Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

30/11/2021

Cynnwys

Contents

Statement by the Llywydd
1. Questions to the First Minister
2. Business Statement and Announcement
3. Statement by the Minister for Climate Change: The Homelessness Action Plan
4. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: A Healthier Wales
5. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Update on COVID-19
6. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Social Services: Age Friendly Wales: Our strategy for an Ageing Society
7. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: World AIDS Day
8. Statement by the Minister for Social Justice: International Day of Disabled People
9., 10., 11., 12., 13., 14., 15., 16. & 17. The Corporate Joint Committees (General) (No. 2) (Wales) Regulations 2021; The Environment (Wales) Act 2016 (Public Authorities subject to the Biodiversity and Resilience of Ecosystems Duty) Regulations 2021; The Equality Act 2010 (Authorities subject to a duty regarding Socio-economic Inequalities) (No. 2) (Wales) Regulations 2021; The Welsh Language Standards (No. 1) Regulations 2015 (Amendment) Regulations 2021; The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (Meaning of Public Body) (Wales) Regulations 2021; The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (Meaning of Public Body) (Wales) Regulations 2021; The Corporate Joint Committees (Amendment of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015) Regulations 2021; The Children and Families (Wales) Measure 2010 (Amendment to the List of Welsh Authorities) Regulations 2021; The Child Poverty Strategy (Corporate Joint Committees) (Wales) Regulations 2021
18. Legislative Consent Motion on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
19. Voting Time

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

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

Statement by the Llywydd

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

1. Questions to the First Minister

The first item today is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Llyr Gruffydd. 

Deposit-return Scheme

1. When does the First Minister expect Wales to have an operational deposit-return scheme? OQ57293

Llywydd, earlier this month, powers to implement a deposit-return scheme were devolved to Wales. Early in the new year, we will publish our design for such a scheme and its intended implementation date.

Well, we'll look forward very much to hearing that date. The tragedy is that we've lost years to all intents and purposes. We've been talking about a deposit-return scheme for Wales for almost a decade, and we're still talking about such a scheme for Wales.

Now, you decided, of course, to run a joint consultation process with the UK Government. What if the UK Government's ambition in terms of the scope of their proposals, when they do decide, is very different to the ambition that we have here in Wales? You've said in other contexts that Wales always operates most effectively, and this Senedd operates most effectively, when we bring Welsh solutions to meet the challenges we face. So, for how long are you happy to wait for Boris Johnson to get his act together, rather than introducing, once and for all, a deposit-return scheme for Wales?

Well, the first step, Llywydd, was for us to take the powers. Without the powers, there'd be no opportunity for us to have any kind of scheme, and that is not in our hands as a Senedd; we have to draw the powers back to this place in order to be able to have a scheme, and that's what has occurred in collaboration with others. We have been collaborating not only with the United Kingdom Government, but with the Northern Ireland Government, to learn from the lessons in the work that they have done. 

Then nature of the border between us and England means that it's important for us to endeavour to create as much common ground as possible between us in order to facilitate the scheme, and the people who run the scheme on the ground, in a way that works for us and for the people here in Wales. And there are a number of practical issues to consider, and it will be a Welsh scheme when we bring it forward. As, I am certain, the Member is aware, the Scottish Executive, earlier this month, had to defer implementing their scheme. They have all the powers, and so that wasn't an issue for them, but they have faced a number of practical problems and they had to withdraw their scheme. 

We wish to proceed to collaborate with other people in order to resolve a number of practical issues—to produce the scheme, to appoint not-for-profit operators, and to agree flexible deposit levels, for example—and then, early in the new year, to return to the Senedd with a scheme for us here in Wales. 

First Minister, last November, I was incredibly proud to have brought forward a legislative proposal for a Bill that would make provisions to introduce a DRS and, importantly, a majority vote went through to back those proposals. Now, in the first Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee meeting of the sixth Senedd, I was pleased also to secure a further commitment from your Minister for Climate Change that the Welsh Government will ensure that any DRS would be all in. Not only would this ensure compatibility with the UK, but between 77 per cent and 83 per cent of survey participants reported that they would use a DRS on most occasions for the five types of containers explored, including plastic bottles, glass bottles, metal cans for all soft drinks, alcoholic drinks and milk-based products. With this in mind, and given the autumn deadline for laying legislation that you committed to in reply to my FMQ in June, what efforts—and I know that you've mentioned this here today—have you made to review  the cost impact of operating an all-in DRS on local authorities? And, for anyone who's carried out beach cleans, too often we see many bottle caps and lids left strewn, affecting our marine environment. Given that the Marine Conservation Society's 2021 Great British beach clean found 18.7 caps and lids—

13:35

Okay, we do need to get to the question now, please. We're only on question 1.

—per 100m-stretch of Welsh beach, will you incorporate, as well as the bottles themselves, the caps in the return scheme? Thanks.

I thank the Member for those questions and for her consistent interest in this whole topic. She will be very familiar with the scheme that was tried out in Conwy earlier in the year, and a great deal of learning has been taken from that, as well as a pilot scheme in Northern Ireland, and the work that was done previously in the Wirral that I know she is aware of. So, we will be bringing forward proposals. I'm afraid they will be in the early new year now, rather than the autumn, because of the delay in the powers being transferred to us. We'll respond to the consultation that was held back between March and June of this year. It will address a number of the points that the Member has raised this afternoon, and she is right to draw attention to the Marine Conservation Society report, which was published only a week or so ago, Llywydd. It does show a drop in some forms of litter, particularly those where there's been concerted governmental action—cotton buds, for example, and single-use plastic bags. But 75 per cent of litter collected on beaches was plastic or polystyrene, and bottle caps were very prominent in the litter that was collected. It definitely does demonstrate the need for us to act both in relation to deposit-return schemes and also this Government's commitment to bring forward legislation to ban the most commonly littered single-use plastics, which we look forward to bringing in front of the Senedd later in this term.

Child Poverty

2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Government's strategy to eradicate child poverty? OQ57286

May I thank Sioned Williams very much for the question, Llywydd? Despite the head winds created by the United Kingdom Government, we will pursue the measures set out in our programme for government and the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru to bear down on child poverty in Wales.

Thank you, First Minister. I'd like to congratulate Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government for drawing up an innovative and comprehensive co-operation agreement, which will make a positive difference to the lives of the people of Wales, in terms of tackling child poverty particularly. Since being elected, I and others in Plaid Cymru have questioned the First Minister on expanding free school meals many times in this place. And anti-poverty groups, such as the Bevan Foundation, have been campaigning hard for this. The co-operation agreement notes that this is a further step towards our shared aim that no child should go hungry in Wales, and that is to be welcomed. Now, given this ambition, as well as the fact that almost 10,000 secondary school children living in poverty are being deprived of free school meals, does the First Minister agree with me that we should also aim towards introducing free school meals for all secondary school pupils, when resources allow? In addition, unless there is an increase in the educational maintenance allowance, which provides crucial support for young adults in education from low-income households, then, by the end of the period of three years, it will have been frozen for 20 years in real terms. Will the First Minister therefore outline the Government's plans to increase this? Thank you.

Thank you very much for that question, of course, and I thank the Member for what she said about the agreement. We now have opportunities to take further steps, by extending free school meals and childcare provision. The Government will focus on what is contained in the agreement, because that is challenging and ambitious, but now we're able to co-operate in order to do what the agreement says it will do. Everything that we do will do more to protect our children from poverty. Naturally, there are more things that we could do in future—that we can think of doing—and the Member made a number of important points. But the important thing for us, as a Government, is to focus on those issues included in the agreement and to implement all of those. 

13:40

First Minister, as with the free school meals, of course, and it is welcome, but doesn't it concern you, like with your pilot for universal basic income, that millionaires will be benefiting from it? Do you think this is the real best use of resources for really tackling poverty in Wales head on? You've had 20 years, First Minister, to make your mark here in Wales, and yet this Government has delivered nothing in this regard. In fact, child poverty has increased to 1 in 3 children. That's 200,000 children still left in poverty here in Wales. What steps, what action are you taking, apart from those things, to really tackle poverty head on here?  

Well, Llywydd, I've explained previously on the floor of the Senedd that, as far as child poverty is concerned, the devolution period can be very easily divided into two periods. In the first period, the first decade, with a Labour Government at Westminster working with a Labour Government here, child poverty fell year after year during that period. It is in the last 10 years, with her Government in charge at Westminster, that we have seen child poverty grow not just here in Wales, but across the whole of the United Kingdom. Their latest and most cruel measure being to deprive children in families dependent on universal credit from that extra £20 a week on which they depended. If you want to know why child poverty has risen across the United Kingdom, then you simply have to look at the direct and deliberate actions that her party has taken while it has been in Government. 

And I entirely reject what the Member said in opening. It's always been the Tory party policy that services should be reserved for poor people, and yet we know perfectly well what that leads to: services reserved for poor people quickly become poor services. We rely, wherever we can, on universal services in which everybody has a stake, and everybody wants those services to be as good as they possibly can be. And where there are millionaires, the tax system is there to deal with them to make sure that, if they get the benefit, as I would wish them to, of universal services, they pay that money back through the tax system to go on supporting others. That is the way, Llywydd, in which to make sure that children in poor families are not just separated off from the rest of society and made the beneficiaries of the benign concern of the Conservative Party, but to make sure that they are properly included with every other child in everything that we would wish to see a child in Wales have as part of their citizenship.   

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

On behalf of the Welsh Conservatives, Paul Davies, to ask leaders' questions. 

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, the latest NHS figures show that Wales's health services are struggling, with A&E waiting times and ambulance response times recently recorded at their worst ever levels. The vice-president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine Wales, Dr Suresh Pillai, has said that 709 patients in Wales in 2020-21 alone have died as a direct result of crowding and long stays. He also said that,

'These deaths were preventable; the government, Boards and NHS leaders must understand and act now to ensure that the current crisis does not deepen and lead to more avoidable excess deaths.'

First Minister, do you agree with Dr Pillai's comments that these deaths were preventable? 

No, I don't in that simplistic way, Llywydd. The Member, of course, is right that the NHS in Wales is struggling under the demands that it is currently having to address, and that is about to get worse and more difficult because of the new variant that has already arrived in the United Kingdom. The health service is dealing with the impact of a global pandemic, with the delays in treatment that that has inevitably created. It is dealing with all the everyday things that we expect it to do—delivering the flu vaccination programme in primary care, for example—and, at the same time, it is responding to record levels of demand through the emergency system and through A&E departments. I think it is very important—and in this way, I have agreed in the past with advice from the college of emergency medicine—that that has to be seen as a problem, not just at the front door at the hospital, but for the hospital as a whole, and that the whole system has to find a way of responding to the very many pressures that the service is currently under. I think it is a very sobering truth, Llywydd, that these problems are about to get even more challenging over the coming weeks as we try and respond to the latest twist and turn in the very challenging story of coronavirus.

13:45

First Minister, the reality is that action needs to be taken, and taken very quickly. As we move into winter, there will be further pressures on our NHS services, and with the news that there is a new COVID variant in the UK, it's crucial now that the Welsh Government has a plan to ensure that waiting times are addressed and preventable deaths aren't taking place. 

The latest statistics show that the average time spent in emergency departments was three hours and seven minutes, which is a new record high, and they also show that ambulance performance against the eight-minute response target was the lowest on record at 50 per cent, which was down from 52.3 per cent in the previous month. Dr Pillai has warned that not only does bed capacity need to be addressed, there is also a shortfall of staff of around 100 emergency medicine consultants along with vital emergency medicine nurses, junior and other supporting staff. So, First Minister, will you now commit to restoring bed capacity back to pre-pandemic levels, and will you also commit to publishing a long-term workforce plan that recruits staff and also retains them as well?

Llywydd, more people work in the Welsh NHS today than at any other time in its history, and that includes more doctors, more nurses, more physiotherapists, more occupational therapists, and all the team that go into providing services for the Welsh public. That is the result of continued investment by successive Welsh Governments in our NHS and in its workforce. There are record numbers of people not simply employed, but in training as well—more nurses in training, more professionals allied to medicine in training—than in any time in our history.

We've published those plans every single year and they demonstrate the result of that investment. There have been more beds available during the COVID crisis as a result of the field hospital capacity and the other additional capacity that we have made available through considerable extra investment, and enormous efforts by people who work in the service to make that physical capacity available and then to find people to provide the services alongside it. When the pandemic is over and we are able to return to the levels of activity that we were able to see in the Welsh NHS prior to its onset, then of course we will need to make sure that we have the physical capacity to go alongside the additional members of staff that we will have recruited in the meantime. 

First Minister, it's quite clear that you need to prioritise tackling these backlogs, and if the Welsh Government wanted to prioritise this issue we'd have seen some commitment to addressing the problems in the NHS in your coalition agreement with Plaid Cymru. Instead, you chose to prioritise more constitutional reform, more politicians, and even the creation of a broadcasting authority, despite it not being within this Government's remit. Nothing of the people's priorities—the need for urgent intervention to support our health services—and there was certainly no mention of a Wales-wide COVID-specific inquiry.

Now, you will have seen the comments of the Older People's Commissioner for Wales, who has also argued for a specific Welsh public inquiry, as she believes it would provide the best opportunity for older people to be listened to, have their experiences and views valued, and their questions answered, and I hope you listen to her, because we need to see some answers and accountability.

First Minister, last week the abuse of patients and the culture of bullying and intimidation that has occurred in the NHS in north Wales was raised with you, and there were no real answers or accountability from this Government. This week, I've asked you about what your Government is doing to tackle waiting times and stop preventable deaths from taking place. Again, no real answers or accountability, and now, the older people's commissioner has joined calls for a Wales-wide COVID inquiry. Will we now get some answers and accountability, First Minister, or will you continue to oppose a Welsh public inquiry and deny the people of Wales the answers that they deserve?  

13:50

Llywydd, the Member would do better not to read out his pre-prepared scripts for us, because then he would have had a chance to listen to the answers rather than reading out what he was going to say, whatever the answer happened to be. I'm afraid his questions today are tired and inaccurate. He hasn't read—or if he has read, he hasn't understood—the agreement that we have struck with Plaid Cymru. [Interruption.] I'm very happy to dare to explain to him that when he says things to me that are clearly inaccurate, it's part of my job here to help him to understand a bit better than he does the nature of that agreement. The agreement, as others who've taken more trouble will understand, is a limited and specific agreement on a range of very important matters that we have agreed with another party in the Chamber. There are many, many other things that Government does that are part of our programme for government that we will move ahead with, and any party in this Chamber will be entitled to take a contrary view on those matters should they choose to do so. That's the nature of this agreement—a specific Wales-only made and bespoke to Wales. 

On his final points, I've seen the older person commissioner's letter. I'm also pleased to say that I've received a letter from the Prime Minister in the last week in which he provides a series of commitments about the nature of the public inquiry that is intended; commitments to the involvement of devolved Governments in the appointment of the chair, and in the terms of reference for the inquiry; a commitment that the inquiry will respond positively to the points that I made to him in my letter when I set out what people in Wales would need to see in a UK inquiry. I received today as well a letter from the First Minister of Scotland, in which she outlines her support for the points made by me in my letter to the Prime Minister, and re-emphasises the need for the UK inquiry to commit to representing the issues that people in different parts of the United Kingdom will quite rightly want to see such an inquiry undertake.

So, I draw some confidence from the correspondence that I've received from the Prime Minister and from the First Minister of Scotland. There is still a great deal of work to do, Llywydd, to make sure that those commitments are delivered in practice, and that we do see an inquiry that has the best chance of providing the best possible answers that people in Wales quite rightly want to see raised and answered, but, for the time being, I think the assurances that the Prime Minister's letter sets out take us further down that path, and I continue to be committed to working alongside the UK Government on this matter so that people in Wales have an inquiry in which they can have proper confidence, and will give them answers that they quite rightly seek.  

Thank you very much, Llywydd. As you know, First Minister, the winter fair is happening in Llanelwedd at the moment. I was there very early this morning, and it was a wonderful opportunity to speak face to face with farmers and representatives of that community. The clear message that I heard there from a sector facing so many different pressures from so many different directions was that they needed stability in the industry during this most challenging of times. First Minister, would you endorse that message, and do you agree with us in Plaid Cymru that in order to allow farmers to be environmentally sustainable, and to play their part in delivering Wales's contribution in dealing with the climate emergency, for example, that farmers also need to have economic sustainability? 

Well, Llywydd, may I begin by congratulating everybody that has been part of creating the winter fair in Builth Wells, in a way that is appropriate to the context? I had an opportunity to speak to the Minister, Lesley Griffiths, about her visit to Builth Wells yesterday, and I am very pleased to hear about everything that was in place to assist people to be able to go and attend the fair in a safe manner. And, of course, I know that the current context is a very challenging one for farmers in Wales following Brexit, and in the context of coronavirus and so on. Things are changing, Llywydd, in the world of agriculture. Things have to change. But of course we acknowledge the fact that stability is also important for farmers, too, and so we, through our agreement with Plaid Cymru, are going to proceed to work closely and collaborate closely with people in the sector to prepare for the future, a future where we'll be able to pay farmers for the important things that they will be doing to assist us in the context of climate change. So, through the collaboration and by listening to what people in the field are telling us and by planning carefully together, I am confident that we can create a future for the sector, but also to do it in a manner which does offer stability, but also creates new possibilities for the sector that will help us all with the challenge that we all face with climate change.

13:55

One of the specific challenges facing the agricultural community at the moment is that multinational financial companies are coming into rural communities and purchasing agricultural land for the planting of trees in order to buy carbon credits. I was given to understand this morning from one of the agricultural unions that those selling land are now cold calling farmers in an attempt to encourage them to sell their land to investment firms. First Minister, can you provide an assurance that the Government believes that this effort, which speaks more to profit than sustainability, if truth be told, is contrary to our concept here in Wales of sustainability, is contrary to the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, and that our aim as a nation taking a lead in this area is to encourage local ownership of measures to assist the climate, as we intend to do, of course, in terms of generating sustainable energy to the same extent?

Well, Llywydd, the Minister, Julie James and the Minister, Lesley Griffiths, have met with unions to discuss what we hear is actually happening at present. The important thing for us is to collect this information to be clear about the situation and what is actually happening in this field. To be honest, we're not quite sure as yet what exactly is going on, but we want to collaborate with the unions and other people to collect this information. We have brought a group of people together to assist us in this, and they represent people working in the field, so that we can think and consider how we can attract investment into the field. We will have to do that, but to do so in a way that goes hand in hand with the policies rather than militates against them, and we're aware we have to do it like that. We want to do it in a collaborative fashion with the local communities, so that we can be clear about the ownership of this land in Wales, but also, where we can—. And it's important for us to do this; we cannot attain our ambition in this field without bringing other people and other funding into the sector. That is what we wish to discuss with these other people, to plan with them, and draw together the real authentic information about what's happening at present.
 

14:00

We've even recently heard some Conservatives in this Senedd raising their voices against multinational corporations buying up Welsh agricultural land. It's great to see the Tories as late converts against the unbridled operation of the free market, and I think Welsh agriculture, beset by all these pressures at the moment, needs a bit of a united front. But the wider attempt to present the Tory party as defending Welsh farming sticks in the throat of many farmers. When they were promised in the 2019 manifesto that the Conservatives would guarantee the annual budget of farmers in every year of the next Parliament, what have we had but the opposite: the promise of a cut every year in this comprehensive spending review? So much so that, actually, as the FUW point out, by 2025, it's going to be—[Interruption.]—Welsh agriculture allocation is going to be £248 million worse off. I'm all in favour of finding common ground, but let's be clear who the common enemy is: a Westminster Government that has betrayed farmers and farming in Wales time and time again.

Well, Llywydd, the leader of Plaid Cymru had an opportunity to go to Llanelwedd today. I spent Friday evening in the company of Clwb Cinio Caerfyrddin, and a very fine evening it was too. I was surrounded by people who work in the farming industry, and what Adam Price said was absolutely what was reflected to me. These are people who feel very, very badly let down by the promises that were made to them—[Interruption.] I can assure the Member that nitrate vulnerable zones were not mentioned to me once, but what was mentioned to me repeatedly were the promises that they felt were made to them in the run-up to the referendum in 2016. Plenty of people on those benches were very willing to make those promises in those days. You remember them: 'Not a penny less', 'An absolute guarantee'—£137 million taken away from the Welsh rural economy by your party this year alone, and more cuts to come in every year, every single year, of the comprehensive spending review. Where was the 'absolute guarantee' of 'not a penny less' that those people heard from you then? No wonder—. No wonder, no wonder—[Interruption.] I think the—[Interruption.] I can't hear the Member, Llywydd, but he appears to be impersonating a traffic policeman. This may be another ambition on those benches.

What I am pointing to, Llywydd, is what the leader of Plaid Cymru said, the anger that is felt—[Interruption.]—the anger that is felt in rural communities at the promises that were made to them and the way in which they have been let down ever since—money taken away from them; trade deals struck in other parts of the world with no regard whatsoever about the impact that they will have on the rural economy here in Wales. No wonder—[Interruption.]—no wonder that, when you meet people from those communities, they go out of their way to tell you their anger and their disappointment at the Conservative Party here in Wales.

Small Businesses

3. What is the Welsh Government doing to help small businesses to grow in Ogmore? OQ57300

Llywydd, as the cornerstone of communities across Wales, we remain wholly committed to supporting small businesses in Ogmore and all parts of Wales to prosper, sustain and grow through key services, including Business Wales and the Development Bank of Wales.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Prif Weinidog. Over the whole of this month, in the lead up to Small Business Saturday, I and my good colleague Chris Elmore MP have been showcasing dozens upon dozens upon dozens of incredible, diverse businesses in manufacturing, construction, professional services, high-street retailers and more right across the length and breadth of the Ogmore consistency. We've been urging people to use these local businesses in the run-up to Christmas, but also throughout the year, whether it's buying the annual festive lunch or preparing the annual tax return or building that new extension too. So, First Minister, if we're going to build this stronger, greener, fairer Wales, it's important that small businesses are playing their part too and supported to do so, so the funding announced last week by the economy Minister to our small businesses to help them develop, decarbonise and grow is really important. What assessment have you made of the impact that this £45 million fund will have on small businesses in Wales and in boosting our greener and fairer economic recovery?

14:05

I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for that. I, like him, look forward to being with small businesses on Saturday next—Small Business Saturday—and to be talking to businesses about the help that they've received already from the Welsh Government and the new help that was announced by my colleague Vaughan Gething last week. The point of that assistance, Llywydd, is to help those businesses to reinvest to create the conditions in which, post pandemic, they will be able to develop and grow. And as the Member will know, it's a key partnership with our local authorities that are there on the ground—very pleased to see that Labour-led Bridgend had advertised the new grant scheme on their website immediately on its publication and drew attention to the particular focus of the scheme on creating new and local supply chains so that small businesses can reinforce one another and help one another on that path to recovery.

Alongside all of that, Llywydd, we go on doing the other things that the Government does to make sure that we support economic recovery here in Wales, whether that's the young person's guarantee—and we know that many small businesses are the first place where a young person may get their footing on the ladder into employment—or in the continued investment we make in the foundational economy here in Wales, those businesses that are there day in, day out, year in, year out on our high streets and that provide not just valuable employment and very important economic opportunities, but, as we've often heard here in the Chamber, give those towns and those localities their character, make them places where people want to go and want to be. And I look forward very much, as I know Huw Irranca-Davies does, to being out there on Saturday in support of that whole agenda.

First Minister, as we look ahead to Small Business Saturday, as you have, I'd like to acknowledge as well the amazing perseverance of small businesses here in Wales, particularly in my region of South Wales West. These companies, many of which are family-run, turn over approximately £46 billion each year, which is more than double the entire Welsh Government's annual budget. As well as providing 62.5 per cent of all employment in Wales, small businesses also reinvest a higher rate of the revenue back into the local economy, which boosts the overall prosperity of an area. So, with that in mind, I think it's disappointing to see Welsh companies still paying the highest business rates in the whole of Great Britain, with Wales applying a higher multiplier on rateable value than either England or Scotland. How can it possibly be in keeping with the spirit of Small Business Saturday to leave Welsh companies at a competitive disadvantage to their UK counterparts?

At a time when our small businesses and high streets are attempting to recover from the pandemic and many are facing increased competition from online retailers as well, we simply can't afford to stifle small and family-owned companies with higher taxes. So, whilst the temporary COVID support from Welsh Government is welcome, by its very nature, it is temporary. So, what action is the Welsh Government taking to reduce the burden of business rates on small businesses in Wales to allow them to thrive?

Well, Llywydd, I don't agree with what the Member said. Wales has the most generous scheme of business rate support anywhere in the United Kingdom, and that isn't just at the moment, when Welsh businesses have had a year's guarantee of a holiday from business rates compared to the six months that they were offered in England, but that is at any time—70 per cent of small businesses in Wales don't pay business rates at all. And we are committed—and I know the finance Minister has already made this clear—to using the consumer prices index, not the retail price index, as the way in which we will gear business rates in the future, and that will bring many tens of millions of pounds of relief to small businesses here in Wales.

Where I will agree with what the Member has said, Llywydd, in his phrase, is the 'amazing persistence' of small businesses and the actions that they've taken to deal with the pandemic. On Friday last week, before going to Carmarthen, I was in Llanelli, Llywydd, and I visited Jenkins Bakery there to help celebrate their one hundredth anniversary; it's a firm established exactly 100 years ago this year. It was very heartening to hear from the company of the way in which, despite the real challenges that they faced at the height of the pandemic and the difficult decisions they'd had to make to keep their business afloat, by now they were reinvesting, rehiring, making a future for that business so that it will last well into the next century. That is a tribute to the amazing persistence of the people who run the company and the people who work for it, and I'm quite sure that that is emblematic of the way that so many small businesses in Wales have worked to keep going and find a future, despite the astonishing challenges we've all had to face.

14:10
Social Care Workers

4. What action is the Welsh Government taking to increase the number of social care workers in Wales? OQ57301

I thank the Member for that important question, Llywydd. Improved remuneration, free training and professional recognition are amongst the actions being taken, with partners, to help build the social care workforce in Wales.

Data published earlier this month show that the pressure on our health and care system continues to grow. Social care workers play an essential role in supporting the most vulnerable in our communities and help alleviate pressure on their NHS colleagues. I was so pleased to see their hard work recognised by Rhondda Cynon Taf council, which has committed to providing all of its contracted adult independent social care workers, as well as all direct payment recipients, with the real living wage by December.

It's absolutely right that social care workers receive a fair day's pay for a fair day's work. We know that the pandemic has taken its toll on us all, our health and care service and our local authorities in particular. Given this, will the First Minister please meet with the Minister for local government and our local government colleagues to discuss the possibility of providing immediate financial support to local authorities before Christmas to help meet the social care and NHS challenges this winter? 

Llywydd, I thank Buffy Williams for that. She's absolutely right to point to the vital importance of the social care workforce and the pressures that it too is under. There are actions that could be taken to help us to alleviate that. On 12 October, Ministers here, together with their counterparts in Scotland and Northern Ireland, wrote to the UK Government on immigration matters, including social care. I raised directly with the Prime Minister the urgent need to have social care on the shortage occupation list. This is a problem not just in Wales but right across the United Kingdom, exacerbated in England by the loss of, as the UK Government itself estimates, 40,000 workers to the sector on 11 November, when compulsory vaccination became part of the repertoire across our border.

I join the Member absolutely, Llywydd, in congratulating RCT council on moving ahead with paying the real living wage. We'll have more to say about that, of course, when our budget is laid next month. As to immediate help, we published £40 million-worth of additional help in the recovery fund in September; a further £42 million to deal with social care pressures last month; and, by today, we expect to have had all of the plans in from our regional partnership boards for investment from that fund—£10 million to those regional partnership boards where health and social care agencies come together—and hope that those plans will allow us to release that money to them as soon as possible so that they can start making the difference we know the sector needs to see.

Locally Grown Food in School Meals

5. What plans does the Welsh Government have to increase the amount of locally grown food in school meals? OQ57302

I thank Jenny Rathbone for that, Llywydd. We are committed to increasing the amount of locally grown food in school meals, benefiting local economies through sustainable and responsible procurement and supply chains. An extension to the successful Big Bocs Bwyd project, for example, was included in this month's announcement of our new household support fund.

First Minister, you'll be aware that I'm one of the greatest fans of the really important commitment to ensure all primary school children are going to be getting a free school meal in the future, but I don’t underestimate the challenges involved in that—getting the right personnel who know how to cook, as well as ensuring that it is affordable in the long term. It seems to me essential that we ask our local authorities to clarify exactly how many tonnes of potatoes and carrots and all the other things that go into food for school children they are going to need in the future, so that we can get our farmers to grow those things rather than having to source them from elsewhere, because in that way we are both nourishing our children as well as nourishing our local economy. So, I just wondered what conversations have been had with local education authorities on how to really start planning this important matter.

14:15

I thank Jenny Rathbone for those really important points, and for her very strong support for school meals per se, but also the quality and the nature of those meals. The Member, I know, will be aware of Carmarthenshire council’s challenge fund project, which we funded through the foundational economy fund—a really excellent project led by the local authority in partnership with the local health board and the local university. It highlighted a number of really important opportunities, but it did also expose some of the real practical challenges, to which Jenny Rathbone has just drawn attention—problems of menu design, of public kitchens, and of the lack of processing capacity. So, all the milk used in schools in Carmarthenshire is Welsh milk, but some of that milk has to be taken, not just outside the county, but sometimes outside the country, in order to be processed and bottled. The local authority is committed to doing some work to see whether processing capacity, co-operatively based, could be recreated in the county. And the need to develop the Welsh horticulture sector, which the Member has often spoke about on the floor of the Senedd, was one of the lessons drawn from the challenge fund experience as well.

So, a lot of work has gone on, Llywydd, to identify the issues that need to be resolved if we are to make sure that the expansion in free school meals is accompanied by an uplift in the capacity of Welsh indigenous suppliers to then be part of all of that. Caerphilly council leads for the Welsh Local Government Association on public sector food, and I know that it is currently very directly engaged, for example, with Castell Howell, to see where there are opportunities to substitute Welsh suppliers for some of the suppliers that are currently used, not just in school meals, but in the wider public food sector. There are real opportunities there, but some very genuine, practical issues that will have to be resolved if those opportunities are to be properly realised.

Theatres

6. How is the Welsh Government supporting theatres to recover from the pandemic? OQ57267

I thank the Member for that, Llywydd. Theatres have been strongly supported in Wales during the pandemic, both from the £93 million cultural recovery fund and the freelancer fund—a recovery stream uniquely available in Wales. Theatr Hafren in the Member's own constituency has benefited from more than £300,000 of that recovery funding.

Can I thank the First Minister for his answer? I appreciate him mentioning Theatr Hafren in my own constituency as well. The current cultural recovery fund came to an end at the end of September, so I appreciate we’re talking about support that has been available up to the end of September. My question, I suppose, is in regard to the future in terms of supporting theatres, because there are some huge challenges for theatres and arts centres, of course. The challenge is to get audiences back into the buildings in sufficient capacity to make productions financially viable. There's also a challenge with additional staffing for events and in processing refunds that have to take place due to people cancelling, due to having to self-isolate, which, of course, is quite understandable. So, can I ask, First Minister, when the industry can expect some information on the next round of funding that’s needed to address the specific challenges that they’re currently facing as they come out of the pandemic?

I thank the Member for that important question, Llywydd. He's absolutely right that, by the end of September, the £30 million, which was the second phase of the cultural recovery fund, had all been allocated. I spoke to the senior Welsh Government officials who have worked on the cultural recovery fund yesterday. They have been working with the Arts Council of Wales to consider whether a further round of support for cultural venues is required. They told me that they expected to have advice to Ministers before the end of this week as a result of those discussions, and then it will be for Ministers, including of course the finance Minister, to see what can be done to offer any further support to the sector, focused on business survival, in the way that Russell George has suggested. You know, these are very tough times for the live arts, and if there are venues where survival is the name of the game and we are able to support them, then the advice Ministers will need to do so will be with them very shortly indeed.

14:20

I thank the First Minister for that response. I am going to have to temporarily suspend the session because there are technical issues that mean that what's happening in the Chamber isn't heard by those on Zoom, and therefore we will take a short technical break and we will return to question 7 from Alun Davies. So, a short break.

Plenary was suspended at 14:21.

14:25

The Senedd reconvened at 14:26, with the Llywydd in the Chair.

Public Services in Blaenau Gwent

7. Will the First Minister make a statement on the delivery of public services in Blaenau Gwent? OQ57273

Llywydd, I am grateful to all our colleagues working in public services across Wales, including Blaenau Gwent, for their commitment to the delivery of services in our communities. They're crucial in helping protect our people and, indeed, our way of life, as well as supporting our nation's recovery from the COVID pandemic.

I'm grateful to the First Minister for that response. You will remember that, last week, I asked him about the transport services that serve the borough of Blaenau Gwent, and I want to return to that this afternoon. I'm sure he will have shared the distress of our Conservative colleagues to discover that the 'Union Connectivity Review', commissioned by the United Kingdom Government, supported his approach and the Welsh Government's approach to the Burns review and to investment in public transport in and around the south-east Wales corridors to deliver connectivity for Blaenau Gwent and for other parts of the region. Does he agree with me that, since Wales is the only part of the United Kingdom not receiving significant investment in rail services as a direct consequence of decisions taken by the UK Tory Government, the only way in which Wales can catch up with investment in rail services is through the devolution of rail infrastructure to the Welsh Government?

Well, Llywydd, I thank Alun Davies for that. I was very pleased to see the full Hendy review, Llywydd. I was pleased to see the way that it endorsed the Welsh approach to improving transport across Wales, that it should be multi-modal, that it should involve working with partners, and of course Alun Davies is right: the Hendy review does endorse the recommendations of the Burns review in south Wales, as well as calling for electrification of the railway line in north Wales as well. I do hope that we will now see the United Kingdom Government implementing the recommendations of its own review. Too often in Wales, we have seen reviews by the Conservative Government not followed through, as in the case of the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, to cite just one example.

Where the railway is already in the hands of the Senedd, Llywydd, we have made major investments—transformative investments—that will make a real difference in Blaenau Gwent and in other communities in Wales. If we had more powers, provided—provided—we had the investment needed to go alongside them, then I am sure that, as Sir Peter Hendy said, devolution has been good for transport policy making, and it would be even better if we had the scope that the Member referred to in order to do even more, to make sure that services to his community and others would be made in decisions close to people who understand those communities and know what they need for the future.

14:30
The Climate Emergency

8. How is the Welsh Government is ensuring children and young people are aware of the gravity of the climate emergency? OQ57283

The Welsh Government funds a number of initiatives in Wales in this area, including Keep Wales Tidy’s eco-schools programme, empowering young people to make positive environmental changes to their school and community, and to take action on climate change. 

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Prif Weinidog. I'm very grateful for the work the Welsh Government is doing on this issue in leading the way. In my own constituency, Ysgol Golftyn are a prime example of leading the way on this particular issue. I was written to by every year 2 pupil from the school just recently, and I was invited to the school to answer challenging questions about climate change. The letters and the questions raised the importance of recycling and concerns about the melting polar ice caps and the impact it has on wildlife, and in particular, polar bears. When I attended the school last Friday to answer these seriously challenging questions by the year 2 pupils, I was impressed by their knowledge and understanding. So, First Minister, will you pass your congratulations on to the pupils and staff at Ysgol Golftyn in Alyn and Deeside, and will you ask your officials to look at the work they are doing as the best practice of Wales on climate change issues for pupils and school staff?

I thank Jack Sargeant, Llywydd, for all of that, and absolutely pass my congratulations to those young people for their commitment to this agenda and their interest in it. I think that they are typical of young people in all parts of Wales. I've had the privilege of visiting a number of schools to talk directly to young people about these matters. I took part, with a number of ministerial colleagues, in discussions with young people on Universal Children's Day only a week ago. You never meet a group of young people without them asking you those challenging questions about what adults are doing to secure a future for them free from the fear of what climate change would do in their lives. 

I think we are absolutely right, Llywydd, to be proud of the way in which children and young people in Wales are not simply aware of the gravity of the climate emergency, but are committed to helping to do something about it. The young climate ambassadors who represented Wales at the COP conference in Glasgow were an absolute credit to themselves and to Wales. They really made a difference in taking the message and being those challenging individuals that we need, and they've come back and taken part last week in climate change Week here in Wales—a major event; 110 speakers, 25 sessions, over 3,000 people registered online, and sessions run directly by young people themselves. Not only do they ask challenging questions of us, but they are there trying to create answers to that great global challenge that faces us all. It's great to hear of the way in which young people in Alyn and Deeside are also part of that great national effort. 

2. Business Statement and Announcement

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

Member
Lesley Griffiths MS 14:34:00
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch, Llywydd. I've made three changes to today's agenda. Firstly, the Minister for Health and Social Services will make a statement to update Members on COVID-19, and as a result, the statement on 'A Healthier Wales' has been postponed until 11 January. Secondly, the Minister for Social Justice will make a statement on international day of disabled people. And finally, the debate on the legislative consent motion on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has been postponed until 11 January. 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. 

I'll just declare an interest as an elected member of Conwy County Borough Council. Trefnydd, I'd like to call for a Welsh Government statement providing an update on the COVID hardship funding for local councils in Wales. As has been mentioned a number of times across the Chamber, the good work that local authorities have carried out throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping people safe, and providing vital services in our communities—. It's also worth noting the support that Welsh Government have provided through the COVID hardship fund to local authorities, making sure that those services can continue as best as possible. But I'd like to receive a statement providing an update on that COVID hardship fund that local authorities have been receiving, and, importantly, the capacity of this fund to deal with what are going to be likely further pressures due to COVID-19 before the end of this financial year, and, if possible, an update on the future plans for this fund beyond March as well. Thank you.

14:35

Thank you very much. I absolutely agree with you that we've worked very closely in partnership with local authorities, particularly over the COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly, there are many services that wouldn't have been provided if it wasn't for their work. I'm not aware of any changes to the hardship fund at the moment. It could be that it's going to be part of our draft budget, but, if not, I will ask the Minister to update us.

I'd like to ask for a debate in Government time to discuss the funding of rail infrastructure in Wales. The disastrous underfunding of our rail network has been highlighted by the UK Government's union connectivity review, which recommends, astonishingly, improving links with England, even though it was the UK Government itself that reneged on its promise to electrify the south Wales main line. Wales Governance Centre research, Trefnydd, shows we lost out on £0.5 billion-worth of rail funding over 10 years, due to rail infrastructure not being devolved, and HS2 will make that worse. The UK Treasury's decision to set the comparability factor for Wales at 0 per cent means we'll get nothing from HS2 expenditure. Scotland will get around £10 billion, Wales will get zero, and this when our trains are already crammed, too often late, and unreliable. So, Trefnydd, I think Members across the Chamber would welcome an opportunity to discuss this crisis and what can be done about it, before we are, in the words of Will Hayward from the Western Mail, condemned to another century of second-class rail.

Thank you. It's certainly very disappointing to see that Wales is not going to benefit from that increased rail funding, which we'd certainly hoped to do. The Minister for Climate Change is in the Chamber with me and has heard your request. Obviously, she and the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, who has responsibility for transport, have questions next week, so I would suggest that you lay a question to them next week.

We've all been caught on the hop a little by the latest iteration of COVID, with the new variant called omicron, not least Welsh citizens who were abroad at the time that we needed to bring in these extra restraints on travel. I just wondered if the Government can make a statement about the situation of the Cardiff Blues and the Scarlets, who, obviously, are going to be required, in due course, to take part in further competitions, which may be disrupted by their continuing need to quarantine. Could you say whether it is possible for the Blues to return from South Africa and quarantine here in Wales, or, if not, what the situation is for them?

Thank you. As I've just announced, the Minister for Health and Social Services will be giving us an update on COVID-19 this afternoon. You asked specifically about—you mentioned Cardiff Rugby and the Scarlets. Under the current regulations, we do not have the option to bring the party home before the 10-day quarantine expires, as obviously it's illegal to enter Wales if you've been in a red-list country in the past 10 days. And even if it was not the case, obviously we don't have those quarantine facilities here in Wales. The Scarlets travelling party is currently in a managed quarantine service in Belfast, where they arrived on Sunday, and they need to remain in quarantine and see through the designated 10-day period. In relation to Cardiff Blues, they still remain in South Africa, and the current position is, when travelling to the UK from a red-list country, you cannot travel directly to Wales. We do know that several members of the party are unwell, and we do wish them a speedy recovery.

I don't know what it is about you, Rhys, but I seem to always call you at the wrong time. [Laughter.] Altaf Hussain, and then Rhys ab Owen.

Minister, on Wednesday, a city centre public space protection order is being introduced for three months in Swansea, and will apply to behaviour such as drug taking and drunkenness. It means that alcohol and drugs being consumed on the street can be confiscated before the situation becomes a problem, and fixed-penalty notices can be issued for anti-social behaviour such as swearing and aggression. Will the Minister commit to a debate in Government time for the Senedd to consider the success of such measures? Thank you. 

14:40

I think there was a problem with your microphone at one point there, Altaf Hussain. I'm going to come back to you at the end of questions to see if the issue can be resolved on your microphone. I will now call Rhys ab Owen. 

Thank you very much, Llywydd. Trefnydd, to mark over two years since the publication of the Commission on Justice in Wales report, a conference was staged this morning, chaired by Anna McMorrin, the Deputy Minister for victims and youth services. The trade unions were represented, as was the former Lord Chief Justice Thomas. He praised the steps that have already been taken following the publication of his report, such as greater leadership by the Government in this place and more scrutiny in the Senedd. He also praised the establishment of the Law Council of Wales and a pilot for the family drug and alcohol court. But he said there was still yet much to be done. With as many of a third of the recommendations within the gift of Welsh Government, as two years have now passed, can we have a statement on the Government's plan to implement those recommendations within their powers? Thank you. 

Yes, I'd be very happy to ask the Minister for Social Justice to bring forward a statement. 

I call for a Welsh Government statement on music education in Wales. Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of visiting Denbighshire Music Co-operative, a not-for-profit organisation providing quality music tuition in the Denbighshire and Wrexham areas, and winner of the Tech for Good award in the Social Business Wales awards 2021. The co-operative is run by teachers for the benefit of pupils, managed by a Denbighshire-based head of service. They provide tuition on a wide range of instruments and voice, aiming to develop each pupil's music potential according to their individual needs and aspirations. Their successful and cost-effective model meeting the health and well-being needs of children and young people deserves to be supported to continue and to grow. They told me they're only music co-operative in Wales. They named local authorities either without a music service or looking to make all music teachers redundant, and stated that only two local authorities in Wales provide a service for free-school-meal pupils, including Wrexham. They also told me that they developed a model that works, but having established a good foundation over eight years, they need sustainable funding to become a north Wales or all-Wales model, where they provide an opportunity for better, more cost-efficient service delivery, led by the co-operative members who are themselves music professionals. However, they expressed concern that the national music service being developed by the Welsh Government should not take their service back in-house, and asked whether the new national music service would include a new co-operative model with funding for co-operatives. I call for a Welsh Government statement accordingly. 

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

Thank you. I'm obviously very well aware of the co-operative service that Mark Isherwood refers to. As you said at the end of your contribution, the national music service is a programme for government commitment for us, and is currently being developed. So, I don't think it's appropriate at this point to bring forward a statement, but I'm certain that the Minister will be very interested to hear the comments that Mark Isherwood has made—that he has brought forward from the co-operative—and I will make sure that their views are obviously taken into consideration as we bring forward the service. 

I'd like to ask for a statement on stop and search in Wales. A constituent of mine in Pencoed was stopped whilst leaving an under-15s football match, and my constituent himself was 15 and had no parent or guardian present with him when searched. Not only has this knocked his own confidence, but it strikes me that this is yet again a case of profiling. Whilst I accept that the Trefnydd and Minister can't comment on individual matters, I'm sure many of us have had constituents approach us with similar stories in our time here as representatives.

14:45

Thank you. Well, no, I can't comment on an individual case, and neither can the Minister. However, obviously, this is a matter for the police, which, as you're aware, is a reserved matter, but I will certainly ensure that the Minister for Social Justice has heard your comments. It might be better if you wrote directly to the Minister for Social Justice, because, clearly, she meets regularly with the four police forces.

I'd like a statement from the climate change Minister, please, about storm Arwen. As many of you will know, 30,000 homes were left without power, Transport for Wales suspended the majority of its rail services, we lost church windows in Llandudno, and hundreds of trees fell, often strewn across the highways. A wind speed of 81 mph was recorded at Aberporth in Ceredigion, and, in paying tribute to our local authorities, who were very fast in coming out and helping where people had had fallen trees, I just wonder, given that we all felt that was a freak accident of nature—I fear that those kinds of storms are likely to increase, going forward, with climate change—could we have a statement from the climate change Minister on how you intend to work with local authorities to ensure they have all the things they need, should these kinds of storms again happen, possibly even over this winter? Thank you.

I think that there is no doubt that we will see many more of these storms. We have seen many more of these storms over the past few years. We've seen increased flooding, et cetera, and the Minister for Climate Change, who, obviously, is in the Chamber, works very closely with local authorities to ensure they have everything they need. Clearly, there were many houses without power, I know, not so much in my own constituency, but in the neighbouring constituency. Up until last night, even, people were still without electricity. But the Minister continues to work very closely with local authorities, with organisations such as Natural Resources Wales to see what we can do to help protect our communities in the light of these storms.

Trefnydd, I would like to raise the issue of drug addiction services in Wales. Following on from last week's short debate by Jayne Bryant and from the short debate I held on substance misuse earlier this term, this Government committed itself to making a compassionate approach to tackling addiction. It was heartening to hear the Deputy Minister for Mental Health and Well-being say,

'In Wales, our approach remains that of harm reduction and building strong recovery communities.'

With this clear commitment in mind, I would like a Government statement on how drug addiction programmes that were once funded by European social fund money will be carried on with when the current contracts end.

I am specifically referring to the out-of-work peer mentoring service, which comes to an end in August of next year. In my region, this programme is called Cyfle Cymru, but I know it goes by other names, depending on which part of Wales it operates in. There is talk that this pan-Wales programme will be brought in-house and absorbed into existing employability contracts. Those with experience in the field say that this will be disastrous because their clients often lead chaotic lives, have severe mental needs and need to be dealt with differently. This is not just a hunch from those in the field, because there is a precedent for this service being brought in-house before; it inevitably collapsed. The current peer-led model has been successful for five years, and it needs a commitment to extend its funding beyond the summer of next year. Diolch yn fawr.

Thank you. You make a very important point about services and schemes that have been funded by European funding and what we are going to do to continue them, so that we don't throw all that good work away. You just gave, I think, a very clear example of such a scheme. These will be parts of discussions that the Minister for Health and Social Services, along with her deputies—so, that includes the Deputy Minister for mental health—will be having as we approach the laying of the draft budget, so more information will be given then.

May I ask for one written statement, if I may, from the Minister for Economy and/or the Minister for culture on the level of financial or practical support that can be provided to cinemas, theatres, arts centres as they operate the COVID pass? I'm thinking about organisations such as Ucheldre Centre, Theatr Fach and the Empire cinema in Anglesey, which are run as social enterprises and just need some help just in order to ensure that they can implement the passes effectively. 

Also, I'd like to ask for an oral statement by Welsh Government congratulating the people of Barbados on their transition to a republic. The country gained its independence, I think, some 55 years ago and is now taking the final step on that journey. And, speaking to the crowd on the newly renamed National Heroes Square, the Prince of Wales said:

'Emancipation, self-government and independence were your way-points. Freedom, justice and self-determination have been your guides.'

I wish Barbados well as they face their new, exciting future, just as more and more people in Wales are realising the benefits we could have from embracing the future as an independent nation. And I look forward to a positive statement from Welsh Government. 

14:50

Well, I don't think it would be appropriate to have a Welsh Government statement on that. 

In relation to your first point around arts and culture, you will have heard the First Minister say in his question session that he met with officials yesterday who were looking at what support, if any, or what further support, would be needed by the arts and culture sector. And I think he said the Minister was awaiting further advice before coming to a decision. 

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. Minister, on Wednesday, a city-centre public space protection Order is being introduced for three months in Swansea and will apply to behaviour such as drug taking and drunkenness. It means that alcohol and drugs being consumed on the streets can be confiscated before the situation becomes a problem, and fixed-penalty notices can be issued for anti-social behaviour such as swearing and aggression. Will the Minister commit to a debate in Government time for the Senedd to consider the success of such measures? Thank you. 

Well, it is a matter for each local authority in relation to what steps they take around zones, for instance, in relation to reducing, or banning completely, alcohol on the streets. So, I think it is up to individual local authorities and I don't really think it's right to have a statement in Government time. 

3. Statement by the Minister for Climate Change: The Homelessness Action Plan

The next item this afternoon is a statement by the Minister for Climate Change: the homelessness action plan. I call on the Minister, Julie James. 

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Today, I am launching the Welsh Government’s ending homelessness action plan. This is a plan that takes forward our 2019 strategy for ending homelessness and the recommendations of the expert homelessness action group. It sets the direction for how we will achieve our ambition of ending homelessness for people across Wales. I want to say at the outset, and on the eve of the co-operation agreement coming into effect, that ending homelessness is an ambition we share with Plaid Cymru. I look forward to working with my colleagues to putting this plan into action and doing all we can to make that ambition a reality.

Dirprwy Lywydd, the pandemic has touched every aspect of our lives. It has also changed how we respond to homelessness. Since March 2020, with the support of our local authorities, registered social landlords and third sector partners, we have fundamentally challenged centuries of acceptance and tolerance. The pandemic has exposed a level of homelessness previously hidden from view, but it has also allowed us to up-end established ways of working and, in doing so, it has shown us that by making a real shift in our approach we make a real and lasting difference.

I have been very clear: there will be no going back. An opportunity now exists to build on the progress made during the pandemic, to take radical action to end homelessness in Wales. The ending homelessness action plan has at its core the radical shift needed to end homelessness in Wales. To do this, we must make the system changes required to prevent homelessness and make the move to rapid rehousing so people are in temporary accommodation for the shortest possible time. This is about ensuring homelessness is prevented in most cases so that in the future it becomes a rarity. It is about shifting and transforming our homelessness and housing services so that when homelessness does occur, it is brief and people are quickly supported back into a suitable and stable home so that their experience of homelessness is not repeated.

The action plan sets a measured and strategic vision for the future of homelessness services and allows us to develop a post-pandemic model of normal. Our approach is evidence based and builds on the reports and recommendations of the expert homelessness action group, which has worked with the sector, service providers and, most importantly, with service users. This is not just a housing issue. Responsibility for ending homelessness extends beyond the dedicated homelessness and housing teams and departments. It must and will be based on an all-public-services response.

The causes of homelessness extend beyond access and availability of affordable homes. We have to address core structural issues of poverty and inequality, ensure the availability and effectiveness of universal and targeted prevention measures, effectively respond to trauma and adverse childhood experiences, mental ill health and substance misuse. This makes ending homelessness a cross-sector, cross-Government priority relevant to health, social services, education, criminal justice, community services and our wider economy. All this is recognised within the action plan, as is the need for wide-ranging legislative and policy reform. The action plan relies on partnership and preventative working; this will need to be underpinned by courage and leadership across all public services in Wales.

I accept that some of the ambitious changes we want to make, such as the focus on prevention and rapid rehousing, legislative reform and the large and sustained programme of social house building, will be challenging. This may create concern around the pace of change. I understand these concerns and I am determined that wherever further support is needed, the Welsh Government will provide it, as we have done with the record investment in the housing support grant and the social housing grant.

I expect landlords, housing development teams and planners to show urgency in how we end homelessness in Wales. I expect to see the housing needs of diverse communities and what we now know about the true scale and nature of homelessness reflected in the local housing market assessment, and those needs reflected in local authorities' housing prospectuses and programme development plans. The urgency of this is self-evident, with more than 6,900 adults and children currently living in temporary accommodation. In the short term, I expect to see all social landlords, both registered social landlords and stock holding authorities, stepping forward and playing their part in allocating housing to those most in need across Wales, and I will carefully be watching their progress on this.

Too often, housing allocation is used as a reward for good behaviour rather than an essential prerequisite for tackling social exclusion and inequality. I expect to see this change. In the longer term, to end homelessness, we need to increase housing capacity in both the social and private rented sectors. Our ambitious social house building programme is an important tool in achieving our objective of ending homelessness and shifting to rapid rehousing.

The private rented sector plays a hugely important role in the housing market, enabling people and families to find a home that is right for them. I am therefore pleased to announce today funding for the national roll-out of the leasing scheme Wales. Based on our successful pilot scheme, and worth £30 million over five years, this is a programme for government commitment and will improve access to long-term affordable housing in the private rented sector. It delivers security for tenants and confidence for landlords. Property owners will be encouraged to lease their properties to local authorities in return for a rent guarantee and additional funding to improve the condition of the property. Local authorities can then use those properties to provide affordable and good-quality accommodation for people who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness. Tenants on the scheme will benefit from longer term security of tenure at rents restricted to the local housing allowance rates, and with additional funding from Welsh Government to ensure they receive the level of support they would expect in social housing. It will strengthen links between local authorities and private sector landlords, providing pathways for households experiencing or threatened with homelessness into housing and offering financial stability and support for landlords. I do not underestimate the scale of the transformation required, but, as is clear in the programme for government and the action plan, I am completely committed to this transformation.

We have seen what we can achieve when we work together, by making sure no-one was left on the streets through the pandemic. We now need to step forward together as leaders and professionals in public service, united in not tolerating homelessness and working to ensure everyone in Wales has a place to call home. I do want to take this opportunity to thank everyone working in homelessness and housing support services for the enormous help and support they provide every day. They transform lives, they offer hope and they have undoubtedly saved many lives throughout this pandemic. My priority now is to build on this success, and this will be taken forward in collaboration with the Plaid Cymru Senedd group as part of the co-operation agreement between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru. Diolch yn fawr.

14:55

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. As a declaration of interest, I would like to refer Members and members of the public to my own register of interests.

Minister, the deepening homelessness crisis in Wales is devastating and isolating for far too many in our society. In 2019, 12,399 households were assessed as homeless, that being a 79.9 per cent increase on 2015-16. The latest data shows there were 6,935 people in temporary accommodation at the end of September 2021, of which 1,742 were dependent children. Whilst I recognise that you do triumph the new £30 million funding pot over five years for local authorities under the private rented sector leasing scheme, the fact of the matter is that this follows a five-year freeze to the HSG budget, which has exacerbated homelessness issues. 

Indeed, in its inquiry into rough-sleeping, the Senedd's Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee—and I was on it during that time—found that the lack of long-term, sustainable funding as a potential barrier to preventing and tackling rough-sleeping. Minister, first I wish to ask whether you are in a position today to amend section 2 of your high-level action table to ring-fence the increase to the housing support grant for at least three years so that long-term certainty can be provided to housing providers and homelessness prevention services.

We welcome the fact you are now acting on the Welsh Conservatives' calls for a housing first model in Wales, which works by giving people safe, clean housing immediately, whatever their needs, and giving them wraparound support. However, adequate housing is being increasingly replaced by temporary stays in B&B establishments and hotel rooms—and placing vulnerable residents in hotel rooms, having to be there whilst other families are visiting. As well as this being wholly unsuitable for the well-being of those made homeless, it is also unsustainable for the public purse. I have also got constituents in my constituency of Aberconwy who have been in temporary accommodation for 18 months; I don't know how anyone can describe that as temporary.

In FOI replies obtained by my office in the year 2021, Bridgend County Borough Council spent £1,266,253 on B&B-type accommodation. Rhondda Cynon Taf say they spent £0.5 million on such accommodation. In contrast, Public Health Wales estimates that housing first models for homeless individuals with complex needs returned £3.60 for every £1 spent, and every £1 invested in moving people out of homelessness generates £2.80 in benefits. So, it is a no-brainer. 

So, Minister, will you clarify what recent discussions you have undertaken with housing associations and local authorities under the housing first network to determine new indicators that could identify suitable properties that could be used to provide housing?

We know that approximately 67,000 people in Wales languish on a social housing waiting list for up to 18 months, which is roughly equivalent to around 20,000 households. These statistics underline that the homelessness crisis could continue to deepen if action is not taken now. And again, I wish to implore you as the Minister responsible to take urgent steps to help bring empty properties back into use for people at risk of homelessness.

The schemes that you're flagshipping today, the £25,000 incentive for landlords to bring their property back, that's been available, but how many local authorities—? Minister, can you tell us today how many local authorities have used it? According to the FOI replies that I referenced earlier, in 2020, Cardiff Council gave out only two Houses into Homes empty homes loans, Newport City Council shockingly gave out just one.

Minister, given that your statement says that you wish to strengthen links between local authorities and the private sector, can you commit to undertaking further discussions with local authorities to review how to increase the profile and successful application rate of the empty homes loans scheme?

I wish to conclude by making clear my ambition to see the appointment of a homelessness commissioner for Wales. Ideally, someone who actually has immense experience in this field. Recognsing that a Housing Support National Advisory Board has been established, I would envisage that this commissioner would head such a council to help co-ordinate and deliver outcome monitoring and strategy. As actions 13 and 14 of the plan get under way, Minister—

15:00

Will you commit to meeting with me away from the Siambr so that this commissioner proposal can be discussed in some greater detail, ensuring that policy action reflects the priority required to tackle, once and for all, the root causes of homelessness? Diolch.

Well, as usual, Janet Finch-Saunders has read out a series of ill-thought-out statistics, many of which I've actually set out in my own statement, and made—well, I don't know quite what she was doing. She's calling for me to take action immediately—I am today launching the action plan, so I think that's about as immediate a response as you can make to a call for action. So, this is the launch of the action plan. Perhaps, Janet, if you listened to what I was saying rather than prejudging what you were going to say, you would know that.

You also said something about the freezing of the housing support grant. I think you must be confused between different grants there. We've done no such thing. We also haven't been able to give multi-annual settlements, which I think is what you were calling for, simply because, up until the current comprehensive spending review, we've only had annual budgets of our own. Now that we've got a multi-annual statement, no doubt you will see in the draft budget commitments to multi-annual funding coming forward, although I'm not going to be drawn on what the draft budget will say—Members will have to wait for my colleague, the Minister for Finance and Local Government, to make those announcements.

What we are announcing today is a radical shift in the way that we approach homelessness in Wales. Let there be no mistake: the record of the Welsh Government and the homelessness services right across Wales, including all the public sector involvement, is absolutely outstanding. What we've managed to do during the pandemic is extraordinary, and puts to shame the goings on of the Conservative Government across our border, where you have enormous numbers of people sleeping rough because they stopped the all-in policy last summer, quite shamefully. So, we have managed to do that. Yes, there are large numbers of people in temporary accommodation, because the alternative to that would be rough-sleeping, as you see in England all the time. So, you'd do well to look to your own Conservative Government there for some compassion.

You also spoke about the root causes for homelessness, one of which is poverty. I need not remind you again about the £20 removal from universal credit, about the freezing of the local housing allowance, about the scandalous multiplier for people who are working and on universal credit. So, Janet, I am taking absolutely no lessons from you about neither compassion nor ending homelessness, because your Government across the border, which you support and never criticise, has done no such thing. Here in Wales we have done something radical. We have done it in conjunction with our homelessness action group, which includes experts right across the sector. We have been praised by a diverse group of people, including Lord Deben, who's the chair of the Climate Change Committee, on our action on homelessness and poverty, and you would do well to take some lessons from that, and not come up with—I don't know quite what you were suggesting there at the end. I'm always glad to meet you outside the Chamber, Janet, but honestly, you would do well to have a look at what the action plan actually says before we have that meeting.

15:05

Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. Good afternoon and thank you, Minister, for that statement. Deputy Llywydd, it's sad to say, but the latest homelessness statistics here in Wales paint a sad picture, and partly because of the cruel policies of Boris Johnson and his unprincipled Government in Westminster. For example, almost 1,400 homeless people were moved into temporary accommodation during September, which was an increase of 176 on August, bringing the total in temporary accommodation, as we've heard, to around 7,000 people, almost 280 of them being dependent children under 16, bringing the total of dependent children to 1,700. However, fewer than 500 homeless people were moved into proper accommodation, 52 in August, and of those who were given appropriate accommodation, 152 were dependent children under the age of 16, a reduction of 19 on August.

So, that's the picture of homelessness in Wales today, and it's not a pretty picture, but there are reasons for that, as we've already heard. I'm sure you would agree that no society can claim to be a fair and just society while people still don't have a roof over their heads. The good news, however, is that between the beginning of the pandemic and the end of September this year, over 15,000 people formerly homeless were assisted into urgent temporary accommodation, and we must congratulate those hard workers in our local authorities, and those charities who have worked tirelessly to house these people, but this shows the scale of the problem. I'm sure that everyone here shares the ambition of eradicating homelessness, but if we are truly to deliver this, then we must see radical action, effective action, in order to deliver our ambitions. We've now heard many times about the Finnish model and Housing First, but now is the time to stop discussing theory, and it's time for action. After all, homelessness is a political choice, and eradicating it is also a political choice.

The commitments outlined in the co-operation agreement between the Government and Plaid Cymru are ambitious and far-reaching. The agreement notes that homelessness should be only for a brief period and should not be repeated. We will work together to reform housing legislation, to implement the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016 in order to provide safeguards for those renters, and to implement the recommendations of the homelessness action group. I look forward to collaborating with you in this area, Minister, for the benefit of the people of Wales.

Llywydd, in that spirit of collaboration and finding solutions, I’d like the Minister to answer certain questions on specific concerns around homelessness in Wales and the plan to eradicate homelessness. Rough-sleeping is among the most extreme indicator of homelessness, which in itself is an indicator of a broader housing crisis. This is the most dangerous kind of homelessness. Although the pandemic demonstrated that we could act differently in a very brief period of time, there is a lot more to be done, with the latest data showing an increase in rough-sleepers here in Wales. What assurance, Minister, can you give us that the issue of rough-sleeping will be a thing of the past as a matter of urgency? Also, can the Minister outline what specific support the Government will provide to people who are rough-sleeping in Wales? Such support could include identifying all those sleeping rough and helping them immediately whilst they seek to find a home, helping them with benefits so that they can access appropriate housing, rather than providing temporary solutions. We need to incorporate a housing first approach across Wales.

The reports of the homelessness action group show that public services beyond housing departments often come into contact with people at risk of homelessness at an early stage, before the housing and homelessness survey actually engages with them. So, we need to look closer to home. We need to look upstream in order to identify these people sooner, such as what’s been done in health, social care, justice and crime, for example. So, Minister, what specific work is in train to help your preventative work in tackling homelessness upstream, if you like?

I would like to finish by talking about introducing a national leasing programme for Wales, which you’ve already mentioned. You mentioned that home owners will be encouraged to lease their properties to local authorities in exchange for a rental guarantee and additional funding to improve the condition of the property. I’d like to know more about this and how this can work on a practical basis. Who will encourage these property owners to participate? How will that happen? How much additional funding will be allocated to improve the state of the housing? Will additional funding be available for local authorities to run this scheme? And what lessons emerged from the pilot scheme that you mentioned and how will these lessons steer your actions? Thank you.

15:10

Diolch, Mabon. I completely agree with the basic premise of your contribution. Rough-sleeping is the scourge, the visible and most appalling form of homelessness, but there are many other sorts of homelessness, and if the pandemic has shown us anything, it's shown us the extent of that across Wales. In previous spot counts of rough-sleeping, we knew it was under counting people who were rough-sleeping. We knew particularly women weren't picked up. Women typically sleep in the day and stay awake all night for safety reasons, and so on, if they're rough-sleeping. So, we knew it was under counting, but we had no idea of the extent of that, and what the pandemic has done is shown us the true extent of that. 

The system in Wales has responded magnificently to that. If you had told me before the pandemic that we could house the number of people we've housed, temporarily or otherwise, across Wales, I would have thought that was impossible. Fortunately, at that point, we had commissioned the homelessness action group to work with us, and they had, just a few weeks before the pandemic struck, given us the first of their action plans, and they and us envisaged that that would take us three to five years to put those things in place. We put them in place in 16 weeks because everybody in Wales just was incredible. I'm just in awe of the way that they worked. But, of course, that was just temporary accommodation for most of them. Some of them were lucky enough to get permanent accommodation, but most people got temporary accommodation.

And then, what you're talking about is the churn that we've had ever since. So, as the local authorities move 500 or 600 people out each month into their permanent home, another 1,000 present across Wales, so we've got like a tap running. So, clearly, what we need to do is get upstream of that and put the preventative measures in place. But you identified in your comments about Boris Johnson's Government, one of the prime problems that we have, because one of the causes of this is poverty and debt stress. So, we have relationship breakdowns—the pandemic exacerbated that—so we'll have to put a lot of money—and that's our intention—into assisting families to stay together, and there's a swathe of things across all public services to do that, all the child and family services and social services and so on. There's specific debt and income advice that we put in place to help people maximise their income, and there are a large number of schemes—. Deputy Llywydd will be very impatient with me if I start to list them in my answer, but there are a large number of schemes there, and what we're doing is training people to access those for the families.

There are very specific mental health and substance abuse problems that people have as they fall out of housing, not necessarily at the beginning, but they fall into it, and in particular there's a pathway for people in the prison system, so we've been running a successful pilot with Cardiff prison, where we targeted people who were effectively coming round and round to make sure that we had a pathway into permanent housing for them. And yesterday I met a very, very inspirational young man called Jonathan in Mike Hedges's constituency, who'd had that kind of terrible chaotic lifestyle and is now an inspirational human being because he's got his permanent home, he had the support put around him and he's got himself onto his feet. He's proof, if we needed it, that this isn't about the individual. It's just about the terrible start they have in life and the luck they didn't have that perhaps you and I did have. So, that made me even more determined to make sure that people have that second chance to put their life back on track.

So, we do need a housing-first approach, but that's only part of a rapid rehousing approach. Housing first is a very specific set of things that we do for people with a lot of support requirements, but a rapid rehousing approach can be used for people who don't really have that and have just fallen out of housing. They don't necessarily need all the wraparound support. But that rapid rehousing is the thing. No more will we have the earned place on a ladder, where you get a reward and fall back and so on. I just don't understand how anyone ever thought that would work. It clearly doesn't work, and so we're going to come away from that.

The lease scheme that we're announcing is just our attempt to make sure that we maximise the number of houses available, and in particular we're worried about the private rented sector and the requirements for them to bring their properties up to standard from the UK Government—so, energy performance certificate E at the moment, about to go to EPC C—and our worry that the private rented sector won't be able to step up to that and will take their properties out of the private rented sector. So, this scheme is a way to guarantee them an income and give them a grant to make sure their property stays in the private rented sector and to give better security of tenure and support to the tenants there. So, it's directly aimed at that, although we would welcome any landlord that wanted to come in as part of the scheme. So, it's about—. It's got a climate change bit, if you like, because it brings those properties up, makes them better insulated, it helps fuel poverty and it gives people security of tenure. And so the amount of money available will differ depending on the property type and the condition and where we want to get it to, but this is all about maximising the number of houses available to us to make sure that people get that permanent house.

15:15

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and I thank the Minister for her statement. Our committee has agreed that scrutinising policies and actions to end homelessness is one of our main priorities over this Senedd term. Indeed, the predecessor committee, which I also chaired, welcomed the actions taken at the start of the pandemic to place people sleeping rough, and others, into temporary accommodation. Since then, large numbers of people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness have been presenting to local authorities and have been provided with temporary accommodation every month. A significant number of those people are also being found long-term permanent accommodation. So, a lot of good work has been and is being done, but of course it's vital that the progress made throughout the pandemic isn't lost, and I know that the Minister is very much aware of that. Already we’re seeing the number of people sleeping rough increasing, which is a big concern.

This week, our committee will be hearing from the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales on his report, 'Homelessness Reviewed: an open door to positive change'. I’m sure that, following that session, and indeed the Minister's statement and this discussion today, our committee will decide on its next steps in terms of continuing our scrutiny. So, today's Minister's statement is very timely for us, and of course it's very timely in terms of the threat to homeless people in Wales, given that we've had a sudden temperature drop and bad weather. Over the last week, I think that's really made people think ever more keenly as to what more can be done to help people who are faced with that desperate situation of sleeping on the streets. Obviously, real urgency is needed if we are going to enable safe spaces for people to live in away from the streets this winter.

So, I would ask the Minister what specific steps we'll be taking this winter in the light of the current circumstances—the progress made, but ongoing challenges—to help people and to prevent them sleeping rough and help them get off the streets. Also, the action plan notes the need for wide-reaching legislative reform, and I wonder whether the Minister could give an indication of when she hopes this legislation might be brought before the Senedd. Diolch yn fawr.

15:20

Diolch, John. I very much welcome the committee's engagement on this, and I look forward to discussing both the public audit report with you, and, indeed, the future commissioner has recently done a housing report as well, which I know the committee is aware of. I look forward to discussing that with the committee in my next evidence session.

Just in terms of the specifics, the support for rough-sleepers—I should have answered in response to Mabon as well—we have outreach workers who get to every single person who hasn't come into services to make sure that we know who they are and that they're contacted. It's not just as simple as finding them a space to live—and I know that the committee and other Members know that—many of these people who are sleeping rough have very complex needs and a deep distrust of public services and so on. So, the outreach workers, who are amazing people, need to get the trust of that person and slowly coax them into accepting services and then eventually a place to stay. The local authorities are under a duty to give everyone a place to stay. Let me note that we're not—. The local authorities are not under any instruction to keep people on the streets or anything. We are not accepting night shelters; there is no need for that kind of provision. Support services can be given to people who have a bed and a room; there's absolutely no need for the kinds of night shelters we used to see. But some people have complex needs and they will not be able to come indoors, so we work very hard with the outreach workers to make sure that they have all of the help that they're able to take given their circumstances and that coaxing continues to make sure that people come in, especially when the weather gets very, very cold.

It is sad to see the number of rough-sleepers climb a little, but we have got those outreach workers getting to them and we are very keen to get them in and into services as soon as possible. And one of the heartwarming things about the pandemic was the people you met who were very distrustful, but who came in in the pandemic and accessed services for the first time and are now back on the road to recovery, which is really great.

In terms of the legislative burden, we will be putting a White Paper out towards the end of next year, the beginning of the year after, which sets out the legislative framework that we need, but the committee will be aware of it—we need to reform the housing Act and we need to do things around priority need and intentionality and all the things that the committee will be familiar with in order to remove those barriers to housing and to place legislative duties on the local authority to give people permanent housing. So, there'll be a White Paper that I look forward to discussing with the committee in due course. 

Thank you, Minister, for bringing today's statement here to the Chamber today. Certainly, the motives behind the action plan I certainly welcome—the desire to tackle homelessness as quickly as possible is certainly something that I'm sure we'd all want to support. Specifically, I was pleased to see the mention within the action mentioned in the statement of the opportunity for those longer tenancies, especially with, as you mentioned, the private sector landlords who could be worked with more closely, which would actually support both the landlords and those who need that space. 

I just want to focus briefly on part of your statement, and I'll quote, saying:

'This is not just a housing issue. Responsibility for ending homelessness extends beyond the dedicated homelessness and housing teams and departments; it must and will be based on an all-public-services response.'

And you go on to say that:

'This makes ending homelessness a cross-sector, cross-Government priority relevant to health, social services, education'—

et cetera, et cetera. And I absolutely agree with that. So, with that in mind, Minister, of the 16 actions in the high-level action plan, which of those do you think will do the best job of ensuring that those other ares of responsibility, of public service, will not further exacerbate some of the issues that we see in homelessness?

15:25

Yes, it's a thread, isn't it, that runs through the action plan. So, in the preamble, we talk—. The action plan isn't my action plan; it's the homelessness action group's plan presented to us, but we're very happy to accept it and I think it's an excellent plan of action. But, for us, it's the golden thread that runs through it that each person must have their needs met. So, until you see that person in front of you, you don't know what those needs are.

Now, for somebody who's recently fallen out of housing, their primary need probably is just another place to have a permanent home. But some people are very far from that—they need help with income support; they need mental health and substance abuse support; they need help with actually being able to manage their life so that they can sustain a tenancy, they can pay their bills, understand their rent and all of the rest of it. So, there's an enormous spectrum of things that you need.

As I was saying in response to Mabon, Housing First, for example, will be part of that, but that will be for people with a large amount of needs who are very far from being able to self-sustain; for others, it is just the ability to access another decent, secure tenancy. So, I suppose it's hard to say, 'Action 5 requires—'. It's a thread running through it that each action will be appropriate to the person in front of you and that you're meeting that person's—or that family's, quite often—needs. And the family may have more complex needs as a group.

Then I cannot emphasise enough the preventative part of the agenda—so, getting upstream of that, identifying people who are in those difficulties and making sure that they get the support to stay in their family unit, where at all possible, or be supported if that family unit is breaking up for some reason, so that we don't get them going into homelessness provision at all. That is a very important part of that.

The whole agenda that my colleague Lynne Neagle talks about a lot, about adverse childhood experiences and so on—and I know in a previous life you've been very involved in that—those things are very important. So, in talking to the young man I spoke to yesterday, it was clear that you could do a case study on what adverse childhood experiences had caused this young man to have a very chaotic early start in life, and yet he is clearly capable of being a very upstanding and valued member of the community.

So, what we need to do is to get ahead of some of those other issues, and that's what I mean by, 'It's not just about your house.' If you've got very poor parenting skills, then your child is much more likely to become homeless than if you don't, so helping the parents to parent those children in the first place, for example, would prevent quite a lot of the homelessness that we see.  

I welcome the statement by the Minister and the action plan. I agree with the Minister that homelessness extends well beyond access and the availability of affordable homes, but does the Minister agree that the availability of affordable homes is a major part of the solution? 

Does the Welsh Government accept Shelter's definition of homelessness, which extends beyond those sleeping on the street to those staying with friends, staying in a hostel, staying at a B&B or a night shelter, living in poor conditions affecting their health or living apart from immediate family?

Will the Minister join me in congratulating The Wallich and other third sector organisations within Swansea on the work they're doing, and also the support provided by organisations such as Matt's Cafe, which is in the Swansea West constituency, which I know the Minister knows well?

But I think, really, every time we start talking about things, we can end up talking about money. Does the Minister agree that all that needs to be done requires additional funding, especially to the housing support grant and the social housing grant? 

Finally, it is by an accident that those of us sat in here are not those on the street.

Yes, thank you very much, Mike. I completely agree that house building is fundamental to this, of course, and social house building. One of the reasons we have the ambitious 20,000 target for homes for social rent is exactly because of that. We absolutely have to have the supply to meet the demand.

But, you know, it's not just about the roof and walls, although that roof and walls should be the best roof and walls that we can possibly put in place, and I'm delighted to say that our low-carbon social housing is the best in Europe as well, so, when you get your permanent home it's a very good home that you'll be very pleased to live in. This is not—. In fact, one of the things we enjoin our private sector partners to do is to build to the standard of our social housing. I can see my colleague Jenny Rathbone here—I can anticipate the question she's asking in her head. We will be bringing forward the building regulations to make sure that we force them to do so next year.

So, I completely agree with you. I'm very happy to say very good things about The Wallich. The young man I was speaking of, who I met in your constituency yesterday, Mike, was working for The Wallich and helping with all of the good work he does. Matt's Cafe is, counterintuitively, run by an excellent young man called Tom. It's in St Matthew's Church and it's Matt's Cafe, and it's an excellent drop-in centre for anyone associated with homelessness or homelessness support. And it provides excellent food, and if you're able to pay for it, you can, and if you aren't able to pay for it, then you can have it for whatever you can afford or for nothing, and it's a commendable service we look to spread out. It's a very good example of a place that's friendly and welcoming, but which also allows you to access all the myriad services that you might require in order to get your life back on track.

So, Matt's Cafe is a classic example of examples right around Wales where a host of services come together, so GPs, the outreach nurses, the drug addiction and substance abuse people, the mental health people, healthy living and eating people, relationships—all sorts of things you can find at Matt's Cafe. I feel as if I'm going to break into a rock song, although I think that one was called 'Alison's Cafe'. But I cannot commend that model enough, and it works really well for the centre of Swansea.

In terms of finance, we gave the most generous housing support grant ever in the last financial year, and despite the temptation by every Member of the Senedd to do so, I'm not going to anticipate the draft budget, so you will have to just wait until my colleague Rebecca Evans says more about the next budget. But we are already at the point where we've got the most supportive housing support grant ever. And in terms of the definition, absolutely, and that's why the numbers have gone up so dramatically. This isn't about rough-sleeping; this is about anyone who does not have a permanent home where they can feel safe and well. 

15:30

Minister, as the nights draw in and temperatures plummet, community groups such as Pride in Pill in my city, in my region of South Wales East, have been going out on these cold nights providing people with clothing and food in these freezing temperatures, to rough-sleepers. They do an absolutely sterling job and never miss a night going out because of the cold; in fact, it makes them more determined to go out. I'm sure you'll join me in thanking this group and others in my region of South Wales East for all that they do in providing help for those rough-sleepers. When I was out with them myself, I've never seen so many people in the centre of Newport, Minister. It was quite worrying, and these people were housed during the pandemic and now they're back on the street. 

So, I'm just wondering what urgent action you're taking to help those particular people this winter, so they don't have to endure any more cold nights. First Minister—. Minister, sorry—I'll pre-empt that. [Laughter.] Minister, the proposals you've put out today, as my colleagues have said, we welcome. We welcome anything that's going to tackle homelessness, particularly this post-pandemic response that you've made. We all have the same objective and it's good that you've recognised that it needs to be a cross-sector, cross-Government priority.

The proposals that you've put out do require a momentous change and demand incentives because of your Government's utter—

—failure in tackling homelessness over the last two decades. So, in your proposals, do you think there are enough incentives there to ensure the speed at which we need to see this turnover?

And when it comes to supporting people—my last question—to live in temporary accommodation, the Welsh Government guidelines have allowed local authorities to end their duty of care to house them for the most minor infractions, such as failing to turn up for an appointment to view a property even though it was no fault of their own—a bus not turning up or childcare issues. Whilst these are isolated and rare occurrences, I would like clarification, Minister, that these proposals you're putting forward today will prevent these sorts of things happening in the future. Thank you. 

Well, Laura Anne Jones, you started really well and then you went rather downhill. So, we have not failed to tackle homelessness. Wales has a very proud record of tackling homelessness, and in the pandemic, we have done considerably better than our neighbours that you support over the border. So, I'm not taking any of that nonsense from you.

Just to be very clear, at this point in time, the local authority that you're talking about in Wales has a duty to house people who are sleeping rough. They all have outreach workers. There may be issues why that person cannot take advantage of that, but the local authority is under a duty to house those people. They're not able to say that they cannot and they are funded accordingly. So, there is no excuse for that.

What we are not doing is helping—. So, I am very grateful to the volunteers who, from the best possible motives, are helping people sleeping rough. But what we've got to do is switch the system away from supporting people on the street to supporting them in housing. So, the local authority is under a duty to house those people, so they should be doing so. If you want to write to me with any specific incidences you're aware of, I'd be more than happy to take it up with the council. But they are supposed to do that already.

The intentionality that you mentioned slightly further on in your contribution is what I'm talking about in terms of the legislative change that we need to see. So, we need to fundamentally reform the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, which has priority need and intentionality included in it. We will need to do that with a White Paper and then some fundamental reform, which, obviously, the Senedd will have to approve, and we will take through in the normal way. So, we need to do quite a radical cultural change, you're quite right. But as we speak right now, the local authority is under a duty to house those people, and it should be doing so.

15:35

Thank you. Thank you very much for your statement and I fully support what you're trying to do. But I think, just following up on what others have said—. First of all, I want to pay tribute to Cardiff Council's outreach workers, who go out week after week, trying to persuade people to come in and not be on the streets. This is a really, really complex field for many people. I appreciate that, for some, it is about insecure accommodation and a lack of money to pay rent, but for those who have suffered adverse childhood experiences, this is a really complicated issue, as Jonathan Lewis's story in the Western Mail this morning illustrates. So, organisations like the Wallich and Llamau do incredibly experienced work in enabling people to come in and then not go back onto the streets. And it is not a magic wand of giving them a house.

So, I want to ask you about the cost of the support that's required for people who've got into addiction problems as a result of their emotional distress. Llamau, when I last spoke to the chief executive, had such low recidivism rates; 92 per cent of the people they work with never return to being homeless, whereas I know that with other agencies dealing with homeless people, 70 per cent of these people are through a revolving door. And there is a real debate going on in Cardiff at the moment about what we can afford to support these people.

So, I just wondered what analysis the Welsh Government has done on the cost-effectiveness of different approaches to supporting homeless people, to ensure that they truly never become homeless again.

Thank you, Jenny Rathbone, for those excellent points. And the answer is a really complicated one because, as I said, it really depends on the person that you're talking about, because every individual has a different and complex set of needs. The further away from having had a permanent home they are, the more complex the needs. It isn't just a case of giving you four walls and a roof. If you put me in a flat in the middle of Manchester, where I know no-one, or any other city where I know no-one, and I had no means of support and no furniture, I would be unlikely to sustain my accommodation, and I haven't had all of those experiences. So, we just need to treat people like human beings.

We have done an analysis of the costs of some of the programmes. But in the end, what we've got to commit to is making sure that that individual has the support that they need. And for some people, that works fairly quickly, and for others, it can take—. I've spoken to outreach workers who've been working with people for more than two years, trying to get them to respond to them, gain some trust, even take a cup of tea off them—so deep is the distrust of officialdom or help. But then, during the pandemic, we've had transformational cases as well, with people who came in because of the pandemic suddenly getting into services and their lives are on a different path. And Jonathan, the person in the Western Mail, is the person I met yesterday. If ever you needed proof that this isn't about the individual and their fundamental nature, this is about the experience you have growing up and what your life experience is, and it can be transformed.

So, for example, we have a great pathway in Cardiff prison, where we had a revolving door, as you call it, with people coming in and out all the time. We've been able to work very individually with a number of individuals—that's a very small cohort of them—to just see if it works, and well over 90 per cent of them are now on the path to not coming back and are in permanent housing. So, what we have to do is we have to do what works. So, this isn't about my housing budget; this is about me working with Eluned and other colleagues right across the Welsh Government, using their budgets and their staff to provide the services to people who also have housing problems. If we see it like that, in that holistic way, we take a very different approach and it does work.

Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. I want to apologise to you, Dirprwy Lywydd, for failing to declare an interest at the beginning of the debate and my contribution. I want to draw your attention to my declaration of interest on the ownership of property, which, of course, is in the public domain. Thank you.

15:40
4. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: A Healthier Wales
5. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Update on COVID-19

The next item is item 5: statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services, an update on COVID-19. I call on the Minister, Eluned Morgan. 

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. Thank you very much for the opportunity to update Members about the latest and very serious development in this fast-moving pandemic. At the end of last week, the World Health Organization advised countries around the world to take a series of measures following the identification of a new variant of concern of coronavirus. The variant, now called omicron, was first reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa six days ago. In less than a week, cases of omicron have been identified in countries as far apart as Australia, Hong Kong, Belgium, Israel and Canada. It has also reached the UK. And, I'm afraid, it will only be a matter of time, despite all the measures we have put in place, before the first cases are confirmed in Wales.

I want to share with you what we know so far, and what we are doing to respond to slow the inevitable and to keep Wales safe. We are taking the emergence of omicron seriously. It has a larger number of mutations than any of the variants seen previously—more than 50 overall. If we look at the part of the virus that makes first contact with our body's cells, there are 10 mutations in the omicron variant. The delta variant, which quickly became the most dominant strain last winter, had only two.

The evidence from South Africa so far suggests this variant may move quickly and be capable of re-infecting people who have already had coronavirus or have been double vaccinated. But there’s a lot we still don’t know, and won’t know for a while. This includes whether it leads to a more severe form of illness.

Yesterday, the First Minister and the First Minister of Scotland wrote to the Prime Minister requesting a COBRA meeting to discuss a co-ordinated four-nations response to this variant. Disappointingly, the Prime Minister’s spokesman has declined this request. A joined-up, four-nations approach would be the most effective response to this new variant.

Over the course of the weekend, we've been able to move together with the rest of United Kingdom, however. We have all put 10 southern African countries linked to the omicron variant on the red list for international travel. This means that anyone returning to the UK from these countries will have to complete 10 days of quarantine in a managed quarantine hotel. In addition, vaccinated travellers coming back to the UK from a non-red list country will have to self-isolate and take a PCR test on day two of their return. They can leave isolation if and when they have a negative result. If their test is positive, they will need to isolate for 10 days. People they live with will also need to isolate until they've had a negative test. These new rules replace the requirement to have a lateral flow test when returning from overseas, and is another step to prevent the variant from spreading in our communities. We will retain the option of introducing a PCR test at day 8 at a later date.

Last night, the education Minister strengthened the use of face coverings in secondary schools, colleges and universities for the rest of the winter term. All staff and learners should wear face coverings while indoors where physical distancing cannot be maintained. And we'll change our self-isolation rules so that everyone identified as a close contact of a confirmed or even a suspected omicron case in Wales will need to isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status or age. And we hope these actions, when taken together with all the other protections in place in Wales, will help to slow the spread of this variant.

Llywydd, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has recommended an acceleration of the vaccine programme following the emergence of this new variant. I have accepted the JCVI's advice, and I echo the words of its chair, who has said that we will get the greatest benefit if we can vaccinate people before another wave hits. We will be extending the booster programme to all adults aged of 18 to 39, and reducing the gap between the second dose and the booster from six months to three months. We will continue to vaccinate people in order of risk—people who are older or clinically vulnerable will be called first. We will offer people who are immunosuppressed a booster dose three months after they have had their third primary dose. All 12 to 15-year-olds will also be eligible for a second dose. This strategy is aimed at saving lives, protecting the NHS and reducing infection as far as possible.

Expanding the roll-out of the vaccination programme will be challenging. We are relying on our NHS workforce to, once again, deliver an urgent pandemic response in order to protect our public health. They've already done so much throughout the course of the pandemic. I would like to put on record my thanks to all of our health and care staff who have worked so hard, and to the vaccine teams who are planning the expansion of this vital programme. We will continue to offer vaccines to people who are unvaccinated or may only have had one dose. I just want to make it quite clear: it is never too late to be vaccinated.

Llywydd, there has never been a more important time for us all to work together to protect our families and our loved ones. In addition to our fantastic vaccination programme, we still need to keep doing the small things that will keep us safer through the pandemic: self-isolating and getting tested if we have symptoms, taking regular lateral-flow tests, particularly before we go out to busy places, meeting people outdoors if possible, keeping our distance where we can, washing our hands regularly and wearing a face covering.

This is a worrying time and, of course, we all hope that this pandemic won't overshadow Christmas. We know that everyone is tired of this pandemic, and we all want it to end. But we all need to work together to look after each other once again. This is a fast-moving situation, and we are closely monitoring the situation. If the evidence suggests that we need to take further steps to protect people, we will do that. We don't want to make life difficult for people, but we will do everything that we can to keep Wales safe. Thank you.

15:45

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Minister, can I thank you for your advance copy today of the statement, and a very important statement as well? I think the Government is correct to take this new variant seriously. I think we need to be cautious, but also balanced, and the Minister has correctly set out that there is a lot, of course, that we don’t know, which is the current position.

I suspect you may agree with me on the first part of what I say, Minister. You have a lot on your plate at the present time, because we know there are two significant issues here. We know that there’s this new variant and the importance of the vaccination roll-out, and we also know that the state of our NHS is in a very difficult position as well. The First Minister set out today, correctly, that the pressures on the NHS are only going to get more severe as we head, of course, into the winter. So, in that regard, can I ask what discussions you’ve had with the First Minister in terms of a specific vaccination Minister? Of course, there’s a new call for this from myself, because we know that on one hand we’ve got the issues with the NHS in terms of the worst accident and emergency waiting time, the longest ambulance waiting times, and the longest waiting times for treatment in the NHS in Wales’s history. So, on one hand there’s that to deal with and to respond to, and on the other hand, there is the vaccination programme roll-out, which also takes such pressure, of course, on your time as well, Minister.

In regard to the vaccinations, can I just ask a few questions around that in terms of the vaccination programme? At the briefing, of course, today, we heard Dr Richardson outline that there is sufficient supply in terms of the booster jab, which I think is positive news in that regard. The pressure now here is on getting that vaccination programme expanded and increased. I know that you've been reluctant to support walk-in vaccination centres previously and referred to them as free-for-alls, but, of course, the JCVI has now changed their advice in that all adults should now receive the booster vaccination, and the shortened time period now between the second dose and the booster jab. So, I wonder if you would revisit that approach as well and also comment on the fact that, of course, some health boards across Wales are actually running walk-in booster centres. So, there is a different approach across Wales in some regards, but will you now fully put your weight behind the walk-in booster centres, which I certainly think is the right approach? If you are in agreement as well, can you provide any update in regards to the reopening of mass vaccination centres across Wales? I think they should be; I'd appreciate your view on that. I wonder if you also agree with me, Minister, in terms of the importance of increasing volunteers to work within the NHS and to support the vaccination programme. I wonder if you could provide us with what actions the Government is taking to reactivate the NHS COVID volunteers operation also.

Keeping education open, of course, is a priority for myself and for my colleagues on this side of the Chamber. I think it is for you as well, Minister. I agreed with the education Minister yesterday evening in terms of expanding face coverings in education and in colleges. Can I ask for a firmer commitment that schools will remain open? We know we're in an uncertain period, but can I ask for a commitment on easing restrictions such as vaccination passports if the new variant proves no more dangerous than delta? I think the public will want to know that. And also, can I ask for an update in regard to issues previously outlined around COVID passes and the difficulty of obtaining them? There are issues about the length of time, people wanting additional support with a telephone line, a support line—if you can update us on that—and also in terms of COVID certification. A constituent raised a specific issue with me in terms of having one vaccination in Scotland and the second vaccination in Wales. I think you are aware of this problem, because it's previously been raised, but if you could update us on the potential to make sure NHS Scotland and NHS Wales are talking to each other, to make sure that people can receive COVID certifications in order for them to carry out their work, which is the situation in this case.

And finally, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the booster jabs in terms of—. The concern that I have, Minister, is that pushing the COVID passes without that scientific basis could potentially undermine confidence in Government when it comes to other directions from Government. I'm concerned that that could potentially undermine any further restrictions that you need to bring forward in terms of this new variant in regard to the scientific basis behind COVID vaccinations, which, of course, is fully supported. So, effectively, Minister, the scientific evidence behind decisions is absolutely crucial for the public to understand.

15:50

Diolch yn fawr, Russell. Just to make it absolutely clear: I'm very aware of the precarious situation we are in in relation to the NHS as we enter winter, which is, traditionally, a very challenging time anyway, but, obviously, this year we have the added pressures that have built due to the pandemic. We're concerned about the possible flu outbreak; there are already very significant calls on A&E. So, what we're going to try and do here is to try and ensure that on top of all of that, we don't see an additional wave of this new omicron variant hitting our hospitals. So, what we're doing is listening to the advice of the JCVI—they are the scientific experts who are telling us, 'Go early and get people vaccinated before any potential wave hits us'. So, we are listening to that advice.

In terms of a vaccination Minister, obviously, that is a call for the First Minister. If I were to say something, I would say that, actually, it's the First Minister who is the vaccination Minister, because he takes such a very, very active interest in the vaccination programme. He has weekly meetings where he interrogates the officials to make sure that we're on top of that, and I would suggest that that's part of the reason why we have one of the most successful vaccination programmes in the entire world. So, it is something where I'm very confident that our vaccination Minister, who is, indeed, the First Minister, is doing a very good job. In terms of the supply, we were very pleased to see and have had confirmed that there is a plentiful supply of both Pfizer and Moderna, which are the two vaccines that are being recommended. 

In terms of walk-in centres, I've got the JCVI advice here and I'll read exactly what it says. It says that the

'Booster vaccination should now be offered in order of descending age groups, with priority given to the vaccination of older adults and those in a COVID-19 at-risk group.'

That's what the JCVI are saying and that's why we're following their advice. The walk-in centres are a bit of a free-for-all; we are following the advice of the JCVI. If we are going to go further, obviously, we are going to mount now a massive response in terms of how we mobilise this new vaccination army that we will be developing in the next few days. We've already, obviously, spoken to our health boards who are coming up with more detailed plans for us tomorrow. Discussions have already been had with local government, with the army, with all kinds of organisations to see what more can we put in place and who's up for this—who is up for helping us out at this very challenging time. 

We've always said that schools will be the last things to close. We're doing our utmost to try and keep them open, and I was very pleased to see that the education Minister made that announcement yesterday. We will do everything that we can to try and keep our children in school. Obviously, if we find out that this is not a serious variant and it doesn't impact us too negatively, then we will respond in a way that is appropriate. Because we don't know the situation, I think it's absolutely right for us to err on the side of caution.

In relation to the COVID pass, the telephone line, we know, has been under real pressure. I hope Members received a letter from me outlining what we're planning to do there. There's been a recruitment drive to try and increase the number of people who are available to answer the phones. We're putting a patch in to make sure that we can just manage people better. We are aware of the situation in terms of the COVID certificates and the difficulty of somebody who's had one vaccine, perhaps, in Wales, and another in Scotland. England and Wales should be speaking to each other. It is still difficult for the Welsh and the Scottish system, but we are aware of that and we're working on that. In relation to the COVID pass, I'm not going to apologise for the fact we have introduced this COVID pass in areas where lots of people congregate. We know that the virus just thrives in areas where lots of people congregate indoors, and so I'm not going to apologise for that. What we will do is to determine and to address the situation, of course, in our three-weekly 21-day review process, but if we were to see that the situation changed quickly, obviously we may need to bring in measures more quickly than that. We're not in that place yet, but we're, obviously, keeping an eye on the situation as the days go on.

15:55

Thank you very much, Deputy Llywydd. Thank you for today's update. This is another twist in the tale of this pandemic, and as we've just heard, it's a development that certainly needs to be taken seriously. It's a matter of concern that there is evidence that it can reinfect those who have already had COVID-19 or have been double vaccinated, as we've already heard. But these are early days, of course, and it's important to bear that in mind too. There's a great deal of learning to be done.

I think I have around six questions, in case you want to take a note of them. Just on a practical level, can we have confirmation that the laboratories doing the bulk of the testing work in Wales can identify this new variant so that we are informed at an early stage of the situation here?

And secondly, one thing that I know a care home in my constituency is keen to know: do we now know whether lateral flow tests can identify this variant? It's clear why they're concerned about that. They have, by the way, written to the Minister asking about support in introducing PCR testing machines that can work within 90 minutes, and I look forward to seeing the Minister's response on that.

I think it's shocking that the UK Prime Minister rejected a request to work on a four-nation basis in response to this variant. There have been decisions that have had to be taken in common across the four nations, on international travel, for example. I certainly agree with the decision to make it a requirement to wear face coverings.

In schools in Wales, something that has been decided here in Wales for secondary schools and colleges, one specific question: can I have an assurance whether that requirement for wearing a face covering in schools and colleges is a legal requirement? There was some uncertainty raised with me on that particular issue.

The Government is right to change the self-isolation rules, and to tighten those rules once again, but, just another specific question, what additional support, financial or otherwise, is the Welsh Government considering offering to people to ensure that they are able to isolate effectively? It's a question that we've asked a number of times over the past year and three quarters. It may be arising as an important question once again here.

Moving to the new JCVI advice, yes, certainly we need to accelerate and expand the vaccination process. I think we've heard a suggestion from the Minister as to how determined she is to shift gear in terms of that vaccination process. May I ask what additional resources will be available to do that, the financial resources and other resources?

And a theme I return to again: can we have a clear communications programme so that people do have a clear idea of when they are likely to get their vaccination, and what to do then if they haven't been invited when they should have been invited? I accept what the Government says, that we need to go through people in terms of priority, but people are eager to get this vaccination and they need to know when their turn is likely to come about. And if something has gone wrong, then it's right that they should know to pick up the phone or to just inform the authorities that they've been missed. I think that's an important part of the process.

Finally, I'd like to draw the Minister's attention to serious concerns that have been raised this afternoon about the physical and mental well-being of the players and staff of Cardiff Rugby club—those concerns were raised on social media by ITV Wales sports correspondent Beth Fisher, who was reporting about grave concerns for the team who are still out in South Africa. Of course, they want to return home and, of course, we would have to have a testing and quarantine system in place for them to return home, but can the Minister tell us what she is doing to facilitate their return to Wales as soon as is possible?

16:00

Thank you very much. Just to make it clear, some laboratories in the UK can't yet identify the new variant through PCR. So, we're just trying to ensure that we know which laboratories those are. Of course, there's a big one in Wales, and that would be in a situation where they would be able to identify it.FootnoteLink

We're not sure if LFTs can do that yet, but work done in Germany so far shows that it's likely that they will be able to. But, we've only known about this situation for six days, so that work is being done across the world. That's an important point.

In terms of the self-isolation changes, the rules and the financial support, we've discussed very broadly that we will need to do something in this area, but we're not at that point yet, so we haven't had any agreement on that.

Regarding face coverings in schools, it is a recommendation in guidance, just so that people understand what that means.

And then, regarding when people will receive their booster vaccine, it's a very complex programme already, before we have this additional major programme, so we are asking people to be patient. We will, in time, be saying, 'Well, if you haven't heard so far, if you're in this category, then you should get in touch.' But we're not at that point yet. So, at present, I would ask people not to get in touch, because a lot of work is being done, and we need to focus on the big picture. We will get to you and we will let you know. If you're in a specific group and you think you've missed your turn, well, we haven't reached that point yet, so, please be patient, if possible.

And in terms of Cardiff Rugby, evidently, what happened is that South Africa has gone on the red list, so that means there is a legal requirement for them to isolate. Our responsibility as a Government is to keep the people of Wales safe, and so it's important that we do that by keeping the new variant out as long as possible. Of course, there are a lot of people across the world who are in the same situation as Cardiff Rugby, and so, we're aware that we do need to consider that they are in a tough situation, but we consider that there are other people in the same situation across the world, so we are keeping a watching brief on the situation.

The fact is that there is no hotel where they can self-isolate in Wales, and there is a clear reason for that—because, generally, there are no planes that are coming from the red-list countries, and Cardiff is not an airport where aeroplanes from red-list countries can land. It would be illegal. So, if that is the situation that we're in, well, that would mean that people have to land in England. It wouldn't make much sense in terms of health to take people from an airport in England to a hotel in Wales, and it's difficult to consider, at present, whether a hotel, just before Christmas, would be willing to change its status to a hotel that is willing to receive people from a red-list country, because that's the only thing they could do, and so Christmas would be over for them as a hotel and so, evidently, that is impossible for us to implement at present.

16:05

I also want to place my thanks to our healthcare workers again at this time, and also those involved with the booster vaccination programme. I do welcome the Welsh Government announcement that the booster programme will be extended to all adults, all children to be offered a second dose, and reducing the gap between the second dose and the booster from six down to three months. Minister, the emergence of the omicron virus is potentially a very serious concern. What actions will the Welsh Government take to accelerate the booster vaccination programme so that all Welsh adults can swiftly receive their booster earlier than originally envisaged? Thank you.

Thanks very much, Rhianon, and, of course, you'll be aware that we have a very clear programme, and now we're going to undertake all of the recommendations that have come from the JCVI. We will be expanding the vaccination programme, as I explained in my statement, to all adults aged 18 to 39 years old, in terms of the booster, and those who are severely immunosuppressed will be getting a fourth vaccine, effectively, and, as you say, children from 12 to 15 years old will be offered a second dose. So, yes, we are accelerating the programme very rapidly. We did have a target to try and reach all of those who were under 50 by the new year. We are going to try and supercharge the whole process as much as possible. We'll hopefully be able to give a bit more detail in the next week or so in terms of what our plans look like and what the expectation should be there, but, as I say, only six days so far, and I can assure you that our teams have been working all weekend on this already.

16:10

Most of my questions have been answered, so I won't waste too much time, but I, too, would also like to be associated with sharing my thanks to the NHS staff and social care staff who have done so much and are going to do, sadly, an awful lot more.

And thank you for your statement today. The area that I was going to pick up on was only on the back of several very concerned elderly residents who are really anxious that they've been struggling to get a COVID pass, and they are planning to have Christmas events with family and now fear that they perhaps won't be able to because a new expectation may come in that COVID passes have to be used in the hospitality sector. And I think I saw that replicated on the news somewhere earlier today, where hostelries are already finding there are cancellations of things. Now, I know that is perhaps an inevitable outcome of heightened concern, as we have at the moment, but I'm not sure, Minister, if you can say anything further about any intention to extend the COVID pass system into the hospitality sector. I know you'll review it on a three-weekly basis, but some of that clarity would be really helpful for elderly people who did not have a proper Christmas last year, and this will perhaps be the first time they have one, and they're really worried that they're going to have to cancel because they won't be able to get their pass if it is needed. Thank you. 

Thanks, Peter. We're all desperate for a good Christmas this year, aren't we? We were deprived of it last year, and I know in particular lots of old people love and really look forward to that time with their families. I would urge people to understand that it's a COVID pass, so not only can you use the pass, which demonstrates that you've had the vaccination, but also you can use a lateral flow test. Now, at the moment, the threat in Wales is actually the delta variant. Let's not forget, that's not gone away. We're still at a rate where we're just under 500 cases per 100,000. So, people need to take seriously the fact that actually COVID is still alive and well in our communities. So, they can take a lateral flow test if they're having difficulty there, but of course we'll do all we can to try to improve the situation in relation to getting that paper pass, if that would be helpful to them. 

And just on the hospitality situation, obviously this is something that we will review in the light of the 21-day review. 

Minister, it's crucial now that the difficulties that I'm sure we, as Members, have all heard of in terms of getting the booster and these concerns that we've discussed this afternoon are resolved. A constituent of mine in her late seventies suffers from a serious allergy, and this is clear on her medical records and it was taken into account when she had the first two vaccinations. She has been invited for a booster jab and, having gone every step from Cwm-gwrach to the centre in Swansea, she was turned away because she couldn't be dealt with there. Then, she was invited by her GP for the booster, and the same thing happened again. She was informed that the allergy team would contact her, but she is still waiting, and it's been some weeks now. She has no way—and I've looked at this myself—to contact the allergy team to know exactly when she will get an appointment and where. So, I would like to know what the Government is doing to ensure that these vulnerable people in all parts of Wales are properly protected and fully protected, particularly given the concern about this new variant. Thank you. 

Thank you very much, Sioned. It's obviously difficult for me to talk about any individual case, but what I do recognise is that it has been more difficult this time to go to specific people in their own homes, because you have to wait for 15 minutes after you have the vaccination. So, that's not the case in this particular case, but I do think it's important—and it's good to see that she has responded to that request when she was called, and I would think that it would make sense for her to carry on going to the people who understand the allergy system and how that would affect her. 

I actually had my Pfizer booster on Sunday. But in your written statement last night, 'COVID-19 Vaccination—JCVI further advice on boosters', you stated that you have accepted the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation in line with the other nations of the UK. What assurance can you therefore provide for the constituent who stated this morning, 'I'm trying to rebook my booster vaccine from 18 December to 11 December as I'm travelling to France on 19 December and, to enter France, I have to have had my booster seven days beforehand. I'm going around in circles with the Welsh COVID vaccine line. Please can you help? It takes hours to get through and then no-one is able to change it. I've just called the COVID line again and they said their systems have not yet been updated and they cannot book me earlier than the date I have. Am I able to try and get an appointment in England? This is becoming a nightmare. I've been trying since Friday and keep being told that the Welsh systems have not been updated yet and to call back next day.'

16:15

Thanks very much, Mark, and I would like to remind your constituent that, actually, the travel advice from the Welsh Government is don't do it—don't travel abroad. This is not the time to travel abroad, particularly when we have this new variant that we know very little about. So, we obviously are not going to change our whole system to try and fast-track somebody who is going against Welsh Government advice; that probably wouldn't make any sense politically for us. So, I'm afraid your constituent will have to remain in line, as everybody else does, and we will do it on the basis that the JCVI has advised us, that is, in order of of age and vulnerability.

Thank you very much, Deputy Llywydd, and thank you for your statement this afternoon, Minister. I just want to second Russell George's comments in that I do appreciate that you've got a lot on your plate and you're dealing with a very complex and ever-changing situation, so I do acknowledge that.

So, Minister, do you agree with me that, although we need to be cautious, we don't need to panic? We simply don't know enough about this new variant, but early indications show that fully vaccinated individuals are more likely to experience mild symptoms. Therefore, the best defence we have is to ramp up boosters, and it was only lunchtime today that Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that we should be throwing everything at these booster jabs and it's promising to see that you're sharing the same enthusiasm on a cross-border basis. So, Minister, what steps are you taking to ensure that all care staff are fully vaccinated? Because the latest figures from Public Health Wales show that less than 63 per cent of care staff are fully vaccinated, compared to nearly 80 per cent of health workers. Minister, with visitors to care homes having to show a negative test before they can visit, do you agree that the staff are the most likely infection carriers for the care home residents? Therefore, will you commit to ensuring that booster jabs will be offered and supplied to all care home staff before Christmas? Thank you.

Thanks very much. You're absolutely right; we're being cautious and we're not panicking. That's absolutely where the Welsh Government is at the moment. We are ramping up our vaccination approach and all care staff should have been offered the vaccine by now. So, obviously, sometimes, people are not in the right place at the right time and so we just need to keep going back at them and to make sure that they are taking up that opportunity. But just to point out that, irrespective of whether they've had the booster, they of course will be requested to take regular tests because they're working in a very vulnerable environment.

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

Plenary was suspended at 16:19. 

16:25

The Senedd reconvened at 16:28, with the Deputy Presiding Officer in the Chair.

6. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Social Services: Age Friendly Wales: Our strategy for an Ageing Society

Welcome back. The next item is a statement by the Deputy Minister for Social Services: 'Age Friendly Wales: Our Strategy for an Ageing Society'. And I call on the Deputy Minister, Julie Morgan. 

Diolch. 'Age Friendly Wales: Our Strategy for an Ageing Society' was published on 7 October. following an extensive programme of engagement with older people and their representatives. The strategy sets out our vision for an age-friendly Wales, which supports people of all ages to live and age well. The strategy challenges ageist stereotypes of older people as passive recipients of health and social care, and I am concerned that the pandemic may have helped to embed such stereotypes in people’s minds. It's all too easy to overlook the many ways older people support our communities to flourish.

We should not forget that many older people living with dementia are cared for by their partner, siblings or a neighbour who are often older too, or that many working adults rely on grandparents for childcare. The value of older volunteers certainly became clear during the pandemic, as many charities struggled to cope without their support. Before COVID-19, older people’s contribution to the Welsh economy was estimated to be over £2 billion a year.

The strategy for an ageing society aims to change the way we all think and feel about ageing. We want to create a Wales where everyone looks forward to growing older, a Wales where individuals can take responsibility for their own health and well-being whilst feeling confident that support will be available and easily accessible if needed.

Thanks to groundbreaking developments in health and technology, the global population of people aged over 60 has been growing faster than any other age group, but the pandemic showed how easily these gains can be taken away. It also showed how important it is that different generations understand each other, so they can pull together at times of crisis and play to our strengths as strong, vibrant communities across Wales. Working in partnership across generations, sectors and communities is fundamental to the creation of an age-friendly Wales.

To turn our vision into reality this year, we've allocated £550,000 to local authorities to support their work to become age-friendly and to gain membership of the World Health Organization's network of age-friendly cities and communities. To gain membership, local authorities must show how they are engaging with older people. Our vision is shared with the Older People's Commissioner for Wales, who is providing valuable support and guidance to local authorities as they work towards age-friendly status.

The United Nations' principles for older people have informed the development of this strategy and run throughout it. I want Wales to be a nation that celebrates age and, in line with the UN principles, a nation that upholds the independence, participation, care, self-fulfilment and dignity of older people at all times. This year, we will allocate £100,000 to promote awareness of older people's rights and inspire a common understanding of the transformative effects of a rights-based approach.

We are fortunate that we have a firm grasp on the circumstances of older people in Wales. In 2019, we commissioned the internationally recognised Centre for Innovative Ageing at Swansea University to benchmark the situation of older people in Wales against the other three UK nations. This measure was updated in 2021. The centre used a range of measures to create a UK age index and the results show that Wales was ranked first, with the highest overall score, followed by Scotland, England and finally Northern Ireland. This shows that there is much that we are doing well, and we should feel proud that our commitment to support older people is clearly evidenced.

In addition, the Older People's Commissioner for Wales's state of the nation reports of 2019 and 2021 offer a firm statistical and empirical grounding to build on, which charts the impact of COVID-19. Collectively, these reports provide a clear indication of where action is needed to improve lives for older people across Wales.

Older people have been directly involved in creating this strategy and will be involved in its delivery via my ministerial advisory forum on ageing. We will put the voice and experience of older people at the heart of our policy process and continue to support five national older people's groups and forums, hosted by Age Cymru. Collectively, their work helps us to understand and respond to the key issues affecting older people today.

We will work across Government to address the wide range of factors that influence how we age, from our health, social care and transport systems to the way we socialise, work and care for others. The strategy aims to unlock the potential of today’s older people and tomorrow's ageing society. Work is already under way to develop a delivery plan setting out clear actions, milestones and timescales to monitor the strategy's implementation.

This strategy is about how we look to the future, based on sound knowledge and understanding—a strategy developed with and for the people of Wales. By acknowledging and valuing the contributions of all older people in Wales, we can reject ageism and work across generations to create an age-friendly Wales.

16:30

Thank you very much, Deputy Llywydd, and thank you very much for your statement this afternoon, Deputy Minister. I also welcome the age-friendly Wales strategy—I mean, what's not to like with it really—apart from the fact that we have yet another aspirational strategy with very little detail on how we will achieve that strategy or targets to measure our progress against. When will we see an action plan and deliverable targets? We should have an age-friendly Wales today, not in some yet-to-be-decided timescale. Older people in Wales, the very ones who helped inform your strategy, need action now, not yet more committees, ministerial panels or focus groups.

In the weeks following the publication of your document, Deputy Minister, the Welsh Government have continued to pursue age-unfriendly policies. You introduced vaccine passports for theatres and cinemas, yet older people struggle to get through on the line established to supply paper passes to those who don't have a smartphone. Yesterday, your Government announced that, from today, it would add the booster jab status to the vaccine passports, but older people wishing to travel overseas to visit loved ones over Christmas are out of luck because the status won't be added to paper passes until some time in January. Is this an age-friendly Welsh Government?

Why then do older people spend much longer in our A&E departments? The average waiting time in A&E for those over the age of 85 is seven hours and 47 minutes—almost double the target wait. Deputy Minister, you say that your strategy is informed by the United Nations' principles for older persons, but you have refused to support my calls to enshrine these principles in a rights-based approach to services for older people in Wales, so you can't say one thing and then vote against it in practice.

In the next 10 to 15 years, the number of people over the age of 65 who struggle with day-to-day activities is set to grow by over a third. Do you believe that your Government can deliver a health and care service that can meet this growing need? Deputy Minister, when it comes to health and care in Wales, we should be spending around £1.18 for every pound spent in England to meet the added needs of our older population, yet recent figures from Audit Wales show that spending is around