Y Cyfarfod Llawn
In the bilingual version, the left-hand column includes the language used during the meeting. The right-hand column includes a translation of those speeches.
The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in hybrid format, with some Members in the Senedd Chamber and others joining by video-conference. All Members participating in proceedings of the Senedd, wherever they may be, will be treated equally. A Plenary meeting held using video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and these are set out on your agenda.
Before we begin, if I could inform Members that the next ballot for Member Bills will be held on 13 July, and information on the process will be circulated to Members shortly.
The first item is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Jenny Rathbone.
1. What plans does the Welsh Government have to insulate the most energy inefficient housing? OQ58189
Llywydd, improving energy efficiency of homes in the social rented sector is progressing through the Welsh Government's £220 million optimised retrofit programme and the Welsh quality housing standards. Plans to assist those in privately owned and privately rented sectors, through the Warm Homes programme, will be announced in the autumn.
Thank you for that information. As the constituency with the highest number of private sector renters, I know that they are really shivering in all winters, and with bills expected to rise to nearly £3,000 a year per household—something that we have no control over—I wondered why it is not possible to have an emergency programme to protect the most vulnerable households living in fuel poverty. What exactly are the barriers to instituting an immediate insulation programme, targeting the most vulnerable households living in the worst insulated homes, which tend to be in the private sector?
Llywydd, there are a series of measures the Welsh Government is taking to assist households with the escalating price of energy. But there are a series of barriers, I'm afraid, to instituting an emergency programme of household insulation. To begin with, we simply don't have the capital available to the Welsh Government to mount such a programme. Astonishingly, Llywydd, the capital available to the Welsh Government will reduce over the period of this Senedd. We will have less capital to invest in infrastructure of all sorts later in the Senedd term than we do now. And when the Chancellor announced his measures in May, I know the Member will recall that there was incredulity on the part of the industry that he did not announce a single penny of additional investment in energy efficiency and insulation measures. It was, the Financial Times said, just a footnote to his announcement, despite the fact that the director general of the Confederation of British Industry had called the day before for an all-out national effort on energy efficiency.
So, we simply lack the means to be able to mount an emergency programme. There are difficulties in implementing such a programme. Unfortunately, those properties that most need to be insulated don't deliver themselves in neatly organised bundles. They exist across the different sectors, clustered though, as the Member said, in the private rented sector. They exist across all geographies, and every home is different. Every home has a history of its own, a set of measures that have already been taken, and every home has to be individually assessed to make sure that the plan for it responds to those measures that have been taken in the past.
And then, thirdly, the third barrier to that sort of emergency programme is the skills deficit in the workforce. Successive UK Government schemes in this field have failed. David Cameron announced the Green Deal, aimed to insulate 14 million houses by 2020. That 14 million house scheme resulted in 14,000 loans being offered—14 million houses to be insulated; 14,000 loans altogether. The result is, Llywydd, that the supply chain, both in materials but also in skills, simply hasn't developed across the United Kingdom to the point where the very sensible suggestion put forward by the Member for Cardiff Central could be easily mounted by the Welsh Government.
Between now and 2028, Wales will need to recruit, on average, an additional 2,000 full-time equivalent workers to carry out the highly technical challenge of decarbonising homes in Wales. Now, during a recent Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee meeting, Mark Bodger, from the Construction Industry Training Board, highlighted that there has always been an appetite for people to retrain and reskill in sectors that can improve and broaden their trade. He also identified a major untapped market—shockingly, only around 3 per cent of these workers are female. So, with the Welsh Government—yes, your Welsh Government, First Minister—failing to publish the net-zero skills action plan, and we're not set to see one until the winter of 2022, which is of course much too late because the cold, harsh weather will have kicked in by then, will you as the First Minister clarify why there has been such a delay to a plan being developed, and what steps are you taking to encourage women to take up decarbonisation roles? Diolch.
Llywydd, I very much agree with the final point the Member made. The construction industry, unfortunately, continues to attract people from only part of Welsh society. And for women looking to work in it, too often it does not look like the sort of place that you would feel comfortable in working. Now, I do know that, through our colleges, real efforts are being made to attract young women into those occupations and to make them feel welcome, and for them to feel that the necessary adjustments are not adjustments that they need to make but adjustments that need to be made in the workplace so that those people feel that they would be welcome and that they would be able to make the contribution, which, I agree, is there to be made. Our new skills plan in this area has always been scheduled to be published by the end of this calendar year, and we remain on track, Llywydd, to do exactly that.
I thank Jenny Rathbone for the question. We've heard Governments many times talking about encouraging owners to retrofit or to use renewable means of producing energy, such as solar panels on their homes. But, for many of my constituents in Dwyfor Meirionnydd, neither of those options is realistic, because they live in buildings that are listed. Think of the wonderful architecture of Dolgellau or Maentwrog, for example. The owners of these homes come to me regularly, expressing frustration that they can do nothing to save on their energy costs and ensure that their properties reach the necessary environmental requirements. They can't have double glazing or solar panels. So, what will you do to help these people?
Well, Llywydd, I understand exactly the point the Member is making about the nature of construction of houses in parts of Wales; it's not confined to the part of Wales that the Member represents. And we have local authorities who have put forward plans to us that allow us to help them to invest in novel and innovative technologies, that, even where the basic construction of a home doesn't lend itself to normal forms of insulation, there are still things that can be done. It is not easy—I do not for a moment suggest that, in the types of houses to which Mabon ap Gwynfor has referred, there are easy solutions in this matter. But we continue to work with the industry and with local authorities, where they are able to come forward with innovative proposals, to try to find solutions for people whose homes, by the nature of their construction, mean that conventional means of insulation simply won't work for them.
2. What action is the Welsh Government taking to tackle food poverty in Blaenau Gwent? OQ58183
Llywydd, I thank Alun Davies for that question. Sustained investment in community food projects, including foodbanks, together with schemes to alleviate holiday hunger, are amongst the actions being taken in Blaenau Gwent. As an area with high levels of in-work poverty, it will be at the forefront of our commitment to free school meals for all primary-aged pupils.
I'm grateful to the First Minister for that response. I think people across Blaenau Gwent and elsewhere are very grateful that they've got a Welsh Government that stands up for them. I'm aware that it was a visit to Blaenau Gwent that prompted the First Minister's thinking on issues around fuel poverty as well. But we are also aware that the Tory-created cost-of-living crisis is having a real impact—[Interruption.] Well, the Tories laugh about it, but they always laugh at poverty—
We see them smirk.
—and they always laugh when people are suffering.
We see them smirking.
And that is why—and that is why—they're sitting where they're sitting, and they will continue to sit where they're sitting. It is important—it is important, it is important—First Minister, that the people of Blaenau Gwent have a Government that stands with them and by their side. Can you outline to us this afternoon how the Welsh Government will continue to support people who are being affected by this cost-of-living crisis?
Well, I thank Alun Davies for that question, Llywydd. It was a pleasure to visit with him, back in April, the Star Centre at the old Sirhowy infants school in Tredegar and to see the fantastic work that was being done as a distribution centre for food in the pandemic generally and now to focus upon those whose needs are the greatest. But the Member is right, Llywydd, that it was a visit to Ebbw Vale by my colleague Jane Hutt, back on 13 May, that has led, within four weeks, to the Welsh Government being able to fund and organise a national fuel bank scheme, and I congratulate those people in Ebbw Vale who have been pioneers in this. And, as a result of their work, we'll now be in a position to provide that help right across our nation. That extra help will be targeted towards people with prepayment meters and households not connected to mains gas.
Standing charges, Llywydd, I think are one of the scandals of the energy industry, and particularly so for people on prepayment meters. When you run out of credit and you're unable to heat your home, that standing charge continues to rack up day after day. So, when you are able to find money to top up the meter again, you find that a significant part of what you've been able to draw together has already been spent. And we know that standing charges in north Wales are the highest in the whole of the United Kingdom, and are at the top end of that distribution in south Wales as well. That's why the scheme, unveiled by my colleague Jane Hutt, with nearly £4 million-worth of investment, and now working with the Fuel Bank Foundation, will allow us to provide emergency help for people who are at the very sharpest end of the fuel crisis, and is a very practical demonstration of the point that Alun Davies made—that here in Wales there is a Government determined to go on looking all the time for those practical ways in which we can make a difference in those people's lives.
First Minister, the pandemic crisis has pushed many families in Blaenau Gwent and elsewhere into hardship and exposes the severity of the UK's food poverty problem, a problem that I cannot deny has been exacerbated by current increases in the cost of living. Last month, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, announced a package of measures to help the most vulnerable people in Wales, including a one-off £650 payment to low-income households on universal credit, tax credits and legacy benefits, one-off payments of £300 to pensioner households, and £150 to individuals receiving disability benefits. This new cost-of-living support package will mean that the most vulnerable households in Wales will receive over £1,000 of extra support this year. So, First Minister, will you join me in welcoming these measures, which deliver significant targeted support to those on low incomes, pensioners and disabled people—groups who are most vulnerable to the rising prices in Blaenau Gwent and throughout Wales? Thank you.
Well, Llywydd, I'm glad for any help that goes to those people who are in the most difficult sets of circumstances. But let's be clear with the Member that the money going to people who rely on universal credit just about makes up for the cut of over £1,000 that was put into those households in September of last year. They're no better off now than they were then. The Chancellor simply restored what he decided they didn't need back in September. And this package, which is too little and too late, also is very badly targeted. The Member talked about the most vulnerable households. Does she know that, in Wales, if you have a second home, you will receive the Chancellor's £400 contribution to your fuel bill this winter? Does she think that that is a sensible use of public money, that we're putting £400 in the hands of people who can afford two homes when the people who can barely afford one home haven't got enough to manage on?
Questions now from the party leaders. Leader of the Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. With your permission, as it's the fortieth anniversary of the Falklands conflict, and today is the day that the cessation of hostilities was declared in the Falkland islands, I'd like to put my Conservative group's thanks to the servicemen and women who went out in 1982 and commemorate those who lost their lives—the 255 British men and women who lost their lives in that conflict, plus the three Falkland islanders themselves, but also the Argentinian soldiers who lost their lives as well. All war is a horrid function, but, ultimately, when the aggression of the dictatorship that was in Argentina that was perpetrated in 1982 was faced down, it had to be faced down by our military, who we time and time again call on to do that across the globe. I'd like to put on record our sincere thanks and gratitude, and our thanks also to the families that are left behind for the loved ones who will not return.
First Minister, it is also today the date that, five years ago, the Grenfell Tower happened in London, that terrible tragedy of the smouldering inferno that is glued into our images and the suffering that occurred at that time. The Minister was to have a statement today that has been withdrawn off the order paper. I'd be grateful if you could enlighten the Chamber today as to what actions the Government is taking to make sure that people in Wales who suffer from the cladding scandal are going to feel supported by the Welsh Government and supported so they can sleep at night?
I thank the leader of the opposition for those questions, and of course share what he said in opening his questions this afternoon. This is the fortieth anniversary of the Falklands war. It is right that we use this opportunity to think both of those people who served directly in that conflict, but also the families of those people who never returned from the Falklands. I will be at Llandaff cathedral on Thursday, I've no doubt the leader of the opposition will be there too, and we'll see a bringing together of the military community in Wales, with others, in order to have a solemn moment of reflection. And I know that there are events in north Wales involving the armed forces as well. So, I entirely associate myself with his remarks in marking this occasion.
There was to be a statement today, Llywydd. It's five years since the Grenfell fire exactly. We took the decision not to make the statement, partly in order to respect that anniversary and to allow people's thoughts to be with those families who in that event too saw lives being lost and futures being scarred. The Minister will make a statement later in the month and that will update colleagues here in the Chamber on our repair programme. It will bring people up to date on the 248 expressions of interest we received earlier in the year and the 100 properties that have needed more intensive and intrusive survey work to be carried out, and on the investment that will now be made in those properties before the end of this financial year.
We will also, as we have said, bring forward our leasehold programme before the end of this month, and that will set out details of ways in which leaseholders who have been badly affected by the worth of their properties on the open market as a result of anxieties about the standards to which those buildings were completed—how we will help them as well. But, alongside that immediate repair work, we also have a reform programme, and that reform programme is fundamentally important, because what we cannot have is a system that in future just sees the difficulties caused in the past replicated. We will introduce a series of changes to the regulatory regime here in Wales to make sure that those who bear the responsibility for the problems that have been established, and that does not include those people who live in those properties—that those people who bear that responsibility will live up to those responsibilities in the future.
First Minister, I'm pleased in some respects to hear the reasoning, because I think some of us were a little sceptical that little progress had been made on this very important agenda item, and I hear the reasoning that you're saying is out of due respect to the victims of the Grenfell fire that obviously was five years today. I would hope that, at the earliest opportunity, therefore, the Government will bring this statement forward, so that those who are tied up in this horrible, horrible vortex that they find themselves in, where they feel helpless, and yet bills are landing on their doormats and leasehold demands, and yet they go to bed at night, living in what could potentially be a fire keg, because the cladding on their properties has not been replaced, and is still in existence here in Wales, and across many parts of Wales, in fact—. The Minister announced £375 million at the end of March. Are you in a position to confirm how much of that money has been allocated already, and where has it been allocated to? And if it hasn't been allocated, what is the timeline to issue that money out to people who can benefit from it? Because I recognise it is a significant investment, £375 million, but it's no good sitting in Welsh Government coffers; it needs to be delivered to home owners, so that they can put restitution measures in place.
Well, I absolutely agree with that final point: we want the money to leave the Welsh Government and to be doing the good that it's intended to do as fast as possible; it's for spending over three years. Can I make just one specific point to the leader of the opposition? This money is not just for cladding, and this is a big difference between the approach we are taking in Wales and the approach being taken elsewhere. Cladding is only one of the building defects that causes a risk of fire in those blocks. Compartmentalisation is another feature of the way in which buildings were not built according to the standards that would've kept people safe, and there were other aspects as well. So, our approach will offer a more comprehensive set of measures. That's why we have to have the surveys. I know it's frustrating; I imagine it must be hugely frustrating for people who are living in those conditions. The message we have to give to them is that by doing it properly, they will end up in a better position for the long run. That's why the surveys are important, that's why the detailed work is necessary. It will draw together not just the work to be done on cladding, but those other remedial actions that need to be taken. And then we need to see—and I know the leader of the opposition will agree with this—then we need to see those companies that were responsible for the work that was not carried out in the first place come to the table and to make their contribution. I pay tribute to those companies that have done so already, and there are companies in Wales who are playing their part; there are others who are not yet willing even to have a discussion, and the Minister wrote very recently to them again, calling them round the table, so that, alongside the money that the public will now provide, those companies that have profited from the sale and the construction of those properties make their contribution as well.
Thank you for that answer, First Minister, but I didn't hear how much of that money had been allocated to date, which I think is important to give people confidence that the money is leaving the Welsh Government, albeit it might be to specific projects. And I fully understand that it does go to more than just cladding, but for many people, the cladding is the issue that they can quite clearly focus on, but compartmentalisation and other factors in the properties to be put right is another important aspect of this funding. But if you could, in your reply to me, highlight how much of this money has left Welsh Government coffers, I think that would give people confidence.
When you talk about developers being brought to the table, that is really important. And other parts of the United Kingdom have developed the strategy—the UK Government, for example, has brought those developers to the table, and significant sums of money have been earmarked to rectify the defects. I have an FOI here that indicates that, through the entire part of 2021, the Minister only met on three occasions with the developers, and those meetings were 45 minutes, 45 minutes and 60 minutes in total. Now, I have had engagement with the Minister, and I know how focused she is on this particular issue—indeed, from a constituency point of view, she does have issues in her own constituency—so I fully understand the direction that she's giving here. But when you see an FOI such as this, which indicates only three meetings taking place of such limited duration, and listing the developers that have engaged with the process, can you confirm to me, First Minister, that Welsh Government is making progress on holding these developers to account, making sure that they contribute to those restoration costs here in Wales, and that there is a stepping up of the intensity that the Welsh Government is using to make sure that those developers are held to account to put money into the system so that residents aren't waking up to a fire alarm, they're waking up to a bedside alarm instead?
Three points in reply to those questions, Llywydd. I don't have the figure in front of me and I don't just want to guess it from memory. Money is being spent from the £375 million, and I'll make sure that the Member has the accurate figure of what has been spent so far on the survey work and is due to be spent on the remedial and repair work during the rest of this calendar year.
On the meetings, I think the Minister has met regularly with the industry and that is in addition to all the meetings that take place at official level. I can assure the Member, as I'm sure he knows, that a 60-minute meeting with the Minister will have left those companies in no doubt at all about what was expected of them.
In relation to what more can be done with the companies, let me say we were disappointed that in the Bill that went through the House of Commons, the UK Government at the very last minute put in new provisions to raise a levy on those companies and didn't include either Scotland or Wales within those arrangements, despite the fact that, separately, both Scotland and Wales wrote to the UK Government asking to be included. On a more positive note, though, let me say that there was a meeting yesterday under the new inter-governmental relations arrangements involving Michael Gove, the Minister here and the Minister in Scotland as well, which discussed all of that and has resulted in an agreement that further work will be done to see whether it will be possible for us to be included within the scheme that we had hoped to be part of. So, I'm hoping that that work will now bear fruit and that that will give us the extra tool that is available now to Ministers in England, and that could have been made available in Scotland and in Wales. We don't have it at the moment; I hope the work that's been put in hand will result in us having that power and that that will allow us to do what the leader of the opposition has suggested and to accelerate our ability to draw those companies who have so far been reluctant to live up to their responsibilities back around that table.
Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price.
Thank you, Llywydd. Gross domestic product is down in the UK for the second month running, an initial drop of 0.1 per cent in March followed by an unexpected slump of 0.3 per cent in April. Some would point to COVID and the war in Ukraine as the overriding reasons, but that doesn't explain why the UK is doing so much worse than other countries. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development the UK will next year stagnate and be the worst-performing economy among the group of seven leading industrialised nations by a significant margin. The Centre for European Reform last week said that Britain was £31 billion worse off than it would have been without the dual impact of Brexit and COVID, but that the bigger impact by far was the effect from Brexit. Isn't it the case that far from the promised sunlit uplands, Brexit is beginning to cast a long shadow on our economy at a time when we can least afford it?
Llywydd, Adam Price is right, of course. Those were very concerning figures published yesterday, and for the first time since the pandemic began we've had two consecutive months in which GDP has fallen, and, for the first time, we see those falls across all three major sectors of the economy: the service sector shrunk, industrial production shrunk, manufacturing shrunk. These are not solely to be explained by the short-term shocks of the war in Ukraine and by COVID, the leader of Plaid Cymru is absolutely right. It is a recognised impact by the Bank of England and by the Office for Budget Responsibility. The UK economy is 4 per cent smaller than it would have been had we not decided to leave the European Union and will be perpetually. There is a very high price being paid by the UK economy for that decision, but it's not an impact that anybody should be surprised at, because this was pointed out well in advance, and we were told to disregard the views of experts. Well, I'm afraid that expertise is turning out to have been right all along.
Indeed. The First Minister is absolutely correct. Of course, even the Government's own advisory body, the Office for Budget Responsibility, made this very forecast, which has been borne out by the evidence presented. The latest regional gross domestic product figures show London and Northern Ireland are the only parts of the UK that have grown beyond pre-pandemic levels. As the economist Jonathan Portes has been quoted as saying:
'There is some emerging evidence that London’s economic dominance, and hence regional and geographical inequality, has, if anything, been further exacerbated by Brexit.'
So, not levelling up, but levelling down. And the one outrider outside of London, Northern Ireland, is, of course, within the single market. So, First Minister, do you think that's why they have performed better over the last two years compared to Wales and, indeed, every other part of the UK outside of London?
Llywydd, I don't think there's any doubt at all—how could there be—that the availability of being within the single market is having that additional positive impact on the economy in Northern Ireland. Here in this Chamber, many of us advocated a form of Brexit recognising and respecting the result of the referendum but wanting a different form of Brexit, a Brexit that would not have been so damaging to people here in Wales, and continued membership of the single market, proposed, of course, by Mrs May, and a form of continuation in the customs union, would have allowed us to have left—[Interruption.]—would have allowed us to have left the political arrangements of the European Union—we would not have been members of it—but we would have continued to have been part of the trading arrangements with our nearest and most important neighbours, and that would undoubtedly have supported the Welsh economy in the way that the same arrangements can be seen to be supporting the economy in Northern Ireland.
Westminster, of course, is now risking a trade war over the Northern Ireland protocol, which will not just plunge Northern Ireland into political uncertainty but also add further to the economic pain families are already experiencing throughout the United Kingdom. Now, given that cost-of-living crisis and the challenges we're facing in every sector of the economy, as the First Minister said, in every part of the UK bar London, isn't there a very simple practical solution, which you've just alluded to, which is returning to the principle at the heart of 'Securing Wales' Future', the White Paper we jointly published between us, which is rejoining now the single market and the customs union, as even some Tory MPs have been arguing in the last couple of days? Indeed, even the former Member of the European Parliament, Baron Daniel Hannan, Baron Brexit, has been arguing we should never have left the single market now. Will you make that—? Is that still the policy of the Welsh Government, and will you make that case for single market membership, not just to Boris Johnson, but also, I should add, to the leader of the opposition, who's been a little bit vague on this question to date?
Well, Llywydd, I continue to believe that, if Wales and the United Kingdom were inside the single market, all those barriers to trade that we see doing such harm to the Welsh manufacturing industry and to Welsh agriculture, those will be removed. It's an inescapable fact that our nearest and biggest trading partners are still in the European Union. Now, trade with them—. Uniquely, as you will remember, nobody was able to find a single example of a treaty agreed that put more barriers in the way of trade rather than trying to remove them. All of this, Llywydd, is now under even greater strain because of the publication yesterday of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, a Bill that 52 of the 90 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly—parties representing 52 of those 90 seats—described today as something they rejected in the strongest possible terms. This is what they said to the Prime Minister:
'We reject in the strongest possible terms your Government’s reckless new protocol legislation, which flies in the face of the expressed wishes of not just most businesses, but most people in Northern Ireland.'
And yet, despite all of that, the Prime Minister's solution to the problem that he himself created—this is his protocol that he agreed, that he described to us in such glowing terms—. He is now prepared to tear that up. The UK Government admits, it says so itself, that it breaches international obligations. It damages our standing in the rest of the world. The good news for this Senedd is that, in the letter received yesterday to my colleague Vaughan Gething from the Foreign Secretary, the UK Government say that the provisions in the Bill are such that a legislative consent motion will be required from the Senedd. And having told us nothing about the Bill, and giving us no advance sight of the Bill at all, the letter has the nerve to go on asking that the Minister should reply confirming that we are content to support a legislative consent motion in front of this Senedd. Well, such a legislative consent motion will be brought forward and it will give Members here an opportunity to look in greater detail at the case for this breach of international law and the impact that it will have here in Wales as a direct result of the barriers to trade that the Prime Minister's deal has imposed upon us.
3. What support is the Welsh Government providing to people in Clwyd South in light of the current cost-of-living crisis? OQ58196
Llywydd, over 12,000 households have benefited from the £200 winter fuel support payments in the local authorities covered by the Member's constituency. In April alone, over 2,200 payments were made from the discretionary assistance fund in those same local authorities and, of those payments, more than 90 per cent were cash help for emergency food and fuel.
Well, thank you, First Minister, that is enormous help for my constituents, but would you agree that the Chancellor's offer to households facing the cost-of-living crisis is simply not enough and, indeed, insulting, given it's to be paid from the cut to universal credit last year? So much more could have been offered to hard-pressed households had the Chancellor not lost £11 billion in failing to ensure against interest rate rises, or by losing £6 billion in fraudulent bounce-back loans. And why, First Minister, do you think that UK Government Ministers just can't bring themselves to call this 'a crisis'?
Well, Llywydd, Ken Skates makes a very important point in that contribution and, as a former Minister responsible for the economy here, I can see why he has wanted to highlight the fact that, while this Government struggles and fails to provide the sorts of help for people faced with a cost-of-living crisis, at the same time they are losing money hand over fist in some other schemes that they themselves have responsibility for.
The £11 billion to which Ken Skates referred was highlighted only last week. The Chancellor was warned, time after time, that rising interest rates would have an impact upon his ability to service the £900 billion of reserves created by quantitative easing. He failed to take out those insurance measures and, as a result, he is spending £11 billion more than he would have otherwise have needed to do. Now, imagine what the £11 billion could have done in the lives of the people we have been talking about this afternoon.
And when it comes to fraud from the bounce-back loan scheme, fraud is only a third of the loss that the UK Government itself say they now expect to make through that scheme. Five billion pounds lost directly in fraud, but £17 billion that the Government now does not expect to recover from those loans. Now, there are court cases, Llywydd, going through at the moment that show that those bounce-back loans, those fraudulent loans, were being used to pay for the purchase of private cars, for flying lessons, for pornography websites, and, in a case which is to be in front of the courts next month, a case where someone who obtained a bounce-back loan is alleged to have used it to fund terrorist activity by Islamic State terrorists in Syria. Five billion pounds, which, as we know, the National Audit Office says the Government has failed to take the necessary action to recover, and where the Government Minister, Lord Agnew, the anti-fraud Minister, resigned in January, describing his own Government's efforts to control that fraud as 'woeful'.
Now, the point that Ken Skates makes, Llywydd, is this, isn't it: we have a Government who say that, in the fifth richest country in the world it's not possible to provide enough money for people to stay warm and to be fed during this coming winter, but have managed to contrive the loss of tens of billions of pounds in just two schemes that I've highlighted this afternoon.
4. What progress has the Welsh Government made on implementing the International Strategy for Wales? OQ58192
I thank Heledd Fychan for the question. Llywydd, progress was set out in the annual report on our overseas network, which was published last month. The report recorded outcomes against the international strategy in terms of raising the international profile of Wales, supporting international trade and establishing Wales as a globally responsible nation.
Thank you, First Minister. Clearly, a number of things have changed since the strategy was drafted, including the pandemic and, more recently of course, the fact that the Wales men's football team have qualified for the World Cup. As Laura McAllister wrote in a column in the Western Mail over the weekend, and I quote:
'The potential benefits for football are vast, but so, too, is the potential to generate lasting spin-off success for Wales off the field too. It's all about that word "legacy’", but we need to get our act together and move fast if we are to strategically co-opt sport, supported by our wider cultural offer, as a way of amplifying Wales’ global profile and attract the world to Wales to trade, holiday, invest and study.'
She goes on to say that it would be unforgivable if Wales were to miss out on this golden opportunity. I know that Adam Price questioned you on this last week, but, with over a week having passed since that crucial fixture, what support has already been provided by the Welsh Government to the FAW, and what support will be provided over the next few months?
I thank Heledd Fychan. The point that she raises is an important one, and I agree with what she said when she quoted what was in the Western Mail. We've been doing things already, of course, with the FAW to prepare for Wales's visit to Qatar. I had an opportunity to meet with the ambassador from Qatar, who came to Wales last week, and I am meeting with the UK ambassador to Qatar next week here in Cardiff. So, we are preparing for people from Wales going to Qatar and ensuring that everything is in place and ensuring, with the local authorities, that there will be a welcome for any person that goes to Qatar, and working with the FAW and others to use the possibilities that will arise for Wales from being on the global stage. We are drawing people together as a Government, not just in the footballing world, of course, but, as Heledd Fychan said, more broadly, in order to exploit the opportunities that we have now through the success of the team.
First Minister, football, and sport in general, of course, is a huge opportunity for Wales to make itself known on the international stage, but one opportunity that your international strategy really has missed is the opportunity that exists between faith communities in Wales because of their links with faith communities overseas. There are many churches, chapels and mosques across this country that enjoy excellent links in nations overseas and could easily afford an opportunity for Wales to raise its profile in those nations. Why is it that 'faith' does not appear as a word, apart from in terms of the title of the BBC programme Keeping Faith, that tremendous series—? Apart from that, the word 'faith' does not appear in the international strategy at all. Is that something that you will look at in order that we can ensure that these opportunities are not missed?
Llywydd, I agree with what Darren Millar said, that we have many faith communities here in Wales who have important links with communities elsewhere in the world, and that brings with those connections opportunities to enrich people's understanding and to develop those connections between people that are to the benefit of us all. The international strategy, though, I think does have a different focus. It is essentially an economic focus, because most of the efforts of our overseas offices and most of the things that you will see in the international strategy are about making sure that there is strong support there for firms in other parts of the world who might be interested to come to Wales, and particularly for firms based in Wales to develop those export opportunities that they are looking for. It may be that there are connections that could be made between the agendas that are set out in the international strategy and the work of those wider communities. And, of course, we don't turn our back on those possibilities at all.
5. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to promote awareness of men's health issues? OQ58180
Llywydd, the Welsh Government supports the promotion of good physical and mental health for men through a range of existing public health strategies and programmes. These include, for example, our suicide prevention strategy and actions to promote early awareness of prostate cancer and heart disease.
I appreciate your response, First Minister. Thank you. This week is Men's Health Week, marked right up until Father's Day on Sunday. It is hoped that it will help spur men into thinking more about their health. And, really, we're particularly bad at looking after our own health, especially when it comes to mental health. First Minister, the theme of this International Men's Health Week is the DIY MOT. Resources are being provided online to help guide men to look after their health and to give their body and mind an MOT. Will you help spread awareness by undertaking a DIY MOT this week, and do you acknowledge the statistical element of men being less likely to talk about their physical and mental health problems? Thank you.
I thank the Member for that question, and it is by itself an opportunity to do exactly what he said, and I thank him for making those additional points. It is indeed International Men's Health Week. It started yesterday and will run until Sunday of this week, and it's there, as Gareth Davies said, to heighten awareness of preventable health problems for men of all ages. And there is no doubt that there is a cultural issue here, where men in Wales are less likely to report early signs of symptoms, less likely to be willing to carry out the sort of simple self-checks to which the Member referred. And, as a result, too often we see people presenting too late for treatment that otherwise could have been effective for them. So, I entirely agree that anything that we can do to persuade people to do those simple things that can help them is an important step in making sure that men who have health needs can get the help they need in as timely a way as is possible.
6. How is the Welsh Government supporting parents of primary school pupils in Islwyn with the cost of the school day? OQ58190
Well, Llywydd, in addition to free breakfasts, extra help through the pupil development grant access scheme and now free school dinners, parents in Islwyn will be supported through the National Music Service, helping with the costs of instruments and tuition. Those parents will know how much this is due to the sustained campaigning of their Senedd Member.
Thank you for that, First Minister. I am proud, however, that our Welsh Labour Government has rightly committed to delivering free school meals to all primary school children in Wales. A recent letter to the UK Government from teaching unions set out the benefits provided by free school meals, and it said:
'Every school day we see the benefits free school meals provide to those currently entitled. For many it is the only hot, nutritious meal they have in a day. A quality school meal helps improve children's concentration and behaviour during lessons. We witness, first-hand, the effect they can have on improving school attendance, on children's health, and academic performance.'
Locally, in my own constituency, Caerphilly's Labour council have been rightly praised for how they responded throughout the pandemic with their delivery of decent, healthy free school meals. But sadly, the cost-of-living crisis is putting more and more strain on families' budgets. While in Wales, our Labour Government is taking actions that will support families in places like Islwyn, the Tory UK Government, however, refuses to expand free school meal provision in England. So, First Minister, can you provide an update on the progress that is being made to deliver universal free school meals to primary-age children in Wales, and how else will the Welsh Government support parents in Islwyn with school costs through this cost-of-living crisis? Thank you.
Llywydd, I'm very pleased to provide an update on the £225 million that, as a result of the co-operation agreement, we will be investing in providing universal free school meals to primary-age students. The first of those schools will come on stream in September of this year, and then a lot of work is going on with other schools to make sure that the barriers to their participation—and they're often physical barriers: canteen kitchen facilities, and so on—that we are able to use the capital that we've also put aside for this programme to help to bring them on stream as well. When we're able to have universal free school meals in the Caerphilly local authority area, an additional 10,700 pupils will benefit from this development. And I'm very pleased indeed to be able to pay tribute to the work of the local authority in making that happen as quickly as we are able.
We will go on, though, as the Member for Islwyn has said, Llywydd, in doing other things that will help with the cost of the school day. The additional money that my colleague Jeremy Miles announced earlier in the year for the pupil development grant access fund this year, the fact that we will be providing free school meals during the summer holidays, and that we will go on expanding the services that we are providing in terms of early years education and childcare provision, all of which leaves money in the pockets of those families who otherwise would be having to fund those services for themselves. That strategy, which has been pursued by successive Governments here in the Senedd—the social wage, as it's known—means that collective provision reaches deepest into the lives of those people who need that help the most, and that is a strategy that we will continue to pursue through the rest of this Senedd term.
7. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of the rising cost of living on the people of Ogmore? OQ58193
Llywydd, our assessments show the crisis is having a significant effect on people across Wales, including Ogmore. Up to 45 per cent of households in Wales could already be in fuel poverty following the price increase in April. Ofgem reported that householders can expect typical dual fuel bills to rise to £2,800 in October of this year.
I think the First Minister's response describes well the tsunami now that is affecting people right across Wales, from Ogmore north, south, east and west, and it really is happening, and it's not hidden away—we're actually seeing it now evidently every single day. But there are things we can do. Much of the measures, the well-targeted measures of Welsh Government, have been mentioned this afternoon, but also at a local level. Local authorities are playing a key role here, targeting the discretionary housing payments; the fuel payments administration; the business rates relief; co-ordinating the Big Bocs Bwyd scheme within Ogmore, which is going to be rolled out; support for community pantries; the freezing of council tax this year in Bridgend; and, as of last week, having paid out in Bridgend over 29,000 cost-of-living payments to those who pay direct debits in bands A, B, C and D, and they're moving on to others rapidly as well.
First Minister, can I ask you? This Saturday, in the face of this crisis, thousands of people are going to be descending on London as part of the Trades Union Congress campaign to force the Government to do more on sick pay, on wages, to raise universal credit, to tax energy profits to help people pay their bills, and banning the appalling practice of fire and rehire, and more. What message do you have for all those travelling from Wales to London this Saturday, who are demanding better from the UK Government for working people facing this Conservative cost-of-living crisis?
Llywydd, I thank Huw Irranca-Davies. Those were really important and pertinent points for us here in Wales. I was able to speak at a rally in Llandudno at the Wales TUC conference in May, which was designed entirely to highlight the march that will take place on Saturday of this week. The purposes of the march, as Huw Irranca-Davies has said, are both to highlight the challenges that are facing the lives of so many of our fellow citizens, but also to advance constructive ideas that this Government at Westminster should examine and should be prepared to put into practice to help those families too. My message to those many people who will go from Wales to London on Saturday is that their willingness to take part in such a demonstration is a sign of their commitment to doing things better in the lives of their fellow citizens, and I wish them all every success in the demonstration of their determination that a better set of solutions can be found and put into place in the lives of those who need them the most.
8. What is the Welsh Government doing to support the offshore energy sector? OQ58160
Thank you very much to Paul Davies, Llywydd. We support the sector through direct funding for research in nascent technologies and infrastructure investment. We work with the industry to provide a consenting regime that is supportive of the sector, while also meeting our environmental obligations. We co-operate with partners to secure the skills needed for the jobs of the future.
I'm grateful to you for that response. In order to provide floating offshore wind energy, and for Wales to deliver the economic, social and environmental benefits available, we need marine planning reforms to deliver projects as soon as possible. Indeed, a simpler process for marine planning would mean that projects such as the Erebus project by Blue Gem Wind, which will be off the Pembrokeshire coast, could be delivered before far larger projects in other parts of the UK. I do understand that there is a commitment to reduce timetables for planning decisions to 12 months, which has been put in place in other parts of the UK. So, can you tell us what the Welsh Government is doing to ensure that timely planning consent is given for these projects in Wales, so that Wales doesn't lose out as compared to other parts of the UK?
I thank Paul Davies for those additional questions. I had an opportunity to read his contribution after the statement made by Vaughan Gething back in May, and I do agree that it is important for us to have a planning system here in Wales that is supportive of the sector, but also respects the environmental obligations that we have, and that's difficult. I've had more than one meeting; I had a meeting with Lesley Griffiths and the sector, and with the third sector, which is part of this process here in Wales.
I want to see a future where companies can come to Wales and can have certainty about the system and where they can help us to find the important evidence when we're talking about new ways of creating marine energy. I want to see that, when we respect the environmental obligations, but I do agree with the Member that it's important for us here in Wales to be a place where companies can come and can know that we will have a system that is going to help them in the important work that they want to do about the things that are going to be so important for us in the future.
I thank the First Minister.
The next item is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement. Lesley Griffiths.
Diolch, Llywydd. I have two changes to today's agenda: the Minister for Social Justice will shortly make a statement on the cost of living, and the statement on building safety has been withdrawn. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.
Minister, unfortunately, late last week, I had to go to A&E at the Grange hospital after taking advice from my doctor. Let me be clear that what I'm about to share with the Senedd is not at all a criticism of the staff, because every single person I spoke to, from the receptionist to the hardworking nurses, was absolutely fantastic, and I cannot fault them at all. Prior to my election last year, I had heard the news, like many people outside this Chamber, and read in the papers, and after being elected here, more and more residents of south-east Wales have come to me and spoken about their disenchantment with the Grange hospital. And I stand in front of you today to agree with all of them that the Grange hospital is, without a doubt, in shambles.
For background, I just want to make you aware that I filmed my entire experience whilst there—you can call it my own version of my Panorama exposé—and even posted it on social media yesterday. I did not tell anyone that I was going to the hospital, and I wore a mask the entire time so that no-one would recognise me, as I did not want to be treated differently to anyone else due to being a Member of the Senedd. It became very clear very quickly that the problems started before you even reached the hospital. Firstly, as someone who's foot was double the size, and in pain, I had to park a very, very long way away from the main building in an offshoot car park as there was nothing even close to the doors to park a car. Fortunately, I was able to hobble to the entrance, but how can any of us expect someone who's severely ill, disabled or elderly to walk all the way that I did? One woman I'd spoken to, who was there with severe chest pains, was forced to battle with public transport to get to the hospital because she was told there were no ambulances available.
Simply trying to find A&E is like trying to walk through a maze that even Harry Potter would find difficult, because there was just clearly no signposting from the entrance to the actual A&E section. I walked through the main entrance, then wandered around various corridors and departments, spoke to various members of staff before being guided to the right place. The highlight after walking through what I felt was the entire hospital was that I was sent outside again to take my temperature, only to walk back in again to be told with a slip that I could now go in and make my appointment. The friend who I was with, who walked by my side the entire time, did not have to take any of the tests.
This was my first time at the Grange hospital, and for anyone who's not been there before, when you arrive at A&E, you're greeted with a shockingly small waiting room, which is clearly not fit for a hospital covering an area such as south-east Wales. After being checked by a lovely receptionist, I was forced to sit on the doorstep because there just weren't enough chairs inside. I sat there watching an ever-growing number of ambulances waiting with patients inside and onboard for a very long time. Thankfully, I didn't have to wait a long time to be seen, but one gentleman had been waiting for 17 hours before finally giving up and going home with another elderly lady who was waiting there for five hours.
I have an elderly mother, Minister, a disabled mother, and like her, many people who are diabetic or weak naturally get hungry after waiting for so long for an appointment. What are the options if you want a bite to eat at the Grange hospital? Let me tell you. One of your options—
I think I have been very, very generous in allowing you to explain your situation.
So, my question, Minister, after going through all of this, and my issues and concerns are—and they have been raised by numerous patients—that I'd like the Minister to make a statement in this Chamber, as soon as possible, about what the Welsh Government is going to do now to make the Grange hospital fit for purpose as a matter of urgency. Because with the footflow heading its way from the Royal Gwent and other hospitals in the area, I'm sincerely worried that we're heading towards a disaster. Thank you very much.
That was certainly a very long question to ask for a statement. I'm sorry to hear you had to attend the Grange hospital. Obviously, you set out many issues that will have raised concerns, particularly with the Minister for Health and Social Services, who will have heard your question. I think it's really important that people attend the correct health setting when they have a problem. I think that is something that many of us should reiterate whenever we get the opportunity to do so. I know that there is ongoing work to improve the spaces at the emergency department at the Grange and the majors area. Unfortunately, they've got to install cameras for safety reasons, but also, they're installing screens, and you'll be aware that there was a Healthcare Inspectorate Wales unannounced visit that made recommendations. I know all these things are being addressed by the health board.
Trefnydd, there are serious question marks about the future of peer mentoring services for people with drug, alcohol and mental health issues in Wales. Some in the sector believe that services could collapse over the summer as the new contract is yet to be put out to tender and may not be in place until October or November of this year. This means that peer mentoring services will not be able to accept new clients from the beginning of next month, and that mentors, many of whom will have had personal experience of addiction, and are therefore vulnerable themselves, will be out of work at the end of August.
Your Government's response to this matter has been to call on service providers to run the service without funding until it is eventually tendered out later this year. I've been told that this could well be illegal as it would mean that charities are subsidising the Welsh Government. I raised the matter with the Deputy Minister—and I see the Deputy Minister is here as well—in correspondence at the end of last week, but the situation is so pressing, it needs dealing with urgently. Can we therefore have an urgent Government statement on this issue, with a view to providing a solution to the problem that does not imperil vulnerable clients, vulnerable staff, and risk the sustainability of charities that have worked so diligently and effectively over the length of the current contract?
Thank you. You've done absolutely the right thing writing to the Deputy Minister, who, as you say, is listening to your question, and I'm sure she will respond as soon as she's able to do so. I am aware there was an out-of-work peer mentoring service that was provided by ESF funding. Unfortunately, that funding will be coming to a close, and the Deputy Minister has announced, I think, about £8 million of funding, from memory, for extending that peer mentoring service. But I'm sure the Minister will address those points in her response to you.
First of all, I'm requesting a Welsh Government statement on this year's A-level, AS-level and GCSE examinations, and in particular, GCSE Welsh second language; French GCSE, which included a question on a topic that schools had been told had been removed; AS-level pure mathematics; A-level physics, which the teachers were told would be non-synoptic, but was synoptic; and AS-level chemistry, where the actual exam paper was very different to any previous practice papers or past papers. Can we have the statement as a matter of urgency rather than when the results come out?
Also, I'm requesting a statement on the provision of 3G and 4G sports pitches in Wales. The biggest problem we have is finding places for children to play throughout winter. It is no good for them being enthused by Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Gareth Bale and others if there aren't enough quality pitches for them to use. Will the Welsh Government make a statement on how many new 3G and 4G full-sized football pitches they expect to be built during this term and the sport being provided?
Finally, I'm requesting either a written or oral statement on the result of the meeting of the steel council, which I believe took place this week.
Thank you. There were three issues that Mike Hedges raised, the first one around examinations that will be taking place this summer. Obviously, it has been quite a difficult time for our learners over the past two years. I think learners have really had to adapt and cope with new and often challenging arrangements as a result of that significant disruption we've had to both teaching and learning. I know that the Minister for Education and Welsh Language is aware of the concern around a number of exam papers. I'm not quite sure of all the subjects, but I'm sure Mike Hedges covered many of them. He meets regularly with the WJEC and Qualifications Wales, not only about concerns around the examinations you referred to, but to make sure that learners are fully supported throughout this examination series this year.
In relation to 3G and 4G pitches, the Welsh Government has committed, as I'm sure Mike is aware, £24 million of capital funding over the next three years for our sporting facilities. You're quite right in saying that, if we are going to unleash the benefits of sport for everyone, we need to ensure that we have those facilities for both sport and physical activity accessible to absolutely everyone. I know the Deputy Minister for culture and sport continues to work very closely with Sport Wales. She's had some very positive and constructive dialogue with some of our national partners also about delivering those facilities going forward. Sport Wales has recently established a strategic capital investments group, so that they do have a strategic plan for directing the funding and prioritising capital investment in facilities.
In relation to your question around the steel council, I will certainly ask the Minister for Economy, who I assume undertook that, to provide a written statement.
Trefnydd, could I have a statement, please, from the Deputy Minister for transport regarding the shocking state of the rail service in Wales? It's not that long ago since I was stood here, Llywydd, after we'd had a horrendous journey down from north to south—it took quite a few hours. But only last Monday, coming down here, I had a terrible journey. I was told the reason was that the mark 5 train that was scheduled to operate on this journey on 6 June developed a serious fault with its brakes and was unable to be used for this service. Going back—I was unwell last week; I was taken ill, actually—it took me five and a quarter hours, door to door, and there wasn't a trolley on there. I asked, I begged for a bottle of water, because I'd been quite unwell. Again, that's not satisfactory on a four- or five-hour journey.
But more importantly, last Saturday morning, passengers in Wales saw further chaos on Transport for Wales trains. A train running from Holyhead to Cardiff had only two carriages and was already full by 11.10 a.m. at Bangor. It was all kicking off on Twitter, and I have to say I do believe I saw the Deputy Minister get involved. There were questions raised with TfW, and TfW came back and stated, and I quote:
'there are no upper limits on the number of customers permitted to travel on board a train, unlike other modes of transport, such as bus and aircraft.'
For me, now that the air link has stopped from Cardiff—I have to say I've never used it, but because the train service is getting so bad, it's something I would have contemplated—when is the rail service going to improve? And would the Deputy Minister, instead of tweeting, come in here and make a statement? Because, if any Members here have heard a statement from the Deputy Minister in months, then I must have missed something. I do believe it's time he came here and made a statement on the shocking state of our rail service in Wales. Thank you.
It was certainly very disappointing to see the overcrowding on Transport for Wales services in north Wales over the weekend. I know the Deputy Minister has certainly told Transport for Wales to make every effort to focus resource to the busier services. Of course, there was an international football match on Saturday, so far more people I'm sure were travelling down from north Wales. I too saw people getting very frustrated on social media and I absolutely understand that frustration. It wasn't good enough, and, as I say, we do understand passengers' frustrations.
You'll be aware of the incident that happened at Craven Arms recently, where a Transport for Wales train hit a stolen mini digger that had been abandoned on the line, so that took some carriages out. So, unfortunately, they do have fewer trains. You mentioned why a train wasn't used last week, and, of course, if there is a serious fault, we would not want it to be used. You will be aware that we have got new trains coming in later this year. They are currently being tested. They're not ready at the moment, but they will be later this year. But, please be assured that the Deputy Minister is in regular discussions with Transport for Wales.
Minister, we're waiting to see what happens today with the scheduled flight of asylum seekers to Rwanda. But I would be grateful for a Welsh Government update on its discussion with the UK Government on this particular matter. The Counsel General provided a useful account last week, but it would be good to have an oral statement that Members might have an opportunity to speak to. It's an ugly policy. It's an insult to our country's reputation, as is the mess over the Northern Ireland protocol. It's stupid, it's expensive and it's ineffective. There may be as few as seven people on today's first flight. That is a massive waste of taxpayers' money, and it won't work. Even the Home Office says there's no evidence of a deterrent effect. It's a cynical attempt to distract from the Tories' cost-of-living failures and their own infighting. That's my opinion. Conservative Senedd Members here might disagree with that. So, I think it would be a good time to timetable a discussion to get the real feeling on this horrendous policy from all Members that want to participate in it in this Chamber.
Thank you. I don't disagree with anything that Joyce Watson says. I think it's cruel, I think it's immoral, I think it's ineffective, I think it's expensive, and I know that the Minister made those views very clear in the letter jointly with the Scottish Government on 19 May. It's diametrically opposite to our nation of sanctuary approach that we have here in Wales, and we're very proud to be a nation of sanctuary.
I agree with you as well about the effect it will have. I think absolutely it will lead to more trafficking of people, rather than less. If you look at those who are going to be transported to Rwanda, they're going to be very vulnerable to criminal gangs who will be seeking to exploit the situation. It's not that long ago, I'm sure, that we had refugees from Rwanda as well. Suddenly, the UK Government believe that it's okay to transport refugees and asylum seekers there. I think it really will make it more challenging for people to seek safety from war and persecution going forward, and lead to longer delays—and they're already far too long—in the asylum system.
Two statements, please, Trefnydd. As the leader of the opposition reminded us earlier, our minds are turning towards Grenfell Tower today, five years or half a decade after that tragic incident. I heard the reasoning of the First Minister on why the statement was pulled, but the residents that I've spoken to were actually offended by the fact that it was pulled on this day, and they saw it as an insult. I heard the First Minister say that the statement will be done at the end of this month. I've tried to look online to find when, because there's a vigil on the Senedd steps today and it will be asked of us when, so can you tell us exactly what day the statement will be heard?
And following on from my friend Joyce Watson on Rwanda, I'd also echo her request for a debate. When we have famous left-wing activists such as the heir to the English throne, the archbishops of Canterbury and York and all the bishops of the House of Lords coming our against this cruel policy, and also Councillor Joel Williams, and a Conservative staffer, I think, also coming out in the Western Mail against this policy, surely they need to wake up? So, can we please have a debate on that, as Joyce Watson requested? Diolch yn fawr, Trefnydd.
So, just to add to what I said to Joyce Watson, I mentioned that the Minister had written to the UK Government. One of the things that was asked for was a four-nations meeting to discuss the Rwandan policy. I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear no response has been received to date. So, I will ask the Minister to follow up with that letter to see if it's possible, and then that, I think, would be the appropriate time for Members to be updated.
In relation to the building safety oral statement being withdrawn, I just want to reassure everyone no insult was intended at all. As the First Minister said, there was work that we had hoped would be done ahead of the oral statement today that hasn't, but as soon as that work has been done, the Minister will be making a statement. I'm unable to give you a date, but clearly it will be before the summer recess.
Minister, last week, BBC Wales carried a story featuring a range of concerns from the Bevan Foundation about the roll-out of the Welsh Government's free-school-meals option for all primary schools, which is to be commenced in September. Many schools simply don't have the infrastructure to offer a meal to all pupils. There will be limitations on kitchens, seating and staffing capacity. Before the end of the summer term, we really do need an update from the education Minister setting out the key challenges, whether they have been overcome, and what steps he and local authorities are going to take to meet the expectation among parents that you have created. Thank you, Minister.
Thank you. Well, I'm very proud the Welsh Government, along with Plaid Cymru as part of our co-operation agreement, are bringing forward free school meals. Clearly, there are issues to be addressed, and I think capacity within schools is one. There are other issues that are being worked through. It's very much a cross-Government piece of work. The Minister for Social Justice is involved, and I am from a food point of view, as well as the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language. So, that work is being done at pace ahead of the introduction of what I think is a fantastic policy in September.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Rees) took the Chair.
We know that the pandemic has had a profound effect on our health service, with waiting times proving a real problem. I welcome the announcement made by the health Minister earlier this year ensuring that, by 2025, no-one will be waiting more than a year for treatment in more specialities, but we need to see more urgent action on cancer waiting times. A constituent contacted my office this month. They were told they had an urgent cancer referral following a visit to their GP, only to find out that urgent referrals are now 16 weeks or more. The worry and angst caused over these four months has an astronomically detrimental affect not only on the individuals, but their families and friends too. Will the Minister make a statement please on how the Welsh Government will reduce the number of weeks and months people are waiting for cancer referrals?
Thank you. I absolutely accept what a worrying time it is for anyone who is referred with the possibility of having cancer and, as you say, the impact it has not just on them, but on the wider family and friends. You'll be aware that the Minister did launch the programme for transforming our NHS, as you referred to, earlier this year. The pandemic has, inevitably, had a significant impact on cancer care. We saw back in the early days of the pandemic people not going forward for investigation, some of our screening programmes were suspended and some people didn't want to attend their appointments, and therapies had to be altered to reduce their risk. The Minister has set out her expectations, and you'll be aware, again, I'm sure, that, prior to the pandemic, we'd invested heavily in radiotherapy equipment and we'd introduced the UK's first complete overhaul of cancer waiting times. So, the Minister has made it very clear to NHS staff, who are continuing to work incredibly hard to respond to the waiting times, what she expects from them, and how we've increased training places to support the NHS, going forward. And we know now that all health boards have initiated rapid diagnostic centres—one-stop shop clinics—for people with symptoms that they can attend as well.
And finally, Mabon ap Gwynfor.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Dirprwy Lywydd. I welcome the statement made by the First Minister about an hour ago, saying that we should expect a statement on building safety before the end of the month—we need some clarity exactly when on that. It is disappointing that today's announcement was pulled. It's five years since the Grenfell tragedy. Seventy-two people tragically lost their lives and, of course, today our thoughts are with their loved ones. These people suffered and died because other selfish people cut corners and put their own greed before the well-being of others. This should never happen again. People continue to live with anxiety and fear today. There's more that both Governments can do, and we need to a sense of urgency in order to resolve this. Leaseholders today are already paying thousands of pounds extra for remediation works, on top of the service charges costs, which they shouldn't have to pay for. Often, this cost is transferred to the tenants. Ultimately, the responsibility lies with those selfish and devious developers and their companies. Those who refuse to take responsibility and pay for the works needed to correct these faults should be banned from any further developments here in Wales, and their directors should have their bank accounts frozen. Then they would realise how these innocent leaseholders and tenants feel. The fact that Michael Gove has gone ahead and secured an England-only developer pledge shows how little the UK Government cares for Wales as well. So, as part of the statement, will the Minister therefore provide us with an update on how the Government's discussion with the UK Government on this England-only approach is going, and can she give us the next steps that are planned to urgently resolve this issue?
Thank you. Well, I certainly agree with what the Member said around the 72 people who sadly lost their lives, and our thoughts are with their families and, of course, the significant impact it will have had on their lives, but also with people who are having to live with issues around building safety, which you referred to. I don't think I've got anything further to add to what the First Minister said. As I said, the statement will be done before the summer recess. We only have four sitting weeks after this week, so I will ensure it's on the business statement and announcement as quickly as possible, so Members and, obviously, our constituents are aware of that. I don't think the Minister could do anything more quickly or more urgently than she's doing, but I will certainly ask her to take your concerns and the specific points you raise, particularly about her discussions with the UK Government, into consideration when she brings forward her statement.
I thank the Trefnydd.
Item 3 this afternoon is a statement by the Minister for Social Justice—cost-of-living update. I call on the Minister, Jane Hutt.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, for the opportunity to update Members today about the deepening cost-of-living crisis, which is being acutely felt by the most vulnerable, by disabled people and by lower income households. Over the last week, we've seen further evidence of just how quickly prices are rising. The cost of filling up an average-sized family car passed £100 for the first time, and, a week ago today, prices at the pump recorded their biggest one-day increase in 17 years. A great many households are struggling to make ends meet. Work by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research has found that some 48,000 Welsh households are already facing food and energy bills that are greater than their disposable incomes. Unfortunately, this crisis will get worse as we head towards winter, with another energy price cap rise in October, which could add a further £800 to energy bills.
Dirprwy Lywydd, our focus as a Government has always been to help people with everyday costs by introducing a wide range of programmes that put money back in their pockets. We provide thousands of free breakfasts for primary school pupils every year and, as a result of the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru, we will be extending free school meals to all primary school children from September. We provide help with the costs of sending children to school. Our Healthy Start vouchers give families money off their shopping. We provide free swimming for the old and the young, and we support hundreds of thousands of people with council tax bills every year. We help people get the benefits that they are entitled to—we've run two successful 'Claim what's yours' campaigns and the most recent in March helped people to claim more than £2.1 million of additional income. Our single advice fund's benefit advice services were launched two years ago to help people navigate the benefit system. And our Warm Homes scheme has improved the home energy efficiency of more than 67,000 lower income households, and more than 160,000 people have received energy-efficiency advice since its launch in 2011. We are now developing the next iteration of the programme.
But this cost-of-living crisis is unprecedented. The Office for Budget Responsibility says that this year will see the biggest fall in living standards in the UK since records began. We will continue to do everything we can to help people in Wales through this crisis, with support targeted towards those who need it most. As the crisis has worsened, we have introduced two new packages of measures that are unique to Wales and are targeted at those who need our help the most. Just a few days ago, I announced £4 million to help people on prepayment meters and households not on mains gas—two groups that were left out of the Chancellor's most recent package of measures. We are funding the Fuel Bank Foundation to provide fuel vouchers to help people on prepayment meters who are facing real hardship. Around 120,000 people will be eligible. People on prepayment meters have been hit particularly hard by rises in standing charges in recent months; the increases have been highest in north Wales. Vouchers worth £30 in the summer and £49 in the winter will be available to all eligible households, and people will be able to claim up to three times in a six-month period. We are also launching a heat fund to help those households not on mains gas, many of whom are in rural Wales, and will have experienced rapidly rising costs for oil or liquid gas, and this will help an estimated 2,000 households across Wales. This is in addition to the support payments for off-grid households available through the discretionary assistance fund. More than 1,000 people have received grants worth almost £192,000 between October and April.
Last week, the Deputy Minister for Social Services announced an additional £4.5 million for the carers support fund over the next three years. Unpaid carers will be able to apply for up to £500 to pay for food, household items and electronic items. Dirprwy Lywydd, this support is on top of our other all-Wales schemes, such as the £200 winter fuel support payment and the £150 payment for everyone in council tax bands A to D, which continues to be paid into people's bank accounts today. Beyond these schemes, I have met with energy suppliers to discuss what help is available to households struggling with energy bills and debt. Many companies fund grants of up to £600 to households with long-term debt issues. The suppliers supported our calls for the UK Government to extend the Warm Home Discount Scheme and to introduce an energy social tariff for lower income households. I've also hosted a cost-of-living summit, chaired a food poverty round-table, and met with the Wales Race Forum to better understand the impact of the crisis in our communities. I'll be meeting the Disability Equality Forum later this month and will be holding a follow-up summit in July. All these events will help to shape our actions and build partnerships to strengthen our response over the coming months.
But, Dirprwy Lywydd, this is a cost-of-living crisis with its roots firmly in Downing Street and the actions of successive Conservative Governments. It is the UK Government, with its tax and benefit powers, that can and must make a real difference to this crisis. We need to see benefit payments urgently uprated to match rising inflation and a lower energy tariff for lower income households, and a reinstatement of funding for discretionary housing payments. Without such action, there is a real risk that a great many families will be faced with the terrible choice between heating and eating this winter. In a rich country like ours, that's a choice no-one should ever have to make.
The Conservative spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
Diolch. You say—. I'll begin with the end and get the controversial bit over with. You say the cost-of-living crisis has 'its roots firmly in Downing Street'. In fact, inflation to May, which are the last international figures I can find, point to inflation in Holland at 8.8 per cent, the US at 8.6 per cent, Germany at 7.9 per cent, and in the Baltic states as high as 20 per cent. Is Downing Street responsible for all of this, or is somehow the cost-of-living crisis—and I'm happy to use that word—in the UK unique to us and somehow unrelated to the global cost-of-living crisis impacting in desperate ways in so many parts of the world?
Further to your written statement last Friday announcing a Welsh Government fuel voucher scheme, aimed at providing crisis help to those households that have to pay in advance for their energy and are unable to do so, with top-up vouchers for customers on prepayment meters, sector representatives told me, as chair of the cross-party group on fuel poverty and energy efficiency, that although this was welcome news, further information was still needed. National Energy Action estimate the price cap increase from April will bring an additional 100,000 households in Wales into fuel poverty, taking the total to 280,000. Both your written statement and the press release refer to individuals and people in respect of the voucher scheme. So, how many households does the Welsh Government therefore anticipate this voucher scheme support will reach?
Your statement says the scheme will see the launch of a new crisis service for households that are off the gas grid and are unable to afford to buy gas bottles or fill their oil tank, log store or coal bunker. When will this be launched? You state that the funding will also provide Fuel Bank heat fund support to help 2,000 households—so you identified the number in this instance—living off the gas grid reliant on unregulated heating, oil and liquid gas for their domestic space and water heating, which will benefit some 4,800 individuals, depending on the number of people living in the household. Is it your intention that the Fuel Bank heat fund is to fully cover the cost of 500 litres of oil, where it is noted that similar support available via the discretionary assistance fund is currently limited to £250, meaning that many low-income, vulnerable households cannot always afford the minimum delivery? Overall, what, if any, are the proposed eligibility criteria for the scheme, how long will this funding be available for, and/or how will it work alongside similar support currently available via the discretionary assistance fund?
Questioning you here last week, I asked whether the Welsh Government will ensure that the £25 million consequential funding flowing to the Welsh Government from the UK Government extension to the household support fund will be targeted, in its entirety, at households hardest hit by the cost-of-living increases beyond the funding announcements you made before this additional funding was announced. Your response was unclear. Will the Welsh Government therefore target this funding, in its entirety, at households hardest hit by the cost-of-living increases—yes or no? If yes, when will its allocation be announced and are the Welsh Government fuel voucher scheme and Fuel Bank heat fund part of this?
I was a member of the Equality, Local Government and Communities committee that undertook the inquiry into 'Benefits in Wales: options for better delivery' during the last Senedd term. After hearing from a range of witnesses, including the Bevan Foundation and Community Housing Cymru, our 2019 committee report recommended the establishment of
'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.'
As the committee stated:
'It is a matter of basic fairness that people receive all the support to which they are entitled, as easily as possible.'
The Welsh Government accepted this recommendation. What action have you therefore taken to deliver on this?
Research by the Building Communities Trust prior to the 2021 Senedd elections found that people in Wales feeling increasingly less able to influence decisions affecting their local area. They highlighted the Local Trust's 'Left behind?' report in England, which evidences the poorer areas with greater community capacity and social infrastructure have better health and well-being outcomes, higher rates of employment and lower levels of child poverty compared to poorer areas without, adding:
'We believe there is big opportunity for a future Welsh Government to develop better support for community-led, long-term, local approaches in Wales'.
What consideration have you therefore given to the 'Left behind?' report, or will you be doing so?
The Welsh Government's—
Mark, you've had over your time now, so conclude, please.
Okay, I'll finish. The Welsh Government's cost-of-living support scheme guidance for local authorities allows for payments to be made until the scheme closes on 30 September, but leaves it to them to decide when. What action, finally, therefore, is the Welsh Government taking to address concerns raised by residents in a number of local authority areas about the delay in paying the council tax rebate to those who do not pay their council tax by direct debit?
Thank you very much, Mark Isherwood. I would be very surprised, as chair of the cross-party group on fuel poverty, if you did not recognise the deepening of the cost-of-living crisis and the failure of the UK Government to address these issues with their tax and welfare powers. It's just in terms of recognising, as I've said, that the UK Government holds the primary levers for the tax and benefits system.
Welsh Ministers have repeatedly called on UK Ministers to introduce a lower price cap for low-income households, and I got that support from energy providers I met, to ensure they're able to meet the costs of energy needs now and in the future. No response from the UK Government. We also have asked for them to introduce a significant increase in the rebate paid through schemes such as the Warm Homes discount and winter fuel schemes. We've asked them to remove all social and environmental policy costs from household energy bills and meet these costs from general taxation. We've asked for the £20 uplift in universal credit to be restored, but crucially important, and this is where it does lie, the responsibility, in Downing Street, they should uplift, uprate benefit payments for 2022-23 to match inflation instead of using the September 2021 consumer price index figure of 3.1 per cent. Inflation is now 9 per cent and rising.
I won't spend time today actually quoting what other countries are doing, certainly in the EU, which is a great deal more than this UK Government, but look to France, Italy and Germany. Germany is introducing subsidies for low-income households, spending an extra €15 billion on fuel subsidies, cutting petrol and diesel taxes, providing people with one-off payments, extra childcare support, public transport discounts. Those are the sorts of measures that we should be seeing from the UK Government.
But I'm glad that you do welcome the announcement I made on Friday. There is a full written statement, of course, that came out on Friday, Mark, and you will know that I launched this in Wrexham. I launched it in in Wrexham because the figures show people on prepayment metres in north Wales have been the hardest hit in the UK by rising standing charges. In fact, the First Minister commented on that in his questions. Costs are increasing in north Wales by 102 per cent, the highest in the UK, and standing charges for people on prepayment metres in south Wales have risen by 94 per cent, the fourth highest in Britain.
Now, we're doing this with the Fuel Bank Foundation. They have already engaged—we heard earlier on about some foodbanks, including Blaenau Gwent, which I visited and met the fuel foundation, and also in north Wales, in Wrexham, where there are eight centres. There are eight centres—eight centres—for the Wrexham foodbank, and they've already, with funding previously from the Welsh Government for tackling winter pressures, been actually providing these fuel vouchers. Now, the whole of Wales will be benefiting, and it is important that, as you see in the written statement and response to your questions, nearly 120,000 people—it was in my statement—will be eligible for approximately 49,000 vouchers to support them during the cost-of-living crisis.
Now, the heat fund is important too. It'll provide direct support to eligible households living off the gas grid, reliant on oil and liquid gas. I've already said in my statement it should help up to 2,000 households in Wales. I think it would be very helpful, actually, if Mark, as chair of the cross-party group on fuel poverty, could invite the fuel bank heat fund perhaps to one of your cross-party group meetings, because they're now fully engaged and a partnership—[Interruption.] Good, good. Well, I'm very glad to hear that. So, what is clear to us is that we have to work in partnership—in answer to your questions—with the third sector. National Energy Action joined the meeting I had with energy providers only two weeks ago. Citizens Advice is obviously crucial. When I met with Wrexham foodbank volunteers, and the Fuel Bank Foundation, they were saying one of the most important points about visiting a foodbank—and there are many other food initiatives that are very important—is it starts to signpost people to other support, to be able to claim for other benefits. People with prepayment meters are the most susceptible to rising costs and increased standing charges, and those who are not connected to the mains gas network, as I said last week, are suffering from rising fuel costs and being forced into fuel poverty, with approximately one in 10 households reliant on heating oil in Wales. But I can assure you, in terms of engaging at community level and, indeed, in terms of those national charities and campaign groups, they were all involved in our cost-of-living summit last February and then forward into the food poverty summit, and the summit that we're going to have, they'll be invited to again, in July.
You did ask—and I'll finish on this point—an important point about the payment of the council tax cost-of-living payment. It's being provided, as everyone knows, to council tax bands A to D, and, indeed, to those who already have accounts. It is going directly into their accounts, and I'm sure all the Members will be aware of people saying, 'It's gone into my account.' Those who don't have accounts, which is your question, it is the responsibility of the local authority to explore, to find out from that particular benefit recipient for the £150, the best way to make that payment, and that's being monitored very carefully by the Minister for Finance and Local Government, and indeed my own officials. But the payments that are being made extensively across Wales will continue to be paid and we will continue to address those to ensure that they claim what's theirs. Indeed, that's why we can ensure—as our £200 winter fuel support payment and then the £150 payment—indeed, this is where we can get money straight to people, and the fuel voucher now is one more step on the way in terms of helping people face this horrendous cost-of-living crisis, which was made in Downing Street, I would still maintain.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Sioned Williams.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you for your statement, Minister. The scale of the crisis facing too many households in Wales is truly horrifying. Inflation, as we've heard, is at a 40-year high, and energy prices are going up 23 times faster than wages. Given this emergency facing households, Plaid Cymru agrees that the UK Government should reinstate the £20 uplift to universal credit from July in order to protect vulnerable households from the cost-of-living crisis, and we believe that that uplift should also be extended to those in receipt of legacy benefits, and that all benefits should be uprated in line with inflation and automatic deductions stopped.
The Child Poverty Action Group have estimated that in Wales approximately 92,000 households claiming universal credit are receiving an average of £60 less each month than they're entitled to because of automatic deductions from their universal credit payment. These deductions affect an estimated 106,000 children in Wales. Wales has the highest poverty rate among the four UK nations, with almost one in four people living in poverty, and thus, if Westminster is unwilling to show the most basic level of human decency and adequately address the scale of this crisis, do you agree, Minister, there can be no argument against demanding powers over welfare so we can better support and protect the people of Wales, those people who need the most help, help that can be best targeted through the benefits system?
We know, as you've said, that the picture will get even worse and the number of those living in fuel poverty or at risk of fuel poverty will rise yet again in the autumn. Can the Minister provide clarity on when the next winter fuel support scheme payment will be made? Will it be made, as she has indicated previously, before October?
The measure announced last week, that of a fuel voucher scheme to help households with prepayment meters that have to pay in advance for their energy, and often, as you said, the poorest of households, is most welcome. I would like to ask—. The First Minister talked about it earlier. He drew attention to the fact, and you have also, that requirements that standing charges and debts are paid off before supply starts up—could this impact the effectiveness of this measure? This would mean that adding a £30-worth fuel voucher to a prepayment account would in some cases not be enough to enable the customer to switch those lights back on, to use the fridge and the cooker, to heat the home. So, how will this new scheme ensure that people will receive enough credit to avoid this situation? And also how do we know if we are helping those who need help? We know that uptake of other measures to tackle fuel poverty has not always been optimal, and so is referral to this scheme the most effective method of distribution? What happens to those who are not in contact with organisations or aware of the scheme?
As costs rise, one of the biggest expenses for families on low incomes is furniture and appliances. The cost of furniture is continuing to rise and, over the past 10 years, the cost of furniture has risen by 32 per cent, while household appliances have risen 17 per cent. Brexit and inflation are now driving these prices even higher. At least 10,000 children in the UK don't have their own bed to sleep on, and 4.8 million are living without at least one essential household appliance, like a cooker or fridge, and these are pre-pandemic figures, which we know will have most likely risen much higher by now.
Only 2 per cent of social housing properties in the UK are let as furnished or partly furnished, compared to 29 per cent in the private rental sector, and some of the research I've done in Wales shows this is the case with many housing associations here too. Furnished tenancies have huge benefit for tenants and landlords, and can ease pressure on crisis support funds like the DAF. Living without essential furniture can have a huge impact on people's mental and physical well-being and create extra cost. For example, up to 15 per cent of heat in your home is lost without flooring, and it is also extremely hard to obtain when you are on a low income. There are charities that provide funding pots for items like this, but not much provision is made for items like flooring, and many social landlords remove flooring, and in some cases there have been cases where tenants have been charged to lift up flooring at the end of their tenancy. So, I wonder, Minister, could you consider working alongside social housing providers to encourage engagement with tenants regarding the retention of former flooring and furniture when applicable. Could this be added to the supplementary terms of the next Renting Homes (Wales) Act contracts? And can the Welsh Government review the terms of the DAF and other crisis funds to include the provision of appropriate flooring? Diolch.
Diolch yn fawr, Sioned Williams. Yes, you clearly identify, as I have done, the scale of the crisis—inflation now at its highest level since March 1982, when it stood at 9.1 per cent; April's rise, driven by energy costs, increased by more than 50 per cent by the rise in the energy cap; and the Institute of Fiscal Studies saying the poorest households face inflation rates of 10.9 per cent. The Jack Monroe, I think, analysis is really appropriate for us to recognise—they are 3 per cent higher than inflation rates for the richest decile, and I really do value that focus on what it actually means for the poorest households in Wales, And, of course, there's the fact that we've got the NIESR—National Institute of Economic and Social Research—saying that food and energy bills are greater than their disposable income. They're warning, I think—and this is why this is such a key issue, and throughout this afternoon already, in the First Minister's questions—this is going to push thousands of households, if we can't intervene and the UK Government doesn't take immediate action, into debt and destitution. But this where the options that we've taken, particularly in terms of the fuel vouchers and that partnership with the fuel foundation, I think, are so important. They already have a partnership with the Scottish Government, and they're well-established in terms of how this can operate, so I'm glad that the chair of the cross-party group on fuel poverty is now engaging with the Fuel Bank Foundation, because they have experience of how to manage it. And yes, there are criteria in terms of access to the fuel bank support: clearly, they've got to be pre-payment energy customers or off the gas grid and be in intense financial crisis. But the situation in terms of the credit going as far as the debt emerging from the standing charges—I will clarify that point with them in terms of how this scheme will operate. We need to make it operate based on experience and based on how we can help people at the sharp end.
People who are struggling as a result of the cost-of-living crisis obviously can turn to their single advice fund providers, and I will go on to the discretionary assistance fund as well, because, obviously, that's already in place. I think it is important that we get this message out, isn't it, about the access to the new fuel voucher scheme. We're getting it out, obviously, through our foodbanks, but of course many people who are going to foodbanks are referred; they have contact with agencies. But this is something where we need to have a publicity campaign, a communications campaign, and I certainly welcome the fact that you're asking these questions. I did some publicity about it on Friday, but we need to get the message through to people, and I know that the fuel foundation want to engage. We did it very quickly—we got this scheme under way, and now we have to make it operational and implement it so we reach out to the most needy and vulnerable. But I'm sure all of us as Senedd Members will know people who've stopped us in the street, who've come to our surgeries, who are in this position—the heating or eating circumstances. And we can now point to the scheme, particularly as so many of those are dependent on prepayment meters.
The next winter fuel support scheme—well, we certainly want to get it out before October; I want to get it out in September. I'll certainly be announcing very shortly the extended criteria for the winter fuel support scheme, because we came to it last December because of the emerging cost-of-living crisis. It's going to be extending the eligibility, as I've said. It's crucial that local authorities are fully engaged in this as well—they're the ones who are managing the winter fuel support payments—and, indeed, alongside the emerging way in which we are actually being a force for social security. I like the word 'social security'. I like the fact that social security is what we believe in. Yes, we're talking about welfare, we're talking in our co-operation agreement about looking at our powers in relation to welfare, and we've had all the work that was done by John Griffiths in the former Senedd, so we've got an extensive evidence base and we have an agreement to progress this in terms of what we could achieve, what we could—you know, in terms of UK Government's centralising force, where are we here? They're not delivering, so I look forward to progressing that. But we now have such a range of direct benefits that we're paying that this makes sense, doesn't it, to progress this one.
Finally, I will come to your point about the other needs that people have in terms of flooring, as well as other equipment as well. I think that's something I want to now discuss with officials and the third sector in terms of discretionary assistance payments. I think the discretionary assistance payments scheme, which we've of course extended for the pandemic, as you know—and you have supported the fact that this is continuing, in the ways in which we're funding it—I think the discretionary assistance fund is very important, because it does enable people to have more than one payment in terms of support—more than £100 million invested in the discretionary assistance fund and the winter fuel support scheme this year. And indeed, this is going to ensure more people continue to receive urgent and emergency support when they need it, and that's including white goods, but we need to look at these other aspects.
But I will finally say, and I think the Minister for Climate Change is here with me, that, yes, indeed—the Minister was with me, speaking as well on a whole range of issues and her responsibilities about the cost-of-living crisis, but registered social landlord partners and local authorities in terms of housing providers, they're all engaged in this, and we will certainly raise this in terms of, particularly, your reference to flooring. Many of us have also got charities in our constituencies now that are playing a role in this respect. There used to be something wonderful called the social fund. That all went. Previous Conservative Governments got rid of the social fund. We kept the funding going and developed the discretionary assistance fund. But we are actually evaluating the discretionary assistance fund later on this year to see its role and its context. So, certainly, that is very helpful. And finally, of course, we've always called for the reinstatement of that £20, that lost, cruel cut of £20 to universal credit.
I thank the Minister for bringing this statement today. It is very expensive to be poor. You pay more for energy via tokens, you are more likely to live in a very poorly insulated house, you go to bed early to avoid heating costs, and in winter you wake up to windows with ice from your breath on the inside. Rent has gone up, gas has gone up, electricity has gone up, the general cost of living has gone up to a point where people have less to spend on food, and many value products have increased far more than the general increase in the cost of food. People are eating less or skipping meals, or are having less nutritious food, bulking out on white rice and pasta and cutting out the more expensive fresh fruit and vegetables, and producing filling meals, not nutritious meals. And, of course, in the end, children eat and parents don't.
I welcome the Welsh Government's actions—I won't name them all, but things such as help with fuel costs support, the cost of sending your children to school, Healthy Start vouchers, support for hundreds of thousands of people with council tax bills every year, and I also welcome the two successful 'Claim what's yours' campaigns, and the most recent was very successful. Does the Minister agree, however, that the most effective action would be to strip out the built-in five-week delay for the first universal credit payment, which drives people into poverty immediately, and to reverse the universal credit cut? This is not a panacea that will solve all the problems, but it would make what is very bad just bad.
Well, thank you very much, Mike Hedges. You graphically describe what it is like to be poor, and it is more expensive to be poor in every aspect of life, and how cruel that is, in terms of food, heating, housing. So, thanks for welcoming many of the measures that we're taking. I completely agree with you, and I will return to that issue with the UK Government, about the five-week delay, because, when universal credit was introduced, we all said this was going to be disastrous, and, indeed, it was disastrous, just in terms of the pilot roll-out and the debt that started to accrue.
Now, one of the things that is very clear is that, also, it's not only expensive to be poor, but in every way, in terms of your health, well-being, mental health, your whole self-esteem and your whole reason for living is under threat and attacked by poverty. And to then have to deal with the debt imposed on you by that five-week delay is absolutely shameful. So, thank you for raising that. Of course, I've already said that we call for the reverse of the universal credit cut, but I will be going back now to look at these issues. And, indeed, of course, they did come up with the equality and social justice review on debt, but I will go back on that to the UK Government.
I and Plaid Cymru have raised the link between the cost-of-living crisis and the cost of housing a number of times on the floor of the Senedd, and the link is clear. We've seen the cost of rental going up very much here in Wales, an increase of 12 or 13 per cent over the past 12 months alone, and this at a time when the legislation for renting homes isn't operational in order to safeguard tenants from being evicted with notice of two months.
To date, I'm sorry to say that the solutions provided today or during the last 12 months have not gone far enough in order to tackle the housing element of the cost-of-living crisis. This week, the Bevan Foundation published research showing that only 24 properties were available throughout Wales at the LHA rates—the local housing allowance rates. Now, we must see this allowance being increased. So, what discussions have you had with the Westminster Government in order to see the allowance increased?
And, finally, the current housing crisis is painfully acute. So, we must use all tools possible. As you mentioned in your statement, we do have the power here to use discretionary payments for housing costs—the DHP. As the renting homes Act isn't in force as of yet, and there's a real crisis facing many people, will you work with the Minister for finance in order to ensure that there is an increase in the discretionary payments for housing, and ensure that local authorities do take full advantage of that pot of funding?
Thank you very much for your very important question.
Of course, as we've said, and as we know—and the Minister for Climate Change is with us this afternoon and engaged with all of these discussions—it's a cross-government responsibility in terms of tackling the cost-of-living crisis, with housing providers, social housing providers, but also the private rented sector being engaged as well.
Just in terms of cuts to the local housing allowance, the cuts have been over the years and it hasn't been increased and it's remained frozen. But, I think you will be aware of the statement made by the climate change Minister on 8 April about the discretionary housing payments. I've raised all of the points that have been raised with the UK Government about what we expect them to do in terms of energy costs and support, the Warm Homes discount, et cetera, but also, as Julie James did last April, we've called upon the UK Government to reinstate its funding for discretionary housing payments—another round of substantial cuts to this valuable source of funding. That money is used by local authorities, as you know, to mitigate the impacts of other welfare reforms, including the bedroom tax, people affected by the benefit cap, and, of course, the impact of rising rents. And it does help tenants from getting into rent arrears when people are facing this cost-of-living crisis, as you say, with rents increasing. And it is impossible to fathom why—and I'm quoting the Minister for Climate Change:
'it is impossible to fathom why the UK government has seen fit to inflict such savage cuts',
in terms of discretionary housing payments. Many people are not aware of all these details, are they, and what's going on, but, actually, the reduction in DHP funding available to Welsh local authorities in this financial year amounts to approximately a 27 per cent cut compared to 2021-22. So, we've topped it up. The Welsh Government's topped up the fund last year by £4.1 million, and the amount of money that we are now putting into all of these schemes and also the top-ups, to something that is a UK Government responsibility, this has to be addressed by the UK Government, and I can assure you that's what we're seeking to call for.
And, finally, Huw Irranca-Davies.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. One of the defining characteristics of much of the support that Welsh Government has provided to date is how well targeted it is at those who are most in need. So, whether we look at the fuel voucher scheme, the heat fund, the healthy start fund, the new fund for carers, it's really going directly to those who most need it now. The same cannot be said, Dirprwy Lywydd, I have to say, of one of the UK Government's schemes, which is the energy grant to all households, which is going to every household, and if you own more than one household, then it goes to you no matter how many homes you own.
But can I raise one specific aspect of this that I'd like the Minister—? And also, it's great to have the other Minister here with responsibility for housing as well. They've probably twigged this already. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the UK department, has said, regardless of whether you are on the utility bills as a tenant or not, then this payment of £400 should be passed directly to you as a tenant; it should not be going to the landlords. But it's not stipulated anywhere; it's not a requirement, it's just 'should' be. Citizens Advice have asked for clear guidance on this, but again, that's guidance. I wonder, Minister, whether in your discussions with UK Ministers and Cabinet colleagues, you can look at how we can make sure that this money goes directly to tenants and not to landlords.
Diolch yn fawr. That's a really important point. I'm sure the Minister for Climate Change is already aware of that, concerns again coming from Citizens Advice, our single advice providers, and unless it's absolutely clear and mandated that it goes to the tenant, we can't trust it. So, we will take that point up. Thank you very much, Huw Irranca-Davies.
I thank the Minister.
Item 4 is next, a statement by the Minister for Climate Change on the Gwent levels, nature recovery exemplar areas. And I call on the Minister, Julie James.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I am really pleased to be able to speak today about the progress being made across one of Wales's most important protected areas, the Gwent levels. As a Government, tackling the climate and nature emergencies is very much at the heart of everything we do. We must protect our environment for future generations to enjoy, and to play our part on the global stage. Globally, nature is still being lost at a frightening rate, and the situation in Wales is similar, with a rapid decline in our most precious species and habitats. I am absolutely committed to helping reverse this decline, and that is why I am currently working on a biodiversity deep dive, focused on our 30x30 target, to, at the very least, protect 30 per cent of our land and sea by 2030.
The Gwent levels are an important part of the contribution to meeting this ambition, and the focus must now be on improving the condition of this protected area and its margins. The levels are of national importance for their biodiversity and landscape, being designated by a series of sites of special scientific interest, as well as being a landscape of outstanding historic interest. Their location, adjacent to Cardiff and Newport, and into Monmouthshire, also make them a valuable cultural and recreation asset for locals and visitors.
In July last year, I released a written statement on taking action to better protect and manage the Gwent levels, following the decision not to proceed with the M4 relief road in 2019. Today, I am updating Members on the progress being made and the measures I am supporting to ensure the levels have the right level of protection and management in place to preserve their unique interest.
In February 2020, the Welsh Government convened a Gwent levels working group, chaired by John Griffiths MS, to explore how the levels could be better protected and managed. The group is now well-established and includes representation from the Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales, local government, environmental non-governmental organisations, and other local groups, and has developed a strategic action plan of its shared priorities.
Having visited the levels last July, and met members of the working group last September, I've been very impressed by their enthusiasm and dedication to the protection and management of the Gwent levels. This partnership approach, adopted by the Living Levels Landscape Partnership, has delivered significant achievements on the ground in terms of habitat restoration and management, as well as extensive community participation and engagement with nature and the cultural history of the area. This is an exemplar of the partnership approach that is so vital across an area or landscape, to focus the many actions that are needed to reverse biodiversity loss and help nature recovery. Since July, good progress has been made.
I'm very pleased to say that, thanks to the hard work of the Living Levels partnership and the working group members, further funding has now been secured to support the partnership for a further 18 months. This will help the partnership develop longer term management arrangements and vision for the levels, as well as the co-ordination of more restoration work and continued engagement activities.
One of the priorities identified by the working group is to help address the pressures for development on the SSSI sites by developing a better evidence base and guidance for developers and planners to inform development decisions. Getting this right is absolutely vital for these SSSI sites, and I have approved the development of strategic planning guidance for the area, which I want to see taken forward at pace. This will be the first pilot of the 'Future Wales' policy 9 approach to proactively embed biodiversity considerations into planning policies within national natural resource management areas in Wales.
The working group also identified the need to accelerate the programme of habitat restoration and management on the levels, so it can continue to support wildlife and deliver the huge range of benefits it does, both globally, locking up carbon, and locally, providing a natural and culturally rich place for people to enjoy. Drawing on the great work that has already been achieved, the partnership will continue to work with farmers, land managers and volunteer groups, who are vital to the success of this work.
To contribute towards the habitat restoration and management work, I have agreed with the First Minister to review the suitability of land that was acquired for the M4 relief road. This will help us better understand the biodiversity potential of these sites, which will help inform the decisions we make on their future. I'm pleased that consultants have now been appointed to produce a strategic enhancement plan, which will start with site survey work this summer, and will be completed by the end of this financial year.
And, as already mentioned, I am currently conducting a biodiversity deep dive. This is focused on the Wales approach to implementing the Convention on Biological Diversity post-2020 global biodiversity framework to protect 30 per cent of our land and 30 per cent of our sea by 2030. I'll be asking participants how we can harness and expand the collaborative working exemplified by the Living Levels partnership, and other similar partnerships across Wales, to ensure our valuable sites are protected and effectively managed for the future. I look forward to sharing the outcomes of the biodiversity deep dive and its recommendations with Members in September, once it's concluded. Diolch.
Conservative spokesperson, Janet Finch-Saunders.
Thank you, Deputy Llywydd, and thank you, Minister, for the statement. I think there's one thing we can agree on and that is the need to protect 30 per cent of our land and sea by 2030. Now, however, as you know, I've been asking, since October, what is the reason why we can't set these targets into law. You responded to me then, saying, 'I am considering the role that legislation can play in underpinning nature recovery targets more broadly, including the 30x30 target.' So, eight months on, have you made a legislative decision on the 30x30 target, or are you going to make Wales wait until you have the outcome of the biodiversity deep dive?
I suppose, for me, it's a little extraordinary that the statement has just been made in relation to the Gwent levels specifically, because it gives me the impression that you regard the SSIs there with greater priority and importance than those in every other corner of Wales. If not, will we be seeing oral statements on SSIs everywhere else in Wales coming forward? What is the crux, really, of this statement? Is it that you are taking steps to further campaign against an M4 relief road for Newport? And, in light of the decision to review the suitability of land that was acquired for the M4 relief road, will you clarify whether it is your ambition to see the land blocked from being used for a highway, and state—tell us—how much the consultants are being paid for the strategic enhancement plan?
As you know, the Gwent levels working group has already been created to explore better methods of protecting the Gwent levels, while acknowledging the need to maintain the area's significant historical importance to Wales. The working group is made up of representatives from the Welsh Government, NRW and other environmental NGOs, and they've met six times since it was formed, but have yet to publish an action plan. And according to you, any plan formalised would not necessarily be made public. I suppose I ask why that's the case. And how can we expect the people of Wales to entrust us with safeguarding them and their livelihoods, if you will not consult and communicate with them on your action plan for the Gwent levels? Currently, Wales is the only country in the UK that is not contributing data to the UK biodiversity indicator on the condition of areas or sites of special scientific interest. So, as a result, 70 per cent of the 60 SSI feature condition assessments on the Gwent levels are unknown. So, why, Minister, has the Welsh Government been so inactive on changing this by taking the initiative to improve data collection? And what assurances can you give that the target of having 100 per cent of SSIs in a favourable condition by 2026 will be achieved?
It's not just me that's worried about this. In fact, Wales Environment Link have produced a checklist for nature recovery. It includes how Ministers do need to be engaged in delivering a coherent response, as well as regular monitoring, review and reporting against targets. So, Minister, would you outline what steps you have taken to co-operate with environmental stakeholders, so that any future work is developed based on a broad and experienced group? And can we, please, have some transparency and allow any reports, any plans, to be made public? Thank you. Diolch.
Well, I don't know quite where to start with that, Janet. The level of cynicism shown in your remarks has quite staggered me, frankly, even for your good self. So, I'll try and address some of the things that you raised.
So, first of all, the Living Levels partnership has worked its socks off. It's chaired by John Griffiths, whom I'm sure will make a contribution shortly to the debate, and who was recently joined by Jayne Bryant MS. It's a series of people who've come together because they really care about their area. And the idea that this is somehow conducted in a cloak of secrecy, et cetera, et cetera, is just rubbish, frankly—absolute rubbish. I just don't know where you're coming from with any of that.
In terms of the actual targets, '30 per cent of the land, 30 per cent of the sea, by 2030' is a really great global headline, but we don't yet know what it means in order to present targets. Is it 30 per cent of every local authority area, of every community council, 30 per cent of the overall land mass of Wales? We don't know what it means. I want to have targets that mean something, that mean that we can have our feet held to the fire properly so that, when we have these targets in place, we know what they mean. The biodiversity deep dive is made up of a whole series of experts on this, and a series of stakeholder meetings meeting in parallel. They are the people who will help us do that to make sense of what the global '30 by 30' means. That's a great slogan, but it doesn't translate into a detailed target, and that's what we're working on.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Delyth Jewell.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. As we know, the Gwent levels are a vital hub for nature, protected nationally and internationally. The 900 miles of waterways know locally as reens are a chorus of life and home to hundreds of rare creatures. Numerous rare birds live there and migrate there to breed. More than 144 species of threatened bugs and beetles are also amongst those that have made their home there. I'm proud to be the species champion for one of the Gwent levels' smallest residents, the shrill carder bee, one of the UK's rarest bumblebees. The numbers of this bumblebee have sharply declined in recent years, and over the last century as well. It's now found in only seven areas in southern England and in Wales, including the Gwent levels. They are a vital hub for biodiversity and recreation. They're an example of international best practice when it comes to conservation as well, and I'll be asking you about that in a moment, Minister.
The vibrant cities and towns in my region that surround the edges of the levels reinforce a sense of tranquillity, remoteness, wildness away from human occupation in many places, but it is an area that belongs to all of us, those living now and those yet to be born, of course. The successful conservation work that has taken place in the Gwent levels has only been possible due to the provision of sufficient funding in recent years. Could you please outline, Minister, or could you give us an indication of, the funding that will be allocated in the long term to the conservation projects that are going on in the Gwent levels?
In order to inform effective conservation work, monitoring, as we've heard already, is absolutely essential. But, across Wales, monitoring is insufficient. There are gaps in vitally important data. While monitoring should be undertaken by professionals or by experts, there is scope to empower local people or visitors to nature sites to undertake their own monitoring as well through uploading photographs to databases. That would really help us to make sure that, when we're addressing the nature crisis, the nature emergency that we have, everyone feels that they have a stake in this—that it's something that we shouldn't just be concerned about, but actually trying to solve it is something that we can all be involved in, and we can celebrate the wonderful diversity that's there. So, I'd like to know how the Welsh Government is supporting monitoring work in the Gwent levels, please, and beyond. Could you provide us some further information on this, particularly on how local people or visitors from any part of Wales or the world can be part of that?
And finally, in terms of the lessons that you've learned from effective conservation work in the Gwent levels in terms of best practice in conservation and nature recovery, what bearing will any findings have on the Welsh Government's efforts to halt biodiversity decline and bring about substantive nature recovery in the long term, please? Diolch yn fawr iawn.
Diolch, Delyth. I share your enthusiasm for it. I haven't been lucky enough to see one of the bees yet, but I've tried a couple of times. I've certainly seen pictures and videos, but not yet in person, so I'm looking forward to that.
The reason for bringing this forward today is because what we're looking to see if we can develop is a long-term sustainable management vehicle for areas such as the Gwent levels. Clearly, we're not just talking about the Gwent levels, but the whole landmass of Wales. What we're looking to do is see if we can develop a sustainable management model that allows all partners to come together. The Gwent levels partnership is supported by the Welsh Government, but it's also supported by the RSPB, the Gwent Wildlife Trust, NRW, and a number of other partners. What we're looking to see is how we can get that sustainable model to work in a number of different areas and types of landscape in Wales.
Clearly, the Welsh Government cannot fund all of this. If that's what we're going to try and do, we'll be miles off our target. This is about how we can facilitate the best model to come together of citizen science and local volunteers and all of the NGOs that come together, alongside the charities and third sector organisations in that sustainable model. It crucially isn't pivotal on one enthusiastic individual being the pivot point; we're all familiar across the Chamber with places where that happens. So, that's why we're focusing on it—because it's a bit more advanced, it's got a number of people very interested in it.
Part of what the Living Levels partnership is doing is looking at the models of data collection—how do you do some kind of baseline, what does good conservation status really look like, how can we spread that out. I'm also very interested—and I'm using the biodiversity deep dive expertise to do this—in what kind of protection should areas like the Gwent levels have. It's not a national park, it's not currently designated, but it has got a lot of sites of special scientific interest. I say this a lot, and I make no apology for repeating it: if you stop Mr and Mrs Jones on the street somewhere in Wales and you say, 'What level of protection does a piece of land of special scientific interest have?', they're unlikely to think that you could put a car park on it. But, at the moment, you could, really, in some circumstances, do that. So, one of the big things we're also doing is looking at the strategic planning guidance for these areas to actually firm up on the protections—what does this mean.
My own personal view, and I stress it's not the Government's view, is that that hurdle should be very high indeed. You can't say 'never, never, never', because you don't know what will happen, but you can say 'almost never, never, never', depending on a really extreme circumstance where that is, so that we can secure these areas in order to halt the decline that we see at the moment, and then, of course, reverse it and then spread out. There's a big issue as well about the buffer zones around the edge, and so on. So, the Living Levels partnership is just a model that we're looking at to see if we can spread that out.
Minister, thank you very much for your statement today, but also thank you very much for your commitment and Welsh Government's commitment to taking forward protection and sustainability for the Gwent levels. As you know, a great deal of good work has already happened through the Living Levels partnership, and we really need to build on that through a body that can take forward that work, and have long-term sustainable funding, and then focus with partners on the action that's required to take forward biodiversity and the ecosystems. I know you are very committed to that, Minister, and I would like you just to say a little bit about how that future can be ensured.
On the planning issues, it's very good to see the work that's going on in terms of the strategic policy 9 and everything that goes around it, but you will know as well, Minister, that there are some current short-term pressures in terms of planning applications, for example solar farms, which, taken with those already in place, really change the nature of the area because of the prevalence of solar farms and the applications coming in. I know, Minister, you would expect developing Welsh Government policy and statements to be taken into account in the short term while the longer term work goes on, and I wonder if you could just say a little about those current applications in general—not any particular one—and developing Welsh Government thinking and the impact that that should have on decision making. And—
No, John. You've had your time, I'm sorry, and you've asked the questions.
Okay. Diolch yn fawr.
Diolch, John. I know, John, you're very enthusiastic, and I'm very grateful for your chairing of the Living Levels partnership, which has certainly helped us move it on. We absolutely do need to improve the strategic planning guidance for the areas I mentioned previously. I can't comment on a number of outstanding planning applications for obvious reasons, so I'm not going anywhere near that. But just in general terms, as I said, this is going to be the first pilot of 'Future Wales' policy 9, the approach for mainstreaming biodiversity and ecosystem resilience into planning policies, and to ensure that as part of that pilot of policy 9, we get the right social, economic, cultural and environmental developments in the right place to enhance that biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. That's going to take the form of a masterplan for the area, which we've got, as you know, consultants working on.
We've sought views—as I know you know, John, from the Gwent Living Levels working group—on the governance approach needed to represent the political and technical interests around building this policy up and the guidance that needs to go with it on biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. I'm absolutely determined to make this a pilot area for this model of governance and planning policy, because this is a vital area—alongside many others in Wales, of course—of biodiversity and resilience. It's the green lungs of a big set of urban conurbations around its edges, as you know, John, and it's a source of rich carbon depositing and biodiversity. It's a really good example of carbon capture in a non-tree form as well, because, as I keep saying to people, the tree's just the iconic symbol for a whole range of different landscape types across Wales that support a range of biodiversity. I'm very determined to get that pilot up and running ASAP. We'll get the strategic planning guidance out and I remain very grateful indeed for your part in chairing the group.
Finally, Jayne Bryant.
Diolch, Deputy Llywydd. Thank you for that important statement, Minister. I'd like to pay tribute to the group chaired by my good friend John Griffiths, because it's done some incredible work over the time that it's been formed. The Gwent levels are a fantastic resource that needs to be treasured and protected. It formed around 8,000 years ago, and the man-made landscape dates back to the Romans. It really is a stunning part of Wales that I would urge anyone who hasn't been to visit.
I know that its importance is very much recognised by you, Minister, but I'd like to take this opportunity to push for more tools to be given to public bodies for them to be able to fight effectively in its defence. A particular threat is that of industrial-scale fly-tipping, where criminals utilise the levels' isolation but relatively easy access to the M4 to dump tonnes of refuse and waste. Local government and NRW do their best to issue fines and notices, but community groups have often found these processes arduous, and the fines issued comparatively ineffective. Can the Minister please look at the processes we use to protect the levels and whether there are any ways we can look to arm public bodies with stronger powers and deterrents, so that firmer and swifter action can be taken against the selfish criminal organisations that exploit this fantastic landscape?
Thank you very much indeed, Jayne Bryant. That's a very important point, isn't it, because we need to do a number of things. I'm very happy to look again at whether we can strengthen the enforcement abilities of the various agencies around it, but actually, what we really need to do is make it so obvious that this is a site of special scientific interest and nature conservation that it becomes just unthinkable that somebody would behave in such a way. This goes for all the sites across Wales, not just this particular one. So, we need to do more, don't we? We need to make sure that it's actively buzzing with nature—if you'll forgive the pun—and that's a deterrent in itself, really. So, I think there are two strands to that.
I'm very, very happy to look again at what can be done about the very specific issue that you raise. I'd be very grateful, if you have any instances you'd like to bring to my attention specifically, if you do that. But more importantly, this is about making sure that the network of people across the levels—and, of course, the other sites across Wales—come together to make it just socially unacceptable in the biggest way possible for anyone to behave like that. We know that getting hearts and minds on board, getting inclusion on board, is one of the best ways to do that. Diolch.
Thank you, Minister.
Item 5, a statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services on the draft HIV action plan. I call on the Minister, Eluned Morgan.
Diolch yn fawr. I am very pleased to present this HIV action plan to the Senedd. This delivers on our ambitious programme for government commitments that we made to develop an HIV action plan for Wales and to tackle the stigma experienced by those living with HIV.
Even though we've made significant strides in many HIV-related areas in recent years, there remains much to be done. This action plan sets out 26 ambitious but achievable actions for implementation by 2026, which we think will go a long way in helping Wales achieve the World Health Organization's target of zero HIV infections by 2030, and, crucially, adopting a zero-tolerance approach to HIV-related stigma. I think the latter is specifically significant; we've come a very long way since the dark days of the 1980s, when ignorance and cruelty towards people with HIV was rife. There is absolutely no place for ignorance and intolerance in modern society, and the actions in this plan aim to stamp out this intolerance.
Now, over the past five years, the Welsh Government, working with other partners, has made great progress in improving access to testing and treatment in Wales. And I think that Wales can be proud of the significant reduction we've seen in new diagnoses of HIV. Between 2015 and 2021, new diagnosis of HIV decreased by 75 per cent. A significant factor in this achievement can be attributed to the commitment by Welsh Government to provide pre-exposure prophylaxis, PrEP, for all for whom it is clinically indicated, and that's been done since the summer of 2017.
Despite the challenges that faced sexual health services throughout the COVID pandemic, access to HIV testing was maintained, both through face-to-face consultations, and through the rapid deployment of online testing. And this blended model of access to HIV tests has resulted in more people being tested for HIV between January and March 2022 than in any previous quarter. The online service that was implemented in May 2020 has exceeded expectations in terms of the expected number of tests requested, making sexually transmitted infection testing, including HIV, even more accessible, which reduces stigma. The success of this model is recognised in the action plan, and I'm pleased to announce today that the Welsh Government will be providing annual funding of £3.9 million for the continuation and development of this online testing platform going forward.
This action plan has been co-created by a range of key stakeholders and is the product of many months of collaborative working with my officials. In the autumn of 2021 we established an HIV action plan working group, chaired by Dr Marion Lyons, a senior medical officer in Welsh Government, with a vast amount of experience in the field of HIV and sexual health. The group consisted of a diverse range of stakeholders, including those from the community and voluntary sector, healthcare professionals, academics and, importantly—very importantly—people living with HIV with personal lived experience.
The 26 actions are underpinned by three core principles: that there should be zero tolerance of HIV-related stigma; that all plans for implementation of new initiatives and services will be informed by, or developed with, people living with HIV. Alongside this, there will be a recognition of contextual differences by sexuality, ethnicity, age, gender and location. All new initiatives and services will be subject to ongoing monitoring and evaluation to make sure that they meet the actions and principles laid out in the plan. The group was clear that no-one should be left behind, that inclusivity and diversity should be encouraged and celebrated, and that all the communities we serve should be an integral part of the dialogue, the debate and the decision making on HIV going forward.
The 26 actions are focused on five key areas: prevention, testing, clinical care, living well with HIV and tackling HIV-related stigma. In addition, there are five key overarching actions. Firs, establishing Wales as a Fast Track Nation. Building on the great success of Fast Track Cardiff & Vale, the first fast-track collaboration in Wales, which has been a highly successful in involving local public bodies, increasing collaborative work, and producing new initiatives, including GP support for HIV testing and an advocacy network, both of which have attracted non-statutory funding. The aspiration of the plan is to make Wales a Fast Track Nation, with networks throughout Wales that would collaborate to help achieve Wales's ambition to have no new HIV cases by 2030.
Secondly, recognising the importance of, and increasing the involvement of voluntary and community groups. This action plan has been developed with partners such as Pride Cymru and Terrence Higgins Trust, whose work builds on the legacy of Cardiff AIDS helpline and Cardiff Body Positive. In addition to their work, the work of third sector HIV groups like PrEPster, National AIDS Trust, Positively UK and CHIVA, the children's HIV association, have all been vital in the fight against HIV in recent years. All of these organisations will remain instrumental in the fight against HIV in the coming years.
Thirdly, funding and developing an all-Wales sexual health case-management system. This system will be transformative in the way that sexual health data and intelligence is collected and the way in which trends are monitored. Fourthly, health boards and trusts will be required to report annually to the Welsh Government on how the actions from the HIV action plan are being taken forward and are making a difference. And lastly, establishing an action plan oversight group, which will monitor the impact that the delivery of the action plan has made.
I'm hugely grateful to those partners and stakeholders who have co-created this plan. The plan will now be subject to a 12-week consultation period. I encourage as many people as possible to contribute to this process and to respond and comment on the proposed actions. I firmly believe that, by accepting and implementing these actions, we can make a significant difference to the lives of people living with HIV and in protecting current and future generations from the virus. I look forward to reading the consultation responses and to bringing the final plan back to the Senedd later in the year. Thank you.
Can I thank you, Minister, for your statement today? Of course, it was very interesting to read the plan when it dropped into my inbox this morning. I very much welcome the plan today, and, of course, as a nation, we've made huge strides, haven't we, since the fight against HIV back in the 1980s? And as a very young person in the mid 1980s, I just about remember some of the issues around the stigma at the time. And that remained the case for some time afterwards. But I think we've made huge strides in fighting that, but, of course, there's more to do.
Now, the English HIV action plan and the Scottish HIV elimination plan both include annual reporting to Westminster and Holyrood. It wasn't mentioned in your plan today, but is it your intention to bring forward annual progress reporting to this Chamber here? Certainly, I would support that, because I think that would maintain the momentum and increase that accountability that I think we need.
Will Wales meet the UNAIDS 95-95-95 target by 2025, which is, of course, a global target set? I just wanted to check that that is your intention, Minister. I don't think it set out that in the plan.
In the testing section, there is a very important commitment of an anonymised seroprevalence study undertaken by Public Health Wales for HIV and blood-borne viruses. This will, of course, ensure that we know if a version of A&E opt-out testing would work in areas like Cardiff and potentially Wrexham. So, can I ask why that doesn't appear in the plan as an action in its own right?
Unlike England, there's no focus on partner notification—current and previous partners—of those diagnoses, and statistically that's the most impactful focus for testing, as I understand. It does go unmentioned in the plan, so I wonder, Minister, would you outline if you intend for the plan to do this? In the report, there are no targets for sexual health clinics to ensure that all their services offer a HIV test. So, this could be a good tool to implement, as I feel it would, of course, increase testing and reduce health inequalities as well. So, I wonder if, Minister, you could look to implementing this, as it would be good, perhaps, to include this as a key performance indicator for sexual health clinics.
You mentioned, Minister, that you want to introduce HIV education into the school curriculum, which I very much welcome, but I would like, perhaps, a little bit more clarity on that. To which age groups will this be introduced? I think it's important to understand that. I think there are a few issues around here to consider in terms of what age of children this will be taught to and when this will be introduced. Will HIV education become part of the same general teaching about STIs that is already in place, or will this be taught at a more in-depth level?
I think I saw in your press release, Minister, there's a mention of £3.9 million for further development for online testing. Does that sum include the—? Is that sum included for the full finance available to deliver the actions within the plan, or do you anticipate further funding being made available?
But, overall, Minister, I very much welcome, and of course I would encourage people to come forward and get tested, so we can eradicate infection and break the stigma. Thanks, Minister.
Thanks very much, Russell. Certainly, when it comes to reporting—and obviously, this is a consultation, so there's an opportunity for people to throw in their ideas beyond what has been set out so far—but, certainly, in terms of monitoring, we are very clear that there's going to be an oversight group to make sure that the 26 actions that have been set out are actually monitored and they are taken seriously. If you would like me to come back and to report to the Senedd, and, of course, I'd be more than happy to do that, because this is one of our key manifesto commitments—. This was absolutely central to our manifesto, and so any opportunity that you are happy to give us to demonstrate how we are delivering on our manifesto commencements, of course we are happy to do that.
I think in terms of the targets that have been set out by international organisations, yes, we're very much in keeping with those targets that have been set out, and, certainly, if it comes to partnership notification, I think we've got to be a little bit sensitive here. We've got to make sure that we're sensitive in terms of respecting privacy. What we don't want is for people not to come forward if there's going to be an issue, but, again, I'm happy to take a lead from experts who can tell me what the evidence shows us is the best way to behave in that space.
When it comes to sexual health clinics, of course HIV tests are available, and when it comes to education in the school curriculum, I of course will be working closely with the education Minister, who I know will want to ensure that we're taking an age-appropriate approach to this, and he'll, I'm sure, be taking a lead from the experts in that space. So, I think Jeremy Miles is better placed to inform about how exactly that will work into the school curriculum.
When it comes to the money, I've set out that we've got £3.9 million—that's for all testing, not just online testing—additional funding, but, of course, that's on top of what we already spend in each individual health board. So, we don't give the money to health boards and ring-fence it at the moment, but this money is ring-fenced; this is additional money that is ring-fenced, but that's on top of what is already being done by the health boards across Wales.
May I thank the Minister for this statement? I'm also looking forward to seeing what kind of responses there are to the consultation that's now ongoing. This is very important and, on the face of it, it is the fruit of partnership working, as we should see happening in Wales, where different organisations who want to see us making ground in this area have been involved in its development. We were at risk, I think, of slipping back from trying to hit that target of having no more new cases of HIV in Wales by 2030. My party had suggested that we could be aiming even higher and looking at 2026, something that the Terrence Higgins Trust had welcomed. Even 2030 started to look out of our reach. But I hope that this report will bring us back on track, as it were, and that we will certainly be able to aim towards that target.
There are a number of elements of the work that will be done, or is being recommended, that are eye-catching to me, specifically the creation of Wales as a Fast Track Nation. Some good work has been done, led in Cardiff and Vale, and I do know that other parts of Wales, north Wales, for example, have been very keen to make progress with work of this kind. I wonder whether I could have more details from the Minister on the capacity that she wishes to see built for implementing this Fast Track Nation ambition. The hope, I know, in north Wales was that there would be resources available to ensure that there was an individual who could lead this work, who would be employed to push the boundaries of what can be delivered in north Wales. I wonder whether there's any more meat on the bone in terms of the kind of resources that we could expect to see and how those resources could be used on the ground.
I will briefly cover the issue of stigma. I'm pleased to see such an emphasis placed on the need to tackle stigma. We know how much of a problem this was back in the 1980s, as was demonstrated by that excellent series It's A Sin, and it's shocking to think of the stigma that existed then. But that stigma is still there, I see it with my work on the cross-party group on infected blood, where those who are HIV positive still experience stigma. So, I welcome that commitment.
I will draw the Minister's attention to some research that's been done recently on stigma even for those people who take PrEP. Now, can I have an assurance that tackling stigma will go back even to that point so that people who do take PrEP don't need to be concerned that they will experience stigma for trying to prevent HIV infection in the first place?
And one very specific question—and forgive me if the answer is in the report, I haven't had an opportunity to go through it in detail as of yet—PrEP has been available through sexual health clinics, and there have been calls for ensuring that it is available through community pharmacy, for example, and that, in a way, would be a means of tackling stigma, because it's possible that some people wouldn't want to go to sexual health clinics in order to access this treatment. So, I wonder whether there is a change of direction in terms of policy in that regard so that it can be accessed more easily.
Thank you very much, and, of course, we want to see and ensure that we do reach that target by 2030, and, if we can do it more quickly, then certainly I'd like to see that as well. It depends to what extent the public comes with us on this journey. One of the reasons, and one of the things that I hope will emerge from the fact that we are giving this such great attention today and over the coming months, is to raise awareness in terms of the fact that things have changed and that new medicines are available, which mean that we can get rid of the stigma. We can get rid of the idea of that someone with HIV's life is at risk. It's not. They can get treatment, and certainly in terms of the stigma—
I think it's really important that people who are taking PrEP—of course, they shouldn't face any stigma, and of course we will ensure that that is the case. But the way to do this is to bring the public with us, and I am very, very keen to make sure that we raise public awareness of the fact that the world has moved on a huge amount since the 1980s, and people who receive that antiretroviral therapy can and do live long and healthy lives, and the viral load in their blood is reduced so significantly it means that they can't transmit it to their sexual partners. It's really important that that message gets across, and we mustn't be scared of saying that out loud.
Certainly, in terms of a Fast Track Nation, I think there are great models here in Wales already, and certainly the model here in Cardiff and the Vale has been vital. I do hope that we will see those models developing across Wales ultimately. Of course, it makes sense to target some areas more quickly than others, but what I do hope in terms of resources is that health boards on the ground will make the difference and that they take responsibility. It's important that we don't do everything centrally. There is additional funding, but they have to take responsibility. If this doesn't work, the problems will come to the health boards ultimately anyway, so it makes sense for them to target this quickly as well.
Diolch to the Minister for today's statement. Having worked closely with the Terrence Higgins Trust and Fast Track Cardiff & Vale, I know that today's statement is welcome news to all the charities and organisations who have pulled together to help create the HIV action plan. Access to data when it comes to HIV and STIs in Wales is really very difficult and needs improving. A new data surveillance system is desperately needed. From the figures I was able to obtain, there are approximately 2,800 people living in Wales accessing care for HIV, and, in 2021, 1,303 people were prescribed PrEP through NHS services. Ninety-nine per cent of those receiving PrEP are men, which is fantastic and has been a real game-changer. But my anxiety is that this isn't on the radar of the majority of women in Wales. We have a real opportunity to create a culture where women feature front and centre in team Wales's response to HIV, where we are offering HIV tests on a routine basis to women, where no woman leaves a sexual health clinic without being given the choice of a HIV test, where all women are aware of the HIV prevention drug PrEP and can make informed decisions about whether it is suitable for them, and where women living with HIV are included in research efforts and supported to have the best quality of life possible. Will the Minister make sure that the HIV action plan works for women also?
Thanks very much, Buffy. I think it's really important, the point that you make, because we know that HIV affects men, women, trans people, all kinds of people, and I think it's really important that we recognise that and we say that, again, out loud. That's why we've ensured that this plan is very inclusive and that no-one is left behind. What we find is that women are generally more comfortable getting engaged either with their GP or with the sexual health services for their sexual health needs, whether that's for contraceptive care or for a sexual health screening. Now, we recognise that there is a small minority of women who haven't engaged with these services, and we hope that the online testing services may be a mechanism through which those women who perhaps are more reluctant to come forward to have a face-to-face test with their GP or their sexual health clinic can do so in a different way. I do think that, actually, the pandemic has been transformative in that sense and has led to an increase in testing. I think the other thing, of course, is that women quite often get tested when they have antenatal testing. So, there are 48 new diagnoses in Wales, and, of these, around 10 of them were identified as female. So, it's really important that people bear in mind that women absolutely get HIV as well.
Finally, Altaf Hussain.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer, and thank you, Minister, for this action plan. HIV home tests are available throughout Wales, with the tests being posted to a laboratory, and the person will receive their results usually in around 72 hours.
There is, however, an alternative test available, which allows a person to test themselves at home and receive their results in around 15 minutes. Waiting for an HIV result can be terrifying, and some people don't feel comfortable visiting a clinic, for a number of reasons. These 15-miniute tests are around £15, but, according to the Higgins trust, these tests are free in certain parts of England and Scotland where it is locally funded. With the current cost-of-living crisis, for some people, especially those in lower income categories, these can be unaffordable. The mental stress HIV can cause is truly awful. Will the Welsh Government consider funding a scheme in Wales that will allow people to access a free 15-minute home test, as this could encourage some more testing as people can test themselves discreetly without the added stress of visiting their local clinic, waiting days for a result, and the fear of judgment and stigmatisation? Sorry, my throat is bad.
Thank you, Altaf. Certainly, we're aware that that opportunity to do online tests and make sure that you get those delivered to home—I think that does open a new opportunity. In terms of the 15-minute tests, obviously, if people come back to us on that in the consultation, then that's something we'll have to consider.
You suggest that HIV testing can be terrifying. I don't think it's as terrifying as it used to be, because we know there are things we can do if you do have HIV. And again, lets get back to just keep on repeating that—HIV, you can now get help for it and live a normal life. And that is the message we absolutely need to give. Free HIV testing is already, of course, available in Wales, and will continue to be, certainly as we roll out this programme.
Thank you, Minister.
The next statement has been withdrawn.
So, we will move on to item 7, a statement by the Minister for Social Justice, an update on Ukraine, and I call on the Minister, Jane Hutt.
Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd, for giving us another opportunity to provide an update to Members about our ongoing work to support people from Ukraine seeking sanctuary in Wales. When I last updated you almost a month ago, Wales had welcomed just over 1,120 Ukrainians under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, including under our supersponsor route, and I'm pleased to say this number has nearly doubled since then. Almost 2,200 people from Ukraine, sponsored by people from Wales, had arrived in the UK by 7 June. There have also been arrivals, of course, under the Ukraine family scheme, but the UK Government does not provide that data.
More than 5,200 visas have now been granted to people from Ukraine who have sponsors in Wales, so we can expect the number of arrivals to continue to grow quickly in the coming weeks. Our partners in local government, the NHS, the third sector, volunteers and, of course, all those people who are acting as sponsors are making phenomenal efforts to support sanctuary seekers with the services and information they need. The Minister for Finance and Local Government and I met with local authority leaders and chief executives last week to restate our shared commitment to this work following the election.
Last week, I announced that we would be temporarily pausing our supersponsor scheme for the rest of this month. The supersponsor route has been an enormous success since its launch eight weeks ago. We set out to sponsor 1,000 people and it has far exceeded our expectations. The published data for Wales, up to 7 June 2022, shows that over 3,000 supersponsor scheme visas have been granted, but operational data suggests that that could now be as much as 50 per cent higher.
We set up the supersponsor route because we wanted to reduce the safeguarding risks and reduce barriers for people from Ukraine, mostly women and children, who are fleeing this deadly conflict and seeking sanctuary. Last week I visited one of our welcome centres, alongside the Counsel General, and it was a real pleasure to see the positive impact of this work in action.
As part of marking Refugee Week next week, the First Minister and I also intend to visit another of our centres. We have set up and funded the welcome centres, with their wraparound support, to accommodate our initial commitment of 1,000 people. Our current welcome centres are at capacity, and we are urgently seeking to establish further centres and other sources of temporary accommodation. We are pleased that we can provide a route to sanctuary for so many, but it is a huge challenge for us to ensure that we can scale our offer to support everyone arriving.
It would be wholly irresponsible for us to keep this route open unless we were confident that we have everything in place to ensure everyone we sponsor has a good-quality experience when they arrive in Wales. This temporary, operational pause will provide us and our partners with a short space of time to ensure all our processes and services are in place to support everyone we have made commitments to. Being a nation of sanctuary is about ensuring that we are able to make good on the promises we have made to people who want to come to Wales. We fully expect to reopen the scheme for applications next month. I will update you again when we complete our review at the end of June.
We continue to work closely with local government and others, particularly the third sector, to ensure everyone arriving and staying in the welcome centres is supported as they begin to settle into life in Wales. Housing options for Ukrainian refugees are being planned with partners in the public and private rented sector. We do not want people to stay in the welcome centres for longer than necessary. We have contacted everyone in Wales who's expressed an interest in hosting someone from Ukraine but has not yet been matched. Local authorities are undertaking property and safeguarding checks daily.
Dirprwy Lywydd, we are working closely and relying on the third sector's expertise and experience in supporting people seeking sanctuary. People arriving from Ukraine are likely to need a range of support, including advice and advocacy, as they settle into life in Wales. Our contact centre, which I visited recently, has now made approximately 21,000 outbound calls and answered over 2,000 incoming calls, providing essential information and advice to Ukrainians and Wales-based sponsors. We will also be extending our Wales sanctuary service, led by Welsh Refugee Council, to ensure that Ukrainians have access to this vital service. Within the service we will ensure provision of peer support opportunities, immigration legal advice, casework advice services and advocacy.
We are incredibly grateful to all of those who have opened up their homes. We have regularly updated our guidance for sponsors, and we are working with Housing Justice Cymru to make information sessions, training and trauma-informed peer support more widely available.
In my regular meetings with the UK Minister for Refugees, I continue to make the case for parity of funding to support people arriving under the Ukraine family scheme. The UK Government is yet to agree to this. Here too, we are working closely with third sector partners to make wraparound support available for all those families who have been reunited via the Ukraine family scheme, and need support. We are finalising the details.
We will also ensure that 'thank you' payments are made to secondary hosts, where Ukraine family scheme accommodations break down. I urge the UK Government to properly support this work.
Finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, we are holding a series of workshops to engage third sector organisations about the challenges that Ukrainians will be experiencing across Wales. We are working as quickly as we can to ensure people can access all the services they need, from interpretation to language tuition, casework support or health services, but some of this will continue to take time to build up capacity. This is a real Team Wales effort to be proud of.
In your written statement update on the Homes for Ukraine scheme last Wednesday, you referred to the latest UK Government figures then, which stated that as of 30 May, 4,909 visas had been issued to people from Ukraine with a sponsor in Wales, which was up 1,609 in three weeks, of which 2,453 were sponsored by the Welsh Government, up 1,453 in just three weeks. You stated then that 1,961 people with sponsors had now arrived in Wales, in addition to those arriving under the Ukraine family scheme. If I repeat the question I always put to you in these statements: what therefore is your understanding of how many have arrived in Wales in total so far, under both schemes, or is that data still unavailable? And what further specific discussions have you had with the UK Minister for Refugees about the reasons for the narrowing but continuing gap between numbers of visas issued and the total arrivals, and action being taken to further address this?
As you know, I've spoken in this Chamber on several occasions of Haven of Light's work with Link International on the Ukrainian response in north Wales. I first highlighted this to you in the Chamber on 15 March, when I stated,
'They're being established by a team of local professionals and partnering third sector organisations and churches across north Wales, working from a central hub in Llandudno, to prepare for the arrival of Ukrainian nationals and others affected by the war who will come to north Wales in the weeks and months ahead.'
I asked you:
'How will the Welsh Government support these vital initiatives and facilitate local authority engagement with them?'
I was therefore pleased to receive an e-mail earlier this month from Ali Ussery, Haven of Light, stating that both she and Reverend Tim Hall, from the charity Link International, sit on the external stakeholder group with you. And Ali added,
'As you know, I always focus my work at grass-roots level, meeting with the people and letting them lead.'
She invited me to a barbecue with a focus on Ukrainian families now living in Conwy county, which I'll be attending. Will you therefore provide us with an update on the work of the external stakeholder group, particularly with people at grass-roots level across Wales? Ali told me that 100 Ukrainians came and spent the day together, informally meeting, sharing experiences, weeping, laughing and playing at their last event, adding that it was an amazing time to see so many children having fun and talking with others in their own language.
Responding to your update on Ukraine statement six weeks ago, I asked how you were working with ministerial colleagues to ensure that school places and local GP and NHS services are available to Ukrainian refugees when they arrive in Wales. You responded stating,
'It's crucial in terms of education that children can obtain admission to schools, and, indeed, also, I have to say, to the health service, to their GPs, to the health checks that are under way. This is monitored on a daily basis.'
Responding to you four weeks ago, I referred to the constituent who had contacted me stating that a Ukrainian refugee family was arriving the following morning under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, who had been told by the local authority's school admissions that the family's primary school-age child could not start education until she had a medical from the GP, and by the GP they had registered the family with that they refused to do a medical, knew nothing of this requirement and did not have the capacity. I thanked you for your prompt response, in which you stated that officials were following up with the admissions officer in the local authority to confirm that, providing the child is well, they do not need to wait for a health assessment to attend the school and that, regarding the position relayed to the family from the GP practice, you had asked health officials to follow up on that with the health board as a matter of urgency. I therefore concluded by asking how you therefore are working with colleagues to ensure that this capacity issue is addressed and, finally, how you would now ensure that local authorities and health services across Wales understand your expectations of them. To what extent, therefore, is your temporary pause of the Welsh Government's supersponsor scheme dictated by a shortage of accommodation, and to what extent by restrictions to the limited availability of services, including school placements and health provision? Can this realistically be addressed and, if so, when by and how?
And my final question, given your reference to accommodation: at the St David's parliamentary prayer breakfast for Wales on 3 March, I sat next to a person who is working with the Ministry of Defence to develop temporary quality accommodation for Ukrainian refugees arriving in the UK. In the circumstances you describe, what discussions have you had or could you have with the MOD regarding Wales accessing that potential source of quality, albeit temporary, housing?