Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

29/03/2022

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 Deputy Presiding Officer (David Rees) in the Chair.

Statement by the Deputy Presiding Officer

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

1. Business Statement and Announcement

The first item this afternoon is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd, Lesley Griffiths. 

Member
Lesley Griffiths MS 13:31:08
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. There are several changes to this week's business. Firstly, the Minister for Social Justice will make a statement shortly to update Members on the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Secondly, I have withdrawn the statements on the update on COVID-19 and on building safety. 

The Deputy Minister for Climate Change will deliver the statement on coal tip safety. And, finally, I have added debates on the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 7) Regulations 2022 and (No. 8) regulations 2022, for which a suspension of Standing Orders will be required. 

Trefnydd, recently Brecon Beacons National Park Authority held a vote of no confidence in a number of Welsh Government-appointed members. Locally there is much discontent with how the national park is being run and the role of Welsh Government-appointed members. So, could I please have a statement from the Minister for Climate Change about what the Welsh Government is doing to support the Brecon Beacons national park, and how it appoints Welsh Government members to these bodies? Diolch, Dirprwy Llywydd. 

I'm aware the Minister for Climate Change is keeping a very close eye on what is going on in the Brecon Beacons national park, but I don't think it's appropriate to have a statement at the current time. 

Trefnydd, some weeks ago I asked for a statement about how residents in the south-east have to travel long distances for hospital appointments. I highlighted the issue of diagnostic breast procedures being only carried out in Ysbyty Ystrad Fawr. I've been contacted by another constituent, who had to attend a gynaecology appointment at Nevill Hall Hospital. Now, she lives in Caerphilly, and the car journey took her more than an hour, with a round trip of 56 miles. She's able to drive, but she was anxious that she might not find the hospital in time because it was outside her area, but she was told it was the only gynaecology clinic for the entire Aneurin Bevan trust. As I'm sure you appreciate, Trefnydd, 50 per cent of the people living in the area are women; they'll require a gynaecology appointment at some point. So, I'd like to ask for a statement again please that will explain why my constituent had to travel that distance when Ysbyty Ystrad Fawr was only around 4 miles down the road from where she lives. Could we please look again at how our hospital services are configured, so that patients who are already under stress don't have to either spend long periods in the car to get to their appointments, or hours more on buses if they can't drive?

Thank you. Well, obviously, I'm not aware of the specific case that you refer to, but I think the point you make around the configuration of services across a health board is very important and is something for which each health board is obviously responsible, to make sure that the services are available for the population that they serve. Clearly, with some more specialised services, we don't expect to have each service in each hospital. You refer to gynaecology services in this particular case, and I don't know if it is more general or more special, but configuration of services is something that a health board is responsible for for its local population. 

Good afternoon, Minister. I wonder if I could ask for two statements please, with the first statement from the Minister for Education and Welsh Language about financial support for small and rural schools. Unions this week have raised the concerns that I raised during the budget process about the removal of the SRSG—the small and rural schools grant—and that the additional funding provided to local authorities through the SRSG isn't reaching schools. 

And, secondly, I wonder if you could make a statement on the situation with regard to the National Farmers Union losing their court case with regard to the water resources regulations, and what financial support is now being made available to support the agricultural sector to adapt to these regulations? Thank you. Diolch.

13:35

Thank you. In relation to the small and rural schools grant, the Member will be aware that £2.5 million has been put forward over the previous Senedd term to encourage innovation and increase school-to-school working. It was a very specific grant, and I know that local authorities were made aware from the outset that the grant was time limited, and they submitted their plans for expenditure and sustainability on that basis. The grant was due to end at the end of March last year—2021—but, to support transition, the Welsh Government extended the grant by a further year. And I know the Minister has been in discussions with local authorities, and I don't think there's been any pushback from local authorities regarding the ending of the grant, because schools and the local authorities were made aware of it.

In relation to your second question, obviously, that falls within my portfolio, and I certainly welcomed the judgment that was given by the court last Thursday. I will continue to work with the farming unions to reduce the impact of agriculture and other pollutants. We had another very significant agricultural pollution, which was substantiated straight away, last week. So, I think it's really important if we're all going to work together to tackle the pollution that we're seeing in our waters. But it's equally important, of course, that we do support the farming industry, going forward, and I will continue with those discussions. Under the co-operation agreement the Welsh Government has with Plaid Cymru, this is an area where we have committed to work not just with ourselves but, again, with the industry to target those activities that are known to cause pollution. We need to protect our environment for future generations, and what this ruling does is enable us to really carry on with that important work.

Just two items to raise. First of all, Trefnydd, Saturday's National League football match at the Racecourse was a phenomenal event—you and I were both present at it, along with almost 9,000 spectators. And it once again demonstrated how the world's oldest international football stadium can host dramatic and sensational events. Would the Government commit to pressing for the return of international matches to the Racecourse as soon as possible?

And also, Trefnydd, just across from the Racecourse—indeed, part of the Racecourse is included—is the Wrexham gateway project, to which the Welsh Government has already committed a huge amount of money. Although we've been promised levelling-up funding from the UK Government, this isn't yet to materialise. Would you be able to make a statement on whether you believe the UK Government is in a position to fund this vitally important regeneration project, or is it just warm words that we're hearing?

Thank you. The match on Saturday was certainly absolutely extraordinary. I was chatting to Llyr Huws Gruffydd about it over lunch. I'm still smiling. In my 50 years of attending the Racecourse, I've never seen anything quite like it. I think you make a really important point. As a child, that's where I went to watch international matches, and, of course, with the success that the Wales football team have had over the past few years in particular, I think the players have made Cardiff City Stadium their fortress, if you like. I think, last week—. Again, we were talking at lunchtime, saying we can't imagine football crowds singing like that 20 years ago, and singing in Welsh. And I think that says a lot about the way people have really taken this Welsh national football team to their hearts. But I know the new chief executive at the Football Association of Wales is very keen to see games played at the Racecourse. I think it's very important for us in north Wales that those games are played, even if they're only friendly games, in the coming years. So, I'm sure the Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport, and Chief Whip will certainly continue to press that with the Football Association of Wales.

You refer to the levelling-up funding bid that has been submitted in relation to the Wrexham gateway. Unfortunately, we know, despite the UK Government's promise we wouldn't have a penny less if we left the European Union, that's not the case. The funding that is available to the UK Government is much less than had we remained in the European Union. I think it's really vital that the UK Government work with the Welsh Government, and other devolved Governments, around the levelling-up fund. It's got to be a genuine partnership if it's going to work; we don't want a fragmented funding landscape. So, I think it's really important that we do see that funding. I know the second bid is in, and I think it's by June that that funding bid has to be in by.

Good afternoon, business Minister. I'd like to call for a statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services regarding the recently released interim report by the Cass review. The interim report highlighted several concerning issues that need to be dealt with and discussed by elected officials and professionals. Some of the findings raised in the report highlighted the lack of consensus and open discussion about the nature of gender dysphoria and, therefore, the appropriate clinical response. It is now clear to me that, in light of the interim Cass report, there should be a review of services in Wales for gender questioning children and adolescents. This has been overlooked by the Welsh Government, and it needs to be rectified urgently. Therefore, I'd ask for a statement, please, Minister. 

13:40

Thank you. I know the Minister for Health and Social Services and both the Deputy Ministers are obviously aware of the report or working through the report, and I'm sure, at the most opportune time, will come forward with further information. 

Trefnydd, I would like to ask for a statement, please. It relates to postal services delivered by the Royal Mail and how the Welsh Government can exert pressure for services to be improved. It is an issue that I have previously corresponded with the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership on, as I know that she regularly meets with the Royal Mail, and she has, and I'm grateful for this, made representations previously on behalf of constituents. However, services in many parts of the Rhondda in particular are sporadic, with deliveries in recent months being once a fortnight in areas such as Glynfach, according to a local resident, which also means that important documents are being missed or not received at all. This also related to vaccination appointments. I would be grateful for a statement to see how we can influence the Royal Mail on this, please. Thank you. 

Thank you. I think you said that you'd already made representations direct to the Deputy Minister. As you are aware, Royal Mail is obviously a reserved issue, but we do all obviously rely on postal services in a way that you've just described, and, I think, during the pandemic, we've relied on them even more. I'm sure, if you have made representations to the Deputy Minister, she will respond to you. 

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer and Minister. I am grateful, and it is nice to be back here, one among you. Minister, you will be aware of a recent internal audit report at Bridgend council that exposed the payment of £316,192 to a company for home insulation work, where the director was a Labour council cabinet member, and where the moneys were paid to a company that the auditors could not establish had actually existed. I believe that South Wales Police should be investigating it. I have called for them to do so. Will the Government make a statement in the Chamber, setting out how Welsh procurement policies will be tightened to reduce the chance of this occurring again? Thank you very much. 

Thank you, and it is very nice to see you back in the Chamber. I think you've done the right thing by writing directly to the local authority. Procurement is an important matter, which the Minister for Finance and Local Government is doing a big piece of work on within our programme for government, and I'm sure this is something that could be looked at. 

Trefnydd, may I ask for a statement on digital connectivity in rural areas, which has a major impact on citizens in the region that I represent, namely Mid and West Wales? As we all know, the additional top-up that the Welsh Government has been providing to the voucher system from the Westminster Government is coming to an end on Thursday of this week, and that, of course, leads to a great deal of uncertainty, because I have had several people contacting me over the past weeks and months complaining that the provision in some rural areas is still unsatisfactory. Community councils, for example, have contacted me to say that they can't hold virtual meetings or hybrid meetings because of the lack of adequate broadband connectivity, and individuals and businesses also have contacted to complain about the same issue. Now, I know that this top-up is coming to an end and that you are reviewing the voucher system. So, can we have a statement with regard to what the intentions of the Welsh Government are to support the communities that are still suffering, to provide certainty for the future? Thank you. 

Thank you. I think you do raise a very important point, and, again, during the pandemic it's been highlighted, the difficulties in some of our rural areas in particular—and not just rural, but urban areas too. But, I think, with rural areas, I've certainly been lobbied by small businesses, for instance, who haven't been able to improve their website takings in the way that they would have wanted to. So, I think it is an important issue. You'll be aware, again, as a Government, that we've had to plug the gaps that the UK Government left behind in relation to providing more broadband, and as you say there is a review currently being undertaken by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change.

13:45

I would like to ask for two statements. I've received a lot of complaints regarding hospital food, not just in Morriston Hospital, which is very near to me, but in hospitals across south Wales. I would like a Government statement on hospital food, to cover quality, quantity, how ward managers are implementing the policy that allows relatives and friends to help those who need help to eat—I've been told, although it's a policy of the health boards, it's a policy of the Welsh Government, by the time it gets down to ward managers, that policy disappears—and also on the quantity of waste food, which I understand from people who've been visiting patients in hospital is substantial.

I would also like to ask for a Government statement on public transport in the Swansea bay city region. We've had recent statements on the north Wales and Cardiff metro, can we have one on the creation of the Swansea bay city region metro? I realise it's much more complicated, as does the Deputy Presiding Officer, because travel in our area is not linear. There's quite a lot of Valleys down and from Swansea up into the Valleys communities, and also from Carmarthenshire into Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, and also the other way around. It's not unidirectional, which is what the Cardiff bay metro is predominantly. It's multidirectional and that does make it much more complicated, but it doesn't make it less of a problem for me and my colleagues, such as you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and the Member representing Neath.

Thank you, Mike. I think you raise a very important point about hospital food. When I was health Minister, I always used to say that food is just as important as medicine. It's really important that patients have proper quality of food, and it is an issue that I know the Minister for health is looking at. We're also looking at procurement. I go back to an earlier answer around procurement. That's part of the process that the Minister for Finance and Local Government is looking at too. You may be aware that NHS Improvement England is currently undertaking a comprehensive NHS catering review, and I know NHS Wales representatives attend those review meetings. Once that review has been completed, it's going to be assessed, and then here in Wales we will consider what best practice and guidance can be rolled out and adopted right across NHS Wales. 

In relation to the Swansea bay city region, or the Swansea bay and west Wales metro, I think, is the correct title, we are in the very early stages of development of the three metro projects—north Wales, south Wales, and the Swansea bay one. It is an important part of achieving our modal-shift targets. If we are going to meet our net-zero targets, it's very important that we do this, and we are working very closely with Transport for Wales to accelerate it.

Trefnydd, I notice many of my colleagues asking for statements during business statement, but I never see those statements, actually, frankly, coming from this. But I'm going to formally request a statement from the Deputy Minister for transport Lee Waters, and I would also like to put on record my utmost disappointment that our Deputy Llywydd didn't see fit to allow this to be an urgent question.

Now, my question is in relation—[Interruption.] You weren't there, I was.

It's in relation to the severe and chaotic delays that were encountered by hundreds of passengers yesterday due to a rail operational incident at Abergavenny. Three trains, several carriages, and hundreds of passengers left stranded on these trains in warm weather conditions with no ventilation. The first train, we were allowed on the platform for a couple of hours. I left my office with a member of staff at 1 o'clock. I arrived in my flat here, in Cardiff, at 10 o'clock last night. It was the most horrendous situation I've ever witnessed: people crying, people anxious to get to their final destination.

In desperation, my colleague Llyr Gruffydd and I took to Twitter, copying in the Deputy Minister, and hour by hour went past with nothing. Frankly, I would have been really ashamed to have been the Deputy Minister, or not to have gone on to Twitter and said, 'Look, I will launch an investigation as to what's gone wrong.' But we were kept with no food, no nourishment, no sustenance or anything.

13:50

I am. As you can see, I'm pretty upset about it, because I know someone who missed a funeral, somebody who's lost their job, and frankly, everybody, everybody had a really sad story. Being an hour or two delayed, these things happen. We're talking five or six hours, stuck on a train, unable to do anything. Now I think that it was such a serious issue yesterday that the Deputy Minister should have come forward this morning to actually make a statement. So, it's not your fault, Trefnydd, and I'm not getting annoyed with you, but I do want a statement from Lee Waters and I will pursue, and I shall ask and ask again. The people of Wales, passengers even from England—

Okay. They deserve a reason for what happened yesterday and I jolly well hope he launches a thorough investigation, because absolutely: do I have any confidence now in Transport for Wales and this Welsh Government's ability to get me here from my constituency? No, I do not.

I absolutely agree with you that it was a very difficult journey yesterday for you and for many other people, and I have spoken to other Members who were on that train. I have also spoken with the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, who is very aware of the situation and is meeting with the chair and chief executive of Transport for Wales this afternoon around this issue. He is answering questions tomorrow, the Deputy Minister, in this Chamber, and I'm sure he will be able to give you an update then, because I think that will be much quicker and you will be able to get some answers. I think, from a Transport for Wales point of view, initial investigations have shown it was due to an unexpected operational matter, and they are working around it.

I'm not saying it's acceptable at all; I absolutely appreciate—. I've done that journey many, many, many times myself. I was on a train yesterday morning, so it could have been me. So, I'm absolutely not taking anything away, but we have to work through the process and we have to find out what went wrong. It's very regrettable; it was clearly very, very poor passenger experience.

I have to say that last night was the most appalling experience I've ever had in using a train in Wales. The journey, which was supposed to be three hours, was a seven-hour journey. My train was stationary for four hours. That was one train; I know of four other trains in the same situation. No information, because the loudspeaker in my carriage didn't work. And that's the state of our rolling stock at the moment. No alternative transport. Although we'd waited four hours, no arrangements in place to move passengers. There were people who were ill on one of the trains; there were people in tears on my train. Someone did miss a funeral; someone was concerned about the future of their employment because they were late for their shift. I listened to Transport for Wales officers in the committee a fortnight ago, saying, 'Yes, it's challenging, but things are improving.' Do you know what? I don't think I can believe a word they tell us any more. I certainly don't feel that I have any confidence in them at the moment.

I heard that there were other problems again this morning: trains from north to south running late, being cancelled. I had a number of people contacting me on Friday morning, thousands of people trying to travel back to north Wales after the game on Thursday night and there were two carriages. Just two carriages. Didn't Transport for Wales realise that the game was happening?

So, can we have a statement? And a statement—not an opportunity to ask a few supplementaries tomorrow—a statement from the Deputy Minister, because I want him to do three things: first of all, he has to apologise to the people of north Wales for the state of the appalling service that we have to suffer from one day to the next; secondly, I want him to explain to us as a Senedd what he's going to do to resolve this problem in the short term; and third, he needs to explain why we're going to have to wait until the end of the year before we see new stock on the north-south service. Because if the service continues as it is for the next eight months until then, well, there'll be nobody left using the trains from north to south.

I think the point that—. You made a different point to Janet Finch-Saunders about no information being made available, and I think if people understand what's happening, that always helps the situation, so I think that is something very specifically that the Deputy Minister should take up at his meeting this afternoon, and I will ensure he's heard what you say. You did refer to the new rolling stock that is due to come in at the end of this year—it's for £800 million-worth—but, as you say, it's really important that we get that brought forward as quickly as possible.

13:55

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. Can we have a statement from you as Minister for agriculture, or, indeed, the economy Minister, about how you're going to promote wool? Wool has seen very difficult times recently. Ten years ago, it sold for £1.25 per kilogram, but two years ago, that price fell to 15p. It's good to see the price increasing again. 

There are a number of steps to take before the weavers can get hold of the wool, from the shearing to the separation—there are more than 10 different grades of wool on every farm, for example—and then it has to be cleaned. Wool is a very flexible material, not only is it an excellent material to make clothes, but also carpets and insulation. But there is much more to it than that. Bangor University has done excellent work looking at the other potential of wool, to be used as packaging and using its chemical properties. It absorbs formaldehyde in the environment and improves air quality, not to mention the linoleum and the keratin in the wool and the fibres. So, there is significant potential and I'd like to hear what steps the Government is going to take to benefit from this flexible use of wool that we have in Wales.

Thank you. As you said, farmers have seen a big reduction in the price they have been getting for their wool over the past two years. I've been working most closely with the Minister for Climate Change, actually, on this, rather than the Minister for Economy. Because one of the suggestions that came through was that we could look at how we could use wool more in housing stock here in Wales. I actually met with British Wool—representatives from there. They actually told me that insulation was not really the best thing for the wool; carpets certainly were. And perhaps I shouldn't say this today, but another thing that they really thought we could do here in Wales was use it in our trains, in the seating for our trains. So, that is an area I'm also looking at with the Minister. [Interruption.] I did hesitate to say that. But I think it's a really important point, because we have seen a significant drop in the price of our wool. So, we are continuing to look at options, continuing to work with British Wool.

There was a piece of work done across the UK, with all countries in the UK, about further use, but those were the two areas: carpets and transport—seats mainly, in our trains. We're always very open to suggestions, and I know the Deputy Minister and the Minister for Climate Change are very keen to see if it can be used in housing in different ways. But, interestingly, as I say, insulation was not the way they thought it should be used.

Thank you, Trefnydd. Before we move on,

I call upon Altaf Hussain to make a clarification.

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. I just want to make my declaration of interest, since I'm a councillor in BCBC as well. That's Bridgend County Borough Council. Thank you.

2. Questions to the First Minister

We move now to item 2, questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Sam Rowlands.

Eradicating Antisemitism

1. What action is the Welsh Government taking to eradicate antisemitism in Wales? OQ57901

Good afternoon, Deputy Presiding Officer, and I thank the Member for the question.

For over a decade, the Welsh Government has funded the Holocaust Educational Trust to provide its Lessons from Auschwitz programme in Wales. That, and other actions to address antisemitism, will be reflected in our anti-racist Wales action plan, to be published later this year.

Thank you, First Minister, for your response. I'm sure all Members from across the Chamber here today agree that antisemitism is abhorrent to us all, and all efforts must be made to ensure that this and all forms of racism are stamped out in Wales. And as the First Minister will know, back in May 2017, Welsh Government adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance's definition of antisemitism. Nevertheless, I do find it deeply concerning that the majority of universities in Wales still haven't adopted this definition for themselves. Whilst you may not have direct control over universities in Wales, the Government does provide significant funding, and, as First Minister, you have a significant role in setting the tone and expectation of how people, public bodies and publicly funded organisations present themselves here in Wales. So, in light of this, First Minister, will you join me in urging and setting the expectation that all of our universities in Wales should adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism?

Well, Llywydd, it is my expectation that no public body in Wales tolerates antisemitism, Islamophobia or any other form of discrimination against groups in our society. As the Member said, the Welsh Government has adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The Minister for education has been discussing this matter over recent months. He met with Lord Mann, who is carrying out the review of antisemitism policies for the UK Government currently, and the Welsh Government has provided evidence to that review. The Minister for Education met Lord Mann back in November and this issue was discussed there. He met with the Union of Jewish Students here in Wales at the end of February and once again this matter was raised. He has a meeting with senior university staff on Monday, I think, of next week, and this item is on the agenda. So, the Member can be assured that the Welsh Government is drawing this matter to the attention of universities across Wales when we have the opportunity to do so, and setting that discussion in the context of the general expectation we set about public bodies doing everything they can to combat discrimination. However, as the Member said, universities are autonomous bodies. They are not controlled, nor should they be controlled, by the Welsh Government. We will discuss this matter and bring it to their attention, but as George Freeman, the Conservative Minister for higher education in the UK Government said just this weekend, free and open academic discourse underpinned by the values of freedom is fundamental, and that freedom applies to universities to make their own decisions within the matters that fall within their own ambit. 

14:00
The Chancellor's Spring Statement

2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the implications for Wales of the Chancellor's Spring Statement 2022? OQ57906

I thank the Member for the question. A decade of austerity has left the poorest households in Wales ill-equipped to deal with the cost-of-living crisis. In the spring statement the Chancellor had an opportunity to provide essential help to those who need it the most. He let them down and that was unforgivable.

An opportunity was missed, indeed, because the UK Government did nothing, for example, in the spring statement to tackle fuel poverty. We know, of course, that Wales is hit harder in that regard as we do have less efficient housing stock in terms of energy. We have more homes that are off the grid and, also, we in Wales are paying higher rates of standing charges for our electricity. Although north Wales is energy rich, although we produce more energy than we use, although we are one of the biggest exporters of energy in the world, the standing charges in north Wales for electricity will increase by 102 per cent, while in London they will increase by only 38 per cent. Do you, therefore, agree with me, First Minister, that the spring statement demonstrates clearly that there is no dividend for Wales to being part of the UK, particularly when it comes to those who have to choose between heating their homes or eating?

I agree with the Member that the Chancellor had an opportunity back on Tuesday of last week to show what the United Kingdom can do to help people who are in poverty, and to do that in a way that is fair across the whole of the United Kingdom. It is disappointing that the Chancellor wasn't willing to take that opportunity to demonstrate the powers in his hands to help people—people in north Wales, as the Member says, and people who are suffering from the issues with regard to energy and food. There was an opportunity for the Chancellor to do what he could do, but, as I said in my original response, he hasn't done things in a fair way for people in Wales, or across the United Kingdom.

The Chancellor, First Minister, had hardly sat back down on the green benches before the criticism tore apart his spring budget statement, and it didn't only come from some backbench Tory MPs; it came from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, from the Resolution Foundation, it came from Martin Lewis, the money saving expert, who looked at the impact of the rising tax burden and the additional burden on the poorest people in our country. The forecasts now say that a fifth of the population of the UK will be in absolute poverty—absolute poverty, 12.5 million people. Their household incomes are on track for the biggest fall of any Parliament on record and the tax burden will be at the highest level for 70 years, while the poorest will get poorer still. A typical family will be around £1,100 worse off this year. And after previous cuts to universal credit, we're glad to see a 3 per cent rise—

14:05

Recognising that there is an 8 per cent rise in terms of inflation at this moment, it totally wipes it out. Deputy Llywydd, I've said before in this Chamber that sometimes it feels like swimming against the tide of the UK Government. First Minister, how can we help people swim against the tide, keep their heads afloat? Because some people are now drowning, and they're our constituents.

I could not agree more with Huw Irranca-Davies in his analysis of the impact of the spring statement. The Chancellor says that he has protected the worse off; it's nonsensical when you look at the figures of the money that he has provided—£1 in every £3 will go to the bottom half of the income distribution, and £2 in every £3 will go to the best off. That is no way to help the people who Huw Irranca-Davies mentioned, who are struggling with the basics of food and fuel.

The Welsh Government has consistently taken action to exceed the consequentials with which we have been provided. The Wales Governance Centre only last week said that the actions that the Welsh Government have taken are significantly more generous in the help we've been able to assemble than any other Government across the United Kingdom. We will make sure, for example, that the £150 available to help people with their council tax goes to everybody liable for the council tax, whether or not they actually pay a bill or not, and that money will therefore reach those who need it the most.

Only last week the Minister for education provided an extra £100 for families to meet the cost of the school day. That money will stay in the pockets of those families and will be available to help them with the other costs that they are now facing. And that is not to mention the help that we have provided with fuel bills—£200 to families during this winter, more to come later this year. Of course we wish we could do more, but the fundamental obligation lies with the UK Government. It's the Chancellor who has those great levers, the tax and benefits system, which drives help for people who live on basic benefits or in low-paid work. That was the failure of the spring statement, and it's a failure that I think demonstrated a Chancellor prepared ruthlessly to squander an opportunity to help.

I wasn't expecting Members in this Chamber to be welcoming the spring statement, but there were a lot of very, very positive things, though I haven't got the opportunity to raise them here. [Interruption.] The combination of unprecedented crises—the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine—has resulted in significant inflationary pressures that have been felt across society—[Interruption.]

Whilst there is more to do to support people over the coming months, I welcome the steps made by the Chancellor that will help to ease the burden on families across the UK. Indeed, Martin Lewis recognised the benefits of raising the threshold in national insurance. Deputy Llywydd, the doubling of the household support fund in England, outlined last week, will result in consequentials of around £25 million for Wales, and this should be used to provide the additional help that the First Minister wants to give to people in Wales who are facing difficulties. Local authorities across Wales are at the forefront of tackling the cost-of-living crisis—

—and are best placed to use their local knowledge to help those in need. Indeed, they already deliver a range of discretionary services. First Minister, what discussions has the Welsh Government had about how to allocate this funding, this additional £25 million, to councils in the light of current pressures? Will you consider loosening the eligibility criteria of some of the support schemes in Wales so that more people can access help? Diolch yn fawr.

14:10

The Welsh Government has already provided that £25 million, because we spent double the amount that we were given in the last household help fund that the Chancellor announced. We've announced £340 million-worth of help for households to meet the crisis in the cost of living, and we put £10 million more into the revenue support grant in the final settlement that was debated in front of the Senedd only a few weeks ago. But £25 million, Dirprwy Lywydd, is a paltry sum in the face of the difficulties that families in Wales now see in front of them. That is not going to solve the problems of pensioners left with a 3 per cent increase in their benefits while inflation is at 8 per cent. It's not going to help those hundreds of thousands of households in Wales who lost £20 every week from their universal credit. The Welsh Government will, of course, look to use the resources we have to help those families, and that does include, as the Member said, working with our local authorities and looking at the criteria that surround the systems that we have put in place to help those families. But any suggestion that £25 million is the answer to the problems that face families across Wales just demonstrates how far the Conservative Party in Wales is out of touch with the reality of the lives that so many people have to live.  

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

I now call on party leaders. First, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. What I recall as being a paltry rise was the 75p a week that Labour voted through and Members of Parliament voted for back in the early 2000s when Gordon Brown was the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

But I'd like to ask the First Minister about something that he is responsible for and his Government is responsible for, and that is ambulance response times here in Wales, which we had last week. On the red alert calls, you had a literally one in two chance of having that call responded to. On amber calls, you've got a less than one in five chance of that being responded to in the 30-minute target time. Sixty-five per cent of red calls should hit that eight-minute response time. As I said, you've got a 50:50 chance now in Wales, regrettably, of having that happening. First Minister, some time ago, the health Minister, Eluned Morgan, said you were investing in the ambulance service and that this investment was paying real dividends. On those figures, clearly, these dividends aren't coming through. When are we going to see the improvements that the people of Wales deserve?

For 48 weeks in a row, until the pandemic hit us in March 2020, the ambulance service in Wales met its targets. I don't recall ever once being asked by the leader of the opposition about it then. The truth of the matter is, as he will know, that the pandemic has caused major challenges for the ambulance service, because every time an ambulance goes out and may transport somebody who has COVID—and with current rates of COVID in Wales, that means a very significant number of people who the ambulance service has to deal with—then the ambulance has to be deep cleaned again before it can go back on the road.

The figures for the last month show the ambulance service holding its own in Wales, despite the fact that the number of calls to the service has been running at all-time record highs over this winter. The Minister was right when she pointed to the investment that is going into the ambulance service, particularly in the recruitment of new staff. New staff are joining the ambulance service all the time, and there are more staff being recruited to help provide the service that people in Wales deserve to have. There's still a way to go in achieving that, there's no doubt at all about that, but the investment on the one hand, the staff on the other, and, hopefully, an ability to move beyond the pandemic, add up to a prospectus where the ambulance service will be able to return to the years of success that it enjoyed before the pandemic hit.

First Minister, it's been 18 months since the targets have been hit by the ambulance service. Time and time again, I've raised it with you, Members across the political divide have raised issues—heart-wrenching issues—of their experiences across the whole of Wales, where regrettably ambulances haven't been able to respond to life-threatening situations. We know the ambulance service has been supported by the military on several occasions—across the United Kingdom that support has been offered, I might add, not just here in Wales. That support is coming to an end come 31 March. What measures has the Welsh Government, along with the ambulance service, put in place to make sure that we don't end up with a cliff edge on 31 March and, ultimately, these figures deteriorating even worse than they are now?

14:15

Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, can I first just put on record our thanks to the military for the help that we have had here in Wales during the pandemic, and particularly, as the leader of the opposition has said, for the help that we have received from them in supporting our ambulance services, both in driving ambulances and in helping with the cleaning of ambulances so that they can be turned around as quickly as we can do that and put them back on the road again? It is inevitable that that help must come to an end, and there are many other calls, as we know, at the moment on the services of the military.

What the Welsh Government has been doing, as I've said, Dirprwy Lywydd, is to invest in new, permanent, full-time members of staff, trained to the level where they are able to carry out all the duties that you would expect the ambulance service to be able to undertake. And at the same time, more broadly, the Welsh Government has been supporting the ambulance service in a two-week reset of the service in the first half of this month. Now, the results of that reset are still being analysed. I am pleased to say that over the last two weeks we've seen a 10 per cent reduction in the daily average ambulance hours lost compared to the two weeks before the reset was established. And I think that gives us some optimism that we are creating the platform that will allow the ambulance service to deal with the diminution in the number of people available to it as military help is withdrawn.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. As we heard last week in media reports, ambulance workers are telling us that, really, it is a soul-destroying job that they're facing at the moment, and many, sadly, are having to revert to anti-depressants to get them through the day. From covert recordings, we heard that, actually, from a management level, where genuine concerns are being raised, people are being put on pathways to disciplinary measures against them. That cannot be right, First Minister, and I hope you'll agree with me that that cannot be tolerated in a public organisation anywhere in Wales. These staff are under huge amounts of pressure. I'm grateful for you indicating the additional staff that are coming forward from recent recruitment drives, but what assurances can you give the Senedd, what assurances can you give ambulance workers and what assurances can you give the people of Wales that in the coming weeks and months we will see genuine improvement in the response times of the ambulance service across Wales and that these figures will start to improve, and that through the course of the summer the target times that your own Government has set the service will be met?

Well, the assurance that I can give to Members of the Senedd and people more broadly is this: the ambulance trust is doing everything it can, with its partners in the health service more generally, to provide the service that its staff want to provide, and the investment of the Welsh Government is there to support them in that endeavour.

The thing that I cannot say, and neither can the leader of the opposition, is the extent to which the current rise in the number of people falling ill with coronavirus will impact on that service over the weeks and months to come. The leader of the opposition will know that we have some of the highest numbers of people falling ill with the virus of any time in the whole of the pandemic. Only a matter of weeks ago, we managed to reduce the number of people in our hospital beds suffering from coronavirus down to around 700. It went above 1,400 yesterday, and that number has continued to rise. That has an impact upon the whole system's ability to deal with the demands on it, including the ambulance service. Because when you have that number of people in the hospital system suffering from COVID-19, then it has an impact on our ability to discharge people, and therefore to flow patients through the system from the front door when the ambulance arrives to the point where people are able to be discharged. Also, as I said, it has a direct impact on the speed with which the ambulance service itself is able to respond to the calls that it receives, and it drives up the number of calls that are made. So, while I think the service is doing everything it can, and the investment from the Welsh Government is there to support it in all of that, it continues to operate within a very challenging context, and a context that has been deteriorating, from a pandemic perspective, over recent weeks. All of that has to be taken into account in any assurances that anybody can make about the extent to which the performance of the ambulance will reflect that context in the weeks and months to come.

14:20

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. In 2016, Scotland gained control over 11 welfare benefits and the ability to create new ones. The Wales Governance Centre published a report in 2019 that stated that giving Wales the same powers over benefits as Scotland could boost the budget of Wales by £200 million a year. Now, last week's spring statement, as you said, was unforgivable—it'll lead to a million plus increase in absolute poverty for the first time ever outside a recession. Now, coming from a Chancellor whose own family fortune is tainted by Russian blood money, and who's had to file his own partygate questionnaire, his moral tone-deafness should come as no surprise, perhaps. But doesn't this also mean that simply replacing Johnson, say with Sunak, will do nothing for struggling families in Wales? If powers over Welsh welfare—those 'great levers' that you referred to, First Minister—remain in Westminster's hands, is not this the time now, finally, to make the united case for a Welsh devolution of welfare more radical and far-reaching even than the Scottish model?

Dirprwy Lywydd, I have no ambition to replace Johnson with Sunak. My ambition is to replace Johnson with Starmer, and that would make a very big difference to the way in which the United Kingdom operates and the way in which people who rely on—[Inaudible.]—not just—[Inaudible.]—fundamentally on—[Inaudible.]

First Minister, can I ask you to halt for a second, because you're breaking up a little bit? We want to just check the IT system. Can we have a two-minute break, simply to make sure the IT is working properly? So, I call for a two-minute break.

Plenary was suspended at 14:22.

The Senedd reconvened at 14:28, with the Deputy Presiding Officer in the Chair.

14:25

Dirprwy Lywydd, diolch yn fawr. So, I had just started to reply to the leader of Plaid Cymru's first question by saying that I am not interested in replacing Boris Johnson with Sunak, I'm interested in replacing Boris Johnson with Keir Starmer, and that's what would make a difference to people here in Wales, but not just people here in Wales. This is where I differ from the leader of Plaid Cymru, because I am interested in a child who lives in poverty, whether that child is in England or in Wales, and my recipe for the United Kingdom is a place where everybody, in all parts of the United Kingdom, is able to benefit from the great insurance policy that being a member of the United Kingdom provides. There is a way of doing that, and that is to replace this Government, and that's what I will be aiming to do. 

I'm reliably informed by the Deputy Presiding Officer that the problem just now was at the London end, and isn't that the point? It's simply not good enough to say, 'Oh, it'll be all right when there's a Labour Government', when, since the Reform Act, Wales has never, ever elected a majority of Tory MPs, and yet we've had Tory Governments for more than two thirds of the time. The Bevan Foundation has recently strongly made the case for the devolution of power over housing benefit and the housing element of housing credit as a matter of urgency. Why? Because this would allow the Welsh Government to move from a model that essentially subsidises rent to a model that subsidises social housing supply, which is ultimately the only answer to the question. When even an organisation that is named after Aneurin Bevan, who was certainly no friend of Welsh nationalism, is making the case for the devolution of welfare, doesn't it show, First Minister, that we're on the right side of the question, and, unfortunately, you're still on the wrong side?

14:30

Well, of course, I don't agree with that for a moment. I am interested and want serious work to be done on the devolution of the administration of the welfare system. I think there is a growing case for that, and we would administer housing benefit, for example, differently if it were devolved to Wales. That is different to the break-up of the tax and benefit system on which people in Wales have relied over a great deal of the time that the Member points to.

It was a Welshman—not Aneurin Bevan, but James Griffiths—who put on the statute book the underpinnings of the welfare state, which has stood people in Wales well over much of the period since James Griffiths passed the national insurance and allied Acts back in 1947. Griffiths was a great Welshman, and a great socialist. I think the recipe that he put forward continues to be the one that benefits people in Wales. 

And Jim Griffiths, from my mother's home village of Betws, was also an ardent supporter of Welsh home rule right throughout his political life. 

The Welsh Government can also directly address the cost-of-living crisis itself, of course, for lower paid workers within the public sector. Teaching assistants are currently only paid for 39 to 43 weeks of the year. They're not paid for the summer six weeks, but are bound to the school and can't sign on to get another job during this period, while teachers, of course, are paid for a full working year of 52 weeks. The summer months are amongst the most expensive, not to mention the detrimental effect that this absence of pay can have on pensions later in life. Given that much of the COVID recovery efforts have been placed on the shoulders of TAs, and the essential work that they provide for pupils who are vulnerable or those with additional learning needs, isn't it time that this valuable workforce is finally valued in full? 

Well, Llywydd, I certainly agree with the leader of Plaid Cymru about the work of teaching assistants. And many of them, of course, do get paid during the school holidays here in Wales because they are the bedrock of the school holiday enrichment programme that we have had in Wales from the start of the last Senedd term—the only national system anywhere in the United Kingdom in which children are able to attend school and to receive a proper meal and get other enrichment activities. And teaching assistants are at the heart of all of that, and they're paid here in Wales for the work that they do.

There is nothing to prevent local authorities, if they choose to do so, to have different terms and conditions for teaching assistants, and that would, of course, include those local authorities where Plaid Cymru is in charge, and could, no doubt, make the choices that the Member has advocated this afternoon. 

Maternity Services

3. Will the First Minister make a statement on the effect of COVID on maternity services in South Wales West? OQ57865

Thank you very much to the Member for that question. 

Maternity services across Wales were classed as essential services throughout the pandemic, including those in South Wales West. Despite significant challenges due to COVID, nearly all our services have continued to operate fully, providing pregnant mothers, babies and their families with access to safe and suitable maternity care.

Diolch, Brif Weinidog. A constituent of mine from the Swansea valley, named Laura, recently got in contact with me about her awful experience of having to undergo pregnancy scans on her own without her husband due to COVID rules. Since COVID restrictions and measures came into place two years ago, she's unfortunately had three consecutive miscarriages. Two of these were classed as 'missed miscarriages' and required a number of scans at Neath Port Talbot Hospital to ascertain the viability of the pregnancies—the first in September 2020, the second in August 2021. She said:

'During both of these extremely painful and difficult times, I, like many other prospective mothers in Wales, was not allowed to have my husband at the scans, and had to be told on both occasions that the foetus was not viable and that I would lose the pregnancy on my own with nobody there to provide comfort or support. Instead I was led to a small waiting room, told I could leave when I was ready. I then had to go out and tell my husband the news myself, when he was waiting anxiously outside in the car park.'

Last week, she had to face the same ordeal. Thankfully, it was good news. While I understand, of course, that hospitals have had to introduce and maintain strict rules to safeguard against COVID infection, there is a fundamental issue of inconsistency of approach here. Laura tells me that, by last year, pregnant women were allowed to have a partner present during some scans. However, this was not the case for the type of scans she needed—scans that are only allowed in the NHS when there are potential problems or risks. Prif Weinidog, as Wales enters a new phase in the pandemic, will the Government ensure better treatment for all the other women across Wales who have suffered and will be affected by this potentially traumatic situation, by looking at the guidance issued to health boards and ensuring a consistent and appropriate approach to maternity services?

14:35

Llywydd, I thank the Member for that question. I feel enormous sympathy for the individual whose circumstances she related. During the whole of the pandemic, some of the most difficult circumstances that have had to have been faced by the NHS have been over maternity care and the involvement of both partners in what should, in normal circumstances, be one of the most exciting times in their lives. But, as I've explained many times on the floor of the Senedd, the decision about whether people can be involved has had to be a clinical decision, made by the person who has the best opportunity to make sure that the health of the mother and the health of the unborn baby can be protected to the maximum possible extent. And that depends upon the health of the mother, for example, her vulnerabilities, underlying health conditions and so on, as well as the prevailing circumstances in whatever premises that care is being carried out. And it hasn't been right during the pandemic so far to have tried to issue a set of rules from Cathays Park that would override the necessary clinical judgment that can only be applied by the person who has responsibility for the overall care of the mother and the unborn child.

As we emerge, as we hope, from the worst effects of the pandemic, the Welsh Government will be providing advice to the NHS as a whole. It will, for example, seek to standardise the length of visits that families are able to make while somebody is in hospital, to make sure that the approach to lateral flow testing is consistent across Wales, and that the circumstances in which both parents can be involved, and of course want to be involved, in that whole experience is also consistent from one part of the NHS to another. We're able to do that because the impact of vaccination, new treatments we have, the way in which the NHS has learnt to deal with the impact of COVID-19, enables us now to move into that phase of providing maternity care. But, at the depths of the pandemic, the view taken by those who advise us in the Welsh Government was that that sort of national approach had to give way to the need to allow clinicians to exercise the judgment that only they can exercise, in order to safeguard the health of mothers and unborn children.

Thank you, Sioned Williams, for raising this important issue. Good afternoon, First Minister. During the height of the pandemic, we saw huge restrictions placed on new mums and their families, who were not allowed to visit them in hospital. The charity and campaign group Birthrights has monitored the impact across the UK to articulate the challenges that many have faced. Apparently, they wrote to the health Minister asking for change, saying Wales has

'some of the most restrictive visiting arrangements in maternity services in the UK.'

Does the First Minister believe that the impact on families at such an important time should be considered in the context of human rights, and whether those rights were respected? Thank you.

14:40

Well, there's no greater right, Llywydd, it seems to me, than to make sure that the system is not putting you at risk and causing you harm, and what some people describe as restrictions I think are more fairly described as protections, because that's what we were offering here in Wales. That is not, for a minute, to deny the heartache that that has caused people. But the motivation for the way in which services are provided has only ever been to make sure that those families to which Altaf Hussain referred, that they were not unnecessarily put at risk. We have been in the throes of a global pandemic that has killed people here in Wales every single week, and the actions that our clinicians have taken and our health boards have taken have only ever been designed to make sure that people going through something that will be part of their lives forever, as they will hope, don't find that adversely affected because the protections that could have been provided to them were not provided to them. And difficult as that has been, I don't think for a minute that we ought to do anything other than recognise that the reasons that those actions were taken were to protect those families, to protect those women, to protect the babies that they were hoping to give birth to, and, as we move beyond the pandemic, we will be able to return to different ways and better ways, of course, of doing things. But that's the reason those actions were taken and nothing else. 

P&O Ferries

4. What discussions has the First Minister had with the UK Government about Welsh residents who have been unlawfully sacked by P&O? OQ57905

Well, I thank Jack Sargeant for that important question, Dirprwy Lywydd. The decision by P&O Ferries to fire its loyal workforce without consultation and with immediate effect is unacceptable and illegal. We have made it clear to the UK Government that they must not stand by and allow an accelerated race to the bottom on workers’ rights in this industry or any other. 

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Prif Weinidog. Members will know that the UK minimum wage is £8.91. The new average wage at P&O is £5.50, and this was brought in after they unlawfully sacked their loyal workforce without consultation. As the First Minister rightly says, this is a disgraceful, illegal act by P&O bosses, and it is one that is unacceptable to me. First Minister, the silence from the Conservative benches in the Senedd Chamber today is deafening, isn't it? But it is not surprising—[Interruption.] But it is not surprising. After all, it was their colleagues—[Interruption.] It was their colleagues in Westminster, in Westminster, that blocked the fire and rehire Bill that sought to ban these practices. 

Can I ask Members, please, to allow the question to be asked, so I can hear it? 

Deputy Presiding Officer, it is not surprising, because it was a Bill brought forward by a Labour Member of Parliament. But the heckles that this turned into from the benches over there simply reinforce the message, don't they? They reinforce the message that the UK Conservative Party do not care about ordinary working people in Wales and across the UK. First Minister, will you join me in sending a very simple, but powerful message to the UK Conservative Government that we need legislation now to end fire and rehire practices, and we also need to repeal all anti-trade union laws that strip power from ordinary working people? 

Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, Jack Sargeant has made those points very powerfully indeed. The UK Government, this UK Government, promised in a Queen's Speech in 2019 that it would bring an employment Bill in front of the House of Commons. Where has that Bill been? Nowhere to be seen, of course. And had it been brought forward, maybe there would have been a chance to have addressed what UK Government Ministers are describing as an exploitation of a loophole in the law. Two thousand and nineteen, Llywydd. Here we are in 2022, and no sign of that promised Bill, and that tells you, as Jack Sargeant says, everything you need to know about the attitude of this current Conservative Government to workers' rights. I was privileged to meet Barry Gardiner, the Member of Parliament who brought forward the private Member's Bill to outlaw fire and rehire. The Prime Minister described the practice of fire and rehire as unacceptable, yet he allowed Conservative backbenchers in the House of Commons to talk out that private Member's Bill when it could have done so much good and certainly would have made a difference in the case of P&O. Now, the Prime Minister has claimed that P&O will be prosecuted under section 194 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, but there's no sign of that happening either. The lack of action is deafening, as Jack Sargeant says. What we hear from Conservative Ministers are the lamest of excuses in the face of a deliberate flouting of the law by P&O. It was breathtaking that Peter Hebblethwaite was willing to turn up at a House of Commons select committee and acknowledge the fact that there was 'absolutely no doubt'—that's what he said—

'that we were required to consult with the unions.'

Well, there was no doubt because that's what the law of the land required them to do. He then went on to say, ‘We chose not to do that—we chose deliberately to break the law of the land.’ Where is the action that this Government needs to take in Westminster to address that sort of deliberate flouting of the law and to protect the workers who were on the receiving end of it?

14:45

It's a shame that some Members in this Chamber are playing politics with this issue. And so that the Member for Alyn and Deeside hears, and other Members too, the behaviour of P&O Ferries is a scandal and is entirely unacceptable, and we as a group here have made that entirely clear. Now, bearing in mind the serious situation, and considering that it appears that the chief executive of this company has admitted that he broke the law, is it your view that the United Kingdom Government should take this matter to the courts to prosecute him and the company?

Well, of course. There is huge interest in this issue in Wales, and there is a responsibility on Ministers in Westminster to take this to the courts and to pursue the company that has broken the law. But, in addition to that, Dirprwy Lywydd, we know that the UK Government is still dealing with the P&O parent company in the free ports programme that they have. It's not acceptable for us that they pursue P&O when they are still working with P&O's parent company. There is a lot more that the UK Government should do—a lot more—and that isn't playing politics in any sense; it's just being clear as to where responsibility lies. 

Cycle Tourism

5. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to develop cycle tourism in west Wales? OQ57871

I thank Cefin Campbell for that question. West Wales is already well placed to be one of the key cycling destinations in Wales for visitors from Wales and further afield. The Welsh Government continues to support the actions of local authorities and others in the development of cycle tourism.

Thank you very much. As you know, Carmarthenshire County Council has been promoting cycle tourism over the past few years and has seen the development of the national closed road circuit in Pembrey, redeveloping the velodrome in Carmarthen, and there's also a cycle path along the Tywi valley about to be completed, and Carmarthenshire has held several stages of the Tour of Britain over the past few years. And we know that Pembrokeshire, an area of natural beauty, has held a number of major events, such as the Iron Man in Tenby on an annual basis, certainly before the pandemic. We know that the Welsh Government has invited the Tour de France to Wales previously, and we know about the economic benefits of that. The Grand Depárt from Yorkshire in 2014 brought in around £130 million into that area. So, my question is this: would you agree that west Wales offers the perfect location for holding a stage of the Tour de France? And now that COVID has passed, what work is the Welsh Government intending to do to invite the Tour de France, one of the stages of the tour, to west Wales at some point in future? Thank you. 

14:50

Well, I thank Cefin Campbell for that question. I agree with him, of course, on the possibilities that exist in west Wales. I remember being in Pembrey with the leader of the county council when we worked together to open the Tour of Britain, back in 2018, when Geraint Thomas was leading the tour. And I remember, growing up in Carmarthen, using the velodrome in the park there almost every day. But, Dirprwy Lywydd, we continue to collaborate with England and Scotland to develop a bid to bring the Tour de France to the UK in 2026. Discussions are ongoing, and, of course, as a Government here in Wales, we are doing everything within our power to highlight the possibilities that exist here in Wales. Of course, there are many details still to be discussed with those responsible for the Tour de France, and we are just starting to do that. But, if there are possibilities to bring the tour to Wales, then I know that those interested in cycling would be very excited about that. 

Heating Oil and LPG

6. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding putting in place protections against price rises for people across rural Wales who are reliant on heating oil and LPG? OQ57879

Well, Llywydd, good afternoon to Jane Dodds. The Welsh Government continues to press the UK Government to support households who, through no fault of their own, are facing an energy and cost-of-living crisis. The cost of heating oil was last discussed with UK Government officials last week, on 23 March.

Thank you, First Minister, for your response. 

This is an issue that I know many have had raised with them across the Siambr. Many have seen a doubling in the price of heating oil in less than six months. Earlier this month, the UK Conservative Minister of State for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, Greg Hands, said that the UK Government believes that the open market for the supply of heating oil in the UK provides the best long-term guarantee of competitive prices. He went on to say that a price cap is not necessary. First Minister, would you agree with me that, aside from being negligent, this response shows just how out of touch the Conservatives are with the crisis people are facing? Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, they are certainly out of touch with those people, particularly in rural areas. We know that 28 per cent of households in rural areas in parts of Wales are reliant on heating oil to heat their homes and to have access to hot water. The idea that the market is serving them well flies in the face of everything we are hearing about the way the market is currently operating. We are hearing far too many instances of people telling us that they cannot get a single response out of any company prepared to provide fuel to them, and that there are companies refusing to declare a price for that heating oil until the heating oil is actually delivered to the house itself. That is certainly not a market operating as a market ought to. Of course, I would take a different view in general as to the efficacy of markets as a way of providing lifeline services of any sort, but the Competition and Markets Authority is responsible for ensuring that commercial markets operate effectively and that customers are treated fairly.

Our fuel poverty advisory panel met on Friday of last week, and we have asked members of the panel and their stakeholder contacts to provide us with any evidence of unfair trading practices, so that we can continue to take that up then with the UK Government but also, if necessary, to press the Competition and Markets Authority to exercise the responsibilities it has to make sure that markets operate as they should. And a naive belief that, left to itself, an open market will serve people well in the current circumstances does indeed, as Jane Dodds has said, Dirprwy Lywydd, just illustrate once again how out of touch Conservative Ministers, who never have to face these dilemmas in their own lives, are with the way that people in rural Wales and elsewhere have to make the choices that they are now faced with. 

14:55
UK Government Spring Statement

7. How will the Welsh Government mitigate against any negative impacts the UK Government spring statement might have on households in South Wales East? OQ57904

I thank Delyth Jewell for that, Dirprwy Lywydd. In Wales, we have already provided a support package worth more than double the consequential funding we have received, as we seek to play our part in helping people who need that help the most. We will continue to press the UK Government to join us in doing so.

Diolch, Prif Weinidog. The Wales Governance Centre has found that the average Welsh household will still be £315 a year worse off, households with the lowest income will be affected disproportionately since they'll benefit less from the fuel duty cut and the increase to the national insurance threshold, and people on benefits will see a real-terms reduction of 4.3 per cent due to the UK Government's refusal to uprate benefits. Since incomes in Wales are lower than the UK average, benefit take-up is higher and we pay more for electricity, people in Wales will be disproportionately affected by the cost-of-living crisis. First Minister, while the actions you've referred to are welcome, I fear they won't be enough. What justification has the Treasury provided to Welsh Ministers for failing to do more to help people on low incomes in Wales, and don't they realise that their failure to take action reinforces the belief amongst the Welsh public that Westminster will never work for Wales?  

What I think the response tells you, Llywydd, is that it's the Conservative party that will never work for Wales, because here is a Conservative Chancellor who went about the spring statement on the basis of trying to burnish his own credentials as a tax-cutting Chancellor in order to improve his chances in the leadership election that he expects to fight any time soon. So, the Chancellor's eyes were not focused on helping the 5.5 million people who are economically inactive in this country, or the 11 million pensioners who find themselves significantly worse off as a result of breaking his own promise to up pensions in line with the triple lock. Twenty seven million people out of 31 million people will still be paying more tax after the Chancellor's election gimmick of a 1p cut in income tax in 2024, and that just tells you where the Chancellor and the Conservative party's interests lie. 

Here's what the Institute for Fiscal Studies said. I'm sure the Member will have seen it for herself. The IFS commenting on the Chancellor's promise of a 1p cut in income tax in 2024 said that the combination of increase in national insurance rates and a reduction in income tax will make the system both less equitable and less efficient—more unfair and more wasteful at the same time. It's an astonishing thing to have brought about as a Chancellor, but that's what we are left with, and people across the United Kingdom are left with, as a result of the deliberate decisions that the Chancellor made. It's not a mistake; he knew what he was doing. He decided who he would sacrifice and who he would protect, and those were Conservative party priorities.  

Flooding

8. What support is the Welsh Government providing to Natural Resources Wales to alleviate the flooding of land in mid Wales? OQ57902

Llywydd, on 15 March, the Deputy Minister for Climate Change announced our largest ever flood programme, totalling £71 million in the next financial year alone. That investment includes specific provision for schemes in mid Wales.

15:00

Thank you, First Minister, for your answer. Back in February—20 February, specifically—there were significant flooding events in my own constituency, particularly in Llandinam, Llandrinio and Pool Quay. When land is affected and flooded, this causes great distress; even greater distress when people's homes are flooded, as is what happened on that day.

My concern, First Minister, is that commitments were made to local county councillors, myself and residents two years ago, by Natural Resources Wales, and that work hasn't been undertaken. Of course, residents fear that they will now carry out refurbishment works to their properties—properties that I visited myself recently—only then to be flooded in another two years or at a future event. So, can I ask, First Minister, that in the funding that you've talked about today, which I very much welcome, priority is given to projects that have already been put in place and previously discussed, and that's where the priority lies for that particular funding?

Also, First Minister, when flooding occurrences took place in other parts of Wales two years ago, there was compensation for households at the rate of £1,000 per household. That same compensation is not available this time, when these flooding events took place significantly in mid Wales. So, can I ask you why that is the case, and can that policy position change? Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.

Dirprwy Lywydd, I thank Russell George for those questions. I needed to travel through the Member's constituency in just a few days after the flooding of 20 February and was able to see for myself the scale of it and the impact that it had had on communities in his constituency, so I absolutely understand why he raises these points on the floor of the Senedd this afternoon.

As I said, Dirprwy Lywydd, the Welsh Government has provided funding directly to both Powys County Council, to help with the development of schemes, and NRW to help with the practical implementation of those schemes, and there are, as the Member says, plans for construction works at Llandinam, for example, but in other parts of the Member's constituency as well. I'm very happy to take up with the Minister responsible the need to make sure that those works are carried out in as timely a fashion as possible.

The Member is right, of course, that when we had residential flooding on a significant scale, a couple of years ago, we responded to that scale by providing £1,000 to households who were affected. The scale of flooding—. I know if it's you, it's 100 per cent, but the numbers involved in the flooding event of 20 February were not of the same order. Those who are affected are able to apply for help from the discretionary assistance fund, and the Member will know that we have significantly increased the resources available to that fund in the current financial year, and again in the year that starts in April. Where people are able to qualify for that fund, then the impact of flooding is one of the things that they are able to go to the fund and seek help for.

3. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Update on COVID-19
4. Statement by the Minister for Climate Change: Building Safety Update
5. Statement by the Minister for Social Justice: Homes for Ukraine scheme update

So, we will move on to item 5, a statement by the Minister for Social Justice with a Homes for Ukraine scheme update. I call on the Minister for Social Justice, Jane Hutt.

Dirprwy Lywydd, thank you for the opportunity to update the Senedd today about the progress of the Homes for Ukraine scheme in Wales and the help we're putting in place to support people fleeing the war in Ukraine.

The UN's refugee agency now estimates that 3.8 million people have fled Ukraine. The vast majority have sought safety in Poland and in neighbouring countries. This crisis is unfolding on our doorstep. There has been a huge willingness among people here in Wales—and across the UK—to help those in Ukraine. We have seen this in the numbers of people who have attended vigils, who have donated clothes, goods and—even in this difficult time—money. We've also seen an overwhelming response from people in Wales as they have signed up in their thousands to the UK Government's Homes for Ukraine scheme to act as a potential sponsor for someone fleeing the war and to open their homes to them. Wales is showing our nation of sanctuary in action.

Dirprwy Lywydd, the Welsh Government has supported the UK Government's Homes for Ukraine scheme since its inception and we've signed up as supersponsors. This will make it easier for people from Ukraine who do not have any family ties in the UK, or an individual sponsor, to seek sanctuary in Wales. People fleeing Ukraine who want to come to Wales can choose to be sponsored for a visa by the Welsh Government. This option went live on Friday afternoon and we're making arrangements for the first people to arrive. We've said we will sponsor 1,000 people in the first phase. This is based on the experience of the successful Syrian and Afghan resettlement schemes. However, we're ready to take more if the need is there. Once a visa is granted, people will be contacted directly by Welsh Government's contact centre to confirm arrangements for their arrival.

Joyce Watson took the Chair.

15:05

They will make their way to the UK, and this is the same for people who are sponsored by individuals under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Arrival hubs have been set up at ports of entry across Wales, including at Holyhead, Pembroke Dock and Fishguard, and at Cardiff Airport to help people arriving from Ukraine. There are also arrival hubs at Cardiff central train and coach station and Wrexham railway station. From these arrival hubs, people will be eligible for free onward travel to Wales and to one of the welcome centres, which are being set up around the country to provide immediate accommodation and support for new arrivals from Ukraine. In the welcome centres, everyone will receive help and support to help them settle into life in Wales.

Translation services will be available for people who don't speak English and there will be opportunities to start learning English and Welsh. Health services will be available; children will start school and there will be advice to help people find their way in a new country; help with money and welfare benefits and advice about finding work. Accommodation will be available on site at the welcome centres, but the Welsh Government will work to find all individuals and families longer term homes across Wales.

We've been working incredibly hard with partners over the last fortnight, since the UK Government announced the first details of this scheme, to put in place the support people arriving from Ukraine will need. We published guidance for local authorities last week. This is available on our website. I am very grateful for the close working relationships we have with local government and for their commitment and support. I also want to thank the third sector and other public services, including the NHS.

Yesterday, we launched a dedicated helpline for people arriving in Wales from Ukraine and for people who are acting as sponsors, to provide advice and guidance. For callers in the UK, the number is freephone 0808 175 1508. For callers outside the UK, the number is +44 20 4542 5671. I will make sure that all Members are aware of these numbers.

Acting Presiding Officer, there are many ways we can all help people in Ukraine. The Disasters Emergency Committee has set up a Ukraine humanitarian appeal, which is helping to provide food, water, shelter, healthcare and protection to people fleeing the conflict. The Welsh Government has donated £4 million to the DEC appeal and has also sent a shipment of medical supplies to Poland, from where they will be sent to Ukraine. Further medical supplies are ready to be shipped.

I have today confirmed that we will be donating £1 million to the new Nation of Sanctuary Croeso fund, which has been established and is being run by the Community Foundation Wales. This fund is open to the public and to organisations, and works with people seeking sanctuary in Wales. We are proud to donate to the fund and to the Community Foundation Wales initiative to support people from Ukraine arriving in Wales and to support other refugees and asylum seekers in Wales. We are asking businesses or organisations for help providing large-scale accommodation, transport to take people to their new homes, supplies—such as food, clothes and sanitary products—translators and interpreters. Businesses can register their support on our website, and I'll make sure Members have these details.

Acting Presiding Officer, the invasion of Ukraine by Putin was a dark day for world peace, but the overwhelming desire shown by people across Wales to help shows that there is hope even in the most desperate of times. Diolch.

I thank the Minister for keeping me updated privately—another call yesterday. When I asked you last week why the Welsh Government still didn't appear as a supersponsor option on the UK Homes for Ukraine website, unlike the Scottish Government, you stated that the Welsh Government would become a supersponsor last Friday and, therefore, I'm pleased to see that it is now an option on the website, as you indicate.

The update on Welsh Government's support for Ukraine, issued last Saturday, included many factors you've referred to in your statement today. But, that stated, people fleeing Ukraine who want to come to the UK can choose to be sponsored for a visa by the Welsh Government. Once the visa's granted, people will be contacted directly by the Welsh Government's contact centre to confirm arrangements for their arrival. They will need to make their own way to the UK, but, once here, they'll be eligible for free onward travel to Wales and to one of the welcome centres that have been set up around the country to provide immediate accommodation and support for new arrivals from Ukraine.

However, when I questioned you last week, I also referred to a refugee who had arrived in Flintshire under the Ukraine family scheme, who had been told that she couldn't access benefits or register with a GP until she had a full visa. So, under the separate supersponsor scheme, will the Welsh Government therefore contact people once the visa is granted, even if they haven't yet received a full visa? What support, if any, will they receive if they struggle to make their own way to the UK, and if not from Governments themselves, then what engagement is the Welsh Government having with NGOs or other bodies to this end?

You've confidentially identified the location of the initial Welsh Government welcome centre somewhere in north Wales, with further centres somewhere in other regions. Will this remain permanently confidential or when will this be made known publicly?

In the Welsh Government update last Saturday, which I referred to, you also identified a range of services that will be available in the welcome centres, as you again did today, including provision to learn English and Welsh, and access to health services and lessons for children. What assurance can you therefore provide that these have all been agreed with local agencies, particularly local authorities and health boards, and will be in place when people arrive? You state that the Welsh Government will work to find longer term homes for individuals and families accommodated in the welcome centres. Will you therefore provide us with an update on how you're engaging with the many support hubs, church and faith communities and individual households who are approaching us all with offers of longer term accommodation?

In your statement, you call for businesses or organisations to help by providing large-scale accommodation. At the St David's parliamentary breakfast 2022 on 1 March, which I think you spoke at, if I recall correctly, I was sat next to someone whose company was working with the Ministry of Defence to provide larger scale accommodation—quality, but temporary accommodation. So, what engagement, if any, are you having with the MOD regarding the provision of such large-scale accommodation, potentially in Wales?

And finally, what hours will the dedicated helpline be operating? And how are you ensuring that its staff have full and appropriate training, and that Ukrainian language speakers will be available? Diolch.

15:10

Thank you very much, Mark Isherwood, for a number of questions, some of which will be answered by accessing the guidance that is provided now on the website. But just to confirm that, as we went into our supersponsor status last Friday, it is under the UK Government's Homes for Ukraine scheme and, as I said in my statement initially, it involves a commitment to up to 1,000 people. The important point is it actually skips the need to identify an individual sponsor and, instead, you're sponsored by the Welsh Government. So, we really want to get that message out that this is a route into Wales for those refugees. And also, making sure that once they do select Welsh Government from the UK Government visa application scheme, then they will be issued, and we expect, of course, that to fall into place. We'll be working very closely, I will also say, in terms of—. We work very closely with the UK Government in terms of how that's happening and, indeed, we're looking forward to being able to ensure that we do have the information and figures in terms of those successful visa applications. But it is all moving into place.

Our welcome centres: I was very grateful to those Members who have got a welcome centre that's going to be opening in their constituency or region. It is very important that we look to the privacy and support of those welcome centres at this stage. We need to give the refugees who are coming from the trauma and the crisis and the humanitarian disaster that they've come from that kind of peace and calm in those communities where the welcome centres will be. I think it makes absolute sense. The communities will get to know them and they will be, I'm sure, supporting those at those welcome centres. But also, they have to be of excellent quality and specification; some works have been done to some of the centres that have been identified. But we are very much following the success of the evacuation from Afghanistan in the way that the Urdd is playing its part, and that is a standard that all welcome centres have to meet.

I've mentioned the access to services that will be provided. If you look at the local government guidance that went out on Friday, it fully covers all the points about access to services—education, health—and it also covers a whole range of issues like safeguarding, issues relating to mental health and well-being and the trauma that refugees have gone through. It covers absolutely everything, but actually, we're now also this week producing sponsor guidance. That will be guidance for all those who are sponsoring across Wales and hopefully will be able to receive those refugees, as they get their visas, to come and stay with them.

Just in terms of support hubs and linking to the third sector, churches and voluntary groups, it is important that we're working very closely with the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, the Welsh Refugee Council, Cytûn and Voice of Ukraine. The Counsel General, Mick Antoniw, and myself met with many of those contacts throughout the whole of Wales last week. We're meeting again this week and we'll be meeting regularly, including the contact you gave us, Mark, from north Wales. They're also beginning to offer their support in terms of access to translation, interpretation, educational resources, and also mental health resources. It was very good to have the children's commissioner there, Sally Holland, who has links directly with the Ukrainian children's commissioner and children's commissioners across Europe, and we're bringing local government into that as well. The Minister for Finance and Local Government is meeting leaders, chief executives, the local and regional resilience groups, and they're working so hard to ensure that they are ready to help provide the kind of support that those fleeing to Wales will be able to access. I think this is the team Wales approach—everyone working together, local government, third sector, and obviously, very close working not just with the UK Government, but also with the Scottish Government, because they are also supersponsors. We're learning from each other, working on a four-nation basis.

There's a dedicated helpline that's been opened now, which I gave the numbers for—and I gave them so that they'd be on the record, but you can never give these numbers enough—for callers inside the UK and outside the UK. This is a strong team from local government in Wales. These are teams that have been running throughout the pandemic, particularly in relation to test, trace and protect and all the other roles and skills that they've developed. They are clearly fully engaged and trained and they also have access to Ukrainian and Russian speakers as well. They're ready, open and running. I will give more details about the hours that they're operating, but I think they opened up on Monday and are well in place. I think it's also very important just to recognise the ways in which they are working and supporting those many sponsors who are contacting us to say, 'When am I going to be able to welcome the family, the person, the people we've already agreed to sponsor?' They're answering all of the questions, which we then are feeding back to the UK Government, because we also need answers on all of those points.

15:15

Given the utterly inadequate and unsuitable approach of the UK Government to the Ukrainian refugee crisis, and the warning issued in a statement by the heads of the Refugee Council, the British Red Cross, Save the Children and Oxfam that the visa system was causing great distress to already traumatised Ukrainians, the Welsh Government's aim to make it as easy as possible for us to welcome people here is extremely welcome. It is apparent, however, that the Welsh Government must call for all visas to be waived for these desperate people, as for all refugees fleeing war, as is our obligation under the UN refugee convention of 1951.

As you stated, we know that the response of the Welsh people to the call to help those fleeing Ukraine has been really incredible, and their generosity is reflected in an opinion poll released on Sunday, which showed a majority of people in the UK support a no-visa policy and would like to allow an unlimited number of Ukrainians, who are fleeing the illegal and horrific Russian invasion of their nation, to come to the UK. So, although we are willing and waiting to help them, to welcome them and do all we can to help them find a home, those who want to come to the UK are having to face unnecessary and cruel delays in their quest for safety, anxiety caused by complex bureaucracy, protracted paperwork preventing protection. Minister, on behalf of the people of Wales, we must implore the Home Office to do more to help people find the support and sanctuary they need.

Minister, have you received any update from the UK Government about the number of visas granted for those who want to come to the UK without family connections here? Is it, as refugees are suggesting, that the numbers of people coming through the scheme are, so far, tiny, and does this have any impact on what we can do with the supersponsor scheme? What discussion has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding the people who may be forced to seek support from their current host countries, and will this jeopardise their applications for refugee status when they arrive in Wales?

You've reiterated today that which you said in your written statement last week, that Transport for Wales have confirmed that Ukrainian refugees will be able to access free travel while they are settling in Wales by showing a Ukrainian passport to conductors and station staff for a period of six months, and that the scheme is an extension of an ongoing Welsh Government programme that provides free public transport for asylum seekers in Wales. The transport project that provides this free transport that was piloted by the Welsh Refugee Council, through Welsh Government, ends at the end of this month. Meanwhile, refugees from Ukraine have been granted free travel across Wales by showing their passport to the service providers. There are reports of asylum seekers turning up to Cardiff Central station only to be told that they're the wrong type of asylum seeker—that is to say not Ukrainian. Will the Minister confirm that free transport will be extended to all refugees and asylum seekers for the next six months?

Although the reason to keep the Welsh welcome centre locations is of course entirely understandable, it is important for the relative third sector organisations to know where the centres will be based, so they can provide relevant service provision and specialist support, as you outlined. Can the Minister therefore please outline how third sector organisations will be supported to play the full and vital role they need to play in the integration and resettlement process for those coming to Wales under the sponsorship scheme, beyond, of course, the welcome £1 million donation you have announced to the Nation of Sanctuary Croeso fund?

And finally, for those coming to Wales under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, sponsors are expected to accommodate refugees for at least six months. For those who will be coming directly to Welsh homes, what will happen if conflicts arise between the host and the guest? Will the local authority be providing emergency accommodation in hotels? What will happen if the host refuses to accommodate after six months? Will the family be accommodated in the same area? Will they be relocated to a different area? If so, how will this affect their integration into the community? What plan does the Welsh Government have in place for this? Diolch.

15:20

Diolch yn fawr, Sioned Williams. As I said in response to Mark Isherwood, I'm sure that across this Chamber we all have people who are contacting us who are very concerned that they're awaiting the outcome of visa applications. They want to welcome Ukrainian people into their homes. Of course, they are often in contact with those who are waiting in different parts of Europe, waiting to come, waiting to have that visa application. There have been concerns raised about the complexity of the application forms as well, and these have been raised, I know, in the Houses of Parliament. I'm aware that Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, has asked particularly that the UK Government urgently publish more information to show the progress of the visa schemes. We need to know what's happening. I think, as she said, the British people have shown huge generosity in wanting to support Ukrainians fleeing Putin's invasion, as we say to all those who have come forward here in Wales.

I did speak to the Minister for Refugees this morning, Lord Richard Harrington, and I again expressed my concern about the lack of progress on visas, because we want that all of the preparations, and, indeed, our supersponsor route as well—. The welcome centres are ready. Also, in the House of Lords yesterday—. I'll just quote Baroness Ilora Finlay. She said:

'Do the Government recognise that the visa process is causing great distress to already-traumatised Ukrainians who have experienced cumulative losses, pervasive existential terror and mass bereavements and are now increasingly at risk?'

So, these questions are being asked. It's important today that you are raising these questions, and I'm sure it's from across the Chamber. The refugee Minister, Lord Harrington, today promised that he is trying to simplify the system and says he was also working to secure this. This is a four-nations call, as well, with our colleagues from Scotland. It is important that we do move forward on this and get the clarity of what's happening with the visas and get the information about how many have been accepted at this stage.

It is also important that we have everything in place as people arrive. You have mentioned an important point about the free rail and bus travel for Ukrainian refugees. We already had—in fact, it was a pilot scheme operating, as you know—free travel for refugees when they're settling in Wales running for the first six months of their arrival. I certainly want to take back the point you raised from experience. Indeed, we're working very closely with the Welsh Refugee Council, who've been managing that scheme, on the experience of refugees in Wales in terms of access to that all-important support.

All the support that we are giving to Ukrainian refugees we are giving and have given to our Afghan refugees who came in August, but not just August, and have continued to come over the past few weeks and months, and to our Syrian refugees as well. I was just checking today about the numbers. We've got 3,000 asylum seekers in Wales at any given time, and roughly 600 are granted their refugee status through the system each year. Many of them, of course, at the moment are from Afghanistan. We're supporting them in temporary accommodation, but also, local authorities then have their responsibilities in terms of rehousing. So, that is an important point in terms of the support that we're giving.

But also, in terms of the third sector, I have issued a statement today about this new Nation of Sanctuary Croeso fund. Yes, we've just given a donation to it, it will build the fund. It will get support, I know; there will be many people in Wales who have given so generously to the Disasters Emergency Committee, but I know that they will also give, and we hope that the big charities and businesses will give to that fund as well so that they can work with those who are supporting people who arrive from Ukraine. It goes back to the point about how we're working with those groups and links with Voice of Ukraine, churches and groups as well.

It is important that we now move forward to ensure that every aspect of support is provided to those who come. If you look at the local authority guidance, there is information there about checks in terms of sponsors and those who are seeking to be supported, who are coming to Wales, but safeguarding issues as well, close working relationships. There are not just welcome packs available, but guidance to sponsors as well, because we recognise there may be issues that will mean that perhaps it's only temporary accommodation that can be provided, even by a host. But then we will move into local authority responsibilities to actually support more medium and longer-term accommodation for the Ukrainian refugees. 

15:30

I now call on the other speakers. If you could take one minute because many people want to speak and we're in danger of running out of time, and it's such an important issue. Huw Irranca-Davies.

Thank you, acting Presiding Officer, and I do only have one short question. But I just want to reflect—. Jane Dodds will know the Ystradgynlais miners' welfare hall very well. We have a proud tradition in this country of supporting asylum seekers, refugees, over many generations—visiting Syrian families there, celebrating their culture, but celebrating the gift that they brought to us, the privilege that we had in receiving them and their families into local schools and communities. And once again, here we are doing it. I very much welcome the measures, the practical measures, within this, and it's that that I want to ask, about one particular one. So many of my constituents have offered their homes, rooms in their homes, sharing with their families, to people fleeing Putin's war in Ukraine. On that basis, where will they have the contact from if they do not know somebody, if they do not have somebody who is currently going through the visa process? Will this come from the welcome centres? Will it come from the local authorities? Who do they wait for, to actually say, 'Yes, we can now actually now make use of you and receive somebody into your home'? 

Well, thank you for that important question, and it's a question that's been asked by our colleagues across the Chamber today. It is the UK Government's Homes for Ukraine scheme. We await—. We don't have the information until they tell us who's actually coming through that route. Obviously, they can sign up to the supersponsor route, and then we get the information of who's coming through that route as well. But I've given the national helpline that opened on Monday, yesterday. The national helpline will be there to enable, to give some advice and guidance to those who want to sponsor. Many of your constituents have already signed on, I'm sure, and have even made links with families and refugees fleeing Ukraine or who are already waiting in Europe to get that go-ahead. We must have that go-ahead from the UK Government. We must speed up the visa process. This is absolutely vital, because the warm welcome in Wales—you've mentioned the Ystradgynlais miners' welfare hall—all over Wales, we've got that readiness, we're waiting, and we need that support. So, a strong message today to the UK Government: we must speed up the process in terms of approving these visas. 

Good afternoon, Minister. May I also thank you, as has Mark, for the work that you and your team have done, and for staying in touch with me? My specific issue is around Ukrainians who are poor—those who perhaps don't have access to a car, don't have access to fuel, don't have access to resources, don't have a way of actually even getting across the border, or even getting to a place where they can apply for a visa and can come to Wales. In previous evacuation schemes, the UK Government has actually ensured that there's a plane or transport, or has made sure that financial arrangements are in place for everyone—doesn't matter what their background is—to come to a country of their choice. 

I agree and support my colleague Sioned Williams's view: 'no' to visas, 'yes' to immediate protection and sanctuary. That's what we want. That's what we want the UK Government to do. Right now, this is an emergency, this is urgent. Let's get those planes there, let's get the people over here, let's get them safe, and let's give them what I know the people of Wales want to give them. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

Diolch yn fawr, Jane Dodds. These are very important contributions, and we will be relaying—. In fact, I said to the Minister for Refugees that I would be sending him my statement and I will be following up on our points and concerns and questions raised. Just to say, we're reaching out particularly to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, because we really do want to use this route as a supersponsor to break down as many barriers as possible. I think, Sioned, you made that point. We can best support people fleeing Ukraine, particularly the most vulnerable, who may not have access to the funds, or people sponsoring them from here, which is happening to quite a lot of refugees we know—. We want to reach those who may not have the means to reach our shores. And, of course, I will be raising that again in terms of costs of transport, not just here, but to get here as well. This is a question for the UK Government, clearly. So, we are a nation of sanctuary, we are a supersponsor, and we are eager to support individuals and, in particular, the most vulnerable to reach safety in Wales.

The Deputy Presiding Officer took the Chair.

15:35

I'm conscious of time, Minister, so I will shorten what I was going to say. Minister, thank you for all that you're doing, and I really welcome the statement today. I was contacted by a constituent who's been contacted in turn, through the Ukrainian refugees scheme, by a Ukrainian medical student who's desperate to continue her studies in the UK. Obviously, Ukraine would like their students to stay and be educated there, but this isn't the case for some. The trouble is, in this country, for medical students in particular, there is no accreditation of prior learning in UK undergraduate medical education, meaning any students coming to the UK would need to start their studies again in year 1 of the course. Obviously, that's a big problem, and we obviously all want to see these young people continue with their studies. Minister, I just wondered if you could share any discussions that you've had with your ministerial colleagues, from across the UK, about how refugees can access education, and, in particular, higher and further education. And what consideration have you given to providing specific support for those studying for particular degrees, such as medicine and health qualifications?

Thank you very much, Peter Fox. All Ministers are engaging with their particular sectors. So, I know the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language, and, indeed, working with myself and his officials, is working with all the universities in Wales, one way or another, and making links. Some of them already had links with universities in Ukraine. But there is a particular link to medical students that I'm aware of. So, I'm sure that, if you also would want to pass information over to me, then we can look particularly at ways in which they are already beginning to overcome perhaps some of those barriers. Because Ukrainian medical students coming to Wales—that's another welcome that we want to reach out for.

Another appeal to speed up the visa process. There is a community on Anglesey that is ready to welcome a mother and daughter; the school uniform is ready to go. It is now nine days since the family on Anglesey began going through the visa application process—doing it themselves, rather than leaving it to the mother and daughter, because it's in English only and they don't have good English, because they're trying to do it on a phone, where they have a computer here, where they have good internet in Wales, where they're unable to do that in Ukraine. The family on Anglesey is appalled at the process that they have experienced and, nine days on, they don't even know if their application has been received—there is no acknowledgement. Can the Welsh Government please press on the UK Government to make sure that there is an acknowledgement system, and that there is perhaps a means to log in to check on the process? We need to be able to welcome these families as quickly as possible.

Thank you very much. And I welcome your question, your comments, your contribution, Rhun ap Iorwerth. From that family in Anglesey, from that community, which I know has welcomed so many in Anglesey, it's important that I pass this back, this strong support for the UK Government to speed up the visa process. Let's look at it: over 10,000 people in Wales expressed an interest to become a sponsor under the Homes for Ukraine scheme. And so many of them now are doing this on behalf of people, and raising funds, and actually going out and meeting people and driving them back—there are so many examples of incredible support. And Welsh people want it to work, and they want those visas sorted, and we want to make sure that we can support those who are waiting—many of whom are very vulnerable. And I thank your constituents for taking that particularly important role. Thank you.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Deputy Llywydd, and thank you for your statement this afternoon, Minister. I was contacted by a constituent this morning who was enquiring about sponsorship, as he wants to sponsor a mother and her son from Ukraine. And the issue he's had is that he hasn't had any access to any information regarding that, from either Welsh Government or Denbighshire County Council. So, my question really is about improving the communications between local authorities, and with the Welsh Government as well, so that we're all singing from the same hymn sheet. I'm sure my constituent's not the only one out there who would like to pursue something along those lines, so we've got to be in a situation where we're actually maximising the potential of this so we can help as many Ukrainians as possible.

15:40

Thank you very much, Gareth Davies. It is a UK Government Homes for Ukraine scheme. We are going to be a supersponsor within that scheme. You can access that at homesforukraine.campaign.gov.uk. You will see we have a Sanctuary Welsh Government website. I've given you the numbers. It's really important that we push this information out as much as possible. Share the oral statement with everyone, because it actually has the key information that they need. But the most important thing is to recognise that it is a UK Government scheme, and I'm sure your Members of Parliament as well will assist in this. They have got to now ensure, through what we can do, the Welsh Government, with our website, with our contact number—they can call that contact number I've given you today as well—to get the information through. Because, yes, we all want this to work, to support those fleeing the horrors of Putin's absolute disaster invasion. It's just so dreadful. We want to help those Ukrainian refugees. Diolch.

6. Statement by the Minister for Finance and Local Government: Non-Domestic Rates Reform

Item 6 today is the statement by the Minister for Finance and Local Government on non-domestic rates reform. I call on the Minister for Finance and Local Government, Rebecca Evans.

Diolch. In February 2021 I published 'Reforming Local Government Finance in Wales: Summary of Findings'. Alongside reforms to council tax, this comprehensive report explored how the non‑domestic rates system could be improved, considered changes to the current tax and looked at the potential for a more fundamental shift towards a land value tax.

Non-domestic rates have been an important part of the local government finance system for more than 30 years. Ensuring vital revenue is collected to fund local services that we all use and securing a fair and sustainable contribution from businesses has always been a challenging balance to achieve. This is a constantly evolving situation and the Welsh Government recognises the need to review and adapt local taxation policy to meet existing and emerging challenges.

On 7 December I announced our plans for significant council tax reform. Today I'm announcing a programme of non-domestic rates reform that will be delivered over the next four years. Our programme for government sets out the Welsh Government's ambition for a fairer, greener and stronger Wales. These principles form the basis of any potential changes to the non‑domestic rates system.

A crucial aspect of local taxation in Wales is the role played by local government. Their experience and dedication is integral to the effective collection and administration of local taxes. The incredible commitment of local authorities before and throughout the COVID pandemic has been central to delivering rates relief, business grants and council tax support. We will continue to work in close partnership with local government to reform the rates system, drawing on their extensive expertise and local knowledge.

We will also continue to explore opportunities for reform with the Valuation Office Agency and the Valuation Tribunal for Wales. Devolution requires these valuation bodies to operate in new and innovative ways, delivering functions designed for Wales's needs. The Valuation Office Agency operates across Wales and England, and it is vitally important that valuation functions evolve in line with the local tax policy aims of the Welsh Government. Work is under way with both the VOA and the VTW to explore and deliver new ways of working for Wales.

One significant area for change is the revaluation cycle. We have listened to calls from stakeholders for more frequent revaluations, ensuring the tax base reflects the economic conditions and environment in which businesses are operating. We continue to explore how frequently revaluations should and could practically be delivered for Wales, taking advantage of opportunities presented by Wales's unique tax base.

Non-domestic properties across Wales are currently being reassessed for the revaluation that takes effect from 1 April 2023, and will reflect the impact of the pandemic on our tax base. We aim to bring forward legislation to move towards a three-yearly revaluation cycle, in line with other parts of the UK, and are exploring options for shorter revaluation cycles. This includes exploring the potential for reducing the gap between the valuation date and a new rating list coming into effect.

A key requirement for more frequent revaluations will be the need to review and potentially further reform the appeals process in Wales. We'll be taking initial steps to improve the current appeals process for April 2023, with further reform to support more frequent revaluation cycles in the future.

We have made great strides in data sharing and analytical capability in recent years. This has provided detailed insights into how the rates system operates, and has been critical in making informed policy decisions in a rapidly changing economic landscape. We are further developing our data infrastructure as part of our reform agenda. This will help us and our partners to deliver wide-ranging improvements in targeting support and providing digital services for ratepayers. 

We will undertake a review of our rates relief schemes. Rates relief has played a crucial role in supporting businesses throughout the pandemic and the overall level of relief provided to ratepayers has grown significantly in recent years. But now is the time to step back and review all of our current schemes to ensure they're fit for purpose and delivering support in the most effective way. Our review will consider the range of reliefs, the level of support, how reliefs are targeted and how long they last.

During the fifth Senedd term, we made advances in addressing fraud and avoidance within the local taxation system. We revised empty property relief to reduce the scope for repeated cycles of rate relief. We also changed the rules on zero-rating for empty properties to allow local authorities to grant zero-rating only in cases where a charity genuinely needs to own or lease an empty building.

The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 provides councils with strengthened powers of investigation, including the ability to undertake property inspections and to request information from ratepayers and others. The Act also paves the way for a new duty on ratepayers to notify councils of changes in circumstances, something required of taxpayers under other tax regimes. I intend to bring forward regulations for April 2023. Our ambition to tackle fraud and avoidance remains strong and we will pursue further changes this Senedd term.

While our current programme focuses on changes in the short and medium terms, some options for reform remain priorities for the longer term. We continue to explore the potential for a land value tax as a replacement for non-domestic rates, building on Bangor University's detailed technical assessment last term. Over the next four years, we will move forward with the findings from this report, drawing on a wide range of expertise to develop a clear understanding of what such a significant change would look like for Wales and how it could work in practice. This analysis will include a potential road map for implementation.

We are clear that reform should deliver local taxes that are demonstrably better for Wales, not just different from the current system. We have made significant progress in recent years and further developments will require close working with all our partners and extensive engagement with ratepayers.

This significant package of rates reform will also require a combination of primary and secondary legislative change. I will work closely with the Senedd and stakeholders throughout the exploration and delivery of this ambitious package of rates reform and will, of course, keep Members informed of developments.

15:45

Thank you, Minister, for bringing forward today's statement on the non-domestic rates reform. As we know, business rates continue to be a huge concern for many businesses up and down Wales, with the Federation of Small Businesses conducting a survey ahead of the 2021 Senedd elections finding that business rates were the main issue facing businesses, with 99 per cent of those responding believing that action to alleviate these would have a positive impact on their business and the economy.

For too long, our local businesses and high streets have been left to slowly decline under the pressure of the highest business rates in Britain. On this side of the benches, we would much prefer to see business rates abolished for small businesses and reform this outdated tax on growth.

Now more than ever is the time for Welsh Government to make a difference and support our businesses. So, when seeing this item on the agenda today, I was looking forward to seeing the Minister bring forward some true reform, and it's clearly needed in this area, but I am disappointed, Minister, I must say, at the lack of detail within today's statement. I appreciate that it may be more of an overview today, but I would like just to speak briefly on how we can see more detail behind the comments that are in here today. And I have challenged in the past the use of the word 'reform' when referring to council tax. And again the word here is used, reform, but we're not seeing a huge amount of reform taking place—it's more perhaps tweaking around the edges.

And through your statement, Minister, phrases that are used in here, such as 'we will continue to work', 'we will continue to explore', 'we've listened to calls', 'we aim to bring forward', 'we will be taking initial steps', 'we are further developing', 'we will undertake a review'—none of those seem to be committing to a direction or an area of this reform that is needed. And I'm sure many of those affected by non-domestic rates reform, and the 99 per cent of those businesses who see business rates as the biggest issue facing them, they would like to know what it is you are actually doing and what you will do, and how people and businesses will benefit from this reform. I just don't get an idea today, from what you've shared, as to what you see the key issues are and what you see the solutions are to resolving them as a Government.

In your statement, Minister, you also suggest that this piece of work could take four years. I'd really be interested to understand why you think it's going to take so long for this reform to take place.

On the positive side, though, I was really glad to see your comments on the role that's played by local government, stating their experience and dedication being integral to the effective collection and administration of local taxes, including the role that they carried out during the pandemic, and, as true champions of local government, we do welcome further powers being given to councils and look forward to further regulations being brought forward in April 2023. I'd be interested to know if you foresee any further powers being given to local government when it comes to non-domestic rates reform as well.

Finally, Minister, I was intrigued to see that you'll continue to explore the potential for land value tax as a replacement for non-domestic rates. However, it's a shame we haven't been given any further information on this today. And Minister, as you'll be aware, business rates in Wales are still higher than elsewhere in the UK. Of course, I'm sure you'll relate the Welsh Government's small business rate relief scheme, which has helped many small businesses, but it doesn't change the fact that non-domestic rates in Wales are still higher, with the multiplier in Wales being 53.5p, and in England the standard multiplier being 51.2p. So, in light of this, Minister, I would like to know if you could outline how your proposed reforms will ensure that those businesses in Wales aren't put at a disadvantage to businesses elsewhere. Diolch yn fawr iawn. Thank you.

15:50

I thank Sam Rowlands for those comments, and just to reiterate what I said in my statement, that this statement today is very much the sister statement of the statement I made on the reform of council tax back in December. And of course, this is a significant undertaking and there are many elements to it, which is why it is a longer term piece of work than just simply introducing regulations to make very short-term changes.

In regard to the comments made about the level of tax paid here in Wales, I'm open to having all kinds of discussions, but I do think that if there is a call to just do away with business rates completely then I think that it does come with an encumbrance to provide detail as to how you would raise £1.1 billion to fund local government and police services. I don't think that it is a reasonable thing to ask for them to be scrapped without being able to come forward with ideas as to how other funding could be raised. And it's important to recognise as well that every single penny of non-domestic rates is reinvested in local authorities. It just goes back to local authorities to help fund those local services.

And we do recognise the pressure that it does put on businesses, which is why we've provided over £620 million of rate relief to ratepayers in Wales this year, of course fully funded by Welsh Government, which is different to the situation across the border in England. And also we need to remember that three quarters of ratepayers across Wales are receiving rate relief this year. That's more than 70,000 businesses paying no rates at all. And I think also we need to recognise that the tax base here in Wales is different to that in England. The average rateable value in Wales is around £19,000—in England, it's around £32,000—and so it is right that our rates system and the reliefs attached to them do reflect the unique circumstances that we do have here in Wales.

There were some questions in relation to the land value tax work, and a request for further information. Well, I did publish a very, very detailed report provided by Bangor University in March of 2020. I appreciate the Member wasn't in the Senedd at that point, but I'm happy to recirculate it to colleagues. The objective really of us exploring a land value tax as a replacement for either one or both of the local taxes is primarily to raise stable revenue for local services in the fairest way possible whilst obviously looking for other advantageous outcomes where possible. Bangor University did conclude that a local LVT could raise sufficient revenues to replace the current local taxes, and the distribution of liability could be more progressive, and significantly so, than the existing local tax regime. But it also highlights areas of future work that we would need to do to assess more fully whether it would be evidently better than our existing arrangements, and that's the kind of work that we need to be taking forward as we move forward with this important agenda.

The question was raised in regard to the multiplier, but of course in 2021-22 we opted to freeze the multiplier, and that's to prevent increases in bills for ratepayers and to provide continued support to businesses during what we still recognise to be very challenging times. I can confirm that for 2022-23 we're maintaining this approach, recognising the prolonged impact of the coronavirus pandemic on businesses and on other organisations.

I'm grateful to the FSB for the work that they've been doing in this area. We find our discussions with them extremely productive. They are excellent stakeholders in terms of representing the views of small businesses and they do recognise, I think, themselves that there's a challenging balance to be struck in terms of raising revenue fairly and funding local services. They do recognise as well that it will take some significant work to move away from any system that's evolved and become embedded over 30 years. This is a major undertaking, and that's why I've outlined in the statement today some of the important elements of that work—revaluation and our approach to that will be vital. The appeals system will be vital. But I've also reflected on some of the significant progress that we've already made, particularly, I think, in the areas of tax avoidance and fraud, where we can say that we've absolutely made important steps in recent times.

So, this is an ongoing piece of work. It is a huge piece of work, but I'm really keen to attack it in a very collaborative way, and I look forward to future discussions with all colleagues.

15:55

Thank you, Minister, for the statement. I don't want to be drawn into some debate as to which side of the border pays more or pays less; the question I want answered in this Chamber is: what side of the border has the fairest system and the system that is operated most effectively? Then the cost is unimportant, as long as people feel they're being fairly treated within the regime that exists.

We've heard that business rates are a key issue for businesses. It's one of the biggest costs that they face, and it's a key factor in the viability of these businesses. So, having a system that's as fair as possible is crucial. As the Minister said, we want to create a situation where it's fairer, greener and Wales is stronger as a result of the system that we put in place. So, there is an important role in regenerating the high street in terms of this debate, as well as, of course, tackling climate change and reducing carbon emissions. The one frustration I have, of course, is, as has already been expressed, that we've been discussing this issue for many years. I remember Mark Drakeford, when he was finance Minister, discussing the need to reform, and I very much hope, and I do take this statement at face value, that this is a statement of intent to move properly towards reform and to introduce the changes that many of us want to see.

The one note of disappointment in all of this is that, whilst there is clarity now that there will be reforms to non-domestic rates completed within four years—that's what I understand from the statement—there is talk of continuing to look at land value tax. Now, ideally I would have liked to see a more radical change happening over the next four years, and the introduction, or certainly going further towards the introduction, of a land value tax. So, I want to hear from the Minister what the timetable is in that regard. You talk of looking into that tax, doing more research and so on and so forth, but will there be a proposal on the table by the end of the four years, although it may not have been introduced, in terms of the broader reforms that many of us want to see?

The role of local government, as you recognised in your statement, is crucial; the capacity is the issue, of course. Are you confident that they have the capacity to play a full role in the co-production of these new proposals, but also when it comes to implementing or administrating any new requirements? We complain that many bodies funded by the Welsh Government are given lots of new duties and responsibilities but aren't always funded to deliver those in full. So, I would like an assurance that, if there are any additional requirements on local authorities, that the resource will be available.

The tribunal and the Valuation Office Agency, you mention them operating in a way that is more appropriate to Wales—that's great—and I would say that the Welsh Revenue Authority is a perfect example of the kind of culture we want to encourage. Unlike HMRC, which deals with problems once the problem arises, the whole culture and focus of the Welsh Revenue Authority ensures that the problems don't arise in the first instance. 

Now, I agree that we need more frequent revaluation, a more dynamic system that's better able to respond to and reflect changes in circumstances. You mentioned reforming the appeal process by 2023, and that's crucial of course, because one would anticipate that there would be a great deal of work that needed to be done by the time that revaluation has happened. But can you also give us an assurance that there will be sufficient capacity to deal with these appeals in a timely and transparent manner?

16:00

I'm grateful for the questions and the comments there, and I'll start off with land value tax, because that, I know, is an area of joint interest between our parties. I just want to confirm that the work will be going on in parallel with the changes that we will be introducing over the period ahead. I'm really pleased that, within the scope of the research, Bangor University was able to construct a preliminary statistical model to estimate a set of land values, and such detail hadn't even been attempted before in the literature for Wales, and it has enabled Bangor now to determine potential tax rates at which LVT would need to be levied to raise revenues broadly equal to the current systems of local taxation. However, a key lesson that was learned from the modelling work was that it is just significantly more challenging to estimate land values for non-domestic uses than it is for domestic.

An important finding for future consideration is the investment necessary to meet the detailed information requirements on which such a tax could be based. So, we'd have to have a comprehensive cadastre of land—that is a huge undertaking in and of itself—and obviously robust mechanisms for valuation. But, overall, the report obviously makes a really important contribution to our understanding of possible future reforms, but it does recognise that much more work will be needed regarding the practical and policy implications of the idea, for example, whether various options could be designed in a way to support wider policy objectives, such as decarbonisation and tackling poverty, and crucially how the link between local tax payers and local services can be maintained. So, I think that the previous work that we have done on this does set the direction in which we need to travel for further research, further discussion and analysis in the period ahead. But, as I say, it will be done in parallel with the work that I've described today, and I also said in the statement that the aim would be to provide a potential road map to get us to that point as part of that important work.

The revaluation was raised. The next revaluation in Wales, and England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, will take place in 2023, but it will be based on rateable values at 1 April 2021. So, this work is currently going on at the moment, and one of the things we could explore in future would be to reduce that legislative gap between the point at which the rateable values are set and the point at which they come into practice. So, that could be something that we will look at. Rateable value changes as a result of the April 2023 revaluation, which is ongoing at the moment, are obviously not known, but we do expect to publish a new draft rating list by the end of this year to give people some kind of certainty for the way ahead in that regard.

And, yes, I obviously want to share those comments about the vital role that local government will play in this piece of work, and just to provide assurances that I absolutely see them as partners in co-producing this important work, and, obviously, those discussions will be very much including the question as to what resourcing local authorities believe that they need, and whether they need to change the kind of model that they have at the moment. So, lots of engagement with local authorities on this, and they have incredible expertise that we're very keen to utilise in this area.

Then, the importance of a really robust appeals system is something that has also been raised. This is something that I hope to make some good progress on and to launch a consultation on during the course of this year. So, this will be something that colleagues can get their teeth into as an early item of this reform. We would look at, for example, the tiers of the appeal system; whether or not there should be appeals fees and whether those should be changed; where they should be set, and so on; whether there should be penalties for providing false information, and if so, where we would set those penalties; looking at timescales and understanding what the implications are when timescales are different across the border in England; and clarifying information that would need to be provided to the Valuation Tribunal for Wales, for example. So, there are lots of things that are quite detailed, and sometimes technical things that we'll need to be consulting on in the course of this year, but I think that we can make some early progress on the appeals side, as we will do on the revaluation side as well.

And, yes, I share the recognition that the Welsh Revenue Authority has a really excellent way of working, in the sense that it seeks to enable taxpayers to pay the right amount of tax the first time, rather than concentrating on trying to pursue taxpayers after the event. And I think that that kind of ethos is excellent. Just to go full circle, really, to where Llyr Gruffydd started in terms of the importance of the fairness in tax, that's our No. 1 tax principle that tax should be collected fairly in Wales, and that will be very much front and centre of the reforms as we take this forward. 

16:05

I very much welcome the statement, and I'm really pleased to see acceptance of national non-domestic rates as an important part of local government income. Of course, pre NNDR, rates were paid by businesses to the local council. Why does the Minister not want to return business rates to local authorities?

I am pleased that the Welsh Government supports more regular revaluations. This should stop the big rises and falls in rateable values that we have seen previously. Business rates have one great advantage over other business taxes in that they are difficult to avoid. You can't hide the building, you can't take the building abroad, and you can't do all the clever things that they do to avoid corporation tax.

While I welcome consideration of a land value tax, does the Minister accept that such a tax could lead to some areas of high land value with no shops? I'm thinking of areas within your own constituency that have very high values down on the Gower peninsula, and the land value is so high that it may well have been that shops could not afford it. 

And finally, does the Minister accept that the top priority has got to be that whatever is done brings exactly the same amount of money as we have now, because local government needs it?

Thank you very much for raising these issues, and that is the big challenge, isn't it, in terms of balancing the needs of business alongside the needs of local government, who provide the services upon which we all rely. So, that is the challenge that I set to those who would like us to just do away with rate relief completely, just to demonstrate how it would be paid for. And I think that it is a good challenge.

I welcome what Mike Hedges had to say about revaluations and moving to them more frequently. So, that's one of the things that we'll be exploring, both how frequently we have those revaluations, but then also the time between the revaluation and it coming into force and into practice. 

And the questions relating to land value tax, again, will be part of our piece of work as we move forward in terms of understanding the implications for different communities of the potential changes that might take place, were we to move to a land value tax. But I think that the research done by Bangor University does tease out some of these challenges that we'll be taking more work forward on in the near future.

And I think the point about local authorities retaining non-domestic rates is really important. It is important to recognise that all of the revenue from non-domestic rates in Wales is distributed to local authorities to fund those local services, and, obviously, COVID-19 has had a substantial impact on the rates tax base and on collection rates. We do need to understand those effects before we could consider how we move even further in relation to changes to how we deal with non-domestic rates, because obviously we don't want local authorities to become less financially resilient as a result of any of the changes that we might look to introduce. We have, though, set out plans for looking at the way the local government finance system operates as a whole, and it is all about the sustainable funding for local services.

It's worth learning some lessons from what's happening across the border in respect of the localisation of non-domestic rates. In England, that forms part of the wider changes that they're undertaking to local government funding there, and they have included substantial reductions, though, in the RSG as a result. So, over the border, local authorities retain 50 per cent of rates, with plans to increase that to 75 per cent from 1 April 2022, but the arrangements there are complex, and the benefits in terms of mobilising local economic growth, we believe, are questionable.

We have invited local authorities in Wales, working together as regions, to come forward with proposals for how a share-gain approach to non-domestic rates might work, where they can demonstrate that their actions have delivered growth. So, we've already agreed to a specific proposal for partial rates retention with the Swansea bay city region, in support of its city deal.

I do understand the calls from some in local government for rates retention, and it might benefit authorities who can build their local economies at a faster pace than all of their neighbours. Those same authorities, of course, often call for stability in funding, and there is some evidence that rates retention is having an adverse impact on funding in less vibrant areas, increasing inequality between the regions in England. So, I think that this is an area where local authorities are better together in recognition of the risks that exist, and continuing our strong public service traditions of co-operation and equalisation of the benefit for all of Wales.

And just to finish on this point—I can feel the Deputy Presiding Officer's eyes on me—currently only four of the 22 authorities in Wales would consistently benefit from retention if we operated a system similar to that in England, and even for these four, rates retention would depend on them being able to increase growth consistently, year on year. So, we are looking to learn from what's happening elsewhere, but we don't think that that model is the right one for us in Wales. Diolch.

16:10
7. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change: Coal Tip Safety

Item 7 today is a statement by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, and I call on the Deputy Minister Lee Waters to make his statement.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Thank you for the opportunity to update Members on the measures we are taking to improve the safety of coal tips.

We have made significant progress in the last two years since the First Minister established a coal tip safety taskforce, and last week marked a significant step forward in putting measures on a long-term footing, with the publication of the Law Commission's report, 'Regulating Coal Tip Safety in Wales'. This is a landmark report. In 2020, Lesley Griffiths, the then Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, invited the Law Commission to undertake an independent assessment of coal tip legislation and to provide recommendations for a future legislative framework. The Law Commission consulted on its findings and proposals last summer, and last week it published its final report, which has been laid in the Senedd. It's a significant milestone and I'm grateful to the Law Commission for prioritising this project and for completing it quickly. It is an excellent report, which Members would find well worth reading.

It clearly sets out that the law as it stands is not fit for purpose. The Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969 was designed for a different era. It was aimed at managing the waste of operational mines, not dealing with the legacy of those mines, and it certainly was not designed to deal with the challenges of climate change. Crucially, the Act does not contain any mandatory duties on owners to ensure the safety of disused tips on their land. It provides only limited powers for intervention and includes no powers at all for oversight, monitoring and enforcement.

Among the 36 recommendations made by the Law Commission is the establishment of a new supervisory authority to oversee a new management regime for coal tip safety, and the vast majority of respondents to the consultation supported a new management regime overseen by a supervisory authority.

The Law Commission's analysis and its recommendations provide valuable evidence, which, combined with our analysis, are informing our proposals for a new statutory framework for disused tip management. We are committed to introducing legislation in this Senedd term, and in early May we will publish a White Paper setting out our plans. We'll then consult on our proposals to provide a consistent approach to tip management, monitoring and oversight.

Our priority, Dirprwy Lywydd, is to ensure that people living and working near coal tips feel safe and secure now and in the future by reducing the risks of further landslides. I am able to inform the Senedd that we have made significant progress in the last two years. Our first task was to establish the scale of the problem. The job of identifying and assessing the status of all disused coal tips has proven to be an enormously complex one. We now know there are over 2,500 disused coal tips across Wales, with 327 in the higher rated category.

The motion before the Senedd tomorrow refers to high-risk tips, but I want to be clear to Members that being placed in a higher rated category is not the same as being high risk, and the language we use is important. We have been focusing on the tips that need the greatest level of monitoring and have been working with our partners to carry out regular inspections. We’re working with partners such as the UK space industry to trial technology to improve the way tips are monitored in the future. There is much we can do to measure ground movement and water regimes and some of the technologies being tested are world firsts. We're also working closely with the research sector to have the best evidence possible on climate impacts. This is vital to understand the long-term stability of tips and to inform innovative approaches to tip reclamation. The Tylorstown tip, which caused the greatest concern, is currently estimated to cost approximately £20 million to complete all phases of remediation. Almost all of this investment will come from the Welsh Government.

I want to be clear with Members that it is the Welsh Government, not the UK Government, that is continuing to fund the Coal Authority to carry out inspections. We have so far spent £1.6 million on this task. The Coal Authority estimates it will take £30 million to bring them all up to standard, and a further £5 million a year to maintain them. Full reclamation is currently put at between £500 million and £600 million. The Welsh Government has committed £44.4 million over the next three years so that this vital work continues. But this is a legacy of Britain’s industrial past. It was Britain that reaped the benefits of our natural resources, and these tips were all in place before power was devolved to Wales in 1999. And yet the UK Government is willing only to contribute £9 million to the cost of cleaning them up. The Under-Secretary of State for Wales, David T.C. Davies, told the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee that

'if the Welsh Labour Government think that those coal tips are unsafe, they must act now to put them right. They have the money to do it.'

It's not us who say it's unsafe, it's the Coal Authority, which is non-devolved, and we do not have the funding to do it. We describe the United Kingdom as a sharing union. I hope the UK Government will think again about sharing its role in clearing up their legacy of our collective industrial past.

The Welsh Government and local authorities are working diligently together to provide a consistent approach to the current inspection regime. A third round of winter inspections on the higher rated tips concluded in February, and the inspections programme is a significant one. The outcomes to date have meant that maintenance works needed to help ensure the stability of sites have been identified. As a high percentage of these tips are within private ownership, there are a number of issues to resolve in relation to the handling of information, including ensuring that robust quality assurance has been completed and data protection issues have been fully addressed. This has proven to be time consuming.

While our understanding of the overall picture has vastly improved in the last two years, more tips are still being identified. This work is very much a live project, and we can expect further adjustments to the overall number of tips as the work progresses. We remain committed to publishing the locations of the higher rated tips as soon as possible and as soon as it is responsible to do so, but we must be confident in our assessments before we do so. For higher rated tips, information has already been shared with local authorities and local resilience forums to assist in the development of emergency preparedness plans where required. But public access to the data on the locations of higher rated tips is a sensitive matter, and it's vital that the information, when published, is accurate and as complete as possible. Once this work is complete, we will inform Members of a date for publication.

Dirprwy Lywydd, our priority is to ensure that people living and working near coal tips feel safe and secure now and in the future. Our proposals for a new regime aim to achieve just that by reducing the risk of further landslides. Diolch.

16:20

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I would like to thank the Deputy Minister for bringing forward this statement today. It's fair to say that we recognise that, in terms of the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969, times were so different then, with operational mines. With climate change now, it's clear that we've all got to work together as regards any tips that are deemed unsafe. I for one am very pleased to see that you are bringing forward legislation; we look forward to that. How we can work with you in a positive manner is important. I also welcome the clarity that was offered in the report by the Law Commission, 'Regulating Coal Tip Safety in Wales', on 23 March this year, that coal tip safety does fall under devolved competence, and that funding coal tip safety is a devolved responsibility. 

Notwithstanding the points you've raised today, as a shared Government with the UK Government, it is hoped that greater working, perhaps, can go forward where we can actually identify—and I know there are the ones in the high-risk category—or how you categorise which of the tips, really, need the immediate action. I suppose one of my questions, really, was whether you—I have asked this before—actually have a breakdown of which are the most dangerous tips. I know we don't want to cause alarm or panic with the public, but I think, before we can determine where money is spent, there has to be this work carried out. I know, as you say, some of the figures you've spent up to now doing this.

I welcome the fact you've made an additional allocation of £4.5 million over three years, and total capital funding of £44 million to support essential coal tip maintenance. However, with over 2,500 disused coal tips, the additional money does only equate to an average of £19,500 per tip, which is way off. In addition to an explanation as to how the extra funding is going to be allocated, I would be grateful if you could clarify what options you are considering for finding the £0.5 billion that's been mentioned is required over the next 10 years in order to meet the cost of the reclamation and remediation programme, and how you are perhaps working with the UK Government in a positive manner.

Like my colleagues on the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee, I welcome the Welsh Government's commitment to introduce a Bill to improve the regulatory framework for coal tip safety. The Law Commission report has highlighted that the existing regulatory regime for tips associated with operational mines should be not be altered, and that any new legislation should not apply to a tip to which the Quarries Regulations 1999 or the Mines Regulations 2014 apply. So, some comments on that, Deputy Minister, would be good, as to whether you will act on that recommendation.

In terms of what needs to be covered by new legislation, there are problems that do need addressing, such as the loss of specialist skills over recent decades, severe strain on our local authority resources—because they believe they're having to pick up some of the tab on this—uneven distribution of tips across Wales that now places a disproportionate burden on some local authorities, and one that sets statutory powers that only come into play once a tip has become unstable. To help authorities act proactively rather than reactively in ensuring tip safety, there's a recommendation that a single supervisory body, with responsibility for the safety of tips and greater powers, be formed. This does seem to me a common-sense proposal. So, do you support that? Over 90 per cent of respondents agreed with the proposal, but they were fairly evenly split over whether the supervisory authority should be a new or indeed an existing body. I agree that perhaps a new body would put new impetus into this, as opposed to a newly created division of NRW, because we all know, as Members, the pressures that NRW are under—they face staff shortages and they face severe underfunding. So, that's a particular question I have in mind. 

I'm aware that you've been working to identify 2,456 tips, of which 327 are classed as higher risk. The Law Commission wants to see us build on that work by creating a central tip register—that echoes my point earlier—so that we know exactly what we're dealing with. Over 90 per cent of respondents agreed with having this tip register, so will you please just advise us, as Members here today, whether you're going to actually provide that important data, that important information, so that we can all work across political parties, and work across Governments, hopefully, so that the fears of people living or working near these tips can be diminished sooner rather than later? Diolch.

16:25

Thank you for those comments and the constructive tone. I think that there is much that we can agree on and work together on. We will, of course, be responding in full to all the recommendations in the commission's report, as well as publishing our own White Paper after the local government elections. I'm not going to respond in detail to the proposals today, because we want to do that in a more considered way.

One of the interesting points that Janet Finch-Saunders made was around the skills shortage and the capacity of local authorities, and that is a well-made point. On skills, of course, there's an opportunity here. If we're going to be spending this much public money on putting this right, we need to make sure that we leverage the benefits for Wales from it. There are economic opportunities from this if we do this right, certainly for upskilling people and providing economic opportunities from the work that is generated to put this right, as well as the landscape opportunities for our communities. I think we need to be as creative as we can be to see how we can use this necessary process to unleash the potential of these areas some more.

I do think, though, that we need to confront this issue of cost and responsibility. Janet Finch-Saunders said again that this is a fully devolved responsibility and the UK Government has no responsibility. I just don't think that that's right. If we are looking at a £600 million cost of reclamation, I don't see how anybody can defend a £9 million contribution from the UK Government as fair and reasonable on the grounds that this is devolved, given that, as I said, this predates devolution. I hope they will think again about their response to this. I would say this with some humility on our part. If you look at the historical record and the way that the Labour Government responded to the Aberfan disaster, it was a stain on our record, and I think it's something that we put right, certainly, when Labour came to power in 1997 and we restored that money. But the callous way that the Government at that time responded to the demands of that community was shameful, and I do hope that the UK Government reflect on that and don't make the same mistake again and make sure that they play their role in working alongside us in putting this right.

On the issue of publishing the information, I can assure the Member that the highest risk tips are already undergoing enhanced monitoring and inspections and the local authorities involved in working closely with us. The Tylorstown tip we've mentioned has had £20 million identified to spend on it and significant progress has been made. It has lessened its risk as a result. So, that is a positive example. When we take proactive action, we can reduce the risk, working with the local authority—in this case, Rhondda Cynon Taf—who've been superb.

On the detail of publishing all the information, we do have to be very careful, because we wouldn't want to alarm people by publishing information in a cack-handed way. To give an example, a lot of these tips are non-coal tips, they're spoil tips, and it could well be that a small amount is on someone's garden, and if we just publish crudely a list that includes that, it's going to cause a great deal of alarm and distress. So, we need to get this right. And also, because many of these are privately owned, under the data protection legislation and GDPR, we have to issue privacy notices and we have to make sure that that information is handled properly, and that is a large undertaking. So, it is taking longer than all of us would've liked, but I hope I can assure the Senedd this afternoon we are doing this for good reasons, in a considered way, and we will be publishing it as soon as we can get that information accurate.

16:30

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you for your statement, Minister. You'll appreciate that coal tips' safety is an issue that is of great interest to me because of the area that I represent, as it is to my party too. I welcome the Law Commission's report, of course. It is timely, bearing in mind that Plaid Cymru will be holding a debate on this issue in the Senedd tomorrow. The Law Commission's report focuses on the importance of maintaining expertise in making coal tips safe and also removing them, as you've been discussing already. And a number of witnesses to the inquiry have recommended that an oversight authority should be established. You've said already a little bit about this, so I'd like to put on the record that we are very supportive of this idea, that there should be an authority with the powers to supervise the safety of every remaining tip.

I also understand that local authorities have spoken, when speaking to the commission, about the challenges that they face in implementing the current legislation, particularly considering financial constraints. A lack of funding streams has led to a loss of vital technical expertise in local authorities. So, I would ask, Minister, what steps the Government will be taking to harness the current expertise in managing tips, as well as to increase the level of expertise in local authorities? And on the topic of funding, how will this be funded, bearing in mind the financial constraints that we are currently seeing. And we agree, of course, that it is Westminster that should be paying this bill. Coal tips and other tips are a legacy of the United Kingdom's industrial past—they predate devolution. And Wales's fiscal situation, at least at a macro level, is again the result of decisions made by the UK Government. So, could you give us an update, please, Minister, on any discussions that the Welsh Government has had with the UK Government to decide who will be paying for removing these coal tips, restoring the land and for reviving these areas? What are the next steps in those discussions, please?

And finally, the commission's report considers the tips' value in terms of biodiversity. Buglife, I believe, and Clare Dinham drew attention to the need to include biodiversity as a consideration in managing these tips. They say that it is vital that local authority ecologists and conservation charities are part of the process of drawing up plans to manage these tips and the surrounding areas. So, an ecological stakeholder taskforce could be a useful way of ensuring that the importance of biodiversity is given due attention. What is your stance on this, please, and are there any plans to establish such a taskforce?

Well, thank you very much for that.

So, I think there are a number of very helpful and constructive points there. On the first on the availability of technical expertise, then Delyth Jewell is quite right, that is a challenge, and that's one of the reasons why we are supportive in principle of the idea of an independent body, because we do need to have the heft and capacity to do the task ahead of us, and working out a way to design that alongside local authorities, just as we are in so many other things, to get that balance right between local-control knowledge, accountability, as well as the capacity and capability, is something we'll be reflecting on as we consult on our White Paper and as we come up with a set of proposals in the legislation. So, that is very much, I think, on point. I'm not able to give a definitive answer to that now, because that is something, she's right, we need to work through. But she's correctly identified, I think, the challenge there, as she has on the funding. She asks how we are going to fund it. We don't know how we're going to fund the full bill because it is enormous. We've identified, over the next three years, how we're going to spend £44.4 million of capital funding, and we've already spent, as I set out in the statement, several million in dealing with stabilising the situation in the worst cases. But this is going to be a long-term programme of reclamation, and we do need to work with the UK Government. She asked what the state of the conversations were. Well, I think it's fair to say they've been pretty dismissive to date of their role, and we heard it again this afternoon that the party line is that this is a devolved responsibility and nothing to do with them. But I hope we can get beyond that, because I don't think that is a sustainable or defensible line of argument. So, we'll continue to have those conversations.

Her point on biodiversity, I thought, was very well made, because, obviously, we know that climate change is going to make the stability of these tips more difficult. We are going to have wilder, wetter winters, we are going to have more rainfall—all of this will adversely affect the integrity of the tips. So, the climate emergency impact is very clear, but the nature emergency reference as well is very well made. And I think her suggestion of an ecological stakeholder taskforce is a very interesting one, and if she is content, I will reflect on that and discuss it further with my colleague Julie James as we think about our next steps on this. Diolch. 

16:35