Y Cyfarfod Llawn
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.
Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome all to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in hybrid format, with some Members in the Senedd Chamber and others joining by video-conference. All Members participating in proceedings of the Senedd, wherever they may be, will be treated equally. A Plenary meeting held using video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and these are noted on your agendas.
The first item is questions to the Minister for Social Justice, and the first question is from Carolyn Thomas.
1. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to improve digital inclusion in rural communities? OQ57979
Our digital inclusion and health programme, Digital Communities Wales, supports organisations across all communities and sectors to help people maximise the opportunities digital can offer. And over 91,000 people have received support for basic digital skills, motivation and confidence, which can help them gain employment, access services and support well-being.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Many of my residents in north Wales live in rural communities that are often poorly served by existing digital infrastructure and, whilst some are now being offered improved services, it can be daunting to make the right decisions in terms of providers, broadband types and changing phone lines. This is particularly the case as the cost-of-living crisis continues to be felt and improving a household's digital connectivity can be expensive. What support does the Welsh Government have in place to guide people in rural communities through the process of improving digital connectivity so that they are no longer excluded from a world that is now centred online?
Thank you very much, Carolyn Thomas, for your important question as North Wales regional Member. The Welsh Government website www.gov.wales/broadband-in-Wales does contain useful information to help guide people through the process of improving digital connectivity, including the range of options available. It's crucial now that we maximise our understanding and awareness of that, as you say, particularly in relation to the cost-of-living crisis, but also to welcome the fact that many local authorities do have broadband engagement officers helping people and communities to improve their digital connectivity, including Anglesey, Gwynedd, Flintshire, Denbighshire and Wrexham in north Wales. So, it is important that we ensure that this is maximised in terms of reaching out to your citizens and constituents.
Minister, people living in rural areas who are not online are usually excluded due to problems in broadband provision, as my colleague Carolyn just mentioned. Both with fixed line and mobile broadband services, it's often the case that both are a problem for constituents. Digitally excluded people are some of the heaviest users of health and social care services and risk being left behind by recent developments that have seen services, such as appointment bookings, prescription requests and consultations, moving online. Given that fewer people in Wales use the internet to manage their health than the rest of the United Kingdom, what is the Welsh Government—and I know, from your previous answer, you mentioned the website and support services, but what specifically is the Welsh Government doing—to ensure that people living in rural areas are not left behind and excluded from the benefits of accessing health services online? Thank you.
Thank you, Natasha Asghar. That's a very important question as well. Interestingly, we do know through our national survey for Wales that rural and urban aren't necessarily the underlying cause for digital exclusion—93 per cent of people in both rural and urban areas use the internet. But, as you say, in terms of digital inclusion and access to health, it's important to also acknowledge that £2 million per annum has been invested in that programme—the digital inclusion and health programme, Digital Communities Wales: Digital Confidence, Health and Well-being—since July 2019. In fact, I had a meeting about this with the Minister for Health and Social Services and Cwmpas, which are working to promote the Digital Communities Wales programme, just last week, and we looked at these particular issues in terms of access to health. It's interesting that, also, for example, health boards are taking responsibilities. Hywel Dda is working closely with Digital Communities Wales to consider how to embed digital inclusion within their plans and are also signing up to the digital inclusion charter. But, finally, on this point, we are very keen to work on the minimum digital living standard for Wales, and that's been now taken forward—we've commissioned the University of Liverpool to follow up this work.
Thank you very much to Carolyn for asking this question. I have residents in Dwyfor Meirionnydd, in Islaw'r-dref, for example, who can't undertake their business online, and they have to either move away or close their business down. I have young children who are exempted from school conversations because they can't access the latest videos on Netflix or YouTube, and so they can't take part in those conversations with their fellow pupils. Others can't do homework online, or they can't register stock because of the lack of connectivity. I don't know how many times I've had meetings with authorities, be that Openreach or anyone else, only to hear them say with pride that they're going to reach 95 per cent of the population within a few years. But the truth is that they shouldn't aim to reach 95 per cent of the population; they should aim for 100 per cent of the population, and no less. What's the point of residents having access to today's technology in five years' time, when, in five years' time, technology will have moved forward again and residents will be excluded again? So, it's a matter of social justice. Will you, therefore, ensure that everyone has access to the internet—not a percentage of people, but everyone—and make that a priority for you as a Government?
Thank you very much for your important question.
In fact, Digital Communities Wales is supporting Citizens Online's community renewal funded project—you're probably aware of it, Mabon—Gwynedd Ddigidol, which does focus on supporting people with employment-related basic digital skills. Also, recognising that telecommunications is not devolved to Wales—we commented on this yesterday—but we continue to deliver improvements in digital connectivity, specifically across north Wales in terms of responding to your question, but of course, for the whole of Wales. So, just for north Wales, under our £56 million full fibre roll-out, we've already provided access to full fibre broadband to 8,869 premises in the six north Wales counties, and working very closely with the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, connected campuses and connected corridor projects.
2. What initiatives does the Welsh Government have to help Ukrainian and Afghan refugees to integrate with Welsh communities? OQ57961
Thank you, Joel, for your question. Through our team Wales approach, services are in place to support refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan. And our nation of sanctuary plan sets out the actions we are taking to integrate all people seeking sanctuary in Wales.
Thank you, Minister. I recently met with a representative from the Displaced People in Action group, who are advocating that we have an opportunity to help Afghan and Ukrainian refugees in Wales to gain skill sets that will help them both integrate here and will be useful if and when they're able to return to their home countries. An example that has already been mentioned in the Chamber before would be to give Afghan refugees—many of whom have former military experience—the opportunity to train as HGV drivers. They also advocated that refugee organisations should be supported by the Welsh Government, especially for overhead and management costs, and be provided funding so that they can host projects that provide relevant services. I believe that is important with regard to Afghan and Ukrainian refugees who are uniquely exposed to being targeted by unscrupulous people to work for cash and below minimum wage, or could even be forced into slave-labour conditions. Minister, as the lead on such matters in Wales, what conversations have you had with the UK Government concerning plans to access the long-term needs and current skill sets of Afghan and Ukrainian refugees in Wales, and what pathways have been proposed to help them from being targeted? Thank you.
Thank you for that very helpful question. The Welsh Government funds crucial advice and advocacy services for people seeking sanctuary. In fact, just recently, a Welsh Refugee Council-led consortium has been awarded funding for the sanctuary seekers support service, and this is a successor service to the asylum rights programme, which we funded over the last three years. But we've also got our sanctuary website, which I'm sure you will be aware of, which provides information specifically for people coming through Ukraine and, indeed, Afghan schemes. As you so rightly say, the skills that are there, the skills that are coming, particularly from August, from Afghan refugees, those skills—interpretation, and many skill sets—. In fact, I met some of the Afghan refugees who were alongside us at the Urdd, and there were also women with skills as well in the health sector, as well as business skills. So, it's vital that, in terms of integration, those contributions can be made. So, we provide the information on access to health, education and employment, and the website also has translation text-to-speech software to ensure the site is accessible to people seeking sanctuary and now joining us in Wales, integrating and, of course, contributing in so many ways. We need to use their skills.
We have, for many, many years, supported refugee doctors as well, who are now part of our NHS. But, I'd have to say, the right to work is a crucial issue that I've raised on many occasions with the UK Government immigration Ministers, indeed jointly with my colleagues from Scottish Government. It is vital that we enable our refugees to work and bring their skill set, as well as access new skills in Wales.
Questions now from party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Joel James.
Thank you, Llywydd. Minister, do you agree with the Older People's Commissioner for Wales's analysis of the recent High Court rulings on testing in care homes during COVID-19?
This is a question that—. Indeed, the First Minister responded to these questions yesterday, and, of course, all these issues will be dealt with by the independent inquiry.
Thank you. It's a shame, Minister, that you continue to peddle the lines of your First Minister, and the previous health Minister, who seem to think that the Welsh Government's actions or inaction during COVID-19 should have little consequence. It should be remembered that Wales was a full two weeks behind England before your Government introduced blanket testing in care homes, and I remind the Senedd that the older people's commissioner has recently said that the High Court ruling underlines the need for a Wales-specific public inquiry to examine the impact of decisions made by the Welsh Government, and provide people with the much-needed answers they're looking for. Your refusal to have a Wales-specific public inquiry suggests you're happy with the status quo. Will you stand up for older people's rights and place your weight behind the older people's commissioner's call?
Well, I'm very pleased to have regular meetings with the older people's commissioner. In fact, I met with the older people's commissioner only a few weeks ago, and the topics that she wanted to raise with me were ways in which we could improve older people's rights in Wales, and we discussed a range of ways in which we can do that. She was very pleased that we said that we were going to not only boost the access to pensioner credit campaign, which is crucial to the rights of older people in Wales, but also look at issues, for example, like ensuring that our violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence strategy also addresses issues relating to elder abuse.
It's critically important that the older people's commissioner stands up for the rights of older people in Wales. She is an independent commissioner. And, in my role, and indeed, the Deputy Minister for Social Services, we not only listen to the issues of the older people's commissioner, specifically around those policy areas we know, like the cost of living, which, of course, the Tory Government is making so hard for older people, but we're actually responding to those key issues she raises.
Thank you, Minister, for your comments, but I think many people will still be disappointed with the response you've given.
Turning to another topic, in the news, we have heard time and time again about just how cash-strapped the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales thinks her budget is. But we then see her wasting money on universal basic income feasibility studies and research into a four-day working week. Only recently, I was scrolling through social media when I stumbled across a music video about the future generations commissioner and the work her office does. I wouldn't even like to imagine how much money was spent on that, and it was quite a cringeworthy video, I must say. Minister, in light of the commissioner's comments about being strapped for cash, do you agree that splashing out on a music video is not the best use of her budget, funded by the Welsh taxpayer? Thank you.
Well, I'm very pleased from the response that I get to the well-being of future generations legislation and, indeed, the appointment of a strong independent commissioner. And I just wondered whether you also would like to reflect on the points that she made only earlier this week, which I think are very relevant to all of us here in this Chamber. In the last few days, the future generations commissioner, Sophie Howe, and, indeed, Laura Anne Jones, shared their own stories of sexism whilst in public life. I know, unfortunately, there are many colleagues in this Chamber who will have their own examples to share. And it was very brave of the future generations commissioner, and, indeed, colleagues across all parties in this Chamber, to come out with this. I'm proud of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the record of the commissioner. The well-being of future generations agenda is permeating and driving continuous improvement in how Government and public bodies work. This is about future generations expecting a better quality of life on a healthy planet. This is pioneering legislation, which is now being reflected across the world.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Sioned Williams.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, the oil and gas companies are making obscene record-breaking profits, billions upon billions of pounds. It's really hard to stomach and certainly feels unacceptable, while we are witnessing a cost-of-living crisis in Wales on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. Citizens Advice Cymru estimate that more than one in five people in Wales won't have enough money left after paying essential bills to pay for the predicted further rise in energy prices in October. The latest fuel poverty estimates show that 98 per cent of low-income households are living in fuel poverty, and a staggering 41 per cent of low-income households are said to be living in severe fuel poverty. It was unbelievable and, frankly, disgusting to hear Boris Johnson say yesterday that there isn't a magic solution for families in need, when the UK Government has failed to use the power and resources it has available to support people when they need it most.
The attempts the Welsh Government has made to mitigate this crisis are welcome, with measures such as the winter fuel support scheme. I'm sure the Minister agrees with me it's crucial that payments available from Welsh Government reach all eligible households. Therefore, could the Minister, please, provide an update on the level of uptake of the winter fuel support scheme? What lessons have been learnt for the future roll-out of the future scheme, which she has announced to be launched in the autumn? And is it the Minister's intention to make payments ahead of October to help stop people going without heat and power in the coldest months?
Diolch yn fawr, Sioned Williams, for those important questions. I'm sure you would join with me, as you have already expressed, in our disgust with the way the Prime Minister responded yesterday—disgust with the way that he talked about people without any understanding of what people's lives were really like. He couldn't answer the question when asked, 'What do you think about someone who is actually only able to have one meal a day and who travels in a bus in order to keep warm with their free bus pass?' But it's crucial that we do what we can in the Welsh Government.
On our winter fuel support scheme, we're now with the local government elections, and as soon as those are through, we will get the latest figures on the take-up of the winter fuel support scheme. We're going to extend eligibility, and we will, of course—we've just been talking about pensioners—be looking not just in terms of those on pension credit, but wider eligibility in terms of the take-up. Because I want to make sure that we can get that funding straight into the pockets of those who need it through this terrible crisis in terms of fuel poverty.
Also, next week, I'm having a meeting—a round-table—on tackling food poverty as well, because this is all part of the cost-of-living crisis, to look at what we can do, and to understand the ways in which foodbanks and those organisations who are tackling food poverty are also engaging with tackling fuel poverty as well, and looking at ways in which fuel vouchers, for example, can also be part of the way in which we'll support. I would just say on Citizens Advice, it's so important, the role that they play in terms of Claim What's Yours for every benefit, which is on UK benefit take-up. But we are pressing them.
Diolch, Weinidog. One of the aims of the Government's UBI pilot scheme is to enhance support available to young people who are leaving care in an attempt to tackle poverty and address inequality. Innovative and radical measures, such as UBI, are key in tackling the cost-of-living crisis. But Barnardo's Cymru, while welcoming the scheme, has raised some questions in relation to sustainable housing. Young people leaving care often access semi-independent accommodation, such as flats in a complex, but this sort of semi-independent accommodation is expensive to run and, as such, rents can be high. For many people leaving care, rent would be paid directly to landlords of this type of accommodation via housing benefit. However, people taking part in the basic income pilot will have reduced benefits as a result of their income. So, Minister, Welsh Government must ensure that participants in the pilot are financially supported to access the best possible support and accommodation. How will the Government ensure participants are not financially disincentivised from accessing supported housing?
I'm very grateful, as I have said before, for your support and for your party's support for our UBI pilot. We're in the stages now of ensuring that we scope the pilot, particularly working with young people themselves, care experienced young people, to make sure that we get this right in terms of their needs and expectations. What is very important about the pilot is that it is unconditional. They will be getting their funding but also support in terms of the way that they can then access housing, access jobs, training and education. The basic income pilot is focused, of course, on those leaving care from 18. It's going to be launched in this financial year, and it is going to provide that cohort with £1,600 per month for a duration of 24 months. This should make a significant and positive change to participants' lives. Also, we need to recognise what this means in terms of their access to funding and to other benefits—in terms of housing benefits, for example. But I will look at that particular point that you've raised with me, because this is a crucial time in terms of us moving forward and indeed scoping our evaluation of the basic income pilot, which will be crucial in terms of lessons learnt.
3. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to ensure equal rights for children with disabilities? OQ57955
The Welsh Government has led the way in promoting children's rights through our practical commitment to the principles enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. We aim to ensure that all children have their individual needs met, thus enabling them to have equality of opportunity.
Thank you. On 9 February this year, I did highlight to our Senedd that, despite all children having the right to play as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and section 11 of the Children and Families (Wales) Measure 2010 requiring local authorities to have regard to the needs of children who are disabled persons in relation to the sufficiency of play opportunities, there are still, Minister, many playgrounds across Wales that simply don't have a single suitable facility for a child with a disability. You stated at the time, and I quote:
'I certainly will be taking this up and exploring this, particularly with the Deputy Minister for Social Services'.
Three months on, can you confirm what discussions have taken place with the Deputy Minister and would you advise us what additional steps will be taken to ensure that not a single child is deprived of their right to play in Wales? Diolch.
Diolch, Janet. This is a very important question. Children's rights are enshrined in Welsh law through the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011. That does mean that, whenever we use any of our powers to make a decision, we must consider the impact on children. Of course, that includes the right of all children to play and also recognising those rights in terms of their physical, cognitive and emotional development. This is about continuing our commitment to improve opportunities for all children and young people to play in safety—
Of course, this is a message—if I'm allowed to continue—that local authorities are required to ensure sufficient play opportunities for all children in line with the provisions under section 11 of the Children and Families (Wales) Measure 2010, a specific provision for the needs of disabled children, and 'Planning Policy Wales' has a clear requirement that recreation and play spaces should be provided. So, I'm sure you will be checking out your local authority's play sufficiency assessment each year. There's one due at the end of June this year.
4. Will the Minister outline how Wales is fulfilling its duties to those fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine? OQ57947
Thank you, Altaf Hussain. I provided an oral statement yesterday to update Senedd Members on our approach to supporting Ukrainian sanctuary seekers. We're continuing to demonstrate our nation of sanctuary vision as a supersponsor by putting in place support and urging improvements to UK Government processes.
Thank you, Minister. Minister, Wales, along with the rest of the UK, is showing once again that we are a country that welcomes those fleeing conflict. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, in addition to appalling war crimes that have been committed by the Russian state, have displaced millions of people who are in need of a home. Wales is right to welcome as many as we can. So, would the Minister now confirm how many people we are hoping to help and what provision we have made to house and support those who will soon be in our care? Thank you, Minister.
Thank you very much. I made clear in my statement yesterday the statistics that were published formally by the four nations, with the UK Government and Scottish Government, last Thursday, and they will be updated tomorrow. There were 2,300 visas issued where the sponsor was from Wales as of last Thursday, 1,650 sponsored by individuals, and 670 sponsored by the Welsh Government as a supersponsor. We've already said—I think it was in my very opening statement—that we are ready to welcome in our welcome centres. We have welcome centres ready and open, giving refuge to Ukrainian refugees. I also thank all those households who are sponsoring through the Homes for Ukraine scheme. There are also many others who have come through the families scheme, and as I said yesterday, unfortunately the Home Office can give us no information about how many, who they are, in terms of families with UK links, but we know they got here first in terms of getting visas. There is no funding for support for people in those schemes, and, indeed, there's a lot of pressure on our local authorities, but they're willing and able and are stepping up to reach and support all those Ukrainian refugees that are joining us here in Wales. But, the delays are unacceptable; the lack of funding has to be addressed by the UK Government.
Minister, I want to thank you again for your updates on this matter and your commitment to helping the sponsors who have been so stressed and anxious to ensure that their guests arrive here safely, as well as Welsh Government's commitment to ensuring that Wales is a nation of sanctuary. The UK Government Homes for Ukraine scheme has established a system that puts responsibility on everyone else other than those in Westminster. Sponsors in Bridgend have told me that they have felt abandoned after signing up to the UK Government scheme. A local charity, the Bridgend mentoring scheme and community centre the Zone are aiming to co-ordinate a drop-in cafe so that Ukrainian guests and local sponsors can come together and access services and support. But, third sector organisations and community support groups need the funding to provide this service. So, Minister, what considerations have been given to ensuring that third sector and community groups are supported to successfully run these services?
Can I thank Sarah Murphy again for the way in which she has engaged and supported those families and households in her constituency who have, again, reached out and welcomed and supported Ukrainian refugees? There are some inspiring stories that have come through from your constituents. We also have, through our nation of sanctuary website, guidance for sponsors, we've got guidance for local authorities. Also, I'm meeting regularly, and I'm meeting again next week, with the Minister for Refugees, Lord Harrington, and Neil Gray, the Minister, my colleague, from the Scottish Government. The three issues we raise with them are delays in the visas, safeguarding, but also funding. I've already commented on the lack of funding that's coming through. There's less funding coming through the Ukrainian scheme than indeed came through with the Afghan resettlement scheme. There's no funding for health service support, no funding for ESOL support, no funding for the families scheme. And also, in terms of the supersponsor route, as I said, we know that this is a way in which people can come straight, without the risk of being exposed not just to complexity and bureaucracy but also safeguarding issues, to our welcome centres. Can I just say that there are strong third sector links already with the community foundation, which has established a new Croeso fund? One million pounds has come from the Welsh Government, and they're going to support a third sector organisation seeking to integrate any sanctuary seeker in Wales. So, I will share that again in terms of contact with the community foundation nation of sanctuary new fund.
5. Will the Minister make a statement on the role of third sector organisations in achieving social justice in Wales? OQ57968
The third sector plays a crucial and unique role in delivering a fair and just Wales, and as we work to avoid the deepening of inequalities in our communities due to the pandemic, we've co-produced with the sector a COVID recovery plan focused on support, relationships and volunteering.
Thank you, Minister. We're incredibly lucky in Wales to have such a diverse range of services and support provided by the third sector. In Rhondda alone we have Rhondda veterans, Valleys Kids, Men's Sheds, the Arts Factory and RCT Women's Aid, amongst hundreds of others. Since becoming the Senedd Member, I've had the opportunity to visit Barnardo's Better Futures, Wales Air Ambulance and Voices from Care. Each and every one of these charities and community groups provide bespoke support to families and individuals, and each have their own unique relationship with Welsh Government—some needing financial support, others needing advice and guidance, and some will benefit greatly from partnership working with other third sector organisations.
The Wales Council for Voluntary Action have reported an increase in demand for third sector support across Wales, and there is research that suggests that 20 per cent of people approaching GPs will benefit from social prescribing rather than medical support. Knowing this, how will the Minister engage with third sector organisations, groups and charities going forward? And will we see a more comprehensive plan on how we can better support the sector in the future, encompassing financial support, advice and guidance and support to make meaningful partnerships?
Thank you to Buffy Williams. As Rhondda Senedd Member, you're so engaged with your community, and that's come through clearly in your question about your links and your visits and your engagement with local organisations—organisations that, actually, are reflected in constituencies across Wales, in terms of their huge contribution in the community. I think the pandemic has shown even more clearly the contribution and role of the third sector and volunteers, and, indeed, that has made a difference, in terms of the way forward with our funding, because we have a third sector support Wales grant that does provide that core funding, not just to the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, but also our county voluntary councils. Every Member of this Senedd will have a county voluntary council that they will be aware of—in your area, of course, it's the Interlink RCT—helping to support the local organisations.
But I think the key point you make, in terms of the way forward for the third sector—the third sector recovery plan is crucial to that. But we work very closely with the funding and compliance committee, with the third sector, to ensure that we can have greater awareness of funding opportunities, priorities for the third sector. And I would say, just finally, that the priority now has been very much focused on how they can help, as they do, as support to communities and vulnerable people with the cost-of-living crisis. We've got to remember that, actually, in your constituency and across Wales, you have Citizens Advice, you have Trussell Trust foodbanks and third sector organisations, as well as credit unions, helping to support families and households and communities with the cost-of-living crisis.
I've sat here for 19 years listening to Welsh Government Ministers telling me how they work in partnership and co-production with third sector organisations to achieve social justice in Wales. However, I'm a patron of a charity that supports disabled people across north Wales, but which, despite most of the over 100 new referrals they receive weekly coming from public bodies in north Wales, receives no public funding from any of them. I'm contacted weekly by third sector organisations battling to support people denied by public bodies the voice over their care and support that is their right under the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014. When I questioned Age Cymru in committee last week about engagement with regional partnership boards, regarding integrated health and social care support, they replied:
'What we're hearing back from some of the regional organisations is that the level of involvement of older people representation isn't as good as they would like it to be, and through the development of regional partnership boards we'd like to see more meaningful engagement of more older people, and their representatives being involved in those developments'.
Of course, they've been saying that since regional partnership boards first began. So, how and when will you, therefore, turn words into deeds by designing the system backwards, with people and third sector organisations?
Well, of course, for many years we've discussed these issues, Mark Isherwood, and I'm very proud of the fact that the Welsh Government has got a partnership with the third sector, and that I chair a third sector partnership council. I can assure you that that council is made up of representatives, as you are well aware, of all sectors, who raise issues with us not just in terms of policy, but also funding. That's why we have a funding and compliance committee, and that's why we responded—. It is a response as a result of co-production that we've now moved to giving a three-year grant commitment. I know that you would welcome the three-year grant commitments that we're giving to the third sector. It enables them to undertake long-term planning, retaining staff and skills, but also it helps them to develop those crucial long-term partnerships, in terms of the regional boards and consortia, with local authorities and health boards.
I can assure you that the funding is available, and you know that, in terms of funding not just the CVCs, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, and support for safeguarding, the third sector change fund, support for volunteering, the partnership capacity fund—these are all substantial sums of money coming through our third sector grant scheme. Also I think the community facilities programme is very important to the third sector and, I'm sure, to many of those that you represent, because that's £4.8 million in 2020-21, and it remained open throughout the pandemic, and indeed is open now.
6. What assessment has the Minister made of the effect of inflation on people living on low incomes? OQ57954
The surge in inflation combined with higher taxes will result in real living standards decreasing and it will put significant further pressure on household budgets. Welsh Government is doing all it can, with the powers it has, to deliver support for our most vulnerable households in Wales.
Quoting Jack Monroe:
'I did a £10 food shop in 2012...and re-did the exact same shop'
'and it came to £17.11.'
That's over a 70 per cent increase. Neither the minimum wage nor benefits have gone up anywhere near that level. Even with the change by the Office for National Statistics in its collection of inflation data, the huge increase in food costs is not being fully reflected in the inflation rates. More and more poor people are having to use foodbanks. Seven of the eight wards in my constituency now have a foodbank. What support is the Welsh Government giving to foodbanks?
Can I say I really respect the role and contribution of food justice activist Jack Monroe for pointing that out, and just to recognise the impact of Brexit on rising food costs as well, which we certainly responded to and covered yesterday in terms of the First Minister's questions—the impact, and the ways in which this UK Tory Government has had such an adverse impact on people's lives, leading to this cost-of-living crisis? But the answer to your question is that the figures the Trussell Trust published last week showed a network of foodbanks, and 1,341,000 emergency food parcels distributed to people facing financial hardship between 1 April 2021 and 31 March 2022. It's back to eat or stay warm, it's the loss of the £2 million EU transition funding, supporting community food organisations, and 40 grant awards that are now going from Welsh Government to local authorities, third sector groups, schools and churches.
Thank you also to the Member for submitting this important question today. Last week, Minister, I attended a Cardiff University webinar, and other Members of the Senedd were there as well, where they shared their evaluation of the policy response to the cost-of-living challenge. They highlighted that one of the disproportionate challenges facing those on lower incomes is of course the inflationary pressures of energy costs, and as we know in Wales we do have an older and less energy-efficient housing stock compared to other parts of the UK. That's backed up by data from the Wales fiscal analysis, which found that 45 per cent of properties in Wales are graded A to C in terms of energy efficiency, compared to 52 per cent of properties elsewhere—having that highest level of energy efficiency. So, in light of this, Minister, what discussions are you having with the Minister for Climate Change to make houses more efficient in Wales, to help with the inflationary pressures of energy costs on those with the lowest incomes?
Thank you for that very constructive question, Sam Rowlands. You will be aware that we held a cost-of-living crisis summit in February. I chaired it, along with the Minister for Climate Change, who spoke about the challenges in terms of housing and energy efficiency and the investment that's gone into the budget for this year in terms of supporting energy efficiency and boosting renewables, but also in terms of energy sources. And also there was my colleague Rebecca Evans, who is Minister for Finance and Local Government. So, we discuss these issues. It is a cross-Government responsibility in terms of tackling fuel poverty, our Warm Homes programme, which of course we are now concluding in terms of the consultation that we've undertaken. These are all crucial to tackling the cost-of-living crisis, but what we need is the funding to support us to do that, and that's where I hope you will be calling on the UK Government particularly to get that funding from a windfall tax to ensure that we can invest more in terms of energy efficiency and also reduce the fuel bills of those who are going to be at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis.
7. What action is the Minister taking to promote awareness of the rights of older people? OQ57962
Thank you for that question. We are funding Age Cymru to work with older people to raise awareness and understanding of rights using our co-produced guidance 'Making rights work for older people'. Age Cymru is also producing a video toolkit and is delivering an older people's rights campaign, which is running until June.
Minister, pension credit is a top-up for our most vulnerable pensioners and is worth an average of £3,300. As well as a cash top-up to the state pension, it is a bridge to accessing a lot of other benefits, such as help with housing costs, heating bills, council tax reduction schemes and free over-75 tv licences. It's estimated that around a quarter of people who could claim this extra help do not currently do so. The UK Conservative Government has launched a major campaign to encourage eligible pensioners, as well as those who care for and support older people, to access the help that they are entitled to. So, Minister, will you commit to working with the UK Government and the older people's commissioner to raise awareness of the availability of pension credit to vulnerable older people in Wales who are entitled and have a right to claim this additional financial support? Thank you.
Thank you very much. That follows on very nicely from earlier points that I was making about my meetings with the older people's commissioner. And, indeed, I know there have been calls from across the Chamber—I think Peredur has also raised it—about how we can improve the take-up—it's a UK Government benefit—of pension credit in particular, but there is also access to other benefits as well. We're working, of course, with the older people's commissioner, and we're also working with the UK Government. We've been asking the UK Government to join us, with Scotland, in a UK-wide 'Claim what's yours' campaign, and we're now getting some response to that. But I will say that 'Making rights work for older people', which we published last year, was co-produced guidance with Social Care Wales and with Age Cymru, is also about making sure that older people are engaged and are telling us the best way to get the message over that these are rights that they're entitled to and we want them to take up, to ensure that they don't suffer as much as well under the cost-of-living crisis, because it is also hitting pensioners very hard.
8. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding its Rwanda asylum-seeker policy? OQ57977
Thank you, Joyce Watson, for that very important question. The UN refugee agency has been clear that the measures in the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, including the offshoring of asylum processing, is at odds with the refugee convention, which the UK Government is a signatory to. The Rwanda plan is shocking, and I am making my views clear to the immigration Minister.
Thank you for that update, Minister. The plan is, of course, morally abhorrent, for all the reasons that we discussed yesterday in the human rights debate, but it is gratuitously expensive. And given Britain's obligation under the UN refugee convention and the human rights laws, it looks unworkable anyway, as we have seen the legal challenges in recent days attest. The plan, quite frankly, is a mess. So, do you share my anger and frustration that the only guarantee of this deeply shameful Tory policy is that it will leave Welsh taxpayers out of pocket and refugees more vulnerable than they ever have been?
I do agree with those points, Joyce Watson. There's a charity that, yesterday—Care4Calais—actually branded the Rwanda deal as just another in a long line of deterrence policies announced by this Tory Government over the last few years. Care4Calais—I've got constituents who are involved in Care4Calais who've been to Calais on many occasions. Because they are there; they are working with people who are desperate, who've fled the horrors of the lives from which they've fled. And I was interested to see that the member for Calais from the French national assembly says, 'When you leave your country because of flood, because of starvation, because you're not afraid of being hauled and being sent back to another country, at least you have a chance, you will try.' It is absolutely shocking that our country, that the UK Government, is following this Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and this Rwanda plan. And let us hope that the legal challenge will stop it, and it, anyway, looks unworkable. But we have great concerns. We're one of the richest countries, Rwanda is one of the poorest countries, and I have written also to say that this is something that is totally against not just the refugee convention, but, of course, our morals and spirit and ethics as a nation of sanctuary.
9. How is the Welsh Government using its super sponsor status to help people from Ukraine to seek safety in Wales? OQ57966
Thank you, Peter Fox. I've urged the UK Minister for Refugees to adopt our supersponsor model for use across the UK to avoid the unacceptable safeguarding risks posed by the wider Homes for Ukraine route. And I did provide updated figures and information in my oral statement yesterday.
Thank you, Minister, for that response. Llywydd, I fully support the Government's intention to help as many of our Ukrainian friends as possible to seek safety in Wales, and all of us in this Chamber are proud of Wales's designation as a nation of sanctuary. As I understand it, the Welsh Government is helping to sponsor people to come into the UK, rather than relying on a match with a host family. These individuals are then initially being placed in welcome centres. Now, recently, I've received a number of e-mails from constituents who would like to become host families for those currently housed in welcome centres, but they have been unable to find information as to how the Welsh Government will link these families with hosts. Minister, could you provide any additional information as to what action you're taking to help families who have been sponsored by the Government to find longer term accommodation? Does your initiative link up with host families who have registered their interest via the UK Government's Homes for Ukraine scheme, or will you also be looking into providing a route for people to volunteer to help accommodate those who have arrived into the UK through the supersponsor scheme? Thank you.
Thank you very much, and that's a very practical and welcome operational question, because at this point in time—. In fact, we had a meeting to discuss it this morning, a ministerial meeting chaired by the First Minister, where we were updating on the next steps for people from welcome centres. Of course, every local authority is looking at the next steps in terms of host family or other accommodation that will be available. Just to clarify, the supersponsor route is part of the UK Government's Homes for Ukraine scheme. The Homes for Ukraine scheme is—. So, that is where people match. This is our concern about it, it's very unregulated, but the matching is taking place. We've got household sponsors across Wales, and you'll be aware of them locally, and some of them have been matched and some of them are waiting still for their families to arrive, and I'm sure you're aware of this. But we are looking to those options, and I can just tell you that, again, this is about working with the UK Government, with the Home Office. I'm meeting the Minister for Refugees again next week to make sure that those routes will be available.
Finally, question 10, Rhys ab Owen.
10. What discussions has the Minister had with the UK Government and other public bodies regarding the role of probation officers in ensuring community safety? OQ57965
Diolch yn fawr, Rhys ab Owen. I have regular engagement with UK Government Ministers on all aspects of community safety in Wales and I'm meeting Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Probation on 18 May and continuing discussions with all partners, devolved and reserved, reinforcing our commitment to ensuring that communities are safe in Wales.
Diolch yn fawr, Weinidog. It's fair to say—and I'm sure that everyone can agree with this—that, due to underfunding and reorganisation of the probation services in England and Wales over the past 12 years, they have faced a very difficult time. Often, this can lead to real, tragic consequences. Currently, there are over 700 job vacancies across England and Wales. Has the Minister had any discussions regarding staff levels and what impact that has on protecting members of the public here in Wales?
Thank you very much for that question, and I value your interest in the probation service. In fact, over the years, we have developed positive working relationships with key justice partners and key service providers in Wales. I was very proud when we were the first part of the UK—the first nation—where the probation service was re-nationalised, if you like, to be a national probation service after that flawed and appalling privatisation that took place under Chris Grayling's ministerial role.
So, we actually have got to—. I think, in terms of ensuring that our probation service meets the needs of people in Wales, it's crucial to our youth justice and female offending blueprints—excellent examples of partnership working—and for community safety in Wales. But we see that there are real opportunities as we move forward in terms of justice in Wales to look at the role of the probation service and to make sure, therefore, that it is a place where people will want to work and make a contribution. And I think that they will, because of the focus that we have in terms of justice in looking at the role of the probation service.
I thank the Minister.
The next item, therefore, is the questions to the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution, and the first question is from Jack Sargeant.
1. What representations has the Welsh Government made to the UK Government in respect of an international tribunal to prosecute Vladimir Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine? OQ57978
Thank you for the question. I met with the law officers from the UK Government and the devolved Governments regarding the support that can be provided to prosecute war crimes. We will continue to liaise with the Governments of the other three UK nations to provide any support possible to bring those responsible to justice.
Can I thank the Counsel General for that answer, and, if I may, Llywydd, take this opportunity to put my thanks on the record of our Parliament here in the Siambr for the way that the Counsel General—both in his capacity as Counsel General in the Welsh Government, but also in a personal capacity—how he has championed the people of Ukraine, not just in recent times, but for many, many years?
Llywydd, the whole of humanity should speak with one voice, stating that those who have prosecuted this war and the accompanying atrocities should face justice. Counsel General, can you outline how the Welsh Government will continue to play a proactive role in being a voice for justice?
Well, thank you for that supplementary question, and it is in many ways quite appalling, isn't it, that we are actually in a world where we are discussing the issue of war crimes and the prosecution of the culprits. Can I thank the Member? Of course, you raised the issue of war crimes and Putin in your emergency question on 1 March.
We have quite a number of individuals who have arrived from Ukraine, who have witnessed some of the most appalling atrocities that have taken place in living memory. The war crimes team, with the Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism command, will be assisting the investigation into war crimes, and are directly engaged with the International Criminal Court. Any evidence of such crimes is obviously there to be reported to the war crimes team in the Metropolitan Police.
Now, I have discussed this matter with the Minister for Social Justice and, indeed, the First Minister, on our approach to that. I'm very conscious that people arriving in Wales from Ukraine need to be made aware of the opportunity to bring forward evidence that may be directly relevant to war crimes that they may have experienced. I've asked officials to consider how this can be done practically at welcome centres, and through those arriving under the family and the individual Homes for Ukraine scheme. We must appreciate that, of course, some of these people have been traumatised and that the approach of this issue is something that has to be handled very sensitively.
On the broader issue of war crimes, well, of course, under the International Criminal Court investigation, any prosecutions would normally be brought by the Ukrainian Government. In the discussions that we've had, we've given full support to the United Kingdom being part of an international effort to provide the support, the resources and the assistance that's necessary to enable those. The war crimes issue must not be something that can be bartered away by discussions over sanctions, and have to be pursued no matter how long they take, and of course are key issues, ultimately, in the opening of the door to reparations being paid to Ukraine for the consequence of Russian actions.
2. What consideration has the Counsel General given to introducing a level 7 solicitor apprenticeship, as exists in England, to help widen socioeconomic access to the legal profession? OQ57964
Thank you for the question. We are making good progress on legal apprenticeships. For example, last week we issued an apprenticeship framework for two new Chartered Institute of Legal Executives qualifications, at paralegal level 3 and advanced paralegal level 5. This should help widen socioeconomic access to the legal profession.
Naturally, I welcome the announcement of the new level 3 and level 5 legal services profession. However, I hope we can go further to introduce level 7 solicitor apprenticeships in Wales. I am sure the Counsel General agrees with me that such a post would help to address the issue of access to the legal profession, and, of course, potentially help with current legal advice deserts. Will we see level 7 apprenticeships here in Wales, such as in England?
Thank you for the supplementary question, and of course this is a question that was also raised in my monthly discussion with the Law Council of Wales, who, you may know, have set up a legal education and training working group, which I think will be very important to this. I think we've taken the first steps, and I think we do need to go further, so we are working with key stakeholders in the legal sector, including the Law Society, the Solicitors Regulation Authority—who I met with very recently—and with the bar, to support the development and sustainability of the sector. And of course, the role of the Law Council of Wales in this, I think, will be extremely important.
We do, of course, want to encourage and support increasing diversity in the legal profession, and increasing access from those who wouldn't normally have access to qualification within the legal profession as solicitors. So, the issue of apprenticeships at that level is important. It is something that—. There is research that is being carried out, and the work and discussions are ongoing. Of course, what we want to do is to ensure that, if we go down this road, the objectives will actually be delivered and that what we're not just doing is replacing funding that already exists within the legal profession to support those particular qualifications, but actually it goes to not only encouraging the diversity I mentioned but also, I believe, in terms of supporting those firms, I think, in, for example, our Valleys areas, in rural areas, that are under greater economic pressure, where this support will be something that encourages people to go into the legal profession and to work in those communities and to contribute to the increased access to justice.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. Welsh Conservatives spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
Diolch, Llywydd. What engagement have you had with the UK Ministry of Justice regarding their 15 March announcement that an extra £135 million will be spent on the legal aid sector every year to match the recommendations made by an independent review of the system, overseen by Sir Christopher Bellamy QC, which, added to the extra £200 million each year to speed up the courts system, will bring total taxpayer funding for criminal defence to £1.2 billion a year?
Thank you for that question, and it's an important area, legal aid, and something we have discussed in this Chamber on many occasions, because of its importance in terms of access to justice. And of course I welcome any increased funding that goes into legal aid, and I welcome also the additional proposals in respect of changing the means test arrangements to make access to legal aid easier.
That having been said, there is a consultation that is under way at the moment and there is considerable concern that, in quite a number of areas of the recommendations by Lord Bellamy, the UK Government has not yet given the commitments that were being expected. And of course, this has resulted in—. I think the indication from members of the legal profession is that they will be engaging in legal action.
I've raised this issue at every opportunity I've had with the relevant justice Minister, who, of course, has recently resigned. So, whereas I welcome some improvement, I think there is still a long way to go and there is still a considerable level of uncertainty as to what is actually going to be the outcome of the UK Government's commitment. Even the Bellamy recommendations did not, in my view, go far enough to tackle the issue of the advice deserts we have. It is clear that legal aid significantly underfunds those firms that work particularly with legal aid and advice in communities. But this is a matter that I will come back to and raise within this Senedd at a later stage when we know the full outcome of the UK Government's consultation and the proposals it intends to introduce.
Thank you. Well, you referred to, among other things, welcoming the removal of means testing, but how do you respond to the inclusion within March's announcement of funding to ensure that professionals are better paid for the work they actually carry out, and help free up capacity in court; boost pay for lawyers representing suspects in police stations; give more people the opportunity to forge a career in criminal law, whatever their background; open access to civil legal aid for around 2 million more people in Wales and England, and remove the means test, as you said, altogether for some applicants, particularly to benefit domestic abuse victims who are disputing house ownership; remove the financial cap on eligibility for Crown Court defendants; provide 3.5 million more people in Wales and England with access to criminal legal aid at the magistrates' court; and for the first time ever, provide free legal representation for all under-18s and for parents challenging doctors over the withdrawal of their child's life support, and free legal help for families at inquests where there's been a potential breach of human rights?
Well, thank you for that further question. Of course, it presents legal aid within a context that does not exist in reality, because the majority of people, and certainly some of the poorest in our society, do not actually have access to many areas of justice that they should have access to.
I suppose a starting point is that any improvement is an improvement, but this has to be put against the backdrop of enormous cutbacks in legal aid that have taken place since the Conservatives came into Government in 2010, to the extent that the legal aid system is massively underfunded; there are many areas of legal entitlement that no longer exist; and, there are many firms that are unquestionably unviable commercially now because of their dependency on legal aid. Lord Bellamy's recommendations seek to improve that. So, any improvement in rates for the lawyers that conduct legal aid work, any expansion, any improvement on legal aid entitlement and the means testing, is an improvement, but it is still very much sticking plaster in terms of the provision of a properly funded legal aid scheme and does not, under any stretch of the imagination, make up for the very serious legal aid cuts that have taken place over the past 12 years, which have very much restricted the accessibility of legal aid and entitlement to legal advice for many sections of our communities who most depend upon it.
Well, according to my dictionary, I think you're referring to 'austerity', which is defined as not having enough money, and, as such, it was an inheritance, not a choice, but tough decisions then have enabled the improvements now being announced. And hopefully, I agree with you, there will be further improvements, as we look forward to the forthcoming years.
But the court backlog was higher in the last year of the UK Labour Government than it was under the UK Conservative Government before the start of the pandemic. How have you engaged positively with the UK Government's 21 April announcement that courts will continue working at full capacity for a second year to speed up justice for victims, with the cap on sitting days lifted for another year? This is part of a raft of measures to cut backlogs in the courts, where the investment will mean more trials can take place, delivering swifter justice and reducing the backlog of cases, which rose significantly during the pandemic—[Interruption.]—where the same decision last year meant nearly 17,000 more days were sat in the Crown Court than in the year prior to the pandemic. And this sits alongside the extension of 30 Nightingale courts until March 2023—I would take an intervention if it wasn't questions, but I have to stick to questions—digital hearings, and the significantly increased investment for criminal legal aid.
Thank you for that further series of questions. The issue of backlogs in the courts is certainly something that, in the past decade, has significantly deteriorated. As I say, equally, the access to justice, the availability of lawyers in some areas, has become increasingly difficult as well. There is no doubt also that the closure of courts by the UK Government, and particularly the magistrates' courts, has also exacerbated that particular issue.
The issue of backlogs in terms of the COVID period that we've been through is one where, certainly within Wales, from all the reports I've had—from lawyers, from judiciary, and from those who work in the courts—this was one of the most successful of the areas, and partly because of the ability of the courts and those who work in and use the courts to be able to work collaboratively within Wales in order to ensure that cases continued to be heard.
Now, in terms of serious criminal cases, there remains a significant number of very, very substantial backlogs that need to be addressed. Many of these cannot be addressed by the issue of digitisation; there are very significant ethical issues over digitisation. But certainly within the tribunals system, which is within the Welsh Government's jurisdiction, having digital hearings, online hearings, has certainly been very successful in actually keeping those tribunals operating. And I certainly very much commend all those who've worked within that particular system.
I think the problem with backlogs in courts goes back to a significant underfunding of justice, going back many decades, and I will concede that particular point. I think it is particularly exacerbated over the last 10 years, and I think you'll be aware—you didn't mention it, but you'll be aware, of course—that there are significant issues now in terms of the Ministry of Justice court estate and the standard of that, the suitability of our courts, and no less a case than the state of the civil justice centre within Cardiff, which is something that desperately needs to be addressed.
Questions now from the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Rhys ab Owen.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Cwnsler Cyffredinol, at the end of March, the Welsh Government statement on taking forward the recommendations of the Commission on Justice in Wales and the Law Commission report on Welsh Tribunals was pulled. When will the statement now be made, and can the Counsel General please guarantee to me that the statement will provide key milestones, with clear and accountable leadership and direction? Diolch.
That's a very important question. And I can tell you that the Minister for Social Justice and I have been working very closely on a whole range of justice issues, across the span of both our portfolios—not just the legislative justice area, but also the socioeconomic justice. Because I think we believe very strongly that socioeconomic justice and legal justice go very much hand in hand. Part of the issues with regard to the devolution of justice, I think, are going to be addressed in work that is under way at the moment, which we're hoping to publish imminently. So, it is not quite there yet, but it is not far off. That will also, I think, make very specific reference to the recommendations of the Law Commission on tribunals, and the issue of tribunal reform, I can assure you, is something that is very much on the radar and will form part of that broad justice presentation that we hope to be making within a matter of weeks.
Diolch yn fawr, Cwnsler Cyffredinol. I'd like to concentrate now on the Welsh Tribunals. You'll be aware that we've had several reports now that recommend the separation of the Welsh Tribunals unit from the Welsh Government, and this, in fact, has been endorsed by you and the Welsh Government. But rather than setting up a non-ministerial department, why has the Welsh Tribunals unit been moved from the office of the First Minister to the economy, trade and constitution department? And with regard to facilities, you mentioned a lack of facilities when it comes to court. The only facility for devolved tribunals, Oak House, the lease there is ending next year. What plans do Welsh Government have to ensure adequate facilities for Welsh Tribunals?
That's a very fair point. We do, as part of the reform of the tribunal system, want to ensure that there is judicial separation and proper independence of that system, but also that the tribunals have the proper facilities that are necessary for them to be seen as proper courts, to have the respect of proper courts, and to have the proper facilities for those who are participating with them. That is very much under consideration and under review, and will be part of the issue that I referred to earlier in terms of our broader review of the overall justice system within Wales, the recommendations of the Thomas commission, and issues around the devolution of justice.
3. What conversations has the Counsel General had with UK Government counterparts about the ongoing fight for justice of the Hillsborough families? OQ57981
Well, thank you for your question on this important issue. Before his principled resignation, I corresponded and had regular discussions with Lord Wolfson about a range of serious concerns such as these. We are waiting, once again, for the UK Government to decide who will be the new Minister to lead engagement on justice with the Welsh Government, going forward.
I'm grateful to the Counsel General for his answer and his longstanding commitment to support the families of the Hillsborough disaster. You know I've raised this issue before that we do need a Hillsborough law now to support the campaign. The Counsel General will also be aware of the, again, recent calls from Labour metro mayors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram for a Hillsborough law now. Will you take the message to the UK Government to hurry up, make the decision who's going to engage with the Welsh Government on justice, because this is crucially an important piece of legislation? Will you take that message to your counterpart once he or she is named, and ask them not only to support the campaign, but to act now and introduce a Hillsborough law?
Thank you for that supplementary question, and for raising what is, I think, an important law reform issue. And it's worth perhaps just reminding what the Hillsborough law actually is, under, I suppose, the name of the Public Authority (Accountability) Bill, which is referred to as the Hillsborough law. It is about the provision of a charter for families bereaved through public tragedy, legally binding on all public bodies; a duty of candour on public servants; proper participation of bereaved families at inquests, through publicly funded legal representation, and a public advocate to act for the families of the deceased after major incidents.
That, it seems to me, is something that goes to the core of basic justice. I've made the point previously, of course, that, bearing in mind that coroners' courts in Wales are totally publicly funded, they seem to me to be a matter that should be devolved to Wales, and also the provision of proper public funding for representation at inquests. I think it's always been a major weakness and anomaly that that hasn't existed.
No-one should go through the sorts of experiences that the Hillsborough families have been through, the steps they have had to take in order to obtain justice, many of those families devoting important parts of their entire lives, and their families' lives, to obtain that justice. And those aren't the only miscarriages of justices. There are other areas where there have been significant miscarriages; you raised not so long ago the issue of Horizon and the post offices, and, of course, there are a number of deaths that are related to that in itself.
So, the assurance I can give you is that this is something that, when the new Minister is appointed, will be on the agenda of issues that we will raise with him, and I will report back again on the outcome of those discussions.
4. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Welsh Government regarding the rights of asylum seekers in Wales in the light of the UK Government’s plan to offshore asylum application processing in Rwanda? OQ57950
Thank you for the question. The Welsh Government is proud that Wales is a nation of sanctuary for all. Welsh Government will continue to protect the rights of asylum seekers in Wales and is seeking to discuss these proposals with UK Government. The UK Government did not share its Rwanda proposals ahead of publication with Welsh Government.
Thank you very much, Counsel General, and I don't think anybody's surprised by that. The Rwanda plan is, of course, inhumane, unworkable and very probably illegal as well. It is driven by the short-term interests of a right-wing Tory Government rather than any real attempt to find a solution that protects desperate people fleeing war, victims of human trafficking or a solution that genuinely addresses the failings of our broken immigration system. It's been condemned by everyone, from Oxfam to Theresa May. It's a disgrace and it's a shame for all of us in the United Kingdom that this has ever reached the stage it has reached. Can the Counsel General provide assurances that the Welsh Government will do all in its powers to ensure that asylum seekers in Wales have their rights protected to the very best of this Government's ability and to have the full extent of all the legal powers available to Ministers, the Welsh Government and also this place, and that this Labour Government in Wales will ensure that the values of the people of Wales continue to drive our approach as a nation of sanctuary to reach out to provide homes, protection and support for people who need that and don't just chase newspaper headlines day after day, as the UK Government appear to be doing?
I agree entirely with those sentiments. They're sentiments that other Members have made, that my colleague the Minister for Social Justice has made as well, and many other Members have made those comments within this Chamber. I think it was only yesterday that I was able to refer to the head of the Church of England referring to these proposals as being against the nature of God. I am not personally a religious person, but when the head of a major church is so moved by proposals to say that they are ungodly, it is something where a government has to sit up and take note. And it was quite ironic, actually, that when Boris Johnson was in Kyiv talking about human rights, Priti Patel was being threatened with legal action for breaches of human rights at UK level.
Apart from that, the proposals are likely to be extremely expensive and inefficient. There was no evidence whatsoever they will deliver anything that the UK Government says that they will deliver. They are certainly contrary to the refugee convention, in particular articles 31 and 32. I am monitoring very closely the issue of legal actions that I understand are being brought to challenge the lawfulness, and, it seems to me, there is a very significant issue as to whether these proposals are in breach of international law or not. But I will monitor that very closely, and I will do all I can to support international legality.
5. What discussions has the Counsel General had with the Minister for Finance and Local Government about developing an elections policy that will tackle the democratic deficit in some wards in Wales? OQ57971
Thank you for your question. Reforming local government elections to reduce the democratic deficit is a commitment in our programme for government, and I regularly discuss such matters with my ministerial colleagues.
Thank you. Now, tomorrow, as we all know, people in every community in Wales should be going to elect representatives to champion their community on issues that affect them directly—council tax, highways, social care, to name just a few. However, 72 council seats now have been uncontested. The most extreme example is Gwynedd, where 28 of the council's 69 seats, just over 40 per cent, saw only one person putting themselves forward for election. Whilst only 1 per cent of all council seats in Scotland have already been filled, here in Wales the figure is at 6 per cent. The number will be even higher for community and town councils, and I remember raising this with the Minister at the time, about the huge number of uncontested seats in our community and town councils. In Conwy county alone, only six of the town and community councils have at least one ward facing an election. Of course, we could reduce the number of seats and change the ward boundaries, but again we could still face the same dilemma. Do you agree with me that election policy now needs to be reviewed and developed so that we can identify the barriers that are there to nominate and therefore encourage such elections to take place? Diolch.
Thank you for that supplementary question, and I do agree with, I think, most of what you actually said. I've raised a number of times my concern about the democratic health of Wales, and it goes across the United Kingdom. I think it is always of concern when there aren't sufficient candidates for some seats. I regard community councils as being an extremely important part of our democracy, so when either there aren't candidates or seats are unfilled—. I'm aware of two particular community councils where there aren't enough candidates for a quorum. I'm also aware that there are quite a number of seats where there has been only one candidate. Of course, some of that applies also at other council levels, but it is a concern.
I'm also aware, of course, that there are many people, and I've come across individuals, who are interested very much in their community and community work but have decided that they will not stand for elections because of, I believe, the abuse that they actually get—as persons in public office. I think of the denigration that has taken place. I certainly think that is something that needs to be tackled. I know in fact of one community councillor who, the moment they said that they were going to stand for it, suddenly started getting abuse on social media and then changed their mind and said they weren't going to stand. So, I think there is a real issue there in terms of standing up for the integrity of those who stand for public office. I think that is something that needs to be addressed.
I think, post the elections, we do need to look at two issues. One is the overall status of participation within elections, perhaps demographically, across Wales as a whole. We need to look at the outcome of the pilots that we've had that are looking at different ways of people being able to participate in elections. I also, as you know, have already made a statement that we do intend in year three to bring an electoral reform and administration Bill before this Senedd, and I hope all those comments and the views you've expressed will be things that will feature in terms of how we actually look at reforming, improving, making more accessible our electoral system. I was very moved by some of the comments that have been made in the media recently, things that actually we have been considering with regard to electoral reform, and that is those persons with disability and their ability to participate properly within the electoral system.
So, I think there are many issues there, but I suppose my concluding point is this: I think the health of our democracy is partly dependent on the participation of citizens within that, and if that participation is in some way weakened or is not fulfilled as it should be, then our society as a whole is weakened. That is something that we will be coming back to discuss and we will want to see what we can do to rectify it, but also to improve and make more accessible our own electoral system. Of course, we have had 16 to 17-year-olds for the first time being given the entitlement to vote, which is an extension of the franchise, but that's just one measure.
6. Will the Counsel General provide an update on the status of the Welsh Government’s appeal to the UK Supreme Court on its legal challenge to the internal market Act? OQ57956
Thank you for the question. An application for permission to appeal against the order of the Court of Appeal, along with a request for expedited consideration, was filed with the Supreme Court on 7 March. The application has not, as yet, been considered. Therefore, we await a decision from the Supreme Court.
Thank you very much, Counsel General.
I completely agree with comments you've made previously that this Act undermines the long-established powers of the Senedd and the Welsh Ministers within matters of devolved competency. There is a clear supermajority in this Senedd to enhance and improve our powers. What discussions have you had with the Westminster Government for them to finally realise that it is the will of the Welsh people and of the Welsh Parliament that we have greater powers and that they don't deny that majority and the mandate that's been given to us by the people of Wales?
Thank you, and I agree entirely with the points that you have made. The internal market Act, I believe, if it's interpreted as UK Government wants it to be interpreted, undermines part of our constitutional settlement. Of course, we disagree with that legislation; we believe it is unconstitutional, hence the legal action that's been taken. It is worth saying at this stage, of course, that what hasn't happened is that the merit of our arguments has not actually been dealt with. The question is what is the best mechanism for doing that, whether it is on the interpretation of the legislation of the Act itself, or whether it is best done by means of a piece of legislation being tested by reference to the Supreme Court. So, as I was saying, we have made the application for permission to appeal. It's not yet been considered by a panel of justices, but I will update the Senedd in due course once we know the outcome.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Rees) took the Chair.
7. Will the Counsel General make a statement on the role of the constitutional commission in considering the size of the Senedd and the voting system used to elect Members of the Senedd? OQ57972
Thank you for the question. We have set the commission’s broad objectives. As the commission is independent of the Welsh Government, the issues they consider within that remit are a matter for them.
Thank you. Of course, we know that Wales is still within its democratic infancy, and that's a unique position to be in as we seek to improve the welfare of Wales here in Cardiff Bay—or there in Cardiff Bay—and across the country. Media speculation and conversations amongst colleagues, however, have brought about concern about how the future of this Chamber will look and the electoral process that will be used to elect its Members. As I hope the Counsel General will agree, discussions on the future of Wales do need to be held in a very transparent and open manner, where all citizens can, if they want to, continuously scrutinise the work of the constitutional commission and provide their input on how they envisage a modern-day democratic Wales to look. The future of this country should not be carved up behind closed doors. So, in providing a constructive angle to the debate on increasing the number of Members here in Cardiff Bay, would you provide an update as to what models have been considered by the Welsh Government to increase the number of Members and what voting system is currently your preference? Diolch.
Thank you for the question, part of which I can answer, part of which I probably cannot. Can I just say on the constitution commission that I and the First Minister and the leader of Plaid Cymru, as part of the co-operation agreement, met with the commission on 28 April for just an updated report, as to the progress that's being made? That report, I believe, has been placed within the library and is available to you. What is interesting is that there has been a lot of work done in terms of obtaining evidence from a whole variety of bodies, organisations and individuals, and that they are on the next stage of the commencement of their development of an engagement process. An engagement process is obviously a very significant part of their work. But, in terms of the size of the Senedd, of course, this is a matter for the Senedd itself, and, of course, there is a special purpose committee that has been established that is due to report by the end of May. You, of course, do have Darren Millar who is a representative on that special purpose committee. I'm sure he's heard the points that you are making and will ensure that those points are raised during the course of the proceedings of that particular committee.
And finally, question 8, Jenny Rathbone.
8. Will the Counsel General provide an update on Welsh Government discussions with the Ministry of Justice in respect of a new justice centre for Cardiff? OQ57958
Thank you for the question. Since I met with senior members of the judiciary at the Cardiff civil justice centre last September, I have continued to press the Ministry of Justice on the increasingly urgent need to replace it with a civil justice centre fit for a twenty-first century capital city.
Thank you, Counsel General. The current building, which sits in my constituency, in outdated and utterly inadequate. It's unsafe for families and it's not a good place for the judiciary, its staff and lawyers to be working in. As it's the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice to sort this problem out, I wonder how it is possible that we are still seeing no progress since your meeting in September. Because failing to invest in our justice system impacts on the quality of justice, but also the perception of the importance of justice in Wales, and holds back anybody wanting to come and operate from these premises, which, obviously, impairs the development of a thriving Welsh legal economy. So, what action is the Welsh Government taking to rectify this utterly unacceptable situation?
You raise very important points. Of course, I've practised from the civil justice centre and there are other Members of this Senedd who are very, very familiar with those facilities. The state of the court, which was raised in the Commission on Justice in Wales, was highlighted two and a half years ago. And when you compare the actual facility and the court compared with those that exist in London, Edinburgh and Belfast, I think the situation in Cardiff is wholly, wholly unacceptable. I raised this issue with Lord Wolfson and, in fact, I'd invited Lord Wolfson to come and visit the court. His resignation, of course, has brought that to an end, but it's something I intend to do with whoever his replacement is.
Myself and the Minister for Social Justice raised this issue with the Lord Chancellor, Dominic Raab. We did not have anything like a satisfactory response. In fact, what we were informed was that there would be no replacement to the civil justice centre. There might be some minor improvements, but there were no plans for a replacement court.
This is significant for a number of reasons. First, the Cardiff civil justice centre is not fit for purpose. It's not fit for the families, for the citizens who use that particular court, it is not fit for the lawyers who need to use it and it is also not fit or safe for the judiciary themselves. Anyone who's familiar with the court, I think, will fully endorse those particular comments. So, it is a matter of the utmost concern in terms of a justice issue that is not devolved, but where many of the consequences and many of the issues that we are concerned with, which have to be dealt with in that particular court, do not have that proper facility.
It also undermines the legal economy in Wales because it removes the opportunity to actually develop the expertise, the sort of commercial work that would be very important to the Welsh economy and that I would certainly want to see. I know the Welsh Government wants to see the Welsh legal economy expand and grow. In order to do that, you have to have a proper court, you have to have proper facilities and you have to have something that stands up and is seen as something that obtains respect. I don't think we have any of those. I think the approach of the Ministry of Justice at the moment is one of neglect of their obligations in terms of the court estate within Wales. It's something that I intend to raise, and I know the Minister for Social Justice intends to raise, which we will do at every level. Quite frankly, it's just another argument where, if justice were devolved, the court would not be in that particular state and we would not have to tolerate those particular facilities.
I thank the Counsel General.
Item 3 this afternoon is questions to the Senedd Commission. Question 2 first of all, from Jenny Rathbone, and this is to be answered by Janet Finch-Saunders.
2. What action is the Commission taking to reduce energy consumption in the Senedd estate’s buildings? OQ57959
I thank the Member, Jenny Rathbone MS, for asking this question, because it's something that I'm quite often speaking to people working within our Commission about. The Senedd has a long history of reducing energy consumption, with our energy emissions footprint reducing by more than 50 per cent across our previous two carbon strategies. Work has already begun on the actions detailed in the Senedd's new carbon neutral strategy, which commits to investment and improvements to the estate. Energy efficiency measures and behavioural change, combined with infrastructure improvements and renewables, all form part of our plans to be net carbon neutral by 2030. Projects completed this year include more energy-efficient LED lighting for office areas, as well as increasing the zoning of the heating areas of Tŷ Hywel for future heating savings in line with occupancy. We are starting to consider the feasibility of solar PV on the estate and we've also committed to joining the Cardiff heat network, which will remove a major component of the estate's heating footprint.
Thank you. These behavioural measures need to start with the way that the electrical lighting system is set up. For example, my colleague Mike Hedges, the lights are permanently on in his office, whereas it took a huge effort on my part to get the business people in the Senedd to change the lighting system so that it didn't automatically come on. You don't need the light on in a south-facing office if the sun is shining. If we expect other people to take measures to reduce their energy for carbon-saving reasons, we need to ensure that our buildings function appropriately. So, I would like to scrutinise this action plan that the Commission says it's got in order to really drive down the carbon emissions, so that we can be exemplary, rather than laggards, in this important measure.
I take your point, and actually, I agree with it, to a point. I have to say, when I had a north-facing office during last term, with the new mechanisms that came in to save energy, we were having problems with our office lights, and we had to move around a lot to get the office lights to come on. I'm now in a south-facing office, where we get lots of sun, and I've got to be honest, I don't have an issue, they seem to work quite well automatically. But as we do move towards summer, we will also be encouraging building users to play their part by opening windows where possible for natural ventilation and temperature control before switching on air conditioning. Throughout the pandemic, small numbers of staff distributed throughout the building has meant that energy use hasn't been as well minimised as it could've been, and these are all issues that I have raised with the director.
Let me reassure you that energy use across the Senedd estate has reduced over the pandemic. But we need to be very keen. On the points you make about the plan, I think you'll be quite reassured when you actually do scrutinise that plan. It's something that I have done, and all I would say is that it's something that we're constantly—. I was in the building the other week and the corridors, I felt, were overwarm. These are all issues that I raise, but it's important that each and every one of us as Members—and I'm glad you've highlighted this today—. It falls on us all as Members, not just as Commissioners, to play our part in ensuring that we're not wasting energy in any sense of the word. Thanks.
Back to question 1. This question will be answered by Ken Skates, and it's to be asked by Heledd Fychan.
1. What assessment has the Commission made of whether any of its contractors use fire-and-rehire practices? OQ57963
Diolch. We have safeguards in place that should protect against fire-and-rehire practices, and the Commission is committed to ensuring fair and transparent employment practices are in place throughout the supply chain for our contracts. To win our business, our contractors must demonstrate high standards of corporate social responsibility at the tender stage, and we do have clauses in our contracts that cover equalities, human rights, and fair employment practices. Once successful, we have regular contract review meetings where CSR is a standing agenda item, and as part of this, we work with contractors to ensure fair employment practices. Acting reasonably, we also reserve the right to request changes to any of those practices we consider to be unfair.
Thank you very much. That is very encouraging to hear. We, myself and Mike Hedges, through our role with the cross-party group on PCS, have heard from PCS that some organisations funded by Welsh taxpayers are using these fire-and-rehire practices, so it's good to see that the Commission is having an influence in this regard. Would you agree with me that, in terms of contractors, it is important that we do ensure and send a very clear message that the practice of fire and rehire is something that we don't agree with in this Senedd?
May I thank the Member for raising this important issue? I will certainly pledge to examine all contracts to make sure that the abhorrent practice of fire and rehire is not part of the contracts that we are able to sign as a Commission. We'll also continue to look to see whether there is more that we can do to tighten up protections against fire-and-rehire practices, and, as I said, we've got clauses in place, in our contract on fair employment practices, and we reserve the right to change any practices that we consider to be unfair. We ensure our contractors, for example, pay their staff in line with the entry rate for Commission staff—that's £10.78 per hour—which is more than the real living wage, which is currently £9.50 per hour from April of this year. I think that demonstrates how we set the bar very high in terms of the contracts that we sign with businesses.
Will the Commission unequivocally condemn the use of fire and rehire, and will the Commission say that any funded contractor to the Commission that uses such method of reducing terms and conditions of employees will no longer be allowed to tender and be part of the Commission and employed by the Commission, whether they do it with other parts of the organisation, not just if they do it with the people they employ at the Commission? And will you also agree with me that there is no role for fire and rehire anywhere in the public sector in Wales?
I'd agree with the Member that the practice of fire and rehire has no place as far as we're concerned. As I said in response to Heledd Fychan, we'll continue to look to see whether there is more that we can do to tighten up protections against this particular practice. I would say that it is unacceptable, that it's not something that we would wish to see, and we will do our utmost to ensure that we monitor contracts and delivery to ensure that it is not part of the business that we support.
To be answered by Joyce Watson, question 3, Mabon ap Gwynfor.
3. What action is the Commission taking to ensure that the Senedd estate is a migraine-friendly space? OQ57960
I thank you for the question. The Commission ensures that accessibility of the Senedd estate is regularly reviewed to ensure that it acts as an exemplar in line with emerging developments and best practice. The Senedd building design eliminates unnatural, harsh lighting, introduces large airy spaces, reduces noise, and thermal comfort is regulated, which reduces extreme temperature fluctuations. The Senedd estate has a number of freely available water stations, and a range of healthy snacks are available. Quiet rooms are accessible, and qualified first aiders are on hand. The Commission is committed to ensuring that, as it continues to develop the estate, both as a visitor venue and a place of work, the Commission's commitments to inclusion and accessibility remain at the forefront of that design.
Thank you very much for that response. The Migraine Trust will provide a toolkit to Senedd Members this month in order to help us to assist those suffering from migraine, including the staff working with us and indeed all Senedd and Government staff. Will the Commission take steps to ensure that Senedd staff feel that they can reveal that they do have this condition, a condition that is stigmatised far too often, and that they can ask for reasonable adaptations, sharing good practice on how to support staff who live with migraine? Thank you.
I very much welcome and look forward to receiving that toolkit. In terms of absence from work, the absence reporting does include a migraine code specifically in order to support accurate reporting and also to reduce the stigma that you have just mentioned. The occupational health nurse is available regularly for individual appointments, in person or virtually, and there are a number of quiet spaces available as required. All the new computer equipment purchased, that's laptops and screens, are TÜV Rheinland certified, and where existing ones are replaced, they will meet that requirement. The same will happen with the new tvs that are installed across the estate. Some of them, of course, don't meet that standard because they haven't been replaced, but I definitely look forward to working with you and the Migraine Trust to ensure that we are an employer here and a space that ensure people feel comfortable should they be suffering from migraine. Thank you.
Thank you, everyone.
No topical questions have been received today.
So, we move on to item 5, the 90-second statements. Once again, we have one 90-second statement this week, and I call on Mabon ap Gwynfor.
Thank you once again, Deputy Llwydd. Today, I want to draw the Senedd's attention to Rheilffordd Llyn Tegid-Bala Lake Railway, which travels from Llanuwchllyn to Bala and which, this week, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary since the first tracks were laid for the current railway. The original railway was part of a network that travelled from Ruabon to Barmouth, but like so many other railways in Wales, it suffered under Beeching's axe, back in 1965. But with the vision of George Barnes and the support of Councillor Tom Jones at that time a new company was established, the Rheilffordd Llyn Tegid company, the first company registered through the medium of Welsh, by the way. It started to operate 50 years ago in 1972, changing the track from a standard gauge to a narrow gauge and operating as a visitor attraction.
Very many people have given untold hours to secure the success of the railway, and we need to thank every one of the volunteers. Now the railway is looking to extend its tracks further into Bala and to develop a new station in the town that will attract thousands more visitors to the area. I look forward, therefore, to seeing this exciting new development in order to ensure another successful 50 years for this glorious railway in the lovely Meirionnydd area.
The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Lesley Griffiths, and amendment 2 in the name of Siân Gwenllian. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendment 2 will be deselected.
Item 6 this afternoon is the Welsh Conservatives' debate on local communities, and I call on Sam Rowlands to move the motion.
Motion NDM7992 Darren Millar
To propose that the Senedd:
Believes that the Labour Welsh Government is failing local communities.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. May I say that I'm absolutely delighted to be moving today's motion in the name of Darren Millar? For the last time in this term, certainly, I'd like to declare my interest as an elected member of Conwy County Borough Council, with my 14 years of being a county borough and town councillor sadly coming to an end. I'm sure we're all disappointed to hear that.
As our motion states today,
'the Labour Welsh Government is failing local communities.'
What a time to be having this important debate, with people up and down our country going to the ballot box tomorrow and with also so many who have already voted by post to decide who their next local councillor will be. I'm sure all Members from across the Chamber share the enthusiasm that I have for tomorrow's election, as it's such an important time for our communities. Councillors are so important in our cities, towns and villages, they are the true local champions who have the power and drive to deliver change in our communities when they're properly empowered to do so.
In opening today's debate, I'd like to focus on three areas in which I believe this Labour Welsh Government is failing our communities. The first area I'd like to focus on is funding. As we know, this Government in Wales has provided historic underfunding to our councils that continues to force them to raise council tax to deliver the services that are increasingly in demand. Since Labour have been in Government here in Wales, council tax has shot up across the country by nearly 200 per cent, adding £900 to the average household bill. This is why I find the Government's amendment rather intriguing, as they state the UK Government has failed to take the cost-of-living crisis seriously—the same Welsh Government that forced residents to pay higher council tax through lower funding, forcing this very tough and unpopular decision making upon our councils and councillors. It's time that local government is given the true funding that it deserves—funding that's fair across Wales. This would unleash our local champions and enable them to do an even better job than they are doing right now.
Secondly, the Welsh Labour Government continues to neglect our local communities by simply not supporting and trusting locally elected people. As Members from across this Chamber rightfully know, devolution, of course, was introduced to bring power as close to the people as possible, and it's our local councillors who are closest to local people and local issues. Yet, with a Welsh Labour Government, it's clear that they want devolution to go no further than Cardiff Bay. And as I raised with the Minister for Finance and Local Government just last week, councils and councillors continue to be frustrated with the layers of bureaucracy and the layers of governance, boards and bodies being put in place by this Labour Government. It's seen through public services boards, regional partnership boards, regional leadership boards, corporate joint committees, all of which are watering down power and control away from locally elected people. Another example of this lack of trust for locally elected people is the post-EU funding. Time and time again, we hear from Welsh Government attacking the UK Government for giving money and funding straight to our councils. Unlike them, it's the Conservatives who trust locally elected people to make the right decisions for the communities, rather than the mothership of Cardiff Bay trying to steer what councils do time and time again. Now is the time for our councils to flourish by trusting them to do what is right for communities in Wales.
The third area, and the final area where the Labour Welsh Government continues to fail our local communities is when it comes to pride in the places that we live and work. It's vital that we empower our communities further with neighbourhood plans, allowing local people to take the lead on where new housing and services should be built and developed, along with introducing community ownership funds to help communities take control and manage their local facilities and services. It's these things that create a sense of ownership and pride in the places that we live, giving that power to very local people.
Many of our communities are in dire need of improvement, and much of this comes down to bread-and-butter issues. We need to ensure that bins are collected on time, that potholes are filled in, dangerous pavements are repaired, and that people receive the education and social care that they deserve. And when we see what may be seen as small things dealt with, we also see businesses flourishing, with more jobs for local people, pride restored back into our towns and villages, and local people at the forefront of decision making.
In closing these opening remarks, Deputy Presiding Officer, it's been 23 years since power has been devolved to Wales, and since, under successive Labour Welsh Governments propped up by Plaid Cymru, the quality of life has barely improved for many Welsh communities. Councils deliver the crucial services that our residents rely on, yet the decades of underfunding from this Government has meant their ability to improve public services has been hampered and held back. Now is the time to support our communities and local businesses, trust local people, and work with all sectors to enhance local communities and local services. For far too long, this Government have taken Wales for granted and think that they know best rather than trust local people. It's only by voting for local Welsh Conservative champions that people can take back control of their communities' future and deliver stronger and safer communities. I call on all Members to support our motion and reject the amendments in front of us. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
I have selected the two amendments to the motion. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendment 2 will be deselected. I call on the Minister for Social Justice, Jane Hutt, to move amendment 1, tabled in the name of Lesley Griffiths.
Amendment 1—Lesley Griffiths
Delete all and replace with:
To propose that the Senedd:
Recognises the Welsh Government has acted to protect communities across Wales from the UK Government’s failure to take seriously the cost-of-living crisis and its refusal to reverse its harmful cut to universal credit.
Amendment 1 moved.
I call on Peredur Owen Griffiths to move amendment 2, tabled in the name of Siân Gwenllian.
Amendment 2—Siân Gwenllian
Delete all and replace with:
To propose that the Senedd:
1. Believes that the regressive policies of successive Westminster Governments—under Labour and the Conservatives—and the lack of ambition of Labour Welsh Governments have failed Welsh communities.
2. Believes that the Cooperation Agreement between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government secures a number of transformational policies that will benefit the people and communities of Wales.
Amendment 2 moved.
Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd, and I move the amendment formally in the name of Siân Gwenllian.
Many people in communities I represent will find it a bit rich that the Tories have brought this debate here today into the Senedd. I represent many former mining villages and towns throughout South Wales East. People living in these places will remember well that it was the Tories that did their best to rip out the heart of these communities during the 1980s. In the last 12 years, austerity politics, which was backed in its early years in Westminster by a docile Labour opposition, has exacerbated generations of neglect and underfunding in communities still reeling from the closure of pits.
If the Tories want to talk about failing communities in Wales, then they should take a long, hard look at themselves in a mirror first. And what about the Labour Government here in Wales? Well, despite what some Members in the Siambr would have their constituents believe, Plaid Cymru continues to support an independent inquiry into floods that devastated communities in 2020. Llanhilleth, Ystrad Mynach and Machen were just some of the places affected in my region. A Welsh flood forum is also needed to provide a voice for the at-risk communities to provide practical support as well as advocating on their behalf. An independent inquiry and a flood forum would provide some much-needed comfort to the people who cannot sleep at night when it rains, for fear of history repeating itself.
The lack of action on air pollution by a Labour Government is not only surprising, but also represents a broken promise. It will be a relief in places like Hafodyrynys, where a street has had to be demolished due to air pollution, when the long-awaited policy will finally be delivered, thanks to a Plaid Cymru role in the co-operation agreement. This legislation is much needed due to the legacy of our industrial past, which has made many in our communities vulnerable to air pollution. It is estimated that the air we breathe can contribute to reduced life expectancy and death, causing something between 1,000 and 1,400 mortalities in Wales every year. The cost to the Welsh NHS is approximately £1 billion a year.
Finally, I want to talk about child poverty in Wales. For a third of our children to be living in poverty is a national disgrace, made worse by the fact that this awful statistic is set to get worse in the months and years to come. Successive Tory Governments in Westminster have a lot to answer for, but there is more that we can do here in Wales, much more. The lack of an anti-poverty programme in the last five years since Labour axed Communities First is disappointing. Thanks to the co-operation agreement, which has put many of Plaid Cymru's manifesto commitments on the agenda of the Government, there are some rays of sunshine amid a gloomy picture. The commitment to guarantee a free school meal for every primary school pupil in Wales will be truly transformational for thousands of families. The bold steps for tackling Wales's growing housing crisis will also address the proliferation of second homes and unaffordable housing. The co-operation agreement also confirms the UK Government's threat to Welsh nationhood with the strongest statement to date that our Senedd is here to stay. The commitment to deliver electoral reform and consequently a larger, stronger, fit-for-purpose Parliament is a direct response to the growing responsibilities held by the Senedd.
Finally, our plan to explore ways in which to achieve net zero by 2035 is a much-need boost to the climate crisis that surely represents our biggest challenge and threat for generations to come. Our communities have suffered under the regressive policies of successive Westminster Governments—yes, both Labour and Conservative ones—and Wales is currently suffering the consequences of a lack of action on key areas, such as flooding, air pollution and poverty. This lack of ambition is failing communities across Wales, and there's so much more that the Government here should be striving towards. Diolch yn fawr.
The premise of this debate today is a Conservative motion that asserts that the Conservative UK Government is failing local communities, or it should be. My communities are great communities. They've been challenged often over many decades, they've bowed sometimes, but they're never beaten, and they're full of great people. I sometimes feel that people from outside the Valleys never quite get the deep sense of belonging and rootedness that keeps us there and keeps us tight through thick and thin. And we've been through really tough times and we've come through. But the failure we see at the moment is a failure of UK Government to empathise with and understand and respond positively to the challenge of these communities.
And with respect to Conservative Members here in the Chamber today, on the benches opposite, Conservative Governments traditionally have not been the friend of my communities. We were once described as, indeed, 'the enemy within' by Margaret Thatcher. And the enemy within, of course, was not the miners alone themselves—it was their families, it was their communities, it was the people who were there. And it's forgetting, of course, that this was always, even back then, about people looking for fairness and social and economic justice. But, of course, that's ancient history, isn't it? Times have changed, things have moved on, it's another time, it's, indeed, another century.
So, let's fast forward. The faces may have changed, but the attitude, unfortunately, was revealed yesterday from the interview with Prime Minister Boris Johnson—it's the same old same old. His appearance on yesterday's GMTV, after five years' of absence, was instructive. The interviewer asked the Prime Minister a very straightforward question, on what more could be done to help Elsie, who is choosing to travel on the buses all day to keep warm because she cannot afford to heat her home and to eat as well—she has no money left. 'What more can be done?', asked the interviewer. His answer—after fumbling and stumbling to find a straight answer, he then, in a moment of supreme narcissism, took credit for introducing the bus freedom pass that Elsie can make use of. How delighted Elsie must have been that she has a Prime Minister who provides warm, free buses to look after her while her home freezes.
After this, the interviewer, shocked at this response, pushed the Prime Minister again on what else could be done for Elsie, who has exhausted all other options available to her. 'Would it be worth taking VAT off heating?', she asked, 'What about a windfall tax on the shocking profits of the fossil-fuel energy companies, who are currently using their proceeds to balance their accounts and pay dividends instead of helping Elsie?' Again, the Prime Minister performed what he might have referred to, actually, as a Chaucerian trick, what Chaucer might have referred to as the oral equivalent of flatulence. He faffed and he fluffed away, explaining there was nothing more he or his Government could do.
Elsie is now living in all of our communities. When we say there are people who are making today the choice between heating and eating, that's not a rhetorical device, it's a fact. It's now increasingly commonplace. When we say that there are people turning up in foodbanks in suits and in uniforms after work, it's not unusual, it's the new normal. The UK Conservative Government is now creating, by design or neglect, a new generation of people we've seen in our communities before under previous Conservative Governments—a generation of in-work as well as out-of-work poverty. [Interruption.] I will give way in a moment. A generation of increasing debt, and the first generation, Darren, of many whose prospects are now worse than their mothers' and their fathers' and their grandparents'. Statistically, factually, true. What's happening, Darren?
Well, if he wants to talk about prospects for people, then we need to sort out our education system in Wales, which your Government is responsible for, and is the worst, unfortunately, in the United Kingdom. In terms of what the United Kingdom is doing to help people at the current time with the cost-of-living situation in our country, we know that the national living wage has risen to a record level—a boost of £1,000 a year for the lowest paid.
It's an intervention.
We know that universal credit taper rate—
I think the intervention—[Inaudible.]
—has been reduced, to put another £1,000 in the pockets of the lowest paid, 2 million people across the UK.
Darren, can I ask you—[Inaudible.]
—has been frozen for 12 years in a row.
Do you regret—
He's taken a minute already.
Do you regret the paltry pension increase that—
I think he's gone on a little bit now.
—the former UK Labour Government gave to our pensioners, which didn't even pay for a packet of peanuts each year?
Before you reply—
[Inaudible.]—a minute. Sorry, Deputy Llywydd.
The Member knows I will check the times, okay. Before you reply, can I remind Members that interventions are to ask questions, not to make your own speeches, okay?
I asked a question.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Our communities, Darren, have now faced a decade of austerity in the vital public realm and cuts to social security, which have eaten into public services across the UK and impoverished already poor people. From the bedroom tax to the cuts in universal credit, this current Conservative Government is as familiar to our communities as the Thatcher Government was of indifference to runaway employment and the poll tax. It's the same old Government. So, our communities now face, after this decade of austerity, a Conservative cost-of-living crisis, which is exacerbated by rising energy prices and the unwillingness of the UK Government and Prime Minister to take action, but it's made worse by Conservative decisions.
So, in bringing this to a close—after the one-minute intervention there—we have unemployment support now fallen to its lowest real-terms value in more than three decades. We have the value of pensions and benefits, Darren, with payments that have fallen to the lowest point in 50 years. We have the Joseph Rowntree Foundation saying pensioners and benefits claimants have seen the value of their payments fall in real terms in eight of the last 10 years. They say, Darren, in terms of their values—how much bread and milk you can buy in the shops—it's the biggest fall in value since 1972. The £20 a week uplift in universal credit, brought in to help recipients whose income suffered as a result of the pandemic, ended in September. People have lost more than £1,000 as a result. Even with the changes—even with the changes—to in-work benefits, such as the reduction of the taper rate and an increase in the work allowance by £500, three quarters of households on universal credit are set to receive less now than they did a year ago, and recipients who don't work at all will lose the entire COVID uplift, equal to over £1,000 a year. And now we have tax rises, national insurance rises—
I have given the Member more than enough time for the intervention.
Indeed, I would simply say, Deputy Presiding Officer, oppose the Conservative motion, support the Government motion. The Conservatives are letting our communities down.
Can I remind Members that I will allocate time for the interventions? So, I don't need to be reminded to do so, but I also ask Members, when they intervene, to ask questions and not make statements. Peter Fox.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I declare my interest also as a Monmouthshire councillor, the last one, ending, like Sam, a long career of 25 years in local authorities. [Interruption.] Yes. Dirprwy Lywydd, our motion is right on so many levels, be it regarding families and communities, the economy, the shortcomings in educational attainment, and, of course, as we all know here, some significant issues facing our Welsh NHS. If only—. Because everybody wants to talk about just now, these last few months, these last few years, but if only successive Labour Welsh Governments had done more over the past 23 years to build stronger and more resilient communities, then those communities would be in a far better position to deal with the challenges facing many today.
Likewise, if more focus had been put into strengthening our economy, through knocking down barriers to inward investment, promoting Wales globally, by seeking out more research and development, the Government could have enabled the creation of many new industries, new careers, better jobs, with huge benefits to Wales and its communities. These things create life chances for people and their families and bring hope and aspiration for future generations. But, no, not enough has been achieved under Welsh Labour.
The number of Welsh children living in poverty, as was pointed out on the other side of the Chamber, even before the recent cost-of-living crisis, has only moderately reduced in 20 years—
Would the Member give way?
I'll just finish this point, if I may, Huw. Despite Welsh Labour saying there would be no children living in poverty—Tony Blair—by 2020.
Would the Member acknowledge that, in the 1997 to 2010 Government, with Welsh Labour here and UK Labour at the UK Government, 1 million children were lifted out of absolute poverty—not relative poverty, absolute poverty? Independent figures will show that that was the case. The Institute for Fiscal Studies will show it. Does he agree with those figures, and what does he think made the difference?
The focus of this debate is what Wales's Government have done over 20 years, and Wales's Government have lifted very few children out of poverty. We have the same amount in poverty now as we had 20 years ago.
So, likewise, if more focus had been on—. Oh, I've talked about that bit. [Laughter.] These things create life chances. And I've mentioned that bit as well, but the number of Welsh children living in poverty has not reduced, and that's a sad indictment of what this Government has managed to achieve. And, yes, I acknowledge how hard it is for so many Welsh citizens right now, but what I'm saying is that more could have been done over the years. More families could have been given hope and been given the tools to achieve what they aspire to. So, yes, in these regards, Labour have failed local communities.
Again, I have rehearsed in this Chamber that Welsh Government has let down local government, and certainly rural authorities have had to provide the many hundreds of functions and services to our citizens year in and year out. And I speak as someone who has substantial experience in this area, given I led currently Wales's only Conservative controlled council for over 13 years. Monmouthshire has been the lowest-funded council in Wales since the local authority was created, but, despite that, it provides many of the best services in Wales, including groundbreaking person-led social care models, and delivered many new primary schools, new comprehensive schools—two new ones recently, two more to come—new leisure centres. We protected our cultural services, indeed invested in the Borough Theatre in Abergavenny. And we've also been paying the real living wage for several years, when others have just talked about it. And years before COVID struck, we had already implemented agile working, focusing on our staff's work-life balance, which attracted councils from all over the UK to see how we did it. I could go on and on. And I've worked with many Ministers—indeed, our Minister here today—over the many years, and they know what Conservative-controlled Monmouthshire County Council has delivered. Ultimately, what propels Conservative-controlled councils into action is the realisation that we are answerable to the electorate, and, that in mind, we never take our residents for granted.
So, despite Monmouthshire being the lowest funded council in Wales by a huge distance, it still manages to deliver above and beyond that of many Labour-run councils. Bizarrely, Labour-controlled councils generally slash vital services—a way to make ends meet—despite even sitting on vast sums of reserves, as we heard yesterday in this Chamber. The Conservatives in Monmouthshire haven't pulled out of things like shared services, such as Gwent Music or Gwent Outdoor Education, as our neighbours have. We know the value of these things and we still stay committed to them. Where Conservative councils deliver for communities, my experience tells me that Labour councils too often fail theirs. But there's more good work to come. Under the dynamic leadership of Councillor Richard John and his able colleagues, there are new and exciting plans for Monmouthshire, offering children and young people the best possible start in life, empowering people to live independently, delivering better connected and sustainable communities. These are Councillor John's and his colleagues' bold commitments. Monmouthshire County Council is a template for others to look and to learn from.
So, Deputy Llywydd, I'm afraid the motion as stands is right that the Welsh Labour Government, and, indeed, Labour at all levels, have let communities down. Thank you.
Before I call the next speaker, I would like to welcome the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, who are in the gallery. I'm aware they're in Cardiff for their conference. So, welcome. And I am sure, other than the electioneering that I'm hearing, the issue actually of the debate is something that is very important for the communities that they represent. Mabon ap Gwynfor.
Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. Let's be honest, this isn't really a debate; this is a desperate attempt by the Members opposite to get some social media clips in preparedness for tomorrow's election, but let's plough on nevertheless.
Wales is a community of communities. That was the decree of some of the foremost leaders of the national movement, as it has been over the past 100 years, and I and others continue to share that message today. So, I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this issue before us today. But the truth is that it isn't the Labour Party in Wales, or indeed the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, that is letting the communities of Wales down, but rather the neo-liberal ideology that dominates their thinking—that's what lets us down. This is the ideology that led to that noted Conservative, Norman Tebbit, saying, 'Get on your bike', without any concern at all for the people in our communities. In the same way, in discussing second homes and the right to live at home campaign, members of the Conservative Party opposite have asked, 'Well, what right do people have to live in the communities where they grew up?'
So, what is a community? According to this ideology, community doesn't mean a thing. It's a collection of buildings alone, with people coming and going. We see this increasingly today, don't we, as villages and small towns develop into no more than satellites for larger towns: commuter towns, where people sleep at night to travel back and forth to the workplace. But it's people who make a community, be that a small geographical community or a nation, or an online community. It's people and people's relationships with each other that should be at the heart of everything we discuss here: those little conversations between parents at the school gate at 3.00 in the afternoon, the children playing in the park on a sunny day, that question, 'Well, how's your mother? How's your father?' when you bump into someone when you buy bread in the shop, the celebration or the commiseration when you see the boys or girls succeeding on the playing field, the chapel or the church, the pub, the public meeting, the bingo, the concert, the ramblers group. All of this and much more is the rich social fabric of a community. But, without this, without the community school, without the local pub, without the chapel, without the hall, the playground, the park, the shop, the bus, the bingo, without all of these things, it's not a community that we have, but a mental health crisis as people live in lonely silos. This neo-liberal regime treats our communities like quarries, to be exploited in order to extract wealth and then abandoned when that wealth comes to an end.
Every element of public policy or private investment depends on the numbers of people, not their needs and requirements, and this is neo-liberalism at its core. Because, at the heart of this, the yardstick is value for money, not the quality of life, not the quality of a community's life. That's what drives society today unfortunately; that's neo-liberalism.
There are several examples of this, but I want to refer to one specific example. Consider planning: today, a major construction company can apply to build a large estate of homes. That estate doesn't have to include a school or a surgery. The planning department can try to enforce the presence of a some park or a link road and ask for pennies to be contributed to the local school, but fundamentally a developer can have a major project with huge profits at the expense of the community.
If an application is rejected then the developer can appeal to the planning inspector. But, if the development is then allowed, where is the right of the community to appeal? There is no right of appeal for a community. This is one example of the neo-liberal system putting profit and capitalist needs ahead of community needs, and it shows that it's the current neo-liberal system that militates against communities.
That's why I ask you to vote against the motion—[Interruption.] Well, as I conclude, of course, Sam.
Diolch, Mabon. You make some really interesting points there, particularly around the community ownership and the definition around communities. So, would you agree with me on the points I raised earlier that what we're seeing at the moment is that lack of trust in terms of that community ownership, and there are some barriers in the way that do not allow a community to get a sense of ownership around some of the community assets and other things that may be available to them at the moment, and that needs to change?
Indeed, that was one of the few things that I did agree with in your contribution, Sam. The need to have that local ownership is greater than ever, and I certainly hope that we will see more of that during this Senedd, and we are already seeing cross-party support for that concept of having local ownership of community assets. Thank you very much.
My declaration is that I will be not fighting any elections after 10 years as a community and elected BCBC councillor.
Now, let me talk about Bridgend. I'll make it simple. Bridgend used to be a vibrant town, full of life, businesses and shoppers. Many people now shop online, or they go to Cardiff or Swansea. Its decline is truly sad. Lockdown was the last straw for many struggling businesses, and for those still open, trade has not returned to its pre-COVID levels. We should be doing all we can to help our businesses thrive as we build back from the pandemic. We want them to thrive, not just survive. But the sad reality is that this Labour Government is punishing our businesses within Wales by having the highest business rates in Great Britain.
Town centres like Bridgend’s are so important to people’s social lives and their overall well-being. This is why local people should have a central role in the future of their town centre and community. The Welsh Conservatives have a clear plan to build stronger, safer communities and rejuvenate our town centres and high streets. And not only that, but we want to put power back in the hands of local people so that they can take the lead on deciding where new housing and services should be built. We want to see residents buy at-risk local facilities, such as the local pub, shop and library, which are often focal points of our communities. Local neighbourhood schemes and the community ownership fund have the ability to unlock the potential that has been clear, but is sadly being lost under Labour.
Imagine what a vibrant town could do for the health of its surrounding communities. We could take the pressure off people who are struggling to make ends meet and make Bridgend a town its inhabitants can be proud of again. For Bridgend to thrive, we need to make the town centre an attractive place to invest once again, by lowering the costs on small businesses and working with South Wales Police to reduce the anti-social behaviour that scares so many people into not going into town.
In addition to the promised council tax rises, the people in Bridgend will be asked to endure an average energy bill of nearly £700 per household. In the UK, it is estimated that 12 per cent of households are in fuel poverty as they choose between food, heating and even council tax. More needs to be done to secure energy provision for the Bridgend area. In February this year, a wind turbine collapsed at a farm that provides electricity for around 18,000 homes. Not only is this dangerous for anyone near the actual turbine, but it puts vulnerable people at risk, especially those who rely on electricity to keep vital services operational.
The UK Government has recently unveiled a scheme to breathe new life into town centres in England. The new law will force landlords to let out retail units that have been vacant for six months or more. Local authorities can stage rental auctions, allowing new businesses the opportunity to lease premises at an affordable cost and give a new business a fighting chance. Bridgend would be a prime area for such a strategy in Wales, with so many empty premises. I urge the First Minister to consider this plan and consider Bridgend for this.
The town centre is not the only area in Bridgend that is neglected. Pen-y-Fai has no walking or cycling routes. We can’t walk to Bridgend, which is only 2 miles away. Our children can’t walk to their schools, because there are no safe walking or cycling routes for them to use. What a shame. This is despite Pen-y-Fai being supported in the active travel plan. The residents of Pen-y-Fai are confined to Pen-y-Fai unless they use public transport or drive. Another: there is no pedestrian crossing near the petrol station on Tondu Road, this further isolates people as they can’t cross the road safely. Will someone need to be killed or seriously injured before any action is taken to rectify this?
The Member needs to conclude now, please.
I'll make a last point, sir.
The people of Bridgend deserve better, and we must do better to ensure they have a place they can raise a family and have a community and home fit for the twenty-first century. Thank you.
Can I declare I'm a Flintshire councillor, for the last day?
When you walk around the community I'm proud to be part of, you can see what has been achieved thanks to the policies and investment of the Welsh Labour Government working with Labour-led Flintshire council: twenty-first century schools, extended new nursery provision, investment in community buildings, new social housing, council houses growing to 500 council houses, enveloping schemes, solar panels on pensioners' bungalows reducing what they have to pay, play facilities—we've kept all the play facilities and we're reinvesting in those—cycle routes, pedestrian crossings—so, what's happening with Altaf there—and the list just goes on.
Over the last 15 years, as well as being a county councillor, I've also been on two community councils, the village hall committee, Hafan Deg committee, the church committee and the playgroup committee. I've organised festivals, carnivals, fashion shows, fundraisers and community transport, and helped renovate the village hall and several play areas. It's about people. It's about providing things for people, for the community. The community is people.
The rural development fund, which was European funding through Welsh Government and rural development agencies—I was also on one of those as well—is no longer in existence and has not been replaced with anything similar by the UK Government post Brexit, and needs re-introducing. It enabled seed funding for community events and projects, bursaries for start-up businesses—I've heard that talked about on the news recently as well, how important it was and it was really useful—community enhancements to create a sense of place, such as websites and signage, and to create communities. Quantifying the amazing outcome of these small improvements to build strong communities was always difficult, but the investment is there to see. Examples of events funded by this funding stream are: the Denbigh Plum Festival, which Gareth goes on about—I see Gareth on the screen; the Mold Food and Drink Festival and the food supplier tent at the Flint and Denbigh show.
The current Welsh Government's community facilities programme grant has helped to renovate village halls and community facilities in areas of deprivation. The latest funding round has awarded a share of £1.78 million to 24 community groups, including the Enbarr Foundation in Flintshire, towards resurrecting the old John Summers building to enable the local community to access employment opportunities. Rhyl and District RFC, Gareth, was previously given £490,000 from Welsh Government under the same scheme, which saw the club move from outside the town with limited transport routes into the centre of an area of deprivation and low-car ownership, opposite a high school and next to a cycle path, enabling easy access to local schools and residential areas. And since opening, despite the pandemic, it now employs 20 full-time staff, has 26 groups using the facilities, including choirs, exercise groups, Knit and Natter, and a weekly disco for people with disabilities. They have almost doubled the amount of people participating in rugby—
Will the Member take an intervention? I have had an intervention request from Gareth Davies.
Yes, sure, Gareth.