Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

08/12/2021

The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:30 with the Dirprwy Lywydd (David Rees) in the Chair.

Statement by the Deputy Presiding Officer

Welcome, everyone, to the Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in a hybrid format, with some Members in the Senedd Chamber and others joining by video-conference. All Members participating in proceedings of the Senedd, wherever they may be, will be treated 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. These are noted on the agenda.

1. Questions to the Minister for Climate Change

The first item this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Climate Change, and the first question is from Samuel Kurtz.

Inland Water Quality

1. What measures is the Welsh Government taking to improve inland water quality in Wales? OQ57333

Investment, legislative drivers and a robust regulatory framework has led to 42 per cent of our inland waters achieving good ecological status. We are committed to improving water quality but we cannot do this alone. We need to take an integrated catchment approach, focusing on multisector co-operation and nature-based solutions.

Diolch yn fawr, Weinidog, and good afternoon. I'm sure you'll join me in welcoming the recent improvements that were adopted in the UK Environment Bill to improve inland water quality in England, in particular the legal duty that is placed on water companies to progressively reduce the impact of permitted and non-permitted discharges from combined sewage overflows, known more commonly as CSOs. Had I been fortunate enough to have been drawn in the Member's legislative proposal ballot, I was intending to bring forward an inland waterways Bill—a draft piece of legislation that strives for cleaner rivers, seas and lakes here in Wales. With that in mind, what action is the Welsh Government taking to place a duty on water companies to take all reasonable steps to ensure that sewage is not being discharged into our streams and rivers and to also increase the number of Welsh inland bathing waters classified as 'good' or 'excellent'?

Well, I think there are a couple of misconceptions there. The first is confusing England for Wales, which is a very common problem on the benches opposite. The UK Government has legislated to set targets for water companies in England to reduce sewage discharges and water quality. The assumption and the widespread perception on the opposite benches that that's the main cause of poor water quality in Wales is just not borne out by the evidence. 

We've done a series of pieces of work, including the phosphates compliance assessments, which I notice the Member opposed and, indeed, accused Plaid Cymru of betraying Welsh farmers by dropping their opposition to them. So, his sudden interest in inland water quality is quite an interesting one. I think he would be better off having a seriously good look at what we are doing to improve the entire catchment area water quality to make sure that we understand the causes of the pollution and that we are able to stop them at source rather than making the kind of generalised remarks that are very unhelpful.

One of the major problems regarding inland water quality is discharge into rivers, which then goes into lakes. A serious concern raised with me by my constituents is Welsh water discharge into the River Tawe at the Trebanos treatment works in the Neath constituency, which affects water in my constituency, because the water from Trebanos comes down until it hits the sea in your constituency, Minister. What discussions has the Minister had with Welsh water regarding discharge into rivers?

Yes, thank you, Mike Hedges. As Mike Hedges will know, we've got a very good overflow scheme, which is a natural solution in his constituency, I think it is, at the top, which benefits my constituency. And that's a very good example of catchment area approaches, because obviously the river flows through a large number of different areas of Wales. It's very important therefore to make sure that we have sustainable nature-based solutions to divert, as he says, as much surface water as possible away from the sewerage systems in the first place to avoid the overflow that he speaks of.

We've taken a number of steps to tackle discharges from overflows. This includes making sustainable drainage systems, or SuDS, mandatory on almost all new building developments. The purpose of this is to relieve pressure on the network by redirecting and slowing down the speed at which such surface water enters the sewage system and it will help ensure that our storm overflows are used only as a very last resort.

As we speak, the water companies are preparing drainage and waste water management plans, which will be published for public consultation at the beginning of next year. The plans will provide a mechanism for water companies, local authorities and landowners to work together to develop a resilient and affordable waste water network to identify evidence-based priorities for investment.

I have had a number of meetings with Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water. I understand that they have investigated high-spilling combined overflows in the River Tawe as part of their storm overflow assessment framework investigations. Natural Resources Wales is working with the water companies to ensure investment is targeted appropriately. They also ensure that using nature-based solutions, which will reduce discharges from overflows and deliver wider environmental and social benefits, are taken into account when planning the network.

13:35
Wind Turbines

2. Will the Minister provide an update on pre-assessed areas for wind turbines in Wales? OQ57313

'Future Wales' identifies 10 pre-assessed areas for wind energy developments of national significance. There are currently 10 developments of national significance in progress within or partly within the pre-assessed areas. Eight are at the pre-application stage, one is at the notification stage, and one is at the report stage.

Thank you, Minister. A RenewableUK Cymru analysis report has recently highlighted that, when spatial limitations are applied, such as proximity to housing, Ministry of Defence training areas, main river corridors, and even proximity to other windfarm developments, which would be applied during any planning application process, then the actual usable land that's available for windfarm developments within these pre-assessed areas drastically decreases to only 5 per cent, reducing the capacity to generate electricity from wind to only 20 per cent of what is predicted. This is, in effect, a major shortcoming of your renewable generation strategy, and, given that the Welsh Government's target is to generate 70 per cent renewable energy by 2030, it will no doubt seriously hinder the ability of that target to be met. With this in mind, can the Minister confirm whether or not she knows of these limitations, and whether or not the pre-assessed areas will need to be re-evaluated as a result? Thank you.

Well, I set out in my initial response to you that we have 10 developments of national significance in progress, which is very good news, considering the length of time that 'Future Wales' has been in place. So, I appreciate the point you're making, but it's not borne out by the number of applications we currently have inside the system. I'd just like to also point out that the pre-assessed areas are not necessarily the only place you can build a windfarm or any other renewable in Wales; there are just slightly different planning assumptions made in those areas. So, there's nothing at all to stop anyone bringing forward a solution elsewhere in Wales, but they will of course have to go through the process.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson first, Janet Finch-Saunders.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Good afternoon, Minister. Now, in a recent virtual round-table I held with Propertymark, it was predicted that there's going to be a huge increase in people looking for rental properties. And I would like to refer Members and members of the public to my own register of interests. This is causing immense pressure for front-line staff in the sales and letting sector, because there are very few properties to rent or buy. Holmans recommend that up to 12,000 homes a year need to be built in Wales by 2031, yet the figures for dwellings completed in 2018-19 was 30.6 per cent less than at the start of devolution. Now, this is a downward decline. Yet, in your letter to the leaders and chief executives, to local authorities, on 17 November, you stated,

'It appears that we are already building the number of market homes we need'.

So, how can this be the case, when only 5,138 new homes were started in 2019? And with this in mind, Minister, do you accept that the appropriate way to respond to the property crisis in Wales would be through empowering existing businesses to build new market homes, rather than wasting time and resources on creating your own national construction company?

Well, the juxtaposition of the two things at the end is quite startling, so I'll deal with that first. The idea that a national construction company would somehow get in the way of building new homes is quite extraordinary. We have yet, as part of the co-operation agreement, to explore with our Plaid Cymru partners exactly how we're going to use the construction company. But we have had a large number of conversations with our registered social landlords and our councils about the shortage of skilled labour, the difficulty of getting good apprentices in place, and the paucity of very good advice about bringing forward developments in good time. So, we will have a very productive conversation with Plaid Cymru about how to fill in gaps where there has been market failure, and other issues where we can bring forward housing in an appropriate way.

The evidence is really interesting, actually, from the Labour Government after the second world war, elected by the returning troops, that an enormous increase in social house building actually stimulated the private market and didn't depress it in any way. The graphs are very interesting, and we are absolutely certain that we will be doing the same thing with our ambitious 20,000 social homes programme. 

13:40

Thank you. Minister, on the one hand, you see yourself capable of going into competition with some of our finest builders using taxpayers' money, but, on the other hand, you are actually holding back on the number of homes that we are able to build due to your own or NRW's phosphate guidance. Attendees at the phosphate stakeholders group that I chair made clear that NRW are essentially blocking as many as 10,000 new homes across Wales, including 1,700 of those affordable homes. The cabinet member for planning in Pembrokeshire County Council has reported that the number of applications refused due to NRW guidance will rise sharply in the next few months. Last month, you told this Senedd, and I quote,

'I've got absolutely no problem with NRW's'—

[Interruption.] I'm talking to the Minister, not the Deputy. 

—'with NRW's guidance on the subject.' 

So, will you now retract that statement, and block, or unblock the block, unlock the block—[Laughter.]—of thousands of new homes by authorising exceptions to this guidance, and empower planning authorities to accept phosphate stripping technology in waste water treatment assets as reasonable solutions? 

Well, Janet, I just don't know where to start. First of all, you started with an assessment of the national construction company, which clearly indicated you weren't listening to the answer I had just given you. Quite clearly, I did not say anything about setting up in competition with any of our SME builders, who we have an extremely good relationship with, and who I have a consultative forum with, which I attended extremely recently to discuss it with them. So, let me just put that one to bed. There is absolutely no suggestion of any sort that any public company will be set up as a competitor in the construction market for our SMEs. So, I think you should have listened to that, and be very assured that that's not the case. What I did say very vehemently was that there are a number of market failures, gaps in skills, and things that have been brought to our attention by both council and RSL house builders and by the SME building forum, where it is profitable to have a conversation about a national construction company filling in the gaps. It's a conversation we have yet to have with Plaid Cymru, following the co-operation agreement, and I'll be sure, Deputy Presiding Officer, to bring it forward to the Senedd when we are able to bring the Senedd up to speed on that. 

On the other point, Janet Finch-Saunders has often said that she is in favour of the climate emergency and the solutions that come forward to it, and yet she blocks at every turn every single solution put forward. I will just leave the Welsh public to reach their own conclusions about her sincerity on this point. 

Minister, it is abundantly clear from your responses that, alongside failing to facilitate a much needed house building boom in Wales, you are actively supporting guidance that is holding the sector back. The urgent need to see more new homes delivered is clear when considering the financial black hole that is the temporary home crisis facing our local authorities. I've written to 22 local authorities—FOIs. And the figures—I've yet more to come out on this—are a scandal, and they're startling. For example, Caerphilly County Borough Council have seen their spend on temporary accommodation increase from £174,000 in 2018-19 to just over £1.2 million in 2020-21, and that is not an isolated incident. Gwynedd's spend on temporary accommodation has similarly increased by 265 per cent from 2018-19 to 2020-21, hitting almost £1.7 million. Minister, given that your statement on homelessness last week said you wish to strengthen links between local authorities and the private sector, will you commit to undertaking a deep-dive with local authorities to review how to more effectively provide long-term homes for our much needed residents? Diolch. 

So, again, Janet, I almost admire your ability to put two facts together and make three completely different ones with no relation to the original two. So, we have an ambitious social home building programme of 20,000 low-carbon social homes in the next Senedd term. This is now possible because, after 40 years of preventing councils from building houses, the Tory Government eventually saw sense and took off the caps from the housing revenue accounts. So, I applaud you for having seen sense after only 40 years of ploughing the same furrow.

The next bit of sense you need to see is that the social homes programme and the zero-carbon homes programme is the thing that stimulates the housing market, and that we need to build the right houses of the right standard in the right place, and not just put up any old nonsense all across the countryside, as is proposed across the border. I absolutely applaud all of the agencies working here, including our SME builders, who have been working very hard with us to bring forward that programme. My colleague the Deputy Minister has launched a pipeline for construction across Wales, which has allowed them to fill in the cash flow problems that they have, and we have a very good relationship with them.

On the homelessness point, we provide £1.8 million a month to councils in Wales to combat homelessness brought on by the COVID pandemic. I would that her Government across the border would do anything of the sort and solve the appalling scandal of rough-sleeping that you get under a Conservative Government. 

13:45

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Last week, the head of Transport for Wales said that travelling on their trains was fundamentally safe. Welsh Government guidance states that the following measures need to be followed to ensure COVID safety: keeping distance from other people, avoiding crowded spaces, good ventilation when in close proximity to others, and wearing face coverings. So, are these measures being followed on trains? I asked commuters for their experiences over social media, and these are some of the phrases from the responses I received: 'Crammed carriages, nobody wearing masks'; 'People crammed like sardines'; 'Impossible to ensure COVID safety'; 'Like a cattle cart and little mask wearing'; '90 per cent not wearing masks on the Rhymney line'; and 'Windows shut with no ventilation'. One person said they thought they'd caught COVID on an overcrowded TfW train between Chester and Bangor a few weeks ago. Another said she had a panic attack on the train during the last rugby game day because so many people were stood and crammed on the train. I was also sent pictures, Minister, of crammed carriages with little or no mask wearing. So, Minister, do you agree with the head of Transport for Wales that travelling on trains in Wales is fundamentally safe?

Thank you. I think the full quote, to give him fairness, was to acknowledge that there were considerable challenges of overcrowding, and some passengers were refusing to wear masks despite the very clear guidelines, but fundamentally, the trains are safe, given the cleaning regimes put in place, and given all the other things that Transport for Wales are doing to follow the guidelines. They're making extraordinary efforts, but there is no doubt that there are challenges, and there are a number of reasons for that.

You quoted the issue of the rugby matches that were held by the Welsh Rugby Union late in the evening when they knew full well that there would be limited train services following the game, which would create, clearly, a pressure on the system. There are also other problems hitting the rail industry at the moment, where trains are being cancelled and carriages being damaged because of the storms and because of the weather. In fact, on the train I caught up to Glasgow, one was taken out of service because it hit a pheasant on the line. Now, that is not TfW's fault. There's also a challenge around staff absences because of self-isolation, so there's no doubt that the public transport system is under great pressure at the moment. 

The issue of mask wearing is ultimately one of personal responsibility. There are people claiming to be exempt from mask wearing when, clearly, that is not the case. But it is almost impossible to prove that. We have, working with British Transport Police, measures in place to enforce mask wearing, and a number of people have been removed from services when challenged and not able to provide a valid excuse. I think there are a confluence of conditions all converging to make things very challenging, but public transport remains a safe mode of transport. But there's no doubt that, sometimes in the day, services are crowded.  

Minister, I fully agree that we need to be cognisant of the various challenges that the transport sector is facing. Regardless of whose fault these risks are, I struggle to see how it can be said that trains are fundamentally safe, but, maybe, at some times of the day, they're not. I saw last night that someone was quoting George Orwell on Twitter, but it was in relation to No. 10's insistence that the now infamous COVID party didn't happen. Orwell said:

'The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.'

I know we need to move on, Minister, but if the health Minister is in the Chamber, I'd urge her to look at this as well, because I really think there is a mountain of evidence that taking a train in Wales can mean taking a significant COVID risk. 

But to move on, Minister, clearly the root cause of this terrible state of our train services is the continual underfunding of Welsh rail. The Wales Governance Centre has calculated that we've been underfunded to the tune of around £500 million over the past 10 years. But it does also seem that the Welsh Government has underdelivered on its promises, or perhaps previous Welsh Governments. When the franchise was awarded to KeolisAmey in 2018, it said that the railway would be unrecognisable in five years, thanks to the vision of the Welsh Government. So, Minister, could you give us an update on how the railway will look in two years' time, now that it's in public ownership? Are we really going to see transformative improvements? And could you give us your view on how much agency the Government truly has over rail and how much is simply out of its hands because it doesn't control the funding?

13:50

There certainly are significant changes taking place for the better. Last week, we unveiled a new fleet of trains to replace the Pacers, and once you have the chance to go on them yourself, you'll see that it is a transformative passenger experience. We're also developing the south Wales metro programme, which is a huge civil engineering project—the largest infrastructure project that south Wales will have seen for many decades. So, there is no doubt that there is significant change at the agency of the Welsh Government. But also, we must acknowledge that COVID has disrupted plans in terms of collapsing the franchise—and certainly, the Welsh franchise wasn't the only franchise to fall apart under the strain of the disappearing farebox and the increasing cost pressures—and that has knocked back the delivery schedule that we had for increasing the timetable and for bringing new services forward. So, that is an inevitable fact for which we are deeply sorry, but that is out of our hands.

In terms of the underinvestment, the Member makes an absolutely bang-on point. The UK Government has consistently underinvested, and in the next programme of funding we are some £5 billion short of where we ought to be. As the First Minister touched upon in First Minister's questions again yesterday, the refusal of the UK Government to class high speed 2 as an England-only project, despite the fact that not a single mile of track is in Wales, is clearly having a massive effect on our ability to invest in the rail infrastructure. And I would say to Conservative Members in the Chamber that I remember full well the alliance that was forged in this Chamber on electrification some 10 years ago, when there was a genuine cross-party effort to bang the drum for Wales. I took part in the delegation before becoming a Senedd Member with Members of the Conservative Party to make that case to UK Ministers. It was effective, and we are strongest when we are united. I'd like to see a similar alliance to make the case, on fairness grounds, that Wales needs to be treated differently when it comes to the categorisation of high-speed rail. Otherwise, we're not going to be able to fulfil our joint ambitions to achieve net zero by 2050.

Minister, taking up that exact point, Wales could lose out on £5 billion due to being excluded from Barnett consequentials for HS2 spending. This, as you'll obviously know, represents around 5 per cent of the total expended expenditure of the project. It could, of course, be much higher if the cost spirals, which is likely. In the words of the Western Mail's Will Hayward, 

'The decision to count HS2, a once in a century investment, as England and Wales spend has condemned Wales to another century of a second class rail network.'

Even though the decision to exclude Wales from this funding, as you've been setting out, Minister, was made by a Conservative UK Government, past Labour Welsh Governments have also contributed to this mess. There was a decision in 2005 to refuse the devolution of rail, described as the worst decision in the history of devolution. And there was the inability, in the past, to understand Plaid Cymru's argument on HS2 a decade later, with Carwyn Jones insisting that Wales was receiving its HS2 consequential, even though setting the HS2 comparability factor for Wales at 0 per cent would see our comparability factor for Department for Transport spending plummet in the future, which is what we're seeing now. I'm sure that the current Labour Welsh Government is keen to—

Could you confirm, Minister, that the Welsh Government has received confirmation from Keir Starmer that a future Labour UK Government would provide Wales with the full Barnett share of HS2 expenditure, backdated to the first pound spent?

I've certainly, personally, consistently made the argument for the Barnett formula to reflect the spending in England and in Wales. In fact, I led a coalition of organisations to have the Holtham commission set up, using this as one of the examples. And when I was director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, I consistently made the case, so I'll take no lectures from the Member on that. But she is absolutely right that Westminster Governments of different parties have not recognised that Wales deserves more investment, and that's why I repeat my call to the Conservatives for all in this Chamber to come together to see if we can agree a cross-party call to the UK Government to think again on the way Wales is treated when it comes to rail investment.

13:55
Erosion Caused By Flooding

3. How does the Welsh Government support communities to tackle the consequences of erosion caused by flooding? OQ57318

The Welsh Government funds local authorities to reduce the risk posed to communities by coastal erosion. However, addressing the consequences of river erosion is the responsibility of the riparian landowners whose property adjoins or contains the watercourse. This is a principle that has been long established in common law. 

I wrote to you, Minister, on 7 October asking for a meeting to discuss a problem faced by residents in Caerphilly who face potential damage to their homes due to the problem of river erosion. Notwithstanding your answer, I'd just like to go through the scenario with you and ask for a response. One group of residents at Celyn Avenue in Caerphilly have experienced an increase in incidents of erosion and subsequent flooding in their gardens, which back on to the banks of the Nant yr Aber river. Natural Resources Wales have advised the residents that they can't access any funding or support for flooding because it's their gardens, as opposed to their homes, that are affected, so these properties are not accorded a high priority according to the flood risk management model. However, residents are concerned that their homes will be flooded eventually, because Nant yr Aber is rising and its banks are wearing away, not just on their property but below their property, which isn't part of their property, due to climate change and increased rainfall. Natural Resources Wales say they cannot legally spend public money on mitigating and preventing river erosion, only on flooding, and they don't have statutory powers to do so and can only work within the remit set for them by the Welsh Government. A key issue here is that the cost of repairing and putting this right for those properties in Celyn Avenue goes beyond the means—way beyond the means—of those residents who live there; they simply cannot afford it. They're elderly residents, they haven't got the money—

—to pay for it. So, I'd really welcome a meeting with you, Minister, to discuss this issue, particularly that of long-term erosion and consequences for properties. It's an issue we didn't have some time ago.

Well, Hefin David, I'm really sorry to hear of the impact that river erosion is having on your constituents. I understand that Natural Resources Wales has met with you and the affected residents, and you've just outlined the advice. Unfortunately, you are absolutely right; the riparian landowner is responsible. The riparian landowner is somebody whose property contains the watercourse or whose property is adjacent to or above the watercourse. That's been an established common law principle in England and Wales for over 200 years, so this isn't new law by any means. There is a guide published by Natural Resources Wales, titled 'A guide to your rights and responsibilities of riverside ownership in Wales'. We do invest money in alleviation of flood risk from rivers, but flood risk to properties—you're right—and not to gardens. So, you're quite right. I'm quite happy to meet with you to go through it, but I fear that you're correct in your assumption. Your constituents will have to take advice on whether their insurances or their lenders can help them. Otherwise, I really am afraid that we're at a bit of a loss as to how to help them, but I'm more than happy to meet with you and explore whether there is something that could be done.

I'd like to start by declaring an interest, as I'm a Denbighshire councillor until May 2022. I'm afraid I'm going to keep banging on about this and sound a bit like a broken record, because, you know, I've mentioned this question a couple of times in the past. The communities of Trefnant and Tremeirchion are still dealing with the consequences of the terrible flooding that resulted from storm Christoph at the start of the year. The vital link between these two communities in my constituency was eroded and washed away. It will be years before the historic Llanerch bridge is replaced, and only if Denbighshire County Council can secure the millions of pounds needed to fund the rebuilding efforts. So, Minister, will you commit your Government to providing the funding and work with the council in replacing this vital community link and essential active travel route as soon as possible?

I'm not entirely certain what that's got to do with erosion in riparian watercourses, but if the Member wants to write to me again and ask for a meeting, I'm happy to do so.

A number of communities on the shores of Llŷn have seen significant landslides over the past weeks and months. The most obvious was a landslide in Nefyn back in April, but there have been other cases across the region. Indeed, the British Geological Survey has allocated Nefyn as a landslide danger zone. These landslides are a threat to property and life, and cause real anxiety to residents of seaside communities. So, what assurances can you give the residents of Nefyn and the surrounding areas that are at threat of landslide that the Government and relevant bodies are undertaking the necessary work to safeguard life and property in the areas that are under threat such as Nefyn and other communities in Llŷn? Thank you.

14:00

Thank you for the question.

This is a really complicated area of law. So, sometimes, the river course is owned by someone, so sometimes the whole river course is owned by it. It's a fact of common law, though, that the edges of the river are owned by the properties adjacent to and containing the watercourse, unless there is an ability to show that the whole of the watercourse is owned by someone. So, it rather depends on how those ownerships pan out and what the infrastructure looks like above them. So, we have flood protection risks for properties and for infrastructure, but not unfortunately for gardens and for others types of land. So, I'm afraid it's a more complex question than that. I'd be happy to explore with the Member exactly what we're looking at.

Unfortunately, this is a consequence of the climate change emergency that we're all looking at. We're all experiencing greater amounts of rainfall, higher winds, really big problems with storms. So, again, my sympathies go out to the people who are suffering this. Our current system of flood protection extends, as I say, to flooding on properties and infrastructure of the sort, but not to the kind of erosion that Hefin David's constituencies are experiencing. I'd be very happy to explore further with you what can be done in certain circumstances, but I'm afraid it's very dependent on ownership patterns and other issues around the area.FootnoteLink

Town Centre Transformation

4. How is the Welsh Government supporting town centre transformation in South Wales Central? OQ57335

Thank you for the question.

Our Transforming Towns programme is supporting the long-term sustainability of our town and city centres by increasing footfall and making them attractive places to be. Town and city centres across the South Wales Central region have benefited from £13.8 million worth of Transforming Towns funding since January 2020.

Thank you, Deputy Minister. Last Saturday, I met with two of Wales's youth climate ambassadors, Leo and Alfred, who live in the Pontypridd area. Amongst the issues we discussed were town centres and how some current and planned developments seem to be missing opportunities to make our town centres greener and play a greater role in being part of our response to the climate and nature emergency, as well as improving air quality. They cited some innovative international examples such as vertical gardens, which go beyond tree planting and flower pots, and asked why Wales isn't doing more in this regard. They cited not only the benefits but also how communities can shape and take ownership of such projects to inspire residents and activism. I'm aware that you launched the ministerial town centre action group and sub-groups, which of course is welcomed to address the challenges faced by our town centres, but how will you ensure that responding to the climate and nature emergency is central to this group's work and that local authorities are supported and actively encouraged to be innovative and green in their own town centre developments?

I certainly agree with the challenge—and I thought the Member dealt brilliantly well with the heckling that she was getting from behind her and deserves points for that. [Laughter.]

I certainly think there are examples in regeneration projects of biophilic houses, there's certainly one in Swansea that looks very promising, and I certainly think that the youth climate ambassadors she's met with have a very strong argument, and I'd be keen to discuss with them and with her what more can be done. We have set up a ministerial town centre taskforce that I've asked to take forward the report by Professor Karel Williams and by Audit Wales into regenerating town centres, and I'd be very happy to ask them to look in particular at the points she makes and how they can build that into their work and recommendations. 

Deputy Minister, what assistance are you giving to partners to try and get energy charging points in town centres? Because if you go to out-of-town shopping centres, many of the private companies that occupy those shopping centres are installing charging points for electric vehicles. We know that Wales sadly lags behind in the installation of these charging points to other parts of the United Kingdom. It will require a joined-up approach; so, Government working with either local authorities or other business partners to see that town centres have these charging points so that they are attractive to people who have electric cars, as we know they're going to be increasingly used in the future. What actions are you taking to engage with partners to make sure there are more charging points in town centres across South Wales Central?

14:05

Well, I think we already are doing that. We’ve recently launched our action plan on electric charging, and we currently have a programme, this financial year, of investing in town centre charging points. And far from lagging behind England, as you suggest, in terms of the proportion of the electric cars we have in Wales, we have a roughly similar proportion of chargers available for the cars there are. Though, clearly, as the number of electric cars increases, as we all wish to see, then we need to keep pace with that and increase the investment. I agree with the point he makes, but I do think we are making reasonable progress.

Rail Services

5. What assessment has the Minister made of the quality of rail services in Wales? OQ57338

Diolch. Transport for Wales monitor on a monthly basis the customer satisfaction with their services along with all other train operators. TfW are currently mid table and are continually striving to improve services for passengers during what has been a challenging time with COVID and adverse weather events.

Thank you for that response. I'm a very regular user of train services. In my 10 years here in the Senedd, I've driven down some twice a year. I use the train almost without exception, but I have used the train three times in the last three weeks. Three weeks ago, I was two hours late getting back to north Wales. A fortnight ago, I was caught up in the difficulty and shambles of train services on a rugby weekend—I was over an hour late getting home. And last week, I was an hour late in getting to Cardiff. Now, I am one who wants to use trains, but I have to say that I am losing faith in the service and in the ability of Transport for Wales to run the service. So, you've promised improvements over years, as we've heard this afternoon, but how patient do you expect passengers to be, because by the time you get the service up and running to where we want it, most people will have already given up?

I'm sorry to hear what Llyr Gruffydd said about his own experience travelling on the train, and how it is shaking his confidence. Clearly, if that starts to happen, then we do have significant problems. I think we do need to be understanding about the range of pressures facing the train system in Wales, and across the UK at the moment. I don’t think Transport for Wales is particularly different in some of the things it has to cope with. There has been damage to a number of trains, which has reduced the rolling stock available, and the fact that Avanti West Coast are not reinstating services across north Wales has also had an impact and created some overcrowding. I think TfW are acutely conscious of it and are working hard on it. We can’t, as Llyr Gruffydd fairly mentioned in his question, run away from the long-term impact of underinvestment that we have had, and that is now showing itself. But there's no doubt that there are, in some services, particularly acute pressures at the moment, and TfW are working hard to resolve them.

Minister, will you join me in welcoming the news of the reintroduction of direct rail services from Crosskeys to Newport, from this Sunday, 12 December, in time for Christmas? This is no mean achievement, and will be the first direct passenger rail service from the communities of Islwyn to Newport in almost 60 years. I’ve campaigned since my election to reconnect rail services in Islwyn to Newport—the proud city of Gwent—and I’m delighted that the Welsh Labour Government is delivering on that promise it made to the people of Islwyn. Minister, what actions will Welsh Labour take to deliver on our promise of the new passenger rail service from Ebbw Vale to Newport, to ensure that citizens of Newbridge can directly be reconnected to Newport, our roads decongested, our valleys further greened, and our air cleaned?

Well, not only will I join you in welcoming the Crosskeys service, but, in fact, I am getting up at 6 o'clock on Monday morning in order to catch the Crosskeys railway service and to see it come into Newport, so I don’t think my commitment can be questioned by anyone in the Chamber. It is a perfect example of what we’ve been able to do, even though rail infrastructure is not devolved to Wales—to step in where the UK Government has failed to make sure that the people of our communities are given the service they deserve.

We were able to make a significant amount of money available this year to put investment forward into the extension towards Ebbw Vale. It does require action from the UK Government and Network Rail, and we are talking to them about speeding that up. I was very pleased to read in the report by Sir Peter Hendy in the 'Union Connectivity Review' the other week his recommendation: the UK Government do more to improve rail services into Wales and within Wales. He also significantly embraced the recommendations of the Burns review, to deal with congestion around Newport, and part of that involves investing in the Ebbw Vale rail link, and comprehensively rejected the suggestion of the Prime Minister that the UK Government should build an M4 over and above the heads of devolution, completely ignoring the democratic will of the people, and explicitly said that the public transport solution set out by the Welsh Government, through the South East Wales Transport Commission, was the right way ahead. So, I think the Welsh Conservatives should show a little humility in recognising that their own Government's report has rejected a call they've been loudly making in this Chamber, and I hope, together, we can move on and focus on public transport investment and looking at the UK Government playing its part in that.

14:10

At the weekend, I was contacted by a constituent who said, 'I took the train from Cardiff about 3.23 and arrived in Chester after midnight on a train that should've arrived at 6.23 p.m. Passengers and I think Transport for Wales were aware of the problem before we left Cardiff Central. This was 17 November.'

Last Monday, like Llyr, on the twenty-ninth, I pre-booked my ticket from Wrexham General down here, but I knew there were problems. I rang Transport for Wales, they confirmed my train had been cancelled but the next one was running as scheduled. When I arrived, myself and other passengers saw, on the overhead signage, right up until the time of arrival, that the train was on time. But, bang on the minute when the train was due, tannoy said, 'train cancelled'. We had to wait until another hour and a half for the next train in freezing cold weather, with the waiting room locked, because now Transport for Wales locks Wrexham waiting room from 6 p.m. The issue here is—I clearly understand that problems occur with track, and that has to be dealt with, but there was a failure of passenger care, a failure of passenger information, which could have prevented people having to stay on the platform for so long in such inclement circumstances. So, how can you propose to address that information issue, so that passengers are protected from similar situations occurring?

Well, I really am sorry to hear about that experience that the Member and his fellow passengers had, and that clearly isn't good enough. There are acute operational challenges being faced by Transport for Wales at the moment, and I think they need to reflect on his experience, and I will ask them to look into the circumstances in particular and take the point on board that he made, and the understanding he showed that when difficulties do occur, the communication is more important than at any other time. So, I think there are lessons to be learned from that, and I will speak to them and write to him about it.

Town Centre Regeneration

6. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's priorities for town centre regeneration? OQ57321

Thank you. Our Transforming Towns programme continues to deliver our priorities for town centres, which include repurposing empty buildings, improving the diversity of services, increasing flexible living and work spaces, and creating more community green space. The programme has provided £136 million across Wales specifically for town centre regeneration. 

Deputy Minister, you may be aware that I recently joined the Minister for Climate Change for the official opening of the new Cynon Linc in Aberdare. Managed by Age Connects Morgannwg, and funded through the Welsh Government's integrated care fund, this has turned a tired community building into a modern, fit-for-purpose facility at the heart of the community, and in a prominent town-centre location. So, how else is the Welsh Government working with the public sector, specifically, and other stakeholders, to deliver schemes to regenerate our town centres?

Thank you. Yes, and I know the Minister enjoyed a visit to the Cynon Linc and was very impressed by the project and the work they'd done there to bring services together. And I think that does give us an example of the way we need to rethink town centres—not simply as shopping spaces, because the nature of retail has changed beyond recognition in the last 30 years, with out-of-town developments, with the growth of supermarkets and with the shift online. We need to think of town centres afresh as spaces where people meet and where services are provided.

We do have a 'town centre first' policy now for the provision of public services, and we encourage all service providers to look first as to whether or not a town-centre location can be provided, and I think that is the way forward. As I mentioned earlier, we've published reports in July this year, from Professor Karel Williams, into the future of town centres, and in September, Audit Wales published their own report that echoed many of the recommendations, and we have specifically asked the ministerial town centre taskforce to look at both of those. And involving the public sector and service providers to see town centres as a place where they do their business is one of the things that I'm asking them to look at.

14:15
Green Spaces

7. How is the Welsh Government working with local authorities to enhance green spaces? OQ57320

We are actively working with all local authorities across Wales to improve green spaces through a number of initiatives, such as our Transforming Towns placemaking grant, supporting the Valleys regional park, funding local nature partnerships and our 'Building Better Places', which further encourages the creation of accessible green spaces.

I want to thank the Ministers for their commitment to enhancing green spaces across Wales. In Bridgend and Porthcawl, constituents from all ages and backgrounds express the need for more green spaces within their communities and to protect and enhance existing spaces. I recently received ideas from students at West Park Primary School, Porthcawl Primary School and Nottage Primary School for their dream park. A combination of nature and well-being were the overwhelming themes for so many of the pupils, with ideas including wild flowers for biodiversity, therapy gardens and tree planting. So, I also really welcome the £580,000 Welsh Government grant secured by Bridgend County Borough Council for the Cwm Taf nature network project, which will see so many spaces undergo improvement. And in light of the students' ideas, could I ask the Minister to ensure that both mental and physical well-being will be part of the ongoing strategies to enhance our green spaces?

Yes, indeed. The principles of sustainable management of natural resources puts multiple benefits, particularly mental and physical well-being, at the heart of any strategic plan to create or improve Wales's green spaces. In fact, as I think you know, Sarah, the Cwm Taf network project you mentioned is developing new practices for managing green spaces in the Cwm Taf health board region, in line with the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, using the public services board's well-being plan—so, a really integrated plan that nicely matches the dream park that I hope will be a reality as a result. The plan identifies a connected network of 20 green spaces to be managed as a nature-based solution for improving the health and well-being of local residents. Highlights of the project include increasing access for parents with early years children, increasing access for older people, increasing access for partially sighted people and providing spaces for mindfulness. 

We're also delivering similar health and well-being objectives through the enabling natural resources and well-being scheme under way or about to start across Wales, and I'm really just delighted to hear about the enthusiasm and resource of the pupils there. One of the real pleasures of these jobs—there are many downsides, but one of the real pleasures—is meeting young people, listening to their hopes and dreams and actually knowing that you've got the ability to put some of those, at least, into practice. So, I very much welcome it, and I'm delighted that we'll be able to turn that dream park into a reality really soon.

Businesses and Environmental Sustainability

8. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Economy about supporting businesses to become environmentally sustainable? OQ57310

Thank you. I have regular discussions with the economy Minister on how Business Wales can reflect the need to tackle the climate and nature emergencies. This morning, I met with him to discuss the results of the deep dive, which we published earlier this afternoon, into how we can deploy more renewable energy and the economic opportunities that flow from that, both for the supply chain, but also in capturing more wealth in Wales so that prosperity from our natural resources can be kept here in our communities.

Thank you, Deputy Minister. The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants recently surveyed small and medium enterprises in Wales on their plans to make themselves more environmentally sustainable. Small business owners said that the No. 1 issue holding businesses back from making their operations more sustainable was the lack of time and resources to implement environmental strategies. Company bosses also highlighted their own lack of expertise on where to start with sustainability plans, whilst reporting challenges in obtaining the right financial backing from traditional outlets. Deputy Minister, in light of these findings, will you undertake to discuss, with the Minister for Economy, ways to give SMEs in Wales the practical guidance and funding that they need to address this important issue? Thank you.

Well, I certainly recognise the challenges that small and medium-sized enterprises face to look beyond the short-term pressures of running a busy business in challenging times, and, of course, they've had particularly acute challenging times over the last two years. Of course, dealing with environmental sustainability is not even only the right thing to do, it is of short-term self-interest for businesses as well in terms of reducing costs from their energy output, as well as being in tune with their customers and the growing concern there is around climate change. Over the coming months, Business Wales will strengthen their outreach work with the micro and the SME community to help realise the benefits of operating differently, and they will focus on the key actions of the green growth pledge to ensure that they are aware of regulatory changes, good practice in product and service design and are connected with the support that is available to drive forward their green ambitions.

14:20
Housing Estates

9. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to ensure that builders complete housing estates to a satisfactory standard? OQ57327

Builders are responsible for ensuring that new homes comply with the building regulations. The Building Safety Bill will set out clear responsibilities for compliance and provide a means of redress where things go wrong.

Thank you, Minister. It's become apparent to me that there aren't adequate measures in place to tackle the huge problem that exists as some builders fail to complete housing estates to a satisfactory standard. In a number of cases, where someone buys a house under the mistaken impression that infrastructure such as pavements, streetlights and roads will be completed once all the houses in the estate have been built, they are being left to live in dangerous living conditions for years, if not forever. Local authorities say that they don't have the power to take action in this area, whilst the Welsh Government claims that it's a matter for local planning authorities, and this injustice is even worse in cases where management for building is outsourced to private companies. In these cases, the local planning authorities don't do any research or enforcement work when clearly deficient work is done. So, will the Welsh Government hold an inquiry into this issue in order to ensure that nobody has to live in unsafe conditions? Thank you.

Thank you, That's a mix of a couple of things. My colleague Hefin David has been talking about the issue of connecting estates and the estate management charges that sometimes are left with home owners as a result for quite some time. This continues to be a real problem, because it's something that's negotiated between the developer and the local authority, through either a highways agreement, a section—I forget; 328, I think it is, but don't quote me—one of the sections of the Highways Act 1980 that connects the highway together, or indeed a section 106 planning agreement, which puts obligations on the developers. Local authorities then often adopt those roads and take them over as part of their statutory network, but they don't have to do that, and it's a matter of negotiation between the local authority and the developer as to what, if any, connection is made to that estate.

We've already held a number of task and finish groups into both the issue about unadopted roads and uncompleted estates, and we've had a look at some of the outcomes of those. They are incredibly complex. Unadopted roads come in all shapes and sizes across Wales. Many house owners live on an unadopted road. I should declare an interest, Deputy Presiding Officer, and say I live on one myself and am very happy to do so. I don't want the road to be adopted by anybody and it's not causing a problem. Other householders live on unadopted roads and estates where they have to pay a management fee for that and there are very draconic terms and conditions when they buy those houses for what happens if you don't pay the fees. As I say, Hefin David has brought this to my attention on a number of occasions.

We are working very hard as part of our Building Safety Bill to put a series of very specific obligations on both constructors, developers and management companies for who will have responsibility for what going forward. That doesn't solve the problem of right now. We've been working very hard with local authorities to ensure that they do negotiate the 106 agreements so that the responsibility transfers and that the developer puts the right sort of what's called a commuted sum into the pot to pay for the ongoing maintenance of that, but there's no doubt that it's a problem, and it's an ongoing one. We are working very hard, and I'm very happy to discuss with any Member the problems with this. As I say, I've discussed them many times with Hefin David. We are working very hard with the UK Government at the moment on the leasehold reform Bill, but these houses fall between, so they are freehold houses, but they have almost leasehold-like provisions on the estate management. So, we hope that that will be part of the reform that we bring forward; if it isn't, then we will legislate here in Wales to do it.

2. Questions to the Minister for Education and Welsh Language

The next item is the questions to the Minister for Education and Welsh Language, and the first question is from Sam Rowlands.

Lost School Time

1. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to minimise lost school time during the COVID-19 pandemic in North Wales? OQ57329

I have introduced the local infection control framework and supporting toolkit to support schools to introduce additional measures based on local community transmission; for example, in Gwynedd, we have recently increased the offer of testing for a limited period of time in response to local need. We're in constant dialogue with directors of education across Wales around a range of issues, including, at the moment, end-of-term arrangements. Because of our commitment to maintaining children's ability to learn in school, all local authorities across Wales are prioritising keeping their schools open until the end of term and planning on that basis. 

14:25

Thank you, Minister. It's pleasing to hear the engagement you're having with schools and with those directors of education in local authorities as well because, of course, pupils in Wales have, sadly, had less face-to-face time in schools than counterparts across the United Kingdom during the pandemic. And I'm sure you'd acknowledge that online learning—whilst it has its place, there is nothing quite like pupils coming together and the benefits that come from face-to-face learning, allowing teachers to provide proper observation and support. And, of course, this face-to-face interaction allows schools to support many of our, especially, younger learners with important developments, one of those being speech. And I noted your statement in the Chamber last month on children's oracy and reading, and your comments that, of course, speaking, listening and reading skills are fundamental to every aspect of our lives, and it's really welcome to hear those things being said. But I would like to just push a little further on this—and perhaps I do need to declare an interest, with having three children in primary school. But, Minister, what assessment have you made of the effects to children's speech that lost school time has caused? What conversations are you having with the Minister for Health and Social Services to improve the situation and make sure that access is available to those who may need that additional support?

Well, I thank the Member for that supplementary question. He is, of course, right to say that children learn best when they're in a classroom setting with their peers and with their teachers learning face to face. Of course, there have been times when that hasn't been possible and, of course, in certain part of Wales that remains challenging on a week-to-week basis at the moment. But it's everybody's intention across the entire education system in Wales to maximise the opportunities for children to be safely learning in classrooms with their peers, as I say. I think it is true to say that we have made significant progress in the difficult circumstances over the last 18 months to develop the remote learning and blended learning offer very substantially from where we were able to be at the start of the pandemic, naturally, but I think it probably goes without saying that that is not as satisfactory as being in school. 

He mentioned the statement that I made a number of weeks ago. I am in regular discussions with the health Minister in relation to that matter. It was based on our understanding that there had been challenges for younger pupils in particular around oracy and the early developmental stages, which motivated that statement being made. And you will see, over the course of the coming weeks, further developments in that area, which, hopefully, you'll be able to welcome. 

Everything, of course, should be done to prevent the loss of more school time, but, with the number of cases so high, there are practical problems in schools in ensuring that there are adequate numbers of staff available to keep classrooms open, and there is real concern, and very understandable concern, about transmission within schools. Staff and parents have been in touch with me expressing concerns about the effect of that on the ability of families to come together safely over Christmas. So, bearing in mind that the risk of the omicron variant is still being assessed, what is the Minister's message to those people who are very concerned and would favour moving to online learning, perhaps just for a few days, in the period in the run-up to Christmas?

The Member is right to say, of course, that the omicron situation means that we have to keep a very close watching brief on developments, and the Cabinet has met today and it will meet again tomorrow. We're looking at this daily, because the picture is changing and more data is being presented and evidence is emerging every day. So, it is very important during this period that we do everything that we can to ensure that we stick to the regulations that have been so important in terms of keeping us safe. I made a statement at the start of the month to ensure that we have a national approach in terms of wearing face masks in classrooms, as well as in other parts of the school premises, because we don't know the exact impact of omicron, so we want to ensure that we are taking great care in this period.

In terms of calls by some to look at the last few days of the term, some authorities do finish at the end of next week, and about nine or 10 finish closer to Christmas. And we've been discussing this with officials internally and authorities across Wales, including those that close later, closer to Christmas. And as I say, everyone is very eager to ensure that children can be in their classrooms. We'll see what comes in the wake of omicron, as I say. The situation isn't quite as straightforward as just saying that if children are not in the classroom, then that safeguards against transmission. There can be an impact on other public services and more broadly than that. And, of course, there is an impact on learning and it possibly doesn't take into consideration the fact that there is an opportunity for children to mix outside the classroom in any case. So, children have lost so much learning over the last year to 18 months, we want to ensure that they have every possible opportunity, including in those days. That's the situation at present, but, as I said, we're keeping this under a watching brief.

14:30
Attendance Rates

2. What is the Welsh Government doing to help schools drive up attendance rates amongst the most disadvantaged pupils following the publication of the latest Estyn report? OQ57323

It is important that we have a comprehensive understanding of what is happening on the ground across all cohorts of learners. A review of attendance patterns is under way and I expect interim findings shortly, with the report in February of next year, and the findings of that review will help us inform the development of targeted policy interventions.

Thank you, Minister. I found one of the most significant statements in Estyn’s annual report was that nearly all school leaders have prioritised the well-being of their staff and pupils over their own. And I fully understand that headteachers and staff with safeguarding responsibilities are carrying a very heavy burden about the well-being of pupils, particularly those who have yet to return to school following the lockdown. And in some respects, schools feel they’re like the fourth emergency service, because while they have vulnerable children in front of them or at the front of their minds, most of the other support services that schools can normally draw on are actually still operating online and from home. So, they really are challenging situations that teachers are having to deal with. I think this is particularly true of those students who have yet to return to school. These are not children who are self-isolating, quite rightly; these are children who simply have not turned up in school and despite the best endeavours of schools, they are still absent. And we know—

—from the police that there's been a huge rise in domestic violence, a huge rise in the number of children being pulled into county lines or other forms of exploitation, which were exacerbated by lockdown. So, do you agree with me that, whilst numerically small, every unexplained absence from school, particularly if they've not been in school since lockdown, constitutes a major cause for concern for every pupil's well-being, and getting them back into school has to be a priority for all the agencies involved?

Well, I couldn't agree more with the Member on the first point that she made, which is that teaching and school staff have put the well-being of their learners very often ahead of their own. And I think I just want to put on the record again today my gratitude to the entire education workforce for the incredible efforts they’ve made over the last 18 months, but with, I think, particular recognition of how challenging the last term has been in our schools.

And the other point that she made that I want to underscore is that these are individuals and not just, as you acknowledged in your question, a question of numbers—each individual case is important. That’s why, actually, as well as looking at the patterns of attendance and non-attendance, I wanted to commission a piece of work to understand what's actually happening on the ground in terms of school leaders' views about why this is happening in particular.

And so, I’m hoping to be able to announce some particular support, before the end of this term, for pupils who have had a pattern of non-attendance and to support schools to engage more with those families. There is a particular issue in terms of those who are eligible for free school meals. There’s been a tendency for there to be lower attendance rates amongst those pupils. And there’s also an issue in relation to year 11 pupils, who have tended to be less likely to attend as well. So, those are two of the cohorts, but also the ones that she mentioned in her question. It is very important for us to understand individual circumstances and work with those families and learners.

Minister, my constituency is home to one of the most deprived communities in Wales and maybe even in the whole of the UK. Sadly, poverty is so often linked to poor educational achievement, and it can be a really vicious cycle, with children of poorly educated parents less likely to achieve a good education. As the Estyn report highlights, this will have been exacerbated by the pandemic, as home schooling will have been very challenging for those households. While Rhyl, thankfully, has good broadband coverage, poorer households may be unable to afford broadband or the devices needed to access online learning. Minister, will you join me in welcoming the Vodafone Great British Tech Appeal, which is asking us to donate our old devices, such as smartphones, tablets and laptops, which they can refurbish and supply to needy families, along with free data, calls and texts? Minister, will you commit to working with the likes of Vodafone to ensure that the scheme benefits families in the Vale of Clwyd and across Wales?

14:35

I certainly agree with him that we need to ensure that those families who are least able to afford access to broadband and the kind of computer equipment that many of us will take for granted are able to access that in order for those opportunities to be available to learners, regardless of their circumstances. In the last year, the Welsh Government has funded around £150 million-worth of both equipment and also connectivity to support exactly that kind of learner, to take full advantage of the blended learning and remote learning opportunities, which, unfortunately, we've had to be able to provide over the course of the last 18 months. I think that provides a very good platform for us, actually, in the future to enable that technology to become perhaps more mainstream in how we take forward learning in our schools, including in the new curriculum, to the advantage of all our learners, regardless of their circumstances.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Laura Anne Jones.

Diolch, Deputy Presiding Officer. Minister, you'll be aware of the awful case that occurred in Solihull in the west midlands, where six-year-old Arthur Hughes lost his life after a cruel and callous series of abuse. Despite concerns being raised, young Arthur's life was cut short, due to significant failings across the board. From an educational perspective, Minister, we are now acutely aware from the experience that we've had during the pandemic that school is for children far more than just education—it provides a very important, wider social role, with a safe place for children, ensuring that they get food and support. It's also somewhere that behaviours and physical abuse can be picked up. And as we've seen from Arthur's harrowing case, if he had been in school, potentially, this abuse could have been picked up sooner.

Parents are understandably concerned, Minister, about this harrowing case, and are looking to you and the Government now for reassurance that the robustness of safeguarding procedures in schools, and the standards for safeguarding for vulnerable children across Wales, are now being met. Minister, we also need to ensure that we have—

—additional training for teachers to identify potential signs of abuse. So, can you reassure us, Minister, today that lessons will be learnt from this case, including the severe impact that lockdowns and no school have on our children, particularly vulnerable children?

Well, can I first associate myself with her comments in relation to the tragic case of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, which she started her question with, which is, I think, a very, very sad and very sobering lesson for all parts of the UK? All education settings in Wales have a legal duty to ensure that children have access to a safe learning environment, and I expect and understand, of course, across the system, that these responsibilities are taken seriously. The Welsh Government has issued statutory guidance, 'Keeping learners safe', to support schools in creating and maintaining a safe learning environment for children. Each school must identify a designated safeguarding person, who will ensure that staff, learners and parents feel confident that they can raise issues or concerns about the safety or well-being of learners, and that they will be taken seriously. And anyone in an education setting, employed by the local authority, must report to the authority where there is a reasonable cause to believe that a child is at risk of abuse, neglect or any other kind of harm. All authorities in Wales have a designated lead officer for safeguarding in education, and the Hwb hosts a series of e-learning modules, which have been developed by the Welsh Government, to support staff in education settings to understand those safeguarding responsibilities and how best to deploy them.

Thank you, Minister. Minister, the Estyn report released earlier this week is quite damning, I'm sure you'll agree. It was hard enough when we were at school, socially, but now for young people they have far more to cope with, with the added pressures of phones and social media, and it makes me glad not to be in school anymore, but, as a parent, it does worry me daily.

The Estyn report that has just been released is hugely distressing and has highlighted the tragic situation that students find themselves in with a prevalence of peer-on-peer sexual harassment in schools. With it being reported that children as young as 11 are being pressurised for explicit pictures, with the incidence of sexual harassment in schools going up, and the increase in the number of people not reporting it going up, serious questions have to be asked, Minister, and of this Government's abject failure to tackle this. These findings are nothing new, but they are getting worse. So, why don't young people feel that they can report it? We need proactive measures in place, Minister, across all schools in Wales to ensure that instances such as these are dealt with with respect, and that our young people can feel that they've been listened to, as well as to drive out these behaviours in schools through our new curriculum in the future. What urgent action are you taking now, Minister, to address this, so that young people who experience abuse of this kind right now are getting the help that they need?

14:40

I agree with the Member about how serious the matter is, and I agree with her that the Estyn report makes very distressing reading indeed, and I want to thank all children and young people who took part in that report. It will not have been an easy thing for them to do, but their doing so is brave, and they've, in those honest conversations, enabled us to understand better the situation in many of our schools. The report makes a number of recommendations of which three fall to the Welsh Government, and we will be accepting each of the recommendations. I was pleased to have commissioned this report, because I recognised that we needed to understand better the situation on the ground. I wouldn't agree with her characterisation of the Government's position; I think the Government has acted throughout expeditiously and in a very full way. And she will recall the discussion we had at the point when I commissioned the report, which listed the work already under way at that point, both in working with our schools, working with our local education authorities, and providing additional resources to support our schools. 

One of the key findings in the Estyn report in relation to the Welsh Government's responsibilities relates to the new relationships and sexuality education code, and encourages the Government to take full account of the Estyn report in designing and devising that code, which I can confirm that we have. The Chamber will have an opportunity to consider this, of course, next week. But one of the points I want to make absolutely clear is that we can't, as it were, simply rely on the new curriculum, which will be rolled out over many years, to be the solution here. I want to make sure that the thinking and the learning and the resources, which are available as part of the RSE code in the new curriculum, also help us in the existing curriculum, as that will be with us for some time. So, there is already work under way in that space. 

Finally, in relation to the recommendation around capturing data about bullying and harassment in schools, we're already looking at what we can do to amend our anti-bullying and harassment guidelines to take account of what Estyn recommends today. 

Thank you, Minister. Questions have already been asked on this today, but I would like to press you further, if I may, on whether schools are going to close early for the Christmas break. Some schools are preparing by having their Christmas activities this week rather than next week; some schools have said they're going to close; some schools have said they're definitely not going to close. It's different all over Wales. Surely there needs to be an all-Wales approach to this, Minister? And we need some sort of clarity today, because parents need to prepare childcare, teachers need to prepare lessons. It's absolutely urgent that you give a line on this as soon as possible on what is happening. I understand that these are fine margins, and it's a difficult decision to make, but this has to come to a head now, Minister. We need to know today or by Friday what's happening so that people can prepare. Please, can you outline what you're doing today?

Well, I don't think that the Member asserting a lack of clarity when I've spelled out the position a few moments ago is especially helpful, if I can put it like that. As I've said—[Interruption.] As I've said, as a consequence of the variant, we are all looking across Government at what actions need to be taken on a daily basis. I know that she shares with me the importance of making sure that children can remain in school as far as possible, as long as possible and as safely as possible. I know that she shares that view. The consequence of that is that right across the 10 authorities that will be going beyond the end of next week, that is time that has been planned in for teaching to take account of the lost teaching time so far. So, those authorities, authorities right across Wales, and the Welsh Government, share that ambition of making sure that young people can remain in class doing that. And that is the basis upon which we are planning now. 

14:45

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. Yesterday, I met with the committee of Cardiff University Welsh Students' Union, which have been campaigning for many years to have a full-time sabbatical Welsh language officer within the union. Swansea, Bangor and Aberystwyth universities have had similar positions in place for many years, but here in Cardiff, where there are over 3,000 Welsh speakers and Welsh learners—the highest number of Welsh speakers in any of our universities—there is no sabbatical position. According to the president of the Welsh student union, such an officer could provide important services to students through the medium of Welsh, arrange events to raise awareness of the language, ensure that the voice of Welsh speakers could be heard within the union, and also provide a space for young people to come together to use the language on a social level. It also ensures that democracy is respected because the students had voted more than once in the past in favour of having this kind of sabbatical officer. So, does the Minister agree with me that it is about time that Welsh students were given fair play here in the university of our capital city, and would he be willing to write to the board of trustees, who will meet next Thursday apparently, in order to support the Welsh students' campaign?

I thank the Member for that important question. In a university that has the highest number of Welsh speakers of all the Welsh universities, it is appropriate that students have employed representation in the union, and that would correspond to the representation that we see in other universities in Wales, as the Member mentioned in his contribution. This is a matter for the union's board of trustees. However, if the motion to establish a full-time post for the Welsh language is passed unanimously, as I understand it has been, it would be reasonable to expect that that decision is realised. 

Thank you very much. With the new curriculum in the pipeline, and the target to reach a million Welsh speakers by 2050 and the Welsh education Bill on the horizon, it's clear that there are major changes afoot in the education sector in terms of Welsh-medium provision. As we've already heard you mention in the Chamber, Minister, children have lost out on a great deal of their education during the pandemic, and parents have had to play a more central role in their education as a result of that. In order to promote the use of the Welsh language during the pandemic, which, unfortunately, is ongoing, and through then until 2050, we will need to ensure that parents have the right skills to ensure that children are able to make the best use of the Welsh language at home. So, I would like to ask you what specific support will be provided to parents to enable them to play their part in supporting Welsh-medium education and in promoting the use of the Welsh language at home?

This is a very important question, and, in a variety of ways, the Government is already providing support. One of the priorities that we have is ensuring that Welsh language transmission happens at home. And that is more of a challenge than we'd hoped and expected. So, specific support is available in that context. Also, as you know, in terms of the early years, we have a variety of schemes supporting parents to speak Welsh with their children and, when we have non-Welsh speaking parents, to ensure that they have access and opportunities to be involved and have experience of cylchoedd meithrin and so forth through the medium of Welsh. So, a variety of things are already in the pipeline. 

But what we've also seen is access across Wales to online courses from the National Centre for Learning Welsh. Those figures have increased significantly, and the provision has been broadened as well in the wake of that. So, as the question suggests, we have lessons that we can learn for the future in terms of what we've seen over the last year to 18 months, to see how we can expand the provision further. 

Thank you very much. Over the summer, the culture committee, which is responsible for the Welsh language, among other things, consulted on what its priorities should be for the sixth Senedd. One of those priorities was to recognise that schoolchildren during the pandemic had faced extended periods away from school, as I mentioned in my previous question, and, as a result of that, their education has suffered. Because of the problem in terms of the Welsh language specifically, there was little interaction between children and their parents in terms of the use of the Welsh language, particularly those children from non-Welsh-speaking households. So, following calls for further investment in the late immersion provision in Welsh, there was an announcement made by the Government on a proposal of £2.2 million to expand that provision and that was warmly welcomed, certainly by us here in Plaid Cymru. So, I would like to ask the Minister how this funding has been used, and what impact it has had on education recovery, particularly Welsh-medium education. Also, in looking to the future, what further plans does the Minister have to support the Welsh language through education recovery programmes?

14:50

In terms of investing to support those who had missed opportunities to use the Welsh language, perhaps where Welsh is not used in the home, an element of the recovery funding announced for next year has been prioritised for learners and Welsh speakers in order to ensure that further support is available to them to start speaking Welsh again. So, that funding stream is already in place to ensure further support for pupils.

In terms of the immersion funding, we had bids from all parts of Wales for that funding, and it's being used in new areas to expand and create provision that hasn't existed previously, or hasn't been there for many years. In other parts of Wales, it is being used to extend what is already provided, and in authorities where they haven't quite reached the point on their linguistic journey where providing immersion works for them, they intend to use that funding to develop skills and expertise to move further along that journey. I'm very passionate about what we can do to ensure access for all children across Wales who require it, and I hope to be able to persuade the finance Minister as regards ensuring that the investment can continue in the years to come.

Net-zero Carbon Targets

3. Will the Minister provide an update on the net-zero carbon targets for new school and college buildings in Wales? OQ57312

I have mandated net-zero carbon under the new banner of 'sustainable communities for learning' for the twenty-first century schools and colleges investment programme from 1 January next year. All new–build, major refurbishment and extension projects will need to demonstrate delivery of net-zero carbon in operation plus a 20 per cent reduction on the amount of embodied carbon.

Diolch, and I want to say a huge thank you to the Minister for his commitment to ensuring that net zero is a priority for our twenty-first century schools. It's an absolutely fantastic development commitment. As our climate change Minister said earlier, it is a wonderful part of our roles to be able to speak to pupils of all ages across our constituencies, and I'm constantly inspired by how much they care about protecting our environment and are just so committed to doing so. A great example of this is that, in my constituency of Bridgend, as of this year, Litchard Primary School have had solar panels installed to become more efficient and consume less energy, and pupils and staff on their eco-committee have been at the forefront of managing the energy-saving measures. So, therefore, could I ask you, Minister, whether you would be able to visit Litchard Primary School and the eco-committee so that they can ask you about other ideas that they have, and show you what they've been doing and talking about how Welsh Government can further support them in their efforts to meet their ambitious environmental leader ambitions?

I would certainly be happy to do that and I thank the Member for bringing that important point to the Chamber. I was listening to her exchange with the climate change Minister earlier, and I think it is really inspiring, looking at the kind of scale of some of the challenges that lie ahead of us, to see how far ahead many of our younger pupils are, maybe than even some of us who've reflected for longer periods of time on these questions from a policy point of view, if I can put it like that.

I think there's an opportunity for us here as well to make sure that, in the new curriculum, with its emphasis on making sure our children and young people are ethically informed citizens, with that focus on sustainability, we do everything we can to listen to their voices in how we design both the curriculum and also the education infrastructure through which the curriculum is delivered. I remember as well the fantastic visit I made with her to Nottage primary in her constituency, and seeing the excitement of the young children there about these issues was very inspiring as well.

14:55

Minister, since you will be in Bridgend, I would recommend you also to see a school in my ward, Pen-y-fai. Minister, it is relatively straightforward to set targets for our new school and college buildings, and ensuring that they contribute to our net-zero carbon target is not something that ought to cause many problems. The bigger challenge is that many of our school buildings were built in the late Victorian and early Edwardian period—impressive, solid, red-brick buildings that are likely to be more problematic as we move away from gas heating. What assessment has he undertaken of the budget that will need to be allocated for these schools to meet our obligation? Thank you. 

I thank the Member for the question. I think the scale of the challenge that lies ahead of us, and which I think we're all aware of, means that we need to make every contribution we can. So, I do think that the sustainable communities for learning programme in the future will make a significant contribution, certainly in the area of new build and major refurbishment and extension projects, and the criteria for the first wave will become progressively more taxing, if I can put it like that, as the Welsh Government's own targets become more stringent in the years ahead, taking us on our path to a net-zero Wales. But he is right to say, of course, that we need to make sure that all our public estate makes a contribution to that target as well. He will probably have noted, when the First Minister and the Minister for Climate Change made their announcements in the week before COP, that part of the objective there is to understand better the state of play and the state of condition for the education stock across Wales, and to understand in detail what needs to be done in order to make sure, as far as we can, that they make their contribution as well to our net-zero targets. It is not straightforward, it is certainly not short term, and it will have a significant funding challenge attached to it, because many of the new technologies require not simply the installation of an air-source heat pump, for example, but significant insulation challenges, and also distribution challenges. So, that work will be commencing with our partners, and then we will have a better understanding of what we need to do in order to take forward our ambition right across the education stock.

COVID-19 Guidelines

4. Will the Minister make a statement on the updated COVID-19 guidelines for schools? OQ57324

The local infection control decision framework sets out actions schools should take to reduce transmission of COVID-19. While we learn more about omicron, staff in all education settings and secondary-aged learners and above should now wear face coverings in classrooms and in communal areas.

Minister, with so many teaching staff self-isolating, it has become a real struggle to maintain even the status quo in schools, let alone providing the enhanced provision for those who fell behind during the pandemic. With PISA results as low as they are—the lowest in the UK, and on a par with ex-Soviet bloc countries—it has become very apparent that our children can't miss out on any more education. So, a ready supply of teachers and teaching assistants is absolutely necessary to address the pressures that COVID presents. Minister, what are you doing to help schools mitigate the shortage of supply teachers in Wales, and do you think there needs to be an overhaul of the supply teacher system? How are you encouraging more people into the profession, and utilising the teaching assistants to ease pressures? 

The Member knows very well that we think there needs to be reform of the supply teacher system, because it was a programme for government commitment on which we were elected, and also it features in the agreement that we have with Plaid Cymru, to look again at the supply model in order to bring fair work and sustainability to the heart of it. That work has been progressing and will now progress further with Plaid Cymru. I'm very excited to see what we can deliver together in relation to that. 

In relation to the other challenges, she is right to say that it's not simply a funding question; it is an availability of supply staff question. That has been a significant challenge in a number of our schools. It's a variable picture across Wales, but it is absolutely a challenge in many schools. One of the sources of supply teachers each year is newly qualified teachers. This year, because of the fact that we have ensured that, I think, 400 newly qualified teachers have placements in schools, that has meant that those aren't available to the pool of potential supply teachers. But, what it has meant is that they are in fact teaching in our schools. So, I think it's a slightly more complex picture than perhaps her question presents.

Certainly, where it is a funding challenge, and that is obviously still a question for schools, we have committed as a Government that schools are able to claim against the local government hardship fund until the need expires, if I can put it like that, so that they can be supported to access supply whenever they need it and can find it. And we have also been working with local education authorities to see what we can do in terms of longer term planning to give us a slightly better understanding of needs ahead, which might help as well in making sure there's enough supply teachers available. And in certain parts of Wales, incentives have been provided where there's a particular acute shortage to encourage people back into supply teaching, to see if we can address some of the needs through that route as well.

15:00
The Twenty-first Century Schools Programme

5. Will the Minister provide an update on how schools in Powys are benefiting from the 21st century schools programme? OQ57319

Powys has benefited from a £79.5 million investment during the first wave of the twenty-first century schools and colleges programme, and a further £113.5 million is planned during the current wave of investment.

Thank you for your answer, Minister. Of course, in rural areas of Wales such as Powys, whilst the twenty-first century schools funding has been used for new school builds, many older school buildings are being retained due to their geography or for rurality reasons. I heard the responses, Minister, to the earlier questions today, but can I ask you how you envisage twenty-first century schools funding particularly supporting school extensions or refurbishment of existing school buildings to support schools becoming carbon neutral, particularly in the context of the challenges of meeting the Building Research Establishment's environmental assessment method standards? You do seem to be in a generous mood today, Minister, so you also have an invite from me to visit a school in Powys with the cabinet member and officials to discuss this particular matter in more detail.

One of the joys of the role is the opportunity to visit schools in all parts of Wales, so I'm obviously very happy to do that. The Member makes a point about the availability of the existing twenty-first century schools and colleges programme for non-new build, if I can put it like that. It is of course available for major refurbishment and extension projects, and in fact those projects will themselves need to be net zero from 1 January 2022. But it's also the case that that programme isn't the only means by which school buildings are refurbished and capital invested in our school estate; it's also available through local government funding more directly for smaller scale work. I'm sure he'll be interested to know that over 450 schools have benefited from the small and rural schools grant to date, and in addition, a number of small and rural schools have received capital funding from the reducing infant class sizes grant, and indeed also from the twenty-first century schools and colleges programme. 

Welsh-medium Education

6. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the provision of Welsh-medium education? OQ57328

The pupil level annual school census as well as the Welsh in education strategic plans provide us with a comprehensive picture of Welsh-medium provision across Wales. Together, they contribute to policy and funding decisions that move us closer to our 'Cymraeg 2050' target. 

Thank you, Minister. The co-operation agreement between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government commits to ensure that the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol and the National Centre for Learning Welsh are given additional funding in order to increase the number of apprenticeships and FE education available through the medium of Welsh, and to provide free Welsh lessons for young people between 16 and 25 years of age. This commitment is something that Plaid Cymru, along with Cymdeithas yr Iaith and other language campaigners, have been calling for for some time, and, if implemented effectively, it'll be an important step forward towards providing a fundamental right for everyone in Wales, including our children and young people, to receive Welsh-medium education and to have the ability to speak the language confidently and fluently. Can the Minister reveal how much additional funding is to be provided, and will the Minister also outline the steps that the Government will take to implement this policy, and also provide a timetable in terms of delivery? Thank you.

15:05

I agree entirely about how important it is to provide free lessons for those up to the age of 25, and expand the role of the coleg Cymraeg and the national centre. Those were also part of the work programme for 'Cymraeg 2050' that I stated over the summer, and so we do agree about how important that is. In terms of further funding, of course, the coleg Cymraeg has had an increase in its budget to expand the exact kind of provision that the Member talks about in her question. It is genuinely important that we increase the provision post 16 through the medium of Welsh. The Bill that's going through the Senedd at present does create the context for that, but we also need the investment to ensure that that does happen on the ground. So, we do agree on that. What the exact sums will be, we'll have to wait for the statement by the Minister for finance in about a week to 10 days' time.  

Ti a Fi

7. What support does the Welsh Government give to Mudiad Meithrin to provide Ti a Fi services? OQ57307

Through Welsh Government grant support, Mudiad Meithrin maintains and supports Ti a Fi provision across Wales. In addition, through our programme of extending provision, cylchoedd Ti a Fi are being established to support the development of new cylchoedd meithrin.

Can I thank the Minister for that response? If the intention to reach a million Welsh speakers is going to be met, then getting more children being educated through the medium of Welsh is the best and easiest way of doing so. Does the Minister accept that Ti a Fi is the first step to learning Welsh for many children, especially those who come from English-speaking backgrounds? What further support can the Welsh Government provide to Ti a Fi and Mudiad Meithrin? And as everybody else is throwing out invitations, can I invite you to visit a Ti a Fi and Mudiad Meithrin within Swansea East?  

I will be delighted to do that. I'm going to struggle to find time for anything else, I think, at the end of this session today, but I certainly will.

I agree with the Member. The cylchoedd Ti a Fi are a very important step on the journey to Welsh-medium education. They do provide an opportunity for young children to socialise and play through the medium of Welsh, and also an opportunity for parents to meet to share experiences and socialise in a Welsh environment. In Swansea, at the start of the last academic year, 208 children had been registered in cylchoedd meithrin, and nearly half of those had been in cylchoedd Ti a Fi before that, and about 77 per cent of children moved from those cylchoedd meithrin into Welsh-medium education. So, it's evident that this is a very important part of increasing provision and increasing demand, which is an important element of that. It's more than just meeting demand; it's about driving more demand. Ti a Fi provision has been affected seriously by COVID-19, but, this year, Mudiad Meithrin is putting a particular emphasis on restarting Ti a Fi provision, employing more officials to facilitate this. And through the Welsh Government's support, Mudiad Meithrin has set a target to reopen more than 300 cylchoedd Ti a Fi in order to reach the provision levels that existed before the pandemic. 

Rural Schools

8. Will the Minister make a statement on the funding of rural schools? OQ57317

Over 460 schools have benefited from the small and rural schools grant, with funding of over £10 million in the previous Senedd term and £2.5 million in this financial year. In addition, a number of small and rural schools have received capital funding from the reducing infant class sizes grant and the twenty-first century schools and colleges programme.

Diolch, Weinidog. Minister, the UK Government has given Wales vast sums of extra funding over the past 20 months throughout the COVID pandemic. Recently, the UK Government announced a further £2.5 billion, down the M4 from Westminster to Cardiff Bay. At the same time, my council in Powys is restructuring and closing rural schools due to the fact that they can't afford to keep them open. So, Minister, will you ensure in the budget that rural schools have additional moneys to ensure that the rural schools in my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire can stay open? Diolch.  

I thank the Member for that question. I don't accept the premise of the question that Wales has been given this money by the UK Government. There are taxpayers in Wales who've contributed to that resource as well, and we're perfectly entitled to our share of the overall UK-wide fund. On the point that he makes about small and rural schools' funds in particular, he will know, of course, that the funding of individual schools is ultimately allocated by local authorities, but he will have my assurance that I'm doing all that I can, as I always have, to make sure that schools in Wales have all the funds that they need in order to continue to provide the excellent education that they do to our learners.

15:10
The New Curriculum

9. Will the Minister make a statement on the development of the new curriculum in Wales? OQ57316

The Curriculum for Wales will be rolled out from September 2022. Schools and settings across Wales continue to progress in line with national expectations, drawing on national and regional support and professional learning. This is backed up by £7.24 million to support schools' curriculum development in this financial year.

Thank you, Minister, for that response. Minister, as I'm sure you are aware, I am very passionate about the need to strengthen the food system in Wales and to unlock socioeconomic benefits that being able to access good diet can bring. An important part of this campaign is to ensure that people are equipped with the skills and knowledge that they need to reduce the reliance on things like fast food and to help people use good-quality local produce. The old curriculum did introduce some of these issues to learners, and previous Welsh Governments did provide guidance on how food and health should be taught, but there was also the perception that food education in our schools could be strengthened and integrated throughout different areas of learning. Therefore, Minister, what consideration has the Government given to ensuring that food education is firmly part of the new curriculum, in particular through the health and well-being area of learning and experience, and how will you support schools to implement this? Diolch.

He is right that the new curriculum does have this at its heart, and I'm sure that he, in visiting his local schools, as I do in schools right across Wales, sees the potential that learning about food—where it comes from, how to prepare it, how to eat healthily—meets a number of the objectives of the new curriculum. I am often struck, in going to schools where food is a significant part of the life of the school, how creatively that is used for all aspects of the curriculum. We will be continuing to support that into the new curriculum and taking advantage of the extended and expanded opportunities to make sure that our learners have an understanding of the importance of healthy eating and the contribution that food makes to that. We will be including that in the resources that we help develop over the course of the next year and beyond.

3. Topical Questions

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Thank you for allowing me to ask this question today.

I raised yesterday the deeply upsetting case of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, who died in Solihull—[Interruption.] I'm sorry.

Safeguarding Children

1. What resources and guidance is the Welsh Government providing to local authorities and other statutory agencies to identify potential child safeguarding concerns, following the death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes in Solihull? TQ586

Could I ask the Deputy Minister what steps are being taken to address recruitment challenges in child protection services and to ensure that partner agencies are properly equipped to identify possible safeguarding issues? Can I then give the background—

Thank you very much. In terms of the workforce, I'm sure that the Member is aware that there is extensive training for the social care workforce in Wales. The Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 introduced strengthened and robust safeguarding arrangements for Wales. It established a national independent safeguarding board, and regional safeguarding children boards, to support evidence-based safeguarding practice across agencies and across Wales. These arrangements are now well established. Statutory guidance has been issued under the Act, and we do have consistent evidence-based safeguarding practice across agencies and across Wales, with opportunities for practitioners to update their skills.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I raised, yesterday, the very upsetting case of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, an eight-year-old boy in Solihull, who was subjected to months of physical abuse by his father and his partner. As I said yesterday, we must not forget that they were the people who killed him. And services, as we know, are being reviewed and we're unclear of any outcomes from that.

But child protection and safeguarding has been particularly challenging during COVID-19, especially during the early lockdown period. As you'll know, Deputy Minister, the number of children in receipt of edge-of-care support on the child protection register and looked-after children has increased in recent years, at a time when local authorities are facing significant staffing challenges. I'm aware that the Government issued new all-Wales practice guidelines in July 2020 for all practitioners working with children under the age of 18.

So, may I also just finish—just thinking about any potential future COVID restrictions and some current ones on entering people's homes, what steps will you be taking to ensure that greater face-to-face contact can be maintained with those children and families who require that additional support? And may I also ask whether the Welsh Government is knowledgeable about the number of child protection vacancies in front-line posts across Wales? Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

15:15

Diolch. Thank you very much for those very important questions. We will do all that we can to ensure that there is face-to-face contact with children and with families in another potential lockdown. During the previous lockdown period, we are aware that there was not face-to-face contact with many families, although it did continue with some families. Sadly, the position, really, is that we can never be sure about—. It's unlikely that we will ever end the abuse of children by those who care for them and keep them safe, but we can do everything possible to ensure that practitioners can identify children at risk of abuse and understand their duty to report children at risk and that they're equipped with the skills and knowledge to investigate and to respond to concerns that a child is at risk of harm. And I think we do depend, in periods such as lockdown periods, even more on the ears and voices of people in the community, because, inevitably, some of the safeguards such as going to school are not there.

So, it has been a very difficult period for children and their families. The Government has done all it possibly can to help; we have certainly put additional money into the local authorities. In addition to the revenue support grant, we've given generous funding from the hardship fund to local government to help support social care, and we've also recently put in £40 million of recovery funding and an additional £42 million for the winter system and other pressures, again for the social care workforce. We've also put in money for a family intervention fund to support child and family well-being through a mixture of practical and direct support. So, we are putting funding in and the support to social workers continues. But obviously, in any lockdown period, this is a very difficult time for all families.

I'm grateful to the Minister for her answers. One of the issues that has been troubling me for some time, as we've come through this pandemic, has been the disappearance of children from education, and the significant increase in the number of children being educated from home. We know from tragic history that, when children are taken into the home to be educated, we can lose contact with those children and that some terrible things can and have happened to children in those circumstances. Would the Government, both the social services department and the education department, consider an investigation into the growth of elective home education, and consider how contact can be maintained with children who are being educated at home, and also review the law governing home education? I have very, very significant concerns that the growth of home education is going to lead to a growth of abuse and the potential for further tragedies in future. 

15:20

I thank Alun Davies for that very important question, and this is an issue that I have worked on closely—and am working on closely—with the Minister for education, because, obviously, it's an issue that concerns both departments. We are developing proposals that will further strengthen the existing framework around elective home education to help ensure that children who are educated at home do get a suitable education to begin with and that their well-being needs are met. So, we are developing a framework, and the proposals that we have include new statutory guidance for local authorities and a wider package of support for home-educated children to enhance the learning experience and development opportunities, and, also, a handbook that will help and give information to home educators. 

This year, we've made £1.7 million of funding available to support local authorities with administrative costs relating to home education, as well as to fund education resources and activities for home-educated learners. This is a unique fund to Wales, and I think that does answer his questions about having contact with children who are educated at home and who wish to make wider contact outside of the home. So, the Minister for education will be taking forward the proposals for the new statutory guidance in due course, but it is an issue that I'm working on very closely with him.

I note in Estyn's annual report that Ceredigion had very interesting outreach work with home-educated students, which enabled a lot of those children to be reintegrated into schools.

I'm very pleased that you're giving additional money to family support services for this really, really difficult subject, but I also just wanted to highlight the fact that Arthur Labinjo-Hughes was not in school at all, and that on the day before he was killed he was taken to the hairdressers by the woman who killed him, where he was made to stand with his face to the wall for up to seven hours. Therefore, I agree with you: it is up to the ears and eyes of the community to identify and speak out when child cruelty is obviously taking place, such as in that situation, because, at the end of the day, family support services, would you agree, cannot be everywhere all of the time? It is everybody's duty to speak up for children's rights.

Absolutely right, the community have to be the eyes and ears, because it is not possible for social services officers and departments to be there and to see everything. So, it is incumbent on all of us, if we see something we're concerned about, to act on it.

Obviously, the review that has been set up by the UK Government will come forward with proposals, I'm sure, and we will look very closely at what those proposals are and see how they will help us in Wales. It is a very wide-ranging review, and for the Member's information it's led jointly by the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills; the Care Quality Commission; Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services; and HM Inspectorate of Probation. So, it's looking at all of this wide range of agencies. We will look very closely at the result, but, yes, it's all of our duties to look out for any concerns and to follow up on any concerns that we may have.  

4. 90-second Statements

The next item is the 90-second statements, and I call on Mabon ap Gwynfor.

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. I would like to pay tribute this afternoon to all of the staff in general practices in Dwyfor Meirionnydd and beyond for their tireless work in delivering the vaccine to thousands and thousands of people in Wales. These dedicated medical workers are the ones keeping us all safe, and our debt to them is a great one.

I would like to congratulate specifically one of the local surgeries in Dwyfor Meirionnydd for its heroic exploits over the last weekend, namely Tŷ Doctor in Nefyn. Tŷ Doctor in Nefyn was the first to deliver the Pfizer vaccine, which meant that people in rural communities could have this special vaccine. And the Tŷ Doctor surgery managed to deliver nearly 4,000 vaccines in a single weekend, which means that they have now vaccinated up to 20,000 people since the start of the year. This surgery on the Llŷn peninsula has taken a leading role in vaccinating local people since the very beginning. The doctors, nurses, staff, and the army of volunteers—everyone took a full part in this.

According to Dr Eilir Hughes, people from all over north Wales came to be vaccinated in Tŷ Doctor in Nefyn. Some came for the first time, some came for the second dose, and several came to get their booster. But the encouraging thing is that many of those who came to the surgery over the weekend were young people.

The vaccine is the best tool that we have to tackle this terrible infection that has killed so many people. I give my sincere thanks, therefore, to the doctors of Dwyfor Meirionnydd and doctors across Wales for their peerless efforts in distributing the vaccine effectively in our communities and keeping us all safe.

15:25

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

Plenary was suspended at 15:26.

15:30

The Senedd reconvened at 15:33, with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

5. Debate on petition P-06-1208 New laws to protect rare red squirrels from habitat loss which causes population decline

Item 5 is the next item, and it's the debate on the petition on new laws to protect rare red squirrels from habitat loss, which causes population decline. I call on the Chair of the Petitions Committee, Jack Sargeant.

Motion NDM7860 Jack Sargeant

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the petition P-06-1208 'New laws to protect rare red squirrels from habitat loss which causes population decline’ which received 10,553 signatures.

Motion moved.

Thank you very much, Llywydd. On behalf of the Petitions Committee, thank you for the opportunity to introduce this important debate.

This petition was introduced by Craig Shuttleworth in June and reached 10,000 signatures before the end of July. Llywydd, that tells me that a lot of people in Wales, and across the world, love red squirrels. And while it isn't the focus of today’s debate, I do wish to mention petition P-06-1225, 'Make Natural Resources Wales undertake and publish annual wildlife surveys before felling woodland'. This raises wider issues about how we can protect woodland habitats for all the creatures that live there.

The red squirrel was once common throughout the UK, but they have disappeared from many areas. You can however still see them in three main areas of Wales: on Anglesey, in the Clocaenog Forest in north Wales, and in Clywedog in mid Wales. According to the Wildlife Trusts, in about 150 years red squirrels have declined from around 3.5 million to 140,000 in the UK. The main threat to the species has come from the introduction of the grey squirrel, brought over from North America in the 1870s. A larger, faster-breeding squirrel, it competes for sources of food, making life harder for the red squirrel. It can also carry squirrel pox virus, also known as parapox, which is harmless to grey squirrels, but fatal to red squirrels. Llywydd, red squirrels are also threatened by domestic cats and dogs, roads and habitat losses and fragmentation. In 2020, the Mammal Society released an official red list for British mammals, highlighting the species most at risk. The red squirrel is classified as 'endangered' and is one of the 19 species considered at risk of extinction in Britain. At an international level, it is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's red list of threatened species.

Red squirrels are a priority species under the UK post-2010 biodiversity framework. They are protected under Schedules 5 and 6 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as amended. Under the Act, it is an offence to kill, injure or take a red squirrel, or to damage, destroy or obstruct access to a drey or any other structure or place that a red squirrel uses for shelter or protection. It is also an offence to disturb a red squirrel when it is occupying a structure or place for protection. This protection does not apply to areas where red squirrels only feed. Activities for social, economic and environmental reasons that might affect red squirrels can be licensed.

The petition we are debating today is calling on the Government to go further than the protections that already exist. It is asking this Senedd to do more to protect red squirrels. Specifically, it is asking that habitat loss be included in the consideration of felling licences, and that state-owned forests, which don’t require a licence, should have to annually assess the cumulative impact of felling on the red squirrel population. We know that this Government puts climate change and nature at the heart of its decision making. Earlier this year, in June 2021, this Senedd declared a nature emergency. So the question is, today. about that nature emergency: how can we protect the populations of red squirrels we have? But even further, how can we reverse the historic decline?

Llywydd, I very much look forward to the Minister's response this afternoon. I look forward to Members' contributions across the Chamber, and I'm very much looking forward to the contribution from the Senedd's own very red squirrel—the bright and bushy-tailed Darren Millar. Diolch yn fawr.

15:35

I couldn't have called him better. Darren Millar. [Laughter.]

Diolch, Llywydd. And as the red squirrel species champion in the Senedd, I'm absolutely delighted to see that this debate has been brought forward by the Petitions Committee. And before I go any further, I must declare an interest in this debate as the honorary member of the Red Squirrels Trust Wales and indeed a member of the Clocaenog Red Squirrels Trust as well. And I want to pay tribute to the incredible work of the lead petitioner, Dr Craig Shuttleworth, for organising the petition, and the incredible work that he does, day in, day out, in leading red squirrel conservation efforts across the country. He's not alone, of course—there are the Red Squirrels Trust, the Clocaenog Red Squirrels Trust, the Welsh Mountain Zoo and a whole army of others, including many volunteers, who give their time, effort and resources fighting for these super furry animals.

Since being appointed as the red squirrel champion back in 2016, it's been an absolute thrill to get to know more about this unique and iconic species and to visit many of the projects across Wales and to learn about the efforts being made to boost the fortunes of the red squirrel population and to revive it. For over 10,000 years, the red squirrel population was the dominant population here in Wales of squirrels. And not only that, it populated the vast majority of the British Isles. But we know from what has already been shared today that that population dwindled significantly, and as late as the 1990s there were just a few hundred red squirrels scattered across Wales in small population pockets, which were at risk. But it was at that time, before the turn of the millennium, that heroic conservation efforts to revive the species began. And thanks to these efforts, I'm proud to say that in my own constituency the Clocaenog forest now has a sustainable small, but growing red squirrel population. In mid Wales, the Vincent Wildlife Trust released pine martens, a predator to grey squirrels, and that project has, so far, also proved successful in boosting the population numbers there.

But the biggest triumph, in my opinion, for any conservation effort of any animal in Wales, has been on the island of Anglesey. Because, thanks to its status as an island, an ambitious plan to remove grey squirrels was hatched, and, by 2015, it was announced that Anglesey was a grey squirrel-free zone. But all these efforts, they've been undermined, and they've been undermined due to outdated forestry legislation, which pays no regard to at-risk wildlife populations. How can it be that while it's illegal to kill or injure a red squirrel or disturb a red squirrel in its drey or nest—how can it be that a forest containing them is not protected and can be chopped down? Yet that, unfortunately, is the current state of affairs, as far as the law is concerned, here in Wales. Because while a felling licence is required to harvest timber or fell trees in private woodland in Wales, it's a scandal that such licences cannot be refused if they cause habitat loss and red squirrel population decline. And, of course, Government-owned forests, they do not require a licence, but they are managed under 10-year plans. Regrettably, there is no obligation whatsoever to update or refresh those plans to take note of the actual squirrel population on an annual basis and where it's nesting within those forests. And as a result of that, we now face an incredible challenge of seeing in parts of Wales trees being felled, or planned to be felled, which could result in the setting back of these enormous conservation efforts that we've seen.

And let's give you an example of how the current arrangements are failing in that regard: Pentraeth forest on Ynys Môn. And I know that Rhun ap Iorwerth will be familiar with this challenge. It is a red squirrel stronghold—one of the few strongholds in Wales. Yet Natural Resources Wales has given permission for a felling operation that is going to be based on the outdated data on the local squirrel population, which is over 10 years old, and, worse still, it's going to allow the felling operation to take place during the red squirrel breeding season. So, while a new generation of this endangered species are settling down into their nests, the trees, which hold those nests, will be chopped down. And this is not a small area of woodland being torn down; it's 17 acres—6,500 tonnes of timber—worth of prime red squirrel habitat that is going to be destroyed. And we must remember that this is at a time when, quite rightly, the Welsh Government is decrying global deforestation and encouraging every household in Wales to plant a tree. So, we can't allow this situation to persist. We've got to take action now if we're going to see this species continue to rebound.

Yes, we need to address the shortcomings of the Forestry Act 1967. That work has already been done in Scotland, so we have a template that we can pick up and apply here in Wales. We need a clear timescale for that work to be achieved. And I'm pleased very much that the Welsh Government has started the work on planning for that legislation to change. But we also need some work to be done on ensuring that these 10-year plans are updated on a much more frequent basis so that we can protect the wildlife populations—not just the red squirrel, but other important wildlife species as well—in forests that are state-owned and state-run across the country.

So, on behalf of this small, but incredibly super furry animal, I want to encourage everybody to back the petition that's called for these changes to be made today, and I look forward to hearing further contributions. 

15:40

The only red squirrel I've ever seen was on Ynys Môn, and therefore I call Rhun ap Iorwerth. 

Thank you very much, Llywydd. I will also declare that I am an honorary member of the Red Squirrels Trust Wales, and I am very proud to be a Member representing an island who are, as a whole, champions for this particular creature. It was around a year ago when I was out running with my wife less than a mile from my home and a red squirrel jumped from the hedge and sped down the road ahead of us—this flash of a red tail bounding down the road. And it ran ahead of us for some good 50 yards, running with us indeed before disappearing back into the hedge. And we were enchanted, because although I've seen a number of squirrels over the years, this was the first time that I'd seen the red squirrel on my own doorstep. And I recall as a young boy growing up on the island, the great pride that this wonderful creature had chosen to make its home on Ynys Môn. 

But it was under threat, under threat from grey squirrels, as we've heard, and by the mid-1990s it was almost entirely extinct. And when the recovery work started in growing the red squirrel population again, then our pride just grew even further. It brings economic benefits now too, of course. I know of colleagues from this Senedd who have travelled to Anglesey with the sole purpose of seeing a red squirrel. But the greatest value, of course, and I'm sure we could all agree on this, is in the conservation itself, as we heard from the Chair of the Petitions Committee, and the contribution of a healthy red squirrel population to the biodiversity of the island and the biodiversity of the whole of Wales. And now, two thirds of all Welsh red squirrels are on Anglesey once again. 

But that didn't happen by accident, and it's very, very important to bear that in mind, and we should give real thanks for the tireless work of conservationists and volunteers on a local level. We've heard the name of Craig Shuttleworth; I could name Raj Jones, and all the work that she has done over the years in ensuring that signs appeared over the island—the red squirrel forest signs—which was a literal sign that the creature was back. And thank goodness, the red squirrel is safeguarded by legislation. It's an offence to destroy dreys, but there is no safeguard for the woodland that they occupy. The squirrel is protected, but its habitat is not. And that's what this petition seeks to remedy.

And I welcome the petition and what the petitioners are calling for—over 10,000 of them; 1,700 of them from my own constituency. They want to change the licensing system, which would enable us to place conditions before allowing tree felling, so, conditions not to fell during breeding seasons, for example. At the moment, tree felling can happen even without a survey of how many squirrel nests there are. And we see that happening far too often in my own constituency. Why, after all of the work in helping the population to recover, would we want the habitat to be under threat? I've had constituents contact me about plans by Natural Resources Wales to clear fell forestry, or to allow the clear felling of forestry, on several sites on Ynys Môn—Newborough, Pentraeth, as we've heard, Mynydd Bodafon, habitats we know are treasures in terms of the red squirrel population. People are concerned about Penrhos in Holyhead, concerned that not enough coverage is given to safeguarding that habitat. 

Scotland's already changed legislation. The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 placed a clause in the Forestry Act 1967 that specifically allows the rejection of tree felling permits or attaches conditions to them—

'for the purpose of conserving or enhancing the flora, fauna or geological or physiographical features, or the natural beauty or amenity, of any land.'

There is no such clause added to Welsh legislation, and it is time for us to remedy that. And beyond legislation, I have to say that it's a real concern of mine that there is a lack of robust dialogue between Natural Resources Wales and conservation organisations. It's something that I've raised time and time again. Partnership has to be part of the solution in safeguarding the squirrel. 

To conclude, I look forward to hearing from the Minister in her response to this debate. I am still awaiting a response to correspondence to the Minister for Climate Change on this issue from July and October of this year. I and the 10,000 and more people who have signed this petition would be grateful to hear whether she is as enthusiastic as we are in terms of safeguarding this rare and wonderful creature.

15:50

Thank you to the Petitions Committee for bringing forward this important petition today, and thank you to Jack Sargeant for opening the debate. The petition has highlighted an important opportunity for us here in Wales to progress action to protect our wildlife. We are facing a nature crisis as well as a climate emergency, and we must take seriously the loss of biodiversity that will occur if actions to protect nature species, like the red squirrel, isn't taken.

As Jack has highlighted, one of the biggest threats to red squirrels is habitat loss and fragmentation, and it is here that the Welsh Government can act. In Scotland, felling licences can be refused or granted to enhance or conserve wildlife, thanks to a change in the law, demonstrating a commitment to species protection. Unfortunately, no such protections currently exist here in Wales.

I have also been contacted by residents in Anglesey concerned about the planned development at Penrhos. The nature reserve is an important habitat for red squirrels, as well as an oasis for local residents to enjoy. The development will see 27 acres of trees felled, which will have a serious impact on the squirrels' habitat, removing much of their dreys and runs. I firmly believe that the impact a project will have on local wildlife should be considered when receiving approval, whether this be the felling of trees as part of woodland management or redevelopment like that in Penrhos. So, I welcome this petition that was put forward by Craig Shuttleworth, and hope that, going forward, regulations will be put in place so that biodiversity and species protection will be treated as a priority throughout Wales.

I'd like to thank those who've brought this petition forward, and I want to put on record my thanks, really, to my colleague Darren Millar who has been a sterling champion of the red squirrels. It's important that we, as champions—I know Mark Isherwood recently has been acknowledged for the work he does on curlews—it's important that we take our role seriously and, for the record, I am the champion of the harbour porpoise in Wales.

According to 'The State of Mammals in Wales' report, although there has been a marked decline in the distribution of red squirrels since the 1995 review, the population in Wales currently appears to be stable, and may even be locally expanding. However, it can remain the case that the prospects could be poor. The population of 9,200 is on a downtrend trend. There are four distinct areas in Wales where these adorable characters can be found: Ynys Môn, between Powys and Ceredigion, and Clocaenog forest. Constituents in the Conwy valley in my constituency recall seeing red squirrels there some decades ago; today, they would have to travel over 20 miles for a chance to witness another in the wild. So, wouldn't it be fantastic if the Welsh Government could develop an action plan to link the populations between Clocaenog and Ynys Môn? 

I would be pleased to learn whether the periodic reviews of focal sites have been undertaken since the commitment in the 2018 'Red Squirrel Conservation Plan for Wales', but it remains the case that greys number around 300,000—over 30 times more than the reds. And I have to confess, as an avid bird feeder, that I have three naughty squirrels that come and they do really quite well at my home on my bird tables. With the estimated cost of greys' eradication in Wales being as much as £76 million, the task could appear to be unachievable. However, the 'Grey Squirrel Management Action Plan for Wales' does refer to humane lethal management options. I would be pleased if the Minister could actually update us on that. 

The petition is also right to focus our attention on forest management. In fact, the 'Red Squirrel Conservation Plan for Wales' states that

'Conservation action to protect red squirrels on mainland sites needs to focus on ensuring suitable habitat is present'.

In 2018, Natural Resources Wales's forest planning system was noted as a constraint. Three years on, NRW continue to be a barrier to progress. This organisation must explain why it has spent nothing on monitoring red squirrels in 10 years. This Senedd could undertake a review of the requirements for a felling licence, so to ensure that fair consideration is given to biodiversity and habitat loss. And, Minister, you could immediately rectify the fact that annual assessments of the cumulative impact of felling are not undertaken for state-owned forests. Thank you. Diolch.

15:55

From the Gruffalo's friend to Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin, the red squirrel, the UK's only native squirrel species, has been a much loved part of the UK countryside for thousands of years. The number of them has sadly dwindled over the last decades for many reasons, the main being the introduction of the non-native grey squirrel. Unfortunately, grey squirrels far outnumber red squirrels in Rhondda and the wider south Wales area. I actually have some problems of my own with grey squirrels in my garden, who seem to think it's funny to steal not just the birdseed, but the actual birdfeeders too. But, in all seriousness, I know just how important it is that we not only maintain the number of red squirrels in mid and north Wales, but we ensure we see numbers begin to rise again. The Welsh Government are taking action with the red squirrel conservation plan and the grey squirrel management action plan, but these could prove futile if changes are not made to felling licence criteria, as rightly pointed out by the petitioner.

For me, today's debate highlights two very important issues, with the first being unintentional consequences as a result of tree felling. We experienced devastating flooding in Rhondda last year, following the tree felling above Pentre. The trees had to be felled as they were diseased, but hundreds of homes and businesses were flooded as a consequence. Much like the petition states,

'Although a felling licence is required to fell woodland, these licences cannot be refused even if they cause habitat loss and red squirrel population decline.'

We must ensure that, in future, no unintended consequences occur as a result of tree felling, and this must mean consideration of habitat and biodiversity loss leading to population decline.

The second issue is the loss of endangered and threatened species. I know that many argue we should just let nature take its course, but I respectfully disagree, especially those with a great public image like the red squirrel. Bringing attention to their struggle will lead to wider interest and an understanding of how biodiversity and population loss affect us all. Where we can step into protect these species, we should. Thank you to the petitioner for raising this extremely important issue.

The Deputy Presiding Officer took the Chair.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I too am very grateful to the petitioner and also to Jack Sargeant, the Chair of the Petitions Committee, for bringing forward this important issue, which, as he and many others said, relates not only to the protection for red squirrels, but also for other wildlife during felling operations. And it is indeed very important that we take steps to maintain and enhance species of principal importance, and this is just one of a number of actions set out in 'The Nature Recovery Action Plan for Wales 2020-21' to help address the nature emergency in Wales. 

I am all too acutely aware of the limitations of the Forestry Act and the nature of conditions that Natural Resources Wales can apply under a felling licence. These limitations, as many Members have pointed out, can result in a disjoint between the Forestry Act and other environmental legislation, leading to gaps in the protection of wildlife. While NRW have taken steps to address this through advisory letters or long-term forestry management plans for landowners, these absolutely do not fully address the issue, as a number of Members have pointed out.

That's why we've committed to including provisions in the agriculture Bill amending the Forestry Act to allow conditions to be added to felling licences. We will also include provisions to amend, suspend or revoke felling licences after they have been granted. These amendments will help provide better protection for wildlife, for example, in relation to the exemption under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and provide better join-up between forestry and other environmental regulations. The relevant legislation to amend the Forestry Act will be brought forward very shortly.

'The UK Forestry Standard' states that

'woodlands should be managed in a way that conserves or enhances biodiversity'

and reflected in forest management plans. Each part of our Welsh Government woodland estate has a 10-year forest resource plan, which is a requirement for forest certification, and plans do include details of any protected species or habitats that could be affected by management operations, and site surveys are undertaken by NRW in the development of the plans, and measures to mitigate impacts are included, for example, in retaining areas of habitat. Consideration is also given to the habitat needs of species at a landscape scale. That process involves consultation with external stakeholders, such as the red squirrel groups. Plans are also placed on NRW's public register to enable further comments—

16:00

I'm very grateful to you for outlining how the plans are arrived at, and you have said that there's consultation and engagement with stakeholders on the development of those plans, but, because that's every 10 years, it doesn't take account of the change in the population and the impact elsewhere. I noticed also you referred to the fact that you're going to bring forward legislative change, which obviously I very much welcome, but you didn't specify a timescale, you just said 'shortly'. How long is 'shortly'?

I'm just coming on to the 10 year point. I'm not going to be drawn on 'shortly', because we're in negotiation about Plenary time for it, but very shortly—we are aware of the urgency of it.

So, as I was saying, although not legally required, NRW seek approval from their felling licence team to ensure their plans conform to the UK forestry standard. Further site surveys are undertaken before felling operations commence and, if necessary, further mitigation measures can be given to the contractor. 

At this point in time, I wanted to say that we've had a number of conversations with NRW since we took office in May, myself and my colleague Lee Waters. I'm not aware, Rhun, of letters outstanding to yourself, so if you'd like to draw my attention back to them I'd be grateful, because as far as I'm aware I don't have a backlog. Something's gone wrong there, so if you could draw my attention to them I'd be grateful. 

One of the considerations that we are discussing is how close to the actual felling operation a resurvey of the site for differing habitat conditions from the original survey should be, and what factors they have to take into account in order to trigger that. You wouldn't want to do that for every one, but there will be factors to take into account. So, just to say that we're having conversations along those lines.

One of the take-homes from COP26 for us was a conversation with other what are called subnational UN states such as Quebec on changes to forestry practice where clear felling no longer takes place and canopy cover is maintained at all times, even in productive sustainable timber forests. We're very keen that NRW shift to that method of production as fast as we can. That can't be done overnight. I can't make that happen tomorrow morning. And there are lots of other conditions that pertain across Welsh woodlands, including needing to take measures to stop the spread of disease. We still have monocultural pine forests and so on. So, it won't be overnight, but we're very aware of the need to do that. Indeed, we're very plugged in to the global effort to have continuous canopy cover for habitat protection, whilst having a productive timber industry. So, we're very definitely on the case of doing that. 

We also have a consideration of the cumulative impact of felling on habitat as part of the felling licence regime. This is where we don't just consider what happens if we fell this stand of trees without considering what will happen to pressure on that stand of trees over there, which may still be there but will have dislocated wildlife arriving at it. I was very keen, during the curlew conservation plan launch, to engage with people looking to protect grassland areas about what happens to edge-of-grassland areas with forest in them if felling takes place elsewhere in the habitat and the kinds of predators that are moved across that then predate on the grassland.

We all know this, Deputy Presiding Officer, but this is a very complex ecosystem we're talking about. It's not just this bit, it all interacts. So, we're very keen that NRW takes account of those cumulative impacts and account of the needs of species in relation to existing and new applications for felling licenses, as well as their own internal forest resource plans. To assist in that process, we've now got a formal data-sharing agreement with local records centres across Wales to update their own GIS database with new survey data. We've also issued a contract to monitor and assess red squirrel populations on Anglesey, which is due to complete in spring 2022. Red squirrels are already monitored at the other two focal sites that Members have mentioned, in Clocaenog and in mid Wales.

If we are to fully benefit from the contribution our woodlands can make to both the nature and climate emergencies, we do need to plant and manage more trees. We will need to strike the right balance in doing this to enable effective woodland management and planting that meets our needs for habitat improvement and biodiversity, as well as providing timber for low-carbon housing, for example. 

Deputy Presiding Officer, in closing, we absolutely recognise the need for clear guidance on how and when the new powers arising from amendments to the Forestry Act will be used. NRW will be publishing draft guidance ahead of the legislation very shortly. Diolch.

Diolch yn fawr, Deputy Presiding Officer. I want to thank Craig Shuttleworth and all the signatories of this petition for putting this topic on the agenda today. I think it was clear from the contributions made by all Members that there is a clear cross-party consensus, and from the Minister's response, not only to why we do need to act to protect red squirrels, but also what action needs to be taken. We heard from Members across the Chamber, including my colleague Carolyn Thomas, my colleague Rhun ap Iorwerth, and also my colleague and super furry animal from Clwyd West, about legislation and changes to legislation. I welcome the Minister's response to those point and the sense of urgency and recognition of urgency, and that the time to act is now. So, we will be keeping a close eye on those amendments to legislation and what is being brought forward by the Welsh Government. But, as many people have said as well, we do want to thank all the volunteers that are out there across Wales working to protect the species already—the Mid Wales Red Squirrel Partnership and the Red Squirrels Trust Wales to name a few. But thanks to all those others out