Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

30/03/2022

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

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

Statement by the Llywydd

Good afternoon and welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in hybrid format, with some Members in the 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 meeting, and these are set out on your agenda.

1. Questions to the Minister for Climate Change

The first item is questions to the Minister for Climate Change, and I've received notification, under Standing Order 12.58, that all questions under this item will be answered by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change on behalf of the Minister. The first question is from Peredur Owen Griffiths.

Coal Tip Safety

1. Will the Minister provide an update on coal tip safety in South Wales East? OQ57887

Thank you. I'd refer the Member to the oral statement made yesterday, and, of course, we're debating this this afternoon. As we made clear, inspections of higher rated tips have recently completed and we committed £44.4 million for maintenance works over the next three years. 

Thank you for the answer.

It was clear from the coal tip safety statement yesterday that there is much more work to be done in the years ahead to make safe the legacy of our industrial past in Wales. It'll take many years and and hundreds of millions of pounds to sort this out. It goes without saying that Westminster, which reaped the benefits and the profits from the coal industry, should be footing the bill. It's a scandal that they are not. How are you linking up with other Government departments to ensure that we will have the necessary expertise and capacity within Wales to undertake the specialist work needed to make our communities safe? Remedial work considered acceptable decades ago must surely now be reassessed in light of the climate crisis we face.

Thank you, yes, and I completely agree that there is a role here for the UK Government. This is a legacy of Britain's industrial past. The tips were accumulated before power was devolved to Wales and the UK Government must play its role in meeting that bill. And I think there is consensus in this Chamber, certainly on non-Conservative benches, that that's the case.

As the Member rightly says, we do need to make sure that there is innovation and technology in the way that we address both the threat of the tip and the opportunity that regeneration brings. And there's no doubt, both through skilling and supply chain, as well as innovation, that, in meeting our obligation to deal with these tips, there are also benefits that can be brought to the communities that currently host them. So, we have an innovation programme, which I mentioned yesterday, using some world-first technologies and we'll be trialling those in the years to come. We are working with the local authorities, and, as part of the consultation now on the Law Commission report, we'll be assessing the creation of a new statutory body, which will need to be a partnership with other delivery agencies in Wales in order that we can together meet the challenge this presents.

Deputy Minister, last week, the Law Commission made a number of recommendations for a new safety regime to help protect against a range of threats to coal tip safety and to ensure a consistent approach is taken to all tips in Wales, in response to which you made a statement yesterday. In your statement, you said that the Welsh Government does not have the funding to ensure that coal tips are safe in Wales. However, in March 2020, the Secretary of State for Wales wrote a letter to all Members of the Senedd saying that the UK Government would look seriously at all requests for funding to support management of coal tips, following the spate of flooding across south Wales at that time. So, can I ask, Deputy Minister, what discussions have you had with local authorities in Wales to ensure that they are aware of this funding from the Wales Office to ensure the required action to ensure coal tip safety in the period before you introduce and pass legislation? Thank you.

Well, the funding that was made available after the floods amounted to some £9 million and around half of that has gone to coal tip safety in Tylorstown. We've spent some £20 million on that. We're facing a bill of in excess of £500 million. We've committed £44.4 million over the next three years. The UK Government has refused to give any further money, and both the Secretary of State for Wales and his under-secretary have been consistent and robust in saying that it's now not a matter for them. In their view, this is up to us to solve, and I just reject that analysis. I think it would be far better if we could work together on this and recognise that there is a shared obligation to deal with this challenge. That is not the view of the Secretary of State, as I understand it, but it would be great if Members opposite could help some sense to be seen.  

13:35
Decarbonising Housing

2. Will the Minister provide an update on decarbonising housing? OQ57878

Thank you. We have introduced new build standards for social homes, which banish the use of fossil fuels, with ambitions for private developers to adopt these requirements by 2025. We also continue to invest in the optimised retrofit programme, exploring the most effective and efficient ways of decarbonising existing social housing stock. 

I thank the Minister for that answer. I personally would like to commend Swansea Council and local registered social landlords on the work that the have done in decarbonising their new housing. I represent a constituency that has a large number of owner-occupied and privately rented houses, which were built in the nineteenth century. What progress has been made to reduce heat loss from private and privately rented housing? And what is the plan to decarbonise these houses? I recognise it's going to be long and I recognise it's going to be difficult. 

Well, I'd like to echo what Mike Hedges said about Swansea Council. I think it's an excellent example of a partnership between a Labour-run local authority and a Welsh Labour Government. They themselves have invested some £60 million this financial year in warmer, more energy efficient homes, creating some 25 new low-carbon homes, as well as a programme of energy efficiency for existing homes, totalling around £46 million. I think that is a tremendous effort on their part to deal with the cost of living crisis, by providing practical help to deal with fuel poverty and addressing the net zero challenge. 

On the issue of private houses, we are very fortunate that we have Rent Smart Wales, which is something other parts of the UK don't have, which allows us to map the properties in the private sector to see which ones are not currently meeting minimum energy efficiency standards. And then, with that information, we can look at what mix of grant and loan is needed to incentivse those homes to meet the standard and to exceed it. We're taking an approach, as Mike Hedges knows, of trialling our optimised retrofit programme, which is a £220 million investment by us, and taking what we describe as a 'fabric first' approach, recognising that there have been difficulties with retrofit programmes across the UK over the last few years and all houses are different. In particular, Wales has an old housing stock, with very varied housing stock, and what might be a solution for a terraced house in the Valleys might be different for a suburban bungalow. So, we need to trial, which we are, different fabrics to understand what would be the most efficient, and when we understand those practicalities, we can then set out a pathway towards decarbonisation. 

Good afternoon, Deputy Minister. Minister, owner-occupied homes make up more than 70 per cent of the 1.4 million homes that we have in Wales. On average, our properties are older than elsewhere in the UK, and many will have a challenge in achieving decarbonisation to the target you have set. If the problem is one of energy supply, how does the Welsh Government expect families to move away from gas towards renewable sources, and how will it pay for it? 

Well, I would like to welcome Altaf Hussain to the Labour benches—[Laughter.] There is much joy in heaven for every sinner that repents. 

Can I just explain that there are too many Tories to fit into the Tory bench and, therefore, there is a need for a seat in the Labour cohort? 

I couldn't agree more, Llywydd. There are, indeed, too many Tories and we shall make sure there are fewer at the next election—[Laughter.] But, seriously, to answer the point of the Member's question, which I thank him for, how we tackle the private sector homes is clearly a challenge for us all. I did note in the Chancellor's budget he did announce a reduction in VAT for some solar renewable technology, which we welcome, but, I'm afraid, it is insufficient for the challenge that faces us. This is largely not something that can be done by the Welsh Government; this is something that we need to do across the UK, and decarbonising homes is going to be a key part of meeting our net-zero targets, both for heat and for electricity. The technology is available, it is proven and it is cost-effective.

I did think it was a massive mistake that the UK Government got rid of the feed-in tariff a few years ago. It was brought in 2010 when there was a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition, and it had significant success in incentivising private homeowners to invest in their own property, as well as to feed into the grid with renewables. And I think it was a major error to withdraw that in 2019. So, there does need now to be, I think, a significant programme across the UK of incentivising homeowners to invest in renewable energy. That is the way to get energy security. That is the way to make sure we are not reliant on Russian oil and gas, and that is the way to decarbonise and deal with fuel poverty. But, so far, we've heard little from the UK Government about this, and I'd be very keen to work with them to put that right. 

13:40
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Janet Finch-Saunders. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Members will be aware that, yesterday, during business questions, I did call, through the Trefnydd, on the Deputy Minister for Climate Change to make a statement regarding the horrendous situation on Monday that saw a number of trains, several carriages, hundreds of travellers stranded for several hours on trains on a very warm day, and the situation was less than ideal. Well, I'm very pleased to say that the Minister and I spoke yesterday afternoon, afterwards, and he did promise that he would get some kind of information back from Transport for Wales. I'm very grateful for the letter I've had from the chief executive, via you, Deputy Minister, and they are going to launch a serious investigation into that. They are asking anybody to come forward who was greatly affected by this, and I would urge people to do that. Diolch. 

So, moving on to my spokesperson's questions, my first one is on energy security. Now, our actions on energy security must be resolute and firm if we are to safeguard the future of a vibrant and international outlook in Wales. We must play our part to end the global addiction to Russian energy and unleash the power of our own Welsh dragon. Russian imports currently account for 8 per cent of total UK oil demand and 4 per cent of total UK gas supply. Now, in response to the shocking and illegal invasion of Ukraine, the UK Government is to phase out oil imports during the course of the year. The UK's exposure to volatile global gas prices underscores the importance of the UK Government's plan to generate more cheap, clean, renewable energy and nuclear power in the UK. Your vision as to how to scale up renewable energy in Wales has been outlined in the renewable energy deep-dive. Some of the recommendations are set to take some time to deliver—2023 for marine strategic resource areas, and 2024 for a national energy plan. In light of the new energy crisis, what steps will you take to supercharge work on producing more renewable energy and bringing forward the national energy plan? Diolch. 

Well, Llywydd, there are two separate points to address there, and I'll try and address them both. On the first, I was present yesterday afternoon during business questions, and I heard the quite harrowing accounts by the Member of the experience she and fellow passengers had had, and I was very sorry to hear it. I met with the chair and the chief executive of Transport for Wales straight afterwards to discuss it. Clearly, it's not right that just because there happened to be politicians on the train that there is a response, but there were a number of Members there who were able to give first-hand testimony, and I took it very seriously, and particularly the accounts of members of the public not able to attend a funeral and having trouble with their jobs. So, Transport for Wales are taking this very seriously. There was a problem with the train leaving a maintenance depot—not a TfW maintenance depot—but then it ceased to function once it hit a certain point, and that caused then a cascade of problems. So, I'm very keen, as are they, to use the exercise to learn lessons, particularly around the communications. There do seem to be some significant failings in the way the messaging was dealt with. So, I've had a very constructive and robust conversation with TfW about this, and we are both keen to learn from it to make sure we can try and prevent this from happening again. And I'd like to reiterate the apology that I gave to all members of the public who were on that train. Things will happen from time to time on the railways, but it's how we respond to them, I think, is the mark of it, and I hope that we can certainly learn the lessons from that. 

On the issue of energy security, I must disagree with the characterisation of Janet Finch-Saunders of the UK Government's response. The way we develop energy security is not just to wean ourselves off Russian oil, but to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. We not only face a short-term energy crisis, we face a parallel climate crisis, and digging more oil out of the North sea, which is what the UK Government is proposing to do, flies in the face of all the science, flies in the face of what the Prime Minister was saying not months ago in Glasgow. All of a sudden, his video-tape memory has been wiped clean yet again and he's learned none of the lessons of the past. What we need is a rapid deployment of renewables across the UK, both at a housing level—to have solar energy on every house, on every building, as well as energy efficiency—and the range of micro, hydro and generation technologies that we know work, we know are cost-effective, and we know are making a greater part of the energy mix. That is a major mistake.

In terms of her criticism that our moves on marine are not quick, then the idea that deploying nuclear energy is going to happen at speed is rather fanciful. It is neither cheap nor clean nor quick, I would say to her. We take a pragmatic view on nuclear. In north Wales, we know it provides innovation and economic development, and is part of the energy mix whilst we scale up renewables rapidly. But it is a short-term fix. For the UK Government to seize on that as a response to the energy crisis I think is misguided. I'll repeat what I said to Altaf Hussain earlier: the removal by the UK Government of the feed-in tariff in 2019, the moratorium on onshore wind, and the failure to support the Swansea tidal lagoon are historic errors. We've had a lost decade. Rather than getting ourselves resilient with true energy security and a renewable system, they've continued our dependence on Russian oil and gas, and look where it's got us.

13:45

I thank the Deputy Minister for both responses. In addition to driving forward the work on meeting the recommendations of the deep dive, you could act on the majority will of the Senedd. Whilst the deep dive recommends publication of guidance to signpost appropriate and inappropriate areas for development of different renewable energy technologies, the Senedd gave its full support to my legislative proposal, which did call for legal levers such as a duty for the Welsh Government to facilitate the creation of a national marine development plan. As the RSPB have stated, the lack of robust statutory weighted development control and spatial policies to steer development away from environmentally sensitive areas from the outset creates uncertainty for all. And as is highlighted in the report on the Welsh Government's marine policies, environmental stakeholders called for a cross-sector statutory spatial plan that does address the cumulative impacts of marine developments. So, rather than leave the siting of much-needed renewable schemes to guidance and the Crown Estate, will you follow up on our successful legislative proposal by creating a national marine development plan? Thank you.

The Member is rehearsing arguments we had not a matter of weeks ago in the Senedd Chamber, and I don't intend to go through them all again, other than to say we are satisfied, as we set out in that debate, that we have a mechanism to do that, we have a long-term plan, and there are already policies and actions in place that will do that. As she mentioned, the deep dive was conducted to look at any short-term barriers. One of the things we did identify was the need to review the marine licensing and consents process, and we're doing that now with Natural Resources Wales. The proposal is to look at it from the view of a developer, and go step by step through what might be slowing it down, any points of friction, and to blast them away. I think that has been widely welcomed by stakeholders, and I think it will make a significant difference.

Thank you. Alongside our joint support of renewable schemes, it is important that we do everything possible to back nuclear. Last week, the Prime Minister hosted a round-table with leaders from the nuclear industry to discuss how to improve domestic energy security and rapidly accelerate nuclear projects in the UK. As the Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, our Prime Minister, stated,

'now is the time to make a series of big new bets on nuclear'.

This week, we have learned that the UK Government plans to take a 20 per cent stake in Sizewell C. The Secretary of State for Wales is visiting the US to champion Wylfa. I do appreciate that the Welsh Government has established Cwmni Egino. The leader of Plaid Cymru, Adam Price, has made clear that Plaid Cymru will stick firmly to their anti-nuclear stance. Given their role as co-operation partners, what discussions have you had about the future of nuclear in Wales? Can you clarify whether the Welsh Government does support the development of nuclear projects at both Wylfa and Trawsfynydd, or will your co-operation or coalition agreement change your view on that? Diolch. 

13:50

Well, my favourite right honourable is the Rt Hon Elin Jones, and I'd much prefer that she were our focus, rather than Boris Johnson. 

I really feel the UK Government are not learning the mistakes of the past. You've just criticised the energy system for being dependent on Russian oil and gas and we're now racing into the arms of Chinese investors to be committed to large nuclear builds. They're the only game in town hitherto when it comes to nuclear. Do we really want to put ourselves in the hands of yet another volatile international partner? I suggest that we don't.

As I've said, our nuclear policy is well-established. We do have proposals through Cwmni Egino and preceding that to look at the development of new nuclear technology at existing sites, and we've set up a company to explore that. We do think there are economic advantages to doing that in the short term. But, as I said, our energy policy focuses primarily on renewables because we think that has both a minimal environmental impact as well as producing energy resilience. And if we do it right, we'll capture the economic benefits entirely in Wales, rather than continuing to leak out funding, as indeed nuclear risks doing. 

I fear that the party opposite, despite their commitment to net zero and commitment to economic development in Wales, are making all the same mistakes all over again.

Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Delyth—

Had you finished? Yes.

Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Delyth Jewell.

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, around Wales we have many important ecological sites in very low-lying coastal areas. Sites such as RSPB Newport in the Gwent levels, RSPB Conwy, WTT Llanelli wetlands centre and RSPB Ynyshir near Machynlleth are all vitally important sites for coastal birds, which are unfortunately already endangered. Even a small amount of sea level rise would spell certain doom for species like the sandpiper, the oystercatcher, and numerous other species as well, like otters and rare insects. Even lizards could go extinct in Wales if we lost our unique wetlands. I'm concerned that focusing only on preventing further climate change and sea level rises may not be enough to save our beautiful bird species. Constructing coastal flood defences to protect ecological sites should surely be part of our effort to reverse biodiversity decline. Minister, I know that the Welsh Government has announced a deep dive to look at effective implementation of the Convention on Biological Diversity's global biodiversity framework 30 by 30 target, which is a very long title, saying that that would be initiated after the February half term and in-depth discussions completed by mid May. Given the importance of this ahead of this year's COP15 summit, could you give us some more detail please on when the deep dive discussions are going to start and when the terms of reference will be clarified?

The purpose of these deep dives—and I must say I'm rather going off the title as it's beginning to sound a little pretentious; as I've said, if we keep having deep dives like these, we'll end up with the bends—is a rapid review of barriers, and they start as an open-ended process. In the ones that I've carried out on woodland creation and renewable energy, and I'm now doing something similar on town centres, it's the process rather than the outcome that starts off predesigned. So, we get a range of people in a room, and we meet intensively over a short period. We have a mix of voices. We have people who are practitioners, we have people who are academics and policy experts, and we have some deliberately awkward characters—and I think this is a really important part of the mix—to really create some challenge and some tension. Then we ask them to go with us to identify what they believe, given their experience, are the principal barriers and the main issues. And then, the key challenge from the Minister to them—and it'll be Julie James leading the biodiversity one—is to get them to translate their criticism into practical action. It's very easy for observers to tell us what's wrong; what is harder is to come up with practical policies that can make a difference. That's what we've done successfully, I think, in the other deep dives, and that's what we'll be seeking to do with this one that Julie James will be leading. So, it's impossible to anticipate what it'll come up with, because that is the whole point—we don't know. But we will be relying on an alliance for change to work with us to identify practical steps.

13:55

Thank you for that, Minister. Obviously, I hope that coastal flood defences will form part of that work, but I look forward to finding out more as time progresses on it.

Turning, secondly and finally, to the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee's annual report on NRW, it has highlighted widespread concern among stakeholders about NRW's ability to effectively carry out its roles and responsibilities because of a lack of capacity and resources. That includes its ability to monitor and assess the condition of terrestrial and marine protected sites for nature. Could you, therefore, Minister, give us an update, please, on any assessments that have been made of the capacity and resource needed for an adequate programme of monitoring for these sites, and how this compares with the capacity and resource that is currently available?

Well, after more than 10 years of austerity, there isn't a single public body in Wales that has the capacity that they would wish to have, and I think that is just a fact that we have to deal with. NRW is no different from Conwy council or from any other public body, and we, all of us, have to live within our means. There are discussions going on with NRW about how we prioritise. For example, in the hitherto referred to deep dive that I did on woodland creation, one of the things we identified there is that there were 82 people where part of their jobs on woodland creation was about erecting barriers to planting trees. So, that wasn't a capacity issue; that was how we use the capacity we have to align it to our policy outcomes. What we want to do in that case is to recalibrate that effort so that those same people are focused on pursing a different policy outcome. It's not about extra people; it's about using the people you have in a different way. So, there's that discussion to have with NRW across the piece, but there's also prioritisation to have. We've done a baseline budget exercise with them. We're going through that with them now as part of the budget-setting exercise, and we're having other discussions with them about how we treat different forms of spending in order to enable them to do the task that we all want them to do.

Flood Prevention

3. Will the Minister provide an update on the flood prevention plan for Hirael bay, Bangor? OQ57867

Diolch. Gwynedd Council are designing a scheme to reduce the risk of flooding and coastal erosion at Hirael bay. Natural Resources Wales are also reviewing the modelling data of the Afon Adda. The review will confirm the current standard of protection and consider the potential future risk associated with climate change.

Thank you very much. A number of factors are converging to create the risk in Hirael bay, including the increasing sea level, high water table and the way that the Afon Adda enters the sea. I am very pleased that significant funds are being allocated to a flood defence scheme. I'm aware that there is another scheme in the pipeline in this area, namely a plan to extend the coastal path. So, I would like to understand how the two schemes will dovetail, and how you will ensure that the work does happen jointly and promptly. 

The Member is right; the Hirael is challenged with being at risk from a combination of tidal, pluvial and fluvial sources—from the sea, the river and the sky. This will get worse as climate change intensifies—we know this is the case—and Hirael is particularly vulnerable. So, we are investing, as she mentions, £213 million in flood schemes, and this includes a scheme in Hirael bay. It is currently at the detailed design stage with Gwynedd Council, and construction is designed to begin this coming financial year. NRW are also updating the modelling of fluvial flood risk for the Afon Adda system. On the specific point about how we can maximise the advantages of two separate schemes, I think that is an excellent point, and if she doesn't mind, I'll reflect on that and write to her, rather than make something up on the spot.FootnoteLink

Thank you, Deputy Minister, for your response to the important issue raised by the Member for Arfon. The issue raised there can be repeated in many areas across Wales, particularly my region of north Wales, where there's a particular risk of coastal flooding. In the Chamber earlier this month, I did welcome your statement, or Welsh Government's statement, on flood and coastal erosion risk management. In this statement, Deputy Minister, you suggested that NRW had a lot to do, and you mentioned it just a few moments ago, in terms of the resources and the stretching of the resources. So, in light of this, and with flooding being so detrimental to our communities and such a risk, especially with the climate change risk that you mentioned also, what considerations have you given to developing a national flood agency to deal specifically with these risks?

14:00

Well, Sam Rowlands will know about the pressure on resources and that's pressure that has intensified as a result of the spring budget where we are £600 million less well off in this budget round than we were anticipating over the next three years, because of cuts made by the Chancellor. So, we simply do not have the money to do all the things that we would like to do. So, the creation of additional public bodies is not something that we will enter lightly into; we'll want to first look at how we can collaborate with local government. And I know as a former leader of a local authority, he will be a champion, I'm sure, of making sure that we use local government to their maximum when we are committed to a partnership with them on that. And we set out last night, for example, on building safety, that rather than creating additional bodies, as they are in England, we are putting some of those responsibilities on local authorities.

So, the same will be true of how we tackle climate change across the piece. We're going to look, first of all, at the bodies that we have—the Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales and the local authorities, as well as partnerships with other flood management authorities—to see how we can make the most of those before we start thinking about additional institutions to create and run.

Energy Security

4. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to ensure energy security? OQ57890

The UK Government has a legal duty to ensure the UK's energy security, and we expect bold action in its upcoming energy security strategy, which, I understand, has been delayed again. In Wales we are accelerating renewable energy deployment, supporting local energy markets, planning and piloting innovation, to build a net-zero energy system for the future.

Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. Our reliance on imported fuel and even energy leaves us vulnerable to external threats. Vladimir Putin has, for years, used the threat of cutting supplies to apply pressure on its European neighbours. Even now, with EU nations sanctioning the Russian federation, they are still pumping billions into Putin's war machine, because they need the gas and oil. Thankfully, we are not as vulnerable, but the knock-on effects have doubled our energy bills. Deputy Minister, this situation has highlighted the need for energy independence, including the need for new nuclear power, as mentioned in previous questions. Of course, much of the work needed will require the lead from the UK Government, however the Welsh Government can take the lead when it comes to energy storage, enabling better utilisation of our renewables. How is your Government working with the industry to create better energy storage solutions here in Wales?

Well, I agree that battery energy storage is definitely one of the things that we need to be speeding up, and certainly there is potential from green hydrogen to act as a source for holding that stored energy. But, again, we have a contribution from the Conservatives this afternoon that is focusing on nuclear and there has been very little emphasis on renewables. There was a mention of battery storage, but not on renewable technologies, and I find this very puzzling, given what we've been hearing from them on the need both for energy security and for meeting net zero.

I do hope that there isn't an ideological blinder when it comes to renewables; we've seen that in practice with the moratorium on onshore wind that's been in place over the last 10 years, which has been a massive missed opportunity. Had that been in place now, we would not be facing the same vulnerability to the Ukrainian war that we are facing, so there's some culpability on the part of the UK Government for its blindness on renwewables there. The same, as I mentioned, on the ending of the feed-in tariff in 2019—a significant mistake that now gives us extra ground to catch up. As well as the failure to back the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, which was backed by Charles Hendry, the former Conservative energy Minister, and nothing has been done. So, we're now hearing the Chancellor talking about a rapid deployment of nuclear. If they'd had that same attitude about the rapid deployment of renewables, we would not be facing the energy crisis that we now are.

And, again, in the budget, the spring statement, we heard the Chancellor announce a cut in fuel duty, which is a fossil fuel tax cut, on the same day as the Welsh Government announced a £31 million investment in a renewable energy project on Ynys Môn—the last large grant from EU structural funds, which many in the party opposite have voted to end. So, they have not put us in the position to be able to face this energy crisis with confidence, and I hope they will recognise the error of their ways.

14:05

Could I, through the Deputy Minister, suggest to colleagues on Conservative benches here that it is not too late to put pressure on the UK Government to invest in marine and tidal technology in Wales, including lagoon technology? It was a terrible, terrible day for Wales when Charles Hendry, who I have a lot of respect for, said it was a no-brainer to invest in the tidal lagoon in Swansea. We're playing catch-up when we could have dealt with that energy security issue. But could I ask him: does he think it is right that what we should be doing now, faced with not just an energy security crisis, but still the long, ongoing—and it'll be with us for generations to come—climate change crisis, is to tackle the two together? And that means doubling down on renewables, and battery storage and so on, but not doubling down on reopening fossil fuels and fracking in North sea oil—doubling down on renewables, hydrogen technology and so on? That's the way that Wales should lead the field.

Well, Huw Irranca-Davies will remember that, at the Conference of the Parties in Glasgow, we were the only Government in the UK that stood alongside Denmark and Sweden and New Zealand and others to establish the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, pledging not to extract further oil and gas. Wales has significant resources, potentially, of both, but we have taken a clear principled decision that that is not consistent in meeting our net-zero obligations, and even in the face of a crisis, we are not going to resile from that. The UK Government, who talked big at Glasgow, have quickly forgotten those commitments and are now turning back to fossil fuels, not learning any of the lessons of the past, and also not sticking to their commitments on net zero. It is not going to be possible to reach net zero by 2050 if we are increasing our emissions from North sea oil. That is a significant mistake and more short-termism by the UK Government.

Huw Irranca-Davies is right: there is an opportunity here to meet our climate change emergency while also increasing energy resilience, cutting down on fuel poverty, and increasing local wealth by harnessing the economic potential of renewables for the Welsh economy, and that's what we're focused on.

Renewable Energy Projects

Diolch, Llywydd, and good afternoon, Deputy Minister. If I could continue the theme of renewable energy.

5. What support is the Welsh Government providing to small and community-owned renewable energy projects? OQ57877

Thank you for the question. We've successfully supported community energy since 2010. We currently provide support through the Welsh Government energy service and by grant funding Community Energy Wales. We are scaling up our support for local and community energy by implementing the recommendations of the renewable energy deep dive.

Diolch yn fawr iawn. Last year I had the opportunity to visit Hafod y Llan hydroelectric project, the National Trust's first large-scale renewable energy project. On my visit, the project team highlighted that the financial opportunities available to small schemes like theirs in Scotland would really help boost the sector here in Wales. The Scottish Government established the Community and Renewable Energy Scheme to encourage local and community ownership of renewable energy projects across Scotland and to help maximise the benefits of renewable energy systems, whether commercial or community owned. May I therefore ask what financial support will you look to bring forward for small renewable energy projects, such as those in Hafod y Llan, to deliver the programme for government commitment to expand renewable energy generation by public bodies and community groups in Wales? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Well, as Jane Dodds rightly mentioned, we have that target to increase energy generation by over 100 MW between now and 2026 by public bodies. We've seen the excellent example of Morriston Hospital, where a solar farm has now been opened that is powering the hospital entirely for a significant amount of time. We are very committed to working with community energy groups, because, as I said, the principle coming out of the deep dive was that not only do we need to meet our climate change targets, but we need to do it in a way that retains wealth within our local economy, and we don't want to see a repeat of extractive economic development that we've seen in previous industrial revolutions happen this time. So, community energy is essential to that. And there is much to admire about the Scottish Community and Renewable Energy Scheme. We have our own scheme, the Welsh Government's energy service, which provides technical and commercial support to community-led projects. We've recently awarded £2.35 million to the Egni Co-op to deliver another phase of its excellent rooftop solar programme, which I visited in Caerleon recently, and that will be delivering a further 2 MW of locally owned capacity and providing, crucially, a community share offer. So, not only are these public buildings getting cheap and free electricity, they're also getting a share in the co-op. It's an excellent example.

So, in terms of the Scottish example, our own local energy grant and our local energy loan funds, in fact, offer more generous support than the Scottish scheme does. But I think their community outreach model is a very interesting one, and one I'd certainly be interested in looking at further myself. So, thank you for bringing that to our attention.

14:10

In preparation for this supplementary question, I thought I'd take myself to the Welsh Government's community energy webpage to see what the latest information and guidance was for the people of Wales who are looking to play their part in developing green and renewable energy for themselves and their communities. And given that, in the response to the Member for Mid and West Wales, the Deputy Minister said community energy is being scaled up, I was expecting a website full of all the latest and most up-to-date information, given the urgency we need to transition to renewable energy. Cue my surprise, then, when your website, the Welsh Government's own website aimed at supporting the people to develop community energy, hasn't been updated since September 2019, with some information such as feed-in tariff guidance and renewable heat incentive guidance stemming all the way back to 2015, before the Deputy Minister was even elected to this place. You may talk a good game, Deputy Minister, but isn't it the truth that what this Government says and what this Government does are two very different things?

Well, I very much enjoyed the Member's meanderings through the information superhighway. I'm not sure it entirely hits the point, though, but I'm willing to look at that, because, obviously, that does need updating. But as I mentioned in my answer to Jane Dodds, we are funding Community Energy Wales to be the focal point of providing advice on how to take forward community energy schemes, and their website, I'm pleased to tell the Member, is fully up to date.

Green Vehicles

6. How is the Welsh Government supporting individuals to drive greener vehicles? OQ57872

We're investing in rolling out publicly accessible charge points to support the switch to electric vehicles in line with our EV charging strategy. We're also mapping plans with industry to transition to zero-emission buses, piloting taxi and private hire vehicle schemes, piloting e-bike schemes and investing in zero-emission car clubs.

E-car sales are steadily increasing across the UK, as car manufactures perfectly promote the benefits of ditching diesel and petrol. On the continent, Germany doubled incentives for EVs in 2020, offering a €3,000 bonus for fully electrical vehicles and €2,250—Euros I might add—towards hybrids, as well as a 10-year tax exemption and lower VAT rates. France has also joined the list of European countries to provide EV incentives, offering national producers such as Renault a support package to encourage greater EV production. The French Government is also offering consumers carbon dioxide-related tax exemptions and subsidies of up to €7,000 and a scrappage scheme for old, traditionally fuelled cars. Will the Minister back calls for such a scrappage scheme to take place here in Wales, and will you subsequently work with EV companies so that they might move their production operations here so that we can energise highly skilled green sector jobs and promote Wales as a global green market leader and industry? 

Well, we did publish an action plan in October last year, and I'm pleased that, last Friday, the UK Government eventually published its long-awaited EV charging strategy. That set a target for a tenfold increase in public charging across the UK by 2030, so we welcome that. The UK Government holds mainly the levers on this, and we are supporting local authorities to apply for the Office for Zero Emission Vehicles fund for public charging. Now, unfortunately, the Member's own authority of Conwy has failed to engage with this fund, but we will pursue this further, because there's an opportunity for her constituents to benefit from this. And, indeed, when I was looking to drive to Llandudno myself recently in an EV, I could find very few sites on the Zap-Map app, so I do hope she'll persuade her own authority, which I believe she's still a member of, or until last week—[Interruption.] Until last week, apologies. So, it's—

No, you don't need to make a point of order. I don't think Janet Finch-Saunders is a councillor any longer.

No, indeed, until last week. Forgive me, Llywydd, I keep hearing her declarations of interest in my head, so it stuck.

We have funded a green taxi pilot in Denbighshire, in Pembrokeshire and in Cardiff to 'try before you buy' and we've installed rapid chargers in those areas, and we're planning rapid charging points on the strategic road network this year, as well as, as I mentioned, the electric bike pilot project, one of which is in Rhyl, and I was very pleased to take part in myself, which is an excellent project with great enthusiasm.

On her point on scrappage schemes, it's an interesting point and one we've got an open mind about. I think this is best done at a UK level. There is a risk here, I think, because most people are not going to be able to afford electric cars for some time, until a robust second-hand car market emerges. We see around a quarter of households without access to any car at all, and there's a judgment for us of where we put scarce resources. Do we do it in serving people who already have access to cars to give them a nice green car, or do we do it to improve public transport, to give people on low incomes who don't have access to transport to have that? So, that is the dilemma for us. There's a very interesting scheme in Birmingham as part of their clean air zone, which I know you oppose, looking at a scrappage scheme to incentivise people to drive into the city centre in clean vehicles. So, I think there's an ongoing debate for us all to have about the right balance to reach these necessary targets.

14:15
The Energy Crisis

7. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to tackle the energy crisis? OQ57875

The UK Government’s failure to step up will be devastating for households across the UK. We've taken swift action—doubling the winter fuel payment to £200 for this year and next, introducing a more generous council tax rebate than the UK Government and increasing our discretionary fund for householders who are struggling.  

Minister, you're right in one thing: the war in Ukraine, as you said earlier, has brought the importance of energy independence into sharp focus. As it's in your control, and out of interest, as a Government, will you now be reconsidering your stance on fracking?

Meeting Housing Need

8. What steps is the Government taking to ensure that appropriate housing is available to meet community need? OQ57882

We exceeded our previous housing commitment in Wales and we continue to build on this. Our 20,000 homes target focuses on increasing homes within the social sector. We've allocated record levels of investment in housing for the next three years to support the need for homes across Wales.

I thank the Deputy Minister for that response. I welcome the progress that's been made and the additional budget towards social housing. If we're to tackle the housing crisis, then of course we must have more social housing available, but they must also be fit for purpose. I've been to see a number of constituents recently who have to live in inappropriate accommodation. Take Claire, for example, a mother of four, two of them babies, and she lives in the uppermost flat and has to carry the pram up, leave the baby upstairs, then go back down, get the other pram and so on and so forth, and then has to go down for the third or fourth time then to get the shopping. It's totally inappropriate housing for her, and the flat is also cold and damp. Claire is one example of many in my constituency, never mind examples in every other constituency too. 

We also know that there is demand for bungalows for people with mobility needs or elderly people, and there's increasing demand for one-bedroomed housing for a particular group of people within our society. What steps are you taking as a Government, then, not only to build more homes but also to identify people's needs and ensure that those new homes either meet that need or can easily be adapted, and cheaply, to meet specific needs? 

Well, Mabon ap Gwynfor makes a number of fair points there, and he makes two essential criticisms that the social housing system has not kept up with demand for many decades, which is correct, and that the private sector housing is providing too many of the same types of houses and not catering to the range of needs, such as bungalows, and there's a complex set of problems beneath both of those issues.

We are addressing the first with a very ambitious stretch target of 20,000 low-carbon social homes, which will make a significant difference, and there's progress being made this year in Gwynedd. I'm pleased to see seven housing schemes being funded for social rent, which has the potential to provide 88 homes in the coming years, which will make some difference in those communities. In terms of the broader critique of the way the market can provide a mono approach to housing, a large-volume approach, and not the variety that an ageing population requires, then that does require further disruption to the market model. And we are, as he knows, through our co-operation agreement, trialling a range of different approaches, as well as our modern methods of construction suite of reforms, to encourage well-designed and a greater diversity of houses to replenish the housing stock.

But, ultimately, this is market failure, and we do need, through our foundational economy projects, working with registered social landlords, to stimulate local supply chains and get local small and medium-sized enterprise builders to step back into the housing market rather than doing extensions and garages, which they primarily focus on at the moment because it provides a reliable and quick return. We do need to have a different approach from the market to meet the need he rightly addresses.

14:20
2. Questions to the Minister for Education and Welsh Language

We will now move to our next item, questions to the Minister for Education and Welsh Language, and the first question is from Samuel Kurtz.

Students with Additional Learning Needs

1. What support is available for students with additional learning needs in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OQ57891

We are committed to ensuring learners across Wales can access a high standard of education and reach their full potential. The new additional learning needs system ensures that all children and young people that require additional support to meet an ALN have the support properly planned for and protected.

Diolch, Weinidog, and I refer Members to my register of interests. I've recently successfully helped a constituent family, based in Pembrokeshire, who have had to fight for their child to be able to join their sister in attending the Canolfan Elfed inclusion unit based in Queen Elizabeth High School in neighbouring Carmarthenshire. This unit provides excellent service and provision for a range of secondary school age children with additional learning needs. However, without my intervention, this child would not have been able to join their sister, sharing the same taxi to and from school, and receive the educational support that he needs. There was a lack of communication or understanding between the two local authorities, and common sense was ignored. What I'd like to know, Minister, is: why is it so difficult for pupils with ALN to receive the support they need if it means crossing a county boundary? And what actions are you and your Government taking to ensure ALN support isn't a postcode lottery? Diolch, Llywydd.

Well, I thank the Member for that supplementary. I can't comment on the specifics of his constituents' situation for reasons that he will understand, but, if he writes to me about that particular situation, I'll be very happy to have my officials look into it.

A-level Students

2. How is the Welsh Government supporting A-level students this year given the impact of the pandemic on their education? OQ57864

The WJEC have announced adaptations to exams, with reductions to content and advance information to help learners prepare. We've provided £24 million of exam-year funding to provide attendance, teaching, revision and transition support to enable A-level students to progress. A communications campaign signposting learners to useful revision and well-being resources has begun.

Thank you, Minister, for your answer. I recently met with A-level students at Llanidloes High School in my own constituency following one particular student contacting me. I met up with a number of students. They outlined their concerns to me. I followed up with mentioning much of what you've just said now, Minister—I talked about the support package you announced before Christmas. But one particular student came back to me, and I'll relay what he said. I'm hoping you can help answer him directly. What this particular student says is 'educational support should be equally available and accessible to all students, regardless of who the Government deems more disadvantaged.' I think he's making that point because you're very much targeting disadvantaged pupils. Well, they want to know who is disadvantaged and how you define that.

The student goes on to say, 'How are the Welsh Government engaging with the ways factors, such as attendance, affect pupils negatively?' And he goes on to talk about there could be 100 per cent attendance from pupils themselves, but it could be that teachers are not in due to the pandemic, and how does that affect their educational learning as well. He also talks about how 'the content changing or being cut does not provide many marks, based on our knowledge of past papers.' And these are factors that the Welsh Government don't seem to be taking into consideration when offering support. So, I'm hoping, Minister, that you can help directly reply to this particular student that has these particular concerns and the particular points that they've mentioned to me.

Yes, of course I can. The support that is available is available to students in all parts of Wales, and is available equally. And I would ask your student to look at the Power Up website, which the Welsh Government launched some weeks ago, which has a suite of resources to support learners with their examinations as well as a comprehensive indication of what the changes are to course content, what the advance notice is of each of the areas of examination, and the suite of resources available to support them with well-being and mental health issues, and that is available to every single learner in Wales.

The grade boundaries for examinations this summer, as the Member knows, will be at a point between 2019 and 2021, and that will apply to all students equally. The £7.5 million of funding allocated to support learners to develop their core skills in qualifications such as maths and English are available to all students. In particular—as his constituent mentioned the concern in relation to those who've lost out in terms of school attendance—£7 million of the funding I announced before Christmas will be to support those whose attendance has been particularly low, and a further £9.5 million will be to support all students transitioning from school to further education or sixth-form colleges. So, that suite of support is available to all students in Wales. There is additional support available to students who have particular needs, but that builds very much on the approach that this Government has taken throughout, which is providing a universal level of support, but targeting additional support at those who need it most.

14:25

My question was going to be very similar to Russell George's, so I'll adjust it slightly to say that I've had the same kind of representations. One constituent particularly has asked for exams not to take place this year. Now, that's not a view that I actually support, because I think if we're going to move away from exams it needs to be done in a strategic and planned way. But certainly it represents the anxiety that that parent is feeling for their children, and how their children are feeling. So, you've outlined some of the additional support. In future, would you be considering looking at exams as an approach to assessment, and maybe, in those subjects that don't lend themselves to exams, moving to a more balanced form of assessment that might take some of the stress out of that time of the year for students?

Well, on the point in relation to exams, I do understand, obviously, that there'll be students this year sitting external exams for the first time, and some of the support that I've outlined in my answer to Russell George is intended specifically to support those students. The challenge that we have been wrestling with throughout, really, is the loss of teaching time. That's the fundamental question that learners are themselves struggling with, and the judgment to pursue exams this year was partly reflecting the position across the UK, and I didn't want learners in Wales to be disadvantaged by that, but, equally, the experience of centre-determined grades for last year meant even less teaching time was available, because teachers' time was taken up in actually making the assessment. So, that's part of the thinking behind the decision to pursue exams for this summer.

The longer term question is an important question. I do think that, in the last two years, we've understood that different means of assessment have a different contribution to make. As he will know, Qualifications Wales are undertaking a review at the moment of examinations generally at GCSE. Some of that is around course content, but actually there's a very important discussion to be had about the balance between examination and non-examination, and also the points in the year at which assessments take place, and I hope that that process, that review process, which is open for everyone to contribute to, will lead to ambitious reform in that space.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Laura Anne Jones.

Diolch, Presiding Officer. Minister, I could ask you a myriad of things today, on free school meals, the Queen's jubilee book, exams, as my colleague just outlined, or anything, but I have some really pressing matters I wish you to address. It has come to light during our peer-on-peer sexual harassment review that we're holding currently in the Children, Young People, and Education Committee that there has been no-one commissioned by this Government to collect evidence on the impact that it's had on home-schooled children. This obviously started alarm bells ringing with me, as Wales has seen an uptake in home-schooled children over the past two years. So, one could say that this evidence is actually vital, and leads to further questions on what evidence there is on home-schooled children full stop. So, Professor Renold, who was commissioned by your Government, made it clear that there is no evidence, and, to quote her, she said there absolutely needs to be. So, do you have evidence, Minister, on home-schooled children and how they've been affected, not just by peer-on-peer sexual harassment, but by the pandemic and more generally? And what protections are there in place for these children whilst being home schooled?

14:30

The Member asks a very important question about a very serious matter. And she's right, obviously, to identify the fact that it is more challenging to be able to understand the experience of home-schooled children, which is why we are keen to make sure that children are being taught in school with their peers, subject to the safeguarding regime that all schools operate.

She will know that the work that we had in train to bring forward legislation to update the home-schooling laws has been postponed effectively, or paused effectively, due to COVID. But I can say that we are looking to bring forward legislation in this space—hopefully to be bringing forward legislation this summer—which would have the intention that it would be in place by next year, which would strengthen the tools available to local authorities in this area.

Thank you, Minister. As you know, Minister, the Welsh Government announced an independent review of educational leadership last year. The leadership review was completed last autumn, only it hasn't been published. Minister, simply: when will you be releasing this report and why have you been sitting on it for so long?

Well, I have not been sitting on it. The point that the Member makes is very important. We know—and she will recall from my statement last week in relation to ensuring that we have a system that delivers high standards and aspirations for all our learners—that one of the key contributors to that is school leadership and that good leadership in schools is able to make a significant difference. So, this Government absolutely sets that as a priority. The work with the National Academy for Educational Leadership in this space is testament to that. I will be bringing forward further statements in relation to leadership in the summer term.

Minister, it isn't good enough that this report has been sat on and hidden away for so long. We were told during the announcement of the review that the

'Leadership Review will inform future developments and provide clarity on the support we have for school leaders across the system, and the support they will need to enable them to realise the new curriculum.'

We were also told that it would be released late last year, right here in your Government's own press release—this particular report, Minister. Why has it not been released, Minister? Is it because the report is pretty damning about the regional consortia and thus, by association, this Government's leadership of education in Wales? Minister, it's a simple 'yes' or 'no' on this one: will you commit to releasing that particular report immediately?

As I said to the Member in my earlier response, I plan to bring forward a statement in the summer term on leadership and that will lay out our position at that time.

Thank you, Llywydd. Minister, the most recent annual report on 'Cymraeg 2050', published last month, notes that there are now 19 immersion centres and three secondary centres across 10 counties in Wales, with counties providing late immersion support for learners across a range of ages. Also, last month, Estyn published a thematic report on Welsh immersion education, and this lists the Welsh language immersion centres in Wales and makes clear that there is a lack of immersion centres in 12 local authorities—and even where there are such centres, the overall number of the centres is small.

As the Minister has acknowledged, late immersion provision is vital as we work towards creating a million Welsh speakers, and even though £2.2 million has been announced to support immersion in the Welsh language, and eight local authority areas have created their first late immersion centres, there is still a great need in this regard across Wales. So, what progress has been made, Minister, following this, in terms of increasing the number of immersion centres across local authorities in Wales, and is the £2.2 million allocated going to be enough to meet the need in a way that is equal and consistent across Wales?

Well, the question—. I thank the Member for the recognition of that investment of £2.2 million this year. That investment, of course, is a major step forward. I have committed to ensuring that we support the immersion sector because of the crucial role that immersion has in providing equal access to Welsh-medium education.

There are a number of opportunities here. What we have seen with the allocation of the grant of just over £2 million is that there is interest in all parts of Wales to increase provision. Not all authorities are in the same place in terms of their pathway towards that. Some are innovating and leading the way, and providing an example perhaps to other parts of Wales so that they can learn those lessons. And that's encouraging in and of itself, but every local authority has shown an interest, but perhaps the interest differs from one area to another. Some are expanding provision, others are employing more staff so that they can start on that journey, but the picture of progress is shared across Wales.

14:35

Diolch, Weinidog. On a similar theme, Samuel Kurtz referenced his constituent earlier, describing ALN as 'a postcode lottery', and, as you will be fully aware, one of the core aims of the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act 2018 is for a bilingual system. Concerns were raised during the Act's journey through the Senedd, primarily on the availability of ALN services through the medium of Welsh and the capacity of the system to meet demand. That is to say whether the necessary workforce is in place to ensure equal access to Welsh-medium ALN provision.

In terms of current provision, where more specialist support is required, such as that from educational psychologists or speech and language therapists, this is not always available in Welsh, due to a lack of sufficient numbers of trained professionals in a given local area. Again, this differs between different local authorities. I welcome the funding that's been provided for ALN, including the £18 million additional funding for this financial year, but I'd like to ask the Minister: how much investment is being put into ensuring that the ALN system is truly bilingual, by increasing the capacity of educational centres and boosting the Welsh-medium ALN workforce? 

Well, I think the point the Member makes about the—. Clearly, it is essential to be able to provide additional learning needs services and support in both Welsh and in English. So, the question about recruitment is part of a broader set of challenges that we've discussed previously in the Chamber, and that is part of the recruitment plan that we will be bringing forward in the next few weeks.

In relation to the question of educational psychologists in particular, we've been keen to make sure that the funding provided to support that study in Wales also encourages those who practice it through study to remain practising in Wales, and we hope that will attract Welsh speakers as well obviously, and to make sure they continue to work and practise in Wales, because the challenge that the Member describes in that area is a genuine challenge.

In relation to—. 

In looking at the resources available to support provision, as part of their Welsh in education strategic plans, it is a requirement on all local authorities to describe what they are doing in order to ensure that resources are available through the medium of Welsh, based on the review carried out by all authorities under the additional learning needs legislation. So, that's part of the WESPs. And, more broadly, work is already in train to ensure a licensing agreement with commercial publishing companies to get Welsh versions of ALN resources, such as dyslexia tests and speech and language therapy resources. So, that work is ongoing at the moment. 

School Financial Reserves

3. Will the Minister make a statement on the level of financial reserves held by schools? OQ57873

The high level of reserves last year came as no surprise, due to many activities being paused and additional funding provided during the pandemic. We know that this is a temporary position, and we support local authorities in working with their schools to manage any surplus balances flexibly in the current circumstances.

Yes, they're quite concerning, really, when the latest data on the level of reserves held by schools shows an apparent sharp rise from £32 million, which is £70 per pupil, in March 2020, to £181 million, which is £393 per pupil in March 2021. These are reserves. That money is sitting there. Now, as we anticipate the arrival of Ukrainian children to Wales, and with these funds in these bank accounts within this area of schooling, is it likely that some of these reserves could be freed up to accommodate young Ukrainians coming to Wales, so that we can ensure, as Members here, their well-being, being in our care, and that our own schooling system is not put under any undue pressure?

Well, I think the Member will be very well aware of why schools are carrying reserves. We've had significant challenges over the last two years—[Interruption.]—and it has been our judgment as a Government that we should continue funding schools in order to provide the flexibility that they need to respond to the pressures of COVID in the interests of their learners. So, the additional funding into the system will have affected those balances, and we expect to see that position continue when we have the next report, which I think will be in October this year.

I think schools have been prudent in their approach to this, and I think local authorities are able to make judgments as to what is appropriate in the individual circumstances of each school. And schools that have those surpluses will, and should be, obviously, subject to ongoing monitoring by their local authorities to ensure that approved plans to spend those balances are delivered within timescales agreed with the authority.

In relation to the point that the Member rightly makes about making sure that we are able to provide the education that children coming to Wales from Ukraine are able to get, there is a lot of work going on at the moment with our partners in local government to understand how best to do that. Obviously, which parts of Wales people end up coming to live in, and therefore the needs of children in those areas for local schooling, is something that is obviously outside our control, and not entirely clear at this point, but there is a very live set of discussions happening across the school system to make sure that we can support those children as they come to Wales. 

14:40
Pupils with Additional Learning Needs

4. How is the Welsh Government ensuring support for pupils with additional learning needs in North Wales? OQ57868

Local authorities are responsible for securing suitable education for children and young people, including those with additional learning needs. And the new ALN system will drive improvements in the way learners across Wales are supported to ensure that they can achieve their full potential.

Well, I recently met a Flintshire mum and dad whose son was denied autism diagnosis because he doesn't present autistic traits in school, masking and suppressing most of his tics and anxieties. They told me:

'He's well behaved in school, but will have a meltdown when he comes home after having a bad day.'

The same day, I wrote to you on behalf of a different constituent whose daughter with similar behaviours is under the care of Flintshire County Council, contributing to the shocking reality that Wales has the highest proportion of children in the UK being cared for by the state.

I've acted over many years and I'm still currently acting in a representative capacity on behalf of numerous separate families who have encountered similar barriers. Each case involves children with lifelong neurodevelopmental conditions, including autism spectrum conditions, denied diagnosis, and/or understanding and support because of coping and masking strategies by the pupils to conceal their autistic traits in school, copying the behaviours of those around them to fit in, with anxiety then kicking in when they arrive home. And each case has involved implied or actual parent blaming. When are you going to act to end this tragic scandal, because too many of these families are in agony?

I share the Member's concern about the circumstances that he's described in his question, and, as he knows, the purpose of the reforms that we're introducing is to be able to address the very real range of challenges that he's described in his question. These are very significant reforms, and I know the Member has previously challenged us in relation to the support for the system to deliver these reforms effectively. I hope he'll acknowledge that, over the course of the last six months or so, we've been able to provide further resources into the system to be able to respond to the kinds of challenges that he's describing in his question. And I've been continuing to do that in recent weeks, both in relation to the impact of the pandemic, but also the costs of the transformation itself in the system.

Play Time and Mental Health

5. What assessment has the Government made of the impact of play time during the school day on children's mental health? OQ57883

In March 2021 we published statutory guidance for schools on supporting the well-being needs of the whole school population. The guidance promotes and recognises the impact that freely chosen, self-directed play makes to children’s health and well-being, and our work will be subject to full evaluation in coming years.

Thank you, Minister. As you will be aware, play is fundamental to children's health and well-being, and a necessary part of their social development because it helps develop skills in coping with challenge, facing uncertainty, and how to be flexible and adaptable to different circumstances. Since 1995, research has shown that break times in the school day have been reduced per week by up to 45 minutes for children aged between five and seven, and reduced by 65 minutes for those aged between 11 and 16. This has resulted in eight out of 10 children now having less than one hour of physical activity per day. Research has also shown that, outside school, children are now 50 per cent less likely to meet up with friends in person, with 31 per cent of children reporting that they seldom get to meet peers and friends, compared to 15 per cent in 2006. I'm sure my colleagues will agree that trends like this are worrying because they alter the way children develop into adulthood and can have unforeseen consequences, particularly in terms of mental health. Minister, firstly, what assessment has the Welsh Government made of the health implications due to the loss of playtime for schoolchildren, and what plans do you have in place to increase playtime for children across Wales? Thank you.

14:45

That's a set of very important points that the Member is making in his supplementary question. He will know that, as part of their play sufficiency duties, under the 2010 Measure, every local authority will be submitting to the Deputy Minister for Social Services their play sufficiency assessments this year, which will enable us to undertake a review of those. Play Wales is already working with local authorities in preparation for those assessments and the early action plan. In recognition of the extra burdens on authorities, we've extended the deadline in order to allow those assessments to be brought forward somewhat later than otherwise they would have been, to reflect the impact in school. We've asked Play Wales to scope playtime interventions in schools, and they'll be taking forward a programme of support, to help schools take a whole-school approach to provide the children's right to play. He will also know, of course, of the work that the Deputy Minister for Social Services has been funding in relation to the Playworks holiday project, the Summer of Fun, and the Winter of Well-being, which comes to an end tomorrow.

Minister, last week, I met with Ruby, who is a sixth form pupil at Ysgol Gyfun Cwm Rhondda and a young member of the Senedd for Rhondda. I know the Minister will be visiting the school soon, following the exciting plans to build a brand-new, twenty-first century school, and I'm sure Ruby would love to give you a tour. We discussed a range of issues relating to day-to-day school life, but the one clear message throughout was the significant effect poverty has on our young people. Poverty, undoubtedly, affects home and school life, from digital inclusion anxieties to period poverty. This takes its toll on our young people's mental health. What measures is the education Minister taking to support the mental health of the most disadvantaged young people in Rhondda, especially now through the cost-of-living crisis?

It's a very, very important question that the Member raises. She will know that we published our framework for a whole-school approach to mental health and well-being last year. And, this year, I'm pleased to say that the budget for that has been significantly extended in order to be able to provide additional counselling, to be able to provide an extension of the in-school child and adolescent mental health services in-reach support, as well as to train teachers to be able to identify well-being and mental health needs in their pupils, and also to provide support directly to those pupils themselves. She will also know, of course, of the work that we are doing to trial additional activities in schools at the moment, and the reports that we are getting in real time from those trials is that they are very beneficial in terms of the well-being and mental health, perhaps, often, of some of our most disadvantaged pupils. So, we look forward very much to seeing the outcomes of those trials in a few weeks' time.

School Merger Plans in Penarth

6. Will the Minister make a statement on the merger of Evenlode Primary School and Bute Cottage Nursery School in Penarth? OQ57893

The objection period for the proposal by the Vale of Glamorgan Council ended on 16 March. In accordance with the school organisation code, the council must consider objections conscientiously alongside arguments in respect of the proposal and determine whether or not to approve the proposal within 16 weeks of that date.

Minister, as part of, obviously, the proposals is a consultation exercise, undertaken by—and I declare an interest as a member of the local authority, the Vale of Glamorgan Council—the council. In this particular case, 238 responses came in to that consultation. Over 70 per cent of those responses were supporting the current status quo and not to change the current dynamic of the two schools. So, what weight, as Minister, would you place on the consultation exercise and in particular any authority, but in this case the Vale of Glamorgan Council, paying due regard to the overwhelming wishes of the community to keep the status quo when it comes to these two important provisions in their community?

14:50

As the Member said, the purpose of a consultation is to elicit the views of the public and others in relation to a particular reorganisation proposal, and the school organisation code of course sets out what the council needs to take into account when it receives those consultation responses. As I know that he's aware, proposals which that either approved or rejected by a local authority can then be referred to Welsh Minister for consideration if some limited parties decide to take that step within the 28-day period from the decision. So, given that Ministers have a role in that statutory process, I can't comment specifically on the merits or otherwise of that proposal, but the school organisation code itself is very clear, I think.

Pupils Living in Poverty

7. What assistance is the Minister putting in place to support pupils who are living in poverty over the Easter school holidays? OQ57885

Tackling the impact of poverty is a key priority for us. As part of a wider package of support to help struggling families, an additional £4.4 million in 2022-23 has been made available to support the cost of holiday meals for free-school-meal-eligible pupils during the Easter holidays in this academic year.

I'm grateful to you for that, Minister. We all want children to look forward to their holidays. We want them to look forward to spending time with their families. We want them to look forward to being able to relax without a care in world, to be able to enjoy themselves over the holiday period. It's an absolute tragedy—it's an absolute tragedy—that there are children that you represent, that I represent, that we all represent, who look towards these holidays with a sense of fear and dread, and parents and families in this country who'll be losing sleep over the next couple of weeks knowing of the financial pressures that they will be facing over the holidays, which are far more intense than during term time. It is all the more tragic that this is happening because we have a UK Government that really doesn't care about the impact of their policies and the policies that they've been pursuing on some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in this country. Minister, I'm grateful that the Welsh Government has stepped into this breach and is providing help and support for some of the poorest families in this country. Can you guarantee to this Parliament this afternoon that this Government will continue to provide all the support it can to children and to families in this country to ensure that the spectre of poverty doesn't disfigure their lives in the way it's disfigured the lives of generations before us because of a UK Government that doesn't care about them and their communities?

I thank Alun Davies for that, and I think the bleak situation he describes is the reality for constituents of his and of mine and for other colleagues in the Chamber today. This Government, the Welsh Government, will do everything that we can to support families in Wales. You will know of the announcements that the Minister for Social Justice made a few weeks ago. You will recall the announcement I made a week ago in relation to supporting families who need particular support with the costs of school uniform, school kit, school trips and so on. But, at the end of the day, there is a responsibility on the United Kingdom Government to recognise the consequence of the choices it is making. And we all know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, when he should have been looking out for people who are struggling the most, chose to look away.

Minister, sport and physical activity play a huge part in developing young children, and for some of the most vulnerable children in our communities living in poverty being in school is the only opportunity they have to access sport and sports facilities. So, Minister, can you outline what support the Welsh Government will be putting in place during the Easter holidays to support those children in poverty to have great access to sports facilities? Diolch, Llywydd.

The Member will know of the announcement that I made in relation to community-focused schools last week, which recognises the important point that he makes, which is that one of the key contributions that we can make to support disadvantaged learners in their schooling is to enable schools to have a community focus in what they do and how they operate. And he will have heard me say that we are investing £25 million in this financial year to help schools expand their offer to the community, and that will also include funding to support schools in their outreach to families in their school community who are particularly disadvantaged, where their children have challenges with their attendance. So, this Government will do everything we can to support disadvantaged learners in our schools. What we need is a partner at the other end of the M4 who is also prepared to do that. 

14:55
Healthy Relationships

8. How is the Welsh Government promoting healthy relationships in the school curriculum? OQ57899

There is a strong focus on developing healthy relationships within the health and well-being area of the new curriculum. Becoming healthy, confident individuals is one of the four purposes of the new curriculum, and learners will be supported to understand that healthy relationships are fundamental to our well-being.

Thank you, Minister. I also really want to thank you for your recent trip to Coychurch Primary School in Bridgend to see pupils take part in a Spectrum Cymru session to learn about feeling safe and expressing emotions. As a relatively new Member of the Senedd, one of my favourite parts of my role is visiting schools and talking to young people about their priorities, and in the last few weeks I have visited both Coychurch Primary School with you and Porthcawl Primary School, and it was a delight to hear about their projects around inclusiveness, from learning about LGBT rights to Black Lives Matter. The world is changing, and it is our job to provide the tools to enable young people to understand the world around them by celebrating difference, rather than fearing it. Understanding healthy relationships is crucial if we are to build a tolerant and inclusive Wales, and I also believe that including healthy relationships in the new curriculum can play a major role in tackling societal issues such as misogyny. From understanding what makes a healthy relationship to consent, children of all ages should be respected and made aware of boundaries. The tools we provide for our children will inevitably shape the society they grow into. Therefore, could the Minister inform us how he is working with the Minister for Social Justice to tackle these very issues, such as misogyny and consent, through the new curriculum, please? 

Yes. We strongly believe that every young person should have the right to access information, support and learning that keeps them safe from harm, and that includes—and I know that the Member has an interest in this area in particular—online safety and knowing what's right and wrong so that they can raise issues with responsible adults. On the particular point that she raises in her question, the new mandatory code for relationships and sexuality education and the guidance that goes with that underpin learners' rights to enjoy fulfilling, healthy and safe relationships throughout their lives, and contributes to the aims and objectives set out by the Minister for Social Justice in the new draft violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence strategy. I enjoyed very much the visit that we made to Coychurch Primary School, and I think it was great to see the work that Spectrum is doing, focusing on healthy relationships. I know that she shared my excitement at seeing the way in which the children really embraced and engaged with the learning that they had. And I think, as well as the boys and girls learning from it, I felt certainly that there were some things that we as grown-ups could learn from it as well. 

Good afternoon, Minister. The Welsh Government has been clear that RSE should support learners to develop the knowledge, skills and values to understand how relationships and sexuality shape their own lives and the lives of others. Learners should be equipped and enabled to seek support on issues related to RSE and to educate themselves and others. On developing healthy relationships, I would like to know how Welsh Ministers will ensure that we do more to support cultural understanding and respect, recognising the beauty of our diversity. Thank you, Minister. 

Well, I think that's a very important question, and the basis on which the relationship and sexuality education code and guidance were developed was an inclusive process, which involved a number of groups and community representatives, so that we could make certain that the code and resources, when they are in our schools, are helpful and supportive and deliver the outcomes that I know that he cares about very much as well. RSE has a positive and protective role in our young people's education, and I think, as I was saying in my answer to Sarah Murphy, when you see the kind of activities in classrooms that are there to support our learners understand the nature of their own rights, but also the importance of healthy relationships, seeing that delivered in a very inclusive way is very rewarding and very reassuring as well.

15:00

Thank you very much, Llywydd, and good afternoon, Minister.

School Closures in Powys

9. Will the Minister make a statement on the impact of recently announced school closures in Powys on the Welsh Government's targets to expand Welsh-medium education? OQ57888

Powys commits to improving access to Welsh-medium education across all key stages, and their recently submitted Welsh in education strategic plans propose to introduce new Welsh-medium primary provision across four areas within the first five years, contributing to their overall target to increase the percentage of learners in Welsh-medium education to at least 36 per cent by 2032.

Diolch, Weinidog. You will be aware of the decision of Powys County Council to close rural schools in the area, which has been a devastating blow for many communities. I am increasingly concerned about the impact this so-called transformation programme will have on Welsh-medium education in Powys, so thank you for your response. The commitment of many of these rural schools to Welsh education is impressive, and I know you share my concerns that this programme of closing schools may mean that these communities will have the Welsh language decimated and, potentially, disappearing. So, may I ask what additional attention you'll be giving to ensure that Welsh education programmes can thrive in rural schools? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Well, just with the caveat that I gave to Andrew R.T. Davies about being able to comment on specific proposals, on the broader question that the Member makes about Welsh-medium education in Powys, I should say that I'm currently assessing all of the Welsh in education strategic plans at the moment. I'll be making an announcement on whether to approve, approve with modifications or reject those plans before the end of the summer term. She may know that Powys has committed, as I mentioned earlier, to those four new Welsh-medium primary provisions that will benefit Crickhowell, Hay-on-Wye, Presteigne and the north Powys area. There is also a commitment in the WESP to supporting dual stream English-medium primary schools to move along the language continuum, and to do that using immersion practices. There's a pilot in Ysgol y Cribarth that I'm sure she will be aware of, which is a great example of this, and I'm looking forward to visiting there in May. I've also, as we were discussing earlier in this session, announced £2.2 million in the Welsh immersion grant last September. Powys has benefited from that grant to pilot a new Welsh-language immersion centre at Ysgol Dafydd Llwyd in Newtown. The Welsh in education strategic plan in Powys is ambitious, as it is in other parts of Wales, and as Minister I fully expect those ambitions to be met.   

3. Topical Questions

The next item therefore is the topical questions. The first question is to be answered by the Minister for Health and Social Services, and is to be asked by Russell George. 

Grange University Hospital

1. Will the Minister make a statement on the Grange University Hospital’s declaration of a black alert last night? TQ615

In the light of exceptional pressures and despite efforts to stabilise its services, Aneurin Bevan University Health Board declared a business continuity incident at the Grange University Hospital on the afternoon of 29 March. This is the highest level of escalation available, and clearly indicates the severe pressure being experienced by our health and care services. 

Thank you for your answer, Minister. For a major hospital to declare a black alert on a weekday evening, of course, indicates that the NHS in Wales is ill-prepared to support those who need it the most. I'm particularly concerned, of course, for the staff at the hospital, who are under significant pressure, and, I'm sure, will be feeling a sense of being let down themselves. I would like to know, Minister, the urgent assessment that you have made of the black alert at the Grange hospital's A&E department. The hospital was, of course, supposed to be the flagship hospital, and it was of course opened early. So, I would ask you for your assessment on whether it was correct to open the hospital early. Understaffing has been an ongoing and huge issue at the hospital since it opened. There have been sustained reports of understaffing since the hospital first opened. So, can I ask you, Minister, did you see this coming, and what support can you now offer? What is your plan to support the hospital and particularly support the workforce that are under so much pressure at the hospital?

15:05

Thanks very much. There is a difficult—an extremely difficult—situation that's confronting not just Aneurin Bevan health board but also health boards across the whole of Wales at the moment. We've always been open about the challenges that NHS Wales and emergency departments are under, and they're under pressure like they haven't seen during the whole of the pandemic. COVID rates have never been higher in our communities. We have 1,468 people in hospital with COVID. That's the highest number in a year. During the last six weeks, we've been at the highest level of bed occupancy in the NHS since the beginning of the pandemic. We have 900 more patients in hospital today than we did a year ago. Was it right to open the hospital early? Damn right it was, because imagine if we hadn't. We needed those beds. This is not a situation that is unique to Wales, but it's absolutely clear that this is a pressure that's facing people across the United Kingdom as well.

One of the issues that we are having to confront is the fact that there are very high numbers of patients who are ready to be discharged from hospital but they're unable to do so because of the fragility of our care services. I know that the Deputy Minister for Social Services is working incredibly hard on making sure that we get a better flow through our systems. The fact is that in Aneurin Bevan we have around 270 patients who are ready to leave, but it's been impossible for many of them to leave because 70 of our care homes in Aneurin Bevan were closed because of COVID. Can you prepare for those kinds of things? We have been trying to prepare, but we are in an extremely difficult situation at the moment and I think it is absolutely right for us to understand the kind of pressure that our staff is under. And on top of that, let's think about the staff, because actually, a lot of them are going down with COVID as well, which obviously increases the pressure even more on those who are left in the hospitals.

Thank you, Minister, for your responses so far.

During my numerous street surgeries throughout the region, a common complaint has been the service that patients have experienced at the Grange. This has been the case across the region. It seems people have difficulties in terms of site accessibility, the lack of adequate public transport, and the long waits to be seen when they eventually get there. Things have clearly come to a head in the last few days. Having a brand new facility is all well and good, but doesn't the brief history of the Grange hospital show that a new hospital is nothing without its staff? The NHS's greatest strength is its people, and we are in danger of forcing them out of the sector unless we improve their working conditions. We also risk the health of patients wherever crisis points like this are reached. What lessons have been learnt from the opening of the Grange, and what plans are in place to put the hospital on a healthier footing? This situation must be rectified as soon as possible, for the sake of patients and the staff. Diolch yn fawr.

Diolch yn fawr. Of course there were lessons to be learnt from the opening of the Grange. We opened it because, frankly, we were in the middle of a pandemic and we needed all the help that we could get. So, it was absolutely the right thing to do, but obviously it meant that we didn't have time to do the preparations that we would have done had we not been in that situation. I'm very pleased to say that the Royal College of Physicians made a visit to the Grange University Hospital a while ago. They were quite critical, frankly, of the services there, but they have now produced a follow-up review that's been published today, and they are actually endorsing a lot of the actions that have been undertaken by the health board. So, I'm very pleased to see that.

What else can we do to help? Well, frankly, we can all help in these circumstances. We are in a situation where we all need to see if there's anything more we can do as citizens. Our priority, of course, is to ensure the safe and efficient delivery of healthcare services to anyone, but I would appeal to members of the public: if you are able to help with the discharge of your family from hospital if they are ready to be discharged, then please help us out and come and help us to discharge them from hospital and give them that support, so that we can get more urgent cases into the hospital at this extreme time.

15:10

I'm grateful to you, Minister, for those responses. It's important that we recognise what is actually happening in the Grange, rather than simply listening to hearsay. There are some significant successes from the centralisation of services in the Grange, and I've spoken to constituents in the last week who have been through some excellent treatment and have received superb levels of care within the Grange. I think it's important that we recognise that and recognise the hard work that is going on in the Grange and the other hospitals in the Aneurin Bevan network.

The issues that I'm dealing with are the issues, Minister, that I've brought to your attention already in the last few weeks, which are about unscheduled care, which are about emergency access, and those issues are very real issues. There is an issue with the ability of the Grange to deal with the pressures it's under, and there is a significant issue where sometimes some very vulnerable patients have not received the treatment that they require urgently. I brought a constituent's situation to your attention last week, where she did not receive the treatment that she needed, and that was a very urgent cancer requirement. So, we need to look at the reality of what is happening in the Grange and deal with the real issues.

Minister, is it possible for the Welsh Government to provide the Aneurin Bevan health board with resources, or work with the health board, to enable them to overcome the issues that you've described that we're all familiar with, that will enable them to deal with the current pressures, to enable them to build the sort of sustainable services that we require in the hospital and in the network of hospitals, but also to ensure that we have the different health boards that provide services to people in Blaenau Gwent talking to each other, so that where a patient is taken, for example, to Prince Charles Hospital, that their treatment plans are recognised by staff in Prince Charles, and that they are able to receive the treatment that they require?

Like others in the Chamber this afternoon, I think we should all pay tribute to the hard work that is being done by members of staff in the Grange under the most extraordinary pressures that the Minister has already described. I think as politicians, what we need to do is to ensure that we put in place the structures that are required to support those staff, to support those services, and to deliver the treatment that people need and require at the time they need it.

Diolch yn fawr, Alun. I think you're absolutely right, it's important that we don't just act on hearsay, but there are lots of individual patient experiences that are frankly heartbreaking. I've received e-mails over the weekend with people just desperate, frankly, because they have been waiting for hours on end.

We are in an extreme situation at the moment. I'm confident that we won't continue to be in this situation, but that's where we're at at the moment. I think it's really important for people to understand that the NHS is still very much open for business. We're seeing 200,000 patients a month still, in terms of outpatients. I think it's important also to respond to the fact that actually, the RCP is saying that things are improving. It's just that we are in these intensely difficult situations at the moment.

The flow is part of the problem. How do people get access to A&E if all the beds are full? As you've heard, because of the situation in terms of getting people out of hospitals because those care homes are shut, that is creating a real problem for us. It's very difficult to know what do you do in those circumstances, and that's why we are appealing to people to come and fetch their loved ones from hospital and look after them if they can, because we can get them out of hospital, and we can help support other members of their family who may need more urgent treatment as well. 

We have given significant additional support to the ambulance service. We've recruited hundreds of new people in our service. We've given £250 million extra to relieve pressure last year. We're giving £170 million additional funding in the next financial year. And we are, actually—. Aneurin Bevan is being absolutely clear that, under these extreme circumstances, they are diverting patients and helping patients to go to other health boards that are perhaps not quite under the same pressure.

15:15

Back in the autumn when I was taken ill, I spent 22 hours in an A&E department, and I know the pressure full well that staff feel, but also the hopelessness that patients feel as well. I'd be most grateful to understand from the Minister the staffing ratios in the A&E department at the Grange, and if she hasn't got that information, could she provide that in a letter form that could be placed in the library? And importantly, on those staff ratios, how many are core staff and how many are bank? Because the one thing that became evident to me in the A&E department that I was in for a considerable period of time was that there were a lot of bank staff there that weren't familiar with the settings and the procedures that that department required to use on a day-to-day basis, and that caused a lot of problems in discharging and the flow of patients that the Minister's referred to. So, could she provide that information, accepting if she hasn't got that with her today, she could place it in the library and we could all see it?

Absolutely. And, no, I don't have the specific information, but, obviously, I'd be willing to look at that. There are always issues about pressures in hospital, and if people are off sick, obviously—and there are a lot of people off sick; we all know somebody who is suffering with COVID at the moment—clearly that is affecting hospital staff as well, which is why you then have to go to those bank staff.

What we're trying to do, and we have been doing for a long time now, is recruiting additional staff. We've recruited 53 per cent more staff than we did 20 years ago. That is a massive increase. You look at our recruitment and our training when it comes to nurses and midwives—significant increases: 73 per cent and 92 per cent; huge increases in the number of people that we're training. But it is difficult, and we've never seen pressure like this before.

Minister, since the Grange opened, it's been plagued with overcrowding and long waits, and, as we've been hearing, this isn't fair to patients or staff. The fact that there were 14-hour waits in A&E last night is indicative of a serious problem. I know, last October—you've been referring to the fact that there were reports of trainee doctors and consultants being scared to go into work, which the Royal College of Physicians was reporting. When other hospitals like the miners' hospital in Caerphilly closed, patients were promised that there would be no disruption to their care, but overcentralisation of services is leading to just that. So, we have staff who are, at times, near breaking point, and patients who aren't getting the care they need.

But, Minister, as well as what you're saying that the Government obviously will be doing to change this, you've just said that we all know someone who is suffering with COVID at the moment. Now, I'm asking this sincerely, I'm not asking this glibly at all: do you really think that now is the time to remove legal requirements over self-isolation and COVID mask wearing in retail and transport? Won't more COVID cases make a dire situation even worse? 

Thanks very much. Well, I would urge you—and you're quite right, there was some extreme criticism about what happened in the Grange by places like the Royal College of Physicians—to read the follow-up review, which does suggest that there have been many improvements since that initial inspection took place. I would also ask people to make use of the now all-Wales 111 telephone services, which provide access to out-of-hours and urgent primary care services, making sure that you get the right support at the right place at the right time. So, there are alternatives to A&E, and it's really important that people make use of those.

Also, you talked about the legal requirements. Well, let me tell you that your sister party in Scotland never had a legal requirement when it came to self-isolation, and it seems to have worked quite well for them. So, we're actually in a position now where we are giving responsibility back to the public. And I've got to tell you, in Wales, the public have been marvellous. They have followed our advice, and we are now trusting them to continue to do the good work that they know should be done. When they know rates are at the highest levels within their community, I'm sure they will continue to do the right thing, to wear face coverings when appropriate, to make sure that they're testing if appropriate and to make sure, also, that they're self-isolating if they catch COVID.

15:20

Thank you, Llywydd, and thank you, Minister, and thank you to Russell for asking this question.

It's just a very short point. Many residents in south Powys attend Nevill Hall Hospital in Aneurin Bevan health board in Abergavenny. In the statement last night from Aneurin Bevan on the Grange, there was a recommendation that patients are diverted to other hospitals like Nevill Hall. I'm sure this has been considered, but could you just reassure us that additional support is being offered to hospitals like Nevill Hall that will be put under additional stress in the short term from the situation in the Grange? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Thank you. Well, there is stress across the whole system. The Grange is experiencing it in particular, but this is a stress that is happening across the whole of Wales, indeed across the whole of the United Kingdom. And I'm informed by my officials that sites, for example, in England, also declared major incidents last night, including Hereford hospital and the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, which led to handover delays of up to 20 hours for Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust vehicles conveying patients from Wales to those sites. So, it's not just in Wales that these pressures are happening, they are happening across the whole of the United Kingdom. Obviously, we will give as much support as we can to the system, but there are levels of escalation that the health boards know that they need to use and implement, and we're at a particular level of escalation in Aneurin Bevan, which is the highest level of escalation, and that means that they stop doing the routine work and they focus on their really urgent work. And I'm sure that you'll understand the need to do that.

I thank the Minister. The next question is to be answered by the Minister for Economy and is to be asked by Rhun ap Iorwerth.

Orthios

2. Will the Minister make a statement on the announcement that Orthios has been placed in administration and the impact of that on the 120 local jobs? TQ616

Apologies, I don't have my translation, but it's written down. Can I get a headset for the follow-up? Sorry.

Do you want to borrow mine?

No, it'll go in my ears.

Thank you for the question. I understand that this will be a deeply concerning time for workers, their families and the wider Holyhead community. My officials have reached out to the company and stand ready to offer support to those affected at this distressing time.

I'll have to wait for the headset for the moment, because he asked the question in Welsh.

This has come as a terrible blow to the island's economy, and I'll say more about that in a moment, but more immediately, of course, to the workforce, and my thoughts are with them today. One told me they'd been informed through a WhatsApp message group. A member of my team has been taking part this afternoon in a meeting of a taskforce set up to help workers, and I'm grateful to Citizens Advice for convening that, to Anglesey council and other agencies for the part that they're playing too.

Now, one obvious priority is to make sure that staff get paid. I understand that it was tomorrow that they were due to be paid. Some say they won't be able to pay their rents next month. Now, will the Minister make this a priority in discussions with administrators and will he outline other steps that Government officials are ready to take to support the workforce at this time? The other element here is the importance of this site—the old Anglesey Aluminium site and its jetty for cruise liners, a rail hub, a power hub, so many aspects to it. We're told that the problems we're facing today are linked to the financing of the Orthios project. We'll no doubt come to understand more and be able to talk more about those issues in due course. So, (a) can I ask the Minister if he will meet with me to discuss the current situation and the future of the site? And (b) can I have an undertaking that no stone will be left unturned, working with Orthios, its investors and other partners to ensure that the potential of this site can be maximised and in a sustainable way? There have been many questions asked and real frustrations at the pace of development since Orthios took over the site, but more recently, there had been investment and jobs created. But in seeking a way forward now and seeking the re-employment of the workers very, very soon, we owe it to them to ensure that there is genuine sustainability to development going forward.

Thank you for the question and the series of points. Starting with what I said in my opening response, my thoughts are with workers at what will be a distressing time. It's always difficult when you lose a job when you don't want to, but in particular to lose a job in dramatic circumstances, where you're unsighted and not forewarned. And there's a good reason why employment law in this country requires employers to consult with the workforce before redundancies are made. Now, we've had other examples of really poor employment practice. I'm keen to understand what has happened here. Has there really been an event that has taken place so rapidly that there could not have been consultation? I'd be very surprised at that. And I think that also turns on your second point about pay. In a former life, what I used to know at the redundancy payments office was the sorts of claims you could have if you didn't receive pay, but, actually, that isn't the same as receiving your contractual pay, and workers could well lose out on money if they do need to fall back on the statutory provision that is available as well. And that often takes time, and that is almost always not likely to happen unless people do have the support of their trade union. I understand Unite is the on-site union. It's worth pointing out that Welsh Government officials are also looking to have conversations with the trade union, to gain their understanding of what has happened on the site too.

On the point about no stone being unturned, I'm more than happy to confirm that that will certainly be the approach of this Government, working together with the council and the Department for Work and Pensions. There's a multi-agency team that is already being co-ordinated to look at the different sorts of support that the two national Governments can provide, together with the council, to support workers to look to find alternative and sustainable employment.

And I think that goes on to your final point, where I'm happy to meet the Member to discuss not just the current situation, but, actually, the longer term for this site. It is a key employment site, with the power connections and our ambitions for the future economy in this area, with good employment that we think could and should be created, and I'm keen that the site isn't lost to fruitful future development, as well as trying to address the current situation. My office will be happy to be in touch to arrange a convenient time for us to meet.

15:25

Thank you to the Member, also, from Ynys Môn for putting this really important question forward today—not just the effect in Holyhead and Ynys Môn, but the north Wales region, because of the significance and the potential significance of the site. The announcement that Orthios has been placed into administration is clearly extremely worrying, and I fully share the concerns made by the Member for Ynys Môn, and by you, Minister, as well. This will and has come as a shock to many people, and it's so sad seeing the potential of many people losing their jobs. And the significance of the site has been mentioned already, and I'd certainly like to join the calls from the Member for Ynys Môn to see a real clear plan made for that site, because the opportunities are incredible there, and it's a shame they haven't been realised yet. There's a huge amount of work that can be done.

But, Minister, you know you have obviously responsibility in terms of support and advice for business growth and development of business, business information, business support, so in light of this, I'd be grateful to understand what support the Welsh Government has provided to Orthios over recent months, before this announcement was made, and what steps had you made to reach out to them over recent months as well. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Well, there have been regular attempts to reach out to the company, and we've had conversations with them about the jetty and the position for cruise ships. You will recall that we reached an alternative arrangement to make sure that the season wasn't cancelled last year. Our challenge is in ensuring that the conversation is a genuine dialogue rather than an offer of support, where there isn't—. We can't force the company to take up support, so they do need to respond to us, and my officials are waiting to hear from the company. There have been regular attempts to call the company over the recent months and recent days, and I'd say again we'd want the company to engage with us on what they propose to do, what they propose to do with the workforce, and how we can actually look at the site to make sure that the significant opportunities—and I recognise right across north Wales, and across parties for this site—are actually realised, and I don't want to lose sight of either of those, the immediate position, but also the longer term potential for the site.

I thank the Member, Rhun ap Iorwerth, for tabling this important question today, and I'm very much in line with what he has said already. Minister, can I slightly change the question a bit? And the announcement is clearly worrying for many individuals and many families across north Wales, and these are quite clearly tough times, and it's very difficult to absorb shocks like this in the current climate. But can I ask you what support and advice the Welsh Government can offer to businesses who are owed money by Orthios, like the one in my own constituency that has contacted me and Carolyn Thomas, in her role as Member of the Senedd for North Wales, just this week?

15:30

Thank you. It's an important point. It's often the case that, when larger businesses do cease or significantly reduce their operation, there are often other businesses in their supply chain who are left in financial distress as well. So, the ripple effect from a significant event like this can be sometimes hidden. So, I'm grateful to the Member for raising it.

In terms of practical support, I'd be very interested if he could share the details with us. Other businesses, they can always contact Business Wales in terms of the advice and support that we can provide to make sure they get to the right point, depending on what's happened in the supply chain and what the contractual arrangements are in place between them and the main company. But I'm acutely aware this will likely affect a number of other businesses, not just the more than 100 workers who appear to have lost their jobs overnight. 

4. 90-second Statements

The next item therefore is the 90-second statements, and the first statement is from Mark Isherwood. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Sorry, hearing aids and masks don't go together. 

This week marks World Autism Acceptance Week, which aims to help change attitudes towards autistic people. The National Autistic Society, which is marking its sixtieth year, wants everyone to understand autism better, and highlights the top five things that autistic people and families themselves want the public to know: that autistic people may feel anxiety about changes or unexpected events; experience sensory sensitivity, being either under or over sensitive to sounds, smells, light, taste and touch; they may need extra time to process information such as questions or instructions; face high levels of anxiety in social situations and have difficulties communicating and interacting with other people.

There are an estimated 30,000 or more autistic people in Wales, and although almost everyone has heard of autism, too few people understand what it's actually like to be autistic and how hard life can be if autistic people don't have the right support. Although diagnosis can be life-changing, helping explain who you are, thousands of children and adults in Wales are waiting many months or even years for assessment. A recent study found that only 28 per cent of autistic pupils in Wales felt their teachers understood autism, and new Office for National Statistics data suggests that just 29 per cent of autistic people are in any form of work. Without support, many autistic people develop mental health problems, sometimes to the point of crisis. This is why World Autism Acceptance Week is so important. Diolch. 

Can I just take the opportunity to congratulate Mark Isherwood on that, because it's an issue very close to my heart?

The week before last marked British Science Week 2022, which is a 10-day celebration of STEM, science, technology, engineering and maths, which took place between 11 and 20 March. And this year's theme was 'smashing stereotypes', by celebrating the diverse people and careers of people in STEM careers in Wales. The STEM sectors are much more diverse than you'd think and than the stereotype suggests. There are people studying and working in labs, at colleges, universities, and in work, who've come from many different backgrounds and have taken lots of different routes into their career.

Colegau Cymru has highlighted the case to me of Chloe Thomas, who is one example of a learner who has benefited from this investment in STEM. She was successful in securing an apprenticeship with Transport for Wales, and attended Coleg y Cymoedd in Ystrad Mynach, which is in my constituency. And she said the college, quote, provided her with a positive hands-on learning environment with modern workshops and laboratories. So, significant. And she's now got that permanent position with TfW as a fleet support engineer, having been the first female apprentice to work in its Canton depot. 

One thing I'd say, as we consider—and I know the Minister for Economy is considering—degree apprenticeships, we haven't quite got the balance right in gender terms with degree apprenticeships. So, there's a further opportunity at that level to succeed with degree-level apprenticeships in the way that stereotypes have been smashed at a further education level. 

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

Today I'll be speaking about the Rhian Griffiths Forget Me Not fund, which is a tribute fund in loving memory of Rhian Griffiths, who sadly passed away at the age of 25 in June 2012 from cervical cancer. Rhian was a much-loved daughter and sister, who was committed to her work as a nursery teacher. Throughout her time receiving treatment at Velindre, she was a very well-thought-of patient at the hospital. Despite everything Rhian went through, she demonstrated a strength of character and positivity that touched everyone who met her, and asked her parents, Wayne and Jane, to carry on her work fundraising for Velindre.

The family, through the Rhian Griffiths Forget Me Not Fund, are honouring her wishes and commemorating her life by continuing with fund-raising efforts for Velindre. The fund currently stands at just under £700,000, with Rhian's father, Wayne, engaging with schools, colleges, Women's Institutes, care homes, pubs and clubs, local businesses—you name it—to get the message out there. The hope is that research will find a way to cure cancer so that no-one will have to go through what Rhian did, and no family will have to witness their loved one suffering, and that, in the meantime, Velindre will continue to develop their support for patients and their families, providing a centre of true world-class standard in the treatment of all types of cancer care. I'd just like to say thank you to Wayne for coming down to the Senedd steps today, and to the Members who met with Wayne to learn more about the Rhian Griffiths Forget Me Not Fund. Thank you.

15:35
Motion to Elect Members to a Committee

The next item is a motion to elect Members to a committee, and I call on a member of the Business Committee to move the motion. Darren Millar.

Motion NNDM7978 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects:

1. Peredur Owen Griffiths (Plaid Cymru) as a member of the Standards of Conduct Committee in place of Heledd Fychan (Plaid Cymru);

2. Natasha Asghar (Welsh Conservatives) as a member of the Standards of Conduct Committee in place of Andrew R.T. Davies (Welsh Conservatives), and

3. Sam Rowlands (Welsh Conservatives) in place of Natasha Asghar (Welsh Conservatives) as alternate member of the Standards of Conduct Committee.

Motion moved.

The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

5. Debate on the Equality and Social Justice Committee Report: 'Minding the future: The childcare barrier facing working parents'

The next item is a debate on the Equality and Social Justice Committee report, 'Minding the future: The childcare barrier facing working parents'. And I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion, Jenny Rathbone.

Motion NDM7970 Jenny Rathbone

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the Equality and Social Justice Committee report ‘Minding the future: The childcare barrier facing working parents’, laid on 28 January 2022.

Motion moved.

Diolch. Access to good, affordable childcare is key to happier, healthier lives and a stronger, fairer, more productive economy. The lack of affordable childcare is one of the main drivers of the gender pay gap that is persistently seen. As we saw during the pandemic, it was assumed that women would pick up the pieces when schools closed, and that is exactly what happened. We know that women were left juggling their role as teacher as well as cook, bottle washers, and trying to hold down a paid job. Our report points to a range of actions that can be taken to improve awareness of the support that is available to parents, strengthen the workforce and learn from the best practice of other nations. I want to thank stakeholders who contributed to this work, both from within Wales and internationally, including the parents and front-line childcare workers, some of whom I believe are in the gallery this afternoon. I also want to thank the excellent research and clerking staff who supported our inquiry.

It is noteable that significant numbers of families do not know what they are entitled to. And when you look at the latest Coram Family and Childcare annual survey of all British authorities, you can hardly be surprised, because less than half our local authorities have enough childcare for even the free early education entitlements that children should be getting. So, it's not surprising that local authorities are not bending over backwards to tell people about provision that doesn't actually exist. The Bevan Foundation reported that even awareness of the 10 hours of universal provision for three- and four-year-olds is low. And our focus group participants expressed varying degrees of awareness about the scope and eligibility criteria of both Flying Start and the childcare offer. It's quite a confusing picture, therefore.

We're pleased that the Government has accepted in principle our recommendation for how we can rectify this situation. We suggested that this could include writing to new parents, or promoting the support that's available when registering the birth. The Minister has put a lot of emphasis on the information that's available from each local authority's family information service, and we look forward to the refresh of the online 'Choosing Childcare' booklet that you've commissioned, which is due out later this year. But we do know that online information isn't sufficient to reach all families about their child's entitlement. And the family information service itself is excellent in that it provides information about stay and play provision, which is just as important in the very early days of parenthood, but it really doesn't flash up in golden lights exactly what is available as a child's entitlement. 

It's very good to know that Flying Start teams are required to have other strategies for engaging with families and are expected to outline these as part of their annual plans, and I think that's a very important thing. But, unfortunately, you also say in your response that Flying Start itself is going to be using more social media platforms to communicate key messages to Flying Start families, and that's fine for some, but I fear that it won't reach the most disadvantaged. 

Turning to the Welsh Government's childcare offer, originally it was focused only on families where both parents—or, in a single-parent household, that parent—are working over 16 hours a week. So, we very much welcome the extension to parents who are in education, training or on the edge of work, and particularly your acceptance of our recommendation that children's rights impact assessments and equality impact assessments need to be carried out and that they will be published at least a month before any changes in the provision are going to be going live.

I hope that that will assist all public authorities to address how, for example, people who are working atypical hours, such as shift workers, are going to be able to benefit from the childcare offer, because this largely low-paid section of the workforce have largely been excluded from benefitting from the childcare offer as the market has yet to provide for this level of complexity. You've put the onus on local authorities to address this as part of their childcare sufficiency assessments, and I've no doubt the committee will look with great interest at the detail of those in due course to see whether they really address that particular concern.

During our inquiry, we heard from experts in Scotland and Sweden, and it's really important that we all learn from the best as a way of driving up the quality of our provision and our standards across the sector, so that it is not just a programme for getting more parents back into work more quickly, but a crucial vehicle for narrowing the attainment gap.

The Welsh Government, and the Deputy Minister in particular, hugely value the learning through play curriculum for early years and key stage 1, but I feel that nowhere are the pedagogical skills more important than in the very early years. This is the most difficult group of children to teach, and therefore we need the very best teachers in this field. So, we're very pleased that the Government has accepted our recommendation about the crucial role that community-focused schools can play, improving the consistency and quality of the provision across the childcare sector. 

It is terribly confusing for the child who at the moment has to be carted between up to three separate locations to cover the hours that their parent works, and parents themselves who took part in our consultations expressed confusion about the difference between early education and childcare. It seems to me that community-focused schools can really make a difference in ensuring that the whole community of offer is all good.

And I think there's quite a lot of cultural change that needs to go on as a result of this, because the National Association of Head Teachers tweeted that childcare should be kept out of schools in response to our report, which was a truly astonishing disregard for the role that quality, comprehensive childcare plays in narrowing the gap in attainment caused by poverty. They cannot be surprised that children turn up in school aged three with only three or four words if they don't pay attention to what childcare they're getting before they start mainstream school. 

This is definitely not about schools taking over the valued role played by the private and the community nurseries, but I would be grateful if the Deputy Minister in her response could clarify how we are going to raise the capacity and capability of the whole of the childcare sector, which is largely dominated by these private and voluntary organisations, and that's particularly important when it comes to additional learning needs.

We had a really harrowing piece of evidence from somebody whose autistic child was simply not able to get any support at all during the time of lockdown because the key workers were told that the provision needed to close, and it seems to me that that sort of person, that sort of family needs, above all, to have been given much greater consideration. So, I think that it would be really helpful to hear a little bit more about how we're going to do that, because for a family with a disabled child, they don't want to be carting their child across some distance in order to be able to get the level of provision that child requires. We need that child to be able to get the same provision as the other children who they're playing with in daily life and not have to go somewhere special. They need to be integrated from the start.

I'd be grateful if you could tell us what progress has been made in taking forward the joint working by Estyn and Care Inspectorate Wales on the childcare provision and whether there's a greater role for Estyn in really ensuring that all childcare provision has the support of suitably qualified people in designing the curriculum, particularly for children with additional needs.

And lastly, I just want to say that we need a childcare sector that reflects the population. So, there's a great deal more work to do to ensure that people from different communities are encouraged to take up this important job in childcare, and the way in which we reward our workforce and show that we value this important work is something that we really all need to address, because, as one of our contributors said,

'We're on zero hour contracts and we're minding the future.'

So, pay and professionalisation of the sector are key to the child-focused and family-focused society we all seek.

15:45

Thank you to the Equality and Social Justice Committee for bringing forward today's report. You may be a little surprised to see me speaking on this item today, but I must say, I had the pleasure of attending two of the committee's meetings on behalf of my good friend and colleague over recent months, and I enjoyed the committee's work, carried out regarding parental employment and childcare—this specific issue. I'm sure the committee enjoyed my attendance there as well, at times. [Laughter.]

But, as we know, childcare and parental employment has been an issue for a number of years and been brought to light, certainly, through the COVID-19 pandemic. As access to affordable and flexible childcare is often cited, as shared already through the report, by many parents as one of the main barriers preventing them from working or progressing further in their careers—and my wife and I certainly have experienced this with our three children, who are under the age of 10—there's the challenge that can take place for working parents.

Before I jump into some of the points that jumped out to me in the report and the committee's work on this, just a thought going through my mind while the report was being presented is I do wonder, sometimes, whether we're missing a trick with multigenerational care. I always remember the story, in my former life, my former job, I had a new boss who came over on secondment from Hyderabad in India, and he couldn't get over the way that we deal with care, childcare, caring for our elderly, compared to some of the cultural ways that his tradition would use. I do wonder sometimes whether we're missing a trick with the grandparent-grandchild relationship that can take place and the support that we provide there across multiple generations. That's an aside, I suppose.

But in terms of the report and the points that jumped out to me, as cited, during the committee's evidence, many parents simply aren't aware of what childcare support is actually available to them, particularly available to new parents, and I experienced this around nine years ago. It's really important, in my view, that Welsh Government do work more closely with local authorities, in particular, and health boards and relevant organisations to improve this awareness and provide further information to parents, so they can use a number of the fantastic options that are out there, and it's crucial that childcare and support are targeted, certainly, at families that need it, and we try and avoid this postcode lottery that can happen from time to time.

Secondly, in terms of the co-operation agreement of the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru, there's clearly some provision in there to improve and expand the free childcare to two-year-olds, particularly focused on providing strengthened Welsh-medium childcare, and I'd certainly welcome that from this side of the benches. These are items we've been calling for for a long time as well and it's good to see progress in that area.

Finally, I think it's clear from the committee's engagement that all efforts need to be made to encourage people from all backgrounds, as just highlighted by the Chair there, to consider a career in childcare. I know, for example, my wife worked in this area for a short time and it would be good to see a broader mix of people involved in that professional childcare and children being able to see different types of people looking after them over the series of their life, I suppose.

So, to conclude, I'd like to put on record my thanks to the whole of the committee for producing this really important piece of work on childcare and the positive outcomes that it will have. I also thank the organisations and public bodies and all sorts of bodies that provided evidence to help the committee with their recommendations. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

15:50

I'm pleased to contribute to this debate as Plaid Cymru's spokesperson on equality and social justice and also as a committee member. A few weeks ago, we marked International Women's Day and discussed here in the Chamber the annual Chwarae Teg 'State of the Nation' report. That report revealed that we have a long way to go in terms of gender equality.

When the committee asked our witnesses what would make the most difference in terms of closing the gender pay gap and the inequalities that disproportionately affect women, families and children, while improving opportunities for women in the workplace and in society more generally, the answer was universal free childcare, and that should be available from one year old, if not younger. That would not only tackle gender inequality, but it would also deal with tackling poverty and disadvantage; good for mothers and parents, but most importantly, perhaps, good for children too. That's the ideal, the gold standard.

One research paper after another has pointed to that as something that we should aspire to, and that was confirmed, I think, by the evidence that is reflected in the committee's report. It's encouraging, therefore, that since we as a committee decided on the topic of our inquiry that the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru has ensured some progress towards that aim of expanding childcare to all two-year-olds as a first step.

One of the main messages of the report, which I hope will influence this important work, was, as we've heard, the lack of awareness, the difficulty in trying to find out what kind of care was available where, for what age group, for how many hours. In their evidence, the Women's Equality Network Wales shared with us that 67 per cent of the respondents to their survey had said that they needed more accessible and transparent information on the childcare provisions available. This was echoed by our focus groups in terms of their awareness of the childcare offer and Flying Start.

The picture painted was of patchy and inconsistent provision. A postcode lottery was described, where provision is not equal for all families and doesn't meet the needs of all children in all parts of Wales, and the inadequacies in terms of Welsh-medium provision and for children with additional learning needs clearly emerged as problems.

As they have accepted many of the committee's recommendations, and following the statement made last week, jointly with the Plaid Cymru designated Member, Siân Gwenllian, on the expansion of Flying Start, I would like to understand from the Deputy Minister what her vision is in terms of how we can deliver this aim of expanding childcare, bearing in mind what the report tells us of the challenges that need to be addressed in ensuring that. What part does the expansion of Flying Start play in the broader plans to enhance free childcare to all children of two years old? What's the plan in terms of expanding and developing the workforce and the provision that we need? And how will the Government secure improved access to clear and more accessible information for parents and a more streamlined childcare pathway for all, in all parts of Wales? 

Differences in access, availability and quality of childcare for different social groups reinforces inequality and outcomes between these groups, which is why universal, high-quality childcare access is so important when trying to create a prosperous Wales, without child poverty, where children of all backgrounds get the best start in life.

It is thought that children from the poorest families are already 10 months behind those from better off backgrounds in terms of development by the time they turn three. Not only does increasing the provision of childcare improve outcomes for the most vulnerable children in our society, but also it reduces in-work and more general poverty rates across Wales.

The need for improved childcare provision has been highlighted by the current cost-of-living crisis, and only exacerbated by stagnating wages in Wales. As we've highlighted many times in this place, the energy prices, the fuel prices, the food prices, the tax hikes, the inflation and the despicable decision by the UK Government to cut the uplift in universal credit and not to increase benefits in line with inflation will mean that the economic storm hitting our nation will hit the poorest in our society the hardest, and families with children, especially, having to choose between heating their homes or having a decent meal. Three in 10 households with an income less than £40,000 a year have seen their income drop since May 2021. Implementing the recommendations of this report quickly, efficiently and wholeheartedly will help slow the impact of this crisis while safeguarding future generations.

I am pleased that the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru begins to tackle some of the issues raised in the committee's report. However, this should inspire progress and not be seen as the end to the problem, as we push for universal childcare for all, to improve outcomes for children, create opportunities for parents, especially women, to access or return to work and education. Diolch.

15:55

I'm very pleased to rise and speak briefly in this debate, and also to thank the committee for their work and for continuing their attention on this really critical area of social policy, because it's undoubtedly the case—it almost goes without saying, but I'm darn well going to say it—if we get the investment right in the early years provision, in a coherent, unified system of early years provision, then we will transform life opportunities and we do have to build on what we've got there.

I want to start by looking at that and touching on this issue of how we will get to the place we want to be, with a proper unified, coherent early childhood education and care system that goes from the very early years all the way through, with this continuum. And, in fact, that is what was spelt out a couple of years ago when Welsh Government launched its ambition. I note in the letter at that point to Lynne Neagle, who now is a Minister, but was then chairing the same committee, that Julie Morgan wrote to Lynne, saying our ECEC aim is to create a single, high-quality, child-centred approach to early childhood education and care across Wales, one which recognises the value of both early education and childcare, drawing the best of both together in one single experience, with parents able to access services in Welsh, English or bilingually. Now, that's absolutely the ambition and it set a 10-year pathway to do it. Well, we're three and a half years now on from that moment, with that letter.

I do pay, genuinely, a compliment to Welsh Government for trying to build on the framework we have, but we were talking about this three, four, five years ago and more. We do have Flying Start in Wales, and it does a tremendous job, but it doesn't reach every child that Flying Start needs to get to. We do have a very good working-parent focus, although now extended to parents also seeking skills and training or higher education, which extends the childcare offer for three and four-year-olds, but it doesn't go to everybody, so it doesn't deal with that universality.

And, as has rightly being remarked on this, the problem that we have is, when you have something that is this complex mix of supply-and-demand-side approaches from UK and Welsh Government, the ones that tend to lose out are those who find it too complex to navigate, those from disadvantaged areas. And we can absolutely see the graphs that go back years that show in places like Merthyr and Blaenau Gwent and Ogmore, in contrast to Bridgend, for example—north to south of the motorway—the difference in childcare provision, where there's no advantage to childcare and early years providers to open up in areas where there is economic disadvantage. So, we really need to pull some of these together.

So, I'm asking the Minister today to give us an idea how far we've progressed on the development of this single, unified, coherent, ECEC structure. We were never going to do it overnight, but this report, once again, has fleshed out how much further we've got to go. We are building on a sector that is diverse and complex in its provision. We still have a situation where, for three and four-year-olds, it goes from areas and local authorities where there are wholly maintained sectors, like Neath Port Talbot, to other areas, like Monmouth, where non-maintained diverse independent providers dominate this scenario. How do you develop a unified, single, coherent ECEC structure when you have that sort of provision? The lack of incentive to invest in disadvantaged areas means that places like Merthyr are still losing out significantly, and anywhere, if you like, north of the snow line. 

Flying Start isn't everywhere. The means-tested, supply-side approach in Wales, contrasting with the market-driven demand side in England, is really a complex framework. Anybody would have difficulty in navigating this, even with the local authorities providing advice. You've got to have the confidence to go there and then work out what's best for you. Then we have multiple aims in Government. Is this to do with the child's rights-based approach, a child-focused, child-centred approach, or is it to do with tackling disadvantage, or many, many other things, or providing economic opportunities? Actually, it's all of these, but, first and foremost, let's get the narrative clear, let's get the coherent picture, which needs to focus on—. All of the countries that have done this have done it best with a unified vision, one that clearly says, 'The child is at the centre of it, but we're also going to do x, y and z.' That's where we need to be. So, let me just sum up with some questions for the Minister—. And we've got the issue of costs as well. We are probably double or more, throughout the UK, the costs that people should be paying for it.

So, Minister, how close are we to getting to those unified principles for a unified ECEC approach, with children's rights at the top? Can we end the distinction between education and care? Even with these diverse providers, can we end that distinction? Because there's still too much of it out there. Can we establish a clear curriculum, which is also age appropriate and also has play right at its centre, in an age-appropriate way, but a clear curriculum so that there's consistency amongst all providers? Can we put that unified approach on ECEC under a unified—I just ask the question—department, a unified Minister, not split across Government departments? And can we end the ECEC gaps in provision? We're not going to do it all overnight. We're only a third of the way in, which means we've got two thirds of the way to go of this decade to actually change it. And I say this as a former Minister who had the privilege of covering this for the very short period I was Minister. I had some great officials who were putting work into this. It's starting to happen, let's go the whole hog. 

16:00