Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

16/02/2022

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

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

1. Questions to the Minister for Economy

The first item is questions to the Minister for Economy, and the first question is from Siân Gwenllian.

Bryn Cegin Park

1. Will the Minister provide an update on business development plans at Bryn Cegin Park, Bangor? OQ57667

Yes. Over the last 12 months we have received significant interest on our development land at Parc Bryn Cegin. We are currently engaged with the local authority and a number of separate parties who have made or are looking to make offers to buy development plots at Bryn Cegin.

Thank you very much for that update. The plain truth is that not a single job has been created at Bryn Cegin Park since the site was purchased and adapted by the Welsh Government, despite the significant funds spent on the park and despite the promises made. Next door to the site is the Maesgeirchen estate and within a stone's throw is the city of Bangor. We desperately need high-quality and permanent jobs and business and training opportunities in order to strengthen the local economy for the benefit of the people living here. I'm pleased to have had that update, but when will the first job be created at Parc Bryn Cegin in my constituency?

Well, I can't give you an exact date on when the actual first job will be on site, because we're still having conversations with those partners and we can't surface all of those in public with named parties, but I've had an update from my officials and I think there is good cause to expect news in the not-too-distant future for jobs to go on that site. And, of course, the Member will be aware that, actually, it isn't just within a stone's throw of the city of Bangor and the Maesgeirchen estate, but also Gwynedd Council has completed a park-and-share, park-and-ride facility next to the estate to make it even easier for people to access work opportunities. So, I hope it won't be too long before I won't just say that this is when I expect jobs to be there, but for jobs to actually be on the site, serving the Member's constituents and businesses who are either relocating there or are expanding their businesses on this particular site.

Thanks to the Member for submitting today's question. I'm sure the Minister will agree with me, and perhaps acknowledge, that it is deeply concerning that, after 20 years, the Bryn Cegin Park still lies empty. And I appreciate the comments you've made in terms of future developments, but we've had 20 years of perhaps missed opportunities to see high-quality jobs in Bangor and across north Wales really helping the local economy.

I do note that the last time this issue was raised in the Chamber, the Minister for north Wales stated that Welsh Government officials were working closely with the north Wales economic ambition board as well, so, I'll be interested to hear how those discussions have gone. But, in light of this whole issue, Minister, I wonder what lessons you and the Welsh Government have learnt and what action you'll be taking to ensure that future job opportunities in developments like this are not missed out on again.

Well, there's no suggestion that job opportunities have been missed out on with this site. We would have wanted to see more jobs placed on this site, but there's no evidence that jobs that would have come to north Wales haven't. I'm looking forward to having jobs on the site and to having good-quality jobs, and there are conversations with the north Wales economic ambition board and that's part of the suite of conversations that are already taking place. If you look at what the Welsh Government has done in joint ventures and individually in developing employment sites, we actually have a good record of developing sites that do generate employment opportunities. Parc Bryn Cegin is unusual, in that, after the development phase in 2008, there still aren't jobs on site, but I expect that to be rectified in a way that I expect that Members from all parties will want to celebrate when jobs go onto that site and the broader aspects of the ambition we have for north Wales and its economic future.

13:35
The Shared Prosperity Fund

2. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of how much money will come to Wales through the shared prosperity fund in the next financial year? OQ57664

Based on the Welsh allocation of this year's community renewal fund, which, as you know, is a forerunner to the shared prosperity fund, Wales could receive around £90 million from the shared prosperity fund in the next financial year. This plainly falls well short of the UK Government's repeated promises, including the specific manifesto pledge from 2019, to fully replace EU structural funds, which were worth £375 million annually to Wales.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. The fact that there are still question marks over this so close to when we should be finding out about this speaks for itself, doesn't it, in terms of how Westminster is treating this whole process? And we know the total amount that we've been shortchanged already, don't we? We lost £375 million of EU structural funding and in return got £46 million from Westminster, a loss of £329 million in this financial year. And regardless, Minister, of the fact whether Westminster will be conceding how much money we'll be receiving through the shared prosperity fund, the way it's going to be spent is deeply concerning, isn't it, because it's not just about the amount of the funding? The strategic oversight of the Welsh European Funding Office has been replaced by a pork-barrel process, with Westminster selecting specific schemes based on some opaque criteria. Do you agree with me, Minister, that there is no economic justification for spending money in this way, and that the only way to interpret the fact that the Tories have chosen this process is because they want to be able to point to certain schemes that have received funding in order to try to win votes?

Well, the Welsh Government has been very, very clear that the UK Government conduct falls far short of its repeated promises in a number of guises, and we're due to lose £1 billion. That's what Wales is going to lose over the next few years—£1 billion. And I don't see how any reasonable person could defend that, regardless of their politics. I don't think anyone came into this place to try to justify £1 billion being shed from Wales. And, of course, we're also seeing regions of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland being treated in the same way, because the UK Government has deliberately chosen to underfund those former EU programmes despite clear pledges and promises that no-one would lose a single penny. 

And there is then the concern about how the money is spent. There is no strategic understanding of how that money is going to be spent. The very small sums of money that are not strategically linked in the forerunner schemes don't give much hope for the future, if that were to be the continued path. And it is undeniably the case that having a UK Conservative Member of Parliament means you're more likely to receive money from way the funds have been allocated. And that simply doesn't match a map of need, in either Wales, England, Scotland or any other part of the UK. 

So, there's an obvious challenge here. There is, though, a way to make sure that this doesn't happen, and that's to have a proper understanding, with published criteria, for how the money is going to be used—a UK-wide framework, with a proper role for the Welsh Government and our partners. That is the way this should work, and could work. It's still not too late for Michael Gove to change course for whichever particular reason, but as we've seen on free ports in Scotland, it is possible to find agreement if the UK Government are in a position where they think that really does matter. The current course of action will see Wales having less say over less money, and that cannot be a good outcome for any Member of this place. 

Minister, I totally agree with you that it is important that Wales does not lose out as a result of the switch from European structural funds to the shared prosperity fund, and I'm sure that the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee will be taking a keen interest in this specific area in due course. Now, yesterday, the First Minister said that there is still time for the UK Government to co-operate with the Welsh Government over the delivery of shared prosperity funding, and we've seen how positive inter-governmental engagement has delivered benefits in the form of city and growth deals, for example. So, can you update us on your latest discussions with the UK Government in relation to the shared prosperity fund, particularly in light of the recent House of Lords select committee on the constitution's report?

Well, I should congratulate the Member. That is the first time that a Conservative Member in this place has said that it should not be acceptable that Wales loses money from the change from European structural funds. That's a very welcome statement. The trouble is the Chancellor's plan shows that Wales is undeniably going to lose money, moving forward, because the whole UK shared prosperity fund, which the UK Government have been very clear is the successor fund for former EU structural funds, will only be £400 million for the whole of the UK next year. Now, we're never going to get £375 million just for Wales out of that. We have tried on more than one occasion to have direct ministerial conversations about this. Thus far, there has been some engagement between officials, which has improved in the last couple of months, but we're still not at a point where there is a meaningful offer to engage with Welsh Government as decision-making partners in how shared prosperity funds are to be used. The one consistent theme has been that Ministers in Whitehall will make all of the decisions. Now, that can't be right either. There's no way for you and the committee you chair to scrutinise any choice that I make or, indeed, to try to scrutinise a UK Minister for the choices they're making on where moneys will be spent in Wales, and that can't be the right outcome when, in this place, Members of all parties have scrutinised how those funds have been used for 20 years, and I know that the Member, to be fair, Llywydd, has been part of giving advice to the Welsh Government in the past on how to effectively use those moneys to deliver significant change for the benefit of the Welsh economy. I only wish the UK would take on board the advice the Member has given in the past as to how those funds should be properly used, with the direct engagement of this place. 

13:40

I think Members across the Chamber will welcome the words of the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire this afternoon, in the same way as Members across the Chamber have supported the Welsh Government in making the argument to ensure that Wales doesn't lose out as a consequence of the shared prosperity fund. And the power of our argument, Minister, I'm sure you'll agree with me, is in the power of our example. We're five years into the Tech Valleys programme now, nearly halfway through that programme, which was launched by your predecessor. Can you now, Minister, ensure that we do, in Blaenau Gwent, receive the full amount of the £100 million, which was guaranteed by Ken Skates when he launched that programme, and we will continue to invest to ensure that Blaenau Gwent receives the money it was promised, and that Blaenau Gwent continues to be at the heart of the Welsh Government's vision for regeneration and economic development in the Heads of the Valleys? 

I'd be more than happy to have a direct conversation with the Member about the future of Tech Valleys, about the challenges and the opportunities for the Heads of the Valleys area. Work, I know, is taking place between five local authorities on how to maximise investment and employment opportunities, because it is the area with the most concentrated disadvantage in the whole of Wales, and we won't succeed in our economic mission for the country if we don't generate better employment outcomes for people who live in that part of Wales. So, I'd be more than happy to talk with him about that. It's also been a regular feature in the conversation I've had with the capital region, morphing into the new joint committee, and I'm interested in how the Welsh Government gets alongside those five local authorities and the wider capital region to make sure we do see the better employment outcomes I know the Member seeks. I'd be more than happy to arrange with him to have a follow-up conversation to go through just that. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople, to be answered by the Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport this afternoon. First of all, the Conservatives' spokesperson, Tom Giffard. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Deputy Minister, looking at your portfolio, would you say that COVID passes have been a success?

I thank Tom Giffard for that question. I think the COVID passes did what they set out to do. At the time that COVID passes were introduced, of course, we were in the middle of a significant rise in COVID cases. We then saw, on the back of that, the omicron wave, and we had to do something to try and get some confidence back into the sector. So, in the areas where we used COVID passes, they were used for that particular purpose—to keep businesses open and to bring some confidence back to audiences that would be required to show a COVID pass in indoor events. So, from that perspective, I would say that they were a success. 

You say they did what you set them up to do. I don't know that I agree, because I think COVID passes have had a minimal impact on protecting public health. The Chief Medical Officer for Wales himself said that the impact is 'probably quite small', and the advice from the technical advisory cell to the Welsh Government was that 

'there remains a high degree of uncertainty around the effectiveness of the COVID Pass in reducing infections given the absence of robust evaluation of these interventions.'

And TAC also said that several reviews suggest that COVID passes have the potential for harm as well as benefit. The only evidence that COVID passes work are in countries where uptake of the vaccine is extremely low, which, thanks to the UK-wide vaccination success, is nowhere near the case here in Wales. Not only this, it's had a negative impact on our economy, as my colleague Paul Davies has raised previously. The average cost of implementing COVID passes was around £400 a week. Businesses have not only had to face hefty financial costs of the passes, they've also faced significant reductions in footfall, with some businesses losing up to 50 per cent of revenue. Therefore, Deputy Minister, I'll ask you again: what evidence does the Welsh Government have that COVID passes were a success?

13:45

I think you need to look at it in the context of what we were doing. This was one of a suite of measures. It wasn't a stand-alone measure, that we just introduced COVID passes. It went along with, as you say, the vaccination programme. It was part of—. Having a COVID pass was encouraging people to have the vaccination. It also sat alongside other measures, including social distancing and other mitigation measures that were introduced around the same time. So, I repeat what I said in my first answer, in terms of what they were intended to do around bringing confidence into the sectors and giving audience confidence. And there was certainly some significant anecdotal evidence that that was the case, because a number of events venues in particular had seen ticket sales plummeting, as you will well be aware, but people were also saying that they would be more inclined to visit an indoor event and an indoor venue if they were using COVID passes, because that did bring some confidence that, when they were in that venue, other people alongside them they knew were either vaccinated or had had a negative lateral flow test. So, I don't think you see it in isolation. You see it as part of a suite of measures that were operating at that time.

I thank the Deputy Minister for the answer, but I'm not sure I heard any evidence that COVID passes were a success there. And so assuming that there is no evidence that COVID passes have been a success in protecting public health and the only available evidence seems to be they had a hugely negative economic impact on a number of industries—hospitality, cultural and sporting events, tourism industry; all of them were in your portfolio, Deputy Minister—the only way I think we'll get to the bottom of whether COVID passes were a success in Wales or not, or indeed whether the Welsh Government significantly overstepped the mark here and cost businesses a lot of income, is to properly assess whether this was the right decision in a Wales-specific COVID inquiry. But both you and the Welsh Government, however, seem unwilling to hold one and are hiding behind an English COVID inquiry instead. 

Of course, there were COVID passes in England, and they were only in place for 44 days there, compared to 130 here, and they targeted far fewer industries too. Given the Night Time Industries Association said there was a 26 per cent drop in trade based on the introduction of those COVID passes, these industries, Deputy Minister, on which so much of our economy here in Wales relies, deserve to know the truth. So, can I ask, have you had a specific assurance that the impact of your COVID passes in Wales will form an integral part of your English COVID inquiry?

The first thing I would say is this is very interesting, isn't it, to hear this from the unionist party that is now talking about an English inquiry? This is not an English inquiry, this is a UK inquiry of which Wales will be part, and there will be a very specific Welsh element to that inquiry that the First Minister has talked about in this Chamber many times, and has been very specific in discussions with the UK Government that that specific Welsh aspect of the inquiry is vitally important to explore and to examine and to investigate all of the things that you've already highlighted. 

I've met with some of the bereaved families in my constituency, and I know how strongly they feel about this, and I know that we have—. And I had every sympathy with their views. Anybody who has lost a relative or a friend or a loved one of any description through this pandemic could not but feel empathy and sympathy with those people. But a Wales-specific inquiry, in our view, is not the answer to that question. The UK-wide inquiry, with the terms of reference that will be agreed with us and will be consulted on more widely, will allow all of those families and all of the issues that you have raised to be fully explored, and explored in Wales, because there will be inquiry hearings located in Wales as well for those specific elements of the inquiry.

Thank you, Llywydd. Deputy Minister, you'll be aware, I'm sure—. Sorry.

I'll start again; I'll wait for you.

You got fooled by my little sentence in Welsh this morning, didn't you? 

Deputy Minister, you will be aware, I'm sure, that the United Kingdom Government has said, as part of the announcement regarding the licence fee, that it is closing the young audiences content fund. Five per cent of the fund has been targeted at creating content in indigenous languages, including Welsh, and it's supported many high-quality productions for children in Wales, including a new series to be broadcast soon called Bex, which will focus on mental health.

I know that you, Deputy Minister, are as concerned as I am about the impact of cuts to the BBC on provision in Welsh and English here in Wales. Cutting this fund will have an additional detrimental impact. Bearing in mind the importance of broadcasting in order to reach the goal of a million Welsh speakers by 2050, does the Welsh Government have any plans to mitigate the impact of this loss of funding and investment in Welsh-medium broadcasting, specifically with regard to provision for children and young people?

13:50

I have to say I absolutely share the Member's concerns about the current position with the licence fee. I've met both with BBC Cymru Wales and with S4C and discussed the fee settlement, and my concern—I think when you raised this question at the time—then was the direct impact that this would have on Welsh language programming. We know that the BBC provides a lot of input for S4C as well, and although S4C's settlement was slightly more generous than the BBC's, the overall impact on Welsh programming and production I don't think can be underestimated. And I have written to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to highlight the Welsh Government's concerns regarding the settlement and the review of the BBC's funding model. And that letter reinforces the need for the UK to work with devolved administrations as part of any decisions on the future funding framework.

So, I think we need to continue those conversations with the BBC and S4C to see what the real impact of that is going to be, but I would absolutely give you my commitment that, from the Welsh Government's point of view, we are still committed to meeting those objectives of a million Welsh speakers by 2050 and we will do whatever we can to ensure that that happens, whether that is with the support of the BBC, S4C and any other media outlets.

Diolch, Ddirprwy Weinidog. In the words of Raymond Williams, culture is ordinary and I know, Deputy Minister, that you and I share a common belief that there should be equity of access to cultural participation. Whilst we have seen some brilliant and innovative digital cultural projects emerge as a result of the pandemic, research has shown that the shift to digital cultural experiences over the pandemic period failed to diversify cultural audiences, largely only engaging those already engaged in cultural activities. Further, women and ethnic minorities saw larger reductions in hours in terms of participation during the pandemic compared to their white and male counterparts.

Whilst digital innovation undoubtedly has a role to play in making a positive difference, this only works when embedded in a long-term strategy of audience and school engagement. What steps are being taken by Welsh Government to determine what lessons were learnt about widening engagement through the digital cultural activities they funded during the pandemic, and how do you plan to ensure that more is done to ensure equity of opportunity to participation in culture?

Okay. Well, thank you for that question. You will have seen that, within the culture division, we have allocated an additional £600,000 in the budget specifically to invest in this area of equality of access, whether it is through digital means or any other means, and we're looking to create innovative programmes of training and support for local museums, for instance, to develop their digital programmes and to develop the way in which their exhibitions and all of their artefacts are displayed and represented and so on.

We've done a huge amount of work already under the race equality action plan to try to deliver the race equality action plan with a number of stakeholder groups in the communities. We've taken the first but crucial steps in reconsidering the interpretations of collections of black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, and sessions have been held throughout November and are continuing through January, with excellent feedback on a number of the programmes that we are seeking to get participation in. We've got other projects that we're working on with Race Council Cymru, the Archives and Records Council Wales, Cadw and our sponsored cultural bodies—all of that work is being progressed. And officials are continuing to work with colleagues in equalities, and engaging with sector stakeholders, to develop our final goals, following the consultation of the draft equality action plan. And I'm actually meeting with the Minister for Social Justice this afternoon to update her on the work that we're doing across the portfolio in this particular area.

13:55
The Cost-of-living Crisis

3. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the Welsh Government's economic policy includes a strategy to tackle the cost-of-living crisis? OQ57644

Our economic policies span all ministerial responsibilities, including those related to energy, housing and social justice. I continue to work with Cabinet colleagues to make sure that every pound available goes out to deliver for those who are at the sharpest end facing the Conservative cost-of-living crisis.

Diolch, Weinidog. More than three in 10 households with a net income of less than £40,000 have seen their income drop since May 2021, and for households with a net income of more than £40,000, more than one in five have seen their incomes increase. Wage growth stagnated in October, fell in November, and is unlikely to start growing again until the final quarter of this year, disproportionately affecting those on low income. By the end of 2024, real wages are set to be £740 a year lower than they would have been, had pre-pandemic pay growth continued. This is clearly a crisis that is worsening an already deep economic disparity. Figures revealed just today show that we are experiencing record levels of inflation, which are outstripping wages while pushing living costs up higher. The scale of the problem means it's more important than ever that Wales's economic strategy is primarily focused on tackling economic inequality. So, what discussions has the Minister had with the social justice Minister and other colleagues in Government on this, and what further economic powers does he think should be devolved to Wales, so that we can properly get to grips with this crisis and alleviate its negative effects on our society? Diolch.

Thank you for the points and the series of questions. I think it's interesting, the point about wage growth, because even at the start of this week, there was a suggestion that we would see significant wage growth figures coming through, and yet the figures actually showed that wages had not kept pace with inflation. And I think the previous comments of the Governor of the Bank of England about needing to suppress wages to try to keep control of inflation—there were commentators and economists on both the left and the right, as it were, who both thought those were rather odd remarks and not borne out by what is actually driving inflation at present: it isn't wages.

The Resolution Foundation said we can expect a cost-of-living catastrophe in April without further action. Now, that's part of the reason why Rebecca Evans unveiled a £330 million package for Wales yesterday. It goes beyond the UK Government package announced for England, but, of course, that has been delivered here in Wales without any extra funding coming to Wales.

I think, on your point about powers, actually it's the resource that we need to be able to address the cost-of-living crisis, and it's also the willingness of the UK Government to do something about it. I just think that, for businesses as well as for households, thinking that the current fix that's been announced to date is going to get us through till the end of April I think is fanciful. I think many families and businesses will find the increase in costs that are coming very hard to deal with. And for many of my constituents and many people across Wales, that means even more people choosing between heating and eating. It means even more parents going hungry to try to make sure their children are fed. So, there are changes we want to see: we want to see the cut to universal credit restored; we want to see further action. And, yes, we do support the cause for a windfall levy on energy companies who are making eye-watering sums of money. When you have Shell and BP talking about their businesses as cash machines, and they can't spend the money quick enough, I don't think that this is something where a UK Government could simply say that it will refuse to act and leave people to their fate. I certainly hope that the Chancellor is listening, because I've certainly had those conversations with the Minister for Social Justice, the Minister for Climate Change, and, indeed, the finance Minister and others, about what we could and should do here in Wales with the resources available to us.

Minister, a vital component of any strategy to help tackle the cost of living is to ensure the Welsh Government's economic policy supports businesses, allowing them to keep people in jobs. The latest tracker survey of small and medium enterprises in Wales, conducted by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, shows that over one third of Welsh SMEs are hopeful about growth ambitions in the next six months. However, Minister, 81 per cent of Welsh SMEs are unaware of the finance options available to them.  So, Minister, what action will you be taking to ensure SMEs in Wales are aware of the support available to provide them with the resources that they need to overcome the current pressure on their cash flows? Thank you. 

14:00

Well, it depends where businesses are, in which sector they're operating, as to the particular pressures they've got, but everyone is going to face some of the challenges about the increases in energy prices, for example. So, there is a really significant challenge.

As we're, hopefully, coming out of the emergency phase of the pandemic, businesses are looking from survival to the future, and I am looking forward to having more regular conversations with stakeholders from those business groups, whether it's in retail, the visitor economy, the rest of the economy, about what we can do to support them with the plans that they will have for growth of their business and what that means in terms of the jobs and keeping the staff they've got, because one of the big challenges, again, every sector faces is the challenge for labour. As the labour market has become tighter, there's a greater premium on skills, there's a greater premium on keeping experienced and good staff, because other businesses are looking to recruit those people. In many ways, lots of the wage growth that we have seen in the sectors where it's existed has been because of the competition for people already in work, with other companies looking to pay a premium to get those people to move across. But you can expect me to have those regular conversations with business groups and individual businesses to see what we can do to help them to find the sources of business support and capital that may help them to see their businesses sustained in the future. 

I know how busy the Minister is, so I'm not sure he had a chance to watch the clip on Channel 4 News last week, covering how the cost-of-living crisis is affecting residents in communities like Penrhys in my constituency. I know, just from the e-mails and messages I received yesterday, that the £330 million package of support the Welsh Government has announced has been welcomed with open arms and will make a world of difference to some of the families most in need in Rhondda. This is in stark contrast to the actions of the UK Conservative Government who have failed to effectively use the levers available to them, offering only a £200 loan. As my colleague Sarah Murphy said yesterday, those most affected by the cost-of-living crisis aren't the ones at fault here. Does the Minister agree that the UK Government needs to step up and support residents across Wales, not leave us out in the cold?

I completely agree, and I did see some of the report on Channel 4, and it was deeply upsetting, not just because of the people facing that position, because I know that I will have constituents in the southern part of the city of Cardiff who are equally facing really significant challenge in how they're going to meet their own household incomings and outgoings and are genuinely fearful for their future. And they're fearful with good reason, because, for many families, it comes down to pounds and pennies. For many families, having the energy increases that are coming will be a very real challenge for an even greater number of people. It's why the further rises we expect to see in April are such bad news, and people know that's coming as well.

The UK Government need to look again, because the loan they're providing will add on to future bills for people who are least likely to be able to afford them. They also do need to look again at the support they've provided, because the scheme in Wales is a much more generous package, with everyone who receives a council tax reduction benefit also receiving part of the package that we have announced, but I don't think the current package is in any way going to be adequate, and it's a test for whether the Government is prepared to do the right thing to spend money on families who are not responsible for the cost-of-living crisis, or whether they will simply leave them to their fate. I know what this Government would do if we had the means to provide more help, and I know what a Government led by our party in the UK would do to make sure that people are not left to their fate but are properly supported through a crisis that is not of their making.

Helping Young People into Employment

4. How is the Welsh Government helping young people into employment? OQ57632

We are investing £1.7 billion in the young person's guarantee over the next three years. Working Wales is the single gateway for access to the guarantee, including Jobs Growth Wales, Communities for Work Plus and apprenticeships. Working Wales is also trialling a new job-matching service to assist with securing employment.

Well, thank you, Minister. It is hugely ambitious, not least the target of 125,000 apprenticeships to be created by the Welsh Labour Government during this Senedd term, but, of course, this programme relies on securing money that used to come from the European Union, and so could you provide an assessment of the impact that the lost EU funds could have on skills training here in Wales, and the extent of funding that Wales has lost and is likely to lose as a result of UK Government decisions since we left the European Union?

14:05

Yes. Well, we think we're going to lose about £1 billion up to the end of the financial year 2024, £1 billion that should have come to Wales to be spent in Wales, and, of course, previously, that Ministers here would have had responsibility for making those choices and we would have been accountable to Members elected to this Parliament for those choices. We know that money both isn't going to be spent and the smaller replacement sums are not going to have decisions made at present by Ministers here, and they're going to go through local authorities, cutting out further and higher education, cutting out the third sector, and, crucially, undermining the way in which we fund skills and training programmes. For example, we expect to have lost £16 million of European funding just to support the apprenticeship programme by the end of 2024. That means that, in the £366 million that I announced last week to support the apprenticeship programme for the next three years, I've had to take that money from other priorities. Because the future of that 125,000 apprenticeship target is so important for the future of our economy, for the future of young people in particular, to make sure they do have hope for the future, I now have to make up for that by deprioritising other areas of spending, and that is a problem for the economy. I don't believe anyone voted for that, either in the referendum to leave the European Union or at the last election. No party said, 'We want to see less money spent in Wales and less support for the future of our economy', but that is the choice that we face. But it also underlines the importance of skills for the future and our continued investment and support for the apprenticeship programme. 

Can I thank the Member for Clwyd South for raising the issue? Minister, at the end of last year, I raised the issue of opportunities available to young people in Wales after a constituent wrote to me highlighting their concerns about a lack of apprenticeships and degree apprenticeships on offer to their children. Such opportunities are important, as we just spoke about, to help those young people get into employment. I appreciated your response to my letter, and I know you referenced the young person's guarantee, which was officially launched, we know, November last year, and includes more support for apprenticeships. This is in addition to initiatives like the skills and jobs fund, which provided funding to incentivise employers to recruit and retrain apprentices. Whilst these schemes are welcome, it's vital that they not only result in apprenticeship opportunities, but actually improve outcomes for young people, such as leading to further training and good quality jobs. So, Minister, what assessment have you made of the impact of these schemes on the availability of apprenticeships in Wales, as well as the outcomes that have been secured as a result of the opportunities created by the schemes? Because it's not just about money—it's about the outcomes that that money is being used on.

I'd be very happy to provide a further note to Members on this, because, actually, every time we have looked in the past, certainly in my membership of this place, we've actually found that apprenticeship outcomes for people in Wales compare very favourably with other parts of the UK, in particular across the border in England. You can find more people completing their apprenticeships and going on to secure employment. And, to be fair, the previous questioner, during his time both as a Deputy Minister, when he had responsibility for skills, and then in his time as the economy Minister, has had oversight for a significant part of that success. I'd be more than happy to provide a note setting out the outcomes achieved and the benefit that apprenticeships provide for individuals and the economy here in Wales. 

In a recent labour market update, the unemployment figures for Swansea West were roughly three times the national average, at 10.3 per cent. One in 10 people in our second largest city are currently without employment. This situation becomes even more stark when you factor in that youth unemployment is typically higher than regular unemployment. The unemployment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds in Wales is currently 12 per cent, with the figure for Swansea sure to be higher than this if we assume that youth unemployment figures follow the same trend as general unemployment figures for Swansea West. Could the Minister outline specifically how the youth jobs guarantee and other youth employment schemes will seek to address youth unemployment, not just in Swansea, but across South Wales West? And when does he expect to see these employability schemes bear fruit?

Well, some of the schemes that we're going to provide should bear fruit rather more immediately. For example, we've got the opportunity to carry on supporting young entrepreneurs through Big Ideas Wales—you can see those people starting up their businesses; you can see the barriers to employment fund that we're providing. So, you'll find some of them will have a more immediate impact and others will take longer, because, in the employability support we provide, for example, in the Job Growth Wales+ scheme, a range of the support schemes is actually about making sure people are ready for jobs, looking at the skills issues they have, looking to supporting them with a personalised range of support around them, so you're going to see a longer term impact of that.

And, actually, I expect to publish the new employability plan in the coming weeks, and that again will set out further detail on how we are going to use the responsibilities and the resources we have to be able to complement what the Department for Work and Pensions are now doing, and that will probably mean we're going to seek to address the challenges of people who are further away from the labour market. So, it's likely to cost more than DWP schemes, helping people who are, essentially, job ready, but also it may take longer to get those people ready. But, as we do publish the employability strategy, I look forward to being able to provide more detail on the points you make and how we'll then assess the outcomes that we think we're going to be able to achieve with and for people, whether young people or older people, in terms of the employment outcomes we want to see in every community across Wales.

14:10
Business Start-ups in Cynon Valley

5. What action is the Welsh Government taking to support business start-ups in Cynon Valley? OQ57659

Thank you. We have a suite of business-support products available through the Business Wales service to support start-ups with a variety of subjects, from hiring staff to identifying appropriate finance. Providing start-up opportunities is also a key strand of the young person's guarantee offer.

Thank you, Minister. As you note, there is a lot of support out there for start-ups, not just from Welsh Government, but also from, for example, Rhondda Cynon Taf council, with its nine-to-five hub for budding entrepreneurs. However, recent research from the Bevan Foundation suggests that there needs to be at least 1,000 new businesses in the Cynon Valley just to match the Welsh average. How can Welsh Government work to accelerate the rate of start-ups in the Cynon Valley and help to close this worrying gap?

That's part of the reason why it's been so important to try to maintain the investment in not just skills, but also in the business support service that we provide through Business Wales, because we can provide a bespoke package of support, for either individuals or for particular areas. Now, I think that would be something that would be well worth exploring between my officials and RCT, as you mentioned it, as the local authority, who already do have active programmes within the county area. But, as you've identified the Cynon as a particular area, it may make sense for me to contact your office to see if we can have a conversation about what we might be able to do specifically around Cynon Valley with yourself and the local authority and my officials working with Business Wales.

Tourism Tax

6. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of a tourism tax on the economy of North Wales? OQ57634

We are working with a wide range of partners to understand the potential economic impact of a visitor levy in Wales. It will be for local authorities to decide if they raise a levy on visitors. They will be empowered in local authorities to make their own judgment with support from the Welsh Government.

I know you want to pass the buck to local authorities in respect of this tax, but the reality is that it's your Welsh Labour Government that is setting the road ahead and actually facilitating the introduction of a tax that could decimate the economy of north Wales. Tourism, to our nation, is worth billions, and tens of thousands of people across the north Wales region are employed in tourism jobs and, in addition, many shops in our town centres, businesses like cafes, restaurants, and everything else survive on the annual income that comes from visitors' pockets. Do you accept that a tourism tax being introduced in north Wales could decimate the industry and cause price-sensitive tourists to, instead of visiting Colwyn Bay, Towyn and Kinmel Bay, Rhyl, Prestatyn, Llandudno and the other wonderful resorts that north Wales has to offer, that it could cause them to hop, skip and jump to places like Blackpool, Morecambe and elsewhere, where their economies will boom and ours will suffer as a result?

I know that Darren Millar regularly likes to get excited—

—and be fast and free with phrases, but, look, I think he might want to pause and take some time on the subs bench while this issue is being decided by the grown ups. You see, when you look across Europe and north America, when you look at where a levy is a regular part of the tourism industry, you don't find anything to support the scaremongering and world-ending predictions that he excitedly makes. The idea that this will decimate the visitor economy is without any kind of evidential basis whatsoever. If you look at what we're discussing, it is how local authorities could understand what they could do for communities that see a benefit from the return of visitors, but also some of the challenges that that brings as well, and how they would decide, with the powers that they would have, whether they wanted to introduce a levy, and if so, on what basis. Now, that's the consultation we're having.

If there is any actual evidence, rather than hyperbole, from the Member and his colleagues that a levy would have any kind of detrimental impact, we'd want to see that as part of the consultation before we make choices. I believe that we can do something to invest in our visitor economy, and we have a good basis, because we have such a wonderful range of visitor attractions for people to come here to Wales, and I actually have very good and optimistic hopes built on evidence for the future of our visitor economy, regardless of the eventual outcomes of the visitor levy in different parts of Wales.

14:15
Small Businesses in Mid and West Wales

7. Will the Minister make a statement on the support available to small businesses in Mid and West Wales? OQ57672

The Welsh Government remains fully committed to supporting micro, small and medium enterprises in all parts of Wales. SMEs can access a wide range of information, advice and support through our Business Wales service and, of course, the Development Bank of Wales.

Thank you, Minister. Small and medium-sized enterprises, as you have said, account for 62.4 per cent of employment and 37.9 per cent of turnover, worth around £46 billion for the Welsh economy. Just last week I spoke to a restaurant owner in my region who is actively considering closing their doors because of not being able to recruit staff. Could I ask what the mechanism is for how the young person's guarantee will tie in with those small business that are facing those recruitment challenges, both enabling young people to access work and gain skills and to support small businesses to grow? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Well, there's a range of strands within the young person's guarantee that may help, but there's a range of other challenges that businesses may face. So, for example, there's a job matching service in understanding how you match people to job opportunities that exist; there's the work of the ReAct+ service, which is going to be a new, bespoke service, again looking to wrap around what individuals need to help them get themselves into employment opportunities; and as I've previously discussed, in answer to Luke Fletcher, the opportunities that the new Jobs Growth Wales+ will provide for people to get into the world of work.

There are other challenges, though, that fall well outside the young person's guarantee. Those do go back to some of the challenges we've got on access to finance and the difference in the way that European funds were used and are being used now—for example, they're certainly part of how we fund the Development Bank of Wales, so there's a challenge there about its future finances. There's also the challenge over skills as well, because in every area of the economy, businesses are interested in continuing to be able to invest in skills. The current design of the way that shared prosperity funds are supposed to work means it's very, very difficult to find a way to have a properly comprehensive skills support package, bearing in mind that a third of our skills and apprenticeship packages in the past have been funded from former European moneys. And of course you have some of the challenges about some people having left the labour market here in Wales and the UK—older workers and, of course, European workers, many of whom returned to their home countries and are unlikely to return. There's a range of challenges to look at, and those are exactly the challenges I do discuss with small business representatives in my regular conversations with them, and I look forward to being able to do more of that face to face in the future.

Financial Support for Businesses

8. Will the Minister provide an update on the financial support provided to businesses during the last set of COVID-19 restrictions? OQ57665

Financial support was available to retail, hospitality, leisure and tourism businesses, alongside the cultural recovery fund and the spectator support fund. To date, over £66.8 million has been offered through these funds. In addition, many businesses are still benefiting from the 100 per cent rates relief holiday, which runs for the entire financial year, unlike, of course, businesses on the English side of the border of your constituency.

Thank you, Minister. As you know, the latest COVID support package closed for applications. I've heard from a number of businesses in my constituency who did not meet the criteria for support, whatever the reason, and they're finding themselves now in a perilous position, facing significant financial loss and placing their long-term future in doubt. So, Minister, what long-term support can the Welsh Government offer within the current devolution settlement we currently have to help businesses and help the Welsh economy thrive in the coming months and years? And in relation to the last round of COVID support, can you comment on the take-up of how many businesses accessed that support and the geographical areas where those businesses were based? Diolch, Llywydd.

14:20

So, in the longer term, you will be aware that we have already set out that there'll be rates relief next year. It will match the package on offer in England. You will also be aware that we're having conversations about how we support the future of the economy, but that is in a more challenging position because of the budget settlement we have and because of the reality that shared prosperity funds will see a deficit for Wales of £1 billion over the next few years.

When it comes to how that support has been provided through the latest round of COVID emergency support that we have made available, as with other rounds, once the support has been calculated and the moneys have gone out, we regularly publish where businesses are based and where they have received the money. It's a condition of receiving it that we do make available how that public money has been used. So, every Member will be able to see which businesses have had some support and where they're based as well. I'm looking to try to make that available on an easier to read basis, which may well be on a local authority basis, to set out the number of businesses and the amount of money that has gone in. And it really is dependent upon businesses applying, and applying successfully.

But, I am grateful—and I'll finish here, Llywydd—I'm very grateful to local authorities for the way that they have acted right across Wales in successfully and rapidly providing the non-domestic rates relief that has gone into businesses. I've met businesses in my own constituency who are very complimentary about the speed of that service and the difference that it made to them and their businesses surviving and looking forward to the future. 

2. Questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services

The next item, therefore, is questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services, and the first question comes from Vikki Howells. 

Specialist Medical Care in the Community

1. What is the Welsh Government doing to improve access to specialist medical care in the community? OQ57660

Diolch yn fawr, Vikki. We have stated our ambition for the NHS in Wales to be a quality-led service, where the right care is provided at the right time and in the right place. This includes access to care closer to home, where possible, and in specialist centres, where appropriate.

Thank you, Minister. 'No place like home', recently published by the Royal College of Physicians, builds an urgent case for increased investment in intermediate care provided in a patient's home. This can improve the quality of care, reduce admissions to hospital, and also get people back out of hospital and home more quickly. I'd welcome your response to this report and information on how the Welsh Government is working to increase access to this care in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Diolch yn fawr, Vikki, and I read the report, 'No place like home', with interest, and I agree with very many of the recommendations and I'm very pleased to say that we're already delivering in many of the areas that have been set out there. There's nobody, I don't think, who is more keen to get people back into their homes when they're ready for discharge from hospitals than I am. I'm very keen to get on with the programme of really addressing the backlog. And, obviously, while we have over 1,000 people in our hospitals waiting for discharge who are ready to get home, then clearly we need to take measures to make sure that's possible.

I'm very pleased to say that, as part of the action that we took in this space over the winter months, we have been holding weekly meetings, both the Deputy Minister Julie Morgan and I, with local government and health boards to try and ease that process of getting people out of hospitals. And you'll be aware that recently we announced £144 million of funding for the regional integration fund over five years, and some of the key themes in that really address the issues that you're interested in, which is basically looking at community-based care, home from hospital care, place-based care and, of course, in addition to that, we have the six goals for the urgent and emergency care handbook that were set out last week, and that is looking at safe alternatives to hospital admissions, a home-first approach and an attempt to reduce that risk of readmission. So, we already have, of course, examples of virtual wards, which have been talked about in that report, and the hospital at home service, and I'm very keen to see those models rolled out more extensively across Wales.

The Welsh Government has committed to the World Health Organization target to eliminate hepatitis C as a significant public health threat by 2030 at the latest. However, in other countries of the UK, Governments have set pathways to accelerate the elimination target date ahead of 2030. In England and Northern Ireland it's 2025, and in Scotland, 2024. So, can the Minister confirm that the Welsh Government will review its target date to eliminate hepatitis in Wales by 2030 at the latest and, in so doing, how will she address calls for best practice developed in Wales and other UK nations, such as micro-elimination in Swansea prison and focused peer support programmes, to be harnessed to develop solutions that allow for regional and community variation in approach, with local flexibilities to implement bespoke prevention, test and treatment services in the community—which is what this question is about—and other non-clinical settings, such as drug treatment services, addiction centres and community pharmacies?

14:25

Thanks very much, Mark, and certainly, I'm very interested in the issue of hepatitis C, which, of course, is a very long-term condition that many people have to live with. I'm very pleased to agree to take a look at whether there's any possibility of moving that target date. Clearly, the sooner we can eliminate this situation, the better, so I will undertake to have another look to see if there are any means of pulling that date forward.FootnoteLink

Minister, before I ask my question, I saw this morning on Politico that it's your birthday and Peter Hain's birthday as well, so happy birthday to you. What better way to celebrate than answering questions here in the Senedd?

Minister, one of the cornerstones of medical care in our communities is GPs, of course, and I know that you're very aware of the concern in a number of communities such as Pentyrch in the north of the city, that are concerned that they're losing their local surgery. And one of the arguments that are used with these communities is that there will be a new centre, several miles away, that will be able to provide the specialist services that they need. But do you agree with me, Minister, that before any community loses that local health provision we need a full, transparent and detailed consultation, and there needs to be a clear and robust rationale for doing that? Thank you.

Thank you very much. Yes, it is my birthday, as it is Peter Hain's and John Taylor from Duran Duran. [Laughter.] And Amanda Holden too, I understand, so I'm in very good company. 

Just in terms of the consultation on the surgery in Pentyrch, I have received a referral on 17 January covering this particular situation, and I've also received a letter from the LHB on this whole issue. Of course, we do have to ensure that the system is transparent. The process will be ongoing until Government Ministers have all of the information so that we can come to a decision that is clear and fair. Of course, community groups in the area have also been informed that they too have an opportunity to make any representations that they would like to make. 

Hywel Dda University Health Board

2. Will the Minister make a statement on the future delivery of services in the Hywel Dda University Health Board area? OQ57631

Thank you very much. The priority for delivering health services in the Hywel Dda area is planning for the continued provision of essential and key services, alongside caring for patients affected by COVID-19, and also working towards the delivery of wider, more routine, services when it is safe to do so.

Minister, last time I raised the delivery of health services with you, you responded with a political rant, but the people that both you and I represent have genuine concerns about local health services, and so I hope this time you'll choose to respond in a much more measured way.

Now, as you're aware, Hywel Dda University Health Board has recently submitted proposals that include repurposing or rebuilding Withybush General Hospital, whatever that means, and I know that you've also been receiving e-mails recently on this issue from worried residents in Pembrokeshire. People are worried that they will have to travel further afield for life-saving services and, as you know, the golden hour is critical in saving people's lives. Therefore, it's absolutely crucial that Withybush hospital retains its emergency services and that the hospital is not downgraded going forwards. So, Minister, will you work with me, and indeed others, to ensure that emergency services stay in Pembrokeshire for the future? 

Llywydd, of course I am more than anxious to listen to the genuine concerns of local people in relation to any developments in the Hywel Dda health board area, and of course, the decision ultimately in terms of configuration is one for Hywel Dda and it will be presented to the Welsh Government.

I would be grateful if you could have a little word with the Secretary of State for Wales to cool down his rhetoric. You talk to me about whipping up political rhetoric; I'm afraid that when he's sending out letters to people, whipping up feelings, telling people that the health Minister has an office in the local area, I don't think that is something for this time and place, when there is a situation where really we're in quite a frenzied atmosphere at the moment. I would be grateful if you could ask him to tone down the political rhetoric on his part.

The reality is that it's the Welsh Labour Government who've been committed to maintaining essential services at Withybush in line with the advice from clinicians and experts. I'd like to make it clear once again that there are no current plans to remove any service from Withybush prior to the opening of any potential new planned or urgent care hospital in west Wales. That decision will not be my decision. I think it's really important that you understand that as well. That will be a decision for somebody else, because, obviously, I represent that area. But I would remind you that the services have changed over the years, because that's been the recommendation of the royal colleges at the time.

Let's not forget also how fragile some of those services in Withybush have been over the years. The recruitment and retention of staff, due to the changing labour markets and the aspirations of clinicians, who choose, very often, to work in larger hospital settings, of course, have impacted on rural hospitals. It's been this Government that's provided millions of pounds of support to accident and emergency in Withybush, when the health board was reliant solely on agency staff to fill those rotas. At one time, it was the most expensive A&E department in the whole of Wales. So, I don't think you can accuse the Labour Government of not standing by the A&E department in Withybush. The Welsh Government didn't turn its back on Withybush then, and, as I've said time and again, Withybush will remain an important asset in the delivery of healthcare for the population of Pembrokeshire. But we must also look to the future. So, repeating the same old fears, repeating tribal arguments and pitting Pembrokeshire against Carmarthenshire is doing a disservice to patients. I'm sure that his constituents, and mine, will expect and deserve the best healthcare that we can provide.

14:30

Do you agree with me, Minister, that the future of health services in our region is in need of a genuine discussion, and that politicians should help solve systematic challenges, like how to attract and retain staff and how to deliver as many of the services as possible as close to home and where people live? It would be more useful, rather than simply obstructing change and investment that our constituents deserve, to instead engage in useful, constructive dialogue and engagement with all concerned, including the local health board, the providers and indeed, most of all, the people who rely on sustained and reliable health services. You've already outlined some of the challenges that are faced annually in the local health board area. It's time to get real now and have a genuine discussion about where we are, where we go, and what people need. I really hope, Minister, and I'm sure you will agree with me, that people take part in a measured discussion rather than simply, and I have to agree with you, pointing people towards where your office is, especially in this day and age—it's an absolutely dangerous practice.

Thanks very much, Joyce. I think you're absolutely right; we need a far deeper public conversation about what we want and how the whole range of health services will work, not just for the people of Pembrokeshire, but for Carmarthenshire and for Ceredigion in the years ahead. We haven't had that deeper conversation over the years, because some people have been caught up in the location of buildings rather than focusing our efforts on maximising our resources for the benefit of patients. There's a whole new philosophy that is being developed here. It's about care in the community as far as possible. Of course, Withybush doesn't exist on its own. It is, and will continue to be, part of a network of hospitals that provide health and care for our communities, whether that programme business case goes ahead or not. 

14:35
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Gareth Davies, to be answered by the Deputy Minister for Social Services. 

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llywydd. I'd like to start by wishing the health Minister a very happy birthday. I didn't know until the Member for South Wales Central mentioned it earlier. So, I wish you a very happy twenty-first birthday. [Laughter.]

But my questions are directed to the Deputy Minister for Social Services, so I'll start by asking the Deputy Minister: what does the integration of health and social care look like to you?

I thank Gareth Davies for that question. The integration of health and social care is something that we are working very hard to reach. Our regional partnership boards are where we are putting this into practice, where we have the health authorities and the local government authorities working together to come up with proposals that are totally integrated. It's also very important to remember that when we talk about an integrated service, there are other services that are very important as well. For example, on the RPBs, we have housing represented, and we have citizens represented, and unpaid carers represented. My vision of an integrated health and social care service is where you can move seamlessly between the two services, and where there are organisations like the regional partnership boards that are able to plan on an integrated basis.

I'm grateful for that answer, Deputy Minister. I agree to some level that, in an ideal world, that would be the case, but sadly, we've still got a long way to go. Perhaps the prime reason to integrate health and care is to ensure the best health and well-being outcomes for Welsh citizens, because at the moment we are totally failing at that aim. We are all too painfully aware of this crisis in social care and the impact it's having on not just the care sector but right across health and care. DTOCs, or delayed transfers of care, mean that there are fewer beds for new patients, putting strain on an already overburdened system. As evidence to the health committee has highlighted, this is sadly leading to deaths. According to the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, delays over eight hours in A&E could have contributed to as many as 2,000 unnecessary deaths. How do you plan to ensure that an integrated approach to discharge happens on every hospital ward across Wales?

Gareth Davies highlights a crucial point. There is no way that the health service will flourish unless the social care system is operating to its maximum. The reason why over 1,000 people who are medically fit to be discharged are not able to be discharged is, to a large extent, because there is not the domiciliary support in their own homes for them to manage at home, and there aren't enough spaces in care homes, where there aren't enough staff to look after them. Because of that, they're totally interlinked, and that's why we are working so closely together, the Minister for Health and Social Services and myself as the Deputy Minister for social care—because these two elements are totally linked, and what happens in the social care service impacts in the hospitals. 

We've been meeting every week in an action committee, with the local health boards and with the local authorities, and we've come up with a huge range of proposals in order to get people home more quickly, to try to ensure that they receive the support in some way or another when they do go home. We've also made, as you know from the announcement I made yesterday, big efforts in order to increase the social care workforce. So, we are working very hard to ensure that there is an improvement, and he makes an important point on how linked these two areas of service are. 

Thank you again, Deputy Minister. Of course, if we're truly to get to grips with discharges, we need to get on top of DTOCs. We not only have to get health and housing all pulling in the same direction, we first have to truly understand the scale of the problem, and the data is spotty at best. It was before the pandemic, and has got even worse. Different departments in the same hospital can use different criteria for what constitutes a DTOC. We know from the Minister that NHS Wales believes that around 1,000 patients are medically fit for discharge, yet are confined to an acute hospital bed, but we don't truly know if that's just the tip of the iceberg. Deputy Minister, how do you plan to get health and social care working together to ensure we have up-to-date accurate data on DTOCs and the reasons for delayed discharges?

14:40

We are developing our services' data and we are analysing why those over 1,000 people are detained in hospital when they shouldn't be there. In the vast majority, the reason for it is because they haven't got the help from the social care services, but there are other reasons as well. For example, communications is a big issue. There are delays sometimes for things like medication. There are lots of delays, and we are in the process of analysing that data. But, again, I think Gareth Davies makes an important point that we do need that information in order to plan in a productive way. 

Thank you very much, Llywydd. I have become disheartened once again looking today at waiting times for health appointments. It was CAMHS appointments that I saw today, showing that only 22 per cent receive an appointment within four weeks, the lowest level ever, when it was 75 per cent a year ago. Tomorrow, we're expecting broader health statistics, including ambulance waiting times, which show more than anything perhaps how patient flow through the health and care system has almost come to a stop. The target for the ambulance service of reaching the most at risk patients within eight minutes in 65 per cent of cases has been missed for a year and a half. When does the Minister expect the ambulance service to reach the target? Because every day, every week, every month of failing to reach a target puts lives at risk. 

Thank you very much, Rhun. I hoped you'd be kind to me today on my birthday, but that is a fair question. It is a difficult question to answer, and it's a question I'm very concerned about. The waiting times for ambulances are far too long, and that's why I had a meeting yesterday with the ambulance services trust. I'm having a meeting today with the head of the emergency ambulance services committee, which is responsible for ensuring that the work between the ambulance service and the health board and the care sector is co-ordinated, because we have to understand that this is one system. So, we've allocated a great deal of funding towards the ambulance service. We've provided them with many more resources. They've come forward and they've recruited far more people. It has made a difference. We've seen that around 11 per cent of people now aren't taken to hospital as a result of the better triage that happens.

But it isn't enough, and the waiting times are unforgivable. That is why I have been asking today and yesterday about what more we can do. Because if we just allocate more funding to the ambulance service what we we will see perhaps is more ambulances outside our hospitals. It might help us to reach people in our communities, but it doesn't help up with the flow of patients. So, we have to get the health boards to take their responsibility seriously. They have said that they want to see people coming out of ambulances within four hours. That isn't happening, so we need to put a greater pressure on them. What we're trying to see now is what more exactly we can do to provide that incentive or something so that we don't continue with this situation, because the waiting times are far too long. 

Certainly, they are, and there are people behind every statistic. I, and others on these benches, have been gathering evidence about the impact of the ambulance crisis. 

The stories that we hear are frightening: an 89-year-old woman collapsed and lying on the floor for six hours; a farming accident with no ambulance being available at all, so the patient is taken by car with a broken back; a wheelchair-dependent patient suffering a fracture being told to wait three days because it's non-urgent; a woman whose symptoms were deemed to require an emergency response waiting nine hours and an ambulance arriving as her heart stopped. Now, as the Minister says, this is not perhaps an ambulance crisis; it's a whole-system crisis, it's a system that is clogged up, and nobody is angrier about the situation that paramedics and ambulance staff, and our thanks to them is immeasurable. But, let me tell you what I was told by a senior GP recently. They said, 'If I had a family member who required urgent care, I wouldn't even think of calling 999, they'd be straight in the car. If we wanted an ambulance in Wales tonight, there probably wouldn't be one. This doesn't seem like a developed country'. What kind of country are we and when will the penny drop about the need to sort it out if even GPs are saying that we can't help those in most serious need of help?

14:45

I accept that there is a problem. The demand on the service has been enormous. The increase in demand on the service is more than anything we've seen before, so obviously there is a demand aspect to this that also needs to be looked at. I think also we've got to understand that actually over half of people are seen within the time frame, so it's not all bad, but of course we're not reaching anything like the targets that we should be reaching. One of the things that's happened this week is that there was a national risk summit to look at what harms are happening as a consequence of this, so that people start to understand this is not something where there are no consequences; there are serious consequences and therefore people need to understand that they need to step up and take more responsibility. So, that happened this week, as well. There will be outcomes as a result of that summit, so I'm just waiting to hear exactly what's happening. So, of course the situation needs some focus, which is why I'm giving it that focus. We've invested £5 million. An extra 127 front-line ambulance staff will become available in the coming months. They're all being trained up now, they'll be going on the front line and, of course, there are more people helping with that triaging in the call centres as well.

Ambulance Services

3. Will the Minister make a statement on the provision of ambulance services in South Wales West? OQ57652

Thanks very much. We expect health boards, as commissioners of ambulance services, to plan and secure safe and timely services that respond in order of clinical need. That means a whole-system approach, ensuring ambulance crews are available to respond when needed.

Thank you, Minister, for that answer. I think rural areas sometimes see the worst ambulance response times by the fact that they are often further away and harder to reach. This is the situation for residents in my region, on the Gower peninsula. Many of them came together a few years ago and raised £65,000 towards a first responder vehicle to be based in Reynoldston, which meant serious incidents could be attended to much quicker than waiting for ambulances to come from elsewhere. In 2017, the crew in Reynoldston were called out 207 times, but by 2018 this had fallen to 61, and that drop has continued in the year since. There have been times that people have literally waited hours and hours for ambulances to be called from Port Talbot when the first responder is literally within two minutes of the call. People are waiting significant lengths of time for paramedics or ambulances from miles away when there are trained people on their doorstep, who could even come and give interim care until the full-time professionals arrive. This is a situation that needs to be urgently addressed and would appear to be one that could be easily rectified by better communications within the Welsh ambulance service and 999 call-handling centres, especially those call handlers located in north Wales who may be unfamiliar with the geography of south Wales and the Gower peninsula in particular. Can I ask whether the Minister would agree to meet with me and local groups involved in the Reynoldston first response unit to discuss this further, to better promote this service within Gower and within the wider ambulance service?

Thanks very much, Tom. I spent a very nice weekend in the Gower, actually. I very rarely go to the Gower and it was very impressive to see actually how many of the local community are actually taking an interest in the health area—good to see that that kind of community spirit extends to this. But, of course, we have a responsibility as a Government to make sure that we are providing the service that we should be in those areas. I have been concerned about the situation in relation to ambulances in rural areas, because there was that roster review that was undertaken—that happened as a result of the demand and capacity review of 2018. What they were saying is that, actually, if we reconfigured the way that we organised ambulance services, we could get more bang for our buck, effectively. So, that roster review started happening, and then COVID hit. So, that's coming back on board. But, I have made it clear to the ambulance service that what we don't want to see is any denigration in terms of the provision to rural areas. So, that is something that I hope will happen as a result of that intervention that I have made.

14:50

Question 4 now, to be answered by the Deputy Minister for Social Services. Peter Fox.

Hospital Discharge Service

4. Will the Minister make a statement on the hospital discharge service requirements? OQ57663

Thank you. Discharge service guidance is in place to manage the flow of patients, particularly during the pandemic. We recently updated this guidance, taking on board the latest and more positive position with regard to COVID, in order to continue to provide a safe mechanism for discharging people from hospitals following their treatment. 

Thank you, Deputy Minister, for your statement. Llywydd, recently, my office has been told of an incident at the Grange hospital, where a constituent who is 92 years old was discharged from A&E in the early hours of the morning. They arrived home at 4 a.m. Prior to their discharge, the constituent's partner, also 92, received a phone call from the hospital at around 3 a.m., causing them to get out of bed in a hurry, despite being susceptible to falling themselves. While I acknowledge and appreciate the response from the chief executive of the health board, explaining the situation as they saw it, this doesn't detract from my concerns about the discharge procedures at that hospital. My constituent and their partner stated that they did not receive sufficient support, and that their partner had to push them, using a rollator, to get them into bed.

Minister, you will be aware of the recent report of Age Alliance Wales, which highlighted inadequacies in the procedures, and it's just not acceptable. I understand that hospitals are still under significant pressure and that the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that discharge procedures have been altered to free up beds and reduce the risk of infection. But, what has happened to the basic principles, like kindness and compassion? The NHS shouldn't be moving towards being a factory. Minister, how is the Welsh Government working with partners in the Welsh NHS to ensure that such unacceptable incidents don't happen and that discharge procedures better acknowledge the vulnerability of people like my constituent?  

Yes, I thank Peter Fox for that question, and I am concerned to hear about what happened to his constituent and the constituent's husband. It is, really, a lot of what we have been talking about this afternoon—how we get better co-ordination and better working together between the health and social services systems. Obviously, this family were in need of help—in need of social care help when they got home—and they needed that to be identified in the hospital. So, it is this link that is so important. Obviously, what happened with his constituent is something that we wouldn't want to happen to anybody. But, we are planning and working to improve the links between health and social care. In addition, the six goals for urgent and emergency care include goal 5, which is optimal hospital care and discharge practice, from the point of admission, and goal 6, which is a home-first approach and reducing the risk of readmission. These goals—five and six—seek to deliver the national discharge guidance. We have given £25 million in recurring national funding to support this—although, obviously, I accept it didn't happen in his constituent's case. This is something that we've got to work very hard on. So, we are doing that, and we are investing that money.

In addition to that, we are putting £2.6 million into non-urgent patient transport, and that's in an effort to ease pressure on the ambulance service—and we have just had a number of questions about the ambulance service. We are giving £40 million to support the recovery of social care services, and £9.8 million is allocated to regional partnership boards to support delivery of their plans to ease winter pressures, along with £32.92 million for social care pressures. So, I think you can see that we are putting a great deal of investment into the service and we are working very hard to get the partnership right between the hospital and the social care system, but I would once again like to express my sympathy for what happened to his constituents.

14:55

Would you agree with me that one of the keys to this is ensuring that we have the quality social care in the community to enable people to be discharged quickly?

Yes, it's absolutely essential that we have that quality social care, and, as we all know, social care has been under huge pressure, and we are doing all we possibly can to boost the social care service. I announced yesterday ways we were working towards attracting more social care workers to the service, because we're very short of staff, by bringing in the real living wage, along with an additional payment. We're working hard to look at terms and conditions, because I think the key to this is getting the staff—the right, quality staff—in the community, who will be there to work with vulnerable people to help stop them going into hospital, and, when they do come out of hospital, to be there to prevent them going back in. So, yes, I certainly do agree with what Jenny Rathbone has said.

Health Provision in Mid Wales

5. Will the Minister provide an update on Welsh Government plans to improve health provision in mid Wales? OQ57641

Powys Teaching Health Board is responsible for providing services to its population. We are working with the health board on business cases for both the north Powys well-being development, and refurbishment works at Llandrindod Wells hospital.

Thank you, Minister, for your reply. I appreciate it's your birthday today and usually people give you presents, but I'm hoping that you'll give my constituents a present through your answer today. Minister, there is strong community support and cross-party support for proposals brought forward by Powys County Council and the Powys health board for a new community hospital and health and well-being centre in Newtown, and, as you know, the plan would see a cutting-edge facility to serve north Powys and improve health outcomes. It would mean, of course, people wouldn't have to travel out of county for appointments; they could receive healthcare and appointments and consultations locally rather than going beyond the border of Powys. Now, I've raised this previously with you and the First Minister as well. The First Minister gave me a very positive reply last July and told me that the Welsh Government was absolutely committed to this project. However, it has been sat on the desk of Welsh Government for some months now. I appreciate this cuts across various Ministers—education, local authority, finance—so, can I ask you to liaise with your colleagues and Ministers across Government in order to get the green light for this project as soon as possible, because I'm sure, as well as me, you're aware that if we give the green light to this project it will help reduce that health backlog that you and I both want to see reduced?

Thanks very much, Russell. Certainly, I've been to the site where the proposed new north Powys well-being development is, and it certainly does look like an exciting development. The programme business case for that development is currently working through final scrutiny, but I will see if I can get a better sense of when exactly a decision will be made. What I will, I'm afraid, have to warn you about is that there are considerable pressures on the NHS capital programme and that there will be difficult decisions that will need to be made, going forward, and so we certainly will be looking to work with the council and other areas to see what we can do to progress programmes like this and others.

Good afternoon, Minister, and happy birthday. Thank you to Russell for raising this point. I'm very pleased to hear that these plans are moving forward, and I would like to thank Russell, who has worked so hard on this project—and some collaboration, I hope, across north Powys. Following on from your response to Russell, can I just ask what kind of process will be in place to continue to keep in touch with people in relation to this project? Thank you.

15:00

Thank you very much. We're not in that position as of yet where we've got the green light. We had hoped that there may be more capital available within the NHS programme, so, at the moment, we are considering where we can make progress with the developments that we're eager to see, and we would certainly be eager to see this develop if it all possible. So, I'm sure that funding will be the factor that limits any progress in this area, and that's why we do need to go through that final scrutiny, and hopefully I can return with a response to you on this issue before too long.

Vascular Services

Thank you, Llywydd. May I also take this opportunity to wish the Minister a happy birthday through you, Llywydd? Thank you.

6. What assessment has the Minister made of the findings of the Royal College of Surgeons report on vascular services in North Wales? OQ57656

Well, thank you very much. Clearly, I was very disappointed to see the report from the Royal College of Surgeons with regard to vascular services in north Wales. There was a long list of issues that had been noted in that report, and Betsi teaching board is responsible for the provision of services to its population.

I thank the Minister for that response. Well, after three years of establishing improvement groups, task and finish groups, a change of leadership personnel, and, ultimately, commissioning an independent report, at last there is recognition that substantial mistakes have been made with this service. Is someone going to be held to account for this, Minister? Can you confirm whether anyone who was directly responsible for these mistakes remains in an operational leadership role in this area? And do you think that it's right that the people who pushed this through remain in positions of responsibility in the health service, and will you now place the vascular service back into special measures in order to regain the confidence of the people of north Wales?

Thank you very much, Mabon. I believe the First Minister gave an explanation with regard to the situation quite thoroughly this week. Clearly, we're in a position where we were following the guidance. The Royal of College of Surgeons, of course, had recommended that things were centralised in the first instance, so I do think it's important that we look at the guidance that they're eager to give too.

I have given a warning now to the board in the Betsi area. If the recommendations in the report haven't been progressed over the coming three months, there will be consequences as a result of that. I've made it clear, if we don't see improvement in the next three months, I will be asking the tripartite group to hold an additional meeting to give me additional information with regard to further escalation.

Excellence in the Welsh NHS

7. What action is the Welsh Government taking to promote excellence in the Welsh NHS? OQ57633

The people of Wales deserve the highest quality health services and the best outcomes. Striving for excellence should be at the heart of all health boards' plans, and embedded in all levels of the NHS. We're committed to strengthening this through our collaborative transformation and quality improvement approaches.

I completely agree with the aspirations that you've just espoused, Minister, but I'm very, very concerned to see your statement today in relation to the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board being given just three months before it could possibly be put back into special measures. Those of us who represent constituencies in north Wales feel let down. We feel let down, yes, by the Welsh Government for failing to turn the situation around in over five years when the organisation was in special measures, which causes me to question how effective they might be if they're reintroduced unless they seriously change, but, secondly, we feel let down by the leadership of that health board in the past. One of the proposals that we have put forward and discussed in this Chamber—and I hope we can attract you to it—is to establish a register of Welsh NHS leaders, so that when people fail in their jobs, when people cause harm in their jobs because of decisions that they take as managers within the health service, not clinicians that can be struck off registers, if they're nurses or doctors, but I'm talking about managers, they should be held to account for those actions and never be allowed to put people at risk again by being thrown off a register in the future. Is that something that you will consider, and how can you demonstrate that things will be different in the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board in the future, further to your ministerial statement today?

15:05

Thanks very much, Darren. Well, certainly, we are concerned about the situation in relation to vascular in north Wales. I have been comforted by the fact that it was Betsi itself that called in the Royal College of Physicians to look at the situation. That was the right thing for them to do. I am hoping that they're going to respond quickly to that review. They have undertaken to put forward those actions. We'll be monitoring those actions as a Government on a monthly basis. I'm really pleased to see that they'll be working with Liverpool hospital to make sure that there is some oversight and understanding from a quality service that is seen there. And, of course, we're very keen to see the establishment of that quality panel. You're interested in quality, we're interested in quality. That's what they're going to do: set up a quality plan to strengthen the clinical leadership locally. 

As to your question that, of course, there is this—. We have already received a detailed action plan from Betsi and they have committed to immediate implementation of that.

As to your other question about leadership, I can see your point. I think there have been examples in the past where we've seen people move from one board to another. Let me take that away, Darren, and give it some thought.FootnoteLink

Urgent Dental Services

8. Will the Minister make a statement on patient access to urgent dental services in the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board area? OQ57671

The health board has invested an additional £840,000 in dentistry, including the provision of urgent access. As a result, there's been a provision increase from 157 to 300 urgent appointments available per week. Access to more routine care remains limited due to necessary infection control measures, and priority is determined according to patient need.

Thank you, Minister. I appreciate that.

There is, of course, another crisis in access to NHS dentistry, which isn't simply a consequence of the pandemic, and that is the consequence of the lack of availability of NHS dental services. This affects many parts of the country, but is a particular issue at the moment in Ebbw Vale, where my constituents are simply unable to access NHS dentistry. It is profoundly worrying that a child growing up in Ebbw Vale doesn't have the same access to basic dentistry as a child growing up elsewhere. Older people are unable to afford to go to see the dentist. This isn't what our vision of a national health service is or should be. Can you assure me, Minister, that you will intervene to ensure that my constituents have access to NHS dentistry, that they are able to access the services that we have all paid for collectively and for which the national health service ensures that those services are available to all equally, to enable people to feel comfortable that they themselves can be taken care of and that they're families can be taken care of?

Well, thanks very much, Alun. I can assure you that I've been very concerned about the situation, not just in your constituency, but in other constituencies around Wales. Because of the pandemic, we have seen a massive reduction. And it's not just because of the pandemic, I do accept that, but, certainly, that has reduced the capacity by about 50 per cent. So, you can't ignore that. That is a significant issue. That's why I was very keen to make sure that we put up an extra £3 million in this financial year to boost access to NHS dental services, and then to increase that to £2 million recurrently next year and beyond.

There are issues, and I'm very keen to see what more we can do in this space. It's not straightforward, because we can train people up for the NHS and then they leave to the private sector. There's not a straightforward and easy answer to this. Now, one of the things we're doing is we've got a contract reform that'll be starting in April, where we'll be measuring and incentivising quality and prevention. We'll be getting people to look at not just existing patients, but new patients, and also we'll be encouraging them to use the skills as a whole team, because it's not just dentists who can use them—dental technicians have really excellent clinical skills and we need to be using them. So, it is an area where we need to do more work. It's very difficult, because we pour money into it and people leave the sector. It's very, very hard. So, if you've got any good ideas, Alun, I'm all ears.

15:10

I thank the Minister, and I hope that she will have an opportunity to relax now for the rest of her birthday. I almost started to sing at one point there during all those best wishes shared with you, but I decided it was better not to do that. [Laughter.]

3. Topical Questions

The topical question is now, and that question is to be answered by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, and is to be asked by Janet Finch-Saunders.

The A55 Roundabouts Removal Project

1. Will the Minister make a statement on the decision to scrap the A55 roundabouts removal project? TQ598

Yes. The roads review panel recommended that, instead of progressing the project in its current form, there's a strong case for considering a review of the whole of the north Wales corridor, as recommended in the UK Government's union connectivity review's final report. I accepted those recommendations, and last week set up the north Wales transport commission, chaired by Lord Burns.

Thank you. Llywydd, can I just put on record my disappointment that the Deputy Minister isn't in the Chamber to answer a topical question?

No, you can't, I'm afraid. I say at the start of absolutely every meeting of this Senedd that all Members are able to participate virtually or in Plenary and they are to be treated equally and respected wherever they may be contributing from. Move on to your question.

Move on to your question. If it's important to you, ask it.

Okay. It will come as no surprise, Deputy Minister, that I rise to challenge you on your decision to scrap the roundabout removal schemes on junctions 15 and 16 of the A55. These schemes have been on the table since 2017, involving many costly assessments. Indeed, to date, the project has cost our taxpayers approximately £9 million. There was even going to be a public inquiry last September until I actually raised your own review with you, because this engagement process was planned. And when I brought it to your attention, you actually scrapped that, then.

Now, the Welsh Government's own report highlights safety concerns as junctions are not compliant with current design standards; traffic delays as a result of poor network resilience; a lack of suitable diversion routes in case of tunnel maintenance, road repairs and accidents on the A55, all of which we know happen far too frequently; poor sustainable travel options; poor coastal access and safety—safety—for pedestrians and cyclists. As part of the schemes, some recently built new houses were actually considered for demolition, leaving many residents in limbo over all these years. Despite repeated claims by you on the cancellation of other schemes, you've been citing that this is all in the name of climate change objectives.

Well, let me tell you, this is not the case here. The queues on the roads joining the roundabouts will continue. Cars idling, emitting volumes of carbon monoxide, affecting the quality of the very air that we breathe—and when I say 'we', my constituents. Deputy Minister, perhaps you will explain to the Senedd and my constituents why you have wasted £9 million only then to do a u-turn. What solutions will you now be putting in place to alleviate all the current problems and issues that have actually been cited in your own scheme assessment reports? Diolch, Llywydd.

Well, Llywydd, it's not four months since I joined Janet Finch-Saunders on the steps of the Senedd to send a strong message to world leaders at the Conference of the Parties on the need to take dramatic action to tackle climate change. I've heard many times in the Chamber Janet Finch-Saunders lecture me how the Welsh Government wasn't going far enough, wasn't going fast enough to deal with the climate and nature emergencies. I would say to her, with the greatest of respect, that it's no good signing up to declarations then to run away from the actions that follow from that.

In order to meet our 2050 target, we need to cut carbon emissions in the next decade by 63 per cent. That includes achieving modal shift. We have a target set out in the Wales transport strategy of achieving 45 per cent of journeys by sustainable transport by 2045, up from 32 per cent now. That requires us to do things differently. That's why I set up the roads review panel, and they are patiently going through each of the 50 schemes currently in development, and agreed, because of the public inquiry—and I would note it didn't take her to tell me there was a public inquiry for me to spot that fact—but, because there was a public inquiry, we fast-tracked this scheme, and one other scheme, through the process so that an early decision could be made. The independent panel has now published its full report, and that is available for everyone to read, and they go through, in detail, their reasons. And they concluded, on the issue of safety, that the proposed grade-separated junctions replacing two roundabout junctions, would create little absolute improvement to the collision record. She rightly says that, in peak season, there are particular problems on the A55 around capacity, but they are limited to the high tourist season. The report also said, I'm quoting:

'The aim of the scheme is not in alignment with the sustainable transport hierarchy, the mode share targets, or increasing the proportion of freight moved by sustainable modes.'

Now, that's there in black and white, in the conclusion of the report, commissioned precisely because I was doing as she asked me to do, which is to respond to the climate emergency and to recognise the impact that transport plays in that—17 per cent of our emissions are from transport.

Now, I recognise there will be some people who are disappointed, and others locally who objected to the scheme who will be less disappointed. On the question of cost, indeed, there has been sunk costs into this. It will not be entirely wasted. The studies and the work underpinning them will be valuable for the Burns commission north in its work. And I see little logic in continuing spend on a project that was set to cost more than £75 million simply because we'd begun work looking at assessments—that makes no sense to me at all. And the purpose of our work is to shift funding away from schemes that add to our carbon emissions in order to fund schemes that help us to reduce our carbon emissions.

And if we want to create real alternatives for her constituents, we have to invest in them, and that's what the Burns commission will set out to do. It'll set up a practical pipeline of projects of all modes—road, rail, bus and active travel—to deal with the problems along the A55 and across the whole of north Wales of congestion and poor air quality, as well as looking at our carbon targets. And it will set out, just as it did in south Wales—. And, bear in mind, for all the comments on the Conservative benches criticising our decision on the M4, the union connectivity review, set up by the UK Government—against the backdrop of the Prime Minister saying it was going to back him in suggesting the M4 should go ahead and how he was going to override devolution; all the usual chest-beating statements we now expect from the Prime Minister—the union connectivity report looked at the options, it looked at the Burns recommendations for the south, it looked at the M4, and it concluded that the right way forward was the Burns recommendations for the south. I have every confidence that, over the next year, they will do similar work in the north to create a pipeline of schemes that'll make things better, which we can then all commit to work together to implement.

15:15

The question the Conservatives should be asking isn't how do we stop cars from idling, it's how do we stop cars getting on the road in the first place. And the Deputy Minister is right. It's the broader question here of: are we serious about climate change? And if we are, then are we serious about modal shift and reducing people's overdependence on cars? Are we serious that that is part of the answer? And if we are, then it does mean that things have to change, and there will be fewer big, expensive road schemes. But, just as important, of course, turning to the Deputy Minister, we also need to see investment happening into those alternatives. So, the question isn't what can we do to revive these proposed schemes, but what can we do to address the same issues in a different way. I welcome, therefore, the commission to be led by Lord Burns, and it's probably at the end of that process that we decide whether this is the right decision or not, because it's only at the end of the process will we see and understand what the alternatives are.

So, I'd like to ask: does the Deputy Minister agree with me that it's absolutely key, as part of this process and the wider, ongoing process of the reviewing roads project, that there's absolute transparency and clarity around how these decisions are being made and that there's absolute consistency as well, in terms of the criteria and the factors considered from project to project, albeit within their own individual contexts, because, otherwise, people will be right to be concerned and sceptical about what the real motives are? 

15:20

Well, I'd like to thank Llyr Gruffydd for his supportive comments and his endorsement of the broad approach that we are taking. And it will be right that there'll be a role for challenge and scrutiny of all of this, and it's important that the Burns commission operates in that way, as it did in the south, as, indeed, the roads review is. The roads review is putting all of this information in the public domain for people to see its reasoning, for us to scrutinise it. The Burns commission will be publishing an interim report, which will be available, to engage with stakeholders, just as they did in their work around Newport. I've already had conversations with the leaders of the three councils in the area affected in the north to get their views on this, to ask them for suggestions of who should serve on the commission and to talk to them about the way ahead. So, I agree with him that transparency and consistency are important, but just as the importance of being willing follow through our words with actions. 

4. 90-second Statements

The next item, therefore, is the 90-second statements, and today's statement comes from Jane Dodds.

Diolch, Llywydd. This Friday, 18 February, is international Care Day, celebrating care-experienced children and young people. Too often, young people tell us that they are made to feel like they don't belong, so the theme of this year is 'Together we create community,' celebrating the strength of the care-experienced community and highlighting the importance of ensuring that every child and young person is able to play a full part in their communities.

To mark Care Day on Friday, care-experienced young people from across Wales will meet virtually to create a time capsule and, over the coming year, Voices from Care Cymru and their partners will be inviting all Members of the Senedd to meet care-experienced children and young people in our own constituencies and regions, so that we can get to know them, so that they can get to know us as well, and that we can play our part in building that sense of belonging that care-experienced children and young people tell us that they need. The time capsule will make a record of what they feel needs to change to allow them and other care-experienced children and young people to really thrive, and they will open the capsule in five years' time so that they and we can see what has changed.

Finally, I sincerely hope that the brilliant universal basic income pilot announced by the Government will transform the lives of those care leavers who are able to take part in the pilot. So, on Friday, please show your support for our care community; after all, they are children in our care. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Thank you very much for that statement, and we'll take a short break to prepare for some changeovers in the Siambr. A short break.

Plenary was suspended at 15:23.

15:30

The Senedd reconvened at 15:31, with the Llywydd in the Chair.

5. Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv): Local Government elections

The next item is a Member debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv) on local government elections, and I call on Rhys ab Owen to move the motion.

Motion NDM7881 Rhys ab Owen, Llyr Gruffydd, Jane Dodds

Supported by Cefin Campbell, Heledd Fychan, Luke Fletcher, Mabon ap Gwynfor, Peredur Owen Griffiths, Rhun ap Iorwerth, Siân Gwenllian, Sioned Williams

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes:

a) the Local Government and Elections Wales Act 2021 extends the voting franchise to 16 and 17 year olds and foreign citizens legally resident in Wales, ensures a duty to encourage local people to participate in local government, and enables councils to scrap the first-past-the-post system to elect councillors;

b) a more proportional system is used in local elections in Scotland, reducing the number of uncontested seats, and ensuring that all votes count.

2. Calls on the Welsh Government to work closely with new councils elected in May 2022 to ensure that a more representative method and a uniform national system is used to elect councillors across Wales by 2027.

Motion moved.

Thank you very much, Llywydd. As everyone in this Chamber will know, 'democracy' comes from the Greek. It stems from the words 'demos' and 'kratia' that mean 'control by the people'. But the 'winner takes all' mentality dominates in Wales, and particularly in England at the moment—a system where one party takes the spoils, and the others are left empty-handed. This therefore leads to the majority feeling that their vote was a waste of time and that casting that vote had no impact whatsoever.

To prove that I'm not seeking to make a party political point here, let me start with Gwynedd Council back in 2017. In that election, Plaid Cymru won 55 per cent of the seats with just 39 per cent of the vote. In Monmouthshire, our colleague Peter Fox and the Conservatives won 58 per cent of the seats with just 46 per cent of the vote. And here in Cardiff, Labour won 52 per cent of the seats with 39 per cent of the vote. And to ensure that no-one in this Senedd is left out, the three seats in the ward where I was born, in Penylan in Cardiff, went to the Liberal Democrats—each seat taken with just 25 per cent of the vote.

The term 'chwarae teg' is an integral part of Welsh phraseology and ideology. 

You will hear non-Welsh speakers use the word, whilst speaking English—'chwarae teg', fair play. This current system is certainly not fair play. We have in Wales today parties that fall far short of gaining half of the electorate's vote, but gain control of 100 per cent of the executive. I'm confident that each Member of this Senedd are far more of a democrat than any party allegiance. For democracy to flourish in Wales, and to be engaging of the people of Wales, it needs to be far more representative and more reflective of our communities.

Wales is often described as a community of communities, but if democracy is to be strong in our nation, our communities must feel that they are represented and that their voices are listened to and heard.

Yes, I'll take an intervention.

Diolch, Rhys. Looking at the details of the motion, it says,

'reducing the number of uncontested seats'.

How would changing the voting system achieve that when it's usually down to the members or the parties to decide who fills which seats?

If you listen for a bit longer, Gareth Davies, you'll find out—I'm about to get to that point.

Wales is a community of communities, but we must ensure that people's voices are heard and listened to.

One more example from the 2017 local elections: in the Whitchurch and Tongwynlais ward in the north of Cardiff, the Conservative Party won all four seats, even though 60 per cent of the voters did not vote Conservative. One hundred per cent of the seats, only 40 per cent of the vote; 4,092 votes in that one ward were wasted. This should not be about party politics, this should not be about gaining power; it should be about fairness. If we call ourselves democrats, we should want the vast majority of ballot papers to really count. A proportional system is the only way of achieving this. It allows for the flourishing of plurality, plurality of choice, plurality of votes and a plurality of outcomes.

I'm pleased that the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 enables a more proportional system to be adopted in local elections from this May onwards. But we need national leadership, or the old cliché of turkeys voting for Christmas comes to mind.

Scotland—and I'm coming to your point shortly, Gareth—Scotland introduced a single transferrable vote system in 2007 across all local authorities, and the change has been dramatic. Consensus has become the rule of the day, with councillors working co-operatively to benefit their constituents. Furthermore, local democracy has been strengthened. In 2003, in Scotland, 61 seats were uncontested, and what is the figure now, Gareth? Sixty-one uncontested in 2003; the answer now, Gareth, is zero. Every seat in Scotland, since proportional representation, has been contested. 

Now, in Wales, in 2017—bear me with me for a second, Sam—nearly 100 councillors stood unchallenged here in Wales, with one councillor in Powys remaining unchallenged for 37 years. That man now has been a councillor for nearly 40 years, and not once has he faced an opponent. [Interruption.] Yes, I'll take an intervention. 

15:35

Thank you, Rhys. The points around Scotland and the STV coming in, you rightly pointed out the uncontested seats move. But, also, since STV's been there, electoral turnout has been significantly less. So, in the two years preceding STV, there was a turnout of around 54 per cent; since then, it's around 46 per cent. So, how would you support that in terms of engaging with local democracy, which is so vitally important, and starts with people coming out to vote?

I'm glad you're reading out all your pre-prepared interventions already. Let me answer: this idea that turnouts are lower in PR is absolutely ridiculous. In Australia, it's nearly 100 per cent; Ukraine, it's over 90 per cent; Malta, it's over 90 per cent. Turnouts do not go down after introducing PR. 

First-past-the-post voting leads to tactical voting, which, in itself, is damaging to our democracy. A vote to keep something out rather than casting a positive vote for one's preference. A vote for a larger party very often, rather than a smaller party that they truly want to support, like the Greens for example.

We are limiting people's freedom to choose by keeping this archaic first-past-the-post system, which is now almost 150 years old. There is not only a moral argument to introducing a proportional system, there are strong practical reasons also. In England and Wales, many councils have single parties holding in excess of 75 per cent of the seats. This can give councils and administrations carte blanche on official business. This, in turn, leads to weakened accountability, which has an effect on public procurement, which in turn impacts the way taxpayers' money is spent. 

One-party councils constitute a modern form of fiefdom, where scrutiny committees reviewing millions of pounds in government contracts hardly get scrutinised at all. The Electoral Reform Society, in 2015, found that single-party dominated councils were wasting as much as £2.6 billion a year due to lack of scrutiny. Decisions often in these councils are made pre-emptively, in private meetings with majority groups behind closed doors, and then sprung upon the rest of the council at short notice. Their vote, their opinion, their thoughts don't matter. 

The ERS study further looked into thousands of public sector contracts and found that these one-party dominated councils were about 50 per cent more at risk of corruption than politically competitive councils. Bad for democracy, bad for voters and bad for the public purse. Dozens of countries have made the switch, and not one has made the switch back. Australia, New Zealand, Ukraine: they have shifted from first-past-the-post to a more proportional system.

And I look forward to hearing the contribution of my colleague Heledd Fychan, of her experiences in the Republic of Ireland. Why has no-one shifted back to the first-past-the-post system? Well, because that system isn't fit for a modern democracy. We must move away from the concept that politics is a battle with winners and losers. In the wonderful tributes paid to Aled Roberts yesterday, everyone described him as a consensual politician, a politician ready to collaborate with others, and that is as it should be, because politics is a process, not a battle. A process of sharing ideas, a process of collaboration, a process of consensus building between people and groups to find common ground in order to improve the lives of those living in our communities.

And this Senedd, as I'm pleased to see, has had co-operation at the heart of it from the beginning. There has never been a majority in this Senedd, with coalitions and co-operations being the rules of the game. And I'm glad, I'm glad to see that the Plaid Cymru and Labour co-operation is the latest incarnation of that. I know, during the election in 2021, many commentators and many politicians in England were surprised about this, but really this is a normal process. Co-operation is a normal process across many countries on these islands, across Europe and across the world. It leads to better governments. 

As I previously said, I'm well aware that councils in Wales will have the choice to adopt another system if they so wish after this May's election. But this will create a two-tier system between councils, with certain ones willing to adopt and reform and others saying 'no'. Some of you in this Senedd now are probably old enough to remember when people had to cross county lines to have a pint on a Sunday. People from Hendy used to cross the Loughor bridge to have a pint in Pontarddulais. Well, something similar will happen again now. You'll have one village where the ballot paper really does count, really does make a difference, and a village over there where it doesn't as much.

In this place, we often hear about low voter turnout, and political apathy is all too apparent in Wales. Sam Rowlands often mentions low voter turnout for Senedd elections. But one way to address that is by ensuring that Welsh democracy reflects far better the views of the people in our places of power.

A good democracy reflects the choices of its voters, not just 40 per cent of them, but as many as possible. If we want to combat political apathy, we need to help people to maximise their votes and their voices.

John Stuart Mill said—. 

John Stuart Mill said, back in 1861, that the first principle of democracy is this: representation in proportion to the numbers. Today, let us, in this Senedd, not allow outdated ideas, not allow prejudices, not allow the ambition for power to block this very basic principle of democracy. Diolch yn fawr.

15:40

Thank you to Rhys ab Owen for submitting today's Member's debate, and also to Llyr Gruffydd and Jane Dodds for co-submitting. I'd better declare an interest as a sitting county councillor in Conwy County Borough Council at this point.

As many Members will know, I'm a keen enthusiast of local government, and I'm delighted that this important area has been raised in the Senedd, here today. I'll be honest, I wasn't quite so keen when I saw the content of the debate in front of us though. As the motion states, the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 ensures a duty to encourage local people to participate in local government. I'm sure we'd all agree how crucial this is—to see many people engage. And I still have yet to hear how a reduction in voter turnout in Scotland since STV has been introduced is a good thing for local democracy. But perhaps the Member will want to explain that a bit later on. 

I'll take an intervention, Llywydd, if he's interested.

15:45

The fact that STV has been introduced into Scotland has nothing to do with the fact that the number of people who've voted has gone down. It's not connected at all.

It's a very strange coincidence, then, Llywydd; a very strange coincidence that voter turnout has fallen dramatically at that point.

In terms of looking to deal with uncontested seats, which I think is an important part of the motion, and certainly something that I do think needs addressing, I think my biggest concern with the proposal today is that it does seem to be looking to deal with the symptom and not the cause. We have to understand why there are uncontested seats here in Wales. I really don't think it's because we have a first-past-the-post system. Is it really the system that prevents people from standing for election? I'm not sure about that at all. I guess if a survey was done across the people of Wales asking what the role of the council was, I'm sure there would actually be lots of things there where people just don't appreciate what the council does and can do for them and for their communities. It's councils that deliver vital public services. And if we can inspire people to want to stand and represent their community, that is what will stop uncontested seats from being there. So, in my view, rather than looking to a whole new electoral system in Wales, we should be focusing our efforts to encourage people to stand and make a difference for their community—people from all walks of life. We should be talking up the role that locally elected individuals can have in running their schools, in ensuring those who are most vulnerable are supported and ensuring people have great access to fantastic open spaces. Inspiring people to make a difference in their community is what will reduce the number of uncontested seats. 

In addition to this, I'm concerned about some of the contradiction in today's motion, because part of the motion does call for a uniform national system to elect members. That already exists. There's a uniform national system we have for electing councillors, and that's called first-past-the-post. Point 2 of the motion calls on Welsh Government to work closely with new councillors elected in May 2022. That of course is crucial and important to allowing councils to have the right discussions with Welsh Government, and certainly we'll be supporting that continued engagement. However, the motion then talks about ensuring a representative method, which I found a bit confusing, if I'm honest with you. I would like to understand how our electoral method at the moment is not representative. Our electoral system allows people from all walks of life to stand for election in their local ward and local council area. In addition to this, our current first-past-the-post system ensures clear accountability. People know who they're voting for. Electoral change could deter people further from getting involved in local politics. I certainly agree that more action needs to be taken to ensure we see those from all walks of life enter local government. However, this has absolutely nothing to do with our electoral system. Instead, as I've already highlighted, we need to make people aware of the real responsibility and important role that councils play and how rewarding it can be to represent your local community.

To conclude, Llywydd, this motion is simply dealing with the symptoms and not the cause of some of the challenges we see in local democracy. Now is the time to put all our efforts into making people aware of the responsibility and opportunity of councils and the exceptional work that they do and can carry out. So, we need to encourage all parts of society to get involved in local politics and the sheer reward of representing their local communities. In light of this, Llywydd, on these sides of the benches, we'll be voting against today's motion. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

The current system means mainly relatively small wards and increased contact between electors and elected. It means that when you go out to get your newspaper, go shopping, visit a local sports club, or walk down the street, you interact with voters. STV is an electoral system promoted by many in favour of a form of proportional representation. It's used for Scottish council elections and elections to the Irish Parliament, the Dáil. When electing more than one candidate, the STV system becomes complicated, whereas only one candidate is being elected in the alternative vote system. The greatest weakness of STV for political parties is you have to guess how many seats you can win when nominating candidates.

The last choice a voter makes, if all their higher preferences are removed, has the same value as another voter's first choice. Does it work as a proportional system? Well, in the Irish general election of 2020, Sinn Féin, despite receiving the most first-preference votes nationwide, did not win the most seats. Despite beating Fianna Fáil by 535,995 to 484,320, they ended up one seat behind. It took 12,745 votes to elect each Fianna Fáil Member, but 14,476 to elect a Member of Sinn Féin. The Irish journalist John Drennan described it as 11 seats that Sinn Féin left behind because they didn't have enough candidates. They guessed wrong on the number of seats they might win, but if they had guessed wrong the other way, they could have ended up with fewer seats.

So, STV is less a proportional system and more a skilled guessing game, where getting it wrong can mean fewer seats than you should proportionally get. Is it any surprise that Scotland use it for council elections but have decided not to use it for the Scottish Parliament? If you visit Scottish council websites, you can see how large council seats are in area and in population. Of the 21 wards in the Highland Council area, Wester Ross, Strathpeffer and Lochalsh is the example par excellence of the size of council wards needed in rural areas under STV. Not only is this the largest electoral ward in the UK, it is also by itself larger in area than 27 of Scotland's 32 councils. It accounts for almost a fifth of the Highland Council's entire area, and is approximately the same size as Trinidad and Tobago.

For the highlands of Scotland, think Powys, think Ceredigion, think Gwynedd. Just think of some of these areas—and Pembrokeshire—where the population is spread out, then of the population needed for these wards to allow STV to operate effectively. Glasgow ward 1, Linn, has a population of 30,000, which is about two thirds of the population of the Aberconwy Senedd constituency. In Glasgow Govan, four candidates were elected, with Labour topping the poll quite comfortably with 1,520 votes and the SNP coming second and third with 1,110 and 1,096 votes each. The Green candidate edged out the second Labour candidate who had 572 first-preference votes to win the fourth seat. While the SNP efficiently got the first preference for both candidates very close together, Labour did not, and thus, despite easily topping the poll, ended up with only one of the four seats.

The system involves members of the same party fighting against each other, or parties just accepting one seat each in three-member wards. That's not democracy. This is true of council elections across Scotland. 'Where can we win one or two seats?' has to be decided, but if you go for two or three, you may end up with one or none, unless your voters vote efficiently, as happened with the SNP in Govan.

To summarise, STV needs to cover a large geographical area, needs a large population, involves guessing the number of seats you're going to win, voters efficiently voting for the party, and makes it much more difficult for constituents to know the candidates. In terms of small wards, I represented a county ward of just over 4,000 electors and I probably knew a quarter of them. When you end up with wards of 30,000, then no-one is going to get up to that level. You've got a seat in Scotland, which is not the one I mentioned—it's another one—where it takes three hours to get from the furthest polling station to the place where the count takes place, albeit it involves one boat trip as well. I think it's ridiculous. We want a system that works, and works for us. Making it more difficult for constituencies to have no candidates is very important—candidates are important. They're not just the party bag carrier.

Finally, as Ireland has shown, it's not proportional to the vote. Just following on from what Sam Rowlands said, remember when we had a big drop in turnout? It was for the European elections where we went from constituencies to an all-Wales system. In my area, people knew Dai Morris. It reached a stage where, before it ended, I don't think anybody could have named all four of the Welsh representatives unless they were highly politically active.

15:50

I think the key question for me in this debate is: is our democracy working now? [Interruption.] I would argue not, because it's not representative of the population. I think we need to ask what the system means in terms of stopping people from standing. Sam, you've mentioned in terms of 'would this make a difference?' Well, actually, when you ask under-represented groups why they don't feel comfortable in standing, it's often because of the aggressive approach to election campaigns, or thinking it's pointless to stand. Because every time we see the kind of first-past-the-post approach, it is about scaring people to try and vote a certain way by saying, 'There's no point voting for that party. Vote this way.' It's a very different style of campaigning if you have to fight for that second, third, fourth preference vote.

Also, to just respond to your point, in terms of the Scottish elections and the turnout, you will know that we can't pick and choose our facts. The 2007 election was held concurrently with the Scottish parliamentary elections, so it was always going to be lower, and that was expected. In fact, the turnout was higher than was anticipated, and we can see from the number of spoiled ballots there that people actually understood the system, because it's far easier to understand that you can put your first preference to the party, even if it's unlikely to win, usually—that you can vote with your heart and your belief, not trying to second guess what the system may result in. 

As Rhys ab Owen explained in opening this debate, I experienced a more proportional system when I was living in Ireland, and I stood in elections for sabbatical officers at my university’s students’ union, as well as Ireland’s national union of students. The STV system was used in those instances, which meant that we had to campaign in a completely different way to how we’re used to campaigning in a first-past-the-post system. One had to work really hard for every single vote, and not just for the first vote, but also the second and third votes, and every other one after that. It's a completely different approach to campaigning and you have to be much more positive because you have to persuade people who aren't even going to give you their first vote that you deserve their second.

In a first-past-the-post system, very often—and every party is guilty of doing this—there is a tendency to try to urge people not to waste the one vote that they have and to encourage them or to frighten them to vote for the party that's most likely to prevent the party they disagree with most from being elected. We've all seen the posters, 'Only the Lib Dems, Labour or Plaid Cymru can win here to keep the Tories out', for example. Every party does this. We've all seen those posters. And this very often does work, unfortunately, or it means—and this is the important point—that people don’t vote because they don't see the point of voting for the party that they feel closest to. They think that it's a done deal and there's no point in voting. Is that democracy? No, it's not. If we are serious about creating a more representative democracy and one that inspires people to want to vote, and that they see the point of voting and want to stand to be candidates, then this would be a huge step forward. And, without a doubt, if it is to work, we need a uniform national system so that there is consistency nationwide.

Consistency is important. After all, we saw a great deal of inconsistency in the numbers of young people who registered to vote in the Senedd elections in May 2021, varying from 68.8 per cent in the Vale of Glamorgan to 31.73 per cent in Swansea, which meant that 54 per cent of young people didn’t vote. I encourage my fellow Members to support today’s motion for these reasons. The current system isn't working. We have an opportunity to forge a better, proportional system that brings more people into our politics and makes people want to vote. Thank you to Rhys for bringing this issue before the Senedd.

15:55

We've heard many arguments, but I think we need to take ourselves back. Sixteen and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote in the 2021 Senedd elections for the first time, and this year, of course, it will be the first time that they'll be able to vote in local government elections. If you look at the figures, out of 65,000 16 to 17-year-olds who were eligible to vote in the 2021 Senedd elections, just under half of those registered to vote, and that is hugely disappointing. Of course, we've got to remind ourselves that we are still, and were then, in the middle of a global pandemic, and that would of course have had an impact on the number of young people who registered and subsequently voted. Additionally, there were restrictions, understandably, that made it harder to engage with young people. So, I think it's essential that we do everything that we can to encourage young people to get involved and to vote in this particular election, the first one in which they have an opportunity to do so. 

I think it's also important that we get our messages very clear that it is their future that they are voting on, and their voice is just as important as their parents' or their grandparents'. It has already been said here today that local government manages multi-million pound budgets, and all of that affects young people directly. It's important that they have a say on how those budgets and those issues are prioritised at a local level, and, first and foremost, they can contribute to that by having their say in the ballot box.

I'm going to look at the reasons why people don't vote. So, Nottingham Trent University's 'Making Votes-at-16 Work in Wales' report was written following the 2021 Senedd elections, and suggested a number of recommendations to increase the participation of young people, both in local government and Senedd elections. And one of those was to remove the practical barriers to voting that are specific to newly enfranchised voters, and make it easier for those young people to vote. For example, they said, to trial automatic voter registration, the avoidance of scheduling elections in exam periods, and by locating voting or polling stations in schools or colleges. So, I'm keen to know if the Welsh Government have given any attention to those particular recommendations. 

But I think it's important to mention the UK Government Elections Bill 2021-22 as well, because we're talking about enfranchising people, not disenfranchising them. And if that Bill goes ahead, they are going to ensure that people have to have photo ID in order to vote, and it's going to 'help stamp out voter fraud'. Well, I think that's a little bit disproportionate, given that out of 58 million people who cast their votes—58 million—there were only 33 allegations of impersonation at polling stations in 2019. If you talk about a hammer to crack a nut, I cannot think of a better example. So, that Bill won't apply, of course, in the local government or Senedd elections, but it will apply to Wales at the next general election. 

So, we are talking here today about enfranchising people. We need to look at what is disenfranchising them, and I do agree that we need to look at the voting system. I won't be supporting it today because I want further—[Interruption.] Well, I want further discussion around it, but I do want to make it clear that I'm open to those further discussions, and it isn't always the case that one system will perhaps produce a different outcome. And it is true that certain people feel completely disenfranchised from standing, and women are somewhat absent, as are young people, in local government. And we need to look at the reasons for that.

I, as you will know, was a Pembrokeshire county councillor, and I was the only female for the first two terms—that's nine years—in Preseli Pembrokeshire. And I remember knocking the door and I remember a woman saying to me, 'I was waiting for the man to come round', to which I said, 'Well, you've got me.' [Laughter.] And I got in with a close-run election. So, let's change the debate. 

16:00

Thank you to Rhys ab Owen for moving this motion today. It'll surprise nobody that I will speak in favour of this motion today. 

Surely, none of us want an electoral system that guarantees safe seats, guarantees huge majorities for less than 50 per cent of the vote, and a system that breeds political division and a lack of interest in voting. Surely, we all want to make sure that every vote counts. And we are all working hard to get people to stand, and to make sure they are involved in elections and vote. So, I do contest Sam Rowlands's points. We are working our socks off, and we have done for years, to get people more interested.

And as you've heard in terms of the statistics, it really isn't helping. Simply put, first-past-the-post cheats voters of real, meaningful representation, and also disenfranchises them from voting. A more proportional system for all elections, including council elections, can foster greater collaboration, greater accountability and will ensure that everyone's voice is heard. We believe that electoral reform, a move to the single transferrable vote, is an essential part of what's needed to get people more involved in our democracy. And it's not just votes in a ballot box that make a democracy. We can go further. What about citizens' assemblies and juries, and participatory budgeting as well? They can bring people closer to being involved in democracy. 

Let us all ensure that every vote counts.

We all want to see every vote count, and make sure that people are more confident in their democracy. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

16:05

The Minister for Finance and Local Government to contribute to the debate—Rebecca Evans.

Diolch, Llywydd. This has been a really excellent debate, and I have really enjoyed listening to the different perspectives. I'm really grateful for this opportunity to talk about the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021. I'm extremely proud of what the Act means for local democracy here in Wales, providing, as it does, for the establishment of a new and reformed legislative framework for local government elections, democracy, performance and governance.

The principles that underpin the Act are based on enabling, encouraging and supporting people to participate in local democracy, and to provide greater flexibility in the way that elections are run. What is being suggested here today would seek to impose a single electoral system on principal councils, regardless of the views of that council or the communities they represent.

So, in this context, it is right and proper that we note the provisions that extend the franchise for local elections both to 16 and 17-year-olds, and foreign citizens legally resident in Wales. These are two of the most important changes the Act has introduced. Sixteen and 17-year-olds can leave home and join the military, and so it is right and just that we give them a voice on the matters that affect their lives. Lowering the voting age to 16 gives us a valuable opportunity to start a young person on the democratic journey with the right tools.

The Welsh Government's view is that people who contribute to the economic and cultural life of our communities should have a say in the future of that community. We believe that the test for whether someone is able to participate in local elections should be whether they are lawfully resident here in Wales, wanting to make a contribution to our society. The accidents of citizenship simply need not be relevant considerations to this test.

Importantly, for the first time, the 2021 Act also introduced a duty on local government to encourage the public to input their views to the making of decisions to their councils, including the policy development process. Democracy is more than elections, and evidence indicates a link between the perceptions of a low ability to influence outcomes and low voter turnout. The Act sets out to address this by placing specific duties on principal councils that will increase public participation in local democracy and will improve transparency.

As I have said, the Act is founded on the principles of facilitating participation and choice in democracy. In line with this, it enables principal councils to change the system of voting that they use. Principal councils, local people and communities are best placed to decide for themselves which voting system better suits the needs of their communities. Introducing a local choice supports the principle of decisions being made at a more local level, and allows councils to reflect the different needs and demographics across parts of Wales.  

After the 2022 local government elections, principal councils will be able to choose which voting system they wish to use—either first-past-the-post, or the single transferable vote system. Each council will continue to use the first-past-the-post system unless they decide to change. Such a change would require a two-thirds majority, which is the same as is required for a change to the Senedd voting system. Any council opting to change would then need to use the new system for the next two rounds of ordinary elections, following which it could decide whether to return to the previous voting system.

The procedures set out in the 2021 Act would also apply if the council were proposing to change back to the previous voting system. It's important to note that a principal council would have to consult the people in their area entitled to vote at the local government election, each community council in the area, and other people it considers appropriate to consult, before it can exercise its power to change voting systems.

We believe in local choice. Having given principal councils, working with their communities, the ability to choose which system of voting works best for them, it would be inappropriate for the Welsh Government to step in and decide which system of voting works best, and to impose that system right across Wales, regardless of local views. 

16:10

Thank you. To those points you just raised there in terms of that consultation, Mike Hedges made some really important points around how sparse some of these areas could be, and therefore the risk, with proportional representation, of losing that local touch, because, actually, it's such a big area to cover, and the fundamentals of councils and councillors are actually about being connected to their communities. Would you accept that is a risk with the proposals we've heard today?

Is that a risk with your seat, Sam—in the North Wales region?

Llywydd, I'm going to resist the temptation to talk in my response about the benefits or disbenefits that I see of either voting system, because I genuinely think that this is a matter for local authorities to decide themselves, but, of course, the issues that Sam Rowlands has described will be amongst the thinking of those local authorities, as will the other issues that have been raised this afternoon.

The motion does make a comment on the electoral system for Scottish local elections, and, of course, the Scottish Parliament made their choice, and, of course, we would respect that, but we have legislated here in Wales to allow every local authority to weigh up those arguments for themselves and to choose whether they prefer the single transferrable vote or the first-past-the-post system, and I do think that that local choice is paramount here. 

So, in conclusion, through the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021, the Welsh Government has provided for greater diversity and choice in local democracy, and this includes extending the franchise for local elections, introducing a duty for local government to encourage participation in decision making, and giving each principal council the choice of which voting system best suits the needs of their communities. Our colleagues in local government and the communities they serve would want to keep that choice, and I think it would be completely out of step with our principles of electoral reform to try and promote or to impose one single system across the whole of Wales. Thank you to colleagues for a really excellent debate.

May I first of all thank everyone who has contributed to this debate? I am aware that the clock is against me, but I will try and respond to some of the points that haven't been covered.

It's good to see that Gareth Davies has returned to the Chamber, having left for most of the debate, having made his intervention. It would have been handy for you to be here to hear the fact, of course, that only three seats have been uncontested in Scotland since 2007. Fifteen years—that's just three seats. We almost had 100 in Wales just in the last election. So, you know, it does make a very real difference when it comes to that issue of uncontested seats, and it is disappointing that Sam Rowlands tried to misinterpret, shall we say, the fall in the vote, as was explained by Heledd Fychan. I can share an analysis by the LSE if he chooses—

Sam Rowlands rose—