Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

18/01/2022

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

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

Statement by the Llywydd

Welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. A Plenary meeting held by video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and these are noted on your agenda. And I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting.

1. Questions to the First Minister

The first item is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Joel James. 

Active Travel Action Plan

1. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of any negative repercussions from the implementation of the active travel action plan for Wales? OQ57458

Llywydd, in our assessment, the positive gains of the active travel action plan far outweigh any negative repercussions. It's a requirement of the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 that it be reviewed by the end of 2022. That review will identify any implementation issues that need to be addressed.

Thank you, First Minister. I have recently been contacted by several groups who are extremely concerned about the active travel plan and the impact that its implementation is having where it is causing safety issues and difficulties for people in terms of their health and well-being. A particular issue that has been raised is that designated cycle lanes are either being incorporated into the pavement, or are adjacent and at the same level as the pavement. For those with eyesight issues or are registered blind, this can be a terrifying situation, especially for people who use white canes or use guide dogs to help them. When the curb has been removed, guide dogs are unable to distinguish between what is road, cycle lane or pavement. A notable and local example is the bus stop along Dumfries Place in Cardiff. When you step off the bus, you're immediately stepping on to a designated blue cycle lane not a pavement, and people with sight loss risk collision with cyclists. Not only this, but they have no way of determining where the road or pavement starts, which has led to incidences of those suffering sight loss walking directly into the road. For someone with sight issues, this is a very disorientating and frightening experience.

There are also issues that horse riders face. For example, bridleways have been downgraded to footpaths and cycle lanes for the active travel plan, forcing horse riders onto the roads in order to access suitable riding routes, which in turn brings them into contact with heavy road traffic, sometimes with deadly and dangerous consequences, such as the recent collision of a van with a horse and rider in Tonyrefail, which has left the rider in hospital with multiple injuries. 

I'm sure that you will be as deeply concerned by some of these negative consequences as I am, and with this in mind, First Minister, what assurances can you give that the Welsh Government has adequately assessed the needs of everyone when it comes to the active travel plan, because, clearly, there are groups that are not being factored in? Thank you. 

Llywydd, I thank Joel James for identifying an important issue, but an issue very well known to the Welsh Government. Shared use of space on the highway, on the pavement, is a matter that has been raised and discussed in our own engagement with groups representing disabled people, including those with issues of vision. The actual implementation that the Member refers to, of course, is carried out by local authorities, not directly by the Welsh Government. We provide the plan and the guidance, and then local authorities have to make sometimes complex decisions, where space is at a premium, as to how it can be best used. And sometimes that does mean that the use of space has to be shared. That is true of horse riders as well.

A new version of the highway code, Llywydd, is due to be published in February. That, of course, is a UK-wide document, and it does now directly address these issues and sets out a hierarchy of users in shared space, so that as people take their driving tests and become new users of the road, they will have fresh guidance to make sure that where more than one use is required of any space on the highway, on the pavement, there's a clear hierarchy of whose needs must be attended to first. And the principle that has been used in that redrafting of the highway code seems to me to be a sensible one because it puts the needs of the most vulnerable users at the top of that hierarchy. Now, the review that I mentioned in my first answer, Llywydd, will be an opportunity to look at these issues again. And I can assure the Member that we will seek the views of those people who have identified those implementation issues and seek to address them again as part of that review.

13:35

First Minister, I'm glad to see this question, and, certainly, the cross-party group on active travel has set up an expert panel to help inform the Government of stakeholders' views in terms of the review as well. But can I just thank the Government for their engagement on this agenda? They've really pushed it up the agenda. The investment has had a significant uplift, and many local authorities are making the most of this by successful bids for active travel funds and safer routes funds for schemes in their areas. In my own area, Bridgend to Pencoed—[Inaudible.]—Bettws to Bryngarw country park, and this builds on several years of successful bids. But this is my point, First Minister: what can we do as a Government to help those local authorities, which he just referred to, who may not have the in-house expertise, may not have the track record of successful bids for safer routes or for active travel networks and mapping, to help them have successful bids as well, make sure that we spread the benefits across urban and rural areas as well, and also, finally, maintain that investment in footpaths, pavements, and also the road network, which are also key to walking and cycling as well? Diolch yn fawr.

Llywydd, I'd like to thank Huw Irranca-Davies for those questions.

I think one of the ways in which the funding that we provide to local authorities has been developed in recent years is that we now provide a core allocation to local authorities, as well as the project money that they can bid in for. And because there has been such a sustained rise in investment in active travel, the provision of a core allocation does help local authorities to build up the in-house capacity and expertise to allow them to draw down further central funding for the best-quality scheme. Now, I recognise this important point that Huw Irranca-Davies makes—that there are sometimes specialist skills that are needed beyond the scope of an individual authority. We've been working with Transport for Wales to see how they can make some of their expertise available to local authorities, but with the Welsh Local Government Association as well, in case there is an opportunity for some shared expertise, across local authority boundaries, that local authorities can draw on when they are looking to develop schemes that need those additional skills.

Llywydd, can I thank the cross-party group for the work that they do, and in particular for what its Chair indicated they would be doing to help make sure that the review of the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 is as well-informed as it can be by the views of people who use these services? I am quite sure that they will talk about those everyday journeys that are made in rural as well as in urban areas, and the importance of footpaths, pavements, and so on. The Welsh Government did provide £7.8 million in further funding to local authorities last summer, specifically for quick improvements that could be made in conditions for safe walking and cycling. And we plan to press ahead with our plan to tackle pavement parking—another issue that the groups that Joel James referred to often raise, I know, with Senedd Members. If you are partially sighted, if you're trying to take a buggy, if you're in a wheelchair, then pavement parking is another one of those active travel barriers that we need to tackle. And I'm sure that these issues will come through strongly in the engagement work that the cross-party group has committed to leading.

Inter-governmental Relations

2. Will the First Minister provide an update on the functioning of the relationship between the Welsh Government and UK Government? OQ57472

I thank Ken Skates, Llywydd, for that question. We welcome the final agreement of the inter-governmental review in the fourth calendar year of that process. We now need a UK Government capable of discharging its responsibilities rather than one paralysed by the unfolding crises of a deeply dysfunctional Downing Street.

13:40

Diolch, First Minister. Like you, I welcome the agreements on the final outcome of the inter-governmental review, again, at long last, as you said. But of course, as you pointed to, governments can only operate effectively if they are stable and focused purely on serving the public good. It's been disturbing to read about the parties, the lockdown law breaking, and the Prime Minister's precarious leadership position, all of which I fear risks, as you said, paralysing the UK Government and therefore undermining the inter-governmental relations until there is a new leader. First Minister, are you able to offer us any reassurance that the UK Government is able to discharge its functions responsibly given all that has happened in Downing Street during the course of the pandemic?

Llywydd, I'm afraid I don't think I can offer such a reassurance. The UK Government, it seems to me, is trapped in the headlights of the events that it has brought upon itself by its utter disregard for the rules that the rest of us are bound by. And in an attempt now to escape from the dilemmas that it itself has created, everything it does is seen through that lens. Every statement that is made, any policy initiative that is put forward is not motivated by the needs of the country or the importance of addressing the key challenges that we face; every one of them is seen through the lens of how this Government can escape from the mire into which it has plunged itself. And in those circumstances, I'm afraid, on the things that Ken Skates pointed to—the need for stability, the need for a government focused on serving the public good—I can't offer any assurances that the current state of the UK Government is conducive to those sorts of qualities.

Of course, the UK Government, First Minister, has delivered a world-beating vaccination programme that has been of great benefit to people across Wales, and it's also released significant resources across the country to help businesses and individuals overcome the challenges of the pandemic. And in spite of your assertion that it's incapable of operating properly, it actually released the report on the review of inter-governmental relations last week. As you said in your initial answer to the Member for Clwyd South, you welcomed warmly the publication of that report, because of course it will change the working arrangements between governments across the UK and hopefully will deliver significant improvements for people living and working across the whole of the United Kingdom. One of the things that the inter-governmental review did not touch on was the accountability framework behind which the new system of working together could sit. Would you agree with me that we now need to look at an inter-parliamentary body in order to hold the various Governments to account for the new working arrangements to make sure that they really do deliver on the aspirations set out in the review?

Llywydd, I did welcome the outcome of the IGR. I was there in 2018 when it was initiated by Theresa May and the First Ministers of the time, and the Welsh Government and Welsh civil servants in particular have invested many, many hours in trying to make sure that we make that document as good as it can be. There are some accountability measures within it. It does lead to governments across the United Kingdom placing various documents and reports in front of the four Parliaments. I'm absolutely open to the point that Mr Millar makes about parliamentary bodies working together to improve accountability, but that of course would be for them rather than for any government to lead. I've welcomed very regularly the money that the UK Government has invested in sustaining the economy during the COVID crisis. I've always believed that the ability to secure vaccines for use across the United Kingdom was better done on a UK basis, although the implementation of vaccination and, of course, the programme that has made use of it have been in the hands of the different governments of the United Kingdom. All of those things I have no difficulty in acknowledging. I imagine that, in the privacy of his own committee rooms, the Member himself would recognise that this is not a good time for the UK Government, and its ability to live up to the ambitions of the IGR is inevitably compromised by the events of recent times and the way in which the UK Government has turned in on itself in order to try to find a way through the mess of its own making.

13:45

Prif Weinidog, I was also glad, like you and Mr Skates, to read the review of inter-governmental relations last week, and the setting up of independent dispute resolution. As we know, such a process is needed to effectively combat a Westminster Government that is legislating time and time again within devolved areas, but also restricting the rights of the people of Wales to protest, to vote, to use judicial review and to use the European convention of human rights to quash secondary legislation. However, my concern, Prif Weinidog, is that there won't be a statutory standing basis to this new system and it will not be binding on the Government. With a Westminster Government that has completely ignored the Sewel convention—the Sewel convention has gone out through the window with this Government—how confident are you that this new system will lead to respect towards this Parliament, but even more importantly, to respect for the rights of the people of Wales? Diolch yn fawr.

Well, diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Those are all important points. This Government opposes the UK Government's importation of techniques from the United States to suppress voting amongst populations who it thinks who may not be supportive of their political party. We opposed the restrictions on judicial review, which I see the UK Government has revived again, and we oppose the measures that they intend to introduce to limit people's ability to carry out legitimate protest. So, I agree with all the points that the Member made there. 

The inter-governmental review isn't perfect, but it is a significant advance on where we have been up until now. One of the most significant advances, and this was one of the areas that the Welsh Government and Welsh civil servants led on, as part of the review, is in the introduction of that independent dispute avoidance, and then resolution, mechanism. It's been entirely unsatisfactory that, when a devolved government attempted to raise a dispute within the arrangements of the Joint Ministerial Committee, it was the UK Government alone who could, first of all, decide whether the dispute was admissible—so, it dealt with some disputes simply by saying it didn't recognise there was a dispute—and then, even if it was admissible, it turned out to be the judge and the jury and the court of appeal and all the other things that you'd expect in relation to a dispute. That is now on a very different basis. Not, as the Member said, entrenched in statute, but there for everybody to see, and with a very significant political penalty for a government that tried, having signed up to the agreement, then to ride roughshod through it. So, parties of very different political persuasion—the Conservative Party in London, the SNP in Scotland, Sinn Fein and the DUP in Northern Ireland, and the Labour Government in Wales—we're all signed up to the review, and we certainly will approach it in the spirit of doing everything we can to make sure that we all now live up to the new ways that that review has agreed.

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from the party leaders. Leader of the Welsh Conservatives first, Andrew R.T. Davies. 

Thank you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, last week you claimed that the impact of restrictions on Welsh businesses over Christmas and the new year was not down to the actions of your Government. Can you tell me who was responsible for these restrictions, because last time I checked you were the First Minister? Or was it some extraterrestrial force that none of us are aware of?

13:50

Llywydd, the impact on Welsh businesses was caused by coronavirus. That is the point that I was making, as I'm quite sure the leader of the opposition knows. Businesses in Wales were seeing the impact of the omicron variant well before there was any change in the alert level measures in Wales. That's why the £120 million that we have made available to Welsh businesses doesn't start on 27 December when the rules changed, but dates from 13 December, because we recognised that Welsh citizens were already making choices themselves because they recognised the new risks that the omicron variant posed. That's at the root of the difficulties that Welsh businesses have faced: the fact that they were dealing with a new variant of coronavirus and the impact that that was having on people's behaviour.

Well, sadly, First Minister, it is a fact that you did have choices over the type of restrictions that you could have brought in, just like you have the choice to commission an independent inquiry here in Wales into those decisions right the way through the pandemic, which regrettably you haven't commissioned to date.

If we take a step back into the real world, reports last week showed that pubs in Wales lost on average £16,000 each due to the Government restrictions. This was because of the rules that closed some establishments and made other hospitality businesses unviable. Will you apologise for the impact of those restrictions on the businesses that proved to be unviable because of those restrictions, and will you, as a gesture of goodwill, increase the level of funding available to businesses so that they can continue going forward, creating employment opportunities and creating dynamic businesses the length and breadth of Wales?

Well, I have absolutely nothing to apologise for, Llywydd. The Conservative Party in Wales has a great deal to apologise for in the way that it has time after time after time sought to deny people in Wales and businesses in Wales the protections that are needed from a global pandemic. We put in measures that were designed to make sure that lives were saved in Wales and that businesses could go on trading, and there's absolutely nothing to apologise for in doing that because those measures were necessary and those measures have been effective. Because of the help that is available from the Welsh Government, a pub that lost £16,000 in Wales, if it can establish that that is indeed the case, could recoup all of that from the help that we have now put on the table through the non-domestic rates element and through the economic resilience fund. In England, £4,000 is the maximum that any such business would receive. And, no, I'm not going to offer a blank cheque in saying that we would go beyond that. There's public money at stake here. A pub that can show that it lost £16,000 in Wales, the potential is there for it to receive all of that back from the Welsh Government. I don't think it would be a sensible or a justifiable course of action to say that the public purse would go beyond the losses that a business had sustained.

It is a fact, First Minister, that many businesses across Wales will not be able to claw back the level of losses that they've sustained because of the restrictions that you and your Government have put in place. Yesterday, your chief medical officer, Dr Frank Atherton, said that he was cautiously optimistic that the end of the pandemic was in sight. That's great news, and thanks to the Welsh Conservatives and public pressure, we now finally have a road map to alert level 0. Over the past few weeks, I've been trying to obtain metrics from your Ministers as to when the Welsh Government will deem that restrictions such as vaccine passports or masks will no longer be required here in Wales. When do you believe, First Minister, that Wales will be free of all restrictions? An estimate will do. And can you provide some metrics or timescales as to when you believe restrictions such as vaccine passports will no longer be required here in Wales?

Well, Llywydd, I set out on Friday last week a timetable stretching to the middle of next month for decision making, provided that the public health situation in Wales would mean that it would be safe to lift further protections. That timetable is well known to people. It will result, on Friday of this week, I hope, in returning to alert level 0 for activities outdoors; on 28 January, returning to alert level 0 for activities and events indoors; and then a three-week review by 10 February of remaining measures. Now, we will take the advice of the chief medical officer, Sir Frank Atherton, and others along that pathway, and as soon as it is safe to do so, from a public health perspective, then we will make the changes to reflect an improved situation. But there are a lot of ifs in that answer, Llywydd. The biggest one of all is the extent to which we can go on seeing the improvements that we have seen in the impact of the omicron and other variants of coronavirus in Wales, in our society, in our hospitals and in our public services. I think people in Wales understand that they have a Government that makes decisions in a way that responds to evidence, not to political pressure, that makes decisions in a way that is capable of being rationally communicated to them, and the support that we have gained from people in Wales over the whole of the pandemic rests on the way in which, carefully, cautiously and in line with the science, we have helped to keep Wales safe. And that's exactly how we will continue.

13:55

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, is the proposal to defund the BBC anything other than a politically motivated skewering designed to throw red meat to the Prime Minister's dwindling band of supporters, and punish a public service broadcaster for doing too good a job of exposing Boris Johnson to be the liar that he is?

Well, Llywydd, I think that the rushed announcement by Twitter of the fate of the BBC is exactly motivated in the way that the leader of Plaid Cymru has said. It is part of a 'dead meat' strategy that this Government has embarked upon. If anybody thinks that there is serious thinking that lies behind what has been announced, then I'm afraid they're going to be very badly disappointed. What we do now know for sure is that, at a time when inflation, due to the mismanagement of the economy by the UK Government, is likely to be at 6 or 7 per cent in April, the BBC are going to see their budget cut significantly in real terms, and the most urgent need, I think, is for a coalition of support to defend public funding for public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom.

Wouldn't turning the BBC into some British version of NPR or PBS in the United States, where expenditure per capita on public service broadcasting is only 4 per cent of what we spend here, wouldn't that have particularly grim impacts for us here in Wales, in terms of our democracy, our culture, our nation and our language? And not only in terms of S4C, but also Radio Cymru. Nadine Dorries didn't seem to be aware of the existence of Radio Cymru until yesterday, but what surprise is there when the Conservatives didn't even know who the leader of their own party in Wales was? So, that's the contempt that we're dealing with. Doesn't this reinforce the case, if that were needed, for devolving broadcasting to Wales? And isn't now the time that we insist on our own voice, in our own nation, in broadcasting as in our democracy?

Well, the absence of respect for Wales is clear within the UK Government. I'm sure, as Adam Price said, that Nadine Dorries hadn't given a moment's thought to the impact of her announcement on the Welsh language here in Wales. I saw what Professor Richard Wyn Jones said this morning about the future of the language in broadcasting and the importance of S4C, yes, of course, but also Radio Cymru, which is central to the use of the Welsh language here in Wales, and is so important to the future of the language too. In the co-operation agreement between ourselves and Plaid Cymru, we've already agreed that we should strengthen the case for devolving broadcasting, and establish an authority to help us, with others, along that journey. When we see the UK Government doing things such as what they've done, in haste and for solely political reasons, it does strengthen the case that we've set out already.

14:00

First Minister, is there a much deeper and darker context here, with the legislation to curb the right to peaceful protest last night defeated in the House of Lords, the proposals to weaken the Human Rights Act, the attacks on an independent judiciary, the changes to voter ID, pork-barrelling in the awarding of grants and cronyism in the awarding of contracts, the illegal prorogation of Parliament, and last, but certainly not least, a Prime Minister that lies with impunity? Is not the attack on a fair, independent and balanced media—which is in essence what public service broadcasting guarantees—not the latest element in a conscious effort to erode the basic foundations of our democracy? If you're not worried, you're not paying attention, as the saying goes. Would the First Minister agree that the battle over the future of broadcasting is actually a battle over the future of democracy itself?

It's a very powerful charge list that the leader of Plaid Cymru sets out there, and anybody seeing them put together in that way will certainly see that what lies behind it is a Government that is utterly reckless about a rules-based approach to public services, but also to the future of our democracy. And nobody should be surprised at that, Llywydd, with the disgraceful revelations of the way in which, at a time when the whole country was being urged to abide to some of the most significant reductions in their ability to make choices in their own lives, at the very heart of the UK Government, there was an utter disregard for that in their own lives. In some ways, I think that lies at the heart of that long list that Adam Price put together—that sense that there is one rule for the rest of us, and a different rule for those who regard themselves as above and beyond the rules that other people are expected to observe. And I think you can see that running through that long list of things that Adam Price put together. If you don't like the way that judges operate, then you attack judges. If you don't like the way that democracy operates, you try and change the rules for voting. If you don't like the way that human rights are observed in this country, you try and undermine the basis of that, too. Broadcasting is this week's example in a far longer list, a deliberate culture war that this Government has embarked upon. They think it plays well with a minority of people in this country, that shrinking minority who support them, and they're prepared to sacrifice things that have been built up over, in some cases, centuries, and in public broadcasting, for 100 years this year.

The Retail Sector

4. Will the First Minister set out the Welsh Government’s priorities for supporting the retail sector in Cynon Valley? OQ57456

I thank Vikki Howells for that question. Our priorities for the retail sector in Cynon Valley, as elsewhere, include a clear commitment to fair work policies and career progression in order to attract the workforce that will be needed in the future. We also focus on the importance of local retail services rooted in those local communities and the foundational economy.

Thank you, First Minister, for your answer. The Association of Convenience Stores published their 2022 Welsh local shop report last week, and this highlighted the important role that the almost 3,000 convenience stores in Wales have in their local communities, in the Welsh economy, and as the providers of over 25,000 jobs. We know that many of these stores have played a crucial role during the pandemic, so what is the Welsh Government doing to support this sector specifically and enable it to play a full role as part of the foundational economy?

14:05

I thank Vikki Howells for that. I've had a chance myself to look at the report of the Association of Convenience Stores and it does, as Vikki Howells said, make really interesting reading. Wales has more shops per head of the population than any other UK nation, and you'll see in that report that 70 per cent of workers in those local stores are women. And that's why, in my original answer, I put an emphasis on the fair work agenda, because that's really important there. The long daily opening hours of those shops—when it says 'convenience stores', they are convenience stores; they're in those local communities and their importance in the pandemic has come home to everybody, as people have relied upon them more. And so many of them provide services beyond what you might think of as the basic retail offer. Thirty per cent of them provide post office services alongside everything else they do, nearly half of them offer free-to-use ATMs, making sure that people can get access to cash in communities where cash is still a very important part of the way that the economy operates. And that's what I mean by being part of the foundational economy. They're there in the communities, in the localities, where you need those services on the high street or in the village to allow people to go on having access to other parts of daily life. The Welsh Government is absolutely committed to playing our part. We will publish a new retail strategy in March of this year, and local shopping and the contribution of the association, alongside others, will be powerfully represented in the strategy that we will lay out. 

House Building

5. Will the First Minister make a statement on progress towards the Welsh Government’s house-building targets? OQ57447

The programme for government sets out our commitment to building 20,000 new low-carbon homes for social rent in this Senedd term. A record £250 million was allocated to the social housing grant in this financial year, doubling the budget of 2020-21. The first statistical release demonstrating progress towards this target is expected to be published in October of this year.

Diolch. Thank you, First Minister. Your Government's plan to build 20,000 affordable homes is an ambitious target. However, the building of homes in my constituency is at a standstill due to pollution targets. I'm not disputing the need to address pollution in our rivers, but the answer simply cannot be to stop all house building. At least 10,000 homes, of which 1,700 are affordable and social, are all stuck in limbo and cannot be progressed due to Natural Resources Wales guidance on phosphorous. It's starting to have an impact on jobs and the housing market, because people working in the construction industry have no long-term job security, and local young people are being forced out of the housing market by skyrocketing rents and the lack of social homes. First Minister, this is an extremely urgent matter, but the current oversight group looking at phosphates I believe is meeting far too infrequently and I'm led to believe they're struggling with the scale of the issue. First Minister, will you look to set up a cross-party politically led task and finish group, supported by the Welsh Government, so that some urgency can be injected into this matter, to find a solution to the problem and to meet your Government's housing targets? Diolch, Llywydd. 

I understand the urgency of the issue. It's why the Welsh Government will pay for the training of local authorities on the habitats regulation assessment process, including a specific component on phosphorous matters. But, the urgency is on two fronts: there is an urgency about the need for social housing, and we're very focused on that as a Government, because 20,000 low-carbon social homes is ambitious, and we want to be able to get on with it. But the other urgency is in dealing with the phosphate problem, which is absolutely real, and building houses without tackling the phosphate problem is not an answer for the long term.

The Member, surely more than most Members in the Senedd, will be aware of the very significant problems in the River Wye in his own constituency, problems highlighted last week in the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee's report—a Conservative-chaired committee, a committee with a Conservative majority on it. Its case study of the phosphate impact on the River Wye is absolutely compelling. The phosphate impact on the River Wye is primarily caused by agricultural pollution, but by no means exclusively. It is also caused by human waste, by road run-off, by industrial activity. Building houses in a way that adds to the problems, rather than helping with the urgent need to mitigate them, is not a solution that this Government will be able to support. So, I'm agreeing with the Member about the urgency. The urgency is on the housing side, but it is on the environmental side as well, and you can't solve one at the expense of the other. 

14:10
Energy Advice

6. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to provide vulnerable households with energy advice? OQ57465

Such advice is available to all households in Wales through our Warm Homes programme Nest scheme. Additional advice and support is offered to vulnerable households in areas at greatest risk of fuel poverty through our energy advice services pilot. These areas include Gwynedd and Ynys Mȏn, both within the Member’s own region. 

Diolch, First Minister. I've been contacted by constituents who are struggling to make ends meet due to poorly insulated housing and rocketing energy prices. In response, last week, I met with Citizens Advice Denbighshire to hear more about the important role that they play providing advice to many families who are struggling with household bills, as universal credit cuts and astronomical energy price rises set in. Our discussion highlighted how essential the Welsh Government's winter fuel support scheme is as a lifeline for so many families, and it's really, really welcome. But would it be possible for this funding scheme to be delivered alongside advice that will support households in the longer term, such as access to retrofitting schemes, energy efficiency guidance and further grant support that may be available? I know they do that, but they just wanted to ensure that other delivery bodies did the same as well, because it's just so important. Thank you.   

I thank Carolyn Thomas for that evidence from the front line of the cost-of-living crisis. Last week, I remember we talked about the Resolution Foundation report on the cost-of-living catastrophe. Since then, we've seen the Institute for Fiscal Studies report on the cost-of-living crunch, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's report today on the way that rising energy bills will be devastating, as the report says, for the poorest families. All the points that the Member makes are really important. My colleagues Julie James and Jane Hutt wrote jointly to the UK Government on 11 January setting out five different ways in which the UK Government could act that would make a positive difference for those families in the field of fuel poverty alone.

The good news, Llywydd, is that the £100 that the Welsh Government is making available through the winter fuel payment scheme has not just been welcomed by organisations like Citizens Advice, but it's been enormously taken up by individual households as well. As of 31 December, with returns from 20 of the 22 local authorities, more than 100,000 applications had already been received by local authorities, and it's a tribute to those local authorities that more than 33,500 of those applications have already been paid out. Now, I hope that, by today, that number will be even higher, both in terms of applications and payments. When those payments are being made, Llywydd, what I want to see is that the opportunity is taken to make sure that people know the wider set of help that is available to them, both through energy advice and through benefit advice as well. We need to take every opportunity, particularly when we are in contact with thousands and thousands of Welsh citizens, to make sure that we take that chance to make sure that there are other sources of help that we can offer them and that they get to know about it.

14:15

Thank you to Carolyn for raising this question. I really support this proposal from Carolyn. Systems and schemes need to work as one to ensure that support in the short term, such as the winter fuel support scheme, can help individuals in the longer term with energy saving measures. Short-term measures must go hand in hand with longer term measures.

One of the short-term measures that the Conservatives in Westminster could take now would be to cut VAT on fuel, saving families up to £100 a year—a much greater saving than the few pennies claimed by Conservative Senedd Members last week. First Minister, what are your views on cutting VAT on fuel? Thank you.

Thank you very much to Jane Dodds, and I agree, of course. The things that we can do in the short term—and we have worked hard with local authorities in order to create the scheme that I referred to in my response to Carolyn Thomas—. It is important that that goes hand in hand with those other things that we can do in the longer term, and most of that is in the hands of the UK Government.

I said, in the letter from Julie James and Jane Hutt, that there were a number of practical steps that we suggested to the Westminster Government that they could implement, in order to help families with the problems that have arisen under their Government's stewardship. Cutting VAT on fuel is one of the recommendations contained within that letter. Some things are so long term—. In my view, it's not reasonable in the long term to increase charges in energy by raising bills that come through people's letterboxes. It's far better to pay for social and environment measures through the general taxation system. That is much fairer and much more sustainable in the longer term too. 

COVID-19 Infection Rates

7. What discussions has the First Minister held with UK Government counterparts about measures to reduce COVID-19 infection rates? OQ57487

Llywydd, I meet regularly with UK Government Ministers and leaders of the other devolved Governments to discuss the response to COVID-19. When they take place, I attend heads of Government COBRA meetings, and I've written today to the Prime Minister, challenging his Government's approach to international travel and its impact on infection rates.

Diolch, First Minister. As rehearsed already, the string of stories coming out of Westminster this past week about parties in No. 10 Downing Street, of an apparent culture in the heart of the UK Government that seems to have been intent on ignoring COVID laws and guidance—. Those stories will have had an indelible impact on public compliance, public support and morale. People will feel cheated—cheated out of moments they might have had if they, too, had chosen to act with such apparent irresponsibility. Because 2020 and 2021 were marked by extreme sacrifice and suffering by so many people, and that stark contrast between what the rest of us went through—the grief and the loss—juxtaposed with parties and frivolity, will be sticking in the craw. I recognise, First Minister, perhaps that the UK Government will be focusing at present on 'Operation Save Big Dog', on the red meat they're throwing about, and surely that will mean that there's a lack of focus in the inter-governmental discussions on COVID infection reduction. So, given how much his own alleged actions will have undermined public trust during a pandemic, First Minister, do you think that Boris Johnson should resign?

14:20

Well, Llywydd, I'm sure that Delyth Jewell is right about the anger that is felt by people. We will all have read those really heartrending stories of people who, on the day that parties were being organised in Downing Street, when discos were being organised in the basement, were dealing with the most awful events in their own lives. And it isn't just as Delyth Jewell said, that it has an impact on public confidence—of course it does—but there's raw anger out there at the way in which those people, regarding themselves as somehow above the law that everybody else was being asked to abide by, acted at the very heart of Government. Sir Keir Starmer, on behalf of my party, has set out authoritatively our view on the future of the Prime Minister, and I don't need to add to that. My fear, the thing that worries me, is not the fate of an individual, but the fact that we are having to deal with a Government that is simply incapable of taking the decisions that are necessary to protect populations in the COVID context, and is now embarked on the long series of measures that Adam Price set out, which are not about the future of the country—it's about saving the skin of an individual, and that, I think, is deeply, deeply distasteful.

Funding for Hospitality Businesses

8. Will the First Minister make a statement on the provision of funding for hospitality businesses that have been affected by recent Welsh Government COVID-19 restrictions? OQ57448

I thank the Member for that question. Llywydd, the Welsh Government has made unprecedented levels of funding available to Welsh businesses through the pandemic, including the most recent £120 million economic resilience fund and non-domestic rates packages. Registrations for the NDR support opened last week, and payments are already being received by businesses in Wales.

Thank you, First Minister. Now, you're probably aware that I'm very much in touch with my hospitality businesses here in Aberconwy, and I'm receiving so many heartrending stories. They are really struggling as a result of the restrictions that you have put in place. I have one business that's recorded a £60,000 loss; another one, £36,000 lost. This is just since Boxing Day, or, well, when the regulations came in. Last week, one of my businesses had to lay off eight members of staff, and, as you can imagine, this is not sustainable. So, the evidence from just Aberconwy proves that your grant support is now too little and much too late. In fact, numerous local businesses are being excluded. I'm not sure if you're aware, First Minister, but a number of self-catering accommodation owners have contacted me in despair because they cannot access any financial support and they've lost thousands of pounds-worth of bookings. There's a ridiculous rule that self-catering properties have to cater for 30 people or more. So, would you look into this, First Minister, about changing the eligibility rules for self-catering accommodation owners? They're a valued entity in terms of our tourism industry here. And will you consider doing exactly as our leader has asked—Andrew Davies—today, and increase some funding available, purely to help save this particular sector, and indeed many jobs? Diolch.

Llywydd, I am happy, of course, to look at the specific issue of self-catering accommodation. I'll write to the Member when I've had a chance to do that. Let me just repeat: it is not the Welsh Government that has caused the difficulties for businesses. It is the fact that we have been dealing with a wave of coronavirus that has swept across the country, causing thousands and thousands of people to fall ill, not to be available in the workplace, and not to have the confidence to go out taking advantage of what the hospitality industry has on offer. That is the root of the problem that businesses have faced, and the Welsh Government has from the beginning put significant sums of money, millions and millions of pounds, on the table. I don't know how the Member thinks she can justify the idea that the help is too late. The rules in Wales changed on 27 December, right in the middle of bank holidays for Christmas and the new year, and businesses are already receiving help from the Welsh Government.

We have been able, thanks to the actions that the Welsh Government has taken, to shorten the impact of the omicron wave in Wales, and have set out a timetable for returning us to alert level 0. We plan to do that by 28 January. The help that we announced at the end of last year had a timetable that extended to 14 February, and I've discussed this matter with the economy Minister, and despite the fact that businesses will be back trading on level 0 terms a fortnight before that help is due to end, we've decided not to withdraw any of the money that was set aside to help businesses. So, businesses will be back trading earlier than we originally anticipated, but we will sustain the full £120 million that we announced originally in order to go on providing the most generous level of help available to businesses anywhere in the United Kingdom.

14:25
Apprenticeships

9. What ambitions does the Welsh Government have to expand apprenticeships? OQ57483

I thank Jenny Rathbone for that, Llywydd. We are committed to expanding apprenticeships in Wales against our programme for government commitment to create 125,000 over this Senedd term. We will focus on quality apprenticeships, supporting jobs growth, decarbonisation, investment in infrastructure projects, social mobility and to increase skills in technical occupational areas.

Thank you, First Minister. A hundred and twenty-five thousand is a really excellent target. I wondered if you were able to say how many there are today, just so we understand just how much road we've got to travel, and in your view, is this going to be sufficient to meet all the challenges that Wales faces in our public services, particularly health and social care, and in addition to that, the really, really important optimised retrofit programme, which is so desperately needed to make all our homes warm and carbon neutral?

I thank Jenny Rathbone for that, Llywydd. Because of the sort of lag in the way that statistics are produced, we will see the first update on progress towards the 125,000 target in February this year, when data for the fourth quarter of the 2020-21 academic year becomes available. Our confidence in being able to reach that number rests on the fact that we succeeded in reaching our 100,000 target during the last Senedd term. I do have to say, and I know that the Member for Cardiff Central will certainly understand that, that the slope that we have to climb to get to 125,000 has been made steeper by the withdrawal of European funding, which did such a lot in the last Senedd term to allow us to invest in the skills that are necessary for the future of the Welsh economy, and without that help, and with the UK Government completely turning its back on assurances that Wales would not be a penny worse off, our ability to deliver that apprenticeship programme is now more difficult. But we will go on doing it, because we know that that is a key investment in the skills that our young people and others need, and the skills that the Welsh economy will need, and the optimised retrofit programme represents a massive opportunity for employers and for learners. We are focused on making sure that our colleges of further education are able to teach the skills that will be needed in that programme and others for the future.

I was privileged to make a visit to one of our colleges of further education in north-east Wales quite recently, and saw for myself the way in which the skills for the future, including the optimised retrofit programme, were being put into practice already in the new curriculum, and the new ways in which those skills were being delivered. That's what gives us the confidence that, despite the ambition of the target, and the new obstacles we face in meeting it, that the effort is being made across Wales that will stand us in good stead for the future.

14:30
2. Business Statement and Announcement

We move to our next item, the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement. Lesley Griffiths. 

Member
Lesley Griffiths MS 14:31:03
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch, Llywydd. I've one change to this week's business. The Minister for Health and Social Services will shortly make a statement to update Members on COVID-19. Draft business for the next three sitting weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically. 

Trefnydd, can I call for a statement from the Minister for health on COVID-19 self-isolation periods for hospital patients? You will be aware, Minister, that stories have emerged in recent days about the impact of the 14-day self-isolation period on a young woman, Catherine Hughes, in Wrexham Maelor Hospital, who's a mental health patient on the Heddfan unit. She's threatened to take her own life as a result of being in self-isolation, and concerns have been emerging from her parents about her safety. I do think it's time that we looked at this particular 14-day period, particularly given now that staff only have to self-isolate for seven days, providing they have two clear lateral flow tests. So, I think it would be prudent now to have a review of that 14-day period.

In addition to that, Trefnydd, I note that, on the business statement for next week, there is due to be a statement from the Minister for Social Justice on the occasion of Holocaust Memorial Day, which, of course, is also coming up very soon. You will also be aware of the concerns that have been raised about the recent appointment of the children's commissioner here in Wales, and potential associations with antisemites and attendance at antisemitic rallies. I do think that we need some assurances from the Welsh Government about this particular appointment of Rocio Cifuentes, and I think that next week's statement on Holocaust Memorial Day provides an opportunity for that. Thank you. 

In relation to your first request, I know the self-isolation period is something that the Minister for Health and Social Services is obviously reviewing on a regular basis as we get more public health and scientific advice. 

In relation to your second point, I wasn't aware of any concerns, and, obviously, a written statement was made by the First Minister in relation to that appointment, but I'm sure the Minister for Social Justice will have heard your comments. 

Trefnydd, on 7 January, the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language issued a written statement in relation to additional funding for additional learning needs provision, which of course is much needed and very welcome. However, linked to this is also the additional funding needed for neurological assessments for children and young people, so that they can be identified as needing additional learning provision, something that is of course funded via health. Could I please therefore request a statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services on the support being made available by Welsh Government to ensure timely neurological assessments, as it is an issue that a number of constituents have raised with me as a concern?

Yes, I'll certainly ask the Minister for Health and Social Services to bring forward a written statement on that issue. 

I would like to ask for two Government statements. The first one is for the finance Minister to give an update on the use of financial transactions capital, with the update to include how much has been received, where it has been spent, how much has been paid back to the Welsh Government, and the eligibility of co-operatives to access it. 

The second statement I am requesting is regarding the Westminster Government making civil servants in departments such as the Department for Work and Pensions and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, who could quite easily work from home, attend in person at the offices. This is contrary to Welsh Government policy of working from home if possible. Will the Welsh Government make a statement on how they are going to engage with the Westminster Government regarding this, hopefully bringing it to an end?

14:35

Thank you. Well, any UK Government department and agency that has an office in Wales should obviously follow the COVID regulations and guidance that apply to Wales. So, during the pandemic, as a Government, we have raised these issues with the UK Government on several occasions, both in correspondence and in meetings as well. We've made it very clear that any organisation operating in Wales needs to ensure they act in a manner that's obviously consistent with our regulations and guidance. And we will certainly continue to raise specific concerns, if they're brought to our attention, with the UK Government, or any other authority or organisation, for that matter.

In relation to your first point, around the financial transactions capital, the finance Minister will provide a written update on the Member's query to align with the publication of our final budget, which will include decisions on the use of FT capital.

I'm looking for a statement, business Minister, from the education Minister, please. With time now running out with one of the biggest seismic changes in education for a generation, I'm concerned about what I'm hearing on the ground amongst teaching staff—how unprepared they feel at the moment due to the multiple disruptions because of restrictions, and of concerns about the distinct lack of support or direction in these final stages of the new curriculum preparations now, in the last key months before it begins. Quite simply, some teachers are now buckling under the pressure that they're facing. So, can we please have an oral statement from the education Minister addressing these concerns, and may I ask for clarity about this final stage now of preparation, with a focus on, if possible, how far subsidiarity—the bedrock on which our new curriculum is built—can be stretched at school level, an update of what the professional learning offer will be, and for clarity on what future qualifications will look like? Many thanks.

Thank you. Well, throughout the pandemic, our priority has absolutely been to maximise learning and minimise disruption for our young people. But, clearly, over the past nearly two years now, we have seen some disruption, but work to prepare for the new curriculum has continued. The Minister has made funding available, and, obviously, as you say, we're entering the last period now ahead of the introduction of the new curriculum. And if the Minister for education does have any new information, I will ask him to bring forward a written statement.

Minister, today my business statement will be in two parts, if that's okay, the first in relation to the delay in publishing the Welsh Government's accounts. As much as I enjoy sitting on the Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee with colleagues from various parties, as well as with our brilliant clerks and researchers, it's evident that this delay is hindering the work of the public accounts committee in scrutinising and holding the Welsh Government to account. I understand the reason for this delay is the need to finalise one single item, and I am concerned that, unless this is done quickly, it could cause a backlog of work and add to the burdens of the committee staff. Therefore, I should be grateful for a statement on this at the earliest opportunity.

Secondly, Minister, the Senedd this week is debating increases in the cost of living, and a key factor in this is energy costs, which many of my colleagues have mentioned in their questions to the First Minister. The Welsh Government's Nest scheme offers a package of home energy efficiency improvements to lower energy bills. And as I've mentioned, the First Minister touched on that earlier. However, Minister, there are no specific grants for solar panels in Wales. So, can I please have a statement from the Minister for Climate Change on what consideration is being given to a scheme to provide grants for solar panels to be installed on domestic properties in Wales to help people with their fuel bills? Thank you so much.

Well, the first matter you raised is a matter for the Permanent Secretary, and not any Minister. So, I'm afraid that there won't be a statement coming forward in relation to that.

You're quite right; I think the Nest scheme is one of the best schemes that the Welsh Government have. Your specific request around solar panels—certainly, speaking as a previous energy Minister, obviously, with the removal of the tariff by the UK Government, I know many local authorities that were looking to bring solar panels forward changed their view because of that. So, I don't think that would be appropriate for a statement either.

Minister, last month, I was delighted to donate three defibrillators—two to primary schools in Bridgend and one to Brynawel rehab centre. And it is to highlight, really, yet again the importance of building our Wales-wide network and number of defibrillators in the fight to save lives. Can the Government, as part of this ongoing mission, also commit to reviving progress within the next 12 months to ensure we retain a national focus on this and also schedule time in the Senedd to consider what further steps need to be taken? Thank you, Minister.

14:40

Thank you, and I commend the Member—I saw on his Twitter account the work he's done in relation to providing defibrillators. Increasing the number of defibrillators in the community is a key component of the work, I'm sure he's aware, of the Save a Life Cymru partnership. On 15 September, the Minister for Health and Social Services did announce a further £0.5 million allocated to the Welsh ambulance service to purchase almost 500 more defibrillators, and I know there are community groups and organisations that have been able to apply for that funding. But I think—. You touched on a really important thing, and it is important that we build that network of defibrillators. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Please could I have a statement from the Minister for Climate Change on actions to boost house building in Wales? During the last financial year, the number of new dwellings commenced fell by 31 per cent to 4,314. The number of homes completed fell by 24 per cent to 4,616. The number of new homes coming to market is on a downward decline to considerably less than the 12,000 target we should be building in Wales annually. This week, Rightmove have disclosed that there were just 12 properties available for sale per estate agency branch and that the average time to find a buyer was two weeks shorter in December 2021 compared with the previous year. As Rightmove has warned, house prices will continue to rise until more choice becomes available on the market, so really we need to stop the stall of new builds in Wales. So, would the Minister for Climate Change make an oral statement on this matter? Because I know my colleague James Evans has raised the issue earlier about the phosphates and the gridlock that we've got now in new homes coming forward. So, if we could have a statement on that, I think it would be for the benefit of the Senedd. Thank you.

The Member will be aware of our programme for government commitment in relation to house building. Whilst I do appreciate we have seen a drop, obviously the COVID pandemic will have had an impact on that, so we do hope that once we come out of the restrictions et cetera we will see more houses being built, because clearly that has had an impact. The issue that James Evans raised with the First Minister was very specific and you will have heard the First Minister's answer to his question.

3. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Update on COVID-19

The next item therefore is the statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services on COVID-19. I call on the Minister to make her statement—Eluned Morgan.

Thank you very much, Llywydd. Thank you for the opportunity.

Thank you for the opportunity to update Members again this week on what is very clearly a very fast moving public health situation. Last week, I reported that there was a possibility cases could still peak over the next seven to 10 days, and since then we've been monitoring the situation very closely. During the past week, we have in fact seen some very clear signs of improvement, which suggests the measures we've taken are working. But I say this with caution. Over the last six weeks, we've seen how things can change really quickly, but we've always been clear that we would not impose restrictions on the people of Wales for any longer than necessary, and so we're acting on the evidence in front of us.

This week, overall case incidence has decreased to 572 per 100,000, with weekly test positivity at 35.8 per cent. As I advised last week, and have to reiterate, case numbers have been affected by the changes in the testing regime, and the fact we no longer require those who test positive on a lateral flow test to take a confirmatory PCR test. But the fall in cases we are seeing started a few days before this change to testing and the positivity rate is also falling. We must now rely on a broader range of measures to continue understanding this wave. It is therefore even more important for people to report the result of every lateral flow test they do, and self-isolate as soon as they test positive.

Based on Public Health Wales reports comparing early December to early January, we've seen a significant increase in lateral flow tests reported on gov.uk, with almost 200,000 additional tests reported in the week ending 9 January. This is a positive sign that the people of Wales are listening to the advice, taking tests more regularly and reporting the results. 

The total number of people in hospital with COVID-19 is just over 1,100, and there are some early signs that the total number of COVID-19 patients in hospital is falling and the rate of admissions is starting to slow. Based on our most recent data, infections in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, where more protective measures were put in place, are lower than in England, and there are now signs that the growth in infections in Wales is slowing down. For these reasons, the First Minister announced on Friday that the Cabinet has now agreed a road map to take us back to alert level 0, as long as we continue to see improvements in the public health situation over the next few weeks. We'll do this carefully and in a phased way to allow us to make sure the early signs of improvement continue before we make further changes.

Our first change was that, from Saturday, the number of people who can be present at outdoor events increased from 50 to 500.

If the public health situation continues to improve, from this Friday 21 January onwards, all outdoor activities will move to alert level 0. This means no limits on the numbers who can take part in outdoor activities, crowds can return to outdoor sporting events, and outdoor hospitality venues will be able to operate without additional measures. However, the COVID pass will be required for entry to larger outdoor events. Then, from Friday 28 January onwards, our intention is to move to alert level 0 for all indoor activities. This means that nightclubs will be able to reopen and it will no longer be a legal requirement to work from home, although we will continue to recommend doing so. As with larger outdoor events, the COVID pass will continue to be required to enter large events, nightclubs, cinemas, theatres and concert halls.

We are now taking our first steps back towards alert level 0, and we are able to do this because the people of Wales have taken the steps we have asked them to take to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. It is also important to recognise and acknowledge that our fantastic vaccination programme is key to how we are able to move forward. Over 1.7 million individuals in Wales have received a booster vaccine dose. This huge effort has no doubt given us all extra protection against omicron. I wish to reiterate once again that it is never too late to be vaccinated. I want to make it clear that we will continue to encourage everyone eligible to have their vaccinations and boosters. This is saving lives, it's controlling the pandemic and it's safeguarding our NHS.

Llywydd, even though today's message is fairly positive and optimistic, I have to emphasise that this doesn't mean that the pandemic is over. Omicron is still with us and we have to continue to monitor the public health situation as these restrictions begin to ease. However, I do want to thank once again the people of Wales, our NHS, our public services, our businesses and all of those who have worked so hard to protect us. Without the understanding and co-operation of everyone in Wales, we wouldn't be able to move forward in the way we are now planning to do and in the way that we hope to do over the coming weeks. Thank you very much, Llywydd.

14:45

Can I thank the Minister for her earlier briefing to me and colleagues? That was appreciated, Minister. And, of course, thank you for your statement today, much of which, of course, we know from the press conference last Friday from the First Minister.

Can I ask about the isolation period first of all, Minister? I was a bit disappointed that we didn't have anything on that today in the statement. We know that the UK Health Security Agency has found that most people are not infectious after five days and we know that the UK Government has reduced the period from seven to five days, albeit that you have to have a negative on the fifth day. Clearly, there are huge advantages of reducing that period for public services, particularly health services that are under huge pressure, as they are so very much here in Wales. So, can you give us an indication of when you will be making an announcement on reducing that isolation period and your considerations on that? Clearly, at some point, there'll be no isolation period. We're not there yet, but we will be at that point at some point in time.

Given that the omicron variant has subsided so quickly, you stated in your statement today that it is welcome news, and I agree that it's very welcome news, of course, in that regard. But we have seen case rates plummeting about as quickly as they arrived, which is good news, but, in that regard, I would ask, and you would expect me to ask, about the Government's timing on lifting restrictions, which are economically damaging—and we know that, of course—and, I would suggest, clinically unnecessary to have restrictions, particularly on hospitality and sporting events. Can I ask you why you did not end restrictions at the same time? They were introduced at the same time, so why were they not lifted at the same time, given that the case rates plummeted as quickly as they came in? And you would expect me to ask this question, Minister, but do you believe that the restrictions that were put in place were an overreaction? I expect that you expected me to ask that question.

I am concerned, Minister, about some of the messaging given to the Senedd and the Welsh public. Last Tuesday, and I'm quoting you here, you said this:

'We are in the middle of the storm at the moment; now is not the time to talk about dismantling the protection measures we've put in place.'

That was just last Tuesday. So, we couldn't even talk about them last Tuesday, and then, two days later, the First Minister announced the rolling back of some of the restrictions. We know, as well, that hospitalisation rates are nearly a third of the delta variant this time last year, and death rates stood at one nineteenth, compared to the same period of time. So, this is why I ask the question about the overreaction and your words in this regard.

The First Minister said last month that, in January, half of the UK population could be ill with COVID. Of course, that has not happened and we're not out of January yet, but no-one is suggesting that that is the case now. But, of course, the First Minister stated that based on the data presented to him and based on the modelling, so I understand that. But can I ask, the weight that you apply when making decisions to modelling, particularly modelling on the worst-case scenarios, what analysis does the Government do of the modelling after the event in terms of checking for accuracy against actually what happened? And do you think that it's time to have a wider review of how modelling is conducted and, more importantly, the weight that is attached to it against the other balances that have to be taken into account as well?

I looked back at your comments last week, Minister, when I asked you about your plans in terms of living with COVID for the future, and you were a little shocked that I was asking those questions and suggesting that this wasn't the time to be talking about these things. But, of course, I know that the UK Labour Party has also discussed living with COVID. So, I'm hoping I can ask you this question in a way that gets a clearer answer this week: what are your plans in terms of living with COVID? The public does not want to be under the threat of having restrictions winter after winter, and you won't want that either, Minister, so can we have a little bit more information about your plans for living with COVID?

And finally, Minister, the last question I will ask you is about the fastest way to get a vaccine certification. You said that the digital NHS COVID pass service remains the fastest way to get proof of vaccine certification. That's not the case for many people. Three constituents of mine—one in Edinburgh—can't get the pass, can't get a 'fully vaccinated' certificate, because one vaccination was in Newtown, one was in Edinburgh, and a similar position for somebody in France. And a constituent last week was not able to get their certification because they're taking their young child, for health reasons, for urgent health treatment, to another part of Europe, and it's the last thing the family needed that they are not able to get their vaccination certification due to apps not working in conjunction with other countries. So, can I ask you, in that regard, why are we lagging behind on the Welsh NHS app, and when can we expect to be in a position where these issues are resolved? Can you give us a date on that particular issue and when we're going to see the app working as it should be, Minister?

14:55

Thanks very much, Russell. First of all, on the isolation period, you'll be aware, Russell, that we've already reduced that from 10 to seven days, and the UK Health Security Agency, interestingly enough, their evidence previously was very robust on the fact that they wanted to stick at seven. Now, my understanding is that the underlying evidence on this has not changed. I still haven't seen the analysis on which that decision has been made, so I'm waiting for advice on that. You say, Russell, that most has gone after five days. That's true, but 30 per cent of people are still carrying the infection after five days. So, that's quite a lot of people. So, if you want to be sending people back into workplaces after five days and 30 per cent of them are in that situation, then I do think we need to give that some pretty serious thought. We will be looking at the evidence on this. My analysis from just watching what's going on in England is that, actually, this is a political call and it's a judgment call that they're making not on the basis of science and evidence, not on the basis of changed science and evidence, but on the basis of the pressure that the NHS and other services are under at the moment. So, it's more of a political judgment. Now, we have to assess the risks. We may be in a different situation in terms of risk, but let's be absolutely clear: there is a risk if we're sending people back into workplaces and 30 per cent of them potentially could be carrying the virus. That's another risk you have to consider. Now, we'll be looking at that data over the next few days and making a judgment on that by the end of this week.

You're absolutely right that case rates are plummeting, which is great. And it was very interesting of you to ask about lifting restrictions and why aren't we lifting them earlier. Well, the reason is because we're still at really high rates. Now, they're much better than they were a week ago, but we're still at 572 cases per 100,000. Now, if we were in that situation in the middle of August last year, we'd have been throwing our hands up in the air, saying, 'My God, these are high rates'. So, we've just got to just be aware that we're not out of the woods on this yet. These are really, really high rates still; they're just not as high as they were a week ago. And I do think that as to asking did we overreact, I've got to tell you that our initial analysis, and it is very much initial analysis, does suggest that, although about 170,000 people in Wales had COVID at one point—that's enough people to fill the millennium stadium about two and a quarter times—had we not brought in restrictions, we'd have had an extra 69,000 people with COVID. So, that's enough to almost fill the millennium stadium again, had we followed what happened in London with them reaching the kind of rates that they got to where they didn't put any restrictions in place. So, that's our initial analysis. I'm hoping that we'll be able to do a bit more number crunching around that. And, obviously, it is appropriate for us to analyse after the event—you're absolutely right. We are very keen to learn—we're all learning here. This is a new variant; nobody had heard of omicron only a month and a half ago. And so, what we were doing, we were depending on modelling that was using imperfect data to address and to determine what that modelling looked like. So, we did peak earlier than expected, we didn't see as many hospitalisations as we had feared, so some of that modelling, perhaps, wasn't where we thought it might be, but in a good way, but also what that means is that, actually, had we followed some of the judgments that people were asking us to consider, which were to lock down even further, that may have been an overreaction. But I think we got it just about right, and obviously time will tell if we got it just about right. But what I can tell you, Russell, is that the people of Wales think that the First Minister of Wales is comfortably the most popular leader in the United Kingdom. So, his judgment is something that the people of Wales certainly appreciate. Boris Johnson was on about 39 per cent—how the hell he got 39 per cent is beyond me—but Mark Drakeford was well ahead of him and even Nicola Sturgeon on 57 per cent, so very pleased to see that.

The other points you made were on living with COVID. At some point, yes, you're absolutely right, we've got to live with COVID, but I think there are some issues that we need to consider. One is the waning of vaccinations, which is something that we're not quite clear on with omicron yet. So, we haven't seen to what extent that booster will be protecting us in future and the other thing is, potentially, another wave that will come. Most of the waves we've had have another wave that follows them, so, who knows, is there going to be another wave? So, we've got to live with it, but how we live with it, to what extent we live with it, who do we protect and how do we protect them, all of those things are things that, clearly, we are having constant discussions on.

On the digital certification, the systems between England and Wales speak to each other quite well; the systems between Wales and Scotland don't. So, there's constant work being done on that: it is difficult. The apps—. It's not a Welsh thing, this, the English apps don't speak to them either and, actually, most of that digital work is being done on our behalf by the UK Government, so maybe, Russell, you could ask them to help us out on that as well. But, certainly, we are hoping that we can get a better situation on that. The booster does show on the COVID app, but it doesn't show on the QR code yet, but I think that's supposed to change around about 6 February.

15:00

I don't have very many comments to make today, truth be told. A week ago, I was calling on the Minister to give greater attention to the positive signs that I certainly thought were coming to the fore according to the statistics. She was reluctant to do that, but I understand, of course, that she was being cautious, but things were starting to look better and, indeed, things look much better now, and I'm very grateful for the briefing that I had with fellow members of the health committee at lunch time today to confirm that the main indicators are all looking significantly better and that the situation is accelerating in terms of the improvement process.

By a week on Friday now, we'll be in a situation where the latest regulations will have been lifted, and I welcome that, but I would like to ask what consideration will be given to moving more swiftly than that, even. Is there room to make changes sooner? Because the impression I get is that things are accelerating in terms of emerging from this wave, so even a few days could make a difference. I'm thinking about the hospitality sector, for example, which has been hit particularly hard, and I urge you to work with the Minister for Economy—I see the Minister in this virtual Senedd this afternoon—to ensure that all possible support is being given to that sector, and any other sector that is suffering, and that that support is given as soon as possible.

I, too, want to ask for further comment again, if I may, on the work that is being done to assess the current self-isolation period. The Minister, like myself, I know, will be looking forward to not only getting it down to five days from seven, but to getting it down to zero, so that we don't need to self-isolate at all, but I know that we need to proceed with caution on that. It is important, I think, that we understand what the balance of considerations is, in terms of the pure medical evidence as to how infectious people are and when and other considerations, economic considerations and so on. I do note, despite that, that the WHO is very nervous about decreasing the self-isolation period at present. It is a matter of balance, of course.

I want to appeal for accelerating the process towards getting the NHS Wales app working properly with all of those elements of booster vaccines. I received an e-mail from a parent the other day who couldn't access any information about what booster their child had received so that they could use that information for travel and for a COVID pass and so on. There is a job of work to be done, I think, on our digital processes and ensuring that we do have the tools that we need to get us all through this pandemic.

15:05

Thank you very much, Rhun. Just to respond quickly to Russ—.

Sorry, Russ, I did suggest that the COVID pass QR code would be ready on 6 February; it was 8 February. Just so that I've corrected that already.

Rhun, is it possible to move more swiftly? Well, I am reluctant to say that it is because one of the things that we are concerned about is that we haven't quite seen what's happening in the schools yet. There are signs in some other places where we're seeing an increase in the numbers of cases in our schools, so the concern is whether that is then going to feed into the adult population and the population of older people. So, we just want to keep an eye on that before we look at that, but the point was to show people what the direction of travel is and what the route-map is, and I think that's important. People know where the finish line could be. Of course, we know that every day of restrictions is costly for businesses and that's why we've provided the support that the First Minister referred to earlier on.

In terms of assessing the period of self-isolation, well, you're right, there is a health side of this that we need to consider, and certainly from what I've seen in previous evidence from the UK Health Security Agency, they were clear that there would be a risk in sending people in to places such as care homes and hospitals, if you were to say, 'Right, well, it's a five-day isolation period and if you get a clear LFT, then you can go back into those settings.' So, they were reluctant to do that in the past and I want to know what's changed. If it's a political judgment that's been made, then clearly you do have to consider the economic factors, and that's what we will be doing over the coming days. But I am eager to ensure that we do protect those most vulnerable locations such as our hospitals and care homes. So, we do need to consider all of those things in the round over the coming days. It's not just the WHO that says that you shouldn't drop below seven days of isolation, but the majority of nations in the EU.

In terms of the NHS Wales app, oh my gosh, Rhun, I'm just as eager as you are to see that developing. One of the problems that we have with those digital issues is that we don't have enough people who have the digital skills in our systems. Everyone is chasing the same people and that's why it's taking so much time. You can't just turn that supply of staff on overnight, but clearly we do have a plan to bring this app forward. We will bring it forward as soon as possible. We are always putting pressure on them. You know that I am as eager as you are to see e-prescribing. That's what's preventing it, not that we're not eager to see that happening, but that we don't have sufficient personnel, and remember, everyone in the private sector is after those people as well. So, clearly, we want to improve our digital processes.

15:10

Thank you, Minister. Only two contributions this afternoon. So, thank you for that.

4. Statement by the Minister for Economy: Stronger Regional Economies

The next item is the statement by the Minister for Economy on stronger regional economies. I call on the Minister to make his statement. Vaughan Gething.

Thank you, Llywydd. I'm pleased to provide Members with an update today on the progress that this Government has made with partners to help build stronger regional economies across Wales. As part of my statement I will reflect on the challenges that we continue to face, particularly in light of the impact of leaving the European Union and the absence of UK Government plans to date for replacing EU funding and reducing inequalities across the UK.

Last month I published the regional economic frameworks for each of the four regions of Wales. These are integral to our commitment to a place-based model of economic development where we build on and work with the distinctive strengths of our regions. The frameworks have been shaped with partners in each of the regions, including local authorities and regional bodies. They are based on evidence and agreement, with clear priorities that are aligned with our framework for regional investment, the economic mission and, of course, the programme for government. This mature approach is essential to the creation of a shared vision with common objectives to deliver a fairer, greener and more prosperous Wales. This work, though, is still sorely lacking at the UK level. We remain concerned that the UK Government has simply not provided a meaningful approach to date for how, where and why EU successor funds will be used.

Central to the effective delivery of the frameworks’ priorities are our city and growth deals—the three-way investment agreements between the Welsh Government, the UK Government and local authorities that are designed to deliver lasting, regional economic growth. All four regional deals are now under way. I was pleased to take part in the signing of the final deal agreement for mid Wales alongside the UK Government and Ceredigion and Powys local authorities. I am particularly pleased that these deals represent closer partnership working at all levels of government, and they should help to improve services, boost skills, and create well-paid employment opportunities.

The Mersey Dee Alliance in north Wales is also demonstrating how genuine collaboration is possible on a cross-border basis, bringing authorities in north Wales together with partners over the border. It also demonstrates that a successful partnership can support strategic economic growth. The Mersey Dee Alliance should be able to complement and add to rather than compete with or duplicate the work being taken by all six north Wales local authorities in the north Wales growth deal arrangement.

My officials continue to support the corporate joint committees as we scope their economic well-being delivery functions, further strengthening our bold, place-based model. Work with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development is also under way, who will provide us with further advice as we progress our multi-level governance structures for national and regional economic development within Wales.

It is now two years since the UK left the EU, yet the UK Government has failed to honour its repeated promises that Wales would not be a penny worse off, at the same time as choosing to deliberately override Welsh devolution, voted for twice in referenda by the people of Wales. We're still no clearer as to how the UK Government plans to reduce regional inequalities across the UK, how the reduced level of replacement EU funding will be delivered, and what the role of devolved Governments will be.

The loss of hundreds of millions of pounds of former EU funding through UK Government plans for the shared prosperity fund are a direct and unambiguous broken promise. The UK Government had a clear manifesto pledge in the 2019 election to replace and, at a minimum, match the size of former EU funding in each nation of the UK. Plans to spend £2.6 billion across the UK over the next three financial years simply do not match the £375 million that Wales would have received each year had those promises been kept.

The impact of Wales having less say over less money is already beginning to show. Many partners, including the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, the Federation of Small Businesses Wales, the Confederation of British Industry Wales, Universities Wales and CollegesWales, are raising their concerns about the UK Government’s lack of clarity and the funding gaps that they now face. The Welsh Government, of course, also faces a funding cut that poses a real threat to Wales-wide schemes including Business Wales, the Development Bank of Wales, SMARTCymru business innovation and apprenticeships.

While all partners remain in the dark about the details of the successor fund, it is still clear that the UK Government is continuing to exclude the Welsh Government from decisions on what are and have been plainly devolved matters for more than two decades. We remain concerned that we will once more see small amounts of money allocated to small, localised projects, leading to duplication and poor value for money. It will also mean the UK Government will be taking slices out of this fund to support their chosen broader initiatives, such as the adult numeracy scheme, Multiply. The announcement of this scheme last year without our input is yet another ill-conceived, confused and deliberate attempt to undermine Welsh devolution.

Forcing councils to compete with each other rather than using needs-based funding will also mean more losers than winners in Wales, as the first round of the levelling-up fund has already shown. We simply do not know what, if any, objective criteria were used in the pilot phase. Only six local authorities were successful, with the majority of funding—surprisingly, given the needs that were recognised in Wales—going to Conservative-held constituencies.

We have not been given sight of the UK Government's draft levelling-up White Paper, let alone the opportunity to contribute. This paper could at least be a starting point for dialogue, and we hope that will be the case. This White Paper should maximise opportunities for strategic investment, not small-scale investments that will fail to reduce regional inequalities right across the UK, and indeed here in Wales. As many Members here today will know, in Wales we moved away from piecemeal investments well over a decade ago, after listening to robust evidence from partners and experts, including, of course, Assembly committees, a number of which were chaired by members of the official opposition.

This Senedd and our partners are right to be concerned about the use of the financial assistance powers in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 through these funds and the related threats they pose to Welsh finances and devolution. The people of Wales have not provided a mandate for the UK Government to hijack money and decisions out of Wales. Funding certainty would allow us to support the reconstruction of our Welsh economy, and tailor that support to Wales’s needs. The UK Government plans to date are a direct threat to this work.

I hope that Michael Gove, in his new role as Secretary of State for levelling up, recognises the gravity of the situation and will discuss these concerns with us in a meaningful way. The positive collaboration we see on city and growth deals demonstrates that this is entirely possible, but it requires an honest and constructive approach to working together. If the UK Government does not change course, real economic opportunities for our regions, and thousands of jobs and skills, will be put at risk.

We are clear that the Welsh Government’s approach to economic well-being is grounded on the principle that people and places matter. We want to realise our ambition of delivering better jobs closer to home and ensuring that the benefits of economic growth are felt fairly across all parts of Wales. We co-design with our partners, and we will work to support the distinctive strengths of our regions while supporting inclusive and sustainable economic growth. We continue to make progress in creating the conditions where more people, particularly those disadvantaged, and our young people, feel confident about planning their futures in Wales. Stronger, dynamic regions are at the heart of our commitment to creating a stronger, fairer and greener Welsh economy. Thank you.

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

15:15

I have nine Members wishing to speak, so with your help, and with the well-known ability of the Minister to be succinct in his answers, I hope to call you all.

Conservative spokesperson, Paul Davies.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Can I thank his Minister for his statement this afternoon? I welcome the opportunity to scrutinise the Minister on the Welsh Government's progress in strengthening regional economies, but I am disappointed that today's statement is very light on detail. It doesn't tell us anything new. And if the Minister believes it does tell us something new, then perhaps he'd be kind enough to point us to that part of the statement. 

Of course, the statement refers to the creation of regional economic frameworks, which were published last month, which are important in driving forward further collaboration with stakeholders and forming closer working relationships with local authorities to develop place-based approaches to economic development. Whilst that engagement is very welcome, we need to see genuine improvements, and so perhaps the Minister will confirm the key performance indicators or criteria that are being used to rate how effective this collaboration has been in practice. Does the Minister know, for each regional economy, how many new businesses have been developed as a result of this new engagement and how many jobs have been provided as a result of the Welsh Government's approach to regional economic development? These questions and more are the way in which we can determine the effectiveness of the Welsh Government's plans.

It's vital that each of the regions receives the right level of funding and that that expenditure is fairly allocated so that all parts of Wales can benefit from the Welsh Government's regional economic development plans. Therefore, perhaps the Minister can outline how the budgets are decided for each region and how the Welsh Government is ensuring that all regions are receiving sufficient funding. The Welsh Government's economic action plan talks about developing regional tools, such as community benefits, to help improve the resilience of local businesses and ensure the economic benefits from our public sector procurement spend remain here in Wales. Therefore, can the Minister tell us more about how the development of regional tools, like community benefits, is progressing and how he's monitoring the effectiveness of the tools that have already been developed?

An important part of regional economic development is, of course, skills, and it's disappointing to see that this hasn't been mentioned in the Minister's statement at all today. Not only should the Welsh Government be continually auditing the provision of skills in each region, it needs to ensure that the provision meets the need of the business community in those regions and that businesses have a genuine say in developing the skills landscape. Can the Minister therefore tell us exactly how the Welsh Government is analysing the provision of skills in each region, how it is ensuring that provision is relevant, and how it meets the needs of the local communities in each region?

In creating regional economic frameworks, the previous Minister made it explicitly clear that they would tackle our inherent structural challenges but be responsive by turning them into opportunities for dynamic and distinct regions that demonstrate inclusive, fair and sustainable economic growth by designing solutions for the future. So, perhaps the Minister will tell us what new solutions have been developed as a direct result of regional economic frameworks and how those solutions are tackling inherent structural challenges, like wage poverty and job insecurity. The Welsh Government must show how its regional economic plans are not only improving prosperity in each region, but also how it is tackling those deep, structural issues that have plagued some communities for far too long. 

Of course, moving forward, the Welsh Government and the chief regional officers must ensure their plans to strengthen regional economies are forward looking and are preparing our communities for the future. Today's statement says that the Welsh Government's approach to economic well-being is grounded on the principle that people and places matter, but there's no detail in this statement to justify that. Building resilience is crucial as we emerge from the pandemic, and the future generations commissioner is absolutely right to say that the Welsh Government must show how its programme will prepare Wales for future shocks and long-term challenges, and seize future opportunities. For example, can the Minister tell us exactly how the Welsh Government's regional economic plans are addressing the nature and climate emergencies and helping to address the economic and social justice fall-out of the pandemic? 

It wouldn't be a Welsh Government statement without an attack on the UK Government, and of course today's statement is no exception. Positive collaboration has been demonstrated through the progress made on city and growth deals, and I agree with the Minister that an honest and constructive approach to working together is needed going forward, not party-political point scoring. The Minister would do well to remember that. 

Dirprwy Lywydd, as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we have an opportunity to do things differently, and strengthening the regional economies is one way forward, providing that these proposals actually deliver improvements rather than creating more bureaucracy. Therefore, in closing, I ask the Minister to commit to providing regular updates to Members on the outcomes that have been delivered from each of the regional frameworks and provide cast-iron guarantees that communities right across Wales will see the benefit of the actions outlined in today's statement. Thank you. 

15:20

Thank you for the series of comments and questions within those. I'll take on board what the Deputy Llywydd asked.

In terms of the broad sweep of what the Member has been saying, I think there's a bit of a misunderstanding about the regional economic frameworks. That helps us to define a vision for the future of each region, with a common set of priorities for economic development. They go hand in hand with the work that's taking place within the growth deals, where we have committed sums of money. The same money has gone in from the UK Government and the Welsh Government, and then our public sector partners, led by local authorities, who are key to regional economic development. It's then about being able to lever in additional investment and jobs. That's actually about trying to understand, within each region, where the opportunities for growth are, and the fact that each region will be different. Rather than the Welsh Government determining for those regions what their plans should look like, it's actually about working alongside them as genuine partners to produce those frameworks. It's really important for all the things that are moving together in the same place to have a shared vision. It's why it's so disappointing that we do have a UK Government that is prepared to simply ignore all of that work that is taking place. 

When we talk about the constructive partnership that could exist between the Welsh Government and the UK Government, it is, of course, typical that Conservative politicians demand that there is no criticism of the UK Government. I've never once heard a Welsh Conservative express any concern about the cut in our budgets, about the reduction in money from the shared prosperity fund. I've never heard a single point of concern either in this place or outside it, and that is just extraordinary. When we're talking about skills and about listening to businesses and working with them, we have the architecture to do that already. The regional skills partnerships that now exist in each part of Wales that some Members in this place were part of helping to draw up and wanted to see—they tell us where we want to try and invest more in skills to support each part of the economy, even more important now with a tightening labour market with people having left it at one end, as well as those people that have returned to European countries and are unlikely to return to the UK. 

Our ability to invest in skills, though, is directly affected by the broken manifesto promise on replacing EU structural funds. We are talking about hundreds of millions of pounds, Paul. That's the undeniable truth. Having sucked that out of the money we would have used to support the economy and to invest in skills, it just isn't good enough for Conservative politicians to claim that they're desperately concerned about everything apart from the damage the UK Government is doing.

We'll have more to say as we move forward, not just about where we go with regional economic frameworks and the work that we'll do alongside regions in co-producing those investment priorities, but also the work that we have got the OECD to do to make sure that we're continuing to look at how we further improve regional economic development. We'll publish the work we get from the OECD and the action plan that we'll look to develop alongside our regional partners. It's also going in line with other work we have in train as well. I expect to come back in the coming weeks and months to talk about the future employability strategy for Wales, where, again, we have been able to work constructively along with some parts of the Department for Work and Pensions, as they are more active in some parts of employability support. We need to ensure that our support is properly tailored to people who are furthest away from the labour market, where the DWP are least active.

It is about refining where we are to make sure that we're pointing, as far as possible, in the same direction. Goodwill on both sides, between the UK Government and the Welsh Government, will allow us to do much, much more, but I won't make any apologies for standing up and being clear that a failure to adopt even a modestly constructive approach from some parts of the UK Government affects our ability to do so. The refusal to replace former EU funds will continue to be a challenge for the future of the Welsh economy, regardless of the Welsh Conservatives' silence on the matter.   

15:25

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I share the Minister's concerns over the UK Government making spending decisions in devolved areas, in particular the fact that the spend seems to happen in particular seats held by a particular party. It's another example to add to the mounting evidence that the UK Government's rampant unionism threatens the autonomy of the Senedd. 

Moving to the statement, we know that there is an ongoing problem in Wales with keeping people in our communities—the brain drain, as it's referred to. Of course, this isn't just an issue of young people moving from Wales to England or to other countries; it's also an issue on a regional level as well, for example rural to urban migration. The brain drain very clearly makes it an uphill struggle for areas to recover economically. It also threatens the access regions have to skills and talents to fulfil the plans within the regional economic framework. Using mid Wales as an example, there are concerns with demographic changes in the region, specifically to do with an ageing population, brain drain and net migration. We know that there has been a projected decline in the working-age population in the region of 16 per cent between 2018 and 2019, and, at the same time, there's expected to be a 3.45 per cent decline in the economy in the region compared to a 7.4 per cent increase in the UK economy as a whole. Could the Minister outline how regional economic partnerships and regional projects will work in tandem with the young person's guarantee, and other projects, to address the brain drain? I'm sure the Minister would agree that access to skills for those regions in Wales that have been affected by the brain drain will be vital to their economic prosperity in the long term.

If I could draw the Minister's attention to energy, specifically to net zero and fuel poverty. While all of the regional economic frameworks raise issues of climate change, green energy and net zero within them, there's no real tangible commitment or assurance that economic development resulting from regional partnerships will help achieve the Welsh Government's net-zero target. I was wondering how the Minister will monitor future developments in the region to ensure that this supports green economic growth, and prevents economic growth damaging the environment as it has been doing for so long, and to ensure projects in the regions are working towards our climate change targets.

I also wanted to raise the issue of imbalance between green energy projects within the regions. For example, the north Wales economic framework—there's a huge focus on green projects that could help boost development in the region, and rightly so. However, coming back to the example of mid Wales, despite the mid Wales framework, the growing mid Wales report, and the final deal agreement noting that natural resources in mid Wales are well placed to produce green renewable forms of energy, the growth deal in mid Wales has not identified any energy projects in the region at this stage, nor do net-zero targets appear in the investment objectives.

It's also further disheartening to hear that no energy projects have been identified in the region in light of the cost-of-living crisis and the prevalent fuel poverty that exists in the mid Wales region. Seventeen per cent and 14 per cent of households in Ceredigion and Powys respectively live in fuel poverty. Meanwhile, in my own region of South Wales West, it's estimated that 8 per cent live in fuel poverty in Bridgend, 10 per cent in Swansea, and 11 per cent in Neath Port Talbot. We know that the rises in energy prices expected in April 2022, this year, and previous increases, disproportionately affect certain regions in Wales, such as rural, less connected areas more than others. Given this, I'd be keen to know from the Minister: how will the Welsh Government ensure that all regions of Wales can benefit from more green energy project developments, with the aim of making energy bills cheaper, especially as we face a cost-of-living crisis, a crisis that fuel poverty is playing a significant role in driving? 

15:30

Thank you for the series of questions. On your starting point, I believe there is a strong and progressive case to be made for the future of the union, but it won't be made by the sort of attempts to centralise and hijack powers and money away from devolved national Governments that people have voted for in more than one referenda in Wales, Scotland and elsewhere. The Member may of course disagree on that particular point. 

In terms of the challenges you mentioned about young people, on the young person's guarantee, it's deliberately designed to try to ensure that young people do have a future they can plan for in both rural and urban Wales. So, we're looking at how the apprenticeships work, but also the advice and support we're looking to wrap around young people to make sure they get into the world of work in a meaningful way in the future. And it's why the ability to invest in skills and progression are so very important. So, the issue about levelling up funding or replacing EU funding isn't simply a dry academic debate or political rock throwing between different parties; it really matters about our ability to deliver on our objectives. And I'd say, actually, all parties within the Senedd would agree we do want to provide greater investment into skills for the future, to make sure our young people have real choices to make within their local economies.

I'll be providing further updates on the work the young person's guarantee is doing, and I think we have a genuine opportunity to live up to the rhetoric and in making sure we don't see a lost generation here in Wales. And, of course, the challenges in the labour market are different to what we would have expected a couple of years ago, post pandemic. We haven't seen very high levels of unemployment. We're actually seeing quite a tight labour market, and in today's unemployment figures, the UK average unemployment is 4.1 per cent; it's 3.4 per cent in Wales. But we do still have a challenge with the economic inactivity in Wales being higher than the UK average, and we've seen that while some people have left the labour market altogether, one of the big challenges is that older workers who have left are unlikely to return. Now, that's a challenge in terms of experience. But it does mean, I think, there's an even greater imperative to invest in the workforce we do have, and the future workforce as well, alongside the points that you make, which are also in the economic mission update that I published in October, about the need to take account for a decline in the working-age population, and the fact we will need to be more productive if we're going to be able to have a strong, well-functioning economy for the future.

On your point about net zero and regional economic development, and the decarbonisation challenge, it's a challenge both for energy generation, but much more broadly for economic activity. And actually, I think the point you make about the difference between the north Wales economic framework and the growth deal that they've agreed, with a real focus on greener energy, which I think does a great deal of credit to all six local authorities in north Wales—the fact they've been able to work together. And I see we have a former north Wales leader in the virtual Chamber today. But it does real credit that six different authorities, six different leaderships—. They've all agreed on a broad vision for north Wales and their transparent potential for greater energy generation and economic benefit for communities across the north as a result. And that's one of our big challenges—it's to make sure we don't just produce greener energy, but we actually get the jobs dividend that should come with that. There's no guarantee we do that.

The mid Wales headline growth deal isn't quite as far as advanced as other deals around the country. And interestingly, Ellen ap Gwynn, in particular, was very interested in the potential for greater green energy investment and jobs return, but they know that they're still identifying a more thematic approach at this point—they don't have the portfolio of areas in the same level of detail that other growth deals do. And that's one of the things that we need to accept—in having power that we share with regions, and regions making lots of their own choices for them, they'll move at slightly different speeds in different places, they'll have slightly different priorities. But actually, I'm confident that we will see proper opportunities for green energy generation and regional economic development going hand in hand in mid Wales, just as in the rest of Wales. And it was actually part of the discussion we had when we signed the final growth deal documents. I hope that gives the Member some comfort that this isn't simply a broader approach, without detail being worked through it, but that will come at different speeds in different regions of Wales.

And finally, on your point about bills and the transition and the cost-of-living crisis, one of my big concerns is that we know that there could be real economic benefit in moving to a decarbonised, lower carbon economy in the future and our pathway to net zero. The challenge is the transition could knock over people in the interim. So, we're going to need to deal with the transition to get there in the net-zero plan that the Minister for Climate Change outlined, with a significant chapter on the industrial decarbonisation that needs to take place. And I do think we will ultimately be able to gain benefit from that. The challenge, of course, is that won't happen just because we say it will; we've got to have work between partners, including the private sector, as well as those people responsible for the broader vision.

And finally, finally, Deputy Llywydd, I'd just like to pass on my good wishes for this particular young person, Mr Fletcher, who is planning his future in Wales and his marriage ceremony for later in the year. Best wishes to you, and I can tell you all about my first joyful 11 years myself.

15:35

I very much welcome the statement. The four regions of Wales, as well as being similar to the ancient kingdoms, have the opportunity to develop regional policy in Wales. I support the framework's priorities and the city and growth deals, the three-way investment agreements, designed to deliver lasting regional economic growth, including the region I live in. I strongly support the creation of stronger and dynamic regions at the heart of creating a stronger, fairer, greener Welsh economy. I am very pleased that the four city and regional deals are now under way.

The Minister and I have recently engaged in correspondence regarding life sciences. I have three questions. How do we turn the world-class life science research at Welsh universities into greater high-quality employment? Some economic sectors, such as information and communications technology and computer games, are not constrained by geography. How do we further develop these? And the third one is: how can the universities in each region help drive economic prosperity in their regions?

Okay, I'll take them in reverse order. On higher education, actually, one of our challenges is, and has always been, ever since I've been a Member—I'd like to think that higher education has got better at this as well—about the research and the excellence they produce and how that gets applied into the economy. So, the difference between research, development, innovation and application to improve businesses as well. We know it's a key factor. And actually, to be fair to—. Look, for all the differences we have with the UK Government that we advertise regularly, the headline pledge to put more money into research, development and innovation is a very good thing and we would want to see that done. The challenge is making sure that it's not just that the money goes and it doesn't simply ends up in the golden triangle around Oxbridge and London. The danger there is that's a bad thing for England, never mind the rest of the UK. And actually, as our own chief scientific adviser has shown, the quality of Welsh research and our science base is actually really good. So, it isn't even as if you could say that it's an investment that is driven solely by quality. So, there is a real need to ensure that, in funds that are supposedly whole-UK funds, Wales gets a proper share of those as well, as well as what we need to do with our own higher education sector and the constant challenge we have there about ensuring that, regardless of UK activity, we demand and expect more from our higher education sectors. And actually, I think around Swansea, there are good examples of a university that, over time, has definitely shifted its mission into greater output. If you look at the steel sector, they're very pleased with the work they get to do with Swansea University and its advanced metals research as well.

I think the same about IT and, more broadly, digital ways of working. We've got lots of opportunities to benefit every region of Wales. It's not just about enabling people to work in different ways, it is about wholly redesigning systems. And I agree with you, we do have particular strengths in Wales. I had a very interesting meeting about opportunities around Newport and what that might mean and about data centres and other activity that could lead to even greater economic development opportunity. So, I definitely think it's something you would expect to see in each region, and for us then to understand where our greatest opportunities exist in Wales.

And finally, on life sciences, I think we already punch above our weight in Wales when it comes to life sciences, when you look at the research that takes place and the jobs and the activity. This is a sector where most of the jobs are well-paid jobs with good terms and conditions. And the life sciences hub that we have near the Senedd building that—. Hopefully, when times return to be more normal, people will have opportunities to go in and see and meet people there. Actually, it's been I think one of the smartest investment choices we've made, in designing and bringing people together, and it's given a real focus to what life sciences can do. Not just in developing better uses for deployment across health and care, but the real economic return that goes alongside. I should just, with a look backwards—. The way that the life sciences hub has operated, to have a gate for us to get through for new technologies and new ways of working through the pandemic, has really reinforced the value of what we've put together there. When we had a meeting with Irish Ministers from the Republic, they were particularly interested in what we had chosen to do and the value from it. So, we may not always recognise it ourselves in Wales, but we do already have something that I think we can be really proud of, and I look forward to expecting more in the future.

I should say though, Deputy Llywydd, I wasn't quite aware that our regions matched so neatly to ancient kingdoms. It's not something that appears in my ministerial speaking notes, but I'm grateful to Mr Hedges for pointing that out.

15:40

Thank you, Minister, for your statement.

Can I thank Luke as well for highlighting issues relating to the region I represent, Mid and West Wales? You've highlighted some very salient points. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

I have three really brief issues to raise. Firstly, I'm encouraged to see developments such as Banc Cambria coming to fruition. As I said during your recent statement on Banc Cambria, the whole gamut of local services—banks, post offices, building societies, digital and physical infrastructure—are all essential in supporting local economies, particularly rural economies where those essential services have been chipped away over the years. So, could I ask the Minister for some insight into where your statement today sits in relation to wider Government plans to support thriving rural towns and villages?

Secondly, could you say a few words about how we traditionally measure economic growth and performance and what steps are being taken to test how we may adopt new measures of economic performance like those introduced in New Zealand? I ask because this week I met with the housing association Barcud, and I heard about their plans and ambitions for the next five years, including their plans to invest £60 million in house building and to establish a training academy. There is a huge economic benefit there, but also a huge social benefit too, as I'm sure you would agree. I'd be interested in your views.

Finally, Minister, whilst I welcome the mid Wales growth deal recently being agreed, I do have concerns about how long it has taken. This is just the beginning of the work, and I'm hopeful that the goals outlined will continue at pace. Could I ask you what lessons have been learnt from that process to ensure that any future potential initiatives are more quickly realised, to the benefit of local communities? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

15:45

Thank you for the questions and comments. On your starting point about local services and what it means for rural economies, I recognise that the point is well made, both in the previous debate around Banc Cambria and your consistent interest in this area. I actually think that our growth deals do show that there are real opportunities to develop a successful future economy in mid Wales.

We regularly talk about things that come from the land, but it isn't just about the opportunities that really do exist in the future of food manufacturing and production; actually, there are lots of people that are choosing to live in rural parts of Wales and the rest of the UK, and there are real opportunities for jobs, and good jobs, to move in a way that doesn't require a daily commute to a large population centre. That, in itself, is a potential opportunity for mid Wales as well.

There are challenges about making sure that you still have the essentials of successful life that would need to exist—and I say this as someone who grew up in a rural village as well—and about having services that make sense, that mean that there's real life in the village or the small town in which you live. But having opportunities for people of different wage brackets and different job opportunities to live and work in that area, with the rest of the quality of life that you can get from living in rural Wales, I think is still an untapped opportunity for us.

On your point about new measures and how we measure traditional growth, we've long recognised that GDP isn't necessarily telling all of the story. There is an active conversation about how we could have a different range of measures to try to understand what a successful economy looks like and how you measure that in a way that's meaningful.

I'm really interested in some of the work that others have done and are doing—including my predecessor, Ken Skates, thinking about conversations that we have had previously—about what a well-being economy looks like and how you could measure that in a way that is meaningful. So, we're interested in developments along those lines, not just in New Zealand but further afield in the rest of the world.

We certainly do want to think about—. I know that you mentioned housing, and not just the fact that you can build good quality houses, but the sorts of jobs that come from it and what that means about a sustainable industry. That's a regular topic of conversation between myself and Julie James.

Finally, on your point about mid Wales growth and the time that it has taken, I think that every one of our city and growth deal areas would have liked to have got to where it has ended up now faster than it has done. But the necessary time to invest in trusting each other and partners is not something, I think, that can be short-circuited.

What we are seeing, though, is the mid Wales growth deal now being completed. We don't yet have a completed map across Wales, but I think that there is some real ambition to get things moving and to catch up in a way that a competitor can sometimes be helpful in getting regions who want to demonstrate that they are making real and tangible progress. I think that it was particularly helpful to get this landed and off the ground before local authorities go into purdah and there is a potential freeze in the progress that would otherwise be made. So, it does mean that the two local authorities can work individually, and together, in line with what they have agreed in the growth deal, without there being an even longer interruption.

So, I think that's really good news, and I can honestly say that the differing politics of a UK Minister, a Welsh Minister and two council leaders haven't got in the way of us doing the right thing, and that does show that collaboration really is possible if we're all prepared to do the right thing.

Thank you, Minister, for your statement today. You did mention 11 years of marriage. I am at 13, and I'm sure that the significance of that number is not as unlucky as some might suggest.

But, just going back to your statement, I was really pleased to hear you reference the Mersey Dee Alliance. There has never been a better time in my opinion for Welsh Government to work collaboratively with the UK Government and local authorities to benefit the people of Wales and create those stronger economies in the regions, the Mersey Dee Alliance being a really good example of this cross-working.

As you mentioned, Minister—and I agree with you—another great example of this is the collaboration in the north Wales growth deal, which of course sits in the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, again, working across government to deliver positive benefits to the people of north Wales, including working with local authorities, creating those jobs and allowing businesses to flourish.

And as you mentioned, Minister, and I'm sure you agree, local authorities have a huge role to play in supporting stronger regional economies. In your statement, you referred to the role of corporate joint committees in strengthening the ability of regional collaboration. In my eyes, and in the eyes of many councillors and council leaders, corporate joint committees would seem to take powers away from locally elected councils, not strengthen them, as you seem to suggest. So, what assessment have you made of the future role that local authorities will play in supporting these stronger regional economies? And what discussions have you had with the Minister for Finance and Local Government regarding the possible negative risks that these CJCs may have on local authorities supporting strong regional economies? Thanks.

15:50

I've had a number of very constructive conversations with my ministerial colleague Rebecca Evans about the role of regional economic development and CJCs and making sure that the legislation that the Senedd passed in the last term is realised.

I think there's a real danger that we keep on arguing about the past rather than actually trying to remake the future, and I think there has been a real sense of positive pragmatism from local authorities about regional arrangements, to want to make them work. Because all local authority leaders, regardless of background, will have some comments about what they think would be ideal. But, given the structure that already exists, our challenge now is how we make it work best, and I do think the North Wales Economic Ambition Board is a really good example of how people have done that very practically, as I've said. You'll know this, as a former leader of a north Wales authority. Differing politics between the six leaderships have not got in the way, necessarily, of people agreeing a vision for a much better, stronger north Wales economy, with better jobs within it.

We continue to see local authorities as key partners in economic development. It's why we're keen, as I said in my statement and in some earlier questions, to make sure that powers are shared so that, within reason, local authority-led organisations can make decisions of and for themselves. There'll be other areas where there'll be decisions jointly made with the Welsh Government, and others too where the Welsh Government may make decisions. But this is actually about providing more power and more influence for local authorities to influence and direct wider regional economies, and I think it's a really good time to be doing this and taking it forward, with the trust that we've invested in each other.

I agree, Minister, that we don't want to be looking to and living in the past, but I hope we're going to learn from the past. I've been a Member of four Senedds, and I've seen four different Governments adopting four different approaches to these matters, and I'm yet to be convinced that any of them have succeeded. When I look at some of the corporate joint ventures that I'm hearing described in the conversation this afternoon, I'm listening to debates I heard a decade ago, if I'm quite honest with you, and still my constituents are waiting to see the benefits of those conversations. So, I would like to ask you, Minister: where does the Heads of the Valleys focus on this? Because we've had very little focus on the Valleys, the most deprived part of our country, 20 years after devolution, and we haven't seen the focus that I would have wanted to have seen since this Government was re-elected in May.

I want to know how you expect to deliver your policies. Where are the delivery mechanisms? Because if there's one thread of failure, frankly, that I have seen throughout my time as a Member here, it's been a lack of delivery. We have had strategies coming out of our ears, but what we haven't had is delivery on the ground. Why are you different? Why is your strategy different? And how will you know when you've achieved your objectives? What are your objectives for the Heads of the Valleys? What did you want to achieve? When I was one of this sad line of Ministers, some time ago, setting out my ambitions for the Valleys, I set out some very clear targets and objectives—

I would like to see a report from the Government on how far they went in delivering on those objectives and those targets at the end of the last Senedd. So, what's going to be different this time, Minister?

What I think will be different this time is that I think we'll want to be able to come back to point out the improvement in the regional economy and what it means not just for jobs, but in terms of pay and conditions as well, because we're looking to see real change made. And I genuinely think that there is going to be a focus on the Heads of Valleys, not just because of the works that are being completed around some of the physical infrastructure that's there, but, actually, we've reached out and we're having conversations with the five local authorities in that area, as part of the city region around the capital, to understand how we get a deliberate focus on the Heads of the Valleys itself. And there are also choices about how Welsh Government can use some of the levers and influence we have too, because I do recognise that across the Heads of the Valleys we've not been able to see a significant shift forward in the economic prospects of communities across there. So, it's something that we have chosen to go out of our way to want to do. And actually, again, it builds a bit on the point I was making with Sam Rowlands, and, actually, local authorities have now been really constructive leaders, not just partners, in this area in the last few months, about looking to try to plot out a series of objectives where local authorities and the Welsh Government and the capital region could work together. Because I want things that are intensely practical, where you can demonstrate that jobs and opportunities are being created where they're needed, as opposed to—to use your phrase—more strategy. I'm much more interested in practical delivery with the resources we have.

And I do recognise, Deputy Llywydd, that I owe the Member a more detailed conversation about this. He's asked for one; I'd be very happy to have that conversation with him, because I recognise he'll keep on asking the same sorts of questions, and I think he's entitled to, because the constituency he represents needs an active Government on its side at the Welsh Government, UK level, and indeed his local authority too.

15:55

We've reached the end of our time allocation, but I have three speakers left. I want to call them all, so, please, can everybody remaining make sure that they are succinct in their contributions? Mabon ap Gwynfor.

Thank you very much. In his book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith said that a successful economy is dependent on:

'the erection and maintenance of the public works which facilitate the commerce of any country, such as good roads, bridges, navigable canals, harbours, etc'.

That is, economic growth is dependent on investment in infrastructure. Infrastructure is an economic multiplier, after all. In 2015, the OECD said that there was huge regional imbalance within the United Kingdom, and I'm concerned that the weaknesses of the UK could be reflected here in Wales. For example, rural areas continue to suffer from a lack of provision of broadband and mobile phone networks, as well as other infrastructure weaknesses. Does the Minister therefore agree that we need to ensure that there is significant investment in our infrastructure to see balanced economic growth in all parts of Wales? And finally, does the Minister agree that we should encourage the development of co-operative enterprises and community ownership of local resources to lock money into the local economy and to prevent the extractive economy, ensuring local jobs? Thank you.

To answer as briefly as possible, given the Deputy Presiding Officer's instructions: yes, I do believe we need to continue to invest in infrastructure, including digital infrastructure, to enable what are not  so much new ways of working, but standard ways of working that already exist in large parts of Wales, to make sure that access to those opportunities is practically provided in communities right across the country, and—. Sorry, I've forgotten your second question.

Yes, sorry, yes. And actually, I expect to meet the ambitions we set out to double the size of the co-op economy in Wales. The conversations that I committed to have with Huw Irranca-Davies following a previous debate with him following a legislative proposal have not been concluded. We did have a time arranged that had to be put off for COVID reasons. But, yes, I fully intend to meet the commitments I've made—as you'd expect, given that I am a Welsh Labour and Co-operative Member of the Senedd.

Thank you for your statement, Minister. I have two questions for you today. Firstly, in their recent report, 'Beyond the Pandemic', the Industrial Communities Alliance provided some insightful analysis of what is needed to address the economic imbalance in our older industrial sub-regions, such as the south Wales Valleys. Minister, do you agree with the ICA's findings that what the Valleys need is simply more and better jobs, and can you outline what strategies you plan to implement in order to achieve this?

Secondly, during the fifth Senedd, we saw an ambitious holistic sub-regional approach from Welsh Government through the Valleys taskforce, and I understand that several legacy projects related to this are ongoing under various ministerial portfolios in this sixth Senedd term. Can you update Members on how the progress of these schemes is being tracked and monitored, and whether reports on this progress will be shared with the Senedd in due course, so that Members are able to scrutinise this progress?

Yes, on your second point about progress, yes, I do expect to be able to share reports with the Senedd and with committees on the sort of progress we're making. On your first point, about the Industrial Communities Alliance, more and better jobs closer to home, that's certainly where I want us to be, and it goes a bit into the question that Alun Davies asked, and, bearing in mind where Cynon Valley is, I do expect to not just have a conversation with Valleys representatives around the Heads of the Valleys, but to actually be able to set out what we're looking to do alongside partners in local authorities and in businesses as well, and how we're going to use the levers that we do have. So, that's not just about our responsibilities for skills, but how we make up some of the deficits in former funding. Because I don't think we can just say, 'We're going to disinvest in skills investment in the Heads of the Valleys area', because that means we won't see the sort of progress we made. By investing in people and places, we have to try to make that real, even with the challenges that we have with both the budget settlement and the realities of levelling-up funding not flowing to where it is most needed. What I do expect is not to just have a conversation with you and your fellow representatives, but actually to be able to set out in some more detail what we are actually going to try and do, and then to be able to set out how we expect to measure that progress in real terms.

16:00

Diolch, Deputy Llywydd. Minister, it would have been nice to hear some positivity throughout your speech, but you did lose me after you kept criticising the UK Government for investing in parts of Wales that your Government has forgotten for years. And with all due respect, Welsh Labour's poor record on the economy leaves something to be desired, at one time aided and abetted by Plaid Cymru or the Liberal Democrats. I could go on, but on a positive note, it was really positive to see that the mid Wales growth deal was being signed and bringing that vital money in for rural Wales. But, Minister, infrastructure is crucial for economic growth, so I'd like to know what discussions you've had with the Deputy Minister about his road review and the importance that the road network plays in regional economic growth. And finally, Minister, what discussions are you having with the Minister for Climate Change about the need to address the housing shortage in my constituency and across mid Wales, because if there are no houses for working people to live in, the area will just turn into a retirement home with limited opportunities to develop economic growth? Thank you, Deputy Llywydd.

Well, on the roads review, as you know, the Deputy Minister for Climate Change is more than happy to answer questions about the policy he's leading on behalf of the Government. Also, in terms of housing, I think that the Minister for Climate Change is very clear about the need to build more houses and more houses in the affordable span, which is a real challenge for us, for people to be housed effectively, but also for the economic benefits of creating more housing and the skills that we need to be able to invest in. And when it comes to the tone of where things are, we're being straight about what's happened. We're being honest about the challenges we face. And I know the Member doesn't always agree, but that's the challenge that comes in a democracy, is it not? I know the Member has gone on to broadcast a claim that he doesn't feel he lives in a democracy in Wales anymore, but this is the elected Government for the people of Wales, making choices and being held to account in the Welsh Parliament. It's a pleasure to speak to you as always, Deputy Presiding Officer; I look forward to my next opportunity to do so.

5. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport, and Chief Whip: Update on progress following the publication of ‘The Slave Trade and the British Empire: An Audit of Commemoration in Wales’

The next item this afternoon is a statement by the Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport, and Chief Whip, an update on progress following the publication of 'The Slave Trade and the British Empire: An Audit of Commemoration in Wales'. I call on the Deputy Minister, Dawn Bowden.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. The pursuit of the goal of a more equal Wales is about realising the potential of all our people—[Inaudible.] Sorry, Dirprwy Lywydd.

Yes, we were having some technical difficulties there.

I'll start again. I'd only just started.

The pursuit of the goal of a more equal Wales is about realising the potential of all our people and enabling them to participate in civil society on equal terms. We know that this is a route to more cohesive communities and a more prosperous society. It also ensures the vibrancy of our culture and heritage, which is enriched by participation and engagement and which should be a celebration of our diversity. But the way in which we identify and promote our heritage also has an impact on our well-being as a society. On the one hand, it can exclude people from our national story, but on the other, it can also be a positive force that helps shape the Wales that we want. It has the potential to foster that engagement and participation, which is the foundation of cohesive communities and a prosperous economy.

Heritage is an important aspect of how people identify with where they are. It helps to provide a sense of place and of belonging. We want everyone to feel that part of their heritage story is here in Wales. That means we have to be open to telling new stories and finding new figures to celebrate. But we also need to take a critical look at what we have already identified as heritage, and be open to interpreting it afresh. This is particularly important where there are reminders of historical injustices. We have a responsibility for setting the historical narrative, and encouraging an honest and informed relationship with our history. Only by doing this can we foster the creative engagement that sustains our heritage and contributes to the vibrancy of civil society.

The audit of commemoration, led by Gaynor Legall, was an important first step in a process of taking an honest look at what we have inherited, and of recognising the need to have a balanced account of the past. The audit was always intended to be a first step, and I am glad to say that we are taking further steps along the way to that balanced and authentic account of the past that is so important if we are to achieve a heritage that is genuinely shared. The principal response to the Legall audit will be the development of clear Welsh Government policy and guidance to support local authorities and public bodies in dealing with acts of public commemoration.

We have already responded to the former Senedd Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee report, 'Set in Stone? A report on who gets remembered in public spaces', which made similar calls for clear guidance that will present a route-map for decision making relating to both historical and future acts of commemoration. This guidance will draw on good practice from elsewhere to identify the types of positive interventions that may be available. For example, is there a need to accompany existing memorials with a further narrative, explaining the wider context, or a need to consider more radical options that might involve the relocation of a memorial? What criteria should be considered when making such decisions, and how can genuine engagement with communities be achieved?

Decisions such as that taken by Carmarthenshire County Council to provide interpretation alongside the Picton monument, or by Cardiff Council to remove the statue of Picton from City Hall, remind us how difficult this can be and highlight the need for guidance. Also, of course, recognition of how few memorials there are to black, Asian or minority ethnic people, or even notable women, is a starting point for a dialogue about who we commemorate in future. The development of the guidance will itself reflect a commitment to inclusion. At its centre will be a series of facilitated workshops involving key stakeholders. Officials in Cadw have already begun the background research that will inform the guidance, and the intention is to hold the workshops early this year. The guidance will be drafted during the spring, and there will then be a full public consultation.

Meanwhile, we have already taken some actions. We have published a revised edition of the Legall audit, making minor amendments in response to feedback and new information that has emerged since it was first published a year ago, and this is available on the Welsh Government website. For memorials that have legal protection, such as listed structures, Cadw has revised all the descriptions that cross-reference to figures identified in the audit of commemoration. These new list descriptions are now publicly available through Cadw’s online map-based Cof Cymru. Cadw is also working to make use of its website to publish a rich and diverse narrative about the history of Wales. A first phase has included reviewing existing content and gathering it together to share on the website. The second phase involves commissioning external multimedia content, including video and audio. This content will be hosted on a newly developed dedicated area of the Cadw website. This will become a fully accessible space where many aspects of the diversity of our heritage can be celebrated and shared.

These actions contribute to one of the goals of the emerging race equality action plan, which calls on us to work with public bodies to fully recognise their responsibility for setting the historical narrative, promoting and delivering a balanced, authentic and decolonised account of the past. These actions address some important priorities: having information that is balanced, raising awareness, sharing knowledge and understanding, and having in place a framework that supports collective decision making for acts of commemoration. I believe that, together, they are a fitting response to the issues raised in the Legall audit and important next steps on our journey to an anti-racist Wales. Diolch yn fawr.

16:05
16:10

Diolch. Well, across the globe, slavery has been a grim and evil reality throughout most of human history. Slavery across Britain itself long predated Roman occupation and continued over many centuries afterwards. The Britons, i.e. Celts or Welsh, and Anglo-Saxons frequently kept slaves, as did the conquering Vikings, with the victor enslaving or selling the vanquished. A gruesome history also shared by many tribes and kingdoms in Africa and elsewhere.

By the time of the Norman invasion in 1066, 10 per cent of the British population were slaves. In the eighteenth century, hundreds of companies engaged in the transatlantic slave trade, shipping Africans to Caribbean colonies. Our relationship with slavery is long, complicated and intricate, and the ancestors of most people living in the UK today will have had some involvement with this. Does the Minister share my view that we must learn from the past if we're not to repeat its mistakes, that it is essential to preserve the culture and heritage of Wales, and that we should highlight history not erase it?

How does the Minister respond to the report's reference to plaques and its finding that many commemorations, be they public monuments, statues, public portraits or the names of public buildings, places and streets, are often without any accompanying interpretation? Does the Minister agree that plaques should be attached to historical monuments containing an explanation with full context, so visitors or passers-by can make their own judgments? Individuals who were memorialised can be complex, and we're glad to see recognition in the report that,

'Many had complex personal histories embodying significant changes of circumstances or views through their lifetimes.'

Does the Minister agree, and if so, how will she ensure that this attitude is consistently applied and carried into the future? For example, the report mentions Mahatma Gandhi, a hugely influential figure in the campaign for Indian independence. There's a statue in Cardiff Bay, not far from the Senedd. Although Gandhi subsequently transformed himself and abandoned racism, quotations taken from his writings and statements whilst working as an attorney in South Africa before he went back to India in 1915, include racist quotations in which, for example, he called Indians 'infinitely superior' to black Africans. In 2018, the University of Ghana removed a statue of Gandhi on this basis.

How does the Minister respond to the report's investigation of figures such as Christopher Columbus, who had no connection to Wales or Britain, on the grounds that he was highlighted as needing examination by campaigners? As the report states:

'The culpability of several of these individuals in slavery or other abuses is open to debate and interpretation. Several shifted their positions considerably as they considered issues in depth or as attitudes changed around them.'

Although the report states that William Gladstone's statues have been criticised by campaigners on the grounds that his father profited from enslaved plantation workers, it adds,

'He appears to have had no culpability in slavery personally and he became one of the leading reformers of the nineteenth century.'

How do you therefore respond to calls for statues of figures such as Gladstone to be removed, where Gladstone was a Liberal statesman who served as British Prime Minister four times and called slavery,

'by far the foulest crime that taints the history of mankind'?

The report also states:

'The record of H.M. Stanley is stained by his alleged actions and the consequences of his known actions in Africa, but his personal culpability is a matter of ongoing dispute.'

Although his reputation was damaged by his role in establishing the Congo Free State for Leopold II of Belgium, evidence shows that Stanley was unaware of Leopold's true intentions and was never implicated in the atrocities that were perpetrated against the native people. Further, his letters and diaries at this time recall his loathing of slavery and the slave trade. In fact, when I was a guest at the unveiling of his statue in Denbigh in 2011, I heard first-hand from a Congolese delegation sent over to the unveiling, who told me of their love and appreciation for him. How therefore do you respond to the public vote in Denbigh, which led to the statue being kept by a 471 to 171 margin? Do you agree that local democratic decision making such as this is preferable to any decisions imposed top down from Cardiff Bay?

Finally, as we acknowledge the complexity of history, does the Minister agree that it is important to remember the anti-slavery stance that Britain took, where, for example, the slave trade Act in 1807 abolished the slave trade, and, following this, the UK Government used both the Royal Navy and treaties to persuade other countries to end their own involvement in slavery?

16:15

I thank Mark Isherwood for those comments and questions. I think much of what he says I absolutely agree with. These islands have a long history of slavery and our part in that history has not always covered us in glory. But we do have to look at it in the context of what was happening at that time. That was part of what the whole process of the Legall audit was: to identify people that we considered, at that time in history, as being people who were philanthropists, who contributed to our society, who were wealth creators, and so on, and they gave good things to our society, but they also did, of course, lifelong harm to the nation in terms of the memories of communities, not so far back. It's quite right and proper that we look at all of that through the context of twenty-first century eyes—that we look at these people, and we say that what they did at that time they did in the course of their lives during that time, but the impact that that had on generations that came behind them should not be ignored.

People involved in the slave trade committed some terrible atrocities and some terrible injustices, and all of that needs to be recognised alongside any of the good things that those people did. I'll give you an example. Colleagues in the Chamber will know, of course, that I was born and brought up in the city of Bristol, a city whose whole economy was based at that time—. The Edward Colston statue was a symbol of that. Edward Colston was a great philanthropist in the city. He built schools, he built hospitals, he gave his name to all sorts of things around the city, and gave lots of money to that city. But that doesn't mean that people don't now recognise that the damage that he did during that time had to be recognised. The Legall audit came around as a result of some of the things that we saw around that time, following the Black Lives Matter movement and the toppling of the Colston statue, and, in fact, the toppling of statues that we've seen elsewhere. It was part of the reason why the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee looked, on the basis of that and in the wake of all of that, at how we commemorate these people from the past. So, I think it is more of a question of we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, and that we look at what these historical figures did. We can commemorate the good things that they did, but we recognise the historical injustices as well, and we set them in the context.

It is not a question of the Welsh Government dictating from on high as to which of these people should be commemorated and which shouldn't. It is for us to issue guidance on how local authorities and public bodies set them in the context. And that was what happened with the Stanley statue in Denbigh. Denbigh responded as a result of a petition in that town. They had a local referendum, and that local referendum decided to retain Stanley. It isn't the intention of Welsh Government that we would override the wishes of local residents in terms of historical figures that they can relate to in their towns, but it is something that we will be saying in the guidance—that it should potentially be set into the historical context so that, as you have already said, Mark Isherwood, it is set in that context with a narrative and with a description that sets out historically how these people fit into our history. The guidance that will be produced will be produced with a number of key stakeholders, as I've said, and that will be people from the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, it will be women, it will be people that have historical knowledge. There will be, obviously, experts from within Welsh Government.

It will also be looking at how we commemorate people going forward and into the future. Because one of the things that the audit already identified, and I've set out in my statement, is that we have a paucity of commemoration around women, around black, Asian and minority ethnic people. Certainly, the LGBTQ+ community doesn't seem to be represented in many of our commemorations. All of those things will be included in the guidance. The key to it all is that people are commemorated and recognised within the context of their time and the context in which we live now, looking back at their lives. It is not about rewriting history, it is about setting it in its appropriate context.

16:20

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Thank you, Deputy Minister, for the update today.

I'm very conscious that I'm responding to this statement today as a white person with all the privilege associated with being born white. Though I can empathise with underrepresented groups in Wales as an ally, I cannot fully understand how much pain our complacency as a society has created by not beginning to address this issue until the brutal killing of George Floyd prompted the Black Lives Matter movement and forced us to face some uncomfortable truths about history, heritage and commemoration in Wales, as well as our responsibility, both personally and as a Senedd, to not just be antiracist, but to play our part in creating an equal Wales and call out racism. This isn't about erasing history, it is about placing statues such as these in their historical context and using them to prompt difficult conversations so that we can achieve that change.

Let us not underestimate how much of a challenge this will be, and be clear that warm words aren't enough to tackle the deep-rooted inequality and racism that remain in Wales today. And let us not think either that turning this audit into actions will be easy. As referenced by the Deputy Minister in her statement, this has been evident in the racist responses we have unfortunately seen to some actions already taken in relation to Thomas Picton by Carmarthenshire County Council, Cardiff city council and National Museum Wales. To others that are yet to begin on this journey, I'm sure the fact that work will now begin on developing guidance will be welcome, but I would be grateful, Deputy Minister, if you could please expand further on this process and when you expect this process to be completed. Further, will funding also be provided to support local authorities and public bodies in undertaking this important work in addition to the guidance?

Also, you referenced that there will be full public consultation. Do you know yet what form this will take and who will lead on this work? Further, I would be grateful if the Deputy Minister could also address what consideration has been given by the Welsh Government on how best to ease and support tensions within communities where these commemorations remain while guidance is being developed? You also referenced in your statement and in your previous response that the guidance will also consider future acts of commemoration and how best to ensure that there are more visible role models that are representative of Wales's diversity. Certainly, the unveiling of the Betty Campbell statue in Cardiff has shown the power of such commemorations. I'm sure we all loved seeing the photographs of schoolchildren surrounding that statue and being inspired by it. What plans, therefore, does the Welsh Government have to support the commissioning of further public commemorations that reflect Wales's diversity and allow future generations to see themselves positively represented in public art, culture and history in Wales?

Righting the wrongs of the past is not easy, as it forces us to face some difficult and uncomfortable truths, but we can no longer shy away from these issues, and I'm glad to see today some progress on this audit. But we cannot become complacent, and I look forward to receiving further updates in the future as this work progresses. 

16:25

Diolch, Heledd, for those comments and questions. I absolutely agree with everything that you said—your questions and the context in which you set those questions. We have all had to face, quite rightly, some very, very uncomfortable truths as we dealt with the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and what came after that. And you're quite right that it is a tragedy that we had to wait for an incident like that before we galvanised in the way that we did in response to that. But I'm very pleased that we did that in Wales and that we did that quickly. We pulled together the board, the group that worked with Gaynor Legall to produce the audit and come up with the list that she did, leading to the recommendations that we'll be taking forward and that I outlined in my statement today.

I can't give you a definitive time yet in terms of when this will be completed. We're hoping that we will get the stakeholder group together fairly quickly, but we don't want to rush this. We do want to do it properly. We are pulling together a stakeholder group that will draft the recommendations, and, as I say, I want that stakeholder group to be as inclusive as it possibly can be so that we've got people with historical knowledge but we've also got people with knowledge about equal opportunities and equalities, which we need to be looking at for the future as well in identifying and recommending how public bodies and organisations identify people that we commemorate in the future.

We did have the purple plaque scheme, of course, in Wales, which was I think the only nation in the UK that had a particular and dedicated scheme looking at how we commemorate remarkable women in Wales. I'm very proud of the fact that one of those purple plaques is in my constituency, commemorating Ursula Masson, who set up the Wales women's archive. It was one of the things that I remember when I was first elected. The constituency that I represent is a fascinating constituency with an incredible history, but very, very few women, if any, are commemorated in it. One of the first things that I did when I was elected was to draw up a pamphlet about the remarkable women of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, because so many of those women were integral and essential to the prosperity of that constituency. They were the power and the support behind the Merthyr rising, for instance. So, we have to look at all strands of equality. We have to look at those women, those black, Asian and minority ethnic people in our communities, and LGBTQ communities, that have made enormous contributions to our society, and part of the guidance will be for looking at that in terms of the types of people that we would commemorate. But I would expect and I would hope that those commemorations and the recommendations that come forward would be driven from the bottom up, so it would be local communities themselves that identify people that they want to commemorate. 

In terms of the public consultation, I would very much expect the stakeholder group to be setting out its recommendations about how that consultation should take place. But I would want that consultation to be as thorough as it can be, to be as full as it can be, to be as easily accessibly as it can be, so we have to look at all the options that are available to us to enable that to happen. I have to say, I was very encouraged by the fact that when the Legall audit was initially announced, the responses that we had to it were overwhelmingly positive in terms of what we were trying to do. Yes, you're right, Heledd, there was some reaction against it, as there always will be when we do anything like this, as there was when we declared Wales a nation of sanctuary and so on. But I take from that the positives. The positive responses that we had back from that far outweighed the negatives.

In terms of financial support, in response to the committee's report, we have spent quite a bit, obviously, on getting to the point that we're at now. We have funded that, we funded the audit, we funded the revised edition and so on, and we will, obviously, be funding the stakeholders engagement, and we will be funding the public consultation. What we have not been able to commit to—and I'm not saying that we will not revisit this at any given point in time—is we haven't been able to commit to what the impact of possible removal of monuments or removal of paintings, rededications, reinterpretations and so on would, because it's difficult to know yet how much that would be and what the extent of that would be. So, we agreed in principle with the committee, and I stand by that. We're not saying that we wouldn't help to support and to fund that, but we couldn't put a figure on it now, and we can't commit to that without knowing what the extent of that might be.

In terms of what we do within our communities, Heledd, I think part of our race equality action plan is about looking at that and about how we move towards an anti-racist Wales. My colleague Jane Hutt is doing amazing work with her team on that, and we will hear further reports from her on the work that we will be doing and continue to do in our communities to develop that race equality action plan.

16:30

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. My constituency has the pleasure and the honour to host the statue of Betty Campbell, and because it has been created whilst Betty really is a living memory, she was able to draw on the evidence from people who'd worked with and trained with Betty, who'd campaigned with Betty, or who had lived with Betty, and all the work she did to really drive forward her passion for educating the next generation, and also her insistence that our history and culture has to be relevant to everyone in Wales, not just the dominant ruling class, and that black history is not just for the month of October, but all year round, which underpins our modern Welsh curriculum. It also starts to rectify the shocking absence of any statue of any real-life women anywhere in Wales. How did that happen? Well, we women all know how that happened. But, anyway, that's what we have to combat.

Some statues that litter our landscape commemorate dignitaries that either people today have never heard of or, on investigation, reflect parts of our past that we have little to be proud of. I think that's less true in Wales than it is, say, in London, but I'd like to explore with you how the Legall audit will allow us to address ignorance about the important contribution made by past heroes and heroines, whether of local or national importance, or how we're going to have an orderly removal or re-evaluation of people we no longer want to celebrate.

Thanks for those questions, Jenny, and I think they're very important points, that we have commemorations of people in the past—. I go back to my answers to Mark Isherwood's points—we have people that we have commemorated in the past that we wouldn't commemorate today, for all the reasons that we know. And I think the importance of identifying these people, which is what the audit did, and setting them back against the full historical context, not just that these were great people, but that these were people that did x, y and z, and we need to interpret that—. And that is very much what the guidance is about, how we reinterpret—not rewrite history, but reinterpret, in the context, the appropriateness of what people did and the lives that they lived that led them to be commemorated in the first place.

So, I hope very much that that is exactly what the guidance will do, and will give that steer to local authorities and other public bodies, in the same way, as I say, I hope that guidance will also steer local authorities and public bodies towards identifying how we can commemorate people now. So, the example of Betty Campbell is a classic—the fact that we have this black woman, from your constituency, Jenny, who was a legend in her own lifetime. She was an elected representative, she was dearly loved by her pupils and people that were associated with her in her community, and as a result of that, that kind of drive from that local community to have Betty commemorated is very much what I want to see for the future—that our local communities drive the future commemorations, people that give back to their communities, who have made a difference to the lives of the people in their communities. And I very much hope that we will see more women, that we will see more black, Asian and minority ethnic people, and we might, for the first time, see somebody from the LGBTQ+ community being commemorated in a statue in our capital city or elsewhere in Wales. That's very much my hope, and very much what the purpose of this guidance is about delivering.

16:35
6. Statement by the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd: BlasCymru/TasteWales—Promoting Welsh food and drink to the world

Item 6 is next—a statement by the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales: BlasCymru/TasteWales: promoting Welsh food and drink to the world. I call on Lesley Griffiths to make that statement.

Member
Lesley Griffiths MS 16:37:15
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I would like to update Senedd Members on the third BlasCymru/TasteWales event that took place on 27/28 October 2021 at the International Convention Centre Wales in Newport. BlasCymru is our signature international event to promote the food and drink industry in Wales. We have all felt the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and nowhere has this been clearer than in health, travel and the food and drink industry. Therefore, BlasCymru 2021 also showed how we can continue to support our industry during such a difficult time, as part of our COVID recovery plan.

BlasCymru was a landmark event that operated under a COVID-secure protocol. We implemented a range of measures to keep attendees safe. The event welcomed key industry partners, sponsors and UK-based international dignitaries from priority markets, such as the European Union, middle east, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Indo-Pacific region. This provided an excellent opportunity to showcase food and drink from Wales on a global scale and generate further interest from sponsors and buyers.

BlasCymru is a trade event. The brokerage and new product showcase attracted significant producer and buyer interest. I'd like to outline some of our initial outputs and data provided by our delivery partners. These include 200 trade buyers in attendance, which included most of the major retailers and key food service and hospitality trade partners; 1,695 COVID-secure meetings took place as part of 'meet the buyer', between trade buyers and Welsh food and drink businesses; 285 new products were featured and launched within the last 12 months and during lockdown; 102 Welsh food and drink businesses took part, including 21 rising stars—new businesses established in Wales within the last two years. Over 600 key individual visits took place over two days, with some visitors attending each day. The value of opportunities identified are in excess of £14 million to date.

The food and drink sector is our largest industry in Wales. It spans businesses from micro to multinational enterprises who have made Wales their home. Between 2014 and 2019, we have seen growth by a third in the food and farming priority sector. This surpassed a set target of £6 billion and reached an incredible £7.6 billion in sales value.

The mainstay of this success has been our range of strategic initiatives, driving technological innovation through Project HELIX, supporting start-ups and microbusinesses through Cywain, training and upskilling through Food Skills Cymru and connecting businesses and initiatives through our renowned business clusters programme. This has supported the scaling-up of businesses, whilst opening up new international trade routes—a true partnership between business, academia, Government and local government. 

In addition to the pandemic, we are also dealing with the climate emergency, and our sustainable journey is now more pressing than ever. In Wales we have embraced the principles of sustainability and fairness for our environment, our economy and our society as a whole. Sustainability and food for future generations was the key theme of the BlasCymru conference, where we welcomed a range of speakers, including Professor Mike Berners-Lee, author and leading expert in sustainability and carbon footprints, and Adam Henson, farmer and BBC Countryfile presenter. 

It is no longer simply about economic growth, producing more and selling more. It is about producing better. It is about responsible businesses and scaling success to benefit people and society through providing fair work, through producing excellent quality products and seeing sustainable practice as a way to run business more efficiently. Reduced packaging means savings. Repurposing surplus food makes it affordable for the poorest in society. Streamlined logistics mean a longer reach for exports and potentially more flexibility importing. It is imperative we use resources efficiently by reducing waste and our carbon footprint and also taking responsibility for higher standards in our supply chains, whether they originate at home or overseas. Wales as a food nation sets to promote the originality and distinctiveness of Welsh food and drink produce by building on our reputation for sustainable food chains. 

Our key priorities were showcased in the exhibition hall and included advanced manufacturing to develop and implement new technologies and high-potential opportunities for food and drink production, to address workforce and labour pressures, and help reduce the consumption of resources. Sustainability, where a new approach to address the sustainability challenges and what this means for businesses was outlined. It considered surplus food distribution, agritech technology for future food production, and built on the platform of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. This legislation is the foundation of our new vision for the food and drink industry, based on a multicriteria approach to food system sustainability. Innovation and skills: there is no single solution to the current workforce issues. We must get better at communicating available career opportunities and to ensure fair work and skills development. Innovation and automation will gain pace towards delivering increasingly sustainable food production and addressing the productivity challenge. 

The clusters programme demonstrated how diverse our food and drink industry really is. This flagship programme provides an important base for knowledge transfer, learning and development. It has contributed to technology transfer, the future of healthy foods, the circular economy and the development of green technology to reduce the consumption of energy and natural resources.

I was pleased to launch our new export advisory group, to further develop our exports for the food and drink industry in Wales. This is vital as we develop our sustainable journey and work with our export partners to develop the opportunities for the future.

Wales has a number of protected food names. This certified family of products has differentiated branding and gives buyers and consumers the confidence in the value of Welshness and the authenticity of the offering. Wales also had the first geographical indications designated under the new UK scheme. 

I believe we can all agree BlasCymru/TasteWales 2021 was a landmark event in the face of unprecedented challenges, and an important milestone for an innovative and resilient food and drink industry. BlasCymru is an essential element of our COVID recovery plans, reiterating our commitment to supporting the wider industry through these difficult times. 

16:40

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. My thanks to the Minister for early sight of this statement, and I'm pleased to see and welcome the value that the Welsh Government is placing on our fantastic Welsh food and drink industry. I understand that the sector in Wales has a revenue stream of around £7.5 billion per annum, yet only 10 per cent of this revenue is gained from exports to countries outside of the United Kingdom. We all warmly welcomed the United States's decision to lift the import ban on British beef in 2020 and on British lamb at the end of last year, and while these new export opportunities are in their infancy, our next step is to ensure that our world-class produce, in terms of its sustainability, quality and environmental credentials, are making the gains in all available markets. 

In referring to the latest BlasCymru/TasteWales showcase event, I welcome the figures the Minister provided in relation to the numbers of buyers in attendance and the number of meet-the-buyer events. However, I would be interested to learn more about the actual economic benefit achieved from this event, and what, if any, targets or key performance indicators are in place to increase the number of exported products over the coming years, or to determine its successfulness.

One domestic area that the food and drink sector aligns with very closely is our tourism sector. With COVID-19 increasing the number of domestic visitors to Wales, can you outline what specific actions the Welsh Government are taking to ensure that both sectors are able to benefit from one another? Wouldn't it be fantastic to intrinsically link Welsh heritage and history with the food we create and the produce we export, creating a whole new market within our tourism industry that not only sees our fantastic produce being championed, but our proud heritage as well?

There is huge aspiration for the creation of better, more responsible and sustainable business opportunities within a whole host of sectors, and by aligning the food and drink sector with the tourism industry we can seek to develop upon emerging employment opportunities and sustain fundamental supply chain improvements. Just last year, we saw how vulnerable our supply chain can be. It is only through growing the sector and developing genuine partnerships across the supply chain between our farmers, food and drink processors, retailers and food service companies that we can seek to strengthen Wales's food security.

Last week, I wrote to Asda about how important this point is. After the supermarket made a welcome statement to British farmers at the back end of last year, they have since dropped their commitment to British farmers by stocking meat sourced outside of Britain. This roll back on its 100 per cent British beef promise goes against the commitments seen and stuck to by other supermarkets, such as Aldi, Lidl and Morrisons. Given this, I am pleased to see the Minister recognise the importance of producing better, which, against the backdrop of COP26, should see further emphasis on the environmental impact of what we eat and drink. A way we can achieve this in Wales is by adding value to the raw produce grown and reared here in Wales. Puffin Produce Blas y Tir in Pembrokeshire are an example of this, but Welsh Government policy must align in allowing the adding of value to Welsh raw produce.

Finally, Minister, I was incredibly pleased to see Senedd Members of all political colours support my colleague Peter Fox's food Bill, an important piece of draft legislation that seeks to establish a more sustainable food system, strengthening our food security, improving Wales's socioeconomic well-being and enhancing consumer choice. I'm going to use this opportunity to urge you and the Welsh Government to reconsider your objections to this Bill, to work with Peter and the numerous stakeholders who have already committed their support to this Bill. It is deliverable, achievable and would make a lasting difference to the food landscape of Wales.

I share your ambitions for BlasCymru and the wider food and drink industry. It can act as another way of promoting Wales to the wider world. However, to achieve its full potential, it cannot stand alone and needs to be supported across Government portfolios. As we emerge from COVID and the world reopens, we must do all in our powers to ensure the success of our industry. Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd.

16:45