Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

25/05/2022

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

The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:29 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

Statement by the Llywydd

Welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in 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 those are noted on your agenda.

13:30
1. Questions to the Minister for Finance and Local Government

The first item is questions to the Minister for Finance and Local Government, and the first question is from Peter Fox.

The Council Tax Rebate Scheme

1. Will the Minister make a statement on the qualifying criteria for the council tax rebate scheme? OQ58082

Yes. As part of our £380 million cost-of-living support package, we have provided £152 million to local authorities to make payments of £150 to households living in properties in bands A to D and to all households in receipt of our council tax reduction scheme.  

Thank you, Minister, for that response. Minister, a number of constituents have contacted my office recently and have asked whether the Welsh Government would consider extending the council tax rebate scheme to those households living in homes that are energy inefficient. For example, two elderly residents have explained that they live in older, stone properties that are cold and draughty, but currently cannot afford to pay for energy-efficient improvements. Neither of them receives pension credit and are not eligible for the council tax rebate as their property is above band D threshold. Yet, in the case of one resident in particular, they pay £300 a month in council tax, which is more than half of their monthly income. 

As I mentioned previously, there are a lot of people, especially in rural communities, who are asset rich and cash poor, or live in family homes, who may not be covered by current support schemes. Minister, how would you respond to these residents who have asked whether the council tax rebate could be expanded so that more people can receive the support they need? And how is the finance ministry working with the climate change department to specifically help people on lower incomes and who live in older, inefficient homes to improve their energy efficiency? Thank you.

Thank you very much for the question, and, of course, our scheme here in Wales is already more generous than that being offered across the border in England, because we do have the council tax reduction scheme element of it, which is available to people in properties bands A to I. So, that obviously goes much further than the support available elsewhere. But we do recognise that there will be people struggling who are not automatically entitled to that support, which is why we've included a £25 million discretionary fund for local authorities so that they can support individual households who they know will be struggling but are not otherwise eligible. Each local authority will be publishing their discretionary scheme notice so that they will demonstrate which households will be considered within that local area. So, I know Monmouthshire would intend to do so shortly. Over 20,000 properties in Monmouthshire have already been identified as eligible for the support and, of those, 16,900 have already received their payment. So, there is considerable support for your constituents, but I would absolutely recommend that those constituents in the first instance explore with the council whether they are eligible for support through the discretionary scheme.

Cost-of-living Financial Support Package

2. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's cost-of-living financial support package? OQ58104

Yes. As part of our £380 million cost-of-living support package, over 200,000 households have benefited from our winter fuel support scheme. Additionally, payments totalling over £60 million have been made to over 410,000 households as part of the £150 cost-of-living support scheme.

I thank you for you answer, Minister. The Welsh Government is of course using every tool in its box to put money back into people's pockets, but the UK Government doesn't seem to realise or care about the scale of the emergency my constituents and people up and down the country are facing. Do you agree with me that it should bring forward an emergency budget now, including a windfall tax on oil and gas profits and a VAT cut on home energy bills, and focus their minds as much on helping people through this crisis as they have on arranging illegal partying in Downing Street? The Welsh Government of course is giving a £150 payment to people and I understand that, as you said, more than 332,000 households have already received it. When can all the others expect to receive that payment?

13:35

Thank you for raising that question. The Prime Minister was asked almost an identical question this afternoon in Prime Minister's questions, and his response was completely inadequate—it just smacked of arrogance, and demonstrated how out of touch the UK Government is in terms of the challenges that people are facing. It is high time that the UK Government took some action in this space. They had the opportunity in the spring statement to do something; they did almost nothing. And I do hope that the UK Government will decide to put in place a package of support that includes those kinds of things that Joyce Watson has been calling for for a long time, like the windfall tax to which she's just referred. And there are other things, I think, that the UK Government could practically do, such as paying the £200 electricity bill rebate as a non-repayable grant to all bill payers, and introducing that lower energy price cap for low-income households so that they're better able to meet the costs of their energy. It's a really worrying time for families, but I think that things are going to get more difficult in the period ahead. The UK Government does have that fire power that's needed in order to address these issues, and I do hope that they will take action as soon as they possibly can.

In addition to the largest ever financial settlement from the UK Government, the £25 million extra household support funding and £180 million extra funding for cost-of-living support, so far received by the Welsh Government from the UK Government in consequence of its funding announcements, which the Welsh Government would not otherwise have had, the UK Government has said this week that a new package to fight the cost-of-living crisis is imminent and that no option is off the table. However, how do you respond to the call by Age Cymru for extension of the Welsh Government's winter fuel support scheme eligibility criteria to include older people in receipt of pension credit, and to concern raised with me on behalf of disabled people in north Wales, who need to use extra energy for the equipment that keeps them alive but are ineligible for the Welsh Government's discretionary assistance fund? And how will you deliver on the Welsh Government's acceptance of the recommendation in the 2020 Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee report, 'Benefits in Wales: Options for Better Delivery', that it establish a coherent and integrated Welsh benefits system for all the means-tested benefits for which it is responsible, co-produced with people who claim these benefits and the wider Welsh public?

I'm glad to see that Mark Isherwood is confident of further imminent help from the UK Government. I'm sure that will provide comfort to his constituents, as long as it is real, and as long as it does come soon enough to support them with the challenges that they're facing ahead. And, yes, we have had a better settlement in this financial year, but let's remember that the cost-of-living crisis means that our budget over the next three years is now worth £600 million less than it was when this Senedd voted on those budget plans just three months ago. So, I think that that just demonstrates the level of challenge that is facing the Welsh Government, but also the entire Welsh public sector as well. So, I hope that the UK Government recognises that when it brings the immediate and imminent help that Mark Isherwood is anticipating.

We are doing everything that we can within our resources to support people. So, it is quite right that we have indicated that we will again run the £200 winter fuel support scheme, which has been successful at the start of this year. We'll be doing it again at the end of this financial year. And I can confirm that we are looking to explore how we can extend that now to a wider group of people to ensure that more people are able to keep their homes warm over the winter. And in the region that Joyce Watson represents—because she introduced us to this question this afternoon—I can confirm that 16,105 applications were paid at the start of the year, and I would expect that to be greater at the end of the year.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Peter Fox.

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, the £150 council tax rebate we've just been talking about—the repayment scheme that you're implementing—made possible, as Mark Isherwood said, thanks to the UK Government, is indeed welcome here. However, what is seriously concerning are the multiple reports of families in Wales being stuck in limbo with no access to this support. Online comments to a recent article highlighted the extent of this ordeal, where families in Newport, Carmarthenshire, Wrexham, Caerphilly and many other places stated that they are yet to receive the rebate. Minister, do you know how many people in Wales have received, and are yet to receive, the council tax rebate? I know you've just quoted some figures for Monmouthshire and other parts of Wales. And for those who haven't yet received the funding, can you provide them with the assurance that there will not be any further delays in providing the money?

13:40

So, I would question whether or not we could refer to delays in providing the money, because this is a rapidly designed and rapidly delivered piece of support to families. And let's remember that we're talking about a million households receiving funding from this pot across Wales. I can confirm that, as of 16 May, which is the date for which I have the most recent figures, almost £61 million has been paid out, and that's to over 410,000 households. So, they have received their payments. And 13 authorities have started that payment process, but all should have started it and started making payments by the end of this month. So, we do expect things to ramp up quickly, but I have to say local authorities, I think, have been doing a very good job getting the funding out to households. 

And let's remember again that local authorities can do this easily where they have the bank details of those households—so, people who pay their council tax through direct debit, for example, are relatively easy to pay. Lots of people don't have that function set up, so we have to get individual data from those constituents who then have to fill in just a short form on the council's website, but, of course, that takes some extra time and resource to deal with. But we are working as fast as we can, and local authorities are, to get the money out. 

Thank you for that answer, Minister, and I also concur that local authorities do indeed work hard in getting these things out. But what families now need is for the Welsh Government to finally prioritise them by ensuring that that support reaches them extremely quickly. As I'm sure Members from across the Chamber will agree, families should not have to be subjected to continued uncertainties, so it's important that we make progress. I know councils have had to adapt to be able to provide this new scheme, but they already have the systems in place to collect council tax, and so people certainly do deserve answers as to why this process has been so slow, and I accept that you've tried to explain that.

There are also concerns, as you've just mentioned, about those people in society who are the most vulnerable, who probably don't have access to the internet, and are very worried that they are not going to be able to access this rebate and they may not know how to find it. Minister, can you outline what measures were adopted by the Welsh Government to ensure what should have been a smooth delivery of the rebate? Did you thrust the announcement onto councils, or did you ensure that they were fully equipped with the resources that they need to co-ordinate the supply as efficiently and effectively as possible? And, finally, how are you working with councils to ensure that everyone who is eligible can receive the support they need?

So, I'd repeat again that I don't think that this is a slow roll-out. And let's remember that this £150 contribution from the UK Government is coming at the start of the financial year; it's coming as we start to move into the spring and the summer, when bills and the pressures on households aren't going to be as acute as they are later on in the year. So, I think that households will be remembering that as they consider their budgets for the year ahead. But there are immediate things that the UK Government can do right now to support your constituents and mine with the cost of living. For example, they could reinstate the £20 a week uplift to universal credit—an immediate thing the UK Government could do to put money into the households that need it most. And they could also remove all of the social and environmental policy costs from household energy bills and instead meet those from general taxation—again, something they could do immediately and quickly to support households that are struggling. 

So, Welsh Government is absolutely playing its part. Local government is supporting us in the delivery of the schemes that we have introduced. But, we can only do so much with the resources that we have available to us. It is for the UK Government to start doing the things that only it can do—for example, introducing that lower energy cap for low-income households. We have worked really closely with local authorities on this, providing the guidance and working with them on the scheme. But let's remember, the UK Government announced its rebate scheme—which isn't actually a rebate scheme, but that's for another day, I suppose—without any discussion with the Welsh Government, without any prior notice. So, we then immediately get asked by the media, by the opposition, 'What are we going to do about it? How are we going to use this consequential funding? Are we going to offer the same package of support?' So, we have to work very rapidly then with local government, and there's no reason why the UK Government can't engage with us when it's developing these proposals, so that we can do the background work in advance with our local authorities so that they have a greater lead-in time for delivery. 

Well, thank you, Minister. I want to change tack slightly. Minister, Wales is now at a critical stage, and what comes next will determine the future and shape of the country. We're currently suffering the triple whammy of inflationary pressure, the pandemic and now the Welsh Government's—and I have to say it—kick in the teeth to our fantastic tourist industry. Your statement yesterday on self-catering properties sent shockwaves through the tourist industry in Wales. Despite what your statement says, Minister, you have chosen not to listen to the industry. I and the tourist sector fear the Welsh Government's position will wreck a crucial pillar of the Welsh economy. The priority needs to be supporting business and creating well-paid jobs, not putting people out of work, which this will do. Will you, Minister, meet with the industry leaders and listen once again to their concerns and pleas? These are unprecedented times, and the industry doesn't need the Welsh Government piling additional pressures on to it at a time when it's trying to recover. 

13:45

Well, it's Welsh Government's view that the changes are intended to ensure that those self-catering businesses are making that fair contribution to the economy in which they're situated. And where a property is let on a commercial basis for 182 days or more—it's only half the year—it will be making a contribution to the local economy, and it will be generating income and it will be creating jobs. Where those thresholds aren't met, we're only asking that the property pays council tax, like every other property in the community. And I have to say that it shouldn't have come as a shock, because I did announce this on 2 March, more than a year before these measures will be coming into force, taking practical effect, and we did publish the technical consultation on it, and that followed a huge consultation, where we had over 1,000 responses. So, we've had a good level of engagement.

I did meet with the Wales Tourism Alliance, and had a really useful discussion with them, and, as a result of that, I did indicate that I would go away and take some further advice on those properties that have planning restrictions attached to them, whereby they're not allowed to let for the full 12 months of the year. And I have indicated that I'm looking at how we can make exemptions for those particular properties, demonstrating, I think, that we have been listening to those concerns raised by the industry. But I think that we're only asking that businesses make a reasonable contribution to the economy in which they're sited. 

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Minister, you will recall, I know, in 2020, Audit Wales found that a third of town and community councils in Wales had their accounts qualified—deemed unacceptable, of course—and in the 2017 local elections over two thirds of seats for town and community councillors went uncontested; 80 per cent of wards didn't actually have an election. Now, we await an analysis for the most recent local election, a few weeks ago, although anecdotally I think we can safely say that the situation certainly hasn't improved, possibly even gotten worse. So, that said, what is your assessment of the state of town and community councils as a tier of local government in Wales? 

I think that my assessment would be that the tier is mixed. I would say that there are some incredibly vibrant local authorities—excuse me, town and community councils—which are doing great work within their communities: they're ambitious, they have good plans to improve the area, they engage well with the communities around them, they put on events, they improve the local environment and so on. But then there are other town and community councils that are, I have to say, much less ambitious and deliver much less for their communities, and I suppose the overall vision, really, is to bring those community councils and support them to come up to the level of the best, and we do have some excellent town and community councils across Wales.  

We do, indeed, but you're right to say there's huge disparity, isn't there, not only in terms of performance and ambition, but certainly in terms of the coverage to start with, where some areas have a town and community council, others don't. I think about nearly 30 per cent of the population of Wales don't even have a town and community council. Some are very large—Barry Town Council, for example, is very nearly representing a population the same size as Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council—but then you have others who maybe represent just a few hundred people in their community, and, collectively, they represent a precept base, assets and reserves worth over £0.25 billion. So, taking all that into consideration, would you accept that maybe it is time to take a step back and to look at the situation more holistically and to maybe consider whether we need greater consistency in terms of provision and coverage, in terms of size, in terms of functions? And it might be an opportunity to look at strengthening responsibilities as well so that we can actually create a more sustainable tier of provision and make this key tier of local government more fit for the future?

13:50

I'd absolutely be keen to explore with the spokesperson what ideas we have in terms of driving forward improvement in the sector, because I think we're in agreement that the sector is very mixed in terms of both the practicalities of it but then also what they're delivering. I'm keen to have that discussion about how we strengthen powers for the best. We do have the additional powers through the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 that look to support town and community councils with their ambitions, where they are ambitious to do more. But I think that the discussions I have with One Voice Wales are important in terms of exploring, really, how we do raise the sector up more generally. I have provided support via the chief digital officer for town and community councils to explore what more they can be doing in the digital space, because I think that modernising town and community councils is very important as well in terms of helping them engage better with their local communities. But I absolutely agree that there's plenty more to be done in this area, and I'm keen to have any discussions with any interested colleagues on ideas for the future.

Levelling-up Funding

3. Will the Minister outline how the Welsh Government and the UK Government are working in tandem on delivering levelling-up funding? OQ58098

Yes. The UK Government has deliberately bypassed our devolution settlement and is running both the levelling-up and shared prosperity funds from London. The last-minute offer of an advisory role in the shared prosperity fund was wholly inadequate and symptomatic of the UK Government's botched approach to post-Brexit funding.

Well, thank you very much for your response. It's a reflection of the situation. But, of course, the situation is disappointing, isn't it? Because, back in 2019, Wales was a net beneficiary of funding from the European Union, receiving hundreds of millions of pounds every year, and that drove economic programmes and also attracted match funding from private and public sources. But, as you've said in your response, the Welsh Government is now being shut out of this process. We're moving from a holistic, strategic approach to a competitive model that sets local authorities against each other instead of bringing them together, and which elevates the role of Members of Parliament to some kind of adjudicators who almost have some kind of veto on these schemes. It takes us in the wrong direction. Instead of Wales coming together to pull in the same direction with complementary investments, now we see everyone being encouraged to go their own way, often at the expense of others. It's also an intentional step to cut out the Senedd from this process and to undermine the mandate and the democratic oversight that we have here. So, in light of all that, do you agree with the calls of Plaid Cymru that all responsibility over post-Brexit funding sources should be devolved to Wales?

Thank you very much for raising that, and also for the motion that Plaid Cymru have tabled for later on this afternoon, when we can explore this together in further detail. But I share that concern that it does potentially pit local authorities against each other at precisely the time when we're trying to encourage collaboration and working together. But it's not even just local authorities, of course; previously, you would have had higher education, further education, the private sector, the third sector, all benefiting significantly from EU funding. But now, in terms of making local authorities administrators in the SPF, that's causing, I think, potential challenges with that relationship as well. So, you know, I think that—. I referred to it as 'botched' in my original answer; I think that that's being polite.

I think that the point about bypassing the Senedd is also really important as well, because the UK Government has said that they'll be devolving more locally, but that's absolute rubbish, because no funding or decision-making power at all is being devolved. Because Welsh local authorizes have to prepare plans but then they're assessed by Whitehall officials and decisions are made by UK Government Ministers in London, so there's no devolution of these things to that kind of more local level that the UK Government refers to.

And then of course there's the important point about the loss of funding. We will be facing a loss of £1.1 billion in unreplaced structural and rural funding between 2021 and 2025, and that of course includes a £243 million loss in rural funding. I can hear the Member who is a farmer himself talking about this as we discuss this question. So, clearly, Wales is absolutely worse off and the promises made to us have been broken.

13:55

Of course, levelling-up funding is crucial to how we will work in the future here in Wales, because there's so much that can be done to help regenerate our high streets, our town centres, tackling crime, antisocial behaviour, and this money can make a real difference in those communities. And of course, one of the aspects, actually, we on these benches do support, and actually local government does support, is that funding being in the hands of those local authorities, because this is devolution, and this is where it doesn't stop here at Cardiff Bay, and despite your concerns, Minister, local authorities that I know and work with are excited about the opportunity to feed into this process directly, rather than being dictated to from Cardiff Bay. So, in light of this, Minister, what discussions are you having, and what ongoing discussions are you having, with local authorities to ensure that levelling up is made a success?

I would be very surprised indeed if local authorities are referring to our regional funding approach previously as 'being dictated' from Cardiff. I would be very surprised indeed, because our approach has always been incredibly collaborative. It's about trying to ensure that decisions are taken in partnership. And let's remember that the levelling-up fund has been—. It's just sprinkling tiny, tiny bits of money across Wales. Let's remember the first funding round was launched in March 2021, and successful applicants weren't notified until October of that year, and, in the first round, only six local authorities in Wales received funding. That was for 10 bids, worth £121 million. Unsuccessful bids across Wales were worth well over that—£172 million—so, I think that there would be more disappointed local authorities than pleased by this particular scheme, and I see absolutely no prospect of this tiny amount of money the UK Government is providing contributing to any kind of levelling up in Wales or elsewhere.

It was fascinating at the weekend to see a little evidence of blue water appearing in the leader of the Conservatives' speech—it wasn't so much an ocean or even a river, nor a stream; it was more a rivulet, or perhaps a rill, a tiny little trickle—in terms of HS2 funding. But, of course, we've also seen the announcements on Crossrail in recent years, and the Victoria line this weekend, and, you know, it's fantastic to see all that investment going into the south-east, but this has an effect in Wales; we've been starved of funding for levelling up in our railways over decades. I can actually say that we're finally getting the Tondu signalling getting done—15 to 20 years after it should have been, because it was taken away to the south-east of England to do investment there, but we're finally getting it done.

So, Minister, do you have any idea what sort of figure you could hand to the Conservative leader to say, 'In addition to HS2, here's the sum of money we need to level up investment in the railways in Wales'?

It's really pleasing to see that scales have fallen from the eyes of the leader of the Conservatives in respect of HS2 funding, and I hope that he has similar revelations in respect of the £1.1 billion that has been lost to Wales—and this is a fact—as a result of the UK Government's approach to Brexit. So, our approach to rail infrastructure funding has been a result of consistently being shortchanged by the UK Government. Over the past 20 years, we've received less than 2 per cent of the £102 billion the UK Government has spent on rail enhancements, despite us having 5 per cent of the population, but, worse than that, 10 per cent of the tracks. And we don't have fair funding in respect of rail infrastructure at all. Despite Network Rail's Wales route having 11 per cent of the route length, 11 per cent of the stations and 20 per cent of the level crossings across in England and Wales, only an average of around 2 per cent of that money has been spent on network enhancements since 2011. So, that's clearly extremely disappointing.

What could we have instead? We could be decarbonising our rail network in Wales; we could be addressing the disparities created by the cancellation of electrification to Swansea; we could be implementing the recommendations of the Burns commission more quickly in south-east Wales; we could be delivering that north Wales metro more quickly, including improved links, I have to say, to HS2; and we could be investing in important local schemes such as increased frequency on the Maesteg line and reopening of the Abertillery spur. These are things that we could have had had we had fairness from the UK Government.

14:00
Fair Funding for Local Authorities

4. How does the Welsh Government ensure fair funding for local authorities across Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OQ58107

I will continue to ensure fair funding for all authorities in Wales through a transparent, equitable and jointly produced distribution formula for the local government settlement with our local government partners.

Thank you for that detailed answer, Minister. I do briefly want to touch on two issues with the Welsh Government's local authority funding formula. The first is the disparity between the funding per head of an 84-year-old in comparison to that of an 85-year-old. Minister, you'll be aware that the former receives £10.72 per head and the latter receives £1,582 per head. Now, how can it be that someone who presents with the same health issues, at roughly the same age and very similar environmental and social circumstances, receives £1,571.28 less than someone who is only one year older?

But that's not the only issue, Minister. You'll also be aware that much of the data captured and subsequently used to calculate funding allocations is dated as far back as 2001. Given these issues, can I urge you to review the funding formula for our local authorities, and ensure that each of my constituents in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire are getting their fair share of funding? 

On the first question you raised in respect of age bands, this is something that the distribution sub-group has been asked to take a look at following questions raised by your colleague Sam Rowlands in this respect. So, that piece of work will be ongoing. But I have say that the vast majority of funding, and those indicators for funding, are updated annually. So, at the moment it's 72 per cent, but, as a result of the pandemic and the staggered roll-out of universal credit, a number of the indicators have been frozen and are undergoing investigation by the distribution sub-group at the moment. But once those issues are resolved, over 80 per cent of the funding formula will be relying on data that is updated annually, so we will have more up-to-date information. Of course we've got the census data coming out later this year, which, again, will be very important in giving us that more timely data.

Llannerch Bridge

5. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Climate Change and Denbighshire County Council regarding funding a replacement for Llannerch bridge between Trefnant and Tremeirchion? OQ58085

Whilst this is a matter for the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, I understand his officials have been in contact with the local authority, which has responsibility to maintain and ensure the resilience of such assets. There has been no formal bid by Denbighshire council to Welsh Government for funding.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. As you can imagine, my constituents are extremely frustrated by this situation. Almost a year and a half after the destruction of the historic Llannerch bridge, the communities of Trefnant and Tremeirchion remain isolated from one another, forcing long detours by car and leaving no active travel routes. My constituents don't care about the argument over who is going to pay for the bridge rebuilding. They are the ones ultimately footing the bill through their taxes, regardless of whether the council or the Welsh Government pays for the repairs. Other schemes to repair the damage caused by storm Christoph have already been agreed by Welsh Government. So, Minister, will you work with your colleagues in Welsh Government and Denbighshire County Council to seek an urgent way forward, and speed up the process, so that my constituents can be assured that Llannerch bridge will be replaced sooner rather than later as this has gone on for way too long?

Well, I can only repeat what my colleague the Minister for Climate Change told you in January, and that is that, of course, we appreciate the difficulties that have been caused to your constituents as a result of the work that needs to be done, but that is a responsibility of the local authority to maintain and ensure the resilience of those assets. But, as you were told in January, and it remains the case, we haven't yet had a funding bid from Denbighshire regarding the bridge.

Spending Priorities

6. What are the Minister's spending priorities for Preseli Pembrokeshire for the next 12 months? OQ58073

My priorities are set out in our programme for government and the recent 2022-23 budget, which deliver on our values and provide the foundation for a stronger, fairer, greener Wales.

Minister, the one project the Welsh Government has committed to is reducing the speed limit on the A40 in Scleddau in my constituency in this financial year, and yet the Government has recently made it clear that current capital budget allocations for trunk-road network operations in 2022-23 require all projects to be re-evaluated. Minister, I can't overemphasise the importance of road safety, which I hope is still a priority for this Government, and I urge you, Minister, to ensure that this funding is made available for this work, given the original commitment. So, can you tell us what discussions you've had with your colleague the Deputy Minister for Climate Change about the funding of road safety projects? And will you now look to commit to providing funding for this important scheme as soon as possible?

14:05

So, Llywydd, this is really a matter for my colleagues the Minister for Climate Change and the Deputy Minister for Climate Change in respect of their budgetary responsibilities, but I will, perhaps, take an update from my colleagues on this, because the speed limit on the A40 is not within my responsibilities.

Question 7 [OQ58079] is withdrawn. Question 8, Heledd Fychan.

Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015

8. What consideration does the Minister give to the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 when determining the budgets of Welsh Government-funded public bodies? OQ58094

Our approach continues to embed the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 at its heart. Alongside our 2022-23 budget providing the foundations for a stronger, fairer and greener Wales, the Act is central to the improvements to the budget and tax processes contained within the budget improvement plan.

Thank you, Minister. I welcome the fact that the Government published the well-being statement to coincide with the programme for government, and stated in it that you will, and I quote,

'use our budget process to ensure that resources are allocated to deliver the well-being objectives'.

I was also very encouraged to find the word 'future' appearing 46 times in the draft budget for this financial year. However, despite the strides that have been made, public bodies tell me time and time again that they still feel that budget decisions are taken in silos, and that even though they receive remit letters stating how they need to work to support well-being objectives, they are still finding it difficult to access funding to help deliver on important Government objectives if they are seen as being outside their traditional remit areas—for example, art organisations that deliver on health and well-being programmes, including social prescribing. Also, some feel that some public bodies are not delivering as they should on the Act and yet continue to receive sustained funding without any more than encouragement to do more.

I'd be interested to know if this is something that is also of concern to you, Minister, and whether there are plans to move to more impact or prevention-based budgets as you monitor how the well-being objectives linked to the budget are progressing over the course of this Senedd.

That's a really interesting question and I think that it speaks to the importance of our budget improvement plan, which I first published back in 2018, but it's become a rolling document, taking a five-year look ahead to the ways in which we improve the budget process. And that really is about exactly what you've described in terms of thinking about how we maximise the multiple gains that we get for our investments. And the example that you gave about art being so crucial for health and well-being is a really good one. I will consider that further as we start our first round of budget bilaterals with our colleagues in the Cabinet, as we start to think about the next financial year's budget—the process actually starts now, so we've only had a couple of weeks off since the last one. But that will certainly be a question that I'll explore with all of my colleagues as we start to think about the next steps.

The Future Generations Commissioner for Wales's analysis suggests that, despite declaring a climate emergency, public bodies in Wales are still not building decarbonisation targets into their procurement requirements. What is the Government doing to rectify this and to recognise the additional costs that come from this? Thank you.

Well, public bodies in Wales should be looking at everything through the lens of the well-being of future generations Act, and certainly exploring what more they can be doing as organisations to help us deal with the climate and nature emergency. So, that should be part of the core way in which organisations are working now, across Wales. The well-being of future generations Act and the requirements on them in terms of the legislation, I think, are quite clear. So, I would be disappointed if public bodies weren't considering the Act and looking at all of their decisions through that particular lens. But if there are specific examples that you wanted me to look at with my colleagues, I'd be very happy to do so.

Air Pollution

9. What consideration did the Minister give to supporting local authorities to tackle air pollution when allocating local authorities' budgets? OQ58102

Support for local authorities' statutory air quality duties is provided through the £5.1 billion unhypothecated annual settlement. We awarded £355,000 in grant last year to increase authorities' capacity to tackle air pollution in their areas, and we're reviewing this scheme and considering future funding requirements to support the clean air Act.

14:10

Thank you for that answer, Minister. We know that the dangers that air pollution poses to people's health and well-being, both short and long-term exposure to air pollution, can lead to a wide range of diseases, including stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, trachea bronchus and lung cancers, and many other infections. The new website tool, addresspollution.org, has shone a light on the pollutants that people may be experiencing in their postcodes. Sadly, it shows air pollution levels in parts of Newport are among the worst in the UK and greatly exceed World Health Organization targets. Residents are obviously very concerned and there's no one solution to tackling air pollution, but they will require national measures and local ones to bring levels down. What long-term funding strategy does the Welsh Government have to tackle air pollution, and how does it plan to support local authorities financially in addressing local pockets of particular concerns?

Thank you for the question. Last year, our local air quality management support fund did support local authorities to deliver some innovative projects that can prevent or mitigate air pollution issues, and bids from Newport City Council, as well as Swansea Council and Neath Port Talbot Council, were successful in receiving support through that scheme. And I know that the funding awarded to Newport City Council is supporting the installation of monitoring sensors in their air quality management areas, and I think that the description that you've just given of the kind of data that you're aware of just shows how important that kind of monitoring is in terms of how we move things forward on this particular agenda.

I think that the clean air Act is going to be absolutely pivotal in terms of how we look at these issues in the future. And, of course, we've consulted on the White Paper for the Clean Air (Wales) Bill between 13 January 2021 and 7 April 2021. I'm aware that my colleague will be publishing the summary of responses shortly; that's currently being drafted at the moment. As you can imagine, there was a lot of interest in this, which is wonderful. So, our aim, really, is to ensure that we continue to have that evidence-based process to set effective targets, for example, being realistic about what we can achieve, but also considering robust science and expert advice. So, I think that when we start to align our budgets in future, it will be through that lens that we will do so.

Funding for Care Homes

10. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Health and Social Services about providing sustainable funding for care homes in Wales? OQ58090

We remain committed to supporting reforms to improve delivery and increase the sustainability of the whole social care sector. In 2022-23 alone, we are providing over an additional £250 million for social services, including £180 million within the local government settlement, £45 million to support reforms, plus £50 million of social care capital.

Thank you, Minister. I was quite shocked very recently to find out that Care Forum Wales have revealed that fees paid by local authorities in north Wales are up to £11,000 a year less per person than those on offer from their counterparts in south Wales. The reality is that a 50-bed care home in Torfaen will receive £546,000 a year more for providing residential care than a similar sized home in Anglesey, Wrexham and Flintshire, for exactly the same level of care, and £444,600 more than a home in Conwy. CFW have resigned from the north Wales fee-setting group in protest at local authorities deprioritising care.

Now, as I have explained to you—I've written to you about this—part of the problem is the local authority funding formula. The current system provides local authorities with the funding of £1,500 per resident aged 85 or over. However, for those between the ages of 60 to 84, only £10.72. That huge gap shows a flawed assumption that only those 85 years plus require council-funded care and support. Minister, several Members have asked over many years here for this Welsh Government to look at the funding formula in Wales. It isn't working. In fact, it's working against my older population and my vulnerable people in Aberconwy. Would you please, please look at the funding formula again, so that we can definitely have a system that is fairer to all those requiring care across Wales? Diolch.

14:15

As I described in a previous answer to one of your colleagues, we did have a discussion at the most recent meeting of the finance sub-group where we did consider the formula and we said that we would come back to it again at our first meeting following the local government elections. So, we'll be exploring that further. Of course, the settlement is unhypothecated and it's for local authorities to determine their priorities and local need as part of their own budget-setting process. In that sense, care commissioning costs aren't related to the settlement formula. However, I have read your letter with interest, and I know my colleague the Deputy Minister for Social Services responded, because the issue did lie within her particular portfolio. As I say, we do intend to continue those discussions relating to the formula with the new group of colleagues who'll come into the finance sub-group at our next meeting.

2. Questions to the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales

The next item is questions to the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and the first question is from Llyr Gruffydd.

Council-owned Farms

1. What plans does the Welsh Government have to protect the future of council-owned farms? OQ58099

Member
Lesley Griffiths MS 14:16:14
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch. Local authority farms represent less than 1 per cent of agricultural land in Wales. They are a small but important asset and can offer a point of entry into the industry. The management of local authority farms is ultimately a matter for Welsh local authorities. 

I don't like the way you've brushed that aside, saying that it's only 1 per cent and a matter for local authorities. I think you do have an important strategic role as a Government here, because we know that financial pressures are going to cast a shadow over the future of many of these council-owned farms, and the number of farms has reduced over the years. I do think it's time now for the Government to bring all relevant partners together in order to create a meaningful strategy to protect, yes, but also to strengthen the role of these council-owned farms. The agricultural colleges could play an important part in that, for example, by trialling new ideas, using opportunities for students to innovate and so on. We remember the work of the National Trust and young farmers clubs in relation to Llyndy Isaf and the possibilities there. There are other partners that I also feel should be part of discussions. So, may I ask: will you as Minister and as a Government bring together a summit to look particularly at protecting our council-owned farms and to make them more meaningful, purposeful and creative for a more sustainable future for the sector?

I certainly didn't sweep it under the carpet in the way that you suggest; I said it was a small but important asset. You know through discussions that we've had how much importance I do place on local authority farms. I asked Powys County Council to do a piece of work for me, because I was concerned about the number that seem to be being sold off. I don't think we've seen a huge number of local authority farms sold off, but I do think the ones that have been sold off are the bigger ones, which I think is a cause for concern. I think there's been a loss of land, rather than a loss if you just look at the number that have been sold off. Certainly for new entrants and young farmers as well, I think it is a way of entering the industry that isn't open to them down other avenues.

I don't think it's necessary to have a summit. I do think it is important to keep talking to partners and our stakeholders. For instance, I'm just thinking now about a group that could help us. I've asked my officials to set up a tenant working group to look specifically at the sustainable farming scheme, going forward, because, obviously, tenants are a very important part of our agricultural sector, and the scheme really needs to work for them. So, that, perhaps, is something that we could ask them to help us with as well.

From a policy position, the Welsh Government has a policy to plant more trees, and Natural Resources Wales actively acquire land to plant those trees on, which is obviously a Government agency. The Government have just recently acquired Gilestone farm for £4.25 million in Powys. Would you consider a policy position to reinvigorate the council smallholding estate across Wales by making a request to the finance Minister and the Government as a whole to allocate this sum of money from central resources to reinvigorate the council holding estate across the whole of Wales, and, indeed, actually, actively acquire additional land so that you could create a new bank of council smallholdings to be an entry point for many people into the agricultural sector?

I go back to what the Minister for Finance and Local Government just responded to—that this part of the local government settlement isn't hypothecated. I think what is really important is that we support our young farmers, if they do want to look at a local authority tenancy, for instance. You'll be aware of the Venture scheme that we have where we look at both ends—the younger entrants and people who are looking to leave farming. It's not something that I've considered speaking to the Minister for finance about at all.

14:20
Dog Welfare

2. What plans does the Welsh Government have to improve dog welfare? OQ58100

Thank you. Last November, I published the Welsh Government's five-year animal welfare plan. The plan sets out how we will deliver our programme for government commitments and other priority work through a range of policies to build on our high standards of welfare for dogs and all kept animals. 

Thank you for that answer, Minister. Although you'll never guess it by looking outside, we're moving into the summer months and the weather is going to be getting hotter, hopefully. As such, it's a crucial time to highlight the RSPCA's annual campaign that dogs die in hot cars. Dog ownership increased during the pandemic, and with up to 30 million people expected to holiday in the UK in 2022, the message must get out there that dogs aren't always welcome everywhere, so people need to plan their outings carefully. Dogs and other pets left alone in cars on a hot day can quickly become dehydrated, develop heatstroke, or even die. When it's 22 degrees Celsius outside, the car could reach an unbearable 47 degrees Celsius within an hour. I'm very proud of my successful campaign, along with the RSPCA, to get messages displayed on signs across Wales's trunk roads reminding owners of the dangers of leaving their pets in their cars—the first UK country to do so, but there's always room to do more. What communication campaign will the Welsh Government pursue over the summer to inform owners of the real risks of leaving their pets in cars, so that we can make sure that we have done all we can to protect animals from suffering through no fault of their own? [Interruption.

Yes, well done. I think it's really important that those messages on trunk roads and motorways continue; they've been very positively received as well. During the summer months, you asked what I'll be doing—we'll be continuing to support that work; we'll be continuing to issue tweets and put out press releases about people leaving animals in their cars. We've also got our Paws, Prevent, Protect social media campaign. That's been running since 2019, and depending on what time of year it is, we adjust that campaign to give such messages out. 

Minister, I recently visited the Llys Nini animal sanctuary near Swansea. It was amazing, and they are all dedicated to providing a second chance to the animals in their care. But, this should not need to happen. Can the Minister confirm how the Welsh Government will support local authorities when it comes to protecting the welfare of the animals in their communities, in particular with regard to enforcement?

Thank you. I agree; I've been very fortunate to visit many animal sanctuaries and rescue centres, and it is a shame that they're needed, but they are, and, as you say, the level of care that they give is outstanding. You'll be aware of the three-year programme we had to support our local authorities around enforcement. We put some substantial funding into a campaign whereby more people could be trained to enforce our animal welfare regulations, and we're now in the third year of that programme. 

There are a number of dog welfare issues that are concerning in Wales, such as illegal breeding and the issues shelters are having with capacity. In fairness, I know the Minister is across these issues and I know she takes a keen interest in the welfare of dogs here in Wales. I do thank her for that.

On Monday, the Petitions Committee held its first evidence-gathering session on greyhound racing, where a number of concerning welfare issues were brought to the committee's attention. The Minister, I'm sure, knows that I take a keen interest in this particular topic. So, I was wondering if the Minister could provide an update on including greyhound racing as part of the future licensing scheme set out in the animal welfare plan. I understand that she was unable to provide a date to my colleague Jane Dodds last week in the Chamber, but there are a number of organisations that are keen to see some movement from the Government on this as soon as possible.

Very quickly, I just wanted to thank the Minister as well for coming to Hope Rescue's Paws in the Bay event last Wednesday. I think we were very close to getting you to adopt a little Pomeranian called Bunny. [Interruption.] Thank you again for coming. Hope Rescue were very grateful, not just for your engagement, but Members across the Chamber's engagement as well. 

Thank you. It was certainly not Boris—it was Bunny.

Thank you very much, first of all, for organising that campaign. I didn't see anybody not smiling throughout the whole time we were outside walking the dogs, but it was a very serious point that Hope Rescue Centre brought forward about illegal breeding, about the number of dogs that they currently have that they're looking to rehome.

You asked a specific point around greyhound racing. I'm very aware of the petition that Jack Sargeant's committee is looking at, and I look forward to receiving correspondence around it. Unfortunately, I can't give you a date any further on than the information I gave to Jane Dodds last Wednesday, but it is absolutely part of our animal welfare plan, and we're certainly looking to see what we can do in relation to greyhound racing. You may be aware I met with the Greyhound Board of Great Britain to discuss the concerns, because I think greyhound racing—. Certainly the more we look into it, the more concern I have about the injuries that, unfortunately, some of these greyhounds have had. There's only one track in Wales, but you'll be aware of the specific concerns, particularly around one bend. I have written to the owner to ask for a meeting with him. I haven't had the courtesy of a response yet, so I've chased it up. But, please be assured this is something I'm looking at very seriously.

14:25
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson first of all—Samuel Kurtz.

Diolch, Llywydd. I refer Members to my register of interests. Minister, some two months ago, on Wednesday 23 March, Andrew R.T. Davies and I called on the Welsh Government to convene a food summit with all stakeholders to discuss global supply chain food shortages triggered by the current events in Ukraine. In response, you said, and I quote,

'I recognise the Tories here don't understand how Government works, but we do not need a food summit.'

Trust me when I say there's nothing that would give me greater pleasure than having a Welsh Conservative Government here in the Senedd with Andrew R.T. as our First Minister. Yet, the First Minister confirmed that your ministerial colleague Jane Hutt had in fact held a food summit over two weeks ago. However, no written statement has been published and no oral statement has been made to this Senedd. In fact, this Government has let this completely go under the radar. I'm more than happy for you to take our initiatives, and for this Welsh Government to pass them off as their own, but I would appreciate a statement, Minister, on the outcome of this summit, from either you or your colleague, outlining what steps you intend to take to safeguard Wales from global supply chain food shortages.

Well, the Welsh Conservatives still don't understand what it is to be in Government. Fortunately, the Welsh people don't want you to be in Government here in the Senedd. I have seen a response to a written question—I think it might be Andrew R.T. Davies who asked it—clarifying that it wasn't a food summit, it was a food poverty round-table. I did attend it, but it was led by Jane Hutt. So, obviously, I can't clarify what you've just said to me. If you're referring to the food poverty round-table, that did take place, I think, a fortnight ago. I still stand by what I said—you still don't understand how Government works. We don't need a food summit. I meet regularly with our stakeholders who you want me to have the food summit with—the processors, the trade unions, food supply, et cetera, et cetera. I meet with all those people regularly. I don't need a summit to bring everybody together. I meet with my counterparts from the UK Government, and from Scotland and Northern Ireland, where we discuss food supply and food security. It's very much a UK integrated position, and it's really important that we do it on a UK level.

Thank you, Minister. I understand that we're a very integrated UK market here, but there are many levers that this Welsh Government can have in convening a food summit. The First Minister then, I take it, misspoke when he said there had been a food summit—it was a food poverty summit. Yet, I really do think it's imperative that we do bring these people together at one opportunity to discuss what we can do to help our agricultural community and ensure that the people of Wales continue to have food on their tables.

Moving on to the next point, in the face of all these challenges, we must be innovative. That's why I was incredibly disappointed to hear of your resistance to the UK Government's Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill—a piece of legislation that is set to transform the potential of new farming technologies across the UK. This draft paper will seek to cut red tape and support the development of innovative tech to grow more resistant, more nutritious and more environmentally friendly crops, notwithstanding the fact that this introduction will be a key tool in our chest in our fight against food supply chain shortages. Given this, I can't fathom to understand why the Welsh Government is refusing to adopt this important piece of legislation, especially given its backing from key stakeholders and the scientific community. Minister, there are plenty of opportunities on the table to scale up our food production and embolden our food security. Given this, why are you content with keeping Welsh food off the tables of Welsh people?

Well, that's completely incorrect. The UK Government have rushed this Bill through. It was published today. It's an England-only Bill on genetic technology and precision breeding. If I tell you—and this is what I mean by 'you don't understand how Government works'—the draft was shared with my officials yesterday very late in the afternoon. Now, you might find that funny, but the lack of engagement at a UK level to us is absolutely appalling and very disrespectful. The Bill contains detailed measures that will require careful consideration. You can't just do these things like that overnight. Late yesterday afternoon, we received a copy of the draft Bill and that includes all the possible impacts relating to the operation of the UK internal market. I agree, those techniques are powerful tools, but you have to use that power responsibly and you have to really, carefully consider these. So, this part of the Bill that you've referred to will be led by the Minister for Economy. I assume he will be responding when his officials also—because I guess they had it yesterday—will have had the chance to consider it.

14:30

Thank you, and I do wish to thank you, Minister, for attending the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee's latest session on investigating the nitrate vulnerable zones that Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru have endorsed. However, I was left with real concerns with the quality of the evidence. You've stated that the 170 kg per hectare derogation limit was established to tackle phosphorus pollution in Wales. However, this limit is completely unrelated to phosphorus; it's actually in place to control the derogation of nitrate levels—not what you stated in the evidence session. Later, you made reference to the required slurry storage, post introduction of your NVZ regulations. However, you failed to reference that Welsh Government guidance states that storage calculations are not comparable, based on rainwater derivation. And lastly, when questioned about stakeholder engagement and the submission of alterative water regulatory measures, you and your officials stated that the deadline for such is 1 September this year, presumably meaning that any submission on or after 2 September would not be considered. However, this isn't correct. The deadline for submission is a month later, on 1 October, a date that both you and your officials gave incorrectly. 

In total, there were 21 instances, here in black and white, where colleagues and I were left with more questions than answers, stretching from paragraph 13 of the transcript all the way through to paragraph 129 of the transcript. In the five years that you have been Minister, these regulations have been in the pipeline throughout that period and yet basic facts in basic evidence are incorrect. You've flip-flopped over the Government's intention to hold a food summit, only to do so three months later. You blocked a landmark piece of legislation, which was set to scale up our food production and strengthen food security, and your submission to the committee was littered with inaccuracies. Tell me why, Minister, Welsh agriculture should trust you?

Well, let me point out your inaccuracies: we have not held a food summit. I have not changed my mind. I have not flip-flopped, as you refer. There will not be a food summit in the way that you want. What I said had been held was a food poverty round-table. And again, if you don't know the difference, there's nothing I can say about that.

And, secondly, I don't know how many times I have to tell you: NVZs are no longer in Wales. These are agricultural pollution regulations—NVZs are no longer in Wales, so I think you need to get your facts right too.

Around the date of 1 September, I did find out yesterday it is 1 October, and I will be writing to your Chair, Paul Davies, to correct that. I thought we had a very good evidence session. I am pleased that we discussed how people, if they think they can come together with a proposal that will give us a better or the same outcome as the regulations, they will be considered. We've already got one in and I do hope there will be another one that we will be able to consider soon. 

Questions now from the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Mabon ap Gwynfor.

Thank you very much, Llywydd. We've heard today already about food safety and security, and during the current food crisis that is worsening on a daily basis, the EU and the United States want to launch a new joint platform to secure food supplies and agricultural produce, improving global access to core crops and fertilisers from Ukraine and Russia. Of course, the EU plays a central role in ensuring food security, but the UK Government, and as a result we in Wales, don't have a voice in this because we have now exited the EU.

Farmers across Wales, who are already facing higher prices for feed and fertilisers, have warned that they will have to offset these prices by buying less fertiliser, which could lead to reduced crop production at a time when cereal supplies are already under threat because of the war.

Now, specialists from the sector have told the United Kingdom Government that they need to consider urgently ways to increase and redirect the production of domestic fertiliser. So, what discussions are you as a Welsh Government having with the UK Government in terms of food security and the effect of the lack of fertilisers on the agricultural sector in Wales?

14:35

Thank you. Well, this was an agenda item when we met as four nations—our Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs inter-ministerial group—a week last Monday, I think it was. And you're quite right, the UK Government—. I'll give you an example: they set up a fertiliser taskforce and really didn't want the devolved administrations involved at all. They have backtracked now, and I'm really pleased that my officials are able to sit on that taskforce, because I do think it will help us have a voice in a way that we haven't before. So, I think the first meeting was last week and another one is planned.

It is really important. I've got a call later on this afternoon with the DEFRA Secretary of State; we are keeping in touch very closely around all the concerns. We talk about the three Fs—feed, fuel and fertiliser—as they're having such a negative impact on the agriculture sector at the moment. I think we should add 'finance' and 'future impacts', because this is obviously a long-term matter now that we are having to address. So, I think it is really important that we continue those conversations. There are several groups that my officials do sit on with the UK Government and Scotland and Northern Ireland, where these discussions are ongoing, and they're certainly weekly at the current time.

I thank the Minister for that answer.

It was good to hear you say, in response to Llyr Gruffydd earlier, that you were concerned about the loss of land. And, of course, we know that land here in Wales is at a premium and we need to use it for food production. We've heard already today about Gilestone, and the way that the Welsh Government have bought a farm with good agricultural land for other purposes. We also know that large finance companies are looking at buying farmland here in Wales for tree planting purposes, meaning that we're losing good agricultural land. But figures that I've received through freedom of information show that it's not only finance companies that are buying land for tree planting—the Welsh Government is buying good-quality agricultural land for woodland creation. On this FOI I have here, the Welsh Government have bought land: £575,000 in Ruthin; £170,000 in Staylittle; £260,000 in Newtown; £378,000 in Menai Bridge—Porthaethwy; and, of course, we know about the £1.4 million Brownhill estate in Llangadog. All of that, it says here, was agricultural pasture land, and the reasons for purchase is for woodland creation. As Minister for agriculture, were you aware of this, and are you happy to see good agricultural land being bought for woodland creation purposes?

So, you gave me quite a long list there; I can't say I knew about every one of them. Obviously, I'm aware that NRW, for instance, have been purchasing land as well, and I think we all recognise, don't we, and certainly in the discussions I've had with Cefin Campbell, as designated Member for Plaid Cymru, that we do need to have that increase in the way that we tackle the climate emergency, and, obviously, woodland is a part of that. I have many discussions with the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, who obviously leads on woodland, along with the Minister for Climate Change. But I think it is really important we do look at the land that is purchased. Obviously, the state shouldn't and couldn't, realistically, buy large pieces of land, but I think what we need to look at is how we use it, what it's used for, and we do have to absolutely tackle the climate emergency.

Supporting Farmers

3. What is the Welsh Government doing to support farmers in Preseli Pembrokeshire? OQ58072

Thank you. Farmers in Pembrokeshire received over £18 million of basic payment scheme payments during the past year. Our Farming Connect service continues to provide crucial support and advice to over 850 businesses in the Preseli Pembrokeshire area.

Minister, one of the most pressing issues facing farmers in Preseli Pembrokeshire is, of course, bovine TB. As you know, the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee has recently published a report on the Welsh Government's bovine TB eradication programme. One of the key points of that report is the need to ensure that farmers, and indeed others involved in tackling bovine TB, are treated as equal partners by the Welsh Government when developing TB eradication policies. Therefore, can you tell us, Minister, what steps the Welsh Government will now be taking to treat farmers, and indeed the wider industry, as equal partners in policy development in the future? And can you tell us how you will ensure farmers feel empowered by the Government's refreshed eradication plan, going forward?

14:40

Thank you, and I have received the report this week from your committee, and I will certainly be responding within the timescale. I always think we've treated everyone in relation to the TB eradication programme—farmers, other stakeholders, and ourselves—I think we've always worked very closely. We've always said it's a matter of working closely if we are going to eradicate this dreadful disease. You'll be aware that the National Farmers Union Cymru have started a TB group. I can't remember the title of it; we're working very closely with them. Your backbench colleague Sam Kurtz has offered to assist as well, I think, and I know he's got a meeting with my chief veterinary officer, Christianne Glossop, to discuss how he can help. I don't have all the answers, Sam doesn't have all the answers, but the fact that he wants to work with us I think is really positive.

As you know, we've just been out to consultation in relation to the TB eradication programme. Officials have analysed the consultation responses now, and I will be publishing them next month online. Obviously, those consultation responses, which will have come predominantly from farmers, will form very much a part of our refreshed TB eradication programme. 

The Basic Payment Scheme

4. What consideration has the Minister given to bringing forward the window for early payments under the basic payment scheme? OQ58092

Thank you. Once again, my intention is to make early advance payments in October. To continue supporting farmers, I am launching a number of new schemes this year, whilst also continuing the basic payment scheme and Glastir through until the end of 2023. 

I draw Members' attention to my declaration in the Members' interests log. Minister, other parts of the United Kingdom have brought forward the window for payment to July. You highlighted in an earlier response to a question that, actually, instead of three Fs, there needs to be five Fs, and one of those Fs was finance. It's critical that cash flow goes through farming businesses, especially with the busy autumn period coming up now, to purchase seed and breeding stock. Would you entertain any consideration about bringing the window forward, even to July? I heard what you said about October, but now that we've left the European Union, you have the ability to bring that window forward even sooner, and getting that finance into farm bank accounts is in the gift of your good self as Minister. So, could I urge you to give consideration to that, Minister?

I think it's fair to say that the announcement by the UK Government to bring forward a 50 per cent advance BPS payment in England is just really a sticking plaster to the much bigger issue of the cost-of-living crisis. It's also really important, and you will know better than anyone—the BPS budget in the UK has had a large reduction, and it was only reduced last year, and also, this year now, it's been cut by over 20 per cent, so a massive reduction in the BPS budget in England. As you know, I consulted on simplification to the BPS back in 2020, and agreed the farming industry's proposal to make advanced payments at 70 per cent of claim value in October, with balances due in December. We introduced that last year for the first time, and, as I say, I will be doing it this year. 

I've also given Welsh farmers cash flow certainty by introducing, as I say, the payment last year, but also, maintaining the BPS budget at £238 million for this year. I have to say, if you talk to our stakeholders, they've told me they'll be watching DEFRA very closely because they do think it's a sticking plaster. They are very pleased that we've given them stability and confidence by the work that we've done around the BPS. It's a good opportunity, this close to the date, to remind people that the final deadline to claim or apply for BPS is 10 June, and I want to ensure all claims are properly considered before we make advanced payments, and I don't want to risk incorrect payments for the sake of a headline. 

The Cost Crisis in Agriculture

5. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to respond to the cost crisis in agriculture? OQ58105

Thank you. The UK agriculture market monitoring group meets regularly to assess inflation rates of input costs. On 1 April I announced a package of support for farmers, foresters, land managers and food businesses worth over £227 million over the next three years, supporting the resilience of agriculture and the rural economy.

Thank you very much. With costs increasing so much, it's more important than ever that agriculture can be as productive as possible, and making the best use of the best land is part of that. I'm pleased, in the context of bids for solar schemes, that there is a strengthening view now that we need to retain our best and most versatile land for agriculture. And perhaps the Minister could confirm that, as we in Anglesey face a high number of applications for solar developments. 

But following on from Mabon ap Gwynfor's question, I wonder whether the Minister can tell us whether that is also relevant as the Government considers where to plant trees. The Government has been purchasing land for some years now, and, having understood that land in Tyn y Mynydd in Penmynydd on Anglesey has been purchased by the Government for tree planting, can the Minister tell us whether that is BMV land or not, because surely the same principle should apply there too?

14:45

So, I haven't had any specific conversation with the climate change Ministers around solar farms and where they're being placed, but I will certainly do so, and I will write to the Member with further information. 

According to statistics from the Office for National Statistics thankfully inflation rates for food are actually lower in the UK than in both the euro area and the EU, but that doesn't mean farmers aren't seeing considerable increases in their costs in this country too, and, over the last few months, we've seen increases in prices of fuel, food and fertiliser, resulting in huge additional pressures on the industry. This is creating serious concern within the agricultural sector within my region and has left many worried about their businesses, where it will impact small farmers in particular, bringing with it the real potential of some of these businesses to row back on the amount of food they produce or some going bankrupt altogether. Given the seriousness of the situation, and with the real possibility of some foods not being available as readily in the short term as they have been in the past, this is now the time to take significant action. We need to ensure the sustainable growth of the food sector to create jobs and attract investment and to ensure that sustainable local food producers have access to adequate support and incentives. International factors, most notably the war in Ukraine, have meant now more than ever we need to ensure that we sustainably produce more food than ever here in Wales. So, with that in mind, what consideration is the Welsh Government giving to backing my colleague Peter Fox's food Bill, which would achieve exactly that? 

Well, as you're aware, the Welsh Government is not backing Peter Fox's food Bill. Peter and I have met, and Peter's very well aware of the reasons why we're not backing the food Bill. I believe a lot of Peter's suggestions, which are very good, we can do without legislation, and I'd be very happy to continue to work with him and with Plaid Cymru as part of the co-operation agreement, taking forward the community food strategy, which I think will encompass a lot of the proposals in Peter Fox's Bill. You asked your question with no sense of irony. I have to say inflation is at a level that is causing a huge amount of concern; it's at a higher level than we've seen in this country for many, many years, and that's why it's really important the UK Government really get a handle on this cost-of-living crisis. 

Good afternoon, Minister. May I just start by asking you to pass on thanks to the First Minister for joining me in a farm visit to Merthyr Cynog, where we heard about many of the pressures facing farmers and the farm sector? But I want to touch on one of the key topics that we've heard about in this session, which is about the pressure on farmers right now in terms of the real crisis that there is. And I wrote to you, along with my colleagues Sam Kurtz and Mabon ap Gwynfor, following meetings that we had with the FUW, earlier this month. We've heard about the incredible costs facing our farmers and our farm businesses across Wales, and I can see, to date, that some of the action you have been asked to take just falls outside of your powers and outside of the Welsh Government, but there are maybe some ideas and issues that could be taken up by the Welsh Government. So, in our letter we've asked you to consider an urgent round-table on the cost crisis facing agriculture and farmers, and I just hope you would consider going ahead with that in order to hear some of the ideas and suggestions that there might be. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

Thank you. I'm not aware I've had sight of that letter from the three of you, but I will certainly, once I get it, consider its contents and respond accordingly.  

Animal Rehoming Centres

6. What steps has the Welsh Government taken to support animal rehoming centres to cope with increased pressure following the COVID-19 pandemic? OQ58106

A survey by the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes on the impact of coronavirus on Welsh animal rescue organisations outlines the increased pressures currently faced by the sector. My officials are considering the survey and what potential actions can be taken arising from it in consultation with our third sector partners.

Okay. Thank you for that answer, Minister. I've spoken to many rehoming centres struggling with capacity, impacted by a lack of space for seized dogs due to the time it takes between seizing them and a section 20 case being heard to sign them over. Rescue centres are having to keep seized dogs for well over a year in some cases, unable to rehome them while the case is ongoing. Not only does this put a financial strain on the centres, but it also means that animals are having to wait even longer to find their forever homes. Legislation in Scotland introduced last year reduced the time between a dog being seized to being able to be rehomed to just three weeks. I believe that they're being rehomed while their case is ongoing. So, I was wondering if the Welsh Government has considered introducing similar legislation, and, if not, what are the barriers to doing so. Thank you.

14:50

Thank you. This is certainly something I discussed with Hope Rescue last week at Luke Fletcher's Paws in the Bay event because it was something that they were obviously very concerned about. I know my officials are in contact with the Scottish Government to understand more about the recent changes to seizure and rehoming times and to see if there is anything we can learn or if we need to do anything. As you know, I said in an earlier answer to Jayne Bryant, around the animal welfare plan, we intend to strengthen licensing requirements for rescue and rehoming centres, including sanctuaries, and we will obviously consult on the scope of any new legislation.

Advisory Group on Marine Fisheries

7. What consultation has the Minister had with fishermen regarding the establishment of an advisory group on marine fisheries? OQ58103

Thank you. My officials have regular discussions with Welsh fishers on a wide range of issues, including the establishment of a new ministerial advisory group for fisheries. The most recent discussion on this issue took place last week, on 18 May. The group will be established in July, before the summer recess.

Thank you very much to the Minister for that answer. As you know, there used to be WMFAG—the Wales marine fisheries advisory group—which used to exist as a forum for stakeholders in the fisheries sector to share information, experience and expertise. Unfortunately, WMFAG came to an end around three years ago, and there has been no forum for fishers since then. Despite this, there has been a forum for the third sector and other stakeholders who take an interest in marine issues. We hear very often, and you as Minister and other Ministers have spoken many times, about the need to co-ordinate and co-produce policy. So, what discussions have you had with the fisheries sector to co-ordinate and co-produce the engagement structures as we move forward to re-establishing this important group?

Thank you. As you're aware, when the previous chair's tenure at WMFAG came to an end, I took that as an opportunity to review the group and concluded we needed to move to a different approach and not expect just one sole group to do all that was expected of WMFAG. We are in a whole new world now after leaving the European Union, and I thought that was probably the best opportunity to do so. I think it's fair to say there's been a small delay in setting up the group. I had hoped to do it in the spring, but, as I say, we will do it before we go into summer recess this year.

Just to reassure Members, stakeholder engagement has continued. They've been very supportive, for instance, in bringing forward—we've had a new piece of fisheries management, as you're aware, in whelk management—the Whelk Fishing Permit (Wales) Order 2021, and certainly they were very influential in co-designing that with us. So, I don't want you to think stakeholder engagement hasn't continued. I've met them, my officials meet them regularly, we're working on the joint fisheries statement, as you know, at a four-nations level, and we've got the EMFF replacement scheme. There are always science issues, there are always trade issues, we've obviously gone through all the EU negotiations and we've had to deal with the quota allocations permits, fisheries management issues. So, that engagement has continued right throughout.

I would just also like to say, Llywydd, that I very much welcome the cross-party Senedd group for fisheries and aquaculture, which I know you're chairing and met for the first time this week, and I look forward to coming to one of your meetings, if you want to invite me.

Agricultural Productivity

8. What consideration has the Welsh Government given to providing incentives to boost agricultural productivity in Wales in light of increasing inflation? OQ58091

Thank you. Farming Connect provides a programme of knowledge transfer, specialist advice and innovation, and supports farm businesses to reduce costs and maximise efficiencies. On 1 April, I announced a package of support worth over £227 million over the next three financial years to support resilience in the rural economy.

Thank you, Minister. Andrew Bailey, the Governor of the Bank of England, has warned of—I can never say this—

I can never say that word. Yes—global food price rises. In fact, prices are rising at the fastest rate in 30 years. I don't think that the Governor is entirely right that we are helpless in the face of surging inflation. There are steps that we can take here to try and mitigate some of the inflation on the cost of food. We could ramp up food productivity here in Wales. David Edwards, NFU Cymru county chairman for Monmouthshire, wants to see the Welsh Government recognise that the continued supply of affordable, high-quality, domestically produced food is a strategic national priority. Now, on 11 March, I asked if you would support Welsh arable farmers to plough any land set aside, given the impact of the war in Ukraine on grain, and you responded the same month stating,

'we currently have no plans to support Welsh arable farmers to plough land set aside under the Glastir scheme'.

Will you consider that request again, Minister, so that farmers could be asked to plough this land that's set aside so that we can then boost domestically produced food here in Wales? Diolch.

14:55

I'm not as optimistic as Janet Finch-Saunders is, unfortunately, that the Governor of the Bank of England isn't correct. Unfortunately, all the evidence we're seeing is of a significant increase, and even UK Government Ministers, I'm afraid, shrug their shoulders when you talk about rising food prices, and they just seem to think that that is what's going to happen.

I mentioned the £227 million that we've announced for the next three years to support our agricultural sector, and there are several windows already open. There was another window opened this week and, over the next couple of months, that will take us up to nine different grants and schemes. Maybe as part of those we can look at what we can do. There's certainly a specific window that's already open around horticulture, for instance.

Agricultural Fertiliser

9. Will the Minister make a statement on the availability of agricultural fertiliser in Wales? OQ58083

The Welsh Government closely monitors the availability and cost of all agricultural inputs through the UK agriculture market monitoring group and the UK fertiliser taskforce. Current analysis indicates there are no fertiliser supply issues in Wales, however, volatility of gas prices may lead to further price fluctuations.

Thank you, Minister, and thank you, Llywydd. I'd just like to remind Members of my interest as a farmer, as stated in my interests, albeit I don't actually use fertiliser.

As we've heard, Llywydd, the agricultural sector—and we've heard it several times today—is facing an uncertain period. For example, there are a number of concerns around the current and future availability and cost of fertiliser, which is fundamental to so many businesses and key to our food security. It is expected that new season fertiliser prices will start to become more clear as the year progresses, with producers needing to buy fertiliser in preparation for next year's growing season. However, concerns have been raised by the farming unions and many producers that current uncertainties in the market may encourage farmers to hold back in buying fertiliser until next year. This would create further challenges, as there is a risk of there not being enough supply capacity to meet future demand pressures. Minister, I was pleased to hear that you are talking to the UK Government, but what conversations are you having with producers and the fertiliser industry to help the sector to continue to be able to afford fertiliser products during a difficult time? Perhaps there is another string to the two Fs in the manner of additional support. How is the Government monitoring supply and demand to ensure that any future uncertainty can be addressed in a timely manner?

Thank you. We do certainly recognise what an uncertain period this is, for a variety of reasons, for the agricultural sector as a whole, and I mentioned that my officials attend the agricultural market monitoring group, and that is where, obviously, we do monitor very closely what is going on in our sector here in Wales. I met a farmer—I can't remember if it was in the Chamber or in a committee where I discussed this—who had bought a supply of fertiliser in February, and when I saw him, which was only about three weeks later, it had increased threefold in price, and he said to me, 'I don't know whether to spread it or sell it'. I think he was joking, but I absolutely understood the concerns he had about the price.

I think this is, obviously, a long-term issue. It is really important we do continue to talk to our stakeholders. I mentioned I speak to stakeholders regularly. One other stakeholder I spoke to was the banks, because I thought it was really important to assess where they were, and the impact of the war, obviously, on agricultural businesses is something that they're obviously going to have to deal with. So, we will continue to support the industry. We're thinking—. Well, we're not thinking; we are going to set up a hub so that we can signpost people much quicker than we are doing to give them advice and guidance on how best to react to these very high input costs we're seeing.

15:00
The Agricultural Industry in Montgomeryshire

10. How is the Welsh Government supporting the agricultural industry in Montgomeryshire? OQ58088

Thank you. Over the past year, we've supported the agricultural industry in the Powys region by providing farmers with over £63 million of basic payment scheme payments. Our Farming Connect service continues to provide crucial support and advice to hundreds of businesses in the area.

Thank you for your answer, Minister. Of course, what farmers in my constituency need, and in fact across the whole of Wales, is clear direction in Government policy. The agricultural Bill was supposed to have been brought forward in the spring of this year; that of course slipped and didn't happen. Can you, Minister, provide an explanation of why the Bill has slipped, when you now intend to bring the Bill forward, and also any wider issues in terms of supporting the agricultural industry and your direction from Government?

Well, I think we've had a lot of questions around agriculture today, so I think I've set out very clearly the support that we have in place. I go back to what I was saying about why Conservatives don't understand government. So, I'm asked by other Members of your group, 'Can we perhaps look at the agricultural Bill?'—Andrew R.T. Davies is one who has asked me several times could we pause the Bill to have a look at the impact of the Ukraine war, at the impact of the trade agreements. So, we do that and we're criticised. I think what is really important is that we get the sustainable farming scheme out as quickly as possible. I think it's really important that we have that scheme ready ahead of the summer shows so that we can have engagement, because ultimately I think more people will be interested in the scheme than they will in the Bill. So, it's really important that we have the scheme out. I've been working very closely with Plaid Cymru, as part of the co-operation agreement, around the sustainable farming scheme, and I can assure everyone that that will be ready ahead of the summer shows so that we can have that engagement. The agricultural Bill, I hope, will be introduced in September.  

3. Topical Questions

The next item, therefore, is the topical question, and this question is to be answered by the Minister for Finance and Local Government, and is to be asked by Tom Giffard. 

Self-catering Accomodation

1. Will the Minister outline the Welsh Government's plans to increase the classification of self-catering accommodation for local tax purposes? TQ630

On 24 May, I laid the legislation required to change the self-catering thresholds. This followed my announcement on 2 March and a technical consultation. The legislation will come into force on 14 June, but will have practical effect from 1 April 2023.

I thank the Minister for the answer. Can I just start by saying how disappointing it is that such a significant change was announced by Welsh Government in a written statement, and it has instead had to take a topical question to drag you here to the floor of the Senedd to explain—

I answered a question on this in questions this afternoon. We debated it a couple of weeks ago. Come on. 

—these changes instead? As my colleague Peter Fox said earlier, this change has sent shock waves through the self-catering holiday industry in Wales. I don't know how to put it any clearer than this, Minister: businesses across Wales will have to close as a result of these changes. The sector itself was even open to changing the criteria. They asked you to raise the threshold to 105 qualifying days, up from the current 70, but they've been ignored in favour of this target, which most operators say they simply won't reach. But perhaps the most stark message within your written statement is where you said:

'There is limited evidence available in relation to some of these considerations'.

Minister, you were sent mountains of evidence from relevant bodies, groups and businesses. Here is the submission from the Wales Tourism Alliance alone—over 1,500 replies right there. And in that consultation, less than 1 per cent of the total respondents actually agreed with the Welsh Government's plan to increase the threshold to 182 days. Minister, what's the point in a consultation if you're not going to listen to it? These are your constituents and mine, and they live in places like the Gower peninsula, and they've totally been ignored in favour of a back-room deal with your coalition partners in Plaid Cymru. 

And even in your own statement, you say, quote,

'I recognise that the stronger criteria may be challenging for some operators to meet.'

End quote. But you go on to offer absolutely no solutions at all as to how they can overcome the challenges. I can only therefore assume, Minister, you're content for those businesses to shut their doors for good. And as they shut those doors, I think one of your Government Ministers said it best when he said,

'we don't really know what we're doing on the economy.'

So, Minister, will you please reconsider this ridiculous decision that will close businesses up and down the country, and instead consider backing, rather than taxing, these businesses?

Before the Minister answers the question, let me just be clear: she did not need to be dragged to the Chamber; she is a most co-operative Minister in agreeing to answer the topical question once I'd decided that it could be asked. So, no dragging was necessary. 

Well, I am perplexed as to why anyone would be surprised by the announcement that has been made, given the fact that, by your own reckoning, there has been huge engagement: 1,500 responses provided to us by the Wales Tourism Alliance, which we obviously were grateful to receive; 1,000 responses to our original consultation; and 500 responses to our technical consultation. So, how anybody can be surprised and have not anticipated a decision on this, I just don't understand. We've tried very hard to be as inclusive as we can in the development of these particular issues. 

It is the case that these changes are intended to ensure that self-catering businesses are making a fair contribution to the local economy. Now, who could object to that apart from, perhaps, the Welsh Conservatives? Where a property is let out on a commercial basis for 182 days or more, I think that it is fair to recognise that that business will be making a contribution to the local economy. It will be generating income and it will be creating jobs, and we do know that there will be plenty of businesses that are able to meet that threshold. For those who can't, obviously, there are options available to them—I'm surprised I have to spell them out. Changing the business model might be one, or providing that property as a long-term let, as a rental property for a local individual or family, might be another option for them to consider.

So, there are choices, and also there's time. I made this original announcement back on 2 March. We had the opportunity to debate it in a Welsh Conservative debate on tourism quite recently. And also the changes won't come into force until 1 April 2023. So, there has been time to consider how businesses will adapt and respond to the changes. But this is part of our work that we are doing in partnership with Plaid Cymru, and it is part of our three-pronged approach to dealing with what is a genuine issue of second home properties in communities across Wales. 

15:05

Thank you to my colleague Tom Giffard for submitting a really important question this afternoon. And it is disappointing, as Tom Giffard mentioned, that this did come through a written statement and not through a proper statement here in the Chamber. As you'll be aware, Minister—. You talk about the visitor economy providing a proper contribution; you will know full well it employs around 140,000 people in this country, contributing over £6 billion to the economy here. We're talking about a contribution to Wales that's putting bread on the tables of over 140,000 people and putting roofs over their heads as well. These are the people who have huge concerns about the proposals that you've outlined here. 

In terms of providing the evidence that Tom Giffard mentioned, I chaired the cross-party group on tourism on 30 March, and officials from Government asked whether the attendees there could provide perhaps between 10 and 20 case studies to describe the impact of these proposals. Within four days—within four days—there'd been 400 case studies submitted, outlining their concerns—going from a 10 to 20 request to, within four days, 400 case studies submitted, showing the level of concern. And in the words of the Wales Tourism Alliance, UKHospitality Cymru and the Professional Association of Self-Caterers UK themselves, they've said in their report that they submitted to you: 'Our evidence shows that many micro locally-run family businesses will simply shut down.'

So, in light of this, Minister, why is it that you and the Minister for Economy are ignoring the views of this very important sector, and how can you pursue your proposed changes when these very serious concerns have been outlined to you? 

So, we've been very clear to look at what evidence is available, and it is correct that there isn't a vast amount of evidence available beyond that which was was received through the consultation and that which, additionally, was provided by the Wales Tourism Alliance. But I think one of the places where we can look for reliable evidence is the Wales tourism accommodation occupancy survey, and that does demonstrate that, over three years prior to the coronavirus pandemic, self-catering properties in Wales consistently exceeded 50 per cent occupancy on average. So, the average self-catering property will not have a problem meeting the thresholds that we are setting out. 

And I just think it is fair that businesses make a contribution to the communities in which they are located, and I'm surprised that the Welsh Conservatives would object to that. I've already indicated that I'm willing to look at exemptions in respect of those properties that have planning issues attached to them. So, that's something that officials are exploring at the moment. But this really is just about ensuring that property owners make a fair contribution to the communities and trying to reduce the number of underused properties that we have in Wales, when there is such pressure on our housing market.

15:10

Minister, you heard my question to the First Minister yesterday. I don't want to go into the length of discussion on that issue again, but I would like to know, on that particular example, how you would advise a business that has perhaps diversified, a farming business that has brought forward holiday let accommodation, and they cannot be used as second homes, they've got planning permission not for dwellings but only for accommodation use? And also, a lot of businesses across Wales do not live in an area of Wales where they can attract holiday lets for over six months of the year. It's just not possible. The market does not demand a tourist attraction for those particular six months of the year. Surely, Minister, you can understand this is an unintended consequence of this regulation that you've brought forward. How would you—? What would you offer as a solution to those particular businesses that are in that particular situation?

So, without knowing all of the details of the business—. You know, I'm not going to provide individual, bespoke advice, but I'll say, for the third time today, that I've already indicated that I will look to make exemptions for those properties that do have planning restrictions attached to them—so, for example, those diversified properties that are only available for let to holiday makers for 10 months of the year. I'll be looking to make an exception in those cases, and I'll provide a further update to colleagues on that as that work progresses. [Interruption.]

Thank you very much. Sorry—I did put in a last-minute request to participate and I'm very thankful for you allowing me to contribute. Thank you for the question, of course.

Of course, one welcomes any steps that the Government can take in order to tackle the housing crisis, and I welcome what you've just said, namely that you are looking at exemptions for buildings with particular conditions placed upon them. It would be good to hear a little more on that, because that clearly is a concern, but I do hear what the benches at the other end of the Chamber say, that they are concerned that the sector will be damaged. But wouldn't you as a Minister agree with me that the greatest challenge for this sector in reality is not these regulations but the huge growth that we have seen in Airbnb, Vrbo and these other platforms, which are suffocating the sector with very many homes and availability of rooms, which means that those indigenous businesses who want to succeed are having difficulties, because there are too many homes such as Airbnb available, and that the regulations that you're looking at to regulate Airbnb are going to help to that end? This will also help to weed out those owners who aren't serious and are seeking to make money on the back of our communities.

Also, just to say that I am aware of an example in my constituency where owners of holiday accommodation have decided to convert that accommodation to be for local tenants. Would you welcome that kind of development too?

I'm grateful for those points, and, absolutely, that is a real option available to property owners in respect of providing a home to a local resident and also that secure income that will come to them as a result of making that choice, so that's a positive choice that property owners are able to make in all parts of Wales, and it's good to hear of those examples.

Yes, I agree that there are some real challenges facing the industry, and certainly the competition from those kinds of very short term lets, the Airbnbs and so on, is part of the mix in terms of the competition that these businesses are facing.

And I do think that the register that my colleague the Minister for Economy is looking at will be helpful in terms of ensuring that we do have a quality offer for our tourists here in Wales and that we are a place that they'd want to come back to time and time again.

4. 90-second Statements

The next item, therefore, is the 90-second statements. The first statement is from Jayne Bryant.

This week marks the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's War Graves Week. Their annual awareness week aims to encourage communities to come together and discover the world war heritage on our doorstep. As I speak, local volunteers are active in my own city of Newport, where more than 315 casualties from world war one and world war two are buried across 15 cemeteries, churchyards and chapel yards; the largest site at St Woolos cemetery with 274 graves, the smallest at Bethel Baptist chapel yard and St Mary's Nash, with one grave each. Since this morning, the team, including local resident Andrew Hemmings, has been on the corner of Charles Street and Commercial Street in Newport, speaking to residents about the remarkable men and women of the Commonwealth forces that died in the first and second world wars and are buried in Newport.

The focus of this year's War Graves Week is the Ordinary People, Extraordinary Times project. Alongside the front-line armed forces, we'll be celebrating those with roles that were essential in the war effort, such as healthcare, logistics, infrastructure and communication workers. These events are happening across Wales and the rest of the UK. Behind every war grave, there's a human story that must never be forgotten. This is a chance to bring those stories to life and to remember the sacrifices made by those remarkable men and women.

15:15

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

May is brittle bone month. Brittle bone disease is a rare disorder that results in fragile bones that break easily. It's present at birth and usually develops in children who have a family history of the disease. The disease is often referred to as osteogenesis imperfecta, which means imperfectly formed bone. Brittle bone disease can range from mild to severe. It should not be confused with either osteoporosis—where bones become brittle over years—or the tendency of some sportspeople to break bones. It affects about one in 15,000 to one in 20,000 people, making it one of the rare genetic diseases, but that means that each one of us should have between three and five constituents suffering from it. And I would hazard a guess that most Members in this Chamber have not met anybody in their constituency suffering from it. It's one of the rare genetic diseases. There are a lot of these rare genetic diseases. Each one is rare; combined, they become far less rare.

The main symptom of brittle bone disease is broken bones; they break very easily. Children can have a bone break during a nappy change, when being burped, or in the case of one person who I met, in the womb. Try explaining that it's brittle bones when you're taking the child for the eighth time in three weeks to the local A&E.

The Brittle Bone Society was established in 1968. It supports the needs of people born with the rare condition and their families in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Whilst there is no solution, maintaining a healthy lifestyle by exercising, eating a balanced diet sufficient in vitamin D and calcium, and avoiding smoking, can help prevent fractures.

Motion to elect a Member to a committee

The next item is the motion to elect a Member to a committee, and I call on a member of the Business Committee to move the motion formally. Lesley Griffiths.

Motion NNDM8010 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Jayne Bryant (Welsh Labour) as a member of the Local Government and Housing Committee in place of Alun Davies (Welsh Labour).

Motion moved.

Member
Lesley Griffiths MS 15:18:07
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Formally.

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

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

5. Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv): Decarbonising public sector pensions

Item 5 this afternoon is a Member debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv) on decarbonising public sector pensions. I call on Jack Sargeant to move the motion.

Motion NDM7964 Jack Sargeant

Supported by Alun Davies, Buffy Williams, Carolyn Thomas, Cefin Campbell, Heledd Fychan, Jane Dodds, Jayne Bryant, Llyr Gruffydd, Luke Fletcher, Peredur Owen Griffiths, Rhys ab Owen, Sarah Murphy, Vikki Howells

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes:

a) that the Welsh Government was the first in the world to declare a climate emergency, recognising the serious threat climate change poses;

b) that public sector pension schemes continue to invest in fossil fuels and, for many years, campaigners have urged schemes to disinvest;

c) that the Welsh pension partnership moved quickly to withdraw investment from Russian holdings and has previously divested from coal, thus demonstrating that it is possible for pension funds to make these decisions;

d) that Members of the Senedd took the initiative to divest their own pension funds from fossil fuels;

e) that if public sector pension schemes in Wales disinvest, Wales would be the first nation in the world to achieve this, demonstrating to fund providers the need to create fossil fuel free investment products.

2. Calls on the Welsh Government to work with the public sector to agree a strategy to decarbonise pensions by 2030, thus bringing them into line with current public sector net-zero targets.

Motion moved.

Diolch yn fawr, Deputy Presiding Officer.

Ideas often have their moment, a moment when the evidence for action becomes overwhelming. Dedicated campaigners have chipped away for years on pension fund disinvestment; it is now time for Governments across the globe to join the fight. I believe it's also time for Wales to take centre stage and lead the world on ending public sector pension fund investment in fossil fuels, and in so doing, igniting a new era of investment in the future of our planet, sustainable energy, and transport.

As many of my colleagues know, I have been working with Friends of the Earth Cymru for some time now on the campaign that is the subject of today's motion: for the Welsh Government to bring in targets for public sector pension fund disinvestment. The motion calls on the Welsh Government to mirror its 2030 target for the public sector to go carbon neutral with a target for public sector pension funds to achieve the same. This would mean that the public sector and its investments would be genuinely carbon neutral by 2030.

Deputy Presiding Officer, I'd like to put on the record my thanks to our bold First Minister, Mark Drakeford, who has given me much support and encouragement on this issue. Just last month, I held a cross-party event on this matter, and it was the Prif Weinidog who ensured that a senior Welsh Government official attended and contributed to what was an excellent discussion.

So, let's ask ourselves: why are we debating the seemingly dry subject of public sector pensions, and why am I excited by the opportunity they present to us? Well, the first reason we are doing this is because humanity faces catastrophe. That catastrophe is in the form of global warming. Global warming is caused by the use of fossil fuels, and we know that we have a very short window of opportunity to avert that catastrophe.

Pension funds are huge investors, and stopping them from investing in fossil fuels as quickly as possible is a must if we are to stop global temperature rises that will risk the very future of the human race. Now, coupled with the risk of climate change is the fact that fossil fuels are often imported from dictatorships, many of whom are serious destabilisers in global affairs. They are undemocratic regimes that promote values that we find abhorrent, and we should not continue to invest in them. Fossil fuels are also finite and the price of them fluctuates massively. Disinvestment is inevitable in the long term, but for the reasons I've already stated today, we should look to accelerate that process, as has already happened with pension fund investment in coal.

There is a well-established myth that markets and investment funds should be left to their own devices—their own devices to achieve the best financial returns possible. But the reality is that this never happens. All sorts of actors across the globe constantly interfere with markets and pension fund investment decisions. What this disinvestment campaign is saying is that one of those actors should be us, seeking to include, as an investment criteria, long-term sustainability.

We have seen, haven't we, just recently, that public sector fund managers can move remarkably quickly to remove investments that promote risk to human life? On this very occasion, it was the removal of pension fund investments in Russia, following their illegal invasion of Ukraine. Nobody across the Chamber could argue that this wasn't the right thing to do.

Deputy Presiding Officer, one of the strangest facts around whether pension funds invest in fossil fuels is their lack of willingness to involve those who pay into them in the decision-making process about where they invest. Now, I have no doubt that the vast majority of investors support the decision not to invest in coal, and they support the decision not to invest in Russia. And I believe that they would also support the decision for public sector pension funds to go carbon neutral at the same time as the rest of the public sector, by disinvesting from fossil fuels.

Being a genuine democrat and wanting to empower the people of Wales, I would go even further. I would ask them to be involved in forming a new investment plan—a plan that gives them the returns and improves the places where they live. There is, as I said, a real opportunity here to get pension schemes to invest in infrastructure in Wales. There is plenty of opportunity for investment returns here, and it could drive the creation of home-grown renewable energy, the building of social housing—a great investment because of the guaranteed rent returns—and carbon-neutral public transport. Just those opportunities alone would create highly skilled, high-paid jobs whilst investing in the future of our local communities. It is in the interest of Wales and the rest of the UK that we increase our levels of energy security, and it is about promoting home-grown energy production. And it is in all of our interests that the public sector goes fully carbon neutral by 2030.

Deputy Presiding Officer, today's debate is an opportunity for the Welsh Government to once again show the sort of bold leadership that saw us become the first nation in the world to declare a climate emergency, and to build on the well-being of future generations into legislation. The Deputy Presiding Officer knows that, at heart, I am an optimist and I know, in this Senedd Chamber, we take the averting of climate catastrophe as seriously as it needs to be taken. So, I commend this motion to the Senedd Chamber today, and I would urge all of you, cross party, to support this motion and join me in the campaign for pension fund disinvestment and urge the Welsh Government to act now. Diolch yn fawr.

15:25

Can I thank the Member for Alyn and Deeside for bringing forward this very interesting debate today? Before I begin, I'd like to confirm that the Welsh Conservative group will be abstaining on the motion before us today.

This is not because we don't agree with the premise of the motion. It's important, if we're to meet our climate change commitments, that we continue to move away from our reliance on fossil fuels, not just to power our cars and fuel our homes, but also to support our public finances. Of course, investing pension funds into things like fossil fuel companies has been standard practice for some time. It's not just the public sector pension funds that have been used in this way, but many private sector pension funds also. So, it's about time that we start looking at different and innovative ways of investing public funds into socially and environmentally responsible initiatives.

And so, it is in this regard that I'm pleased that the local government Wales Pension Partnership announced a new decarbonisation initiative across £2.5 billion of its investments in April last year. It's also welcome that the partnership has developed a climate risk policy with an ambition to report on progress towards reducing exposure to carbon-intensive investments. Councils and local authority pension funds have also made good progress in decarbonising their investments. For example, back in 2018, Monmouthshire County Council, when it was under Conservative leadership, agreed to ask Gwent pensions fund to disinvest in fossil fuels. Deputy Llywydd, there has been a wealth of good work by councils here in Wales on this agenda, but I absolutely agree that there needs to be more done.

However—and going back to why we are abstaining from today's motion—what I would just caution is that any disinvestment may result in some unintended consequences for the values of people's hard-won pensions. The latest statistics show that over £500 million-worth of pension funding is currently locked up in such companies. And so, we need to be careful as to how this is managed and it's important that all pension trustees have the independence to do what is best for their fund, as well as to use their knowledge to ensure that any shift in funding strategy has a minimal impact on investment returns. However, in saying this, I do believe that public bodies in Wales should be encouraged to ensure that any investments made by their individual pension schemes are environmentally and socially responsible, as well as meeting the needs of their members. Diolch.  

Thank you very much, Diprwy Lywydd, and I'd like to thank Jack Sargeant for introducing this important debate this afternoon. I’d like to begin by echoing some of the words spoken by the young people of Wales in the Urdd's message of peace and goodwill last week:

'The clock is ticking and our world is on fire'.

Indeed, in this powerful statement by our young people, we were all reminded of the serious threat that the climate crisis poses to our world and to our way of life, and the environmental, ecological and humanitarian crises that are likely to occur if we, as those who have the power to effect change, don't take urgent steps to save our planet.

As part of turning words into actions, we could start by looking at the investment policies of some of our public sector pensions to see how much of these investments are still in fossil fuels, such as oil, gas and coal. This continues to be a wholly irresponsible policy as we face a climate crisis. And I agree with Jack that Wales has a golden opportunity here to be in the vanguard of investing in funds that are greener and more sustainable. Without action, by the time a number of our younger generation—the children of the Urdd—are old enough to benefit from their pension funds, the environmental destruction will have continued, with the ice caps having long since melted, our food chain broken, and extreme weather being the norm.

Recent data from Friends of the Earth, for example, show that in Wales over £550 million out of a total of £17 billion of local government pension funds has been invested in fossil fuel. This equates to around 3.2 per cent of these schemes' value, which is higher than the percentages in England and Scotland. This is equivalent to every single person in Wales investing £175 in the energy sector that is most harmful to the environment. In my region of Mid and West Wales, the picture is even more striking, with almost 5 per cent of Dyfed’s pension fund invested in fossil fuels. Believe it or not, this is the second highest percentage in all nations of the United Kingdom, from all of the pension funds.

We know already that a number of councils have taken deliberate steps to try to tackle the climate crisis. It's frustrating, therefore, that our public sector pension funds are continuing to invest in carbon fuel corporations. But more than that, not only is supporting an unsustainable energy sector a dubious step, it is also economic folly. With international efforts to decarbonise having gathered pace, it is increasingly clear, as Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, has warned, that the current carbon bubble is not fiscally sustainable in the long term. So, without divestment in favour of greener sources, our public sector pension funds could be at a disadvantage very soon.

I welcome the efforts, therefore, that have been made by county councils, including Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion, and the work of other organisations, such as Divest Dyfed, which have been in the vanguard in calling for change at Dyfed pension fund to invest more in clean energy companies. And as has been mentioned by Jack Sargeant already, the Ukraine crisis, and the decision to withdraw investment from Russia, has demonstrated that robust, principled and united action by the pension authorities is possible in the face of a crisis. So, it is a responsibility and a duty on all of us now to ensure that this kind of goodwill and certainty is repeated in light of the climate crisis, and to ensure that real steps are taken to decarbonise public sector pensions in Wales for the benefit of future generations.

15:30

Thank you to my colleague Jack Sargeant for tabling today's motion on pensions divestment. I'm really pleased to speak in support of this important issue, and indeed it's something I've long agreed is essential. For example, I hosted a drop-in with Friends of the Earth Cymru for Senedd Members a few years ago, and the specific purpose of this was to generate consensus behind divesting the then Assembly Member pension scheme. I was delighted when the pension board agreed to do this at the start of 2020, and I'd like to thank Members of the board for delivering on this important issue.

This was a really important step, as we put our money where our mouth is. I believe we were the first UK Parliament pension scheme to take this action to commit to invest in our pension scheme in a sustainable and ethical manner. But this was an intervention that was no less important symbolically, as we sent a clear sign that pensions can be and should be divested. Rightly, the focus of our Welsh Government, and much of our public sector, has been on our response to the coronavirus pandemic in the time since, but we cannot lose sight of a climate emergency that is no less critical. And as this motion argues, now is the time for Welsh Government and our public sector to agree a strategy to decarbonise pensions by 2030.

A report published last year under the aegis of grass-roots movement UK Divest gives a stark picture of the scale of council investment in coal, oil and gas. Many of these figures were on a UK basis. However, Welsh local government pensions were noted to have invested £538 million in fossil fuels, which works out at just over 3.2 per cent of the total value of the schemes. No Welsh pension fund is amongst the top 10 highest investors in fossil fuels, but one, Dyfed, as was previously noted by my colleague Cefin Campbell, was the second highest investor as a proportion of their fund's total value. Just under 5 per cent of their fund was invested in fossil fuels. 

Another important point is that, in these funds invested in fossil fuels, £2 out of every £5 are invested in just three companies—that's BP, Royal Dutch Shell and BHP. Familiar names, but also companies that have been identified as making massive profits from oil and gas. For example, Shell boasted profits of over $9 billion in just the first quarter of 2022, and that was three times the value from the same period the previous year. These are companies that are harming our environment, profiting from global destruction, and making their shareholders rich while squeezing ever more tightly the people we represent as household energy bills rise exponentially. It's important that we divest from an environmental perspective, but it's equally important that we do so from an ethical perspective too. And if we can deliver this, not only our Welsh Parliament, but our country as a whole, will be taking an important lead. 

15:35

I want to thank Jack Sargeant for tabling this important debate this afternoon. I don't totally agree with the entire premise of the motion, but it's still important, at the same time, that we have the debate. I will say from the outset that decarbonisation should be our number one priority, as we're in the middle of a climate emergency, and my constituents are already suffering the effects of rising global temperatures. However, I don't believe that taking the action suggested in the motion before us will do anything to address climate change. If we are not careful, we will end up making an empty gesture that does little other than to harm our poorest public sector workers. If we stop pension funds from investing in some of the most profitable businesses in the UK, we are going to severely restrict the growth of those funds and diminish the pensions of some of our lowest paid workers—our social care staff, our NHS staff, the cooks and cleaners in our schools and day care centres, and the tens of thousands of other council employees and hospital staff who provide a valuable service to each and every one of us here. 

We are blessed. We can afford to pay a little extra to save a little extra. They can't. You also have to ask yourself what we will achieve by banning investment in the likes of BP and Shell. Will we force them to change their ways? I don't think so. They are doing that themselves. These oil and gas companies are some of the biggest investors in renewables. BP has just partnered with Abu Dhabi energy firms ADNOC and Masdar to decarbonise UK and United Arab Emirates energy and transportation systems. They are pumping billions into green hydrogen in an effort to enable the decarbonisation of hard-to-abate industries such as steel production. They have also become a leading partner in the Global Centre for Maritime Decarbonisation, as shipping is one of the biggest contributors to global carbon emissions. This move should be applauded not punished. Let's encourage pension fund managers to invest in profitable companies that are actively seeking to decarbonise rather than ignoring them because they are currently just a fossil fuel industry. 

Should these large multinationals and global corporations be more ethical? Absolutely, yes. But we won't effect change by restricting our pension funds. I don't hear anyone calling for pension funds to divest from the likes of Nestlé or Apple. Apple are using forced labour in China and anti-competitive practices around the globe to become the world's richest corporation. [Interruption.] We don't see people jumping up and down about that, do we, Llyr? So, let's take more of a measured approach. We can work together to encourage change, but we won't force it by impoverishing public sector funds. I urge Members to abstain on the motion this afternoon. Thank you very much. 

Thank you very much. I have to say, Jack, I disagree with one thing you said. I don't find this dull; I find this extremely interesting, because, actually, pensions affect all of us. One constituent wrote to me, 'It makes little sense to worry about the financial viability of a pension I can access in 32 years' time when current projections place my house, here in Cardiff, underwater by 2050, and I will face a future of food shortages, more extreme weather events and increased risk of death from high temperatures.' So, that's what we are talking about now: taking real action. What Gareth Davies was saying I cannot comprehend. It's almost an argument for doing nothing. [Interruption.] No, a debate you base on facts. I heard very few facts there. One thing I do agree with: it does go beyond fossil fuels. We should be looking at ethical pension schemes, which include the arms trade, tobacco and so on. This is a climate emergency. [Interruption.] I will, of course, take an intervention. 

15:40

As the Member for the Vale of Clwyd wouldn't take an intervention, I'll make the point that I was going to make then. One of the positives that could come out of disinvesting in this way would be to persuade those companies that have traditionally made their profits from fossil fuels to change direction. It is about persuading them to work in an ethical way by saying, 'We'll invest in that part of your business, but time is up on that'. 

I could not agree more with my colleague there. I think Jack was right in the motion to note progress in relation to our own pension funds as Senedd Members, but it may be surprising to some Members here today that the same is not true for our staff. In fact, it is an issue one of the members of my team has been trying to get to the bottom of since starting with me. The person had, in fact, turned down a job offer with a local authority because they were unable to offer them an environmental, social and governance pension, and agreed to a role in my team because they were under the impression that the Senedd pension scheme included auto-enrolment into an ESG scheme. However, having now gone through the pensions enrolment process, the person was disappointed to learn the following: that staff are not auto-enrolled into the scheme, they're not made aware that there is an option to go into the scheme— 

Heledd, would you take an intervention? I've got a request for an intervention from Mark Isherwood. 

No, thank you. Staff can enrol themselves—[Interruption.] You didn't take an intervention from me, so, please—

May I continue, please? Thank you. Staff can enrol themselves into an ESG option available, but need to know which questions to ask. My team member has now been provided with the details—[Interruption.] May I speak, please? Thank you—of the pension fund manager so that this can be followed up. However, and I quote, my team member told me, 'As a member of staff, I find that I am having to do most of the legwork of getting to the bottom of finding out just where my new work-based pension is being invested.' I think there's a lesson for us all in this, in ensuring that we make it as easy as possible for our own staff, as well as the wider public sector, to ensure that their pension is an ethical one. After all, shouldn't this be an opt-out rather than an opt-in going forwards? 

And why is it important? Not only is it the right thing to do ethically, but it is also right we do it for the future of our planet. I'm grateful to all of my constituents that have contacted me on this matter and shared with me research undertaken by Aviva with Route2, in association with Make My Money Matter, and as part of Aviva's partnership with WWF UK. It found that moving the national average pension wealth to the sustainable fund using their calculation is 21 times more effective than the combined annual carbon savings of switching to renewable electricity providers, substituting all air travel with rail travel, and adopting a vegetarian diet. 

My constituents who feel strongly about this rightly also feel that setting a 2030 target is not good enough and that this change should be made now. After all, we saw during the height of the pandemic things that were previously deemed impossible become possible, and international co-operation reflective of the urgency. Yet, when it comes to the climate and nature emergency, and as we saw at COP26, we continue to see a reluctance to act, despite the situation our planet faces. We shouldn't take what fossil fuel companies are telling us at face value. I'm sure many of you saw Caroline Dennett's explosive resignation working as a senior safety consultant with Shell, accusing the fossil fuel producer of causing extreme harms to the environment, and stating:

'I can no longer work for a company that ignores all the alarms and dismisses the risks of climate change and ecological collapse because, contrary to Shell’s public expressions around net zero, they are not winding down on oil and gas, but planning to explore and extract much more.'

We must do this. It's not an option. We are able to do it here in Wales in terms of our public sector pensions. We are told time and time again that it is too complicated, but, as was illustrated by Cefin Campbell, future generations demand this of us. Otherwise, there will be no point to them having any sort of pension fund.

15:45

Before I move on, can I just simply remind all Members that every Member is entitled to make a request for intervention, but the Member speaking has every right to either accept or reject that request? I would encourage Members not to actually respond to comments from sedentary positions, because it allows you to continue your flow of speech naturally. Sarah Murphy.

Diolch. I want to thank Jack Sargeant for bringing this motion to the Chamber today. Our Welsh Government was one of the first in the world to declare a climate emergency, and it was groundbreaking. I remember hearing the announcement and thinking of all those across our communities who have adapted to recycling their waste, cycling to work, walking to work to mitigate air pollution, schoolchildren who are using reusable water bottles to reduce plastic consumption. These acts are not in vain when we have a Government that acknowledges the science. In Wales we have a Government that knows that we have to act now. Before the pandemic, I was also proud to stand alongside young people across Wales, but in particular of course those from Bridgend, who came down and marched with the youth strikes for climate. They used to come and sit on the steps of the Senedd on a monthly basis and give incredible speeches.

Sea levels are rising, there are changes to the weather that are impacting our farmers, climate change is impacting our biodiversity and wildlife. So, declaring a climate emergency is not just about identifying the threat here in Wales, now we have to set an example and actually do things differently. This includes collaboration between countries working together to create sustainable living, collaboration of priorities that ensure that the most vulnerable do not suffer, collaboration between Governments and its people where residents play their part in return for our Government also working to tackle the impact of climate change. The motion today brings about these very same principles. Again, this is not about imposing this on the public sector either. It says very clearly in this motion that this is about collaboration between the Welsh Government and the public sector, and it is to reach targets that are already there in place to have a net zero public sector by 2030. People need that assurance from their Government and their public sector that they're doing things that are in their best interest and the best interest of the planet. 

The public sector pension scheme is an investment to ensure that their future is one of financial security for people once they are no longer in work. A scheme that invests in fossil fuels, contributing to the destruction of the planet, contradicts the very security the pension aims to create. From industries to local businesses to residents and schoolchildren, we are all looking at new ways of sustainable living that centre around protecting our planet. Divesting from the scheme would be another example of how Wales is leading on environmental protection, and it's also the right thing to do for the collective interest. It would also make us the first nation in the world to do so. That would be absolutely incredible. Don't we all want to be part of a nation and a Government that can do that?

So, I stand fully with this motion today. We can no longer focus on maximising economic growth and GDP over putting societal and environmental benefits at the heart of our decision making. We must reinvest energy from damaging practices such as funding oil and gas into innovative, collaborative and transparent policies that put people and the planet before profit.

I would like to thank Jack for bringing this important debate to the Senedd and for the excellent campaign he has been doing alongside Friends of the Earth Cymru to get this issue talked about. 

In this Chamber I have spoken before about Thatcherite policies for which Wales and the UK continue to pay the price, whether that be the housing crisis or disastrous bus deregulation—pensions are another to add to this list. In the 1980s the Thatcher Government discouraged what they called dependency on state benefits, and instead incentivised a shift to greater levels of private pension provision. It unleashed the personal pension—. Sorry, I wasn't expecting to be called. Very sorry. 

In the 1980s the Thatcher Government discouraged what they called dependency on state benefits, and instead incentivised a shift to greater levels of private pension provision. It unleashed the personal pension misselling scandal, whereby armies of commission-driven salesmen were paid to convince the public that they should ditch their final salary occupation schemes in favour of the riskier personal pensions. This led to a huge number of pensions being controlled by private asset managers, and has remained the status quo ever since. Instead of leaving pension funds in the hands of the private sector, they should be managed democratically and in the public interest. Nowhere is that more necessary than in relation to pension fund investments in fossil fuels, and currently public sector pension funds in Wales are acting as a power source for further climate destruction. Not only do these funds fuel the climate crisis, but they also represent bad investments. Any green transition worthy of the name will need to include the targeted decline of reliance on fossil fuels, which will result in significant devaluation of fossil fuel investments, increasing the risk of current pension funds.

Pensions are designed to provide workers with security when they retire. Continuing to invest pension funds in destructive fossil fuels does exactly the opposite, much like the climate crisis itself. These investments are ticking time bombs, and it doesn't have to be like this. Imagine a system under which public sector pension funds are ploughed into a green new deal, and instead of funding the destruction of the planet, we could be funding the saving of it. We could use this investment for social and environmental good, investing in well-paid, unionised jobs in the sustainable industries of the future. The time for serious action on climate change has long since passed. Here in Wales we have already shown our willingness to take the lead on environmental issues by declaring a climate emergency in 2019. And as Jack's motion specifies, Wales can lead the way again. We can become the first nation in the world to fully divest public sector pension schemes, and we must continue to back our words with serious action. Divestment is needed, and it's needed now. Thank you.

15:50

Thank you, and thank you to Jack Sargeant for bringing forward this debate today. It definitely hasn't been a dry debate, it's been more lively than I think any of us had anticipated, but really useful as well.

It is absolutely clear that net zero has to be a shared ambition for us across the Senedd, across Welsh Government and across the Welsh public sector more widely, and we've discussed many times in this Chamber how climate change is the biggest challenge that we face and how we need to act and act now.

The Welsh Government supports the ambitions set out in the motion to decarbonise those public sector pension schemes that are funded through investments. So, this covers the local government pension scheme and schemes for the Arts Council of Wales, National Museum Wales and the National Library of Wales, and, of course, our own scheme for Senedd Members.

The local government pension scheme is the largest of these, and this provides the pensions of nearly 400,000 members in Wales. Of course, it's not as simple as voting today to divest specific funds. Our pension funds, like the rest of the system, must respond fully to the climate and nature emergency. And we have set out, in law, our target to reach net zero by 2050, and, of course, the ambition for the public sector in Wales is net zero by 2030. To do this, public sector pensions, like others, must develop a coherent understanding of the current and historic emissions inherent in their investments. They need to identify positive opportunities to invest in developments that support the shift to the decarbonised world. They need to understand and respond to the financial risks that the climate emergency brings.

If I just finish this section, and then I will happily take the intervention. They also must respond transparently and must develop credible transition plans to net zero, and, of course, they have to work closely with those who've contributed to the funds, including the workers and their trade unions, to ensure that they're engaged and fully consulted in any future approach—a point that was made very strongly by Jack Sargeant. I'm happy to take the intervention.

Diolch. Thank you very much indeed. I'm sure we all share the same goals. The world passed peak oil production a few years ago, and the world is running out of fossil fuels, whether we love them or hate them, and therefore we've only got a few years to put an alternative energy system in place, but the technology is not fully there yet. How do you respond to the evidence that without fossil fuel back-up providing energy security during the transition period, potentially hundreds of millions or billions of people could die?