5 degrees alive. Thankfully, the Glasgow climate pact will speed up the pace of climate action, and all countries, of course, have agreed to revisit and strengthen their own current emission targets to 2030 next year.

During carbon budget 2 we need to achieve a 37 per cent average reduction, with a 0 per cent offset limit. Now, modelling shows that we are on track to achieve a 44 per cent reduction against the baseline, but we could go further and we could go faster. We agree on the need to increase renewable energy developments, and I do welcome your deep dive. You are planning to consider short, medium and long-term steps. So, can I ask that, in light of COP26, you will aim to outline as many short-term steps as possible, so to faster action on more renewables?

New nuclear has a crucial role to play in providing reliable, affordable low-carbon energy, as Britain works to reduce its dependency on fossil fuel. Last week, the UK Government backed small nuclear technology with £210 million. This will help us to move forward phase 2 of the low-cost nuclear project, and take it through the regulatory processes to assess the sustainability of potential deployment in the UK. Wales, however, can play a key role at Wylfa and Trawsfynydd. So, will you provide an update on Cwmni Egino and work that you are undertaking to see these small modular reactors in Wales?

Road transport accounts for over 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the total emissions are rising faster than any other sector. During COP, the Zero Emission Vehicles Transition Council outlined its action plan for 2022, which does include setting out a collective vision for global charging infrastructure. We've only one rapid charging point in Snowdonia National Park, not a single rapid charging point in Dwyfor Meirionnydd, yet the Welsh Government is only aiming to deliver 50 rapid charging points on the 1,000 miles of trunk road network of Wales by 2025. Transport accounted for 17 per cent of Welsh emissions in 2019, and is our largest—third largest, I beg your pardon—greenhouse gas emitting sector. So, will you be reviewing the action the Welsh Government plans to take on delivering charging points? 

COP26 also saw the global action agenda on transforming agricultural innovation. The UK backs this and the four initiatives, including the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases initiative, which brings countries together to find ways to grow more food without growing greenhouse gas emissions. Rather than the Welsh Government position for carbon budget 2, which states that your ambition is to, for example, see a substantial decrease in red meats and dairy products over the next 20 years, will you, Deputy Minister, acknowledge the findings by Bangor University that Welsh sheep and beef farms using non-intensive methods have among the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of comparable systems globally, and look to see how you, in your position in the Welsh Government, can back Welsh meat and the green way in which it is produced globally, especially with the new contacts you have made recently whilst in Glasgow? Thank you.

15:45

Thank you for those questions. I certainly agree that Alok Sharma did a good job in taking COP through its paces in reaching an agreement—not one that we all would have wanted to see, but, nonetheless, an agreement that takes us forward, though it did fail the ambition of the Prime Minister to keep 1.5 degrees alive, which is no flippant thing to be set aside. Janet Finch-Saunders mentioned that we are facing warming of 1.8 degrees. Just so that we are clear, at 1.8 degrees most of the world's coral reef will be destroyed and the ecosystem that relies upon that will similarly be destroyed. That then begins to unleash knock-on effects, and the danger of creating tipping points, because we simply do not know—we have modelling, but we do not know at which points these thresholds become triggered, and it's far more likely we're going to see spikes and far more dangerous weather, storms, droughts, which will have catastrophic effects not just around the world, but in Wales. 

So, 1.8 degrees is not good enough, and the UK Met Office chief scientist said at the presentation I attended that based on current policies, we are heading towards a 4 degree warming by the end of the century. And just to be clear, that is the end of human existence as we know it. So, these are not stats that we can throw around lightly like we might in other policy debates. The consequences of this will be devastating if we do not manage to achieve more than we have at COP. 

She mentioned that we need to achieve a 37 per cent reduction by the end of carbon budget 2. That requires all of us in this Chamber not just to sign up to the targets, but to sign up to the consequences of those targets. So, we announced a roads review. As uncomfortable as that it, that is part of the suite of the measures that we need to implement, and Members in this Chamber, despite what they say today, need to show leadership and courage when it comes to supporting the follow-on consequences of these emergencies that we are willing to endorse. 

She asked specifically about Cwmni Egino. We are setting that up, and we're looking at the case for including renewables within that as well, because we are committed to setting up a public sector-owned and led renewables company, and we're considering the case for pooling that expertise. 

In terms of short-term actions she asked about, she mentioned the deep dive we've done on trees, what we're currently doing on renewables, the roads review itself and developing tougher building regulations. Those are just a small number of things we've done in the last six months since this department was established, and there's much more we need to do. The pace of change needs to be kept up. 

She asked about the existence of rapid charging points, and she is right. As the take-up of electric vehicles scales up significantly, so will the charging infrastructure we need to match that. We've set out a strategy just recently setting out what we're doing, which we think helps us keep pace. It's not just the job of the Welsh Government to put in place the charging infrastructure; it's a job for the private sector as well. As I keep mentioning, the Welsh Government doesn't provide petrol stations, nor should we be expected to provide the bulk of the charging infrastructure. We do need to look at an outside-in model so that those areas least likely to be served by the market are served well. And we have announced fresh funding again for the ultra-low emissions vehicle fund. 

Finally, on meat, clearly, the UK Climate Change Committee sets a pathway for reducing meat consumption, and it's not just meat produced in our country. Yes, Janet Finch-Saunders is right that Welsh meat has comparatively lower emissions than meats from other countries, but as I mentioned with the experience of the indigenous people of Peru and Brazil, the cheap meat that we buy in from South America is the meat that is driving the demand for soy that is leading to destruction of the rainforest, which is not then there to sequester the carbon that we need sequestered in order to keep global levels down. So, on meat, overall, the consumption does need to come down. And as I've said consistently, I think there is a case for eating less meat, but that the meat we do eat is Welsh meat, is local meat, is higher quality meat. In all of these things, all of the changes required are difficult and uncomfortable for us, but we cannot afford to duck this challenge.

15:50

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'd like to thank the Deputy Minister for his statement. What was agreed at COP fell far below the drastic action needed, and while I would add my voice to those praising Alok Sharma for his valiant attempts to forge a consensus, Boris Johnson should surely be condemned for making his job so difficult. At a time when the Prime Minister of the host state should have been devoting all his energy into persuading world leaders to agree to measures they didn't want but that the planet needs, Johnson spent the fortnight dealing with a domestic sleaze scandal of his own making. And if that wasn't enough, he went further by ratcheting up tensions with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol as the conference was happening, needlessly alienating our allies when we needed them most. If he had meant a single word he said in his speech to open COP26, he would have spent his entire time building bridges rather than burning them—'burning' being the apposite word, Minister.

A PM with a plan, or even just an attention span, would have heard alarm bells ringing when the US and China agreed a bipartisan deal during the conference to phase down the use of coal—a deal that, ultimately and arguably, gave India political cover to lead the effort to undermine the hard-won inclusion of the commitment to phase coal out completely at the very last minute. Alok Sharma's tears when this became apparent symbolise the dashed hopes of countless billions. Ending the burning of coal is essential for keeping warming under 1.5 degrees. For a brief moment, it looked as if life on earth had secured a long-term future. That future is still there to be won, and even though we've suffered another setback, the fight will continue. One important concession, Minister, that was agreed, was that countries will return with amendments next year and in 2023. Since the UK's presidency still has a year to run, I'd be grateful if you'd give some details about how the Welsh Government will use its membership of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance to push this agenda over the next 12 months. That is a membership that we in Plaid Cymru welcome.

Turning to areas where the Welsh Government has direct control, you've spoken already about renewable energy development and the deep dive that you are doing, Minister. If you could please provide an update on that, I'd be grateful. Reducing carbon dioxide emissions is of course the only way to prevent runaway climate change and to keep earth habitable. You've been saying, Minister, about how to actually follow plans through as they might ratchet up would actually mean the end of humanity. You've already been saying, in your response to Janet Finch-Saunders, about some of the difficult decisions that we need to make. As a small, agile nation, it is of course crucial that Wales plays its part, since so many of the emissions of nations on the other side of the planet produce those emissions actually because of our habits in terms of consumption. You've been talking about meat and soy, Minister. Could I ask you to outline your plan to reduce consumption emissions and reduce Wales's global carbon footprint?

Finally, I'd like to turn to the matter of mitigation. You've acknowledged publicly that the consequences of not acting on global warming after COP26 will be profound for Wales. Experts in Wales have warned that extreme weather events will threaten lives and will make people poorer. We face increased flooding, coastal erosion, and potentially more destabilised coal tips. I noted that the Chair of Natural Resources Wales said in a recent article that, regrettably, it has often taken major events to force us to reflect on how prepared we really are for more extreme weather. He was talking in relation to flood defences. Since we now know that we aren't on track to keep warming under 1.5 degrees, I think there's a case for the Welsh Government to revisit strategies such as the flooding and coastal erosion plan, as well as our approach to coal tips, which is a matter I've raised with you a number of times, to ensure that they're strong enough to meet the scale of the challenge. We need to be innovative and to build on best practice to mitigate the climate crisis. So, could you commit, please, to bringing forward completed, robust and costed climate change mitigation schemes in the near future? Thank you very much.

15:55

Thank you for that series of questions. In terms of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, it has literally been less than a week since it was created, and I think it's important that we send the signal that we are part of that as a country that was there at the beginning of the industrial revolution, and signal that we think that fossil fuels do not play a part in our future. It began with 10 members of different degrees of membership—California, for example, is an associate member and we are a core member. And just as I mentioned in my statement the other alliances that we've been part of building over the years, which have now grown, we hope the same will happen with the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. We've had some informal conversations with the Scottish Government already to help them understand what the membership process involves. We hope, by the example we have shown, that this will grow to be a significant alliance.

I thought, in a week, certainly in the second week of talk, where there was not a great deal of tangible progress for much of it, this alliance was a signal of hope of what Governments can do regardless of COP. Because I think we need to make a distinction between the COP process, which is international negotiation, which, by definition, moves at the pace of the slowest, and our net-zero commitment, which exists regardless of the COP process. We have committed, in law, as has the UK Government, to achieve net zero by 2050 at the latest; we don't need COP to happen to deliver on that, we all need to focus on what we need to do and not be slowed down by others who are finding it more difficult to match our commitments.

The deep dive on renewables is at the mid point. I'll be delivering a statement to the Senedd on 7 December setting out the initial conclusions. As with the tree deep dive, I've brought together a range of different perspectives and we've published the terms of reference and the membership. We're also supplementing that by holding a series of round-tables. We had a very good round-table with industry representatives and we have another round-table imminent with non-governmental organisations. With the group itself, we are systematically identifying what barriers there are to significant scale-up of renewables, and also, crucially, how we can capture value in Wales. What I don't want to do is to repeat the previous industrial revolutions where our economic wealth has been exported and extracted by interests outside of Wales; I want this time to make sure that our wealth is captured locally. And that is challenging, but that absolutely has to be at the heart of our approach, so we don't repeat the mistakes of the past.

On coal tips, she rightly illustrates that these are now very vulnerable, given that we know the climate change that is locked in. We are bitterly disappointed that the UK Government, despite initially showing joint leadership on this agenda, seems to have entirely abdicated its role, has not funded the remediation of coal tips in the budget settlement, and is simply leaving us to get on with this, even though these coal tips are a legacy of our industrial past and existed pre devolution. We think it is only right that the UK Government accepts joint ownership of this problem and works with us. It has failed to do that, so we are now left with a real problem, both practically and financially, of dealing with this legacy that they seem to have walked away from, preferring instead to sprinkle little pots of money to get themselves positive coverage in politically friendly parts of the country, rather than facing up to their role as part of the union.

In terms of mitigation and adaptation, she is absolutely right, we do need to be constantly reviewing our plans to deal with the climate change we know that is locked in, and that is work that is ongoing.

I welcome the statement and the opportunity to question the Minister. COP26 was a disappointment; I think everybody is of that view. When you saw the number of planes landing, it was easy to see that it was not going to be a success. Too many countries put short-term economic benefit before both the environment and their long-term economic benefit. I always thought that if people saw the results of climate change, they would demand action. Too many consider major weather events as just bad luck, rather than the inevitable consequence of climate change. We cannot change COP26. What we can do is, in Wales, act as an example to the rest of the world. Will the Minister commit to working towards making Wales an example to the world on what can be done to reduce carbon emissions? Will the Government support, post COVID, the Senedd continuing to meet in a hybrid manner, thus reducing our own carbon footprint? Will the Government produce a strategy not only for the change in the mode of transport used but an annual reduction in the miles travelled? 

Thank you to Mike Hedges for those comments. I do think Wales is already an example to the world in many of the actions that we are currently taking. Certainly, one thing that's struck me, and Members will know that I'm not somebody who's uncritical of our own Government's performance—what was very striking was the way that Wales was being held up throughout COP by other countries of a similar size and regions of larger countries as an example of a country that was taking action and provided inspiration to others, whether that be on recycling levels or indeed on our roads review, which has gained significant international interest. So, I think we already are taking action that is providing an example to others, and we need to continue to do that.

On his point about hybrid working, the Welsh Government does have a target of 30 per cent remote working for precisely that reason. We want to make sure that the benefits that were gained during the COVID lockdown of reduced emissions from people working from home are not lost as we move back to near normal. So, it's important that all businesses and the public sector look to see how hybrid working can become normal, and I would hope and expect the Senedd to be part of that. 

On his final point, I only half scribbled the note and I've now forgotten what it was—apologies. Feel free to—

16:00

Thank you very much. Absolutely, our net-zero plan for Wales includes an annual reduction in miles driven of 10 per cent over the five-year period, which is going to be a very challenging target to meet. We put that in there knowing it is a stretch target. We haven't got a fully worked up plan, frankly, of how we're going to achieve it. We know how we're going to achieve about 60 per cent of it. The Scottish Government have given themselves a target of a 20 per cent reduction in miles driven, which I am in awe of their boldness. I didn't think it was terribly prudent to commit to something that far beyond what we knew we could achieve. Going to a 10 per cent reduction is flying in the face of 70 years of transport policy and is going to be a challenge. We have set out in the Wales transport strategy the actions that we will take to move in that direction. They will be difficult, but we need to face up to them, because that absolutely is a key part of meeting our commitment to net zero. Because if we don't achieve in the next five years, we will not be on the trajectory to achieve them by 2050.

Thank you very much for your statement, this afternoon, Deputy Minister. It was really good to see you up in Glasgow last week for COP26, and I believe you met my counterpart in Westminster, Dr James Davies, so that was really nice to see.

Don't be so negative. [Laughter.]

While I don't share the opinion expressed by some that COP26 was a cop out, I do fear that the watering down of the pledges will see my constituents indeed facing a watery future. As some of the world's worst polluters continue their reliance on coal, we will experience rising temperatures and rising sea levels. Deputy Minister, you've made it clear that you see a coal-free future for Wales. I don't mean to sound crass or insensitive about some of the questions I'm about to ask, as they play a major part in the Welsh economy.

So, what discussions have you had with one of the biggest users of coals and one of the biggest polluters in Tata Steel? Do you want to abandon virgin steel production in Wales, closing down the blast furnaces in favour of electric arc furnaces, recycling scrap steel, and have you convinced the unions of the need to abandon coal? And finally, Deputy Minister, what role do you see carbon capture and storage playing in Wales's greener future and will your Government be investing in technology? Thank you very much.

Thank you very much, and indeed I was pleased to meet with the MP James Davies amongst many others at COP. There was a good Welsh presence at the conference.

He makes mention to some of the world's worst polluters, well of course we are amongst the world's worst polluters. Let us be clear, those of us in the G20 are the countries that have contributed to this problem, and those currently facing the most immediate short-term impacts from climate change, more severely than ours, are those who've contributed the least to climate change. So, there is a moral obligation as well as a self-interested obligation on us to act. But let us be under no illusion about our culpability in the problem as well. It's not simply China or Brazil or India, we as the UK are part of the problem and we need to transition from that, and as we do it, it must be a just transition. Steel production is a really interesting example. Clearly, we will still need steel, even beyond 2050. To produce wind turbines or electric cars, you need steel. We need to find a way of producing steel that has the minimal negative environmental impact.

There is work going on in south Wales, through the south Wales industrial cluster—industry-led, working with the Welsh Government and the UK Government together—to try and find technological solutions to the problems, and to try and reduce the carbon footprint of these heavily polluting but important industries. That is a dilemma for us, and it's not an easy transition, but it is one that we absolutely have to confront.

In terms of carbon capture and storage, I am sceptical of the impact that that can play because, at the moment, it is an unproven technology. There are some trials to show that it can work. It has not been demonstrated to work at scale. The thing that I worry about in the UK Government's net-zero plan is that it relies heavily on the assumption that these technologies will work at scale within 10 years. That has yet to be proven, and I don't think that we should be betting the farm on the fact that technological fixes are going to deliver the carbon reductions that we need to see.

16:05

I'd like to applaud the Welsh Government's leadership on this issue. Your presence in COP was very significant, as was that of the First Minister and Julie James. I think that we have to be proud of the role that we can play.

For me, one of the most important things was the role of regional and state governments. Particularly where national governments are reluctant to take action, there is so much that we can do at a regional or state level; hearing from people like Sergio Graf Montero, the Minister for the environment for the second largest area of Mexico—a very, very significant industrial area—as well as the Minister for the Maharashtra, which is not just the second largest state in India and its most industrialised, but represents 125 million people. That's twice the size of the UK. So, we really do need to be talking to these really big players, who can really make a massive contribution.

But, we need to be, as you say, showing the way and showing that we are taking seriously the damage that we have done by exploiting the world's resources without any regard to the consequences. I suppose that I want to come back to the question that I asked the First Minister, which is: what can we do stop subsidising fuel—the oil and gas? As you are part of this 'end oil and gas' coalition, how can we justify continuing to subsidise the very activity that we know has the most damaging effects on the developing nations, as well as our own country? So, I wondered if you could just respond to that.  

Well, I think that it's a fair challenge. I don't have the figure to hand, but I recall reading that the subsidy that the UK Government has given to fossil fuels through freezing the fuel duty escalator since 2010 is in excess of £30 billion. It may even be higher than that—a very significant direct subsidy to fossil fuels.

One of the challenges that we will have is, as we move away from the internal combustion engine car—. To give credit to the UK Government, they have shown bold international leadership on phasing out petrol and diesel cars by 2030. We signed up to an alliance at COP for making sure that other countries, the major countries, did the same by 2035. But, even by that target, the UK is going to be five years ahead of it, and I think, credit where credit is due: that is something that the UK Government has done that we warmly endorse.

There will be consequences to that in terms of the way that fossil fuels are taxed. Clearly, we currently have petrol tax. When your car doesn't rely on petrol, you won't be able to have the revenues from petrol tax. So, there will need to be a different form of taxation flowing from that. But, of course, unless the electricity generated to fuel those electric cars is sustainably sourced, then you are simply shifting the problem from one place to another.

So, certainly it is our ambition to make sure that we are relying on green fuels and green hydrogen and wind generation for electricity, which will move us away from fossil fuels. So, providing the example of changing our energy mix is one way we can move away from the subsidies for fossil fuels. But I guess the truth of it is that we've created an economic system that is intrinsically linked with the supply of cheap energy, and cheap oil in particular, that is interwoven into so many of the activities we do and the decisions that we've made. So, untangling ourselves from that is no easy or simple feat, and I don't want to pretend otherwise, but that is something that we all have to work together to do. And I must say, the UK Government are not encouraging in that sense, because they are sending mixed signals. They're talking big at COP, but in the budget, or two weeks before that, did not mention climate change once, introduced subsidies for domestic aviation, and continued the direct fossil fuel subsidy for fuel duty. So, they need to confront their cognitive dissonance, as do we all.

16:10

Diolch. During the first week of COP26, I was invited to a conference with presentations by schools across north Wales, and the students had a real understanding that we all have a part to play in tackling climate change. Their suggestions that they came up with included cutting food miles, meat-free Mondays, using renewable energy, reuse and saving water by turning off the tap while brushing their teeth. They were also concerned about climate justice and promoting the use of sustainable palm oil, working with Chester Zoo, and asked for clear labelling on packaging. They recognise that the choices we make here in Wales impact people living in nations across the world. Would the Minister agree with the young people that we all have a part to play and that, together, through individual actions, with the help of Government policy, we can make a big difference?

Yes, and thank you for the question. And I was very pleased, when I was in COP, to take part in panel discussions with the Climate Cymru youth ambassadors, along with the Scottish youth ambassadors and the Minister from the Scottish Government. And what was palpable about it was the outrage of young people of the legacy that their generation is going to be left, and when you look at the statistics and the data that's coming out, the impact of this is profound, but it's also upon us before we know it. You know, within 80 years—and I hope my children will still be alive—unless we dramatically change policies around the world, we face four degrees of global warming, which will wipe out some 70 per cent of the ecosystems required to sustain human life. Now, that is profound and disturbing and justifies outrage, frankly. So, I was pleased by the suggestions you quoted from the young people in your area, and I think we can learn a lot from that. Recycling more, turning off the water tap, labelling palm oil and eating less meat are all simple actions that we can all do that, collectively, will make a difference.

What the Climate Change Committee evidence suggests is that 60 per cent of the actions required to meet net zero are actions individuals can take; 40 per cent of actions that Governments need to take, and those two things need to happen in parallel. We do need people power, but we also need systemic change. And, as I've said all along, to do this, we need to make the right thing to do for the climate the easiest thing to do. And that's something Government's responsible for, and that's something we as a Welsh Government—and again, we have responsibility for something like 40 per cent of the emissions cuts that need to happen; the UK Government has responsibility for 60 per cent. We need to work with them to make sure that systemic change makes it easy for citizens to make the choices we all rely on them to make to stop catastrophic climate change becoming a reality.

I thank the Deputy Minister. We will now suspend proceedings temporarily to allow changeovers in the Siambr. Please remember, if you are leaving the Siambr, do so promptly. The bell will be rung two minutes before proceedings restart, and any Members who are arriving after the changeover should wait until then before entering the Siambr.

Plenary was suspended at 16:14.

16:20

The Senedd reconvened at 16:23, with the Deputy Presiding Officer in the Chair.

5. Statement by the Minister for Education and Welsh Language: Children’s Oracy and Reading

Welcome back. The next item is a statement by the Minister for Education and Welsh Language: children's oracy and reading, and I call on the Minister, Jeremy Miles.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Improving reading skills is essential if we are to make the progress that we all want to see in reducing the attainment gap between pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers. And a focus on ensuring that everyone has the reading skills that they need to reach their potential is a matter of social justice, and it's also integral if we are to ensure that every learner has the opportunity to access the full breadth of our new curriculum. And it was welcome that, in the last set of Programme for International Student Assessment results, Wales reached its highest score yet in reading and that we have caught up with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average. However, there is still a way to go.

Speaking, listening and reading skills are fundamental to just about every aspect of our lives, from home to school and to the world of work. Not only are they at the core of being able to access learning, they enable the development of relationships with parents, with peers and wider communities, and can open doors to talking about difficult subjects, which is beneficial to our mental health and well-being. This is why improving reading skills and helping to ignite a passion for reading in our schools is an absolute priority. And today I'm setting out a package of actions to support our children, their families and wider communities to come together to embrace oracy and reading.

Firstly, I am pleased to announce an additional £5 million in funding for reading programmes across Wales, which will provide a book for every learner alongside a targeted scheme of reading support, focusing on early years and disadvantaged learners. The programme will ensure that every single child and young person in Wales has a book of their own to keep. It will also include the provision of 72,000 additional books to reception children at schools across Wales, 3,600 letterbox club packs for looked-after children, books and training for practitioners to support learning, and a box of 50 books to every state school in Wales. This additional funding will help children, regardless of background, to develop those early speech, language and communication skills and demonstrate the life-changing impact that books and reading can have. The funding reflects the importance of Wales as a bilingual nation and supports learners to communicate in both languages in everyday life. 

We must also support our workforce. Initial teacher education and ongoing professional learning are critical to forming and continuing to improve all practitioners’ practice in this area. Working with teacher education providers and consortia over the coming months, we’ll instigate a review of current provision to ensure practitioners continue to get the high quality, easily accessible support that they need across Wales. Building on Estyn reports and research evidence, we'll work with our regional partners to maintain and improve attitudes to and engagement with reading. Estyn will continue to provide examples of effective practice in teaching reading at a whole-school level and developing a culture of reading. And we’ll look to the impact of our interventions so we can improve as a system and support children and young people’s engagement and attainment in reading and oracy.

The curriculum for Wales guidance is clear that the systematic and consistent teaching of phonics must be a key part of the toolkit in our schools, at a stage that is developmentally appropriate for the learner. We would encourage schools to adopt such an approach alongside vocabulary building and comprehension to ensure learners are able to understand and make sense of what they read and become fluent and effective readers. All teaching must be based on evidence of what we know works, and I therefore intend to clarify and strengthen our approach in this area. I recently established a national network, a practitioner-led body, open to all schools, which will support the implementation of the new curriculum. I can confirm that our national network will prioritise oracy and reading in the spring. We'll work with experts and practitioners to look at the role of phonics in the new curriculum so that we can provide the best support and guidance for the teaching of reading.

In 2016, the 'National Literacy and Numeracy Programme—a strategic action plan' set out the vision for literacy and numeracy as we moved towards the new curriculum. To build on this, through the national network, we’ll work with practitioners to understand what’s working, reflecting on pedagogy, examples of good practice and communications, as well as what we need to improve. We'll also look at the continued role of the literacy and numeracy framework in supporting the progression of these skills and the need for additional resources and materials. This will help provide the resources, support and expertise needed to facilitate high-quality teaching of oracy and reading. I'm interested in what more we can be doing to share good practice in our early years and foundation phase. With that in mind, it's our intention to work with practitioners and experts over the coming months to develop a toolkit that will help empower teachers to develop their classroom practice that meets the needs of their learners.

We know that, through shared reading experiences, we can encourage a love of books and stories from an early age. This is particularly critical for our youngest children, where the building blocks for early language development begin with developing their attention, listening and understanding skills. The work that is under way on our Talk with Me programme highlights the importance of early language development and the parental role in supporting this. We've recently commissioned a review of language screening tools, undertaken by Cardiff Metropolitan University and the Bristol Speech and Language Therapy Research Unit, and the review will consider how practitioners can be supported in identifying issues in terms of listening, understanding and speaking skills. I expect the report of the review to be shared with me in the coming weeks. But we can and must do more, and we are exploring what more we can do to provide further opportunities to support parents, so that their children can have regular opportunities to engage with rich reading materials and participate in stories, songs and rhymes.

Dirprwy Lywydd, every learner must have the chance to reach their potential, and today I've set out some of the measures we intend to take over coming months to support our learners. As the work escalates, I will endeavour to keep Members updated on the progress that we are making.

16:30

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Thank you for your statement, Minister. There is no doubt that through this pandemic, it is children and young people that have suffered the most. Schooling is so important, not just for learning and socialisation, but in terms of providing children with structure and routine. The three lockdowns were so harmful to our children's well-being and life chances and it may be some time before we're in a position to accurately assess the damage that this loss of learning time has inflicted.

As you say in your statement, Minister, speaking, reading and listening skills are absolutely fundamental to just about every aspect of our lives, and therefore, it is so vitally important that we get this aspect right through education in Wales. I'm concerned at the impact lockdown has had on children in this regard, but your proposed actions outlined in this statement today seem a bit wishy-washy at best, if I may say so: promising reviews, establishing work groups, with no real action to tackle the problems that we face with ensuring that every child is absolutely supported in every very best way possible through their educational journey to ensure they come out of their educational journey with the very best chances possible, regardless of their background.

I welcome the moneys that will be given to address this; I welcome the moneys for additional books, but will this be one single book, Minister, per learner, above reception age, for the entirety of their educational journey? Or will this be a rolling programme where we see pupils get a book given to them by this Government each year? And how exactly is the £5 million to be spent in terms of targeting the scheme of reading support to go alongside the book? Will this mean more money going directly to our schools from this Government to enable them to choose the books most suitable for their schools and age groups? Will this mean more money going directly to the schools for them to employ new staff to support more reading, or will the current workforce be expected to take on these new roles? Will this money just be for the early learners or disadvantaged learners, or will it be money to provide equity of opportunity for all when it comes to trying to better pupils' reading and oracy skills?

Whereas I warmly welcome any extra support for our teaching staff as you outlined, and I do welcome that, I see in the statement 'over the coming months' and 'next spring will look at', and a lot of words that don't inspire much confidence that you are tackling this problem head on, now. You say you will look at the impact of your interventions, so you can improve the system, but what sort of timescale are we talking about, Minister? Is this really your masterplan for Wales? Because surely, what we need in Wales is more teachers, more teachers per pupil, to get the children the results that they deserve. What urgent action are you taking now, Minister, to ensure that those children who have missed out on reading, learning and oracy skills during lockdowns—? What actually are you putting into place to ensure those children have real opportunities to make up for that lost learning during the last couple of years?

Older children will be more self-sufficient in terms of their own learning, but for younger pupils, time out of school will have resulted in a lot of lost reading time. In terms of children in foundation phase falling behind in their reading and speaking skills, I've heard a lot of anecdotal evidence from parents and teachers, but what work have your ministerial officials undertaken to quantify this fallback? It is really important that when we consider addressing the challenges of lost learning that we know what we're dealing with and the true scale of the problem. Only then will we be able to work out how to close that growing attainment gap. And can you also quantify, Minister, the fallback now compared to the start of the pandemic?

You are right that we need to share best practice; that is always the way forward, in my head, when it comes to tackling reading and oracy skills, but how will schools be working with consortia to share best practice? Because throughout the pandemic, this has not been happening as it did before. We need to get back to a situation where there is independent and robust oversight of school standards through the consortia and Estyn to provide reassurance to parents.

Early oracy and literacy are very important to the development of children, and I feel it has often been overlooked as one of the key foundations of a child's development, especially over the last 18 months. The 'Talk With Me: Speech, Language and Communication (SLC) Delivery Plan' is a useful tool for professionals and parents to support children's development, but not every parent will take on this role. I see first-hand the effects that reading to a child regularly has on my own children, 11 and two. My two-year-old's vocabulary is fantastic for his age because I've invested that time with him, but how, Minister, are we going to support parents who can't, won't or don't know how to support their children in that same way? There was a brilliant initiative from my local primary school where parents were able to come in, if they wanted to, and read with children, read out loud in classrooms during that time, helping to support teachers and other children as well as to learn how to read with a child themselves, to get the best possible results out of the children. This is perhaps something that could be looked into further.

Also, and finally, the Flying Start programme has gone some way to support children with their speech and language development prior to accessing formal education. The Welsh Conservatives have previously called for the Flying Start programme to be accessible to all children, because there is still a postcode lottery in this regard, and it excludes so many people and children that would benefit from this Flying Start support. The current situation we see is exclusionary at the moment and I want to ask you, Minister, whether you would consider extending this programme to reach all children in Wales.

16:35

I thank Laura Anne Jones for that range of questions. In relation to the points that she asked about the investment in resources, which is one part of the set of actions that I'm describing today, there will be a choice for learners themselves in relation to the books that they will receive. So, they'll have a choice between a range of books and they'll be able to select the one that they wish for themselves. In addition to that book per learner, there will be a set of resources available, a set of books available to each state school in Wales in addition to that.

When I was a young student myself, my love of reading was developed very early on, and I think having access to that rich range of reading materials is an important part of igniting passion for reading, and this will be a contribution to that. But there is also a set of interventions that support the work that the Books Council of Wales do. They will work with us in relation to this, and also the work of BookTrust Cymru, as she will know, in relation to the Bookstart scheme and the Pori Drwy Stori schemes, and so on. So, all of those will be getting additional support as a consequence of the funding that I'm announcing today, which will help learners on their reading journey and support schools and parents in reading with our children and young people. So, there's a set of targeted interventions, if you like, and a more universal offer in the funding that I'm announcing today.

She makes an important point about timing, and when best to take some steps on this path. What I'm announcing today is, if you like, a campaign across Wales over the course of the next months, leading up to the commencement of the roll-out of the new curriculum, and there are important milestones along the way, as she acknowledged in her question. We'll be working with the consortia—we already are—and with Estyn to support our schools and practitioners, both in terms of auditing best practice and sharing some of that, and in providing additional support in terms of professional learning resources, which will be easily found, easily navigable, for our practitioners to make them the most useful they possibly can be. The national network, I think, has an important role to play in this. That is Welsh Government-initiated but practitioner-led, as she will know, and my intention is that that will explore oracy and reading in the spring. It has a programme of work and it's important that we roll that out in a way that practitioners can benefit from and engage with amongst the range of other pressures that they face at the moment. So, the intention is for that to happen in the spring.

She made a series of very important points in relation to the impact that the last 12 to 18 months has had on in particular, perhaps, our youngest learners, and their early developmental stages. She will know that the support that we've provided to date to schools around the Recruit, Recover and Raise Standards funding and the renew and reform plan has been weighted, in particular, towards early years. So, we've committed funding to our non-maintained childcare settings until April of next year, and a significant pot of funding to support foundation phase pedagogy as well. That idea of learning through play, which we know so well, is fundamental to being able to help engage some of our youngest learners with their oracy and with their educational needs. So, that has already been part of the work that we do.

There is evidence in relation to the loss of learning. It's a complex picture. It does show that over the course of the last 12 to 18 months, there has been a loss in terms of capacity for reading, but that has been made up in some periods over the last year. So, it is a complex picture over the last 18 months, but it is absolutely the case that we know that learners at all age ranges need further support. That has been the underpinning principle of the investment that we've made so far to give schools that extra capacity to support learners in the way that she asked in her question. 

16:40

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. I’m pleased to hear that the programme announced today will ensure that every child and young person in Wales will have a book to keep. I was reminded recently of the pleasure I got from reading a book called Luned Bengoch as a child—a book that has just been re-issued and is now available once again in the shops. I had huge pleasure in re-reading that book just last week, before a meeting of a local book club that I’m a member of. It’s clear that the reading habits you pick up when you’re very young do remain with you. Establishing strong early language skills is a crucial part of literacy and a child’s ability to realise his or her educational potential and life chances, whilst also crucial to the ability to create social relationships with family, friends and peers.

There is research by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists that shows that the COVID period has exacerbated the delay in acquiring speech and language skills among young children, but I’m pleased to hear you mention that there are signs of that improving. There is also research undertaken way before the pandemic. There is evidence available that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be behind their peers in terms of the acquisition of speech and language skills by the time they start in primary school. Research from Save the Children shows that around eight in 10 reception teachers in Wales see clearly that children coming to their schools have difficulty in speaking in full sentences, and that children who have difficulties with speech and language during their early years are often still behind their peers in terms of key literacy skills at the age of 11.

So, there are numerous challenges facing Welsh Government, and I’m very pleased that you have recognised that, and that the plans that you’ve announced today go at least some of the way to addressing some of these major problems that we have. Bearing in mind just how crucial early years education is in developing reading and oracy skills, I’d like to hear more about the toolkit that you mentioned, which is going to be put in place for the early years. What exactly will this entail, how will it look and what will be new about it? Can you also outline what steps will be taken to respond to that attainment gap that I mentioned, bearing in mind that children from a disadvantaged background are more likely to fall behind their peers in their development of oracy and reading skills? You mentioned phonics. Why did you emphasise that particular method? Is that going to help specifically with closing that attainment gap? Are there specific advantages in terms of that aspect that need to be addressed?

And finally, in order to deliver the objectives of 'Cymraeg 2050' and improve the oracy and reading skills of children through the medium of Welsh, it’s clear that we need to train enough teachers to be able to teach through the medium of Welsh. I’m not going to apologise for asking once again about your plans to increase and strengthen the Welsh-medium education workforce specifically. I note that in your statement today you have emphasised the importance of bilingualism and creating materials in both languages, which is to be welcomed, of course, but we do need to see a plan in place that will move us forward in increasing the workforce too that can assist children in improving their oracy and reading skills. Thank you.

16:45

Thank you to Siân Gwenllian for those further questions. I share with her the memory of reading a book that I had when I was at school, and I remember developing a delight for learning in the classroom of Miss Annie Derrick in Pontarddulais school when I was a young boy. So, these things stay long in the mind. But, of course, as the Member says, this isn’t an experience that everyone shares, because it’s something that should be encouraged at home, and not everyone has the same access to the same resources and support. This is a contribution in that direction. The plan tries to get to grips with some of the issues that you talked about—the attainment gap and the emphasis on supporting those who need the most support in order to make progress.

In terms of the specific questions, in terms of the toolkit, this is one of the range of elements of support in terms of professional development that we have been working on with Estyn and the internal team within the Welsh Government. We’ve been working with the consortia too to ensure that the good practice that is already available is being shared in a more widespread way in terms of the resources available to our teachers. So, the toolkit is an element of that and will support teachers to develop their teaching skills in this specific area.

In terms of emphasising and encouraging people to read more at home, in the past 18 months of course the relationship between the schools and parents and carers has changed, and in several ways, it has strengthened as schools have responded to the COVID challenges. There will be a significant public campaign taking place at the end of this year to encourage parents, carers and guardians to speak to their children, to read to their children. We’ll outline the benefits of that and we’ll try to ensure that the messages that are part of that national publicity campaign will outline the advantages of doing just that and will encourage parents of all backgrounds to spend that time with their children.

The Member asked an important question in terms of phonics. Phonics is one element of a suite of options available to teachers. It is an important part of that other toolkit in terms of the steps that we can take, but we must also ensure that learning vocabulary and comprehension happen at the same time. But I want to ensure that we look at the evidence in this regard, that we set out that context too, for our teachers, so that they have that context in order to make the choices that they need to make. That’s why I mentioned in the statement that we intend to look at the evidence from that way of teaching oracy and we will ensure that we implement the best practice in our new curriculum.

Other parts of the United Kingdom, England specifically, hold an annual test for phonics for students; I don’t think that’s the right way ahead. We are trying to move in our curriculum away from that kind of test that demonstrates a snapshot, if you will. We, of course, have personalised assessments, online assessments, for reading already. Those are available already in ways that are flexible for teachers to be able to hold those assessments during the year, and that demonstrates to the pupil, to the teachers, to the parents and to the guardians the development of the learners in terms of reading and comprehension. That is part of the ethos of the new curriculum to provide an opportunity—that assessments are part of the learning process. So, that's a different aspect of the way that we look at things here in Wales.

The final question that the Member asked was with regard to growing the education workforce. And this, of course, is a priority for us, as we have discussed jointly here in the Siambr already, in terms of teachers, of course, but also in terms of classroom assistants, to ensure that we have a workforce that speaks Welsh in all parts of the workforce. That's important, too. We are working on a draft plan at the moment; we are preparing that to share with stakeholders. We have had discussions with various stakeholders already, including the Education Workforce Council and others, but we need to have further discussions with other stakeholders, which includes the commissioner and a range of other stakeholders. This is something that we have to make urgent progress on, but we can only do that through collaboration with the other partners that we have in the education system. 

16:50

Thank you very much, Minister, for your statement this afternoon. Whilst I welcome actions taken to improve oracy rates across the board, I do have concerns about those in the care system as well as those providing care. Minister, we know that educational attainment amongst young people in care is well below that of their peers. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of oracy rates for those in the care system? Has the pandemic had any impact on oracy rates amongst young people in care? Finally, Minister, I had the pleasure of meeting Wrexham, Conwy and Denbighshire Young Carers last week. They offer fantastic support to young carers in the Vale of Clwyd, but young carers also need that support in the classroom. So, Minister, how will you ensure that young carers do not fall behind their peers when it comes to reading and oracy? Thank you very much.

I think the Member makes a very important point. A number of the interventions that I've described today, in particular the book scheme, will have a dimension that makes sure that books are received by young people in care specifically. There are some particular interventions for some of our most vulnerable disadvantaged families around the early years, and some of the books that I've been referring to are rhyming books for children who need additional support and additional support to be able to learn at home. Another part of the book programme is the letterbox club—books that benefit in particular looked-after children. So, that is absolutely a lens through which we've seen the proposals that I'm making today. He will know that there's already a piece of work that I'm working on, together with the Deputy Minister with responsibility for care, in relation to what more we can do to support looked-after children in their educational attainment generally. But I do share his concern that the experience of the last 18 months will have had a detrimental effect in terms of oracy, in particular, perhaps, for those in the early years, for whom we know there is a particular set of challenges.

6. Statement by the Minister for Climate Change: Second Homes and Affordability
7. Statement by the Minister for Education and Welsh Language: The Welsh Language Communities Housing Plan
8. Statement by the Minister for Economy: The Young Person’s Guarantee

So, we'll move now to item 8, a statement by the Minister for Economy on the young person’s guarantee. I call on the Minister, Vaughan Gething.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Our young people hold the key to Wales's future. That is why I'm delighted to have officially launched our young person's guarantee this week. The Welsh Government is determined that there will be no lost generation in Wales as a result of the pandemic. We are putting in place an ambitious programme designed to provide everyone under 25 in Wales with the offer of work, education, training, or self-employment. This, I believe, is the bold action that we must take to help young people to get the best possible start. We want to give young people the support that they need for a brighter future when leaving school, college, university, if they are unemployed or if they face redundancy. Working Wales is now the single gateway for every 16 to 24-year-old in Wales to access the guarantee. This will build on the already strong and successful model of delivering careers guidance and signposting support to all programmes and services available locally. More than 5,500 young people who are eligible for the guarantee have already accessed our Working Wales services since 2021.

Whatever the uncertainties we face, we can be sure of one thing: failing to step up to support young people today guarantees economic failure tomorrow. The guarantee is supported by wide-ranging provision to ensure that young people can take up effective support that works for them. In this year alone, the Welsh Government has invested £390 million in sixth forms and further education, providing thousands of young people with a range of academic and vocational courses; £16.4 million in educational maintenance allowances; £5 million for extra places; and an additional £33 million to support young people in education to recover from the impact of the pandemic.

We have provided £152 million for apprenticeships. This includes £18.7 million for employer incentives encouraging the recruitment of young people. While apprenticeships are an all-age programme, around 39 per cent of apprentices starting in 2019-20 were under the age of 25. We have provided over £1.2 billion in higher education student support for 2021-22. In the previous year, around 60 per cent of Welsh higher education students were aged 16 to 24, meaning that our innovative package of maintenance grants and loans enable students, regardless of age, household or family income, to access higher education. In the past year, we have also provided £122 million of additional funding to build capacity and enable our universities to increase their hardship funding and support services to students affected by the pandemic. We provide £70 million per year to help people into work through a range of employability programmes, including ReAct, traineeships and community employabilty programmes. 

In June of this year, I announced our intention to develop the guarantee, and this week, I launched phase 1, which focuses on enhancing employability and skills provision. The comprehensive package brings together programmes designed to provide the right support at the right time, for the diverse needs of young people across Wales. This includes new user-friendly services to help young people more easily find opportunities. The young person's guarantee offer provides young people aged 16 to 24 in Wales with access to one simple route to the guarantee through Working Wales, with support and advice from advisers provided on multiple forums, including virtually, on the high street, and improved outreach facilities across Wales; a new user-friendly course search platform for those wanting to enter further or higher education; training and wage incentives through the ReAct programme; a place on one of our outreach community employability programmes; or self-employment advice and support through Big Ideas Wales, which is part of Business Wales; traineeships that provide work experience and training; help to find an apprenticeship; and a referral to one of the programmes funded by other partners, including the Department for Work and Pensions or local authorities.

Working Wales is also trialling a new job-matching service to assist young people with securing employment and to help employers fill vacancies. Our next steps in the development of the guarantee will include an enhanced programme for young people, aiding their transition into self-employment, with a package of business and financial support and advice. We will increase our focus on fair work and jobs. People aged 16 to 24 accounted for 16 per cent of all UK redundancies during 2020, so we have been developing new approaches to support the guarantee. There will be specific pathways to support recruitment into growth sectors, preparing people for jobs of the future, with two new flexible employability programmes—ReAct plus and Jobs Growth Wales+. We are expanding our jobs bulletin approach that has, this summer, advertised 20,000 jobs to young people, and we will be reaching out to employers through our 'We're in your corner' campaign, inviting employers to connect with Business Wales and to play their part in making the guarantee a success. We are prioritising young people and net-zero skills within the apprenticeship programmes.

With one in seven people in Wales self-employed, we need to ensure that the next generation fully understand this career path option. So, we will continue to inspire and support young entrepreneurs across Wales, and stimulate their ambitions to start their own businesses through Big Ideas Wales. We'll continue with our collaborative approach. So, regional skills partnerships will commence engagement events to shape guarantee provision within their area. Work is already under way nationally with the Department for Work and Pensions to try and ensure that programmes like Kickstart and Restart are ones that complement rather than compete or duplicate with provision that we provide. We do continue to call on the UK Government to work with us to shape a co-ordinated response in Wales and, in our view, to mitigate the impact of proposed cuts to welfare benefits and inequalities that will be created through the UK Government’s current approach to community renewal funds.

We will continue to listen to our young people through a series of focus groups between now and December, to understand how they view the support and offer available; what they want to see; and the barriers that they face. Tomorrow, I'll be launching the SkillsCymru event, and using it as a further opportunity for us to listen and engage with an audience of around 5,000 young people from across Wales on the jobs and skills agenda. This will, of course, feed through to the next phase of development for the guarantee in Wales.

As I have said before at the start of this statement, young people hold the key to Wales’s future success, and I am proud to lead the work on the young person’s guarantee. I will, of course, continue to keep Members informed on progress.

17:00