Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

08/02/2022

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 in the Chamber and 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. This meeting will be held in a hybrid format, with some Members in the Senedd Chamber and others joining by video-conference. All Members participating in proceedings of the Senedd, wherever they may be, will be treated equally. A Plenary meeting held using video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and these are set out on your agenda. And I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, and apply equally to Members in the Chamber as to those joining virtually.

1. Questions to the First Minister

We move to our first item, questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Rhianon Passmore.

Funding from the UK Government

1. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the funding Wales will receive from the UK Government to replace European Union funding? OQ57608

Llywydd, Wales will receive substantially less funding from the UK Government in comparison with what we have received from the European Union and would have received under the current round of structural funding. The absolute guarantee that Wales would be not a penny worse off has been comprehensively broken and abandoned.

Diolch, First Minister. The UK Tory Government has finally admitted that it will not fully replace EU funding to Wales for three years, this despite Boris saying constantly that the people of Wales would not be a penny poorer when the UK left the European Union. Boris economical with the truth—who would have thought it? While the Welsh people stand to lose £1 billion a year, Boris and his Tory Government are letting fraudsters walk away scot-free with public money—£4.3 billion-worth of funds fraudulently obtained through coronavirus help schemes, crony contracts have been just written off by the Tories. First Minister, the Western Mail commented in its editorial last week,

'Once again, it's our poorest communities that are most likely to miss out'.

Those poorer communities are communities such as Risca, Newbridge and Crosskeys—the tapestry of towns that make up the constituency of Islwyn. First Minister, what can the Welsh Labour Government do to stand up for Islwyn and stand up for Wales, on the side of the Welsh people, while the UK Tory Government sides with their fraudster friends?

Llywydd, I think it is just worth reminding everybody what the Conservative Party said in their manifesto at the general election of December 2019, and which was repeated by them in the comprehensive spending review announcements of October last year. This is what they said:

'The UK Shared Prosperity Fund will at a minimum'

—at a minimum, Llywydd—

'match the size of EU Funds in all nations, and Cornwall, each year.'

Well, Wales would have received £375 million in funding in this calendar year from European structural funds. What will we actually get? Forty-seven million pounds. How does anybody, Llywydd, believe that £47 million, when we would have received £375 million, represents, at a minimum, matching the size of EU funds each year? And, of course, Rhianon Passmore is right that that promise, that absolute guarantee, as we were told in the Chamber here, has simply been abandoned. The UK Government now says that it will count towards the money that they will give us, money we have already got from the European Union. Now, I'm not saying anything about fraudulent use of money, but I'm absolutely saying that that argument is fraudulent—the argument that you can count money you've already got towards money that they promised they would give us is simply not to accurately describe what is going on here.

Now, what will the Welsh Government do? Well, Llywydd, what we will definitely do is to continue to uphold different standards here in Wales than we have seen across our border. Members here will remember that, in April of last year, the auditor general published a comprehensive report into the provision and the procurement of PPE, here in Wales. The report said that it had showed how in Wales we had been able to avoid the problems reported in England. Well, on top of the £4.3 million lost in fraud from business funds—remember what Lord Agnew said:

'a "lamentable", "woeful", "desperately inadequate" refusal by the UK Government to tackle fraud'—

last week, the National Audit Office in England published its report on PPE procurement in England. The comptroller general said that he had not been able to obtain an assurance that, of the nearly £9 billion that had been lost on PPE in England, there had not been a material level of that loss that was down to fraud. Well, there you have it, Llywydd: a very, very direct comparison of the way things have been done in Wales. That money then available for us to invest in supporting businesses, in supporting the communities in the Islwyn constituency, compared to the ways things have been done across our border. 

13:35

First Minister, I agree that it's crucial that Wales doesn't receive less funding than it had when we were in the European Union. And, as Chair of the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee, I can assure you that we will be scrutinising this issue very carefully in the next weeks and months. Now, last month, it was announced that new structures would be put in place between the Governments of the United Kingdom to discuss issues that affect people across the UK, particularly where they cut across the various policies of the different Parliaments. So, First Minister, can you tell us what role these structures could play in ensuring that Wales does receive the right level of financial support once EU funding comes to an end? 

Well, Llywydd, thank you very much to Paul Davies for what he said, as Chair of the committee, and I look forward to the work that the committee will be doing to assist all of us to make the case to the Treasury to do what the Conservatives said in their manifesto during the general election. I don't think that there is any doubt now that they have rolled back from what they promised, and the work of the committee will be a help, I'm sure, to make the case again to the UK Government to fund Wales as they had said they would.

So, there is a new system that has come into force to help us to discuss issues across the United Kingdom. That hasn't happened yet, and, of course, things that have happened in Northern Ireland over the past week complicate the arrangements for these discussions as regards not having Northern Ireland present around the table. I look forward to seeing when the first meeting of this new system will be arranged, because that will be an opportunity for us to make the points that I have made today, and that Ministers in the Welsh Government make every time we can, to Ministers on a UK Government level.  

The levelling-up fund White Paper makes for an interesting read, doesn't it, First Minister, with references to Renaissance Florence, Jericho's Byzantine empire, if nothing else, but it also references the levelling-up that happened in Germany after reunification, explaining that £1.7 trillion was spent there up to 2014, being £71 billion a year over 24 years. The levelling-up and shared prosperity funds combined don't provide for even 10 per cent of that level of funding. As you've just been setting out, First Minister, Wales will be £1 billion worse off under these plans than if we'd not left the EU, despite the promises from the Tories that we wouldn't be a penny worse off. But, as well as that, it's the question of how these funds are spent. Gone will be the strategic oversight we had with Welsh European Funding Office and in its place comes a pork-barrel process, with councils pitted against each other in a battle to get funds from Westminster. So, First Minister, do you agree with me that the levelling-up agenda is nothing more than political spin, when the Tories are in fact reducing the level of structural funding and depriving us of the ability to spend it strategically?

13:40

Well, Llywydd, I think Delyth Jewell has made those points very forcefully and I agree with them all. The 'Levelling Up' White Paper is a friendless document, even by the Secretary of State whose name is on the cover. Its attempt to range far and wide across the mists of time is simply, I think, an indication of the lack of real content that there was there for this, despite the fact that this levelling-up fund, the shared prosperity fund, has been trailed by the Conservative Party since 2017. They have had years in which they could have produced something that matched their promises. What we have instead is a very thin document indeed—thin on money because the Treasury refused to provide the necessary funds to back it up, and very thin indeed in response to its claims that it is about transferring power and decision making beyond Whitehall because, as Delyth Jewell said, every single decision made about how money is to be spent in Wales will be made in Westminster, nowhere else. And that competitive way of pitting one part of Wales against another in order to bid for what is left on the table in this fund is guaranteed to mean that the money is not well spent. There will be no strategic plan behind it. It will be a series of minor dollops of money handed out on a basis in which it is very hard often to find any genuine rationale, and with no sense at all about how any long-term impact from that investment is to be secured for the Welsh public.

The Cost-of-living Crisis

2. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding the cost-of-living crisis? OQ57603

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. We have repeatedly called on the UK Government to act to prevent the crisis for which they are themselves responsible. A decade of austerity has left many more people in poverty and unable to manage the situation in which they now find themselves.

Well, First Minister, you're right, and I'm seeing it day by day in Ogmore—and I'm sure every Member here is, regardless of party affiliation—because families in Ogmore are now facing multiple whammies. It's a cost-of-living crisis done by Conservative UK Government policies. The cut to universal credit has impacted tens of thousands of families right across Wales. The introduction of the Way2Work programme, slashing the time people have to find a job in their area of skill and experience from three months to just four weeks, means that now people are going to be facing sanctions before financial support is in place. And it doesn't end there. Households are facing the wide-ranging, mounting pressures we all know about: the weekly shop is rising, the energy costs are increasing, and we've got more tax rises coming down the tunnel from this Conservative UK Government. This is going to make things worse. The choice between heating and eating is not rhetoric; it is now reality. Do you agree with me, First Minister, that the Chancellor's buy now, pay later—as it has been described by the chief executive of Citizens Advice—energy bills rebate is loading the burden onto those who can least afford it?

Well, Llywydd, I completely agree with Huw Irranca-Davies that that is the inevitable result of the mismanagement of the UK economy—that the costs of that mismanagement will be loaded onto those people who can least afford to bear that burden. Can I just pick up two points from the many powerful points that the Member made? I'm very glad that he made reference to the Way2Work programme, because I don't think I've heard it discussed on the floor of the Senedd, and it deserves to be. We've already seen the impact of the £20 cut in universal credit for families here in Wales, one of the most cruel decisions that I think any Government has made in the last 70 years. You've got to back before the war to the 1930s to find a Government that deliberately and knowingly took money on that scale out of the pockets of households that needed it the most. In our discretionary assistance fund, where we've been able to extend the criteria to help families, because of universal credit, last month 57 per cent of all the applications were because of people not being able to manage without that extra £20 a week. It really is an astonishing scale of distress that has been caused by that decision. And now, on top of that, as Huw Irranca-Davies has said, we have that announcement smuggled out, that in future people will only have four weeks in which to find a job for which they are skilled, experienced and capable. It takes five weeks to get a payment out of universal credit, and I think there were even Members here—Conservative Members here—who pressed, earlier last year, for the Chancellor to reduce that waiting time. So, it takes you five weeks to wait for a payment, and four weeks to wait to be sanctioned. I think that just tells you everything you need to know about where the priorities of the UK Government lie.

The second point that Huw Irranca-Davies made that I wanted to draw on, Llywydd, was the buy now, pay later scheme. So, here we are: the help that people will get with their bills will be that they themselves will end up paying later than they would pay now. Now, you might have thought, if you'd just listened to the way that UK Ministers talked about it, that this help will be available to people in the next few weeks. It will actually be October. It will be October before that help is provided. And I hear Ofgem saying that they intend to shorten the period over which they revisit the price cap from six months to three months, which means that, potentially, there will be two further price rises in fuel bills before people get even the help that the Chancellor has announced so far, and then they'll have to pay it back. That does not sound to me like something that is likely to be broadly welcomed by people who are struggling, not just with fuel bills, but with the national insurance contributions, with food prices rising, with inflation at 7 per cent. All of these make for a very torrid time ahead for the families in Ogmore, with which their Senedd representative, I know, will be deeply concerned.

13:45

I thank the Member for Ogmore for raising this important issue, even though I don't agree with perhaps all of the sentiment nor the way he presents it. But, following the welcome announcement by the Chancellor of a package of support to help people with the rising costs of living, including support to cope with rising energy costs as well as council tax rebate, the Welsh Government will receive around £175 million in consequential funding. I'm sure that you will agree, First Minister, with me, that it's important that this substantial funding is used to provide urgent support to people during this difficult time. What consideration has the Welsh Government given to providing a council tax rebate to help reduce the pressure on families, as well as creating a discretionary fund for local authorities to provide to those households already eligible for a reduction in council tax? Thank you.

Well, Llywydd, I thank Peter Fox for that. He talks about a package of support. I think I've already explained that the help with fuel bills is help that just allows you to defer the bill. It doesn't give you any money; it just means you don't have to pay all of it up front. He speaks of 'urgent' help, and that help will arrive with all the urgency that next October brings. There was a tiny increase from £140 to £150 in the warm home discount, but again that isn't money from the Treasury; that's money that goes on everybody else's bill, as part of the social and environmental costs that all consumers have to bear.

Now, I know that the Member will be very well aware that you cannot draw a direct comparison on council tax between Wales and England. When the Chancellor's £150 reduction in a band D bill in England is applied, a band D council tax in England will still be higher than a band D average council tax in Wales, even after the Chancellor's help has been applied. And in Wales, we have the council tax benefit scheme, which was abandoned by his Government in England nearly 10 years ago—£244 million, Llywydd, way above any consequential we will receive, provided every year; 220,000 households in Wales paying no council tax at all. What I will say to the Member is this: that if we receive £175 million to help households in Wales with the cost-of-living crisis, that is what the money will be used for, but it will be used in ways that recognise the existing landscape in Wales, the fact that help is already available in Wales that doesn't exist across our border. We will find the most effective ways of getting that money from us to the families who need it, and we'll make those decisions as quickly as we are able.

13:50
Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

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

Thank you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, if I could draw your attention to something that you are responsible for, which is the health board in north Wales and the Royal College of Surgeons report into vascular services last week that revealed that the majority of clinical documentation was unreadable or absent, that communication and care planning was non-existent in some cases, and that, in one instance, an amputee's wife had to carry him to the toilet after he was sent home without a care plan, is any of this acceptable, and, if it's not, will you apologise?

I do not regard any of that as acceptable, Llywydd; of course I don't. The findings of those 44 cases that were reviewed by the Royal College of Surgeons are very disappointing, and they are—as Andrew R.T. Davies illustrated in his answer—errors that were made by clinical staff failing to observe what seem to me to be basic standards of professional practice. When you read that there were deficiencies in record keeping, in consent taking and follow-up of cases examined, then all of us are right to be concerned and to be disappointed, and it is for the health board now to ensure that the necessary standards of professional practice are consistently delivered to the people who depend upon that service in north Wales.

Sadly, First Minister, I didn't hear an apology from you there, which I asked you to give to the people of Wales, and in particular the people who have that health board serving their needs, and the staff as well, who feel let down, because, obviously, you—as First Minister and health Minister—had this health board in special measures for seven years. Also, your Deputy Minister at the time, Vaughan Gething, had special responsibility for the health board in north Wales, and so I'd ask you again, please, if you accept that these findings are unacceptable, that you make an apology for the time that you held the strings on the governance and accountability within that health board. You can't go on constantly delivering, saying that promises are going to be made and improvements are made time and time again when (a) from your lack of apology today, you don't seem to accept any accountability for the problems that arose that this report uncovered, and, importantly, the constant merry-go-round that we as Members constantly see reports like this coming out of the health board area. So, I do ask you, as you had this health board in special measures, and you are First Minister, and, previous to that, you were health Minister, to apologise for what has gone on in this health board.

Llywydd, I have no difficulty in apologising. I don't share the same standards as the Conservative Party, where the Prime Minister refuses to apologise time and time again for the things for which he has been so directly responsible. I have apologised in the past for the failings of the health board in north Wales, and the Welsh Government has taken a series of measures to assist the health board to make sure that the services people get are of the standard that they are entitled to receive.

In relation to vascular services alone, the Welsh Government has made a substantial investment in the physical infrastructure of the service at Glan Clwyd Hospital, and, as a result of the funding that the Welsh Government has found for that health board, there are six additional consultant vascular surgeons, an additional consultant interventional radiologist, four vascular junior doctors, extra vascular specialist nurses, and a dedicated 18-bed vascular ward. The Welsh Government has done everything we can to support the board in making good for some of the deficiencies that had been identified in it. It is very disappointing to learn that in this service there are still standards of professional practice that do not match the standards that people are entitled to expect from those who are directly responsible for that clinical care.

My colleague Eluned Morgan set out in her written statement on 3 February the measures that will now be taken, and that includes oversight of the service from a large vascular service outside Wales to make sure that there is both oversight and multidisciplinary support. She said in that written statement as well that she had asked that vascular services are discussed at the next tripartite meeting of the Welsh Government, Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and the Wales Audit Office. That meeting will be taking place on Friday of this week.

13:55

Well, I asked you for the second time to apologise and you said that you had difficulty to apologise. I'm sure the lady who was carrying her husband to the toilet will regret the fact that you have difficulty in apologising for the lack of care plan that was put in place. I'm sure you will find it really—[Interruption.] I'm sure that the patients—22 that are numbered in this particular document—that you have responsibility for, have their records missing or unable to find any care plans put in place for their future well-being—. And it is a matter of regret that, during the seven years that you were in charge of the health board directly here from Cardiff, because of special measures—I might add the longest public body in special measures in any part of the United Kingdom—you, again, have felt unable to apologise when this report has come out.

You have tried special measures, First Minister. Since its formation in 2009, there have been four chief executives, six chairs and now we have targeted intervention and still we're getting reports like this. At what point are you going to accept that, instead of trying the same thing over and over again and getting the same results, Betsi needs radical reform and restructuring so we can see change for the people in north Wales and delivery of a service that stops reports like this being published and we have to debate them here in this Chamber?

Llywydd, it may be because I'm taking part remotely that what I said wasn't able to be heard sufficiently well. What I said was—

If I may help you, First Minister, I certainly heard you say that you had no difficulty in apologising. So, it may have been misheard elsewhere, but that's certainly my recollection of what you said.

Well, Llywydd, that is exactly what I did say, that I had no difficulty in apologising, and I'm sure the leader of the opposition will recognise that. I'm afraid I just cannot agree with him that the best way in which services for people in north Wales could be strengthened, in the way that I think right across the Chamber we would wish to see, would be to embark upon the turmoil of a radical reform and restructuring of services. If anything was guaranteed to divert attention away from care at the front line of the sort that needs to be put right in vascular services, it would be to plunge the organisation into that sort of internal turmoil. I can assure him that at various points when this has been suggested, this has been rehearsed inside the Welsh Government and with professional advisers and with other bodies, and every time the conclusion is reached that this would be the opposite of a recipe for improvement. It would just guarantee that, for several years ahead, instead of focusing on the things that need to be done, people in north Wales in the health service would be focused on organisational matters, rather than on the standards of clinical care.

Thank you, Llywydd. I am on the record stating that we should get rid of Betsi Cadwaladr health board unless they can return to the right path, and I'm afraid that the report that we've seen now does nothing to give us confidence in the future of the health board. Last week, in responding to a question from Mabon ap Gwynfor, the First Minister more or less accused us on these benches, and campaigners and local staff, of undermining vascular services in the north because of the way that we have opposed and raised questions about the process of centralising services. Having seen another damning report, does the First Minister now see that we were raising genuine concerns for good reason—that's what we were doing?

14:00

No, I don't agree with that at all, Llywydd. I recall the questions asked by Mabon ap Gwynfor and I recall the responses—the careful responses—that I gave to those questions last week. I still believe what I said a week ago. What has happened with the reorganisation of the service is something that was necessary. The way that it has been done isn't acceptable, but as Eluned Morgan said in her statement—these are the words of the Minister:

'I am also sure the situation has not been helped by relentlessly negative public discourse which has overshadowed any positive impacts of the service reconfiguration and had the potential to impact on staff morale. This is something that was noted in the first RCS report.'

Concerns were raised and opposition raised because we were worried about the standards of service. I could barely believe what I was reading in this report: treatment given that should not have been given, even amputation; treatment not given when it should have been given; an appalling lack of communication with patients and their families; and record keeping so poor that the royal college investigators couldn't even figure out what had happened to some patients or what discussions there had been about their treatment, or, indeed, whether the health board had even met its ethical and legal obligations in the treatment of patients. Far from being the fault of those of us who questioned the centralisation programme, this has been down to incompetence and mismanagement, and the board had to insist on pressing ahead with this investigation when senior managers were still saying, 'No, everything's okay.'

Now, there were real questions over whether Betsi Cadwaladr was ready to come out of special measures, very conveniently before the last election. I'm looking for an assurance this afternoon that vascular services in the north will go back into special measures with targeted intervention to sort out this mess. And will the First Minister, in reflection, now agree that the end of special measures then was premature?

Well, Llywydd, a number of points there. It's important to put on the record the fact that up to half of the 44 cases investigated by the Royal College of Surgeons long predate the reorganisation of the services; these are cases that span from 2014 to 2021. The Member, I think, does a disservice, again this week, in mixing up those two issues together. The way in which services have been redrawn, so that specialist services are concentrated in one place, was the right decision; that is not challenged in either of the Royal College of Surgeons' reports and, indeed, the royal college supported that plan. What is unacceptable and deeply disappointing is the neglect of basic standards of professional practice that are revealed in the report. 

I was the Minister that placed Betsi Cadwaladr into special measures. I remember being told by Members on the floor of the Chamber that that was convenient for political purposes, just as I'm used to other parties trying to claim that the decision to bring the board out of special measures was somehow politically motivated. It was, Llywydd, simply the result of the process that is in place.

I cannot give the Member the guarantees that he asks for this afternoon, because those are not political decisions. Now, he may think that he, as a politician, has the answers and that we should simply rely on his political judgment, but that is not the way in which those decisions are made in Wales. There will be a tripartite meeting. The tripartite meeting will make recommendations and then, indeed, it will be Ministers who decide whether and how to act on them. But that's how the system works. It's not by people designing solutions on the floor of the Senedd; it's by taking the expert judgment of that rounded tripartite meeting, and then Ministers taking the responsibility for acting on them.

14:05

But I fear that, sometimes, decisions are made without a deep understanding of the communities that they affect. Let's look at that principle of centralisation. I totally understand the arguments for developing centres that are able to have a bigger throughput of patients with the most serious illnesses. But (a) when we do that for rural areas, say, we have to think innovatively so as not to strip away core functions that are important locally, because whatever promises were made in relation to this particular centralisation, that certain services would be kept local, that's certainly not what has happened. And (b) if it's about better services, why on earth was that element of centralisation, which could have been beneficial, not developed around Ysbyty Gwynedd, where the quality of treatment was so high? I asked a Betsi Cadwaladr medical director why on earth wasn't it decided to centralise around Ysbyty Gwynedd. He told me he didn't know.

There are lessons here for all of Wales, I believe, First Minister, and that is that the principle of centralising has become more important than the quality of care in too many instances. Will the First Minister commit to having an investigation that's open and transparent, and independent, into what happened with vascular services in the north, so that all of Wales can be sure that those lessons, where centralisation does go wrong, are genuinely learnt?

Well, there are some aspects of what the Member said that I can agree with, Llywydd. We've just had the second independent investigation report published; I just don't see where the merit lies in piling investigation upon investigation. What we need is action on the basis of the reports that we now have in front of us.

The point that I feel I can agree with is when Rhun ap Iorwerth says that models that are developed by royal colleges and others have to be properly transferred into the Welsh context and can't be just picked up and dropped into Wales. When I was the health Minister, I was also responsible for a piece of work done about Bronglais General Hospital, in which these exact arguments were discussed—and discussed with the royal colleges—about the way in which services that could safely and properly be provided locally in a rural area could be safely and successfully deployed at that hospital. And I think that has been a successful set of actions that have followed that have added to the staff at the hospital and the capacity at the hospital. So, I agree that general trends in medicine, which are towards the centralisation of specialist services, have to be calibrated to the context in which they are being implemented, and we should do that in a way that works for us here in Wales.

Where I do depart from him completely is in his wish to try and reopen old battles over the way in which services were decided upon and configured in north Wales in the vascular context. The health Minister could not have been more direct in her statement about the distraction, at the very best, that that will be from the real job in hand, which is to make sure that the system that we now have works, and works properly, and does not have the very disturbing and disappointing aspects that were revealed in the report that the board itself had commissioned.

International Strategy

3. Will the First Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's international strategy? OQ57614

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. Since the publication of the international strategy, we have published a series of action plans and reinforced our relationships with key international partners. We regularly review priorities against the international strategy as we move into a world beyond coronavirus.

I thank the First Minister for his answer. As we look ahead to the St David's Day celebrations in a few weeks' time, I took the trouble earlier this week of reading your written statement in advance of last year's St David's Day. I was delighted to read that your aim then was to use our

'National Day to support delivery of our International Strategy, with its key ambitions of raising Wales' profile on the international stage'.

I remember from Plenary last week that this year's plans are similar as well. But in that written statement, you mentioned that most of this work would be publicised via the @walesdotcom Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages. Indeed, much of Wales's international publicity is supposed to be done via @walesdotcom. But, First Minister, are you aware that, as of this morning, those same Twitter and Facebook pages you mentioned last year as being an integral part of your international strategy have only had one original post in the last three months, and the Instagram page has only posted once since September? How exactly are we selling Wales to the world ahead of our national day as a place to work, study, visit and invest when we look closed for business?

14:10

Llywydd, I'm in no doubt at all that the Member spends more of his time looking at those social media posts than I do. What I can tell him, of course, is that the Welsh Government, through the international strategy, is busy every day in making sure that Wales is promoted abroad and that we use our national day as a platform on which we can do more to make sure that the profile of Wales, opportunities for business in Wales, the work of our arts organisations, our sports organisations are known across the world, and that the profile of Wales is strengthened accordingly.

Llywydd, even in the last month, across the world, Welsh Government offices have been doing exactly that: a Welsh event in Washington with Study in Wales and Welsh universities, making sure that opportunities to come and study here in Wales are properly known and promoted in the United States, and face-to-face meetings in our Brussels office resuming, particularly around the plan to have a meeting of the CPMR—the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions—here in Cardiff in March, bringing delegations from across Europe to our capital city. Our Paris office supported a Welsh trade mission to the World Nuclear Exhibition in Paris in December. Our middle east offices have been, of course, focusing on the World Expo event in Dubai, and in Japan, our office has led an offshore wind investment event that has led to 10 Japanese companies expressing an interest in making investment here in Wales.

Perhaps if the Member spent a little less time trailing Instagram and a little bit longer looking at the world around him, he would recognise all the things that go on all the time to promote Wales on that world stage.

First Minister, Wales is home to some internationally recognised brands such as Penderyn whisky, based in my own constituency, and their slogan, 'From Wales to the world', emphasises this global outlook. In addition to the comments you've already made to the previous Member, could you outline for us how the Welsh Government is building on the reputation of these world leaders, both to promote Welsh businesses and Wales as a tourism destination?

I thank Vikki Howells for that question. Of course, she is absolutely right to point to Penderyn whisky as a leading Welsh brand, a brand known right across the world. Wales has leading brands in many parts of life; it was fantastic that Welsh National Opera were chosen to perform in Dubai at the expo event. But in food and drink in particular, we have so many world-leading brands, and at Dubai—and my colleague Vaughan Gething will be representing Wales at the expo event around St David's Day—we will be promoting Tŷ Nant water, Rachel's Organic, Snowdonia Cheese, alongside, of course, Penderyn whisky.

When I was in Japan, Llywydd—it seems a while ago now—Penderyn whisky was a real calling card for Wales, known everywhere. I was in Tokyo myself the day that Tokyo ran out of Wrexham Lager during the world cup, and that was another iconic Welsh brand that's known across the world. Those brands, as well as being calling cards for Welsh businesses, as Vikki Howells said, also bring people to Wales. Again, when I was in Japan, food and drink was very important to Japanese visitors. It's very important indeed that they have a strong sense of provenance of the food that they're eating. When they come to Wales, as they have, up to the pandemic, in growing numbers year by year, those iconic brands are what very often help us to strengthen that tourism offer as well.

14:15
Healthcare in West Wales

4. What are the Welsh Government's priorities for healthcare provision in west Wales? OQ57607

The current priority in west Wales remains balancing services to keep people safe from COVID while extending the return of wider, more routine services as it becomes safe to do so. 

Diolch, Brif Weinidog. A fortnight ago, Hywel Dda University Health Board signed off a programme business case for the reorganisation of healthcare services in west Wales, which, if approved and signed off by your Government, will see the creation of a new hospital at a location not yet decided somewhere between Narberth and St Clears. This business case also sees both Glangwili and Withybush hospitals downgraded to community hospitals. These are plans that have been in circulation for a number of years. A protest is planned for 23 February outside Withybush Hospital by the local campaign group, who have not given up the fight to see services stay at their local hospital. When you were health Minister in 2014, you—and I quote—saw 'no useful purpose' in meeting with the concerned residents of west Wales to discuss health service reorganisation when invited to do so by MP Stephen Crabb. Given the strength of feeling by the community and their steadfast desire to see services retained in their local hospitals, do you now regret not meeting with the people of west Wales?

I'm afraid the question is just completely mistaken, because I did meet—I did meet—with representatives of those groups. I met them here in this building. So, he's just completely wrong, really. But I think his question is deeply disappointing—deeply, deeply disappointing. If the Conservative Party think that their contribution to improving services in west Wales is once again to lead a campaign against the improvements that the health board seeks to bring about, then he is doing a deep disservice to the people that he represents. Let me be clear on that with him. The health board has brought forward a series of proposals. They'll be looked at by the Welsh Government. They're designed to make sure that services in west Wales are safe and secure for the next 20 years.

I'm afraid I remember all too well the last time the Welsh Government attempted to invest millions and millions of pounds in improving services in west Wales, when Brian Gibbons was the health Minister here and the health board brought forward a plan for a new hospital—a brand new hospital—for west Wales to be placed, at that time, in Whitland, in the Member's own constituency. It was opposition from his party that prevented that major investment from being realised in the community that he now serves. I do hope he doesn't intend to embark upon his career here in the Senedd by frustrating the attempts of local people to have millions of pounds invested in the health services on which they will rely in the future.

I hope, First Minister, that you'll agree with me that it would be a good thing to focus on the £1.3 billion that's on the table for a new hospital—the sort of investment that's badly needed in our area. It is transformational money that can bring about transformation in the services that are currently provided. I hope you will share my opinion that the health board must listen to the views across west Wales of all people, not just the voices of those who shout the loudest.

I thank Joyce Watson for bringing a voice of sanity to this discussion. If the health board is able to put forward a convincing business case, there is, as she says, major, major investment to be made in services in the south-west of Wales. It's not, as I know she will recognise, a plan simply focused on hospital services either. It is, in some ways, consistent with some of the points that Rhun ap Iorwerth was making earlier. It's a plan to make sure that as many services as possible are provided as close to where people live as possible by the strengthening of community facilities—facilities outside hospitals in places like the Cross Hands integrated health centre, in centres in Aberystwyth and developments that the health board plans in other parts of the health board area—and of course retaining services at both Withybush and at Glangwili, where the Welsh Government goes on investing in those buildings and in those services right up to the present day.

It was very good news—and I know that Joyce Watson, having been such a close supporter of all of this, will agree—on 25 January when the first baby was looked after in the special care baby unit that's now being provided at Glangwili, with £25 million worth of investment in those services. I completely agree with Joyce Watson that the health board must listen to views, of course, of all people within the health board area, that it must work with its clinicians, and then it can look forward to the sorts of investment that its plan would trigger, with services provided close to where people live in the community and with a hospital system that meets the needs of the twenty-first century.  

14:20
Fire Safety

5. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to support residents and landlords in buildings with potential fire safety defects in light of recent statements by the UK Government? OQ57606

It is for developers who constructed buildings with fire safety defects to pay for their remediation. In September we launched the first phase of the Welsh building safety fund. This will provide grant-funded surveys for buildings where fire safety issues are known or suspected in order to identify necessary remedial actions.

Diolch. At the end of January I hosted a public meeting here on the steps of the Senedd to listen to those affected and caught up in what is a tragedy and a scandal. I spoke to a pensioner, Eileen, who pays £511 a month in service charges alone. Her income—her monthly pension—is just £800 a month. Another attendee was sent a bill of thousands of pounds and given just 25 days to pay. Others are facing bills of £50,000 over the coming years. We all know that this scandal will devastate the lives of countless people, not to mention the terrible emotional toll that this causing. I think it is important that the voices of those people are heard. The Welsh Government should be stepping in to help those leaseholders right now. There's remedial action that needs to be taken to make those buildings safe and to make sure that their emotional health is protected. So, I would ask you, First Minister, to reconsider your position and to make available funds for that remedial action in those properties. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

I'm not quite sure I follow the very final point the Member made, because the Welsh Government does intend to provide funding of that sort, but to do it in a way that does not create the moral hazard in which the public purse pays for the problems that developers themselves have created and lets those developers off the hook. I think exactly that point was made by the Secretary of State in England, Michael Gove, when he said that he expected the industry to provide the £4 billion that will be necessary to put right the wrongs that the industry itself has created. If the public purse simply steps in and picks up all those bills, what possible incentive will there be for the next developer to make sure that their buildings do not suffer from the same defects?

I congratulate the Member on the meeting that she held. I saw some accounts of it, and those are powerful testimonies that she's relayed from the people she met that day. It's because of that, Llywydd, that on 14 December the Minister responsible, Julie James, made an oral statement on the floor of the Senedd, where she committed the Welsh Government to a new leasehold support scheme to help that small number of leaseholders who find themselves in the very significant financial hardship that Jane Dodds has pointed to this afternoon. The Minister will make a further statement before the Easter recess that will provide further details of how that leasehold support scheme will operate—the costs it will cover, the way in which people will be able to access that help—so that the worst casualties of this scandal will receive the help that we can provide without allowing the developers themselves off the hook. They are responsible for these defects, they must put them right.

14:25
The National Independent Safeguarding Board

6. Will the First Minister provide an update on the work of the National Independent Safeguarding Board for Wales? OQ57584

I thank Jack Sargeant for that. The work of the board continues to develop, as does the safeguarding landscape in Wales. In January I chaired the inaugural meeting of the single unified safeguarding review board of Wales, which includes representatives from the National Independent Safeguarding Board. 

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Brif Weinidog. As the First Minister mentions there, the National Independent Safeguarding Board has played a key role, and is included in the single unified safeguarding review board, which, as the First Minister will know, my own dad played a significant part in establishing. First Minister, yesterday marked four years since I was elected to this Senedd following the tragic death of Dad. I've been reflecting on his passing, and I've been reflecting on how we secure his legacy in this particular area. The most important thing that springs to mind with me is that it was never about positions in Government or status for Dad, it was always about delivering positive change for the people of Wales. First Minister, therefore can I ask you: how do we ensure that this legacy of continuing to deliver positive change for the people of Wales is continued? 

Can I thank Jack Sargeant for that? I was very pleased to chair the inaugural meeting of the new single unified safeguarding review board. Had he been there, I think he would have been moved by the number of times references were made to Carl Sargeant, because it was when Carl was the Minister responsible that he set in motion a review of the way in which domestic homicide reviews in Wales were put to work to improve services for people who find themselves victims of domestic abuse. It was Carl who asked the then assistant chief constable of Dyfed-Powys, Liane James, to carry out that review, and it was Liane who presented the work that lies behind the new board at that inaugural meeting.

I think Jack can both take confidence but also take enormous pride from the fact that now, in 2022, the fruit of that work is being seen and made effective here in Wales. It has grown significantly from the starting point that Carl set in motion. The new system will encompass domestic homicide reviews, child practice reviews, adult practice reviews and mental health homicide reviews. Because it is a partnership between practitioners and Cardiff University, it will help us to ensure that in future the lessons that can be drawn when things go so badly wrong will be known and will be available in all parts of Wales, and will make a difference in the lives of those families who've been so much affected by them.

It was great to hear from the Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed-Powys, Dafydd Llywelyn, at that meeting, and it was great to have around the table the key devolved institutions—the WLGA, the Welsh Government, the social services departments, the health services—but also the non-devolved services as well. It was very good to have representation from the Home Office at the board, to see the senior coroner for Wales as a member of that board. I really do think, Llywydd, that it is a very practical and telling example of the way in which an initiative by a committed Minister can lead to real and lasting change.

14:30
Energy Efficiency

7. What conversations has the Welsh Government had with the retail sector about improving energy efficiency towards zero carbon? OQ57627

Llywydd, in March of this year, we will launch a retail strategy for Wales. The strategy is the result of close engagement with the sector and will promote energy efficiency, and will include the appointment of trade union green representatives in the workplace, a manifesto commitment of this Government.

Thank you, First Minister. I recently met with Friends of the Earth regarding encouraging supermarkets to retrofit doors on fridges and freezers, or ensure that they have doors on when they are upgraded. I understand that the Petitions Committee discussed this in the last Senedd term, and some supermarkets responded to say they believed it would affect consumers' impulsive purchasing. I think times have changed, and with climate change a priority, along with targeting food waste, I think it should be revisited. Surging energy costs may also help encourage retailers to curb energy consumption as well. Aldi has been leading the way on this, and shown, when building new supermarkets, installing fridge doors isn't an issue and can actually improve customer experience compared to unbearably cold aisles that don't have fridge doors on them. Would the First Minister advise me of the best way forward in this campaign, and would it be possible for supermarkets to share their experience and best practice of cost savings, in order to learn from those that have taken this step? Thank you.

I thank Carolyn Thomas for those important questions, Llywydd. She's absolutely right that the use of doors on fridges has been shown to save energy, reduce food spoilage, and therefore save businesses money. And with the cost of energy rising as it is, there surely are greater incentives for businesses to do just what the Member suggested. And she's right, times are changing.

Now, there is some very good work going on amongst some supermarkets. Sainsbury's, for example, has worked with Imperial College London on its zero-carbon strategy, and that includes many initiatives of the sort that the Member has identified. Aldi, we know, is to save the equivalent of 2,000 tonnes of carbon emissions a year by installing fridge doors as standard in its new and newly refurbished stores. It carried out an experiment, the experiment was successful, and now it's doing it right across the range of its stores. We've got other initiatives going on in Wales in that energy-saving field. Tesco is trialling the use of all-electric heavy goods vehicles at its south Wales distribution centre—the first part of the United Kingdom to have those all-electric vehicles.

Now, the point is, as I think Carolyn Thomas was suggesting, that we need the good practice of the leading players to be learnt by everybody else. And the retail strategy is an opportunity for us to help to make that happen. Lesley Griffiths meets regularly with the retail sector, where we discuss a whole range of issues of relevance to Wales, and energy efficiency is certainly one of them. And the strategy is an opportunity to pull some of that together and encourage those who, in the past, have been reluctant, because they believe that fridge doors, for example, might negatively impact on sales, to take the successful steps that others have already demonstrated you can do—successfully from the point of view of the customer, but also with real energy-saving advantages.

Welsh Government Staff in Mid and West Wales

8. What assessment has the First Minister made of the number of Welsh Government staff that are located in Mid and West Wales? OQ57626

Thank you very much to Cefin Campbell for the question, Llywydd. At the end of January there were 1,067 Welsh Government staff whose permanent office base was recorded as being in mid or west Wales.

14:35

Thank you very much. We know that over half of Welsh Government's staff work here in Cardiff, with some 58 per cent across the whole of the south-east. Now, some 19 per cent of the population of Wales live in Mid and West Wales. However, only around 13 per cent of Welsh Government posts are located in that region, and, as it happens, many of the Welsh Government's offices in the region are on the outskirts of towns. So, can I ask, as we slowly move back to some kind of normality post COVID, what assessment has the Government made of moving more jobs to Mid and West Wales and using town-centre buildings as offices in order to rejuvenate these towns economically and socially? 

Well, Llywydd, thank you very much to the Member for those questions. It is worth us remembering at the beginning of devolution almost all of those working for the Welsh Office were working here in Cardiff, and over the period of devolution we have created new offices in Merthyr Tydfil, in Llandudno, and, of course, in Aberystwyth as well. Now, we are going to move into the new phase post COVID, I believe, when there will be fewer staff working every day in offices, and more people working locally. That doesn't mean that people will be working in their own homes every time, but there are also more possibilities for people to come together to work from these working centres. And we've been working very hard to establish more of those centres or hubs where people can access the facilities that they need closer to home. Now, in west Wales, we already have the centres in Haverfordwest and in Llanelli, and we are looking forward to seeing where there will be further opportunities in future.

As Cefin Campbell said, Llywydd, we have centres not just on the outskirts of towns, but they can also be more flexible than that. They can be part of the towns. And there are more possibilities for people to remain local, and when they do stay in their local area they spend more money in those towns as well. It's a help for the people themselves, it's a help for the environment, and it's an economic help too. And I am familiar with the work that Carmarthenshire County Council has done, and I know that the Member was part of that important work, and we, as a Government, want to do more to work with local people to see what we can do to help people in the post-coronavirus context, where they won't have to travel every day into the major offices; they can remain local, and they can work in the local area and they can be part of the local economy at the same time. 

2. Business Statement and Announcement

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

Member
Lesley Griffiths 14:38:53
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch, Llywydd. I have no changes to this week's business. 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, over the weekend there were pubs across the whole of Wales that were packed with people watching the rugby. Not an enjoyable experience, I know, for many of us this weekend, but that's what many people were doing. Unfortunately, the following day, on the Sunday, there were people who were in churches still required to wear their masks in church in order to participate in acts of worship. I don't think that it's right, and many of my constituents don't think that it's right, that people can shout and yell at tv screens in packed pubs without the need to wear a mask and, yet, people in places of worship seem to be discriminated against in this way. Can I ask you for a statement by the Welsh Government on why places of worship are still facing these very significant restrictions at times when other venues, like hospitality venues, are not?

14:40

Thank you. The Member will be aware that this week brings the conclusion of the three-week review of all the COVID protections, and this is something the Welsh Government will be considering ahead of the First Minister's statement on Friday.

I would like to declare an interest that I'm currently a sitting councillor on Monmouthshire County Council.

Trefnydd, could I call for a statement from yourself in your capacity as rural affairs Minister regarding the co-operation and supply chain development scheme? As you may already be aware, the rural programmes team at Monmouthshire council has applied for funding under round 11 of the scheme for a space for a local production project. This involves a number of delivery partners from both Monmouthshire and beyond from across the food supply chain. The team submitted a full application for funding in May 2021 and have still not received any funding decisions from the Welsh Government. This is despite a decision meaning to be received from the Government within 90 days of an application being made. It is my understanding that this is not the only scheme to have not yet received a response. I'm sure you will understand, Minister, that such delays result in uncertainty for everyone involved in the project as well as preventing the benefits of the scheme from being felt in the local area. Furthermore, every month the project is delayed, the delivery time is reduced, meaning the team has to account for an underspend in additional project delivery elements. Any update or assistance, Minister, that you could give would be much appreciated. Thank you.

Thank you. I don't think it's appropriate for a statement, but I will certainly look at the individual case you've just raised with me and I will write to the Member will full details.

I'm asking for a debate during Government time to discuss the implications to Wales of the 'Levelling Up' paper by the UK Government. I'm sure the Trefnydd agrees with me that we've seen consecutive Westminster Governments that have been levelling down Governments—taking money away from Wales. To solve the problem of uneven development within the English regions, the Government states that they will use a devolution deal, with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution. Unfortunately, this paper says nothing about Wales with regard to the highest level of devolution. When we have asked for devolution of justice, of energy, of Crown Estate, of air duty, it's been denied time and time again. Some English regions have more powers than we as a country do in Wales. 

Turning to another matter, Trefnydd, I'd like a comprehensive statement from the climate change Minister on building safety to answer a number of questions. Firstly, given the UK Government's intention to extend the legal limitation period to tackle defective premises from six years to 30 years, will the Minister take now legal action against developers to recover the costs of remediation of developments in Cardiff Bay? And has the Welsh Government been in discussion with the Development Bank of Wales to see whether they can play a role to provide commercially backed loans to support the residents of these developments to remediate their defective premises? Diolch yn fawr.

Diolch. I don't disagree with the majority of the statement from the Member around levelling up and the 'Levelling Up' White Paper from the UK Government. I think what the White Paper does, for those of us who've had the opportunity to have a look at it, is really trumpet the potential of new devolution deals in England, yet they have undermined Welsh devolution at every turn. They've used the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 to wrestle funding and decision-making powers away from both the Welsh Government and the Senedd. The Government has been heavily criticised—the UK Government—for its lack of strategic engagement with the Welsh Government on levelling up by its own Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy select committee. I think, unless the UK Government changes its approach, they'll simply waste more resources, underachieve and misrepresent what is actually happening. 

In response to your second question, the Minister for Climate Change will be making a statement on building safety before the Easter recess.

I call for a statement on the education of autistic pupils in Wales. Two weeks ago, Swansea University's school of education issued a statement regarding its preliminary report on the education of autistic pupils in Wales. Its findings include that over three quarters of autistic pupils said that being in school causes increased anxiety, three in four said they had been the victim of bullying, over half thought they were not getting enough help during the school day, and a third felt their teacher did not understand them. One in three parents whose children attend mainstream settings said they were unhappy with the school, in comparison to four in five of those in specialist provision being happy with their child's setting. Parents told them that one in three children with a statement of educational need was not given all support or provision detailed within the document. Ninety per cent of educators have experience of working with autistic pupils, and they felt their local authority had been generally unsupportive. And four out of five parents and nearly three quarters of parents whose children currently have a statement said neither their local authority nor their child's school had given them any information about the introduction of the new additional learning needs code and what it means for their child. This reflects my own high case load in this area, with those officers who have previously refused to understand autism continuing to do so, causing pain and blaming the parents. I call for a statement accordingly. 

14:45

Thank you. I know the Member does take a very close interest in this topic, and the Minister for education and his officials will look very closely at the report. It's important that a child receives the correct and appropriate education, and it's very important that, as Ministers, we listen to such experts. And the Minister and his officials will obviously consider the next steps from the report.  

Trefnydd, I would like a statement from the Deputy Minister for Social Services on domiciliary care, because the Welsh NHS Confederation has stated that one of the main sources of system bottleneck is the transfer out of discharge to recovery and access pathways to onward packages of domiciliary care. I'm receiving more and more correspondence from relatives of those who cannot be discharged. Private care providers are handing back care packages to local authorities because they cannot find care staff. Powys County Council have told me they're not in a position to guarantee a package of care immediately for anyone who has been in hospital longer than 14 days, due to staff shortages. And I'm sure I and the Chamber would like to know what work the Welsh Government is doing to ensure that domiciliary care is available for those needing discharge, and what positive action Welsh Government is taking to recruit and retain more carers in the care sector in Wales. Diolch, Llywydd. 

Absolutely. The Deputy Minister for Social Services will be making a statement on the real living wage. That is something, obviously, very positive that the Welsh Government is doing, but it's really important that local authorities obviously look to employ the necessary provision for domiciliary services for their local population. 

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llywydd. Three weeks ago, the UK's COVID-19 infection prevention and control cell issued new guidance on the use of respiratory protective equipment for front-line healthcare staff. This led to the UK Government taking the decision to allow all healthcare staff in England access to higher levels of PPE, namely FFP2 and FFP3 masks, to ensure that staff and patients are kept safe from the COVID-19 omicron variant. This new guidance applies not only to the NHS in England but to the Welsh Government as well. Can we therefore have an urgent statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services explaining why she has chosen to ignore this new guidance—she might want to oblige now, given that she's in the Chamber; it seems a bit strange that I'm asking for a statement from the Trefnydd when she's in the room, but I digress—and why she instead continues to leave decisions on higher grade levels of PPE at the door of health boards and individual managers, when she could show leadership and ensure that staff and patients across the whole of Wales are fully protected? [Interruption.] A golden opportunity. 

I think the Minister was almost tempted to make the statement at that point—

—but I think we need to allow the Trefnydd to respond formally. [Interruption.]

I don't want to swap jobs, if that's what you mean.

I was just going to say to the Member that that's not the way the business statement works. The Minister for Health and Social Services has already done a written statement. FFP3 masks are available to all staff where a local risk assessment shows a continuing risk of transmission despite other infection prevention and control measures in place.

14:50

I thank the Trefnydd. A point of order now to declare an interest, Cefin Campbell.

Sincere apologies, Llywydd, as I forgot to declare an interest, in that I am a county councillor in Carmarthenshire, before I asked my question of the First Minister. So, my apologies. 

Thank you for the apology. There we go, I have called one member from each group over the past three weeks now who have made the same mistake in not declaring an interest. May I ask those of you who are councillors, who own a business, or whatever your interests are, to try to remember that when you do make your contributions, rather than us having to call you later on in the session? I will not allow that further; every group has had one strike, and now you're out. 

3. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Long COVID

So, we'll move on now to the statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services on long COVID—Eluned Morgan. 

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. I launched the Adferiad programme last June, a £5 million-package of services for people who are recovering from the long-term effects of COVID-19 in Wales, including long COVID. As part of that announcement, I said we would review the progress of the programme every six months. The first review has considered reports from each of the health boards and feedback from hundreds of people who have received care as part of the service from an all-Wales service evaluation, undertaken by Cedar research centre.

Before I turn to the results of the review, I want to say something about how services for people with long COVID are structured in Wales. We want care to meet people’s specific needs through services that are available as close to home as possible. If someone is struggling with the long-term effects of COVID-19, their first point of contact is their GP, who can quickly and easily refer them to local services, including rehabilitation services. Some people have also been referred into the system from other parts of the NHS. This includes people who have spent many weeks and even months in hospital being treated for COVID-19, although it's interesting to note that the majority of people being treated for long COVID were not admitted to hospital with their original COVID-19 illness.

The Adferiad programme has funded expanded and enhanced primary and community-based services in every health board, and we've developed a clear pathway to improve access and speed up referral to treatment where people need more specialist care. All services are provided in line with National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines. I had the privilege of meeting some of the healthcare professionals providing services and some of the people receiving services when I visited the long COVID team at Swansea Bay University Health Board last week.

The information we have from health boards is that the average waiting time for people to be seen in long COVID services is 23 days. This compares to the current 15-week waiting time for access to the specialist long COVID clinics that have been set up in areas of England. Data from Digital Health and Care Wales show that, by January, just over 2,400 people had been diagnosed with long COVID by their GP or healthcare professional in Wales, and 2,226 people were referred into our long COVID rehabilitation services in the last year. This number is smaller than the self-reported Office for National Statistics estimates of the number of people with long COVID in Wales, and we don't know yet what the long-term impact of omicron, the variant that is currently very prevalent in our communities that has affected so many people, will be on the number of people experiencing long COVID symptoms.

The COVID recovery app, which supports people to manage their own symptoms, has been downloaded more than 10,000 times. It is possible many people have found the app is helping them to manage their symptoms on a day-to-day basis. However, we know that some people, particularly those who developed COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic and are living with the long-term effects of their initial illness, have struggled to access the support they needed. I would urge them to seek help if their symptoms are impacting on their quality of life.

Llywydd, I want to turn now to what the first review of the Adferiad programme is telling us. The evaluation suggests services are supporting those people who have been seen and are undergoing treatment to improve their health outcomes. The model of locally delivered, integrated and multi-professional rehabilitation appears to be meeting the needs of our population. But we are not complacent, and we will continue to monitor, learn and improve services, making sure that we react to feedback from people who need and who use these services.

Our long COVID services provide assessment and access to a wide range of health professionals, treatments and rehabilitation.

We know that, for a small number of people, COVID-19 has had a significant impact on their lives, and they need ongoing specialist assessment, investigations and treatment. The number of children with long COVID in Wales also remains low, thankfully. Health boards are treating each child in accordance with their specific needs. 

Our workforce is working extremely hard to support the recovery of the whole population effectively and equitably. They are collaborating with colleagues around the world to ensure that the latest evidence informs our decisions and responses.

Llywydd, in addition to the Adferiad service, the NHS in Wales is taking an active part in UK-wide long COVID research studies, which will help to increase our knowledge of both diagnosis and treatment. I'd like to thank all of those people in Wales who are also taking part in these very important research studies.

I have also set up the Wales COVID-19 Evidence Centre, through Health and Care Research Wales. Part of its work programme has a particular focus on addressing issues of relevance to those affected by long COVID and the health and social care sector.

Some people have experienced such severe or long-lasting long COVID symptoms that they had had an impact on their ability to work. I am pleased to say that NHS employers and trade unions have worked together to review employment policies and procedures to ensure that healthcare staff are supported as far as possible.

The NHS's long COVID recovery services include specific support for people in respect of their ability to work, although work-related benefits remain a UK Government responsibility. I have also asked the Bevan Commission to report on the potential to develop a register of people with long COVID here in Wales. Currently, I am considering the commission's report.

Health boards have told us that they believe that expanding and integrating the existing long COVID services into other community rehabilitation and long-term conditions services will provide the highest quality of treatment and clinical expertise for the longer term. 

I am now considering the priorities for the next six months, so that the NHS can continue to develop the expertise of our workforce, adapt services to meet the needs of our population and ensure that these services are embedded as part of our wider COVID recovery planning. Thank you.

14:55

Minister, can I thank you for your statement this afternoon? I'm interested in your claim in regard to the information that you have had from health boards—that the average waiting time for people to be seen in long COVID services is 23 days. You also go on to compare this to a 15-week waiting time for access to specialist long COVID clinics that have been set up in parts of England. Can I ask you: are the two comparisons that you make on a like-for-like basis, and if they are not, can you set out the differences?

A top story today, Minister, on the BBC, as I'm sure you would have seen, is the story of Sian Griffiths, a Welsh resident who has paid to see a consultant in Stoke-on-Trent instead of waiting 12 months—which is the claim in this case—on the Welsh NHS. So, can you perhaps explain the contrast of Sian's experience and story with the claim that the average waiting time for long COVID treatment is 23 days? I wonder what actions, in this regard, you would take, Minister, to ensure that Welsh patients don't have to travel long distances and travel to England in instances such as the one that has been set out in this particular story. 

Now, I'm not aware that the data that you mentioned from health boards is published, Minister, at all, so I wonder if you would agree to publishing this data so that we can examine this ourselves across the Senedd.

Of course, many people who have or are suffering from long COVID talk of their frustrations and their struggles, of having to go for several tests at different times and in different places. They talk about the experience being exhausting, which I'm sure that you and I can appreciate. People who are struggling in this regard argue themselves that specialist clinics are needed, because people are very unwell and they're not able to negotiate a complex system of referrals to different places. So, I wonder if you would agree that it is better for those struggling in these particular situations to go to one place to be treated.

I was interested in an initiative taking place in Essex for those struggling with long COVID and other lung conditions, where a mobile vehicle is available for support for at-risk patients—I'm assuming the mobile vehicle parks very near someone's home—because people are struggling to get to a GP or hospital themselves, and this detects, of course, various conditions, such as long COVID. It struck me that this might be a potential opportunity to introduce in areas of Wales, particularly rural areas, where people do have to travel a long time for hospital appointments and for GP services.

Specialist centres, of course—. One of the arguments that is used in support of specialist centres is that doctors can develop expertise through the pooling of minds and resources to better understand the condition. So, can I ask how specialist experience is being developed here in Wales, Minister?

In your statement, you say that some people have experienced such severe or long-lasting COVID symptoms that they've had an impact on their ability to work, and then you've gone on then to talk about that you're pleased that the NHS, employers and trade unions have worked together to review employment policies and procedures to ensure that healthcare staff are supported as much as possible. You mention, of course, healthcare staff there, but does this support extend to nurses in care homes that are not employed by the NHS?

And of course the other issue, Minister, which I'm sure you'll appreciate as well, is that long COVID, of course, is not fully understood, and unfortunately the definitions differ around the world. So, measures of how common it is, or symptoms are, of course vary greatly, and it can be difficult for GPs to provide the right care and advice for patients. So, can I ask what conversations you've had with healthcare professionals in defining the symptoms of long COVID so that GPs and healthcare professionals can be supported?

And finally, Minister, I'm aware that those that are suffering from long COVID are eligible for Department for Work and Pensions payments. Recipients will receive payments through personal independence payments that are designed to help those, of course, suffering from long-term conditions or a disability that affects their ability to carry out everyday tasks or move around. So, I wonder, finally: how is the Welsh Government ensuring that relevant bodies in Wales that are supporting people with long COVID are making people aware of these particular payments?

15:00

Diolch yn fawr, Russell. I think it is worth pointing out that access in Wales is quicker. What you will know is that they have gone a slightly different direction in England, unlike the way we've gone in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. What that has meant is that, actually, whereas in Wales people are being seen quicker, there is a much longer wait for those clinics, those COVID clinics. Let's remember, I think there is about 90 of them, which is not that many, if you think about the size and the scale of England. So, I think what would matter to the patients is how quickly they're seen and making sure that they're having an assessment that then directs them to the right support. That's the system that we've set up in Wales, and there seem to be many people who are satisfied with that system.

I'm obviously reluctant to comment on any individual cases, but what I will say is that at the beginning of COVID, of course, we were all learning, we didn't know much at all about long COVID, and we're still learning about long COVID, but, obviously, the service that was available then is very, very different from the service that is available now, and that £5 million that only went into the system in July is already reaping the benefits. So, clearly, there are people who may have felt very frustrated because they were before this programme started, but, obviously, that is available to them as well.

I am very happy to publish the report, which of course is an independent assessment of what we have put forward.FootnoteLink I think we have to be really careful, because, obviously, we all hear anecdotal reports, but, actually, what's more important for me is listening to data that is broader, but, having said that, I think it is worth listening to direct experience from people. That's what I was able to do last week in Swansea, where I must say that the response from the people who were in receipt of the service was extremely positive.

The multiprofessional, multidisciplinary approach is one that we think is working very well here in Wales, and only around 3.5 per cent of the people who come into the system are referred on to secondary care. So, that's the danger with a kind of clinic approach, that you're actually getting people to go and see specialists who don't necessarily need to see that kind of specialist, and the question is what kind of specialist do they need to see. Because the symptoms for COVID are very, very different in every individual; some have problems with fatigue and they've lost their sense of smell, they have definitely breathing, difficulty concentrating, but some have much more complex issues around heart issues or lung issues that obviously need far more specialist services.

In terms of health and care staff, obviously, there's a very clear concentration on that because of the sense of responsibility particularly towards those who've maybe contracted COVID during their employment. I'm pleased to say that the unions and the NHS are working together to make sure.

And just in terms of defining symptoms, it is difficult, because the symptoms are very, very different for lots of people. We're still learning, but what we did do very early in the programme was to give training to GPs to make sure that they were aware in terms of what to look out for and then where they could refer on to.

15:05

Thank you for the statement, Minister. Without doubt, many patients who are suffering these terrible symptoms can access support from their GPs, and, of course, the role of GPs is crucial in all of this, but we do know that some can't be referred; they return to their GPs time and time again and aren't getting the specialist support that they need.

You mentioned learning, and it has been a learning experience for the medical profession, but it is clear that the expertise isn't there and the support isn't there for some of these patients who do approach their GPs. So, what reviews will there be for those who have tried to access specialist support time and time again? And what about those, as we heard in the case of Sian Griffiths from Anglesey, who's been in the headlines today and has been forced to pay to go private? She, like many other NHS staff, has had to go private. Shouldn't they, quite simply, be reimbursed that cost? And what about those staff who work for the health service who face losing their salary now because they still can't work? They deserve for financial support to continue, and I hope you'd agree with me on that. But, as a central point, in light of your statement today, aren't we still short of the kind of specialist teams that could provide accurate diagnosis, could provide appropriate treatment, and also provide that support earlier than is the case at the moment for those patients suffering long COVID? Thank you.

Thank you very much. I think that there is, clearly, an important role for GPs. That's the front door for the way that we operate in terms of the health system here in Wales. And, of course, then, they are referred on to the services that are now available in every health board area in Wales. That is the feedback that we've received from this report.

So, I think it is important to ask when people have tried to access these services. If they tried to access them before July, it's important that they go back now because these services are now available, whereas they weren't available before last July, because we have learnt from these experiences. It's only in July that this £5 million was available. So, if there are some who haven't received support before then—. And it was interesting to meet a number of people in Swansea on Friday, a number had caught COVID in December 2020. Of course, the service wasn't available at that point, but they are content now that they have received the treatment since this programme has been up and running. So, it's important that people go back if they have tried to access the service, because the system has changed, clearly. 

What is happening is that there are expert teams. That is what is happening now. There are teams, the GPs refer to these expert teams, they refer people to ensure that—. Mental health support is available; there might be issues with regard to exhaustion. There are all kinds of factors and all of those experts help out. So, the treatment now is entirely different to what it was previously. And certainly, we weren't just willing to learn then, but we are eager to continue to learn, because, as I said, this is a new condition and we don't know yet how omicron is going to have an impact on long COVID either.

15:10

I'm grateful to the Minister for coming forward with this statement this afternoon. What I want to focus on is the impact this is having on people, on patients and families. I'd like to know what exactly are the services that the Minister is ensuring are going to be available in each one of our health boards. What are the Government's expectations for those services? Like her, I'm not persuaded that an under-resourced specialist unit is the best way of providing care, but I also want to be convinced that the current system is working well. What instructions has the Welsh Government given to health boards? What targets or objectives have been set for the delivery of those services?

And secondly, Presiding Officer, I want to think specifically of the NHS and front-line staff who, working throughout the pandemic, have put themselves at risk and who may now be suffering from long COVID themselves. People who contracted it whilst delivering services on behalf of us all are owed a fundamental duty of care by all of us, and it is the important role—fundamental role—of this Government to deliver that duty of care. Can we ensure, Minister, that all people in the NHS and associated services who find themselves with long COVID today are treated like people who have suffered an industrial injury and receive the duty of care that we all need to owe to them?

Diolch yn fawr. I can tell you some of the things that we have focused on in terms of what our expectations were. Certainly, we expect staff time, training, therapeutic and technical equipment to have been purchased, and a real emphasis on digital resources. I'm very pleased to say that 10,000 people have downloaded the self-help app. I downloaded it last night and had a good look. It's very, very easy to use and it's clear that a lot of people are getting that tailored support. So, the app is also giving tailored, individualised support.

The other requirement was that, actually, we expected individualised support. So, there is no one-size-fits-all; it's got to be responsive to the people that are walking into those services. Certainly, in terms of the people who have contracted COVID, in particular if they have been NHS workers, you're absolutely right, there is a duty of care. It was very interesting to hear from the Swansea health board in particular last week how they are very focused on supporting those people who have found it difficult going back to work, with occupational therapists specifically put in place and making sure that people are not pushed back to work before time. There's an understanding that, actually, in particular, that duty of care is something that needs to be understood and that, working with the trade unions, we're making sure that that respect is given to those people who, as you say, have really given their all during this pandemic and paid a significant price under certain circumstances.

15:15

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

I thank you for your statement this afternoon, Minister. I think we've yet to fully comprehend the long-term impact that a COVID infection has on some people. What we do know is that, sadly, far too many people have been left debilitated long after the virus has left their system. Minister, emerging evidence has highlighted the similarity of brain scans in some COVID patients and those suffering some forms of Alzheimer's. What research has been undertaken in Wales to understand the causes and potential remedies for long COVID?

Rehabilitation is key to longer term recovery, so what assessment have you made of the capacity of such services in Wales, when considering allied health professionals—physios, OTs, speech and language therapists? How will the NHS in Wales manage referrals into those services? Some health boards such as my own, Betsi Cadwaladr, allow self-referrals, but others require GP interventions. So, what steps are you taking to avoid setting up a potential postcode lottery for care? And, with an estimated 2 per cent of the population believed to be suffering long COVID, what assessment has the Welsh Government made of the additional pressures that this could place on the social care sector in Wales? And finally, Minister, as we move from the pandemic to an endemic phase of this disease, what process will be put in place to monitor the longer term impacts of COVID infections on both the individual and our healthcare systems?

Thanks very much. I haven't seen that research that suggests that it's similar to Alzheimer's, so if you could send me a copy of that, that would be really useful. What we are trying to do is to learn about long COVID every day. We have invested considerable funding into research, as I set out in my statement, working on this specifically.

There are people in particular who are therapists, who you'll be very aware of, who can be very helpful in these circumstances, giving that support and renewing the confidence of people. That's what came across very clearly to me in meeting some of these people is that, actually, they were very pleased that there was an acknowledgement that there's a problem, and many of them felt that people who they knew—. Because many of them had also suffered COVID, but hadn't responded in that way, as you've heard, some people were told that they were lazy and, actually, that is so far from the truth. What was great is that these people were just so pleased to be listened to, to be heard, but also to be given, then, the practical support that they needed to rebuild their health and their lives.

And certainly, in terms of a postcode lottery, well, I'm really delighted to say that every health board now has this multidisciplinary service, so we shouldn't be seeing that. And obviously, the long-term impact is something that we just need to keep an eye on, which is why I have said that every six months, in relation to long COVID, I want a reassessment to check, 'Are we doing the right thing? What do we need to change? How do we need to re-evaluate the services that we're giving?'

Diolch yn fawr, Deputy Presiding Officer. I welcome the statement by the Minister and I also welcome the response to Alun Davies with regard to a duty of care for those who've caught coronavirus within the NHS and associated services. But I do feel that there is a piece of work there to fully understand who caught coronavirus when working within those services. I know that my colleague Sarah Murphy has a particular passion about that, and I think that there's an opportunity to work with our trade union colleagues on that. 

Also, Minister, I welcome the statement in particular, because I think it's important that we talk about helping people with long COVID. A couple of weeks ago, the Senedd Petitions Committee considered a petition for the second time calling for long COVID clinics—one-stop clinics. Now, it's important to patients across Wales who will be using these services that they'll have a role in shaping those services. Can you set out today, Minister, how the future delivery of long COVID services are being shaped, and how patients' voices can be heard in this delivery plan?

15:20

Thanks very much, Jack. And I know that there are many people who are very focused on this issue, and when you have an illness that is so debilitating, then clearly we need to respond. We have not gone down the route of long COVID clinics, but we're following the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines, and I'll read to you what the NICE guidelines actually say. They say that we should:

'Provide access to multidisciplinary services, if available...for assessing physical and mental health symptoms and carrying out further tests and investigations'

and

'these could be "one-stop" clinics'.

Well, what we do is that we have access through the GP to this multidisciplinary team. When you call it whatever you call it, the fact is that we are following the NICE guidelines, and we're very confident that we're doing that. It is important, I think, that we continue to learn from and to listen to the voice of the people who are using the services, and that's why it is important, I think, that people who tried to use a service earlier on in the pandemic recognise that the service has changed significantly and fundamentally in the past six months. And it's really important, if people tried to get that care in the beginning and they didn't get it, that they know that it's available now and that they should go and seek that support.

I thank the Minister. We will now suspend proceedings to allow changeovers in the Siambr. If you are leaving the Siambr, please do so promptly. The bell will be rung two minutes before proceedings restart. Any Members who arrive after a changeover should wait until then before entering the Siambr.

Plenary was suspended at 15:22.

15:30

The Senedd reconvened at 15:32, with the Deputy Presiding Officer in the Chair.

4. Statement by the Minister for Climate Change: Energy Price Cap

Item 4 this afternoon is a statement by the Minister for Climate Change on the energy price cap. I call on the Minister, Julie James.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Last week, the energy regulator, Ofgem, announced the price cap that will take effect from April this year for residential energy consumers. As my colleague Jane Hutt set out on Thursday, the 54 per cent increase in the cap is clearly a devastating blow on households and hard-pressed families already struggling with the cost of living. This latest increase comes on the heels of significant increases in 2021, and means a typical household’s dual fuel energy bill will be close to £2,000 a year. While this rise has been in part fuelled by the recent fluctuations in the global wholesale price of gas, the UK Government must be held accountable for the choices they have taken. It is the UK Government that set the pricing framework that Ofgem operate, and this is having an unfair impact on households.

We all recognise the need for urgent action from Government to meet our net-zero targets, but we must also recognise that a progressive approach is the fairest way to achieve that goal. We have been consistent and clear on the need for a just transition, with those most able to pay for the necessary changes paying the greatest share of the costs. As a result, we have called for the UK Government to fund the cost of the change through a progressive tax system, rather than these costs being passed through directly to the consumer, hitting households hard with these steep price rises when other costs are also spiralling.

Secondly, the UK has long suffered from significant underinvestment in new renewable energy generation. Throughout the last decade, the Conservative Government in London cut subsidies and failed to put in place the incentives for the scale of investment needed. As a result, we have an imbalance in our energy system, with an over-reliance on fossil fuels, at considerable environmental cost. In addition, the UK Government advocates financial models for new energy investment that pass the costs to consumers, transferring the risk from developers to households, placing future burdens on household bills through higher prices.

And finally, we have a UK Government that has continued to cut welfare for those most in need, failed to raise taxation from those most able to pay, and left those most vulnerable in our communities with a cost-of-living crisis. Taking this latest increase in the price cap, 145,000 households who were at risk of fuel poverty in 2018 are now likely to be struggling to make ends meet. This means more than a quarter of all households in Wales, if not more, are having to make difficult choices about whether or how to heat their homes.

The Minister for Social Justice and I wrote to the UK Government on 11 January, pressing the case for immediate action and setting out a series of actions that needs to be taken. Those actions include an expansion of the warm home discount, removing policy costs from household bills and funding them instead from general taxation. The UK Government’s response announced last week falls considerably short of the action needed. While the proposal to provide a £200 discount to all households will help with the bills households need to pay today, it is not available until next October. Even when this support does come through, it is a one-off payment; it needs to be repaid over the next five years, so will do nothing to help households in the medium term.

The UK Government is gambling that wholesale gas prices will fall so that the impact of the repayment won’t be felt as much by households. But the reality is likely to be an additional burden on households to pay this money back at a time when the price cap continues to rise as a result of the fundamental failures in the way the UK Government oversees the energy system. The outcome here is that consumers face higher costs for a sustained period of time. This is not a short-term spike in the market, and in my meeting with Ofgem last week they were clear to me that there will be difficult times ahead for households. I called on Ofgem to ensure that the rights of customers are protected and vulnerable households have full access to the support and advice that is available. I reiterated my commitment to work with Ofgem to ensure households in Wales maximise all the services at this time of hardship.

Dirprwy Lywydd, we are clear that we will use the powers that are available to us to support those most in need. Our cold weather resilience plan sets out 14 actions we are already taking with partners to support households. A key action is helping to improve domestic energy efficiency through the Warm Homes programme Nest scheme. Our continued investment saves lower income households on average more than £300 on their energy bills. Our £51 million household support fund announced in November included £38 million being allocated to support a winter fuel support scheme. This offered working-age households in receipt of means-tested benefits a one-off payment of £100 towards the cost of their energy needs. And, last week, in the face rising pressure on households and inaction from the UK Government, we led by example and announced an expansion to the winter fuel support scheme, doubling the one-off payment to £200. Unlike the UK Government proposal, this is immediate support without a repayment schedule. This additional funding will go some way to helping the most vulnerable in our society to pay their fuel bills during this difficult time, but we know this still will not be enough for many people living in need. 

In light of the changes in April, and the likelihood of further increases, we want to do more. Last week the Minister for Social Justice and I met with National Energy Action to explore the options for further measures of support. To take this work forward we will be hosting a summit on 17 February with front-line services and other key groups to identify what more can be done to support households both now and in the future. And, as we look to the future, we need to recognise that the most sustainable watt of energy is the one that isn’t needed. That is why we will continue to put in place policies that support reducing the demand for energy, saving Welsh people and businesses money as well as tackling emissions—policies that include investing in the housing stock to improve energy efficiency, supporting the circular economy to encourage reuse and repair, and working closely with industry to support a more sustainable use of energy.

We are committed to a just transition and ensuring the energy system in Wales supports renewable energy generation is the fairest way possible. As we continue to press the UK Government for urgent changes to the way the market is regulated, we will do all we can to support households in Wales. A greener, stronger and fairer future for Wales is at risk from an outdated energy market and an energy pricing structure that is blind to the impacts on the poorest and most vulnerable in society. We must and will work to do whatever we can to keep our vision alive for future generations. Diolch. 

15:35

Diolch. Thank you, Minister, for your statement today. Frankly, I have to be honest, when I first read it, I thought I'd picked up the wrong document, because it read rather more like a party political broadcast by the Welsh Labour Party. We have devolution, we've had this for 22 years now, and, I'm afraid, to keep pointing the finger of blame on the UK Government for what is a global crisis is not what my constituents in Aberconwy want to hear. Your original target was to completely eradicate fuel poverty in all households by 2018, yet recent estimates show that 155,000 households are living in fuel poverty, 12 per cent of households here in Wales, 20 per cent of households in the private sector living in fuel poverty, and 9 per cent in the social housing sector. If these targets had not been missed, quite simply, the people of Wales would not be facing as severe a crisis as they are today.

I do acknowledge that the Welsh Government has been driving forward some improvements to energy efficiency, but that is now turning into a bit of a nightmare, isn't it, for you as a Government? Arbed has seen residents in a number of villages in Gwynedd experiencing issues with damp and green slime following works to their homes. Bridgend County Borough Council was recently forced to apologise to residents after issues such as the faulty sealing of windows, damp, mould and algae. Your key delivery mechanism, the Warm Homes programme, between 2011 and 2023, is now only expected to reach 79,000 homes. So, will you consider, Minister, being proactive and amend the eligibility criteria for support, so that all 155,000 of those living in fuel poverty can actually see some benefit?

The total cost of decarbonising housing stock based on Welsh School of Architecture estimates is circa £15 billion, of which more than £10 billion is for the social housing stock and for homes in fuel poverty. Capital funding under the residential decarb and quality budget expenditure line is £72 million for 2022-23, increasing to £92 million for both schemes in 2023-24 and 2024-25. On that basis, it could take the Welsh Government over 160 years to invest all the money needed to decarbonise all housing stock. So, tell us, in a meaningful way, how are you going to put the foot on the accelerator?

You claim to want a progressive tax system. However, a 10 per cent windfall tax, which has been proposed, would likely raise much less than is being claimed, and, depending on companies’ behavioural response, may actually reduce tax revenues. So, I do hope, Minister, that you will acknowledge that the current tax rate charged on oil and gas profits is already more than double the rate charged on profits in most other sectors of the economy.

We the Welsh Conservatives will not support any more taxation placed on our hard-working families by your Government. There are limited levers the UK Government does have to deal—[Interruption.] I know you don't like hearing it, but it has to be said. [Interruption.]

15:40

I would like to hear the—[Interruption.] I would like to hear the Member's questions to the Minister, so please give her an opportunity to do so.

Thank you. Reducing the universal credit taper rate, increasing the national living wage, freezing fuel duty for the twelfth year in a row, and now the historic rebate scheme announced last week. The UK Government scheme, Joyce, will help with household bills immediately and will protect people against as much as half of the £700 increase. The Welsh Government will receive £175 million in Barnett consequentials as a result of the UK Government's announcement of £150 off council tax bills. Will you commit to replicating this in Wales?

I am astounded by your false claim that there has been a significant underinvestment in new renewable energy generation. I hope you certainly do acknowledge the fact that the UK Government has committed £90 million to innovate Welsh net-zero projects, and is certainly delivering on its plan for a green industrial revolution. The UK Government—you keep mentioning them, so will I—also has a plan for a world-leading hydrogen economy, which includes a commitment to create a hydrogen village trial by 2025, and potentially pilot a hydrogen town by the end of the decade. So, will you again reflect such ambition by expanding on the commitment in carbon budget 2 to support local hydrogen projects and place-based solutions?

I acknowledge that support is to be provided—

Yes, I will do now—to Blaenau Gwent via the Smart Living programme to develop a type of microgrid on an industrial estate that would help us to move to renewable energy and create and distribute cleaner energy locally. So, bearing in mind, Minister, that the north Wales energy strategy includes a microgrid development as a priority area, will you establish a microgrid trial in north Wales? It's time that north Wales benefited from some innovation from this Welsh Government. Diolch. Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.

15:45

Well, where to start? So, Arbed—Arbed has had some problems, absolutely, and as Janet Finch-Saunders said herself, we have taken responsibility for those both through our local authorities and as a Welsh Government. Unfortunately, there were preceding schemes to Arbed that the UK Government propagated—many of the Members here have had terrible problems with them in their constituencies. The UK Government's response to that has been to throw up their hands in horror, say there's no bond and there's nothing that can be done and the householder is entirely alone. So, Janet, before you start flinging stones, you really should have a look at where you're picking the stones up from, because you really are not in a good place as Conservatives to say that you've protected consumers from very poorly thought out schemes. 

Going on to the decarbonisation proposal, we have very much learnt from some of the difficulties we had with Arbed, and indeed from some of the small difficulties we had with the Welsh housing quality standard. One size does not fit all. So, we have an optimised retrofit programme here in Wales where we are trialling different technologies for different types of housing, making sure that we learn from the problems of the past with cavity wall installations that have gone wrong—some of them are excellent, but some of them have gone wrong—and other issues that have arisen, to make sure that we have the right programme for the right house.

Across the border, we have Prime Minister de Pfeffel going on about air source heat pumps for all houses, which you may as well install on the outside, because without addressing all of the other issues, they absolutely will not have any effect. 

A couple of other things that you mentioned: the windfall tax. I mean, I don't know where to start with that. A company that can announce record profits at the same time as putting energy prices up to the point where people really are choosing between heating and eating, and you're telling me that they're already paying enough tax—. Well, I think that says it all about the Conservatives. It's beyond satire—I won't even attempt it. If you can't see the problems you're making, I feel really sorry for you.

The £150 council tax issue is another one. So, that's a rebate on council tax; we already have a council tax relief scheme here in Wales that isn't duplicated in England. That council tax rebate cannot be claimed by anyone paying a collective rent, so anyone in a flat, anyone paying council tax as part of their rent will not be able to claim it. We've asked questions about that. It will be really interesting to see how that works. The idea that the £200 that's being given to people is a loan—I mean, even, Janet, you must be able to see the idiocy of relying on a market so volatile as this to even itself out so that people won't mind repaying a loan. I mean, it's just breathtaking. 

This Government, on the other hand, is doing what we can to help immediately with grants to people who are in immediate need. The idea that you're telling me what the cost of living is when you're the Government who took away the £20 universal credit uplift, who has frozen the local housing market allowance—. You're talking to me about rising rents at the same time as freezing the local housing allowance, having only put it up once in 15 years—absolutely outrageous behaviour, frankly, driving people into poverty—I will not be putting up with that. It's absolutely outrageous that you've done that. People living in private sector rented accommodation who can no longer claim the full cost of their rent absolutely through the welfare policies of your Government, that you support, that you've never got anything to say against—it's just extraordinary. I'm sure the people of Aberconwy have lots of questions to ask, probably along those lines.

In terms of innovative energy developments, we have worked very hard here in Wales, both with Ofgem and with everyone else to develop decentralised grid structures. However, the UK Government is in charge of the so-called national grid. The instructions to Ofgem mitigate that. You could do a great deal of good for your constituents, Janet, by asking the UK Government to devolve that to Wales, because we need upfront grid development that is not driven by consumer policies and contracts, but is driven by need and which allows a distributed grid. I would absolutely be behind you there. Closed-loop grids have caused endless problems because as soon as they go down, as we've learnt to our cost in Baglan, the UK Government will not step in, it will not legislate to make sure that the official receiver steps in to help the people there.

So, I am taking no lessons whatsoever from you on how to deal with welfare, on how to deal with poverty, on how to develop innovative energy structures or on how to deal with the UK Government. Actually, Janet, you really do need to do your research better.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Minister, as we've just been hearing, millions of people across the UK are going to be put in a situation of incredible stress because of the price cap on bills going up by 54 per cent. Parts of Wales are set to be hardest hit in all of the UK. Local authority areas, including Ceredigion, will be looking at £972, Gwynedd £904, Carmarthenshire £853, Powys £848. Those are Office for National Statistics figures. Fourteen of the 22 local authorities in Wales will be affected worse than the average price rise of £693. Some of those areas are already areas that have some of the lowest wages in the UK as well and, obviously, as we often discuss, behind all of those figures are going to be truly terrifying situations for individuals and for families.

This comes at a time, of course, when millions are already struggling to make ends meet, to put food on the table, to pay phone bills, broadband bills, transport cost, housing costs, education-related costs—the list just goes on and on and on, doesn't it? One step the Welsh Government, I think, really needs to take is to reduce the overall costs of living in order to counteract some of the steeper price rises. I know that you've been alluding to this a little already. I'm very glad to hear that the summit will be going ahead on 17 February. Of course, that comes as a result of the Senedd voting in favour of Plaid Cymru's recent motion calling for an emergency plan. I really welcome this. Could I ask you what sorts of measures will be on the table for discussion at this summit? You said that it will include meetings with front-line services and key groups, and I do really welcome that, but could you offer us, please, some assurance that this summit will include voices of people who are going to be directly impacted by this cost-of-living crisis, and how their voices might be heard as part of that?

Fuel poverty, of course, is not a new problem. People are already struggling to stay warm and well, and the price-cap increase is going to push them deeper into trouble. As Care & Repair Cymru have expressed, people are changing their behaviours, and this is going to impact on their health. They're going to be cutting back on heating and using less electricity out of a fear of going into energy debt. The cold is responsible for many health conditions. It causes hospital admissions and more deaths. Could I ask you, Minister, what targeted measures the Welsh Government is going to be employing in order to ensure support reaches the people who are most vulnerable and who are going to be most vulnerable to these rises? I'd be particularly interested to hear what the Welsh Government will be doing in terms of preventing and responding to debt when it comes to energy bills, in addition to what you've already laid out, of course. I'm really keen, and I know that I've talked about this before, to hear more about how people on pre-payment meters are going to be supported, because they could face having their energy turned off if they run out of money. So, are there specific measure that you're exploring that could help people in that really dire situation, please?

And finally, this is an area that's already come up in your exchange with Janet, of course, to turn to housing. As we've been hearing, we have the oldest housing stock in the UK and some of the least energy-efficient homes as well. The latest estimate for homes in fuel poverty in Wales is already 12 per cent, which is one in every 10 homes or something, and I think that that estimate is from 2019, so that could well underestimate the problem. A colleague of mine in Westminster has been talking about how there are 275,000 homes in Wales—nearly a fifth of all households—that aren't connected to the gas grid. That figure is, I think, from 2020. And in rural areas, like Ceredigion, that figure goes up to as much as 80 per cent. In Wales we seem to have a series of unique challenges that are going to make this crisis, or these coalescing crises, even more acute, in terms of housing, in terms of heating, and we do really need to get to grips with that now more than ever.

I recognise the questions have already been answered in this session already, but in your statement you did make reference to this situation. Could you please provide an update on progress to improve the energy efficiency of homes during the Senedd term and inform the Senedd of any future plans to make the Wales housing stock more energy efficient, particularly, perhaps, when we're talking about off-grid homes? Thank you very much.

15:50

Diolch. So, yes, I'll just run through, very quickly, some of those. So, Jane Hutt and I had a very good meeting with Ofgem. I'm sorry, each day blends into each other—I think it was Friday of last week. Late last week anyway. It might have been very late Thursday, I can't remember. But, anyway, it was a very good meeting, although it was quite tense, because we're not happy at all about the way that this has been dealt with, but we raised a number of points. The pre-payment-meter point was certainly one that was high on our agenda. There are some really technical issues about if your supplier goes down, what happens to the existing payments that you have, and whether you have to pay balloon payments or not. So, that was well aired at the meeting. We also were reassured by Ofgem that they have asked the energy companies to put in place measures that will identify people who are self-disconnecting, as in they're not using any energy anymore, because they've turned their heating off and so on. Because obviously they can see that from the meters, particularly on pre-payment meters—they can see that people aren't paying into them. So, we'll be continuing that conversation, both at the round-table and with Ofgem. There are a number of things that we need to put in place to make sure people aren't self-disconnecting, as they call it—stopping using energy.

Part of the issue about the round-table is to glean information and ideas from around Wales on what we can do, and to put those measures in place. My colleague Jane Hutt is actually in charge of the round-table and its distribution, and I'm attending as well. I will take up the point about lived experience, though; I'm sure she'll have that in hand, but I'll come back to you on that. We certainly will have National Energy Action there as the voice of the sector in representing that, so I'll certainly come back to you on that.

One of the things we are very keen to do, and we've already funded our advice agencies to do this, is to make sure that people can get the right advice. So, on the off-grid point, for example, it's not always understood that the fuel payments—. You're eligible for those even if you're on off-grid oil. You don't have to be a gas user. So, if you meet the eligibility criteria, you'll be on course for that.

You will have heard me, Delyth, a number of times in this Chamber talk about the problems we have in Wales where you can see a windfarm out of your window, but you're on off-grid oil and so on. We will be working with our energy advice services to make sure that communities that host windfarms, for example, can take community benefits that can be used to insulate their homes, and make sure that they're available for electricity heating. That wouldn't be the case until you've done quite a lot of work. Community benefits can be used for a number of things. The community themselves need to choose those benefits, but we can assist them with a menu of choices that people might be able to choose from, and encourage the use of those benefits for things like insulation, retrofit and so on, to bring the houses up to standard. It's obviously in the energy companies' interests as well, because that gives them more customers for their energy, but also you use less energy by insulating your home in that way. So, there are a number of things that we have in train to do this, but, obviously, they're longer term, they're not going to solve the immediate crisis that we certainly face, and my colleague Jane Hutt has put a range of measures in place, as I said, and a number of payments.

The last thing I wanted to say to you was that we are very keen on talking to the private rented sector—again, you'll have heard me saying this—about taking the lessons from our optimised retrofit programme and starting to introduce them into the private rented sector houses, so not the owner-occupier sector yet. As you know, we've been putting incentive schemes in place to get private rented sector landlords to give their houses across to us while we bring them up to standard. 

The depression of the local housing allowance is a really big problem for us. So, it used to be at 50 per cent, just to remind everybody; the Conservatives dropped that to 30 per cent and then froze it. In areas of Wales it's covering less than 5 per cent of the rental market at its current level, so it's a disaster, really. We'll have to find some other mechanism in order to be able to support those landlords in order to get that in place. But I cannot emphasise enough the sort of stealth measure that the Conservative Government did in freezing that allowance, and the effect that that's having on (a) people's ability to heat their home and pay their rent, but also on our ability to intervene in that market in a way that means that the private sector rented landlords can have help to bring their property up to standard, which is really important. 

The last thing I'll say, Deputy Llywydd, is that part of the ORP programme, the optimised retrofit programme, is to figure out what works, but it's also to skill a workforce. So, at the moment we're skilling people to put more efficient gas boilers in. The whole point of this programme is to work out the tech that works, but also work out the skills that are necessary to fit it, so that once we have those skills in place, we can roll out the grant programme to the private sector, knowing that there'll be the skilled workpeople there to put those provisions in place, and that isn't the case now, if you look at that. Then my colleague Rebecca Evans, who's sitting in the Chamber with me, and I have started to discuss, as a preliminary point, whether there can be incentives put into the market to reward people who bring their houses up to the energy efficiency standard A and so on, in terms of discounts and so on. Because a very interesting part of the conversation with Ofgem was about why the market itself isn't responding to that. So, if you bring your house up to EPC A it isn't currently commanding a premium in the market, which seems counterintuitive. So, we'll be looking at incentives to do that as well. 

15:55

Diolch, Weinidog. I thank you for your statement. You set out this afternoon that there is a clear divergence between Government interventions in Wales and those Government interventions in England. The UK scheme, as we all know, is too little too late. It's going to saddle every householder with debt, giving with one hand and taking back with the other, whereas the Welsh Government has targeted support for the most vulnerable households now, with no strings attached. You talked about the UK Government's gamble on wholesale prices. The fact is that Tory Governments have been gambling with the UK's energy security for years. For example, in 2017, it allowed the country's largest gas storage facility to close. That left Britain able to store just 2 per cent of annual demand, whereas other major gas importers can store 20 to 30 per cent. At the same time, as you said, Conservative Governments have not invested anywhere near enough in new renewable energy generation. They've cut subsidies and—

16:00

—they have never fixed the roof when the sun was shining. Just one more sentence, if I can. What I would like, Minister, is some feedback from the 17 February meeting that you have alluded to, particularly for my area, where many people are off-grid, to see what help we can give those people who are accessing gas and oil off-grid and they don't have the luxury of that price cap. 

Diolch, Joyce. So, a couple of things there. Absolutely, on the storage point, although really what we need to do is move away from fossil fuels to renewables. One of the issues about the investment and the lack of investment and the investment models is really interesting. So, the UK Government consulted last year, and then accepted, as a result of a piece of work and consultation, a model called a regulated asset base model, which effectively capitalises the cost of investment in renewables and then puts the cost of that onto consumer bills. So, it basically gets the consumer to pay for it. So, it's a wheeze not to have to put any Government money into it. And that's one of the difficulties we have, that we're up against a Government that doesn't put upfront investment in and comes up with a model that puts the price back onto the consumer. And, in fact, they announced that just at the first of the Ofgem price rises at the end of last year in a, even for the Conservatives, remarkably tin-eared way of announcing it, I thought. 

Of course, Deputy Llywydd, we'll be very happy to do feedback on 17 February. Either myself or Jane Hutt, I'm sure, will do a statement in Plenary about the outcome of that, so we can get the advice out to everyone's constituents. And just in terms of off-grid oil, we are looking for innovative ideas and things that we can do at the round-table, as well as sharing things. I'm very interested in whether we could help communities to come together to bulk buy oil, which would get the price down, and to help them put the storage facilities in place for themselves because, as always, the poorer you are, the less likely you are to be able to take advantage of bulk prices, the less likely you are to come together as a community to do that. So, there will be things that we're really interested in looking to see whether we can assist people to do, perhaps with upfront loans in order to get the bulk purchasing in and get the lower price, or a number of other things that we're interested in looking at. So, Joyce, if you have communities you think would be interested in that, I'd be really grateful to work with you to see if we can identify them. 

Good afternoon, Minister. Thank you so much for your statement. I recognise the anger and passion that you feel when you're addressing the complete lack of empathy and fairness that we hear from the party opposite in their role in making families poorer, and particularly when we face this massive, massive effect on their lives. I can afford to pay the fuel increase that is coming on, and I'm sure many of us in this Chamber can, but there are many who can't. And I urge you, whatever party you belong to, go and talk to those households, go and hear their tales, go and hear exactly the situations they're in, because that's what's missing here from the Conservatives: fairness and empathy. 

We've heard a lot about households. I just want to talk a little bit, if I may, Minister, about small businesses. In Powys and Pembrokeshire, in the region that I cover, and others in the Siambr cover, there are a higher number of micro and small businesses, and they are affected by this price hike. I wonder if I could ask you what targeted help there is available to those small businesses at this particular time from Welsh Government. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

Thanks very much, Jane. One of the things that we want to look at at the round-table is how we can target microbusinesses in particular. So, we have the business rates relief scheme in place, of course, so many small businesses won't be paying rates already because they'll be taking advantage of that. But we are very keen to target other help to businesses. So, one of the things we will be looking at at the round-table is how we can do that. It's also about how we can skill up our advice agencies to give the right advice for business and commercial debt, as well as for personal and household debt. So, we will certainly be looking at that. We'll be working with the Federation of Small Businesses and others to make sure that we understand that. We're very concerned indeed that even the smallest coffee shop, who might have had a marginal profit, is going to really struggle with its energy costs, given the price hikes that we have. So, we will certainly be looking at that. I don't have the answer right now; part of the point of the round-table, of course, is to do exactly that.

We are also encouraging businesses, of course, to invest in renewables, including solar and so on, and battery storage, to make sure that they can get the best out of a change to renewables. And I can't emphasise enough that security of supply is very important for our business communities, of course, as well as for our households. 

16:05

Thank you, Minister, for your statement today on an issue that is of concern to very many of my constituents. I've got three questions for you. Firstly, I note the comments from the Minister for Social Justice that Welsh Government has called on the UK Government to consider introducing a differentiated domestic energy tariff cap, or a social energy tariff. I wonder whether you could say a little more about this; for example, how it might work, how many people in Wales might benefit and by what amount. 

My second question, Minister. When the Minister for Social Justice was speaking to the cross-party group on poverty, it was noted that many people eligible for the winter fuel support scheme had not, at that point, applied for the support. Can you provide any update on this and perhaps outline what additional work the Welsh Government is doing to make sure anyone who is eligible receives this funding?

And lastly, my trade union, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, recently surveyed their membership, and four out of five people who responded said that financial worries were impacting their mental health. What discussions have you had with colleagues in Welsh Government about putting in mechanisms and support for Welsh citizens whose mental health is being impacted by financial worries?   

Diolch, Vikki. So, a couple of things there, then. The differentiated cap, we were discussing with Ofgem how that might work. We've called on the UK Government to look at putting a differentiated price cap in place. Somewhat counterintuitively as well, and they've announced it now, we also asked them to look at reviewing the price more frequently, because one of the big issues for anyone who's struggling to make ends meet is predictability. So, the idea that you wait every six months and then there's a massive hike, you can't possibly predict that, you can't budget for it, you can't put money aside. And somewhat counterintuitively, I guess, if you have smaller rises along the way, it's much more manageable. So, that was announced by Ofgem as an ask as well. But we're basically saying, 'Why can't you have a cap that differentiates for means?' So, if you're on welfare benefits, then the cap is lower, if you're on a prepayment meter, then the cap is lower, and so on. I can think off the top of my head of a number of ways that we could do that that would make that work, and it spreads the load differentially away from those most hardest hit, on whose shoulders we always seem to heap the biggest burden, across to those of us, as Jane Dodds said, who may be able to afford, or at least more easily afford, the price growth. So, that was the point there.

In terms of the winter fuel support scheme, one of the reasons we're having the 17 February round-table is to figure out, along with all of the advice agencies that will be taking part, how we can get that advice out more effectively. We're working with council colleagues as well to make sure that people who are eligible for other benefits are signposted to these benefits. I've actually had a couple of meetings with a diverse range of other stakeholders—banks and so on—saying that they can get it out through there, because they have alert mechanisms for customers who are experiencing debt difficulties, that they can start to signpost them to advice services that would assist them to get grant assistance from us and so on. So, we're very keen to make sure that people do have that take-up where the money is available, and that's why I was keen to say that people on off-grid oil are also eligible. I think it's often a myth that people think they aren't. 

And then, just in terms of the mental health issue, again, in the signposting for debt advice, we are signposting mental health services at the same time. We have funded the advice agencies in order to give a holistic package of support to families coming forward, and we are in discussion with a number of other areas, team around the family and so on, in family support services to make sure that named workers are able to assist with signposting as well. Families who are in difficulty often have a real problem with admitting it, and I really do fear that, in this particular wave—. I mean, this is an awful thing, an indictment of our society, if I might say so. We have some families who are used to having to ask for help and have kind of grown a thicker skin around it—what a terrible thing to say in a rich society. We have another wave of people who will not have grown that thicker skin and who will feel shame and embarrassment. I'm here to say that they should not, that it's not anything that they have done wrong themselves, that they should come forward and get the help that they richly deserve, and that people should not feel that it is their fault for not being able to manage.

16:10

Thank you, Minister, for bringing forward today's statement, which of course is very timely. I would like, first of all, to join Members across the Chamber in acknowledging the difficulties coming from the increase in these energy costs, which will hit many hard-working families up and down the country.

As you've highlighted in your statement, Minister, there are long-term issues, though, that need to be addressed. The first, as I see it, is how we as an island nation of Great Britain can become energy self-sufficient and, of course, the part that we can play in Wales here in delivering that aim. The second, which you've also acknowledged in your statement, is the measures that can be undertaken to reduce our reliance on energy consumption, full stop.

So, in light of this, Minister, how do you see your and the Welsh Government's role in tackling these long-term issues, and how will you accelerate your plans to deal with the strategic opportunities that will come about from these as well? Thank you.

Thanks very much indeed for that, Sam. Absolutely, there are some long-term issues. The whole issue about energy security and energy self-sufficiency is certainly one of them. Our plan, of course, is to get Wales to the point where it's a net exporter of energy, so we are producing so much renewable energy here in Wales that we are able to export it, and all of our needs are met here.

There are a number of things that we need to do in terms of energy generation, but there are also things that we need to do in terms of curbing consumption. That's just around all of the things that we just talked about—optimised retrofit, making sure that our homes are fit for purpose and so on. 

It is also about changing the habits of a lifetime. I constantly say to my children, 'I know that it's an LED, but it still uses some electricity. Shut the light off when you go out of the room.' You get the kind of 'talk to the hand' thing that you get with teenagers, but I do think that the habits of a lifetime are important: unplugging things that you're not using, and just minimise your energy consumption—not because you are poor or because it's a problem, but because it's good for the world, it's good for the planet. The more energy that we don't need to generate, the better off the planet is.

So, we're doing a whole public engagement programme with our carbon budget 2, which goes along those kinds of small behaviour changes that make a huge difference. We will be engaging with the commercial sector on that as well. We've got into the habit over the twentieth century of lighting up our shop windows and our towns in a way that may be not entirely necessary as we go forward into a climate crisis.

But, fundamentally, we do need to produce more renewable energy. We need to take advantage of the enormous abundance of natural resources that we have around us, and we have a number of programmes in place to exploit marine energy—wave power and tidal energy, which are two different things, I've recently learned—wind, solar and all the rest of it. 

I did mention in passing in a previous answer, Deputy Llywydd, that we are having an ongoing conversation with Ofgem, not just about the energy price cap and how it works, although we have obviously had a number of issues with that, but about the grid and the necessity to make that fit for purpose and to allow distributed forms of energy production, so, homes as power stations. That means that you have to have a feed-in as well as a feed-out arrangement on the grid. So, we are having good conversations about how we can get those things to be fit for the twenty-first century, and to get the investment in place to do so.   

Diolch, Deputy Llywydd. Minister, the Tory cost-of-living crisis is impacting on every single household in Islwyn, and I welcome very much the Minister's Ofgem meeting on many topics, but especially around the prepayment meter concerns that have been raised. Ofgem have stated that average energy charges for households will rise to £1,971 in April, with no current immediate UK help. With the UK broken into 14 different pricing regions, where it costs different amounts to get electricity and gas into people's homes, there is inherent and intrinsic fragmentation of pricing across Britain.

Minister, the people of Islwyn have welcomed the Welsh Labour Government's announcement of the expansion of the winter fuel support scheme, doubling the one-off upfront payment to £200. So, what assessment has the Welsh Government made of the adequateness, or otherwise, of the UK Tory Government's response to this cost-of-living crisis? How is the freezing of local housing allowance fair? What further representations will the Welsh Government make to the UK Tory Government calling for urgent changes to the way the energy market is regulated to support the people of Wales? And how can Wales further pioneer and develop community energy schemes benefiting local communities, like the proposed green hydro scheme on the Aberbargoed plateau in Islwyn? Thank you.

16:15

Diolch, Rhianon. So, as I said, Jane Hutt and I have written to the Secretary of State, Kwasi Kwarteng, the Secretary of State for BEIS, calling for five pretty straightforward actions: remove the social policy costs on household energy bills and move them to general taxation as, as you've just said, they're a very regressive and unfair tax in their current form; introduce a differentiated domestic energy tariff cap that Vikki Howells mentioned just now, and have a better tariff targeted to better support lower income households; provide further and increased support through the warm home discount and other winter fuel payment schemes, so not loans but grants and one-off payments, to get to people; expand the ability of suppliers, very importantly, to write off household energy debt and introduce match-funding elements to the schemes, with costs met by the UK Government; and increase the local housing allowance, for all the reasons we've set out. We've not yet had a response. I will be writing again to remind the Secretary of State that he has not yet responded.

I just want to point out as well, Rhianon, as you raised it, that we will get the £175 million in consequential funding as a result of the £150 rebate for homes in bands A to D. I did say, in answer to Janet Finch-Saunders, that large numbers of people will not be able to take advantage of that. The First Minister has already said that the Cabinet will look at how we can use the funding to support people who need help the most, and I know my colleague Rebecca Evans is looking at that with her officials.

I'll just remind the Senedd that the average band D council tax bill in England is £167 higher than in Wales already, and that we have an existing £244 million council tax reduction scheme, which helps 270,000 households in Wales with council tax bills, and around 220,000 pay nothing at all. So, we're already considerably further advanced than the—I think—very paltry offering from the Conservative Government.

5. Legislative Consent Motion on the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill

Item 5 is next, the legislative consent motion on the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill. I call on the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution to move the motion. Mick Antoniw.

Motion NDM7907 Mick Antoniw

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 29.6, agrees that provisions in the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill in so far as they fall within the legislative competence of the Senedd, should be considered by the UK Parliament.

Motion moved.

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. I move the legislative consent motion for the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill.

Most of this Bill is outside devolved competence. The provisions with which we are concerned today are solely about increasing the mandatory retirement age for members of our devolved tribunals to the age of 75, and arrangements for sitting in retirement. These are things on which we have concluded that, under the current settlement at least, it makes sense for there to be continued parity between England and Wales.

The Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee and the Equality and Social Justice Committee have both scrutinised the legislative consent memorandum. I thank them for their consideration of the memorandum and for their reports on this matter. The Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee agreed with our assessment of the provisions in the Bill requiring the consent of the Senedd.

The Equality and Social Justice Committee concluded that the majority of the committee had no objection to the agreement of the motion, noting that one Member expressed concern about the principle of legislation that will apply in Wales being enacted via a UK Government Bill rather than a Welsh Government Bill. This is not a position with which I disagree. Generally, primary legislation in devolved areas should be enacted by the Senedd. Our approach to legislating is to maximise outcomes that can be achieved through the capacity we have to introduce our own legislation and through taking appropriate opportunities available to us in the UK Government's legislative programme. In this instance, the provisions are intended to provide greater flexibility to meet business needs across courts and tribunals. Wales would be at a disadvantage if judicial office holders were faced with a shorter and potentially less flexible judicial career in Wales compared to that which they could pursue in England.

In December, I welcomed the publication of the Law Commission's report, reviewing the law governing the devolved tribunals in Wales. In my written statement, I made it clear that we strongly endorse the fundamental principle of the Law Commission's recommendations for a unified, single, structurally independent system of tribunal in Wales. We are working through the details of the Law Commission's recommendations as we develop our distinctive Welsh policy relating to Welsh tribunals, including judicial offices.

Implementing our policy for reform of the devolved tribunals will of course require primary legislation. However, the provisions in the Bill we are debating today and the changes to the mandatory retirement age and sitting in retirement arrangements for judicial office holders can be made and implemented sooner than would be the case if we were to defer the changes to our future legislation in response to the Law Commission's report. I consider that the provisions of the Bill that are the subject of the memorandum fall within the legislative competence of the Senedd and, accordingly, I recommend that Members agree the motion and provide the Senedd's consent to those Bill provisions.

16:20

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

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and I've only got a few comments to make, and I'm only making them because this is quite an interesting one that is in front of us here. We reported on this memorandum on 3 November 2021, and we don't have any recommendations in our report, but two observations that should be of interest to the Senedd in terms of legislative competence.

So, we note and agree with the Welsh Government's assessment of the provisions within the Bill that require the Senedd's consent. We also note that the Bill includes provisions that modify the Welsh Ministers' functions, but in a way—as the Counsel General has described—that is actually outside the legislative competence of the Senedd, and as such—and it interests us as a committee—consent is not required for those clauses. Instead, Standing Order 30 requires the Welsh Government to lay a written statement before the Senedd. This is slightly unusual and you can see why we're excited as a committee about this appearing here on the floor of the Senedd.

So, we do note, our report notes, that the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership laid such a statement on 12 August 2021 in respect of the Bill, and since we reported, we note that further statements have been laid in accordance with Standing Order 30, as the Counsel General has indicated.

So, diolch yn fawr iawn, Counsel General, diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd; it's something to note for other Members.

There are no other speakers, so I call on the Counsel General to reply to the debate.

I thank the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee for their detailed consideration of what is a very technical piece of legislation and, of course, the reference that he made was with regard to certain changes and amendments that were made that apply to the firefighters' pension provisions, which were the result of legislative action, which I think ended up in the Supreme Court with regard to certain equality issues.

Just to conclude, really: the provisions of the Bill are there about providing flexibility to meet the business needs of the courts and tribunals, and I think they do lead constructively into what I hope will be future legislation in respect of the implementation of the recommendations of the Law Commission with regard to Welsh tribunals. Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd.

The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] Yes, therefore I will defer voting under this item until voting time.

Voting deferred until voting time.

6. Debate: Draft Budget 2022-23

The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Darren Millar.

Item 6 is the debate on the draft budget for 2022 to 2023, and I call on the Minister for Finance and Local Government to move the motion. Rebecca Evans.

Motion NDM7908 Lesley Griffiths

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 20.12:

Notes the Draft Budget for the financial year 2022-23 laid in the Table Office by the Minister for Finance and Local Government on 20 December 2021.

Motion moved.

Thank you. I'm pleased to open this debate this afternoon on the Welsh Government's draft budget for 2022-23.

Since we first had the opportunity to debate this draft budget in the Senedd, the Finance Committee and the other Senedd committees have scrutinised our spending plans. Before I provide some early reflections on the key themes arising from the scrutiny, I'd like to reflect on the circumstances that have shaped and continue to shape our budget preparations. This budget was forged to recognise that the pandemic and the repercussions of the previous year's restrictions are far from over. We have however set a budget that not only focuses on bolstering support for public services now, but also lays the foundations for a prosperous Wales beyond the pandemic. We have an obligation to those most affected by the pandemic to provide a fairer Wales that leaves no-one behind. This budget does all we can within our powers and funding to address the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic.

We also recognise the need to look to the longer term to ensure that we leave behind us a sustainable Wales for future generations. We have acted now to address the urgent need to respond to the climate and nature emergency. Our preparations have been guided by supporting Wales's path to recovery, ensuring that a stronger Wales emerges from the pandemic, and one that continues to value equality. Our public services are an integral part of this, and this is reflected in the additional revenue funding we are investing: £1.3 billion for the NHS, £60 million specific grant funding to support social care and other essential services, and £743 million for local government. I welcome the recognition that this draft budget has provided certainty to the wider public sector, and the acknowledgment of our engagement with partners. Alongside our support for the public sector, we will also continue to support the economy and businesses with direct investment of £160 million to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic, and with investment in public transport, town centres and digital infrastructure.

This budget also aims to deliver a fairer Wales, and our investment of an additional £60 million in childcare, almost £65 million in education recovery and reform, and £90 million in free school meals, on top of already significant investments in this area, shows our commitment to ensuring that no-one is left behind. Also, in response to the cost-of-living crisis, driven by a rate of inflation not seen for over a decade, this budget has considered the impacts on those most vulnerable. We have acted by including schemes like our basic income pilot and bolstering the discretionary assistant fund. We have also called on the UK Government to use all its levers to respond to the crisis, recognising that the levers that can have the greatest impact on welfare and energy are non-devolved. But we won't be complacent in our own response to help those most impacted by the crisis. I intend shortly to announce a package of measures for 2021-22 and 2022-23 targeted at where the greatest difference can be made to the people of Wales.

The climate and nature emergency demands urgent and radical action, the kind that guided the decision to create a new ministry for climate change and the kind that led to the decision to undertake a zero-based review of all of our capital budgets. In response, we have produced a new 10-year Wales infrastructure and investment strategy and a three-year investment finance plan, which aligns £8 billion of funding to tackling the climate and nature emergency. All investments in the plan must consider the carbon impact of their activities. At the heart of this plan is £1.8 billion of capital funding that invests in both the climate and nature emergencies, and this includes investment in the national forest, biodiversity and green spaces, energy generation and decarbonisation. In maximising our available capital funding, I will also be outlining further financial transactions capital allocations within our final budget, aligned to our priorities. The complex mechanisms in place by the UK Government to manage our own profile made it impossible to deliver a credible plan for the deployment of financial transactions capital earlier. 

Turning to points raised in scrutiny, I welcome the recognition of the positive steps that we're taking on improving budget and tax processes through our budget improvement plan. I look forward to engaging with the Finance Committee and wider Senedd colleagues on this important work as we move forward. I believe there's a real opportunity for us to work together to put Wales at the forefront of these reforms, both in the UK context and internationally. I also welcome the recognition of the extent to which the UK Government's actions have impacted on our plans.

The challenging front-loaded budget settlement from the UK Government's multi-year spending round, particularly in respect of capital, failed to address the significant concerns facing Wales. The lack of ongoing support for COVID from the UK Government, its failure to provide a credible plan to replace EU funding, and the dismissal of our reasonable request for support to remediate coal tips and address flooding, are only a few examples of where the UK Government has failed the people of Wales. We have also seen that by not concluding its spending review until late October, the UK Government has yet again failed to respect devolution, impacting our own budget and scrutiny timetable. While I hope to return to our normal timetable in future years, the reality is that we will be, again, at the whim of the UK Government. And, of course, I will continue to call for devolution to be respected in my engagement with the UK Government.

In light of the challenging settlement and the ongoing volatile fiscal context, we have done all that we can to maximise our available funding. I am positive that we have created a draft budget that appropriately utilises all of the levers within our powers. While the course of action we have taken is prudent, it does not come without risks. In fully deploying the available funding, we have adopted a new reserve strategy and overprogrammed our capital budgets. I therefore want to make it clear that, without further funding from the UK Government, any calls for increased funding would have to come from disinvestment in another area. In this respect, I welcome the recognition of the need for greater budgetary flexibilities from the UK Government. We may yet receive further funding from the UK Government in year, but it is often provided with very short notice and without the flexibility needed to maximise the benefits of these allocations.

This draft budget delivers on the commitments made in the Welsh Government's co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru. It supports investment in 13 of the areas we have agreed to work together on, such as investment of an additional £90 million to support our ambition for free school meals for all primary school pupils. I will continue to work with designated Members in these areas of agreement. The draft budget also signals the investment of £20 million for looked-after children and care leavers as a result of discussions with Jane Dodds.

I'd like to offer my thanks to all of those involved in the budget preparation, including the Finance Committee. The scrutiny of our assumptions and plans is an integral part of the process, and whilst we agree with the vast majority of the recommendations, there are some that we will need to consider in light of the limitations I have set out today. I and my Cabinet colleagues will respond formally to the recommendations of the Finance Committee report and the other Senedd committee reports in advance of the vote on the final budget on 8 March. To conclude, I am confident that we have a budget that can deliver our ambition and our vision for a stronger, fairer and greener Wales. I am proud to present a draft budget that delivers for Wales, and I look forward to a constructive debate within the Senedd. Diolch.

16:30

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I am delighted to contribute to this important debate on the Welsh Government's draft budget 2022-23. This is the first draft budget of this Senedd and I am pleased that, for the first time since 2017, the Welsh Government has been able to provide a multi-year budget setting out funding for 2022-23 and indicative allocations for the following two years. This has been warmly welcomed by our stakeholders and has provided them with a level of certainty to plan more effectively over the longer term. We hope that this means the Welsh Government will return to publishing its budgets in October, allowing the committee its normal timetable of eight working weeks for scrutiny of the budget. We also look forward to leading a Plenary debate on the Welsh Government's spending priorities in the summer term, prior to the publication of the draft budget in the autumn.

This is my first draft budget as Chair of the Finance Committee, and I view engaging with people across Wales and listening to stakeholders as a priority. I would like to thank all those who provided evidence and shared their views with us through our consultation, our evidence sessions and our focus groups, which have all helped to shape our findings.

Dirprwy Lywydd, as Wales emerges from the pandemic, the Welsh Government, and the Minister in particular, is facing significant challenges in responding to economic pressures, the effects of climate change, Brexit and in mitigating the squeeze on household incomes. Pandemic-related pressures also remain significant for health, local government and businesses. Our report makes 41 recommendations. Given the time available, I will focus on our main concerns.

There is a notable and welcome shift in this draft budget towards recovery. The funding available to the Welsh Government has been better than expected and revised forecasts for the Welsh tax base also indicate an improved economic outlook. We welcome the increases in the Welsh block grant, which have enabled the Welsh Government to increase budget allocations across all expenditure groups. This is much needed and puts solid foundations in place for future years. However, whilst the draft budget for 2022-23 includes significant increases, the increases in the following two years are far smaller, and these years will be even more challenging.

As a committee, we are also concerned by the constrained outlook for capital funding, which, in real terms, is likely to be cut over the three-year period. Difficult choices will need to be made. To address this, we are pleased to hear that the Minister has changed her approach to allocating funding for capital projects, which is intended to maximise available funding, through borrowing and potential consequentials. However, we'd like to keep an eye on this new approach and we have recommended that Welsh Government reports back on the in-year funding position associated with overprogrammed capital plans and provides regular updates on the funding contained in the Wales reserve.

In terms of funding, the committee believes that the Welsh Government should have the autonomy to push funding from one year to the next, to prevent any Welsh funding being lost. To do its job effectively, the Welsh Government needs maximum budget agility, so we support the Minister in pressing the UK Government for greater flexibility. As Members are aware, in November last year, the co-operation agreement was announced between the Welsh Labour Government and Plaid Cymru, which included a number of additional spending commitments. Whilst the Minister told us that the agreement had little impact on the budget prioritisation process for this year, we recommend that the Welsh Government provides clarity on how the funding of associated policy commitments will be reflected in future budget allocations.

I'd now like to turn to how the draft budget impacts on specific policy areas. The committee welcomes the views that health, social care and local government have received a good settlement, which reflects the prioritisation of local services. We're also pleased to hear the positive comments regarding the Welsh Government’s response and financial support during the pandemic. However, these sectors are subject to unprecedented pressures. As mentioned, capital allocations will be a particular constraint, given the demands for service transformation, investment in infrastructure and the wider implications of decarbonisation and reducing environmental impact. To address this, we have recommended the Welsh Government considers switching revenue to capital as part of future budgets and allows the health sector to do the same, to provide flexibility, given the limited capital funding available. We're also concerned about staff shortages and workforce issues, with staff suffering from burnout and COVID-19 absences. There are also longer term challenges to deal with, such as high staff vacancies, with many in the health and social care sector making alternative career choices, often with better pay. As a result, the committee recommends the Welsh Government provides information to demonstrate how the allocations for 2022-23 will alleviate the immediate pressures on staffing across the health, local government and social care sectors.

The businesses we spoke to as a committee told us that engagement between the Welsh Government and the sectors they represent had been good. There was an acknowledgment of the swift support provided by the Welsh Government during the pandemic, particularly the business rates waiver, furlough scheme, grants and loans. However, we also heard that more could be done, which is why we recommend that the Welsh Government considers further allocations being made in the final budget to increase the support for business rates relief. To enable smaller businesses and retailers to recover from the pandemic, we further recommend that Welsh Government prioritises investment in digital infrastructure and skills and helps those businesses to develop an online presence.

With the climate and environmental agenda gathering momentum following the critical COP26 summit, the committee welcomes the Welsh Government’s efforts to target investment at the climate and nature emergencies. However, the level of new and additional funding identified within the draft budget may fall short of what’s required to deal with this huge task. It’s disappointing that the draft budget doesn't go further to assess the carbon impact of the Welsh Government’s spending decisions. If the climate and nature emergencies are truly a basis on which the Welsh Government is making its investments, it must have a clear idea of what it will achieve through its spending. The Welsh Government must also outline the practical ways in which the strategies and objectives outlined in the draft budget are being implemented in recognition of the climate and nature emergencies.

This year, households will feel significant pressures on their incomes as a result of inflation, rising energy costs and commodity prices, with the poorest households being hit hardest. Last week's announcement of a hike in the price of people's gas and electricity bills will be particularly worrying for many. The committee notes the Welsh Government’s ongoing efforts to address the crisis, such as the discretionary assistance fund, help with winter fuel bills and the extension of free school meals, although we heard that a range of schemes have a low profile, meaning the most vulnerable people are missing out. The committee urges the Minister to liaise with the Minister for Social Justice to ensure the public and support agencies understand that there's a range of support that is available. Welsh benefits should be simplified and consolidated. We call for the establishment of a single entry point that links across the key services and schemes so people can easily access the support they are entitled to.

I mentioned at the beginning of this contribution that engaging with people across Wales and listening to the views of stakeholders is a priority for me as Chair. Demonstrating the impact of the budget is crucial to ensure meaningful engagement with those sectors and organisations affected, and in providing them with an opportunity to inform and influence budgetary decisions. We have recommended therefore that consideration is given to how budgetary information is presented so that it’s linked to outputs and impacts. We feel that this will help the Welsh Government’s own evaluation, as well as increasing the public and Senedd’s ability to hold the Welsh Government’s budget to account. 

Therefore, in conclusion, Deputy Presiding Officer, financial scrutiny is more important than ever, with massive public spending required to deal with recovery post pandemic and tackling the huge pressures that Wales faces. As a participant from one of our focus groups told us, an increase in spending could make all the difference as we recover from the pandemic. The committee is pleased that those views are in line with the Welsh Government’s priorities. It's now up to the Minister to ensure that the Welsh Government’s vision is realised. As a committee, we will do our upmost to keep a watchful eye to ensure that the Welsh Government’s rhetoric matches reality. Thank you.

16:40

I have selected the amendment to the motion, and I call on Peter Fox to move the amendment tabled in the name of Darren Millar.

Amendment 1—Darren Millar

Delete all and replace with:

To propose that the Senedd:

Believes that the Welsh Government’s Draft Budget 2022-23 fails to deliver on the priorities of the people of Wales.

Amendment 1 moved.

Diolch, Deputy Llywydd. I move the amendment in the name of my colleague Darren Millar. Before I begin, can I thank the Minister for her statement, as well as my colleague the Chair of the Finance Committee? I'd like to thank you most sincerely for the way you've managed the committee through this first budget round; it's been great working with you. And also thanks to all of those who contributed to the scrutiny of this very important budget.

Deputy Llywydd, as I stated in my speech on the draft budget last month, there are a number of things that I generally welcome, for example the additional funding for the Welsh NHS, the business rates holiday and the uplift in the local government settlement. Such allocations are much needed to help services and businesses to not just recover from the pandemic, but to build resilience and to put us on a better path for the future. I must reiterate that it is because of the UK Conservative Government's record funding boost for Wales that the Welsh Government has been able to provide this much-needed funding support for our communities and services. However, the devil is in the detail, and we on this side of the Chamber will be closely scrutinising how this money is used over the coming months to ensure that it actually delivers on what is being promised by the Government—a stronger, fairer and greener Wales, as we just heard.

The reason for our amendment, Deputy Llywydd, and why the Welsh Conservative group will be voting against today's motion, is that we still feel that the Welsh Government can go further in its budget proposals. In fact, it needs to go further to tackle some of the most significant issues facing Wales: the backlog in the already overstretched, overworked Welsh NHS that has resulted in several unwanted records during COVID, such as the highest accident and emergency waiting times on record, the slowest ambulance response times on record and the longest waiting times on record; the ever-increasing demand on social care, which is placing huge strain on the sector as well as multiple staffing issues, including low pay, high turnover—[Interruption.] No, I won't be taking any interventions at the moment; it's a two-hour debate and there's a long time for people to contribute. They include low pay, high turnover rates and falling staff numbers in some areas. There's also the fragile state of the Welsh economy, which has had to deal with a cycle of restrictions over the past two years, stifling growth and investment. The pandemic has exposed the structural economic issues facing our communities, highlighting the need to level up the country. And responding to climate change and the nature emergencies, which will dominate the work of this Senedd, in what the Climate Change Committee called a 'decisive decade'.

Of course, there is also the current issue with the increasing cost of living, as we discussed earlier, as a consequence of inflationary pressure as the global economy picks up from the pandemic. Now, before Members opposite accuse me of this, I'm not being negative for the sake of it. The fact is that the pandemic has exasperated significant problems that already existed, as they had not been tackled by previous Governments. Despite the Labour group believing nothing wrong in Wales is down to them or the Welsh Government, these are things that the Government, indeed, here, and the Senedd will need to get to grips with over the next few years, and they're also the things that our constituents want us to focus our efforts on. This is why in my speech last month I set out some of the Welsh Conservative plans for the Welsh Government budget that would not only support the recovery of our public services, but would build a more prosperous, aspirational nation. Our costed plans include tackling the NHS backlog by establishing COVID-lite regional surgical hubs; supporting businesses to recover from the pandemic through a package of policies to get people back on to the high street, as well as additional money for businesses still struggling to pay for the cost of COVID; promoting research and development by delivering a more joined-up approach to R&D; establishing new partnerships and funding streams—this should be an explicit priority to help the country to build back better, creating jobs and encouraging inward investment; taking action to alleviate the pressure on families by funding an all-Wales council tax freeze for at least two years to give those families additional breathing space; increasing per-pupil funding to address historic underfunding of our schools and recruiting more full-time teachers to boost standards and give young people the education they need after two years of disruption.

What frustrates me, Deputy Llywydd, is that time after time, Minister after Minister, we hear how Welsh Government isn't the only ideas factory and the need for cross-party working on issues of national importance. And I was pleased to hear the Minister say today that she wants to work with all of us on this, yet Welsh Government action doesn't always quite match its rhetoric, and, instead, it feels that the Government's default position is to pivot towards the easiest way to get the votes necessary to pass a budget—a deal with Plaid, and, it seems, one with the Liberal Member also. And, once again—[Interruption.]

16:45

The Member has indicated earlier on that he will not take an intervention at this stage. 

And, once again, this is what we have ended up with. Minister, this debate is an opportunity to gain genuine cross-party support for your spending plans as well as to ensure that your budget puts Wales on a better path. Will you meet with me and colleagues from this side of the Chamber to listen to our concerns as well as those of stakeholders, and to consider our plans to ensure that the budget delivers on its priorities? 

Touching upon the Labour/Plaid agreement, which still seems to be a type of coalition in all but name, some concerns have been raised, such as by Wales Fiscal Analysis, that the agreement includes significant additional spending commitments. For example, as we've heard, expanding free school meals could cost an additional £86 million a year; expanding childcare provision could cost an extra £40 million-odd a year; and creating a national care service will need an extra £200 million a year at the very least. Well, we can see that Plaid Cymru certainly aren't a cheap date, are they? There remains questions about the deliverability of some of these commitments. For example, Minister, how do you respond to concerns from the Welsh Local Government Association about the apparent lack of additional capital funding to invest in schools' catering facilities to deliver on the school meals policy? The WLGA have also stated that the draft budget does not make allocation to reform the arrangements governing how people currently pay for care. Do you agree with this? Minister, could you also provide clarity on the future financial planning you have undertaken to cost and fund the co-operation agreement policies? And does this include increasing Welsh rates of income tax at some point?

Deputy Llywydd, exploring further, the draft budget front-loads a substantial amount of additional funding for the NHS, and I still question how this will impact on medium to long-term financial planning for services. How does the Minister respond to the significant concerns of the health committee about the failure of many of the health boards to achieve financial sustainability and the constant need for Ministers to bail them out? Furthermore, what impact will the £98 million reduction in the NHS core capital allocation have on the much-needed transformation of services, as highlighted by the NHS Confederation?

Now, whilst I welcome the increase in the local government settlement, there are still concerns that with all of the pressures facing councils, many will be left with little additional room to manoeuvre. Is the Minister considering any further allocations to local government so they can invest more in their local areas rather than merely meeting inflationary pressures? Meanwhile, there are still long-standing issues about the local government funding formula and, in particular, that the funding gap between the highest and lowest funded councils has widened yet again. Does the Welsh Government intend on finally reviewing and overhauling the formula so all councils get a consistently fair settlement, regardless of whether they're a rural or urban council? Now, I know the stock answer—we've heard it many times—but this is where Government need to lead, and lead from the front and take charge of this.

There is also the issue of climate change. Whilst I welcome the £1.8 billion capital over the next three years for green investment, £1.6 billion of this is allocated to decarbonising social housing, leaving just £200 million capital for other investments. Clearly, this can't be enough.

Before I finish, Deputy Llywydd, I just want to touch upon the future of EU funding. Throughout the budget process we have heard the Welsh Government constantly bashing the UK Government over the issue, indeed Members were waxing lyrical earlier today. Wales will continue to benefit from EU-funding tail-off until 2024-25, with the UK Government gradually topping up the remaining amount. It just seems as if the Welsh Government is happy scaremongering about Wales's future outside of the EU rather than looking at opportunities to level up our communities. Ministers talk about replacing programmes being a threat to devolution, but why should we not trust our councils and communities to deliver the changes that they want to see? Surely, we in this Chamber believe in the principles of subsidiary, don't we? Do Ministers really believe that the powers should just stop in Cardiff Bay?

16:50

The Member needs to conclude now. I have many speakers who want to contribute today.

We need to see Welsh Ministers engaging with replacement programmes, like many of our councils already have done, so our communities are best placed to take advantage of the funding heading our way. This budget needs to be one of not only support and recovery, but one of aspiration and prosperity, of levelling up—a budget that finally delivers real change for the people of Wales rather than just tinkering around the edges. The record funding from the Government in addition to the huge support during the pandemic provides us here in Wales with an opportunity to achieve a better, brighter and greener future. But as it stands, this is a budget that falls short in a number of key areas, in supporting our NHS, our communities—