Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

15/03/2022

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

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

Statement by the Llywydd

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

1. Questions to the First Minister

The first item today is questions to the First Minister, but before I invite Alun Davies to ask his question, may I welcome young people from a school to the public gallery? I believe they're the first school to visit us since lockdown, so we're particularly grateful to you and wish you a warm welcome, wherever you're from. 

Welcome, wherever you're from, and enjoy. 

Questions to the First Minister. Alun Davies with the first question. 

The Tech Valleys Programme

1. Will the First Minister make a statement on the future of the Tech Valleys programme? OQ57800

Llywydd, the Tech Valleys programme is a 10-year Welsh Government programme for government commitment up to 2028, with Blaenau Gwent at its heart. I look forward to being with the Member at the opening of the new resilient works at Thales, one of the largest current investments within the programme. 

I'm grateful to the First Minister, and I, too, look forward to welcoming him back to Blaenau Gwent. The commitment to the Tech Valleys project in Blaenau Gwent, in our manifesto, and in the programme for government, is more, First Minister, than simply an investment in the borough; it is a commitment to the people and the communities in the Heads of the Valleys. As the Welsh Government continues to invest in this £100 million programme, do you agree with me that it needs to be delivered as part of a wider investment in an economic development strategy for the whole of the Heads of the Valleys region, and one which seeks to maximise the value of the investment in dualling the A465? First Minister, we've already seen some good news in the labour market survey recently, which is as a direct consequence of this Government's approach to investing in an activist economic policy. I hope that we will be able to continue to do this in the Heads of the Valleys. 

Well, Llywydd, I thank Alun Davies for that. As I said in my original answer, Blaenau Gwent and the Member's constituency is at the heart of the Tech Valleys programme, but it isn't a programme that stops at Blaenau Gwent. The Heads of the Valleys road, as Alun Davies has often said on the floor of the Chamber here, is the single largest investment in a road infrastructure scheme undertaken during the whole of the devolution era. The continuos dual carriageway it will create will connect the midlands to south west Wales and the M4. It will reduce journey times. It will improve road safety. It will add resilience to the network, and sections 5 and 6 alone will generate £400 million-worth of expenditure in Wales, but particularly in those communities to which Alun Davies referred in his supplementary question. 

And the Member's right, Llywydd, to draw attention to today's figures—the employment and unemployment figures published today—showing once again that the employment rate in Wales has risen faster than the employment rate across the United Kingdom, that our unemployment rate is now lower than the unemployment rate across the United Kingdom, and fell faster than the United Kingdom, and that economic inactivity rates in Wales improved at a faster rate than they improved across the United Kingdom as a whole. We need to make sure that those benefits being felt across Wales are felt as well in the northern Valleys. That's why my colleague Vaughan Gething has brought together the leaders of the five local authorities that span the Heads of the Valleys road, and with them identified five key priorities. The Welsh Government has put hundreds of thousands of pounds on the table to support the development of the first priority—strategic sites and premises—and I'm very pleased to say to the Member that, yesterday, the cabinet of the Cardiff capital city deal agreed £1 million to support the other four priorities, over and above the £30 million that they have earmarked in their budget as a ring-fenced fund for northern Valleys developments. All of that, I hope, Llywydd, gives residents in the Member's constituency confidence that the Tech Valleys programme and its investment will go on bringing prosperity to Blaenau Gwent, but to the wider northern Valleys communities as well.

13:35

Good afternoon, First Minister. I just would be grateful if you could enlighten the Chamber today on how many jobs have been created since the project has launched, how many of those jobs have gone to the local area, and outline also what assessment you've made of the rates of pay offered to those local people, to support the alleviation of poverty in Blaenau Gwent. Thank you.

Let me help the Member as best I can. Between 2011 and 2021, the employment rate in Blaenau Gwent increased by 8.1 percentage points, and that exceeded the increase in employment across Wales, and the increase at the United Kingdom level as well. Over the same decade, the unemployment rate in Blaenau Gwent fell from 16 per cent to 5.3 per cent, a larger fall than you would find in other communities across Wales. All of that demonstrates, Llywydd, the success of Welsh Government investments in bringing jobs not simply to those parts of Wales that already enjoy prosperity, but to those parts of Wales where those jobs are particularly necessary to support the development of local communities and local economies.

Renewable Energy

2. What is the Welsh Government doing to promote large-scale renewable energy projects in Wales? OQ57811

Llywydd, I thank the Member for that question. The Welsh Government promotes renewable energy projects across a range of technologies and scales, including through the marine energy programme. Our priority is to retain wealth here, in Wales, alongside tackling the global climate crisis, and our aim for Wales is to generate renewable energy to at least fully meet our own energy needs.

Diolch, Prif Weinidog. 2019 saw 51 per cent of Wales's electricity consumption come from renewables, with onshore and offshore wind making the biggest contribution. However, the world has changed greatly since 2019—sky rocketing gas prices and over-reliance on Russian gas across Europe have highlighted the fragility of the current system. Wales is rich in coastline; tidal power is clean, green and infinite. The Severn estuary has the second largest tidal range in the world and is a currently untapped resource. In light of the changing international picture and a new-found impetus for greater self-reliance when it comes to energy, what more can we do in Wales to support large-scale renewable projects ourselves, and how is the Welsh Government working to push the UK Government to recognise the importance of Wales harnessing the opportunities for green energy we have on our doorstep?

I thank Jayne Bryant for that very important question in the context of the events we see unfolding across the world today. We have to reduce our reliance on power from volatile parts of the world, with Governments that would not meet our tests for what a reasonable and decent Government would provide. It's very good news that over half the electricity we consumed in Wales, in the latest year for which we have figures, was over half the energy we needed, and we had the longest continuous period where we were able to draw power from renewables in the same time. But we have to go further, of course, and Wales is very well-placed indeed, Llywydd, to do just that: the Garn Fach proposal in mid Wales—we've discussed that on the floor of the Senedd not long ago—about to go into the formal part of the planning system; the Brechfa forest development of onshore wind, in the Welsh Government's own estate; Awel y Môr, to follow Gwynt y Môr, in north Wales, with fixed offshore wind; and the Crown Estate engaged in a leasing round of up to 4 GW of floating wind in the Celtic sea. We have the most enormous opportunities here in Wales, but there is more that could and should be done.

Llywydd, I've revisited the Charles Hendry review report in recent days. I can tell you it makes for very sobering reading, because, amongst the case that it made for the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, energy security was one of the cases that that review focused on. Had that scheme been given the go-ahead, we would be very close now to it being able to supply energy here in Wales, and we would have learnt a tremendous amount, as the Hendry review said, from that demonstration project. Of course the UK Government needs to come back to the table, to be prepared to invest in the renewable energy of the future, and to provide the feed-in tariffs that made such an important difference in bringing solar and wind energy prices to where they are today, and where marine energy can be in the future, but where, in the meantime, investment has to be provided while those technologies are inevitably at their formative stage going to be more expensive than mature technologies will be. We make that case to the UK Government all the time, and I'll make sure that we go on doing so.  

13:40

First Minister, Mostyn SeaPower Ltd are currently going out to tender for review of the initial design and costings for a tidal energy scheme here in north Wales, and one that would create 300 construction jobs and employ 35 people during its operational life of more than 100 years. This scheme would provide low-carbon electricity for 82,000 homes, as well as four miles of flood defences, and according to the managing director, they say, 

'To date we have invested heavily without any government funding in getting to this point but we now need support to give potential funders added confidence to invest in the project.'

There are proposals from as many as eight other lagoons around the Welsh coast, which is well-suited, as has been mentioned, for this form of renewable energy. Now, whilst the UK Government has committed to investing £20 million per year in tidal stream electricity, would you clarify today what support the Welsh Government will give to these tidal energy projects that are coming forward now in the next financial year? Diolch. 

Well, the Member was doing quite well, Llywydd, I thought, for quite a while, before the question went so badly off the rails. Look, let me respond positively to the parts that were in the original portion of Janet Finch-Saunders's question, because she makes the important point that Swansea is not the only part of Wales that has ambitions for tidal lagoon energy. It's why, in our programme for government, we have a commitment to develop a tidal lagoon challenge, and I'll be meeting the climate change Minister about that later this afternoon. That will offer an opportunity for communities in different parts of Wales who feel that they are best placed to have that demonstration project that was failed in Swansea, to allow that technology to be tested in that way.

I welcome the £20 million in tidal stream investment. It's very important to us here in Wales, but it's not just for lagoon energy; it's also going to have to support offshore wind, other forms of marine energy where there is real potential in the north of Wales and in the Ramsey sound, and I just have to repeat—this is where I felt the question really didn't offer us an accurate reflection of events here—we would be very close already to having tidal lagoon energy here in Wales had her Government not pulled the plug on the Swansea project, despite the report from a Conservative—a Conservative—former Cabinet member, commissioned by a Conservative—. As I remember—I hear the leader of the opposition chuntering away at me—as I remember, at the time, the Conservative Party, under different management no doubt, supported the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. It's a shame that they weren't more effective. 

I'm grateful to Jayne Bryant for tabling this extremely important question today, and it's right, if we are going to promote renewables, that we need to look at where we invest and where others invest for us, and that is a key part of this. First Minister, you'll be aware of a growing campaign to divest public sector pension funds away from fossil fuels to create the space for the key investment in renewable technologies, and you'll be aware that I've been working with Friends of the Earth Cymru to establish a Welsh Government target for public sector pension funds to disinvest. I believe this could be done by making it part of the 2030 public sector targets to become carbon neutral. Now, next week—and I extend the invitation to all Members across the Chamber—I'll be holding an event to discuss this issue further, to understand what we can do more. But can you commit today, First Minister, to asking officials from Welsh Government, perhaps from the department of finance, to join this event to understand, in collaboration with Members from across the Chamber, what we can do to make this a reality? Because we need to make this a reality for the people in the gallery to live a happy and successful life.

13:45

I congratulate Jack Sargeant on mounting that event. It will be a very important discussion, and I'm very happy to offer not simply that a Welsh Government official would attend the event, but, if it's helpful, to have someone to speak and make a contribution so that the work that is going on inside the Welsh Government on local ownership and funding for renewables can be part of that discussion. It will be able to draw on the work that we have embarked upon with pension scheme representatives from local government to discuss the potential of investing from those pension funds into renewables here in Wales. Pension funds need long-term reliable returns on the investments they make, but I know that the people whose money has built up those pension funds would like to see those funds doing good for the future of Wales and not simply for themselves but for their families and their futures. And in that spirit, I welcome very much the Member's initiative in calling such a meeting and will be very happy for Welsh Government officials to take part.

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

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

Thank you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, it is with regret that I have to raise with you another report about service failure in Betsi Cadwaladr health board in north Wales. In the most recent report, which made for very distressing reading, we learnt of the failings in mental health services that led to the tragic deaths of two individuals. One patient took their own life, and the other died through what looks like neglect. These deaths were as recently as 2021, just months after the then health Minister took the health board out of special measures, a direct result from your Government. After having this time to reflect on the report and its findings, do you, like me, believe that the families are owed an apology from both the health board and the Welsh Government that their loved ones were not looked after in a better way?

Absolutely, Llywydd. Of course. The health board, I believe, has already been in contact with the families and an apology to them is due. The coroner has asked for the reports to be withdrawn while his inquiries into the deaths continue, and the health board has I think removed them from their website. They are very different cases and deserve the sorts of investigation that the coroner can bring to them.

Thank you, First Minister, for that report. You have been a Minister within the Government for nine years, and the First Minister now for several years, and things clearly are not improving fast enough when it comes to mental health services in north Wales. We are still receiving reports like this, very upsetting reports, and recommendations are not being implemented. Mixed cohorting of patients, which has been described as a toxic mix by the North Wales Community Health Council, was first identified as an issue back in 2013, and is, shockingly, still continuing today, as this report identifies. It has been linked to at least one of the deaths that we are talking about now. Will you make sure that the health board stop the cohorting of mixed patients on wards?

Llywydd, just to be clear, mixed cohorting is a factor in only one of the two cases, it's not a factor in—[Interruption.] I think you said 'at least one'. I'm just clarifying that it is 'one' not 'at least one'. It was not a factor in the other case. And I am pleased to—. I am pleased to be able to say to the Member that the information I have is that mixed cohorting no longer takes place in the unit where it was a factor.

The upsetting thing about this, First Minister, is obviously that this was identified as a failure in 2013, and was still identified in 2021 as being a contributory factor to one of these deaths. Also, First Minister, the health Minister and the Government have commissioned Donna Ockenden to undertake several reports into mental health services in north Wales. Sadly, from these reports and the recommendations in these reports, we can see that the recommendations haven't been followed through by the health board and implemented in their entirety. There is a pattern here of that failure to implement those recommendations, so will you commission Donna Ockenden to undertake a fresh piece of work to look at previous reports and, importantly, the recommendations contained within those reports, and identify failures to implement those recommendations, and a plan to make sure that we do not continue to receive very disturbing reports of deaths of patients that are in the care of the health board?

13:50

Llywydd, I agreed with something the leader of the opposition said earlier in his questions, that the improvement in mental health services in north Wales has not been as fast as it needs to be, and there are clearly further actions that need to be taken to make sure that, in all aspects of mental health services, people in north Wales get the service that they deserve. Whether a further report and a further review is the best way to achieve that I think is a more open question.

I do know, because I have talked directly with people responsible for those services, that they feel they work as hard as they can to bring about the improvements that are necessary, that they often have to do it in the face of constant criticism and constant undermining—[Interruption.] That's how they see it. There is legitimate criticism to be made, and I've agreed with what the leader of the opposition said, but I'm putting it to you as well, because these are the points they put to me, that making the progress that they want to make is not as easy as they would like it to be when they feel constantly that their efforts are scrutinised in a hostile way by people, rather than a way that looks to support improvement. That is a fair point for them to make. I have said this afternoon that I take some of the points that you have made very seriously. I put that point, and I hope it will be taken equally seriously by you.

Diolch, Llywydd. Reports indicate that Boris Johnson is about to visit in Riyadh in a bid to convince the Saudi regime to boost oil production. The Saudi Government, it's believed, will seek assurances that their policy in Yemen for the last eight years, of bombing innocent civilians, will not obstructed by the UK. Do you agree, First Minister, it would be wholly wrong for the Prime Minister to seek to appease one dictatorship fuelled by dirty money in order to resist another? This question has a particular resonance in this Senedd at the heart of Tiger bay, home to a fifth-generation Welsh-Yemeni community. Mindful of the commitment to race equality that you affirmed last week, do you agree that our support and solidarity to innocent civilians has to be the same whatever the colour of people's skin, wherever they are, whatever their creed, and that we should not swap dependence on one murderous regime for another, and, if Boris Johnson does go on the basis that I've described, we should make it clear that he does not do so in our name?

I want to respond particularly to the final point that the Member made, about swapping dependence upon one volatile regime for dependence on another of the same sort. I tried to make that point in my answer to Jayne Bryant earlier, Llywydd, that the solution to energy security in the United Kingdom is to have a really rapid and dedicated focus on the development of renewable energy, in which we are so rich. That would mean that we would not need to see the Prime Minister getting on a plane to Riyadh, because we would have created sufficient energy from our own resources to be dependent neither upon the regime in Russia nor unsavoury regimes in other parts of the world. 

First Minister, the 1951 UN refugee convention, which the UK has ratified, stipulates that those fleeing war—all refugees from all wars—should not have to seek permission first before seeking protection from a host country. The UK Government's current insistence on visas for Ukrainian refugees is in breach of its international obligations. You yourself have called for a visa-waiver system, as has been widely implemented throughout Europe. Did you have the opportunity at the weekend to point out to your party leader, a distinguished lawyer and former director of public prosecutions, that your party's current position at Westminster in favour of a so-called emergency visa is not just morally repugnant it is also in breach of international law?

13:55

Well, Llywydd, I'm responsible for the policy of the Welsh Government, and I've been as clear as I can about it. I believe that people fleeing from the war in Ukraine should be allowed to come to the United Kingdom and then the necessary checks should be carried out after they have arrived: in other words, that a visa regime does not need to be implemented prior to people's arrival. That's not the position of the UK Government, but I am pleased to be able to report to Members that, following very intensive discussions at the end of last week and over the weekend, we are coming to a point of agreement, I hope, with the UK Government, in which Wales will be able to play the part I think people in Wales would want to see played in welcoming people to Wales who are fleeing the awful events we've seen unfolding again this morning in Ukraine. 

First Minister, in your written statement you have indicated your willingness to work together with the UK Government's Homes for Ukraine scheme. However, refugee charities have expressed their concern that Ukrainians arriving through this scheme will not be given refugee status, limiting their access to benefits, for example. They also point out that matching hosts to guests requires sensitivity and experience. A proper home visit needs to be undertaken to ensure homes are suitable and that everyone in the host household is fully committed and knows what to expect; follow-up support needs to be provided to both hosts and guests; move-on plans must be put in place; and there needs to be a fallback for the rare situations in which a placement does not work out. Do you understand these concerns, and can Welsh families wishing to be part of a more holistic approach register their interest instead with local authorities, with Welsh-based charities or the Welsh Government?

Llywydd, well I do not simply understand, I share a great number of those concerns with the UK Government's scheme, which is why we have worked with them to be able to put in place in Wales different arrangements that I think would give us a better chance of being able to welcome people here from Ukraine with the best prospect of responding to those needs and mitigating the risks of people coming here and not being able to re-establish their lives in the way that we would wish to see. I can confirm for the Member, because I had a letter overnight from Michael Gove in which he confirms that people coming from Ukraine will have recourse to public funds, will have access to public services and will be entitled to work. And I'm glad to see those assurances, because it does mean that people will be able to re-establish their lives in a way they wouldn't have been had those facilities not been available to them. 

What we want to do is to make sure that people who come to Wales have an opportunity to get the services they need, to make sure that the places they are going to stay have had at least the level of check you would need to make sure that there is no exploitation of vulnerable individuals, given that many people coming from Ukraine will be vulnerable and will be leaving those highly distressing circumstances, and that we can put together with our partners in local government—and we've been working very closely with them, Llywydd, in recent days—that we can put in place the education offer that will be necessary for children, that they are registered with the Welsh NHS on arrival, that there are housing services being mobilised and third sector support. We know the richness of third sector organisations in Wales who want to play their part. For that to happen, though, you have to have it on an organised basis.

My anxiety about the UK scheme is that it relies entirely on individuals to find one another. And as I understand it, should somebody in Wales, with the generosity we know that people are displaying, find themselves matched up with somebody on the Polish border, the UK Government will issue them a visa, and then it's up to them. How they get from where they are to where that offer of help has been provided will be a matter for that individual, in all the circumstances they face, to navigate for themselves. I think you just have to have a different level of public service support in place in order to make sure that the welcome we want to offer people, the success with which we want that scheme to operate, that it has the best possible chance of operating, and that's what my colleague Jane Hutt and I and others have been working hard to try to achieve alongside the UK Government. I think the letter from Mr Gove is encouraging in this way, that we will be able to do it in the right way here in Wales, and, in the process, avoid some of the pitfalls to which the leader of Plaid Cymru has pointed. 

14:00
Skills Policy

3. What are the Welsh Government's priorities for skills policy during this Senedd term? OQ57808

Llywydd, on 8 March we launched our plan for employability and skills. It outlines our priorities to help more people into work and deliver on this Government's commitment of a young person's guarantee, based on the skills that will be needed in the future.

Thank you, First Minister. Last week, the cross-party group on industrial communities heard from deputy principal Sharon James about how Cardiff and Vale College is working to ensure that Wales has the skills needed to flourish from the move to net zero. I took away two key messages around the importance of collaboration across all partners and at all levels of training, from apprenticeships to micro credentials, and also the need to support small and medium-sized enterprises to upskill their workforce. This was a very timely discussion after the publication of the employability and skills action plan, so how is the Welsh Government seeking to address both of these key challenges in its skills policy?

I thank Vikki Howells for that supplementary question, Llywydd. It's very good to hear a reference to Cardiff and Vale College on the day when we hope the Senedd will give its consent for the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill to move into its second stage of scrutiny here in the Senedd. And I take the two priorities that emerged from that discussion with their vice-principal very seriously, Llywydd. The first of those that the Member has pointed to is the need for collaboration, and the plan itself is the product of a long history of collaborative working with key partners in education, in local government and with private sector employers as well. The plan was shaped by last year's wider public consultation on our commitment to young people's employment and skills. And in ensuring that that collaborative approach is put into practice on the ground, the regional skills partnerships that we have here in Wales really are key to bringing all those partners together to achieve coherence and collaboration in different local areas. 

As for support for SMEs—the second point to which Vikki Howells referred, Llywydd—maybe I can just offer one example; it'll be an example familiar, I think, to the Member for Cynon Valley because it's the Aspire shared apprenticeship programme, which operates in those Valleys communities. I've discussed it previously with my colleague Alun Davies on the floor of the Senedd, because SMEs, which are the bedrock of local economies there, where a single employer isn't able to support a full-time apprentice through the whole process, those smaller businesses are able to get together and share an apprentice. There are over 60 companies involved in the Aspire programme. A large number of them are SMEs. They take 25 apprentices every year, and those young people get a range of experiences. They move between the group of employers that are responsible for that programme; the SME gets the benefit of having somebody, and the individual gets the benefit of being able to gain that wider range of experience and of skill.

First Minister, as you said, last week the Minister for Economy published the Welsh Government's plan for employability and skills, and as you'll be aware, I have called for a net-zero skills audit,
so that we can identify the gaps in skills, information and resources in order to secure our economy for the future. So, First Minister, could you confirm whether the Welsh Government is holding a net-zero skills audit, and if so, when can we expect the results?

14:05

Well, thank you very much to Paul Davies for that important question. Vikki Howells referred to the importance of net zero in the original question that she asked. We acknowledge, as a Government, that over the coming decades, in order to have the skills that are required to do what we want to do here in Wales with regard to climate change, well, that is at the heart of that scheme.

The scheme that we've referred to does include a number of practical things to increase the skills that we have here in Wales, among young people in particular, and to develop the skills that we must have if we are going to achieve Net Zero Wales by 2050. Now, we are working with the university in Cardiff to put things in place, to develop the research, to draw together the information to assist us to put in place what needs to be in place to pursue the points that Paul Davies has raised this afternoon.

Refugees from Ukraine

4. How is the Welsh Government supporting local authorities to welcome and support refugees fleeing Ukraine? OQ57778

Llywydd, we are urgently preparing to support refugees from Ukraine and are doing that in close dialogue with Welsh local government and others to understand what will be possible within the parameters of the overall UK Government schemes.

Thank you, First Minister. Wales is a nation of sanctuary, and this includes welcoming those fleeing Ukraine to my community of Bridgend and Porthcawl. Across Bridgend, residents have gone above and beyond to collect donations, raise funds, and I want to thank Community Councillor Heidi Bennett, Councillor David White and Reverend Wheeler, in particular, for co-ordinating a beautiful and very powerful and emotional local vigil to listen and stand with the people of Ukraine last week.

First Minister, people want to help and do what they can, from local businesses to school pupils. This is our community at its best. But we must never forget that, at the heart of this, there are people who have now suffered great trauma. We see this on our tv screens, our papers, our phones. This invasion has scarred a population through what they have experienced. So, First Minister, how will the necessary public services be mobilised to help those affected by the invasion of Ukraine who come to Wales, and will mental health provision be extended to include them?

I thank Sarah Murphy for that, Llywydd. I imagine that there are Members right around the Senedd who have taken part in local events and local vigils, spontaneously organised by faith groups and others in their own community. They are practical demonstrations of the generosity that we know is on display across our nation.

On the specific point as to how public services will be mobilised, in my earlier answer to Adam Price, Llywydd, I tried to explain how, working with local government, we hope to create a way in which people coming to Wales will receive an initial period of support and reorientation, where we can make sure that those public services are aligned to their needs, where they themselves can simply regroup for a short while. It's impossible to imagine, isn't it, really, what it must be like to find yourself transported across a continent, and finding yourself, no matter how welcoming the context will be, when only a few short weeks ago, you were living absolutely peaceful lives and couldn't imagine that this was about to happen to you. So, there's bound to be, isn't there, a need for a period in which, when people arrive here, they have a chance just to breathe in and think about what has happened to them, and think about people that they have left behind and so on. So, we are trying to create a way in which that can happen, and then, with an assessment of the needs that people have, to make sure that the services they need are aligned with them.

And in mental health, of course Sarah Murphy is absolutely right, Llywydd; people will come to Wales having witnessed unfathomable things that they never thought they would ever see. We have already begun to prepare for that. The experts who work in our health boards, working with asylum seekers and refugees, have already had translated into Ukrainian and Russian mental health information that people will need to help them with that initial stabilisation. We're publishing that information on the Traumatic Stress Wales website, and we're working with the Royal College of Psychiatrists, who have also themselves already published specific support materials to help people during that initial resettlement phase. We're working with our CALL mental health helpline to make sure that it has access to services in the languages that will be needed. And all of this is being done, as Members here will recognise, under the pressure of events and the pressure of time, but those things have already happened and there will be more that we will need and want to do to make sure that people who need the support of mental health services will have that as part of the offer that we will want to make to them when they arrive in Wales.

14:10

Well, speaking here two weeks ago, I called on you to ensure that the Welsh Government provides local authorities with support to enable and encourage them to come forward with a quicker ability to provide support to refugees fleeing Ukraine. But of course, effective delivery will also require local authorities to work with community organisations, and much of the heavy lifting across Wales is already being done, often on a shoestring, by a myriad of third sector bodies and partnerships between the third sector and others, including NWAMI, Networking for World Awareness of Multicultural Integration; Synergy in Flintshire, and the Wrexham Town of Sanctuary coalition. Ukrainian Friends and Families Link has also now been in touch. They're being established by a team of local professionals and partnering third sector organisations and churches across north Wales, working from a central hub in Llandudno, to prepare for the arrival of Ukrainian nationals and others affected by the war who will come to north Wales in the weeks and months ahead. How will the Welsh Government support these vital initiatives and facilitate local authority engagement with them?

Llywydd, all of that sounds very encouraging in terms of the actions that Mark Isherwood set out that are already happening in north Wales. I said in an earlier answer that at the meeting of the Welsh cabinet yesterday afternoon we were joined by the leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, but also by the chief executive of the WVCA, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action. We heard from her about the way in which local CVCs will be part of the response that they will mobilise, and responding positively, I hope, to the Member's question, we are playing our part in making sure that the efforts of public authorities and the efforts of third sector groups are aligned from the very beginning. And again, in a positive reply, Llywydd, the letter I received overnight from Michael Gove confirms that when people come to Wales the £10,500 per person that is to go to local government in England will be available in Wales as well, that the £350 a month for individuals will be available to Welsh individuals who make that offer, and that the UK Government intend that those payments should be exempt from tax. That is helpful for us to have that confirmation at this stage in order to allow us to work with others to put in place the sorts of arrangements that Mark Isherwood has referred to.

I am grateful to Sarah for raising this issue today. These are dark days in which we are living, so it's important, I believe, to seek out the light wherever possible. Andy Davies's report on Channel 4 on the Urdd's Afghan refugee initiative showed us that light, with children and families receiving loving care and opportunities to learn new skills as they try to build a new life here in Wales. The report mentioned, First Minister, that consideration will be given to establishing a similar initiative for refugees from Ukraine, so could you please say whether this is something that is currently being considered and whether the Welsh Government is able to try to help the Urdd to share the good practice witnessed in this successful initiative with other organisations and nations?

14:15

I agree entirely with the Member on the importance of the work done by the Urdd in the Afghan context, and of course, they've learnt a great deal that will assist us now when we respond to the needs of the people coming from Ukraine. The Urdd will be part of the discussions that are to take place during this week. We will need to think about a number of different approaches in providing support to those people coming here to Wales. The experience that the Urdd has had, and the fact that the Urdd is so open to sharing their experiences and to assist others to provide assistance too, is something unique to us here in Wales, but something very practical for us too.

Youth Homelessness

5. Will the First Minister provide an update on policies to tackle youth homelessness? OQ57815

Amongst the ways in which our policies to tackle youth homelessness are being taken forward are practical actions to implement the recommendations from the homelessness action group, as set out in the co-operation agreement between our two parties.

Diolch. Last Wednesday in the Senedd Neuadd, End Youth Homelessness Cymru presented their road map to end youth homelessness. I'd like to thank Jane Hutt for sponsoring that event; it was incredibly insightful. One of the take-home messages for me was how we should listen to those young people who have experienced youth homelessness as we look to solve the issue. I was pleased to meet with both Dafydd and Ashleigh last night to discuss actions we can take as Members, and both Dafydd and Ashleigh helped put this question together for you today. Their message to us is that youth homelessness is everyone's business and a society-wide issue, not just a housing issue. First Minister, your predecessor committed to end youth homelessness by 2027. Is ending youth homelessness a priority for your Government, and are you confident that you can end youth homelessness by 2027?

I agree very much with what Luke Fletcher said about the importance of learning from young people and people who find themselves in these incredibly testing situations, so thank you to those young people for the question. The Welsh Government is entirely committed to ending youth homelessness. Many unforeseen events have happened since the commitment was originally made, including the astonishing efforts that have been made by our local authority and our third sector partners during the coronavirus crisis to bring people who were street homeless into stable and reliable accommodation.

I very much agree with the point that the young people made that youth homelessness is everybody's business and that it's not a housing issue by itself. A number of the projects that we fund as a result of our work with the coalition—20 projects operational across Wales—aim to do exactly that, to make housing the centre of a much wider range of services and joint work with young people to address those wider issues in their lives. I could offer you a long list of them, but shall I mention just one this afternoon? This is in north Wales, this is in Denbighshire County Council; it's a project between the county council, Llamau—an organisation that I've known throughout its history—and Viva, and that's Tŷ Pride. That is a housing-based service, but it is particularly aimed at making sure that the needs and circumstances of young people from the LGBTQ+ community are able to come together and get them that wider set of services that they need in just the way that the young people Luke Fletcher has spoken to were suggesting.

14:20
Health and Well-being Campus in Newtown

6. Will the First Minister provide an update on the proposals for a multi-agency health and wellbeing campus in Newtown? OQ57780

I thank the Member for that question. The overarching business case that sets out the aims and objectives for the north Powys well-being development has completed the scrutiny process of the Welsh Government. I'm pleased to confirm that, as of yesterday, the agreement of all relevant Ministers has been secured to the proposals, which can now move to the next stage.

First Minister, I'm extremely grateful for that answer. I hope the fact that I tabled this question brought the matter to a conclusion. But I have to say I was grateful, First Minister, for your answer last July when you committed the Welsh Government to the project. I have to say, I was a little bit concerned because the health Minister did raise an issue of capital funding and possible difficult decisions having to be made when I raised the question last month, but I appreciate I'm probably better asking you, First Minister, because, of course, the campus sits within the health Minister's region. So, I appreciate that. But can I ask, First Minister, given this positive news now, what are the next steps for this project? I understand it will go to the health board to progress plans further, but when do you anticipate that the project will be at the stage of building work taking place?

I'm very glad to be able to offer that positive news to the Member this afternoon, because it will mean that in the five-case business model that we follow, according to the Treasury Green Book, the process will now move to the next stage. I understand how frustrating it can be for people locally to see the way the system unfolds gradually, but this is an important milestone in this project. The Member and others who represent the area will know that there's already approval in principle for the school that Powys County Council intend to build as part of the band B of the twenty-first century schools programme within this well-being project, and now Powys local health board will be able to draw down funding from the Welsh Government so that they can develop the detail of the ambitious proposal that they have as part of it all.

Russell George will know very well that the health board has been looking at a development that includes diagnostics, mental health services, in-patient as well as out-patients facilities, day-case theatres and so on. I read the record of the exchange between the Member and the health Minister, Llywydd, and I have to say that what the health Minister said is true: this is an important milestone in this process. But when the detailed proposals from the health board come forward, they will come into a very difficult context as far as capital is concerned. Capital for the things we would like to do in the health service and other parts of the Welsh Government is in too-short supply. But nevertheless, this is the way the system works and now the health board will be able to do that detailed work and make its proposals to the Welsh Government.

The Cost-of-living Crisis

7. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the effects of the cost-of-living crisis on communities in South Wales Central? OQ57777

The cost-of-living crisis will affect families and communities across Wales, including those in the Member's own constituency. Recent analysis by organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Bevan Foundation and the Resolution Foundation have each concluded that the coming year will be particularly challenging for those households on low incomes.

Thank you, First Minister. I've worked in Rhondda supporting our communities for the last 20 years. Never have I felt as concerned or angry as I feel right now. Residents in my constituency are facing a cost-of-living crisis through no fault of their own. Families on the breadline have been thrown into deeper poverty, and working families are experiencing poverty for the first time. I'm not sure Members on the Tory benches have been contacted by constituents who can't put their heating on, or food on the table, but if they have, can they please inform their out-of-touch colleagues in Westminster? They can try to dress it up any way they like, but let's make no bones about it: this isn't a cost-of-living crisis, this is a Tory cost-of-living crisis. Does the First Minister agree with me that the Tory Westminster Government are either too incompetent to use the levers available to them to support families, or are completely heartless and have deliberately plunged our communities into poverty, or both?

14:25

I thank the Member for that question. I notice, Llywydd, how, whenever anything goes wrong on the Conservative benches, this is treated like it was somehow an act of God over which they have no responsibility whatsoever. The fact that they've been in power for more than a decade, a decade of austerity, Llywydd, in which every time—every time—[Interruption.] I hear them shouting—

Can I hear the First Minister's response? I'm sure that you'd be enlightened to hear it and that you'd like to hear it. Can you carry on?

I hear them shouting, Llywydd, because they've got nothing else that they can do but to make a noise to try to cover up the truth of their own record—a decade of austerity, supported week in, week out on the floor of this Senedd by Members of the Conservative group here. That's what lies behind the cost-of-living crisis—a decade in which benefits were held down, in which wages were held down. People are in a position that they would otherwise not have been in had it not been for the cost-of-living crisis made by the Conservative Party; they would not have been in the position that they are in today. And then, on top of that, you have the cruelty of the cut in universal credit at the end of last year—the shameful cut in it: £1,000 taken away deliberately, knowingly taken away from the poorest families in the land. How you think you can possibly defend that decision in the light of what people are going to face from next month onwards, I do not know. In April, Llywydd, benefits will go up by 3.1 per cent, a decision of the Conservative Government. Inflation will go up by 7 per cent in April and may reach 9 per cent or 10 per cent during the year. By itself that will take £300 on top of the £1,000 out of the pockets of the poorest families in Wales. No wonder people in the Member's constituency ask themselves whether it's incompetence or malice that lies behind it. 

Tourism Tax

8. What discussions is the Welsh Government having with local councils about a tourism tax? OQ57795

We are engaging local authorities, businesses and representative groups across a range of design options for a tourism tax, alongside the potential benefits and impacts. A consultation will take place later this year to ensure consideration of all views in the development of this levy. 

Thank you, First Minister, for the answer. First Minister, I've seen claims from Welsh Government Ministers that seem to suggest that any proceeds from a tourism tax would be ring-fenced in some way so that councils can increase tourism spending. I'm not really sure how Ministers can make that claim, because the obvious current flaw is that, whilst the Welsh Government could ensure that any moneys raised could be ring-fenced, it doesn't appear that the Welsh Government can do anything to protect councils' existing tourism budgets. Unless there is that safeguard, we could see an introduction of a series of additional taxes across the country that leave no discernible mark on the amount of money being spent on tourism. So, can the First Minister clarify whether the Government has the power to force councils not to decrease existing tourism spending when introducing a tourism tax, and if so, would they use it?

If the Member wishes to, he can contribute those views in the consultation to which the Welsh Government is committed alongside our colleagues in Plaid Cymru, because the raising of a tourism levy is part of the co-operation agreement that we have struck. We will certainly explore in that consultation the hypothecation of the money raised through a local tourism levy in order to support the services that local communities provide and that make tourism successful in the first place. If it is the policy of the Conservative Party that the budgets of each local council should be set here in the Senedd and that we should act to prevent local authorities—elected, by the way, by people in their own areas—from varying the investments they make in different parts of their responsibilities, well, that is news to me. I wasn't aware that it was the policy of the Conservative Party, but if it is, there'll be a chance for you to make that clear in the consultation. 

14:30
2. Business Statement and Announcement

And we move now to the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement—Lesley Griffiths. 

Member
Lesley Griffiths MS 14:30:15
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch, Llywydd. There are three changes to this week's business. Today's oral statement on the development of the net zero consistent UK trade emissions trading scheme has been withdrawn. The Deputy Minister for Climate Change will deliver the oral statement on flood and coastal erosion risk management—2022-23 programme of investment. And questions to the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution tomorrow have been reduced to 30 minutes. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically. 

Trefnydd, can I request an urgent statement from the health Minister on the delivery and performance of ambulance services across Wales? And I'm pleased that the health Minister is in her place to hear this request. As I'm sure you know, the Welsh ambulance service has been undertaking a review of its emergency ambulance service rosters, and that review has now concluded. Of course, it's crucial that the ambulance service delivers rosters that match capacity to demand, but, unfortunately, in Pembrokeshire, I continue to receive correspondence from upset and frustrated constituents who have had exceptionally long waits for an ambulance. In one particular case, a constituent waited over eight hours for am ambulance for her husband who had fallen, and, in the end, she put her husband in the back of a van and was driven to the hospital. And I'm sure you would agree with me that is totally unacceptable. Now, this is one example, but sadly there are more. So, I'd be very grateful if you could ask the health Minister to bring forward an urgent statement on ambulance services across Wales, so that Members can understand more about the provision of services in our local areas in light of this roster review, so we can raise concerns and ask questions about the services that our constituents are receiving. 

Well, thank you. Of course, we absolutely agree that eight hours is not an acceptable length of time, and I know the Minister for Health and Social Services of course takes such incidents very seriously. As you say, there has been a consultation within the ambulance service around the rosters, which has now been completed. And I know, personally as an MS, I've had correspondence with the chief executive of the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust around that, and I'm sure the Minister will be closely monitoring it. 

Trefnydd, last week, Cwm Taf Morgannwg health board announced that they would be closing two vaccination centres this week—one in the Rhondda and one in the Cynon Valley. Vulnerable people who will be receiving their booster in the spring will be expected to travel to Bridgend, Llantrisant or Merthyr Tydfil. This means that if you don't have a car or a lift, you'll have to travel for two hours, catching three buses, to reach the nearest centre. 

Bearing in mind that the mortality rate from COVID in the Rhondda has been amongst the highest in the UK, would it be possible to have a statement from the Minister for health, please, regarding what support will be provided to ensure that vulnerable people without access to a car are able to receive their vaccines in their local area without having to undertake such long journeys?

Well, you will be aware that, throughout the pandemic, and certainly when the vaccine became available, there were many vaccination centres right across Wales. And as we go into the spring, and we see what boosters will be required, and, indeed, whether further vaccines will be required, this will be something that will be looked at. 

I would like to request two statements. The first one is a statement on cladding and an update on the Welsh Government's progress on this issue. This is a major issue to my constituents living in Copper Quarter in SA1. I'm receiving requests for updates, including a timescale regarding when the cladding review will be complete and safety passports issued so that sales can be completed.

The second item of request is a Welsh Government statement stating that fire and rehire and outsourcing will not be used by the Welsh Government, or by its sponsored bodies, and that the remit letters to Welsh Government sponsored bodies will explicitly say that there will be no fire and rehire and there will be no outsourcing. 

Thank you. You will be aware that the Minister for Climate Change issued a written statement—I think it was at the end of last month—confirming the appointment of surveyors and technical experts to undertake survey work in respect of the 248 expressions of interest that were received under the Welsh building safety fund. That work is under way. The Minister for Climate Change will provide a further update to the Senedd on 29 March in relation to the issue you raised in your first question.

Around fire and rehire, we've been very clear as a Government that fire and rehire practices are not consistent with our values of fair work and social partnership. And using the threat of dismissal to diminish employment terms and conditions agreed in good faith is absolutely an abuse of employer power. So, we do expect employers who benefit from public investment to act in the spirit of social partnership, to be focused on the well-being of their workers and, of course, the wider public interest. You'll be aware the Deputy Minister is taking through the social partnership and public procurement Bill. That will introduce new socially responsible procurement duties on public bodies. The UK Government can, and I think it should, use its reserve powers over employment rights to provide greater security, certainty and protections against fire and rehire. The Prime Minister has actually described fire and rehire as unacceptable, but I think, as we all know, it's action not words that are needed.

14:35

Leader of the house, is it possible to have a statement from the economy Minister in relation to the Cardiff capital region? We all hope that the Cardiff capital region succeeds in its ambition to increase gross value added and increase the number of quality jobs within its catchment area. Recently, they announced the purchase of the old Aberthaw coal-fired power station site, with a considerable investment on restoration works—some £36 million going in for that restoration work—and the ambition to turn it into an exemplar of green energy, sentiments that we all support. But there's a genuine deficit, I would suggest, in the accountability and the scrutiny of the decisions and actions that are taken. And I would be interested to understand, as the Welsh Government is one of the partner organisations, what is the expectation of the Welsh Government, in engagement with local stakeholders, on this particular issue? I'm very grateful that the capital region did engage with local councillors, and I declare an interest as a councillor, for the Roose ward, in the Vale of Glamorgan Council. [Interruption.] I'm sorry that it upset the Minister, but I have to put it on the record now. 

But it is important to understand—. Well, it's in my declaration of interests. So, it is important to understand what the actual accountability thresholds and the scrutiny thresholds are. And importantly, I think, the Senedd needs to consider how it can scrutinise the expenditure that the capital region's making, and, importantly, the goals it set itself. But I want to try and understand what the Welsh Government's role is in making sure that, obviously, the goals are reached, and the 5,000 jobs identified, and the increase in GVA is achieved.

Thank you. Well, the Minister for Economy does work very closely, obviously, with all the regions around the bids that you describe. I don't think it's possible to bring forward a statement in the next few weeks, but I'll certainly look to see if there is anything that we need to update Members on in the next term.

May I start by declaring an interest as a county councillor, for the next few weeks, because it is pertinent to the question that I'm going to pose?

Trefnydd, I'm sure that you, like me, have welcomed the statement made last week by the Wales Pension Partnership and the local government pensions scheme, in light of the appalling events in Ukraine, that these pension funds have decided to divest from companies from Russia as soon as practically possible. This was an excellent example of clear, unambiguous action by the pensions partnership, and what is possible as people take a stand on a point of principle.

Unfortunately, on the issue of climate change and moving away from fossil fuels, decisions by pension funds haven't been as swift and determined. I met recently with campaigners in my region to discuss this issue, and there is clear frustration in terms of the lack of progress made. We know that pension funds in Wales have over £500 million invested in fossil fuel industries. Having declared a nature and climate emergency in this place, I strongly believe that the Senedd needs to play a prominent role in this agenda.

I'm grateful to Jack Sargeant for introducing a statement of opinion recently on this issue, calling on the Government to take action. I wonder, therefore, Trefnydd, whether you would be willing to bring forward a statement or a debate in Government time that would set out the views and actions of Government on this issue, giving us an opportunity to outline opportunities and steps to support pension funds to deliver against divestment targets over the next years. I would be grateful, therefore, Trefnydd, if you would consider my request to allocate Government time to discuss this very important issue.

14:40

Thank you, and I do think it is a very important issue, and you'll be aware that the Minister for Finance and Local Government acted very quickly to enter into discussions with local government around pension funds, in the way that you referred to. The Minister for Climate Change is also obviously very interested in this subject. We have, as a Government, made very clear our ambitions to move away from fossil fuels. I'm not aware of anything that's come in that we could provide a statement on in the near future, and it might be better if you do write to the Minister directly. 

Minister, I've asked before for a statement on access to dentistry. I'd like to repeat that request this afternoon, and also ask for a debate on the future of dentistry services. I'm glad the health Minister is in the Chamber in her place for this session. I've received correspondence from dentists in my own constituency who are exceptionally concerned about the issue of a new contract. They believe that contract has been widely criticised, and they've told me that morale is at rock bottom in the service, and that they are seriously concerned about the ability of dentists across Wales to be able to continue to deliver services. So, I think it would be useful were we able to have a debate on these matters in Government time, and certainly a statement with some urgency. 

Thank you. Well, I know the Minister for Health and Social Services, who, as you say, is in the Chamber and heard your request, is monitoring the situation very closely. I think it's fair to say you've put significant additional funding in and it's obviously working through the new dental contracts. 

Trefnydd, could I ask for a statement from the finance Minister on what help is out there for people struggling to buy heating oil at the moment? Last week, the average price per litre of heating oil hit £1.55, up from an already high 67p, just a few weeks ago, and that's around four times higher than the price last March, and, even if you can afford it, you'll be lucky if you can get it. You won't get a price, and people have to both commit to a minimum of 500 litres and an upfront payment. And my maths I'm sure is right that at £1.80 times 500—that's an £830 upfront payment. A constituent contacted me this week, yesterday, to say that they have enough oil in their tank for 16 days, and after that they'll have no heating, they'll have no hot water—a family of four people, including two young children. People are extremely worried, and they are living, of course, you will understand, in some of the coldest houses in Wales. I'm able to signpost people to Welsh Government support, like the discretionary assistance fund, but what would be really useful to have, Minister, is an explanation from Welsh Government of all the help and advice and support, and actually going a little bit further, looking at a scheme that will help those people who don't have the opportunity to pay as they go. 

Thank you. Joyce Watson raises a very important point, and I'm sure there are many of us in the Chamber, myself included, who've received correspondence from constituents around this very important issue. Not only can you not get a price, you can't get a delivery date, and it's sort of a vicious circle. And as we heard in First Minister's questions, we are really facing an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis, and, of course, day-to-day prices are going up as inflation rises, and we know the crisis is going to get worse in April, when the energy price cap increases by more than 50 per cent and the biggest tax rises in almost 30 years will come into force from the UK Government. 

Last month, the Minister for Finance and Local Government did announce a £330 million package of measures to assist with tackling the rising cost of living. These matters are reserved to the UK Government, but we have taken action using our limited resources to support households most at risk, and you're right to signpost your constituents to the winter fuel support scheme that ran from October to the end of March and offered a payment of £200 for eligible households. The package that the Minister announced last month will ensure our winter fuel support scheme can be extended to run again next winter to reach more households, and the package of measures also includes a £150 cost-of-living payment to all households in properties in council tax bands A to D and all households that receive support from the council tax reduction scheme. I should point out we've also got the discretionary assistance fund. So, for off-grid customers who are experiencing financial difficulties, that fund has been increased to help support the introduction of winter support for off-grid fuel clients.

14:45
3. Statement by the Minister for Climate Change: Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management, 2022-23 Programme of Investment

The next item, therefore, is the statement by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change on the flood and coastal erosion risk management 2022-23 programme of investment. I call on the Deputy Minister to make the statement—Lee Waters.

Diolch yn fawr iawn. Following the Senedd’s approval of the Welsh Government’s budget, I am confirming today the flood programme for this year. The funding package will deliver a record increase in investment for flood and coastal erosion risk management and mitigation in 2022-23 and, over the course of this Senedd term, meeting our commitment and as set out in the co-operation agreement between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru. This comes on top of a level of funding in the current year that was already the most generous in the devolution era, and we are extending it further. This next year will see the highest level of funding ever provided to date for flood risk and coastal erosion risk management.

Investment in this area has never been so important. Just last month, we were reminded of this as three successive major storms swept across Wales, impacting many communities. Fortunately, the damage and disruption to infrastructure was not as great as it could have been or that we feared it might be. But, it did flood at least 65 properties, which was a hugely traumatic and stressful experience for the individuals and families involved. I am grateful for the huge contribution from staff in local authorities, Natural Resources Wales, water companies, emergency services and community flood wardens, who play their role in protecting our communities in responding to and delivering measures to reduce flood risk. I'm pleased that our investment helped to reduce flood risk to over 950 homes and businesses across Wales, with a further 3,600 benefiting from enhancements to existing schemes and maintenance work.

Looking ahead to 2022-23, I'm pleased that we can announce our largest ever flood programme, totalling over £71 million next year. The three-year allocation, an important commitment, of over £214 million will help develop a stronger pipeline of future flood schemes and will enable, crucially, better forward planning. We have asked risk management authorities to continue to work with us to accelerate delivery to secure and raise the level of protection from flooding across Wales.

As part of our commitment to increase funding, the Welsh Government will increase by £24 million revenue funding over the next three years also. This will enable a doubling, to £225,000 per authority, of revenue funding to local government in this coming financial year. At the same time, we are increasing NRW’s revenue budget by £1.5 million, and we'll do further work with our delivery partners to understand future funding needs. The increased funding reflects the activities already being delivered in line with our national strategy, our programme for government and co-operation agreement commitments.

I've extended the national coastal risk management programme by one final year. It's now imperative, Llywydd, that local authorities take advantage of this final extension to complete work on the design of remaining schemes and to ensure construction commences, for example, at Aberaeron, Prestatyn central and Hirael bay in Bangor before the end of March 2023. This programme is the principal mechanism for addressing our coastal erosion management objectives, for tackling the challenges set out in the shoreline management plans, and investing to ensure coastal communities remain resilient in the longer term. Earlier this month, Denbighshire County Council confirmed the completion of the £27 million east Rhyl coastal scheme in Denbighshire, funded through our programme, which is now benefiting around 1,650 properties. And yesterday, my colleague Julie James visited the Aberavon coastal scheme, and, of course, we look forward to visiting schemes right across Wales over the coming year as they near completion.

Turning to capital funding, we can look forward to a strong investment programme amounting to £34 million. We have today published details of all schemes, along with an interactive map for the public and Members to view the associated details. Funding's been made available for works to design and develop future schemes as well as to construct new assets. Some of the schemes in the programme for construction include works at Treorchy, Dinas Powys and Glynneath. Through our overall investment, including the flood programme, we will benefit at least 14,600 properties this year. But, capital funding is not just about building new assets ; it also includes activities to maintain existing assets, develop new schemes, and mapping and modelling projects to better understand and communicate flood risk. Our funding will support development work on a further 86 schemes that will feed into future programmes.

Next year, we will maintain 100 per cent grant funding for all preparatory work towards new schemes. Only at construction stage will 15 per cent match funding be required from local authorities and to support in minimising this match funding. So, I encourage them to seek partnership funding contributions where wider benefits are identified.

We will also be continuing with the popular small-scale works grant and have increased the threshold of individual projects under this grant to £200,000, and we've allocated £3.8 million to local authorities to support schemes right across Wales, benefiting over 2,100 properties.

Finally, Llywydd, the natural flood management programme continues into its final year. This programme will help us understand natural flood management and how we can best deliver these types of schemes to contribute towards our commitment to deliver nature-based flood management. The £3 million programme contains 15 projects that seek to benefit over 1,100 properties, whilst providing wider benefits, such as improved water quality and biodiversity.

Our national flood strategy sets out how we're improving the way we work together to reduce risk and provides clear direction for delivering our long-term objectives. And the record levels of investment we're announcing today reflect the importance this Government places on flood risk management, as we face the challenges of climate change and work together to adapt and prepare communities for the future. Diolch.

14:50

Thank you, Deputy Minister. This is, for me, a positive statement. It is welcome news that £214 million will be invested in flood and coastal erosion schemes over the next three years, with £71 million to be invested during the next financial year. Whilst there's mention of this being part of your co-operation agreement, I think it's fair to say that the Welsh Conservatives have been calling for extra funding and better management as regards flooding and coastal sea defences since 2016. You have informed us that the funding will be used to help improve forward planning, and those, to me, were the two key words of your statement. Because, too often, I'm afraid the approach by Welsh Government has been on a reactive basis rather than proactive. So, I am really welcoming the fact that you now look forward to working with risk management authorities to accelerate delivery and support for the people of Wales.

During the inquiry we held into the Welsh Government's response to the February 2020 flooding, the committee report published highlighted that the level of revenue funding meant that authorities were a long way away from being fully prepared and resilient. Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council received just under 5 per cent of the national revenue funding, despite having an estimated 21 per cent of the national surface water flood risk to manage.

Now, last week, you clarified that the allocation of future years' revenue, based on current or future flood and coastal erosion risk, is something that you would consider. So, I have a few questions, but I will just say to you I did welcome your announcement that you're going to come round some of the schemes, because we have three schemes here in my constituency: Llanfairfechan, which has had immense storm damage to the promenade; Penrhyn bay, a new sea defence alleviation scheme; and, finally, Llandudno, where, in 2014, your Government rather inadvertently gave us a sea defence scheme that basically was inadequate, removing our sand, putting thousands of tonnes of boulders there. You were up here at the weekend, and I think you will agree—. There is a bid in with you, and the people of Llandudno, all the politicians, we want to see sand restored to our beach. So, I certainly look forward to you visiting some schemes in the constituency here in Aberconwy.

My first question is: bearing in mind that the Minister for Finance and Local Government was unable to answer my question last week, would you clarify to the Senedd why revenue allocation still does not take into account flood risk, despite our clear committee recommendation? Question 2: will you clarify whether the confirmed flood revenue allocations of £222,000 for local authorities will be split equally between each authority? Your press release highlights the programme for government as evidence that you are focused on delivering outcomes that help improve the resilience of our communities. So, basically, why does this Welsh Government continue to disagree with around 6,000 people who signed a petition urging the Welsh Government to initiate a full, independent, open and public inquiry into the 2020 flooding of homes and businesses across Rhondda Cynon Taf?

I think you're aware, Deputy Minister, as is the Minister, of my concerns about the time that it takes for section 19 reports, and they have really been the only thing available for communities when they've suffered a bad flooding incident. Some have had to wait—local authorities have had to wait—eight months for the report, and certainly, here in Llanrwst and Pentref, 17 months. That's a long time after people have seen their homes and their communities devastated by flooding. Will you commit, as a matter of urgency, to tackling the delays in the compilation and publication of section 19 reports so that flood mitigation measures are identified sooner? I'm sure you will agree with me some of the good work that's been done on our uplands—. Certainly, here in Aberconwy we've been working with the National Trust and Natural Resources Wales in terms of sorting out the peat boglands so that there's greater water capture and holding up in our uplands to avoid severe flooding incidents in villages like Llanrwst.

Finally, I note that you are claiming to increase NRW's budget by £1.5 million, yet NRW themselves have estimated that enforcing the nitrate vulnerable zones or the Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations 2021 will require well over 200 extra staff. How will you look at restructuring NRW as part of that, because I think you would agree with me, Deputy Minister, it's not just down to money? I think I've given you enough questions there, and I really would appreciate your acknowledgement and responses to those questions, and thank you again for your statement. Diolch, Llywydd.

14:55

Well, Llywydd, let the record show that, at 14:53 on 15 March 2022, Janet Finch-Saunders welcomed action by the Welsh Government and thanked us for what we're doing. It is a proud day that'll live in the record books for some time to come, and I appreciate that acknowledgement.

Many of the questions she raised, I think, were answered by my statement, but I'd just like to address a couple of the others. The development of schemes is the responsibility of flood risk management authorities—it is their statutory function. The Welsh Government funds proposals based on expert analysis, and that is based on how it mitigates flood management, and I'm sure Janet Finch-Saunders, as somebody who is a landlord in Llandudno, has a keen interest in seeing sand there, but that is not a primary consideration when it comes to designing flood mitigation, and we rely not on political preferences, but on an expert assessment of what will reduce flood risk, and that's how schemes are judged. We want more authorities to put forward schemes that we can judge and then put in our pipeline and deliver. The point she made about section 19 investigations is something, as she'll know, that is captured by our partnership agreement with Plaid Cymru and that we are discussing with the designated Member and will make an announcement on when we have agreement on how to take that forward. But we are committed to doing that.

I think the point to make on the broader comments is that we have a significant programme of work in this scheme to tackle the growing problem that we know climate change presents to us, and she mentions the scheme in her constituency, which is a vulnerable area on the coast, as is so much of Wales. And the need for us to join the dots here—. I'd say to Members on the Conservative benches, we're talking about dealing with the impact of climate change here, but we also have to deal with the causes of climate change. It's no good on the one hand coming to the Chamber with a list of the consequences of climate change without also being willing to stop making climate change worse, and I think they need to reflect on a bit of join-up in their policy thinking. 

15:00

I would like to welcome the planned investments, Minister, in flood risk management, and thank you very much for the statement. The three-year capital budget will certainly support communities through the delivery of vital flood defences that are so needed, and, of course, the funding will come alongside a vital revenue budget, as has already been set out. This wouldn't have been possible without the collaborative work between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government, and, as has been said already during this statement and the discussions already, the co-operation agreement has also meant that we've managed to secure commitments to commission independent review of section 19 and NRW reports into extreme flooding in the winter of 2020-21, and, of course, to act on those recommendations. So this, we know, is part of an ongoing project of work here.

Now, let's look to the future here, Minister. In winter, rainfall is expected to increase by something like 6 per cent by the 2050s and between 7 per cent and 13 per cent by the 2080s from a 1981 to 2000 baseline. Obviously, a lot of that depends on global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and I know that when we talk about things in 2050 and 2080 it seems like a really long way away, but we're talking about things that will be within our lifetimes, and climate change is going to get worse in those lifetimes—certainly, as well, in the lifetimes of so many people in Wales and people yet to be born. More areas will be affected more extremely by worse flooding; people will begin to worry when it starts to rain—worry about their homes, their businesses, their communities that could be devastated by floodwater. I'd like to know, please, how the Welsh Government will ensure that the areas projected to be most affected by future flooding will be forewarned when flooding will occur. Is there anything further that you'd like to say in terms of the need to scale up early warning systems for communities put at risk of floods, particularly not just looking at rainfall but associated risks, like with coal tips and coal slips? 

Looking at the proposed capital investment, while hard flood defences like flood defence walls are, of course, completely necessary, not just to protect properties but communities, it has already come up, Minister, that there isn't enough emphasis, perhaps, on restoring nature. I know that Janet Finch-Saunders had brought this up as well, and I recognise that you've already acknowledged this, but if we're talking about peatlands, salt marshes, tree planting, reintroducing beavers, increasing green spaces, water storage in urban areas, is there anything further that you'd like to say, Minister, in terms of plans to scale up the amount of natural flood management that is taking place, given the benefits that would derive from these natural methods?

Finally, the Welsh Government is spending record amounts, of course, on flood defences, but more also needs to be done to help vulnerable, at-risk households to make their homes more flood resilient and ensure they're adequately insured so that they can recover from a flood. The reality is that poorer households are less able to invest in their properties, both to make them flood resistant and also flood resilient, when we're talking about floodgates or making them easier to clean out and clear and dry out. Some are less able to respond when flooding occurs because, maybe, they are disabled or they're frail because of age or illness, and many aren't able to bounce back after they've been hit by flooding. UK-wide figures suggest around 50 per cent of all renters may not have home contents insurance. That rises to 61 per cent of low-income renters. So, Minister, I'd like to know a little bit more detail, please, about what measures the Welsh Government is taking to ensure that more homes, particularly low-income homes in high-risk-of-flooding areas, can be made more flood resistant and resilient and what the Welsh Government is doing to reduce the cost burden of insurance on those households, please.

15:05

Thank you. A number of questions there, and I did acknowledge in my statement the role that the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru has played in today's announcement. As you know, there were two areas in the agreement related to flood. First of all, a flood review, which I mentioned in my previous answer that we are making progress on. And the second was in flood capital investment and national resilience, to invest more in flood management and mitigation and plan to respond to the increased risk of flooding, and then secondly to ask the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales to assess how the nationwide likelihood of flooding of homes, businesses and infrastructure can be minimised by 2050, and that is also under way. We are re-jigging the national infrastructure commission. As I think Members know, we have appointed a new chair in Gareth Clubb. We are refreshing the membership and we are refocusing the terms of reference towards its role in net-zero planning. And as part of that we are asking them to look, as agreed in the co-operation agreement, at flood mitigation and minimisation. So, I'm pleased to confirm that, and thank Plaid Cymru for their co-operation on that. I think that is an important piece of joint working. Where we agree, it makes sense that we act together, and I personally very warmly welcome that.

On the question of early warning systems, I think digital early warning systems are essential, and this is true across the piece. I was at the Low Carbon Agriculture Show at Stoneleigh last week with the National Farmers Union looking at a whole range of precision agriculture interventions that can help us deal with the risks of climate change as well as improving on-farm productivity and warning systems, and greater use of agri-tech is a no-brainer, frankly.

And also, in terms of the specific point on coal-tip safety, then the use of digital early warning systems is part of the taskforce that the First Minister has established. And similarly, the point on natural flood management is already under way. Today's announcement includes £3 million for that. But we also have other schemes, like the Local Places for Nature scheme, and also the tree-planting initiative that was mentioned. Properly, the right tree in the right place can support local flood mitigation, whether at scale on farms or on streets in communities, and I think that is a really important part of our tree-planting approach, and mainstreaming natural flood management into everything that we do.

I hope I've covered the main points there. Thank you.

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

Can I, first of all, Deputy Minister, thank you for your statement today? North Powys, in my own constituency, experienced significant flooding, of course. Last month, I think in three days, 150 mm of water fell—50 per cent just on one day alone, on Sunday 20 February—on already saturated ground, so we had there some, sadly, record-breaking levels in rivers, and many communities suffering, of course, in Llandinam, Pool Quay and Llandrinio. For many, flooding incidents had occurred twice in recent years, so there's all the upset, of course, that comes along with those that have their homes flooded.

When I've outlined—. I'm very pleased that you've outlined the additional funding today, but I would question how NRW is structured and is structured appropriately to deliver. I'm afraid I've had some very inadequate responses, as have county councillors in my own constituency, from NRW. Issues have been raised, particularly in Llandrinio and Llandinam, for years, and commitments made by NRW staff. I appreciate I haven't got the time to go into the detail—I'm happy to write to you—but commitments are made, years later we have another flooding incident, and what happens? NRW say they're going to come out and do a survey. We don't need a survey when surveys have already been done previously, and there's huge frustration. I'm trying to get an assessment here from you, Minister, whether it's a lack of resource or whether NRW's not structured sufficiently to deliver.

Yes, and if I can ask—. Finally, then, Minister, if I can ask you, in regards to those frustrations from communities—. Can I ask you to particularly look at flood warnings as well? Because the NRW website does not seem to be working appropriately. I think, on their own admission, gauges aren't working properly. One of their main functions is of course to warn communities of flooding incidents, and it does seem that there are other benefits the other side of the border in Shropshire, where the Environment Agency website is working a lot more efficiently, it seems to be, than NRW's website, where many gauges are not working correctly, and of course that is one of their main functions. So, will extra resource go into the warning mechanisms as well as part of NRW's functions?

15:10

Well, I think it's only honest to admit that, clearly, resources are constrained. We're not able to do all the things that we want to do, and in some cases need to do, right across the Government. That is the nature of being in Government, and the funding settlements we've had aren't what we'd like them to be. The funding for the Welsh Government has not kept up with the growth in the economy. It's a point we've made time and time again, and Conservatives can't just dismiss the impact of austerity. This is the practical manifestation of that suppressed funding over more than a decade, and I think it's only fair to point that out.

Now, in terms specifically of NRW, we ask an awful lot of NRW, and I think they've done an outstanding job in the recent floods, and they always respond extremely well in a crisis. In terms of their day-to-day functions, there is a lot for them to do, and the resource isn't always there for them to do everything they want to do to the level that they want to do it. That is a consequence of the general funding settlement. We've increased funding for NRW in today's announcement, and I'd be very happy to look further at the points in detail that Russell George pointed out. Sometimes it's the case, as we discovered on the tree planting, for example, just to use that as an example of the broader point—. In the deep dive that we conducted last summer, we looked at the way NRW used their resource, and in that case there were something like 82 members of staff who part of their job was looking at assessment of tree-planting schemes. So, it's not that they didn't have resource, but they were directed, in my view, in the wrong way—they were directed at putting barriers up rather than pulling barriers down. So, sometimes it is a case of looking at the resource there is and being clear about what we're asking them to do. We are having a very good and healthy dialogue with the leadership of NRW, reviewing a number of key areas of performance, to make sure that the systems are right for the job at hand. But, on the specific points, I'd be very happy to take it up by correspondence. 

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. I welcome very much today’s announcement, which stems from the agreement between our parties. Until you see the impact of flooding on homes and communities I think it's impossible to comprehend the impact, not just in the immediate aftermath but in the long term, over decades and years. The trauma is ongoing, and people still cry when I meet them when they describe what they have been through.

In the statement, you refer, Deputy Minister, to the additional funding allocated to the Natural Resources Wales budget, particularly in terms of revenue. But can you please confirm whether this has been earmarked entirely to deal with flooding, and to what extent will this improve the situation with regard to the number of staff that Natural Resources Wales have involved in tackling flooding? After all, the Natural Resources Wales report on the 2020 floods noted the following: 

'It is roughly estimated that 60-70 additional members of staff are needed over the long term to sustain the overall service and to address the actions set out in our flood review.'

Will this be corrected as a result of the statement?

Well, as we've said, we've increased the level of funding for NRW, and how it is spent in detail is a matter for them and a matter for dialogue with us. I'm not able to say any more than that today, but clearly it is a key question, and I acknowledge that. I absolutely recognise her point about the trauma and distress caused by flooding. I saw some of it myself in Pontypridd two years ago now, and I met with many of the people who were affected and could see the real upset that it had caused there, and the stress. And we want to avoid that. We know from the scientists that this is going to become a more regular occurrence. We are going to have wilder and wetter winters, we are having greater rainfall, and that is a consequence of the climate emissions, the carbon emissions that have already been emitted into the atmosphere. That's baked in, and we have to adapt our infrastructure and our systems to deal with that, and people in areas of risk have to learn to live with the risk and manage the risk. We can't magic it away. But equally important is that we stop it getting any worse, and our commitment to net zero needs to be redoubled and reminders given to people, because there are voices during this crisis who are simply saying that we need to set aside many of the things we've committed to doing around renewable energy or, indeed, around tree planting. They're simply saying we should respond to the crisis in a short-termist way, a knee-jerk way, to go back to doing the things we've done. There are certainly voices on the right calling for us to embrace fracking, and I think it's really important that we remember we're talking about, today, the impact of climate change. That's not going to go away, it's going to get worse, and we must not lose our nerve in a very difficult situation and remember we are facing multiple crises, and the climate crisis also has to be dealt with.

15:15

As the Deputy Minister will know, I've got personal experience of flooding, having lived through the Towyn floods all those years ago, and it's absolutely devastating. We must do what we can to prevent people's homes from being flooded. I was very pleased to see in the list of financial commitments many references to areas in my own constituency, including the Towyn and Kinmel Bay area. One of the concerns that has been raised with me by local residents in that community is the fact that the Welsh Government has put on hold its new technical advice note 15 requirements, which would ensure that any new defences built in Towyn and Kinmel Bay would be more robust than those that are currently being proposed by the local authority. What assurances can you give to my constituents that any investment from the Welsh Government will be to the new TAN 15 protection levels and not to the old ones, which frankly aren't good enough?

Well, we are committed to implementing TAN 15, just to be clear about that. We have agreed to a delay of 18 months before it and the flood map for planning become operational because of concerns about the practical implementation by local authorities. And the crucial thing here is to get this right, and this does involve quite a significant change to many of the assumptions local authorities and planning authorities have made about what development is possible and what is viable, and that is putting under threat a number of schemes that are important for other policy priorities. And this is the tension we have: how do we marry these different pressures? So, that's the process we're going through now, working with local authorities, and I can assure your constituents that we've delayed it, I think for sensible public policy reasons, but we're not avoiding the challenge it faces. And the follow-on consequences for that are something all of us are going to have to get used to, because it does mean doing things differently, and that is not going to be easy.

Thank you, Deputy Minister, for this statement. The additional investment is certainly to be warmly welcomed, and I look forward to seeing the work in Barmouth, Fairbourne, Morfa Nefyn and Pencaenewydd. I want to draw one other issue to the Deputy Minister's attention, if I may. The community council in Arthog, which includes the area of Fairbourne, has received an independent report by Dr Graham Hall, who is an expert in flooding, and it was independently reviewed by Dr Veronica Edmonds-Brown from the University of Hertfordshire. And it notes that the west of Wales shoreline management plan is based on work done 10 years ago. Now, since then, of course, a great deal of work has been done on coastal flood defences, which changes the forecast for communities such as Fairbourne, but the plans haven't changed to reflect this work. In addition to this, it notes that it's run-off from the mountains that is most likely to affect that community, not an increase in sea level, and there is room to doubt the modelling of Natural Resources Wales, which is based on inadequate data and old software. Will you ask Natural Resources Wales to review the west of Wales shoreline management plan in order to take the report of Graham Hall and the review by Veronica Edmonds-Brown into consideration, please?

Thank you. Yes, and we are aware of the report. We've seen the report and our technical team have been analysing it. It's a matter for the local authority, as the responsible body here, and I understand that Gwynedd are also considering the report, or have seen it, and I think they in the first instance need to discuss that with the authors to make sure that there's a common understanding of the basis of the evidence. And then, if there are implications coming from that, we'll obviously consider them.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and I thank the Deputy Minister today for his statement. 

Thank you, Deputy Minister, but you'll be aware that there are several locations within my constituency of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire that are subject to erosion, both coastal and flooding, and I've previously raised my frustrations that Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales appear to be passing the buck between each other as to who is responsible for progressing a flood prevention scheme to protect businesses along the river Tywi's quay in Carmarthen. And whilst it's right that we protect people's homes, businesses are vital to the local economy and should not be forgotten by the Government. Therefore, given the increase in funding now available to Welsh Government agencies, I'd be grateful if you could, Deputy Minister, explain what actions the Government is taking to protect local businesses, such as those along Carmarthen's quay, as well as people's homes. Diolch.

15:20

On the confusion of responsibilities, I think there is an issue here in that there are overlapping responsibilities and there isn't always clarity, and that is one of the things I think the section 19 review that we agreed with Plaid Cymru as part of the co-operation agreement will look at, because that certainly was a factor in the Rhondda Cynon Taf incident. And I think through analysing all the different section 19 and NRW reports, we can look to see whether or not that is an issue that needs to be examined further. So, I think that's going to be a very helpful outcome of that process.

In terms of the specific issue of the Carmarthen quay, we've had applications for protecting businesses, whereas our funding guidelines are very clear that our priority must be protecting homes. And where schemes have got multiple benefits, clearly that is a bonus, but we do need to prioritise and the local authorities need to work with us to design schemes that can achieve as many objectives as possible.

4. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change: Update on Digital Strategy

Item 4 this afternoon is the statement by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, and an update on the digital strategy. And I call on the Deputy Minister to make the statement. Lee Waters. 

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and now for something completely different. [Laughter.]

A year ago, we published a new digital strategy for Wales, a strategy that sets out how we want to use digital and data in a better way to improve people’s lives and help businesses and communities thrive, and we've just been discussing the use of digital and data in the mapping of flooding and the monitoring of coal tips as a practical example of how this can improve public service delivery.

I just want today to highlight some of the progress we've made since last year's publication of the strategy. They key point that's worth repeating is that digital is not about kit; it’s about culture. It enables us to look at old problems in new ways, and use openness, the key digital principles of iteration, collaboration and, critically, user-centred design. And a year on, the strategy has created an excitement around what we are doing in Wales and how our approach can make a difference to public services.

We have established a digital leadership ecosystem, which may sound a bit dull and nerdy but is actually critical, and it was a key missing gap as the Public Accounts Committee and others looked at in a number of examples, and we've put that right. So, we now have a new centre for digital public services and chief digital officers for local government, Welsh Government and a soon-to-be-appointed health service CDO. Our aim now is that this matures and widens across the public sector.

The digital centre is already empowering public sector organisations to adopt a digital approach. This includes supporting Sport Wales to widen the reach of their grants, developing a text messaging service when accessing adult social care in Neath Port Talbot, and exploring a new hazardous waste service with Natural Resources Wales, all using this approach of iteration and user-centred design. The centre's also gathering insights into how people access primary care as part of NHS Wales's digital services for patients and the public programme.

Dirprwy Lywydd, effective cyber security and resilience will be key to successfully delivering these services. The centre is leading also a public services landscape review—a good, hard look at the digital and technological maturity of public services in Wales. This will be really important—crucial—to help us prioritise work over the next few years.

My focus now is on cementing digital in the way that we work. I don't think we've yet invented digital cement, though, it's worth reinforcing. We have—again, learning from the PAC committee reports—a set of digital service standards that allow anyone to develop a set of services in an iterative, agile and user-centred way—again, the key digital principles. And I want these to be adopted, placing an uncompromising focus on user needs to support better outcomes for all, and also, crucially, a chance to refocus public services on their users. That's ultimately what this is all about.

In realising our ambitions, we need to recognise barriers. Wales faces the global challenge of skills capacity, and public sector bodies are searching for talent in a massively competitive labour market. Apprenticeships can help, as well as upskilling and nurturing the talent that we already have in digital, data and technology roles.

For those people who do not have digital skills and confidence, we are exploring a national minimum digital living standard. It will be developed through engagement with digitally included and excluded people across Wales, so that we can identify what people really need to be part of the modern digital world.

Growing a digital culture includes recognising the importance of data and partnership working. We've just been discussing, Dirprwy Lywydd, the recent storms, where we saw Data Map Wales used as a public sector geospatial platform to identify where vulnerable people lived, where to target our support, and how quick and effective decision making can save lives. That's digital advancement and innovation in action in the way that we run public services in Wales.

We are also investing in a Wales data nation accelerator project. This was inspired by a recommendation in the Brown review into digital innovation, and is a partnership between Welsh universities, delivering a number of exciting projects with industry, for example, using artificial intelligence to optimise land management and reduce flood risk.

Digital connectivity underpins the digital strategy. In the spirit of openness, Dirprwy Lywydd, I want to update you on broadband provision in Wales. As Members know, while telecommunications is not devolved to Wales, the Welsh Government has continued to step in where the market and the UK Government have failed to deliver fast and reliable broadband.

We have provided future-proofed gigabit broadband to nearly 26,000 premises through our own full-fibre roll-out with Openreach. We have also provided extra funding to top up the UK Government gigabit broadband voucher scheme. This has doubled the amount available to homes and businesses where the UK funding has failed to reflect the true cost of deploying in the Welsh landscape. The Welsh Government top-up has supported over 1,300 homes and businesses to get connected.

However, in the face of continued budget pressures, we cannot continue to underwrite the UK Government who have the responsibility for this area. Therefore, the top-up will cease on 31 March 2022. The volume of funds provided under the top-up across the UK suggests that the upper cost threshold of the scheme should be reviewed by the UK Government to reflect the cost of deploying gigabit broadband in rural and remote areas. I have written to, and have met with, the Minister of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to emphasise this point.

The scheme was shortly due to be paused in Wales as procurements for Project Gigabit began, but applications for vouchers received before the cessation date that meet the scheme’s criteria will still be eligible for top-up funding. On Project Gigabit, we are pressing the UK Government to ensure that Wales gets its share of the £5 billion of investment for the needs of homes and businesses in Wales. Discussions are ongoing about how it will be delivered and the role of the Welsh Government.

The digital infrastructure landscape has changed since Brexit. We no longer have access to EU funding and, because it is non-devolved, we now rely solely on UK Government funding to improve broadband in Wales. We remain committed to working with Whitehall to secure the best outcomes for Wales and to make a strong case for continued investment to reach the hardest to reach communities, to make sure that they are not left behind. I'm pleased to say that we do have good relationships with both officials and Ministers, but we do need a change of heart regarding the failures of the market and the role of Government.

We have, in conclusion, Dirprwy Lywydd, made a good start on delivering the digital strategy for Wales, but clearly we have a long way to go. In order to maintain momentum, I will publish shortly a new iteration of the digital delivery plan to detail the next steps on our journey towards Wales becoming truly digital. Diolch.

15:25

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Can I thank the Deputy Minister for his statement this afternoon. Now, it's thought that 82 per cent of all jobs in the UK require digital skills, and digital access to skills is becoming more and more essential to enabling people to fully participate in an increasingly digital society. So, I welcome the Deputy Minister's update today, and the steps that have been taken since the launch of the strategy last year. Of course, tackling the digital divide is crucial to addressing social and economic inequalities and levelling up every community across Wales. Digital exclusion is inextricably linked to wider inequalities in society, and is more likely to be faced by those on low incomes, people over 65 and disabled people. Therefore, can the Deputy Minister tell us how the Welsh Government is monitoring the effectiveness of this strategy to ensure that digital exclusion is being addressed, and can he provide some specific examples where the Welsh Government has tackled economic inequalities as a result of this digital strategy so we can learn from best practice?

Today's statement refers to a national minimum digital living standard, which will be developed through engagement with digitally included and excluded people across Wales so that we can identify what people really need to be part of a modern digital world. I think this is a very important step forward, but perhaps the Deputy Minister could tell us a bit more about the work that has been done in this area so far, and when the standard is likely to be published. Today's statement confirms that the Centre for Digital Public Services is leading a public services landscape review to provide an insight into the digital and technology maturity of public services in Wales. I agree with the Deputy Minister that this will be really important to help prioritise work over the next few years. Therefore, can the Deputy Minister tell us what sort of timescales are involved in this review, and when we'll be able to see the outcomes of it?

Today's statement rightly states that digital connectivity underpins the digital strategy. As someone who represents a rural area, I know just how important it is to have access to adequate broadband. With the shift to home and hybrid working, residents and businesses in areas like Powys or Pembrokeshire, for example, face a particular disadvantage, not only in terms of labour market opportunities, but also in terms of being able to run a business competitively. Therefore, perhaps the Deputy Minister could tell us how he is engaging with sectors like farming, and their supply chains, to ensure that they have the tools and resources they need to be as competitive as possible in the future. 

The Deputy Minister refers to Project Gigabit, and I agree that it's vital that Wales receives its fair share of investment from the UK Government. I appreciate that telecommunications is not devolved to Wales, but I am pleased that discussions are ongoing about how future investment will be delivered, and the role of the Welsh Government in delivering that investment. I'm sure the Deputy Minister will join me in welcoming the recent funding boost of £11.5 million to improve broadband for public services in north Wales, south-east Wales, Pembrokeshire and rural Welsh areas. That funding has already made a real difference to organisations like the Anchorage Social Activity Centre, a day centre at Pembroke Dock that works with people with learning disabilities or dementia, and Milford Haven library, indeed, in my own constituency. It's crucial that inter-governmental relations are good, and that departments are working together to ensure that Wales is not left behind. So, I'd be grateful if the Deputy Minister could provide us with an update on those specific discussions and how they are progressing. 

I'm pleased that today's statement recognises that Wales faces a challenge in terms of skills capacity, and I understand that public sector bodies are searching for talent in a massively competitive labour market. Digital skills have been increasingly important in obtaining high quality employment. We know that jobseekers with digital skills command higher salaries and that roles requiring digital skills pay 29 per cent more than those roles that do not. Addressing the digital skills gap will therefore be essential to equip people with the skills they need to live and work in a digital world, and ensure everyone can benefit from the opportunities that digital innovation and infrastructure investment can bring. 

Last week, the Minister for Economy published the Welsh Government plan for employability and skills, and there was no mention of the digital strategy. Therefore, perhaps the Deputy Minister can tell us how this strategy works alongside the Welsh Government's wider strategies around employability and skills. Perhaps he can tell us what funding is being allocated to skills providers across Wales to help tackle the digital skills gap. Dirprwy Lywydd, we must fully embrace the full potential of the digital agenda by tackling levels of digital exclusion, and ensuring that everyone has access to the opportunities and services provided by digital technology. Therefore, I welcome the Welsh Government's update, and I look forward to working with the Deputy Minister to ensure that the outcomes in it are felt by communities in all parts of Wales. 

15:30

Those were an excellent and fair set of questions, but I'm not a robot, so there's no way I can possibly answer all the detail in the time that's available to me. I'd be very happy to send a comprehensive reply to the Member, to work through those very fair and challenging questions, and I welcome the spirit in which he posed them. I think they are all good challenges, and we are doing work on each of them. If I can just pick up on a couple, to respond in the time available.

In terms of the relationship with the UK Government, as I say, I had a very good and cordial meeting with the Minister of State and her senior officials last week, and with her predecessor and other Ministers over the last few years. So, this is one area where it's not a question of static electricity; I think it's just a genuine different world view. We think the market alone will not deliver at the scale and pace required for communities like his, which are harder to reach and more expensive to reach. The market will do what the market does well—it will get its fastest and greatest return for the capital invested. That is done in urban areas, areas where we have already addressed market failure by putting superfast in. And the likelihood is, with the market model, that they will simply serve them more—they will give them faster, better services, and charge them for it, so they can get a faster return. Investing into rural areas—and it's not exclusively a rural problem, but let's just call them, for the sake of today, in shorthand, 'harder-to-reach areas'—is slower and more expensive and brings a slower return on capital. That's rational from a market point of view—it's what private companies do. But that is not good enough for this area. This is not a nice-to-have service, this is must-have service, and simply relying on the market to do it is a flawed approach, in our view.

The UK Government doesn't accept that, and, to the extent it does accept it, it has put measures in place, but measures that are acting too slow, and that, even after they're finished, will still leave significant parts of Wales underserved or not served at all. That is the nub of our conflict with the UK Government on this. We think this should be treated like a core utility service. We require the Post Office—a private company—to deliver a letter to every farm and every property, no matter the cost to them. We don't extend that logic to the providers of digital infrastructure, and, in our view, we ought to. If you want to provide digital infrastructure in this country, and get contracts, you should have to provide to every property. That is the fundamental difference in view on the role of the market and the role of the state that we have with the UK Government. Though it's lovely to hear about £11 million of funding in Milford Haven library, that just doesn't cut it. The sorts of sums we're talking about are significantly higher. There's good work being done by us, by the UK Government, by the city regions, and so on, but there is a fundamental gap here that needs confronting and needs addressing.

His challenge on digital skills is a fair one. I think digital skills is hard. I'm pleased to see in the new curriculum that we have digital as one of the core competencies, but there is an issue of teacher confidence and teacher skills. Not enough schools are teaching ICT, not enough pupils are doing GCSE, A-levels, higher skills in computer science. These are the skills that we need to have to make sure that we take advantage of the huge job opportunities there are—and the Member mentioned the salaries available. There is a massive skills shortage. I take his point about the employability and skills strategy. The Minister for Economy and I did a joint session with officials from across the Government a month or so ago, looking at what we were doing and how we were delivering against the digital strategy, and I think we accept there is more to do. This is something that we need to do with the regional skills partnerships, with the further education sector, with the schools sector, to raise our game.

Finally, on the point about engaging with sectors like farming, as I mentioned, it's been six years since I gave a speech in the Senedd about precision agriculture. We have now published a route map, an audit, of agritech and what's going on in Wales. It's a very exciting field, with lots of economic opportunities, as well as real advantages to farmers who are struggling in the face of economic forces to improve productivity and reduce their impact on biodiversity by using less fertilizer and fewer chemicals. I had good conversations with the National Farmers Union on the weekend, in Llandudno, about the subject as well. There's a lot more we need to do—we need to really up the pace. Lots of farmers get it; the NFU were showing me their apps on their phones, with the weights of their cows, with great pride. So, there's a level already there, but there's such an opportunity to do more, and it's not without its challenges. Let's hope we can go on that journey together. I welcome the comments and questions he's asked.

15:35

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Minister, thank you once again for a different statement this time.

Digital does offer so much potential, doesn't it, in terms of enhancing people's lives, strengthening the links between people and people and services, and helping business to adapt, but modernising in this way can also perversely mean that some people are left further and further behind. I know that one of the principal drivers behind the strategy is about reducing inequality—that's already come up with what Paul Davies was asking—and we know that superfast broadband availability and mobile services in Wales, as you've already just acknowledged, are below the UK average; nearly 8,000 premises in Wales can't access a decent broadband service or get 4G coverage indoors. Ofcom has found that too many people aren't aware of the options for connectivity that could be available to them. So, could you outline, please, how you'd like to raise people's awareness of the services that are available to them, but that, for whatever reason, they're not making use of?

Could you also, please, explain how the Government is supporting—this has already come up with what you've been talking about with Paul—people who might be more marginalised for lots of different reasons about gaining these digital skills? Again, I know that this is something that's already been discussed just now. I'm thinking not just of particular communities—older people, people with disabilities, people who lack confidence to use the services online—because there seems to be this almost perverse dichotomy that there will be people who live their lives surrounded by these possibilities. We're not talking maybe about the people who live in rural areas where the possibilities just are really tantalisingly out of reach, but people who could be able to access paying for things online, purchasing tickets online, checking bus times online, doing online banking, all these different things, but, for a combination of different reasons, they don't take up that offer, and so the community around them gets more and more connected, but they, in the centre, get less and less engaged. I know it's a real quandary, but, as things progress more and more, how would you think we can make sure that, for the people who are left behind, that that gap doesn't get even bigger?

Minister, I'd also like to hear your thoughts about how the interconnectedness between communities in Wales could be strengthened as well through this. There is an undeniable digital divide between communities and Cardiff. I think in other cities there's something like 93 per cent mobile voice coverage, and that compares with only 52 per cent in some rural areas. Do you agree that access to digital infrastructure shouldn't be a luxury, it should be a necessity in modern life? I do completely agree with what you were just espousing in terms of how you view that the state's stance should be almost in terms of connecting people digitally, as we do with the postal service, because, like what I was highlighting with individuals, the same thing is true of communities too. How can the strategy be used to ensure that this gap grows smaller not wider? 

Finally, I'd like to know more about how this strategy could be used as a tool to tackle loneliness and isolation, building on what's already been said. So many studies have shown that loneliness can lead to distress, emotional strain, but also physical ill health, like heart disease and obesity and high blood pressure. Digital connectivity doesn't just help people connect with services, like health services, of course, but also with support networks. So, how can we make sure that the people who need it most will be able to benefit from what's available? 

15:40

I agree with that. The digital divide is real. We saw it during the pandemic and it's a complex divide. It is about poverty, it's about access to equipment, it's about ability to afford a broadband connection, it's about digital and data poverty. That is no different from any other inequality we have in our society. The pattern is similar and it holds people back. I think we did great things during the pandemic, and schools did great things to make sure that pupils were given equipment, and were connected and were harnessed. But it is not a level playing field, and we spent considerable amounts of money and great effort to try to ameliorate the impact of this inequality. We have some impact, but we can't adjust the fundamentals, it seems. We have continued funding for the Digital Communities Wales project, run by the Wales Co-operative Centre, and, as I mentioned, the digital public services centre is commissioning research into a digital minimum living standard for Wales, which is a crucial evidence base, I think, for understanding, again, based on user research and user need, how we can up our game. 

In terms of the question of people accessing services and being left behind and usage, this is why the principle of user need is so critical. If we are designing a service around user need, the fact a user may not be online is our problem not their problem, because a service that's designed around user need will also devise a way to reach those people. It won't assume they are digital. So, you know, digital policy isn't about—. As I say, it's not about kit, it's about culture. So, properly designed public services around user need will find a way to reach people who are not connected, as well as giving an online, intuitive, end-to-end service for those that are. It's a whole-system approach, and that's why it's crucial, in the digital service standards we set and in the leadership training we offer, that leaders and all in the system understand that services are designed for users—they're not designed for the convenience of the system. And that's what I think is exciting about the digital reform agenda—it allows us to challenge the way public services work and are designed and operate, using digital to refocus them on the person at the sharp end they're for. And the person at the sharp end they're for will be different. So, the way we deliver services should be different and tailored.

15:45

I welcome today's update from the Deputy Minister. There is plenty I could talk about this afternoon, but I won't test the patience of the Presiding Officer, and I hope the Minister and I can work together in this field constructively in the future. But if I may, if I can pick up on one specific point in your statement today, and that's about cyber security, because it is the case that experts are warning that there is now a heightened risk of cyber attacks arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and it is possible that the war criminal Putin and his regime will direct cyber attacks towards the United Kingdom and other NATO countries. But it is also the case that the cyber attacks being carried out on Ukraine at the moment could spread damaging consequences beyond its borders. So, could I ask you, Minister, what steps the Welsh Government is taking to encourage not just businesses but public sector bodies across Wales to ensure that they are very and fully prepared to withstand this very present and very serious threat?

Thank you. I think that's a very timely question. There is no doubt that we are seeing increased activity on the cyber-attack front. Certainly, as state actors, this is something the UK Government—and we work closely with them—is taking seriously and doing an awful lot about. And as you can imagine they prefer to keep it secret exactly what they are doing, but this is a very serious issue at a state level.

In terms of a Welsh public services and business level, I don't think there is sufficient awareness amongst organisations of the threat of disruption and harm to their organisation and their users that the cyber threat poses. So, back to what we were discussing earlier—the level of understanding of what digital is and what they can be doing about it—it is now a key risk for all organisations, and it should be led at a senior level. So, every chief executive or managing director needs to be asking themselves and their systems the question, 'Have we got the basics right? Are we doing the simple checks? Do we have password protections in place?' And there are a whole raft of resources out there. The cyber security centre run by the UK Government has on its website a whole range of digital tools that are free to access that businesses and organisations can do a simple check on. So, they need to make sure they have the basics right, that they have incident management processes in place, and that those fundamental controls are thought of and are actioned. We are in a new era. A lot of data is shared and spread. A lot of our systems we rely upon fundamentally for what we do, and they are all viable to collapse and attack. We need to take it seriously. I think this is one of things we're raising awareness of—this agenda—this is now normal business, this is mainstream, and all leaders need to take it seriously.

Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. As chair of the cross-party group on the digital agenda in Wales, I very much welcome this update by the Deputy Minister today. I look forward too to hearing the update that he intends to give soon on the delivery programme for digital. It's important to put on the record that I'm grateful for the leadership shown by the Deputy Minister in this field. I know it's one that he has a genuine interest and personal interest in driving forward, and in that regard I know that he will feel frustrated, as am I, with the fact that this is an area that Governments over the years have dragged their feet on.

It is right, I think, to talk about the need for a change of culture here. It's certainly true within the Government too. It was very refreshing to hear the health Minister acknowledging openly here, when I called for an acceleration of the introduction of e-prescribing and prescriptions, that she was surprised how slowly things had moved in this field to date.

So, yes, we do need to generate that excitement within the Government and that activity within the Government, as well as in the bodies that have been created to drive this agenda forward specifically. But if there's one thing that we have learned within the cross-party group, it's the lack of skills in this area. That's been referred to by the Minister. Figures shared with me about the number of teachers who started a course in secondary education focusing on IT for the previous education year says that the total was 10, and that demonstrates what the scale of the problem is.

So, my question is, very simply put: even though the Minister has referred to the fact that, yes, this is an important agenda and that he wants to push things forward, can I get a sense of what the Government is trying to do to fast-track, now, this progress, and increase the number of teachers that can plant that digital seed in our pupils in far greater numbers, so that they can go on to careers in this area?

15:50

Well, thank you for the comments, and I thank him for taking on the role with the cross-party group. I think it's really important that there is a cross-party group, and it continues to hold the feet to the fire.

One of the problems with this agenda is it's seen as a technical agenda. He mentioned my personal interest in it. I know nothing about digital. I know nothing about technology. I don't come to this from a computer point of view. I come to this from a public policy failure point of view. It's been quite clear to me for a long time that we are not performing at the level we need to, right across the piece on this agenda, and it has consequences for people's lives. And there are opportunities we're missing for skills and prosperity from doing it too. So, I think it's important that Members, who may not think of digital as something that is their business, think again, because it is their business, and it needn't be about understanding the technicalities of it, even if it's just understanding the opportunities of it and asking some questions. So, I think the role—. I'm very keen to work with the cross-party group in a very open way, to be honest about our shortcomings, and accept the challenge for moving faster. And I think, as I said in the response to the statement, digital skills is an area where we are doing some good things on it, and we have plans for more, but the skill and the pace is a challenge for us, and it is back to that cultural point about a whole-society understanding of how we move together rapidly on this journey. 

He mentioned the example of the electronic prescription and patient record. It's one of those things where people are shocked when they find out there isn't one. They think because of the way they use private services—. You know, you go on to Amazon and you have an entirely end-to-end digital experience and it's super efficient and super quick, and then you access public services, renewing your library card or booking your swimming lessons, and it's a very different experience. And I think that's why Rebecca Evans and I—I was pleased to see her in her space—have done a lot of work together in getting this digital centre in place—both Rebecca in her role as finance Minister but also previously as a digital lead as well. This has been a bit of a double act in getting this agenda to where it is today, because we recognise the need to do it. So, the—. I think the—. Forgive me, I'm trying to remember the rest of the question—

Yes, I think it's an area we need to do better at. I don't have the answers today. It's an area of vulnerability. As I said, Vaughan Gething and I held a joint session with officials on it not a month ago. I'd be happy to write to him and the cross-party group, setting out what we are doing, and I'm happy to have an open conversation with them about some practical ideas of how we might make it better.

One of the key principles of digital service design is openness and iteration, and that means publishing something as good as we can get it, not waiting for the perfect, trialling it in real life, taking live user feedback, and being willing to change it quickly and go on to the next level. And I think if we had a bit more of that iteration and openness in public policy as we expect from digital service design, I think we'd all be a lot better for it.

Point of Order

I have received a request from Janet Finch-Saunders to raise a point of order, and I call on Janet Finch-Saunders.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. In my last contribution on the statement put forward by Lee Waters MS, in response to one of my questions about returning sand to Llandudno beach, the response from the Minister was that, basically, as a landlord in Llandudno, that's one of the reasons I was asking the question. Point 1 is that I've been working with the Welsh Government for eight years since that, with regular correspondence, but the main issue here is that it's factually incorrect, so the Chamber has been misled. I am not a landlord in Llandudno, so I would like him to withdraw that statement and I would also like the Record of Proceedings corrected. Diolch.

15:55

Well, I'd need to examine the register of interests to see what the relevant register is, and I'm still awaiting an apology from Janet Finch-Saunders for misleading the Chamber about myself. But if I have misled, I'd be happy to. She looks puzzled; I've written to her about it, and she hasn't responded. But the point I was making was a public policy point. She made a point about sand on the beach, and I was making the point that when it comes to flood risk management, the sand on the beach is not a salient consideration. We look at flood protection robustness.

The Deputy Minister has indicated that he will review the Record and he's indicated that if he has misled the Chamber, he will apologise for that occasion. And, Janet, you've put your information on the record for the Senedd, okay? Diolch yn fawr.

5. Statement by the Minister for Climate Change: Development of a Net Zero Consistent UK Emissions Trading Scheme
6. Debate: The Second Supplementary Budget 2021-22

So, we'll move on to item 6, which is the Government debate on the second supplementary budget for 2021-22. And I call on the Minister for Finance and Local Government to move the motion—Rebecca Evans.

Motion NDM7926 Lesley Griffiths

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 20.30, approves the Second Supplementary Budget for the financial year 2021-22 laid in the Table Office on Tuesday, 15 February 2022.

Motion moved.

Diolch. This supplementary budget presents the Welsh Government's final spending plans for the current financial year. It increases the overall Welsh resources by over £1.1 billion, a further 4.4 per cent increase on the position set out in the first supplementary budget published in June 2021. In this budget, our fiscal spending plans have increased by a total of £2.409 billion. Over 150 individual allocations totalling almost £2 billion have been approved from the reserve to support departmental budgets and maximising expenditure. In response to the cost-of-living crisis, and to support those most in need, we have acted swiftly and used this supplementary budget to allocate £152 million to help people with crucial support in the face of the cost-of-living crisis and a further £25 million as a discretionary fund for local authorities to use their local knowledge to help households who may be struggling.

In addition, we have made significant allocations to fund a range of measures that not only support Wales's recovery from the pandemic, but also support the delivery of the programme for government commitments. These include: £70 million to support local authorities' capital programme costs; over £65 million for city and growth deals; £50 million provided to help schools carry out capital repairs and improvement work; and over £19 million to help meet the costs in dealing with the recovery from the impacts of the flooding in February 2020.

We have of course allocated support to continue our response to the pandemic and to mitigate its impact—£1.4 billion has been allocated in this budget. Since the start of the pandemic, we have allocated more than £8.4 billion. We have provided an additional £551 million for a package of measures to help the NHS not only with the costs of dealing with the pandemic and increasing capacity in our hospitals, but also to help move forward. We have allocated over £135 million to the local government hardship fund, as support for the additional costs and loss of income caused by the impact of the additional restrictions put in place as a result of the omicron variant. For the Welsh economy, we have allocated £125 million for a package of emergency support, and £14.75 million to support the running of another round of the cultural recovery fund. We have allocated £8 million revenue and £4 million capital to support a series of actions so that the majority of businesses and supply chain networks in the food and drink sector have enough resilience to survive.

We recognise the upheaval the pandemic has continued to have on learners, and we're supporting the education sector by allocating over £45 million to help manage its impacts, and £33 million for the continuation of the recruit, recover and raise standards programme, to support learner recovery and invest in resources to support the delivery of the new curriculum.

Restrictions put in place to mitigate the effects of the pandemic continue to have an impact on public transport use and passenger revenue. And we are allocating over £53 million to support rail services and £22 million for the bus industry.

Yet again, the UK Government's lack of clarity on funding decisions, this time concerning the support for the cost-of-living crisis, has huge implications for Wales, and we have had to significantly change our in-year assumptions. The continued lack of flexibility to manage spending over multiple financial years means we are once more at a disadvantage when planning and managing our budget as a consequence. 

I'd conclude by thanking the committee for its consideration of this budget and the publication of its report, and I will provide a detailed response in due course, but I am minded to accept all 11 of its recommendations. I ask Members to support the motion.

16:00

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I am pleased to speak in this debate today on behalf of the Finance Committee. Thank you to my fellow Members for their work on committee. The committee scrutinised the second supplementary budget on 2 March, and I thank the Minister for her attendance.

The committee welcomes the increase in allocations provided by this supplementary budget, as well as the steps taken by the Welsh Government to mitigate the impacts of the difficult economic challenges we are currently facing. The committee's report was laid before the Senedd yesterday, and, as we heard from the Minister just now, we made 11 recommendations.

I'd like to begin by supporting the Minister's efforts. The committee firmly believes that good budget management can only happen when the Welsh Government is given accurate information about the funding it receives from the Treasury. Sadly, this is a recurring problem, so we are disappointed that this issue continues and that no improvements have been made. We therefore share the Minister's views that further clarity is needed from the Treasury on the amount of funding received within financial years, as well as the timing of such transfers. However, the committee accepts that it's not enough to point the finger solely at the UK Government; the Welsh Government could do more in this area too. That is why the committee reiterates calls for the Welsh Government to publish its own calculations on in-year consequentials and transfers it expects to receive from the UK Government. This would ensure that any transfers of funding are calculated in the line with the agreed methodology, and is particularly important when different figures are being quoted by the Welsh and UK Governments, as has been the case recently. 

Effective budget management across financial years also requires flexibility. Previously, the Treasury has provided a full year for the Welsh Government to spend any funding received late in the financial year. The committee was therefore disappointed that this was not allowed this year, and supports calls for this to be provided as a matter of course, so that the Welsh Government can allocate budgets strategically without fear of funding being lost.

Turning to the specific issues, the Minister has, quite rightly, prioritised efforts to support those affected by the cost-of-living crisis through this supplementary budget. As Chair, I have previously emphasised in this Chamber that developing a 'no wrong door' policy is crucial, so that financial support reaches those that need it most. Members do not need reminding that households are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet, and that there will, sadly, be an increased demand for support over the next few months and years. The committee therefore calls on the Welsh Government to raise the profiles of grants and schemes designed to address the cost-of-living crisis, and reiterates its call for the development of an integrated system of support in response to the financial pressures many households are experiencing.

As we continue to recover from the pandemic, the committee very much welcomes the additional funding allocated to the health service through this supplementary budget. Although it was encouraging to hear from the Minister that this additional funding is already having an impact, particularly on waiting times, tangible details were scarce. We therefore recommend that the Welsh Government sets out its targets for reducing waiting times in its budget documentation from now on, including the outcomes and impacts expected from additional NHS funding.

In the midst of the pandemic, we must not forget that social care services continue to face unprecedented pressures, and that further measures are needed to acknowledge the great work of our social care workforce and take steps to make the profession more attractive. The committee welcomes the Welsh Government's efforts to reward care workers financially, however, we believe that more can be done to promote the financial support available to all carers, but particularly unpaid carers and those working in hospices.

On transport, the committee notes that bus and train services have been severely impacted by the loss of revenue caused by the pandemic and welcomes the additional funding allocated to support the continuation of these key services. However, the committee was not convinced that the additional £22 million allocated for bus services was sufficient, and asks the Minister to provide further information regarding how the amount was determined, as well as the objectives and expected outcomes for this funding.

Finally, the committee heard that the Welsh Government's staff budget will increase by £20 million on a recurrent basis from this year onwards. This represents a significant investment and, as a result, the committee asks for further details on how that money is being spent and whether any changes will be made to the Welsh Government's operating model as a result.

Dirprwy Lywydd, I am pleased to have been able to speak in today's debate on behalf of the Finance Committee. As mentioned at the beginning of this contribution, we are facing increasingly difficult economic times. Therefore, we urge the Minister to act upon our recommendations and ensure that the Welsh Government's priorities deliver for the people of Wales. Thank you very much.

16:05

Can I also thank the Minister for her statement today and the Chair of the Finance Committee for his reflections on the budget? The Welsh Conservative group will be abstaining on the motion before us. Of course, it amends the 2021-22 budget, which we have previously outlined our position on. 

Many of the allocations set out in this supplementary budget were made against the backdrop of our continued response against the COVID-19 pandemic and this is reflected in the substantial allocations made by Welsh Government—some additional £2.1 billion—compared to the original budget. However, I would make the point that this response is, for the large part, thanks to the substantial resources made available by the UK Government.

Deputy Llywydd, I think we have to ask ourselves: what have the Welsh Government allocations achieved? For example, over £550 million has been allocated to support the recovery of the health service, but with hundreds of thousands of people still waiting for treatment and appalling situations recorded of people waiting in ambulances for many hours, as pointed out earlier today by Paul Davies, and the terrible situation regarding dentistry, as raised by Alun Davies earlier, there really needs to be more detail about what this funding will achieve, with hard targets set to cut waiting times. Meanwhile, over £80 million has been allocated to addressing social care pressures, but we know that the sector is still struggling under the weight of demand, which is causing, obviously, bottlenecks in the wider health system. Again, Deputy Llywydd, I really want to push Ministers on delivery; it's all well and good allocating eye-catching sums to services, but it needs to deliver on its objectives.

Deputy Llywydd, there are a few allocations set out in the supplementary budget that I would like to briefly query the Minister on. The nationalisation of Transport for Wales continues to suck money away from other public services—a further £53 million has been allocated in this budget, on top of over £70 million announced in the first supplementary budget. How long does the Minister envisage that the Government will prop up Transport for Wales and when will Ministers publish a plan to put Transport for Wales back onto a sustainable footing so that it no longer needs public subsidies to keep it afloat?

There is, as the Chairman of the Finance Committee mentioned, a £20 million increase in the Welsh Government's staffing costs, which includes paying for 20 new senior civil servants. I reiterate the Finance Committee's argument that the cost of supporting these posts is significant. Therefore, will the Minister outline why these positions were needed and whether the outcomes of the new Permanent Secretary's review of the Welsh Government's operating model and overall efficiency and effectiveness will be made available to the Senedd for scrutiny?

Finally, £1.1 million has been allocated to COVID-19 inquiry preparatory work. What exactly has this funding been used for and would it not be better spending that money on a Wales-specific inquiry, as called for by the bereaved families across Wales? Diolch, Deputy Llywydd.

Of course, I'm eager to welcome any additional allocations in the supplementary budget, although I do share some of the concerns outlined by the previous speaker and the committee Chair, particularly in ensuring that we can demonstrate the value that those investments bring in terms of targets, or the impact that they have in the various areas where investment happens. But I just want to use my time, if I may, just to make two broader points on the supplementary budget, because this budget, for me, underlines how the restrictions on the ability of the Welsh Government to use additional allocations from consequential funding do have an impact on its ability to use that funding effectively.

We know that the UK Government's spring budget is about to be made. I assume that the Minister still hasn't been given any assurances as to this additional year to spend any consequential funding, and we know that the size of the Wales reserve restricts the flexibility available to the Welsh Government, and this simply highlights once again how the current regime and the budgetary arrangements between the two Governments militate against making the best use of consequential funding and militates against getting the best value for money from additional allocations such as these. And we need to remove those restrictions in order to make Welsh taxpayers' money work harder and to ensure that we do have the biggest impact possible from taxpayers' money.

I also want to reiterate the committee's point about transparency from both the Welsh Government and the UK Government. It's a regular charade, isn't it, from the UK Government primarily, when they announce additional funding, they're giving more money, but, as we know, they're also taking with the other hand very often. But this constant confusion that we're facing over whether money is new money or whether it is actually additional money or not, it leads to endless bickering between the Welsh Government and the UK Government. It's unedifying, and it really isn't a good look for either Government, to be honest. It confuses the public, it confuses us as politicians very often, and it needs to be addressed once and for all.

When I chaired the Finance Committee in the last Senedd, we tried to knock heads together on this, but to no avail, unfortunately, and I therefore want to underline my support to the current committee's calls for further clarity around these announcements—as I say, initially and primarily from the UK Government, but also the Welsh Government—where there is disagreement. Both need to show us their workings, so that we have real transparency and much better clarity on whether these consequentials and these allocations are actually additional or not.

16:10

First of all, can I thank the Minister for her statement and welcome the second supplementary budget? I just want to make two very brief points, both following on from things that have been said earlier. On 3 February, the UK Government announced measures to help with the cost of living in light of the rise in the energy price cap. This included £150 council tax rebate from April 2022 for households in England that are in council bands A to D. The UK Government announcement stated that the Welsh Government would receive £175 million in consequential funding as a result of this decision, noting that the devolved administration would be able to choose whether to spend this funding this year or next year. On 9 February, the First Minister stated that Wales would not receive any additional funding as a result of this decision. In response, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury reported this was not the case and that Welsh Government would receive £180 million of Barnett consequentials as a result of the council tax rebate.

Transparency is required on the amounts received from UK Government, including whether they relate to new money or not. The issues surrounding the consequential funding received by the Welsh Government in light of the council tax rebate announced in England is a very good case in point. What both the Welsh Government and the Westminster Government have in common is an unwillingness to show their calculations. Without calculations, it's not possible for the Finance Committee or Senedd to know who is correct. Whilst I will believe the Welsh Government, and others in here will believe the Westminster Government, no-one has the facts to support them. I'm sure I'm getting boring saying this to Welsh Government Ministers, as I was in my previous job to my students: 'Show your working; show how you reach these figures.'

I share the committee's disappointment that the Minister continues to face difficulties in obtaining timely and accurate information from the Treasury about changes to the Welsh Government budget, and a particular difficulty can be experienced by the Minister towards the end of the financial year. Despite over 20 years of devolution, the Treasury still appears to treat the devolved Government as another Westminster spending department, and I think there's an incredible lack of respect from the Treasury on this.

The second point I want to raise is related to the first. We don't get a Barnett consequential on HS2, because rail is not devolved, and that does not generate a consequential for the Welsh budget. If, however, it was treated as transport, we would get a consequential, because transport is partially devolved. This leads to my major concern: in-year movement of money between Government departments from, for example, non-devolved areas to areas that are devolved, e.g. foreign affairs to health, in order to balance the budget; how do we know we get what we should be getting? I understand the Welsh Government civil service believes the Treasury, who are reallocating money, ensures the devolved Governments get their correct share. Unfortunately, I am less trusting; I would like to see the figures—returning again to my, 'Show your workings.'

Finally, when money is written off, like the health board overspends in England from the English health budget, I'd like to see how that money got into the English health budget. Because what we actually had as a situation was that the English health budget was under huge pressure, they had all these overspends, and, all of a sudden, one year, when we didn't appear to have a very large increase, they seemed to have enough money given to them in order to write off several years' worth of overspends, and so I just want to see the workings. I'm not saying people are wrong, but I think there is a bit of opaqueness in this, and I think it would be of benefit to everybody, especially Members of the Senedd and Members of Parliament, to actually see the numbers, and then we could have a more informed debate.

16:15

It's a pleasure to take part in this short debate, and I'll keep my comments relatively succinct. Just to reiterate the fact that myself and the Welsh Conservative group will be abstaining on today's motion. The Chair of the Finance Committee and the Member for South Wales East mentioned that a key word is 'tangibility', and any budgetary decision that's made has to be felt on the front line of the sectors, and it's mentioned within the supplementary budget about NHS training and workforce, so would the Minister be able to answer what specific training is being offered to the NHS workforce? Because, quite often, there are many sectors in the health and social care professions that are dying to know the details, and I think the health boards deserve to know and get specific direction on where they're going to train up these workforces, because a lot of professionals do actually feel sometimes disillusioned with the lack of training, and often that can be a key part of career development and also to expand a professional's knowledge.

And also, Social Care Wales and CAFCASS funding, and what will this do to support healthy patient flow and discharge to social care settings in particular, because we often see cases of bedblocking, ambulance waiting times because the fact of the matter is that people being discharged from the other side of the sector can't actually be discharged to somewhere safe in the social care sector. So, what specifically will that funding do to support that issue?

Just finally, in supporting children, you've previously said that you've wanted to abolish the private childcare provision that makes up, actually, 80 per cent of the sector. So, does that fund towards children support that ideation of an ideological vendetta against the private childcare providers, or does that actually defy it, Minister? I'd like you to answer those specific questions when you're closing the debate later on. Thank you.

I'll be extremely brief. Minister, with the additional £100 million going into health boards to help with waiting-list times, can we have some assurances that that money will actually go to the front line to make sure we actually do tackle NHS waiting-list backlogs and it doesn't get absorbed in bureaucracy within health boards, where money actually normally does go? And I'd just like some assurances from you of how the finance department are going to make sure that money is spent in the best way. Diolch.

Diolch yn fawr, and thank you to everybody who's contributed in the debate this afternoon. I would agree with what colleagues have said in that good budget management can only happen when we get accurate information from the Treasury, and I know that was repeated by several Members in the conversation that we've had this afternoon. I would agree that it is the case that we must have greater transparency, and it's often the case that you have to wait until right at the very end of the financial year, in the supplementary estimates at the end of February, before you get the full picture, and that leaves you very little time then to really fully understand what your options are for the rest of the financial year. So, that can be difficult, especially when there are significant movements at the end of the end of the financial year that we haven't had sight of and haven't had the ability to plan for, and we've had those experiences in recent years. So, I appreciate and agree with that call to show your calculations, but it is only very late in the year that we're able to do that, in the sense that we would have an equation with parts missing from it. So, it's very difficult to provide that full picture until we get those transparency tables from HM Treasury, and then it's at that point, when we have all the information, that we're able to share all of that.

I am grateful for the support that we've had this afternoon in respect of flexibility. The Chair of the Finance Committee repeated the Finance Committee's support for our request to have a full calendar year to deal with late allocations, and that's something that we've had in recent years, but for some reason UK Government has stopped that from happening, and, again, that has serious implications, I think, for our ability to plan and to spend as well as we possibly can. The Finance Committee says that we should have that flexibility as a matter of course, and I absolutely agree with that. We do have a finance Ministers quadrilateral, or the new Finance Interministerial Standing Committee arrangement next week, and Wales is tabling a paper at that meeting that does relate specifically to the financial flexibilities that we require in order to properly manage our budget. So, I'll be very clear to reflect on the conversations that we've had this afternoon and contributions in respect of flexibilities, so that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is aware that this is something that the Finance Committee in the Senedd is very supportive of as well.

In terms of some of the specific areas that were raised within the debate, there were several comments in respect of health, and this is an area where I agree again, I think, with all the challenge that has been brought forward by colleagues during the debate, in the sense that we can make allocations, but actually what really matters is what it delivers for people in Wales. So, you'll see the additional funding in respect of health—so, that's £411 million revenue to support national and local plans in relation to the pandemic. The funding is also there for NHS stabilisation following the pandemic, continued COVID tracing, vaccination costs, PPE and other COVID response work. So, that's a really important investment in the NHS. And then, there's also £100 million allocated for recovery measures, and that, of course, is in addition to the £100 million announced in the first supplementary budget, and that, again, will support the work of the NHS.

In respect of the capital allocation, the aim there is to improve patient flows, to improve ventilation and to tackle some of the waiting lists through the additional orthopaedic theatre, which will be at Neath Port Talbot, and a new ophthalmology day centre at Singleton. So, we'll be making those particular investments to improve the situation within the NHS and deal with some of those backlogs. We have had estimates of the number of people who would have been on the waiting list had we not had that additional investment. Things were delayed somewhat in respect of the omicron variant—that did pull things back a bit in terms of the progress that we were making—but I was able to share with the Finance Committee, in scrutiny, some examples of the ways in which we know the investment that we are making is working.

There was a lot of interest again in our investment in social care. We have a £42.7 million package for funding social care, helping to address some of the system pressures, and the specific areas where that will be invested are those areas that were identified by our care action committee as being the areas where we can make the most difference. That includes £20 million to fund support services for children; there's additional funding of £3.8 million to support early intervention and prevention, and that's been allocated to the third sector organisations; and £1 million to support unaccompanied asylum seekers, along with a range of other investments as well.

There was some interest again in the support that we're providing to public transport. The budget does provide an additional £53.1 million in respect of rail, and the reason why we've had to give so much additional funding to public transport, rail and bus, both in this supplementary budget and right through the course of the pandemic, is because of the impact that the pandemic had on the fare box. When we think back to the lockdown, that resulted in a drop in both bus and rail patronage of 95 per cent, and as the restrictions have eased, we have seen a slow recovery but we're still not back to previous figures. So, it is the case that those sectors do continue to need Welsh Government support.

So, I think I responded to a range of those issues that were brought forward this afternoon, but I do want to say and repeat that I will be accepting all of the Finance Committee's recommendations, and I will be providing a more detailed response to each of those recommendations in written form.

16:25

The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] There was an objection, so I will defer voting under this item until voting time.

Voting deferred until voting time.

7. Debate: Amendment to the 2021-22 Local Government Settlement

The next item is the debate on the amendment to the 2021-22 local government settlement, and I call on the Minister for Finance and Local Government to move the motion. Rebecca Evans.

Motion NDM7952 Lesley Griffiths

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Section 84H of the Local Government Finance Act 1988, approves the amended Local Government Finance Report (No. 1) 2021-22 (Final Settlement—Councils), which was laid in the Table Office on 8 March 2022.

Motion moved.

Thank you. Today, I'm presenting to the Senedd for its approval an amendment to the current year's local government settlement. Following consultation with local government, through the Welsh Local Government Association, I'm proposing to further increase local government revenue funding this year by £60 million through an increase in the revenue support grant, delivered through an amended 2021-22 local government settlement. The amended local government finance report reflects a £50 million increase in funding, which was announced in the second supplementary budget, as well as a further £10 million that I have made available through careful reprioritisation of Welsh Government funding. This additional funding equates to an increase on a Wales level of 1.3 per cent over that which was announced by my predecessor last March, with every authority gaining at least an additional £1.1 million.

As this funding is non-recurrent, there will be no adjustment to the base for calculation for the 2022-23 settlement in light of it. This funding will support local authorities in managing their budgets more effectively over the period 2021-25 against the context of inflationary and service pressures and the ending of the local government hardship fund. It will also help them to continue to decarbonise services and respond to the climate and nature emergency.

While this funding is unhypothecated, it is intended to also enable local government to respond to their ambitions to increase the capacity of domiciliary support services through funding driving lessons and providing access to electric vehicles, and this is an example of how authorities are working to decarbonise services and to respond to the climate and nature emergency. I therefore ask Members of the Senedd to support this motion today.

Could I once again thank the Minister for this statement? And I would like to state that the Welsh Conservative group will be supporting the motion on the agenda. I generally welcome the announcement that councils will receive an additional £60 million in their RSG for 2021-22. As the Minister stated in her letter to council leaders, councils are facing multiple budgetary pressure, for example, the ending of the local hardship fund, inflationary pressures, and the continuing high demand on public services, as we hopefully come out of the pandemic. This money, therefore, should help to ease some of the burden facing local services.

However, Deputy Llywydd, I would like to ask the Minister for clarification regarding some differences in the figures provided between the amended local government settlement and the second supplementary budget that we just heard about. As the Minister stated, the amended local government settlement outlines an additional £60 million for councils, yet the supplementary budget describes this allocation as an additional £50 million of additional revenue funding. Minister, could I ask why there seems to be, from my reading at least, a difference of £10 million between the figures stated by the Welsh Government? I'm sure it's a simple answer.

I also note from your letter, and as you just mentioned, whilst this funding is unhypothecated, which I welcome, it is suggested that councils may wish to use the additional revenue to fund things like driving lessons for domiciliary care or increasing the access to electric vehicles so that councils can continue working towards the decarbonisation of services. Could I ask what discussions the Minister has had with councils about these suggestions? Are they things that local authorities have highlighted as a priority for investment, or what the Government believes that money should be spent on? In other words, can the Minister provide assurances that councils will have full flexibility to spend the money on their own priorities? Diolch, Deputy Llywydd.

Thank you very much to Peter Fox for his contribution and also for confirming the Welsh Conservative support for this motion today. So, I'm just happy to respond to those specific questions. So, yes, the amended local government finance report does reflect the £50 million increase in funding, and that was, as Peter Fox says, announced in the publication of the second supplementary budget. And it's an additional £10 million that I am able to make today, reflecting on where we are at the end of the financial year and looking at the resources available to us. The £50 million was at the point of the laying of the second supplementary budget, but I'm able now to provide the additional £10 million, and that's, as I say, reflecting the management of the budget that we have for this financial year.

In terms of how we've arrived at this figure and how we have arrived at what a local authority might want to spend this on, again that's been in discussion with local government. You'll remember recently I announced an additional £70 million in capital; well, that came about following some strong representations that local government had made to me in respect of road repairs locally, for example. So, whilst it is up to local authorities to decide how to spend that funding—they do have full flexibility—there's also an understanding that it is based on what they told me that they need the funding for. They do have that flexibility, but then we have an understanding in that respect as well, and the same applies here, because this is another way, I think, in which local authorities can demonstrate their very clear, I think, and very strong commitment to decarbonisation and also their commitment to social care and trying to recruit and retain social care staff.

These are some examples of the ways in which local government has come up with ideas for ways in which they can deploy this additional funding. Of course, it does give local authorities some flexibility in future years as well, should they decide to stagger the spending of this money, because as we've discussed previously, it will be years 2 and 3 of this spending review that are more difficult for local authorities. They'll need to factor this in to their considerations while they decide how to spend the additional funding announced today.

16:30