Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

29/06/2022

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

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

Statement by the Llywydd

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

1. Questions to the Minister for Finance and Local Government

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

Gender Budgeting

1. What impact will gender budgeting plans have on the Arfon constituency? OQ58276

Our approach to gender budgeting in Arfon and across Wales continues to evolve in line with our budget improvement plan and the programme for government. Three pilots are under way and, as well as evaluating their impact, we also continue to learn from international best practice.

Thank you very much. Gross domestic product is the most common measure of national income—a model, of course, that measures the size of the cake and how much we produce with our resources rather than the standard of living and equality. And gender budgeting would use tools such as policy evaluations and impact assessments in order for us to be aware of all the ways in which Government budgets and fiscal policy impact differently on women and men.

One example of using these tools would be the ability to assess funding decisions with regard to public services, which impact women more significantly than men, given that there are more women working in the public sector than there are men. And that is even more relevant to Arfon and Gwynedd—Gwynedd is third in Wales in terms of the proportion of employees working in the public sector. So, I have a great deal of interest in hearing how Government expenditure decisions and fiscal policy are being made through this specific lens and to what extent they are endorsed by organisations, such as the Wales Women's Budget Group.

Thank you very much to Siân Gwenllian for that question. I think she sets out why it is so important that we start to look at our budget through different lenses. GDP is an important source of data and we do have some experimental data looking at GDP on a Welsh-specific level. It's not usable yet, but, as Siân Gwenllian says, that is only one way of looking at things and we have to look at things more creatively to get that proper understanding of the impact of our budgeting decisions on various different groups in society and to take that intersectional look at our decisions as well. And this is one of the reasons why our budget improvement plan outlines our vision and it does include some short-term actions and those medium-term ambitions that we have over the next five years to improve the process of determining our budgets here in Wales through the lens of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. As part of this plan, we have three gender budgeting pilots under way at the moment, and all of them will be independently assessed and those findings then will enable us to take that learning through into our more regular budgeting process across the Government. 

The importance of engaging widely is well made as a point as well. So, we do continue to engage with the Wales Women's Budget Group and with other interested parties through the reformed budget improvement and impact advisory group, and that helps us again to develop our approach to gender budgeting. And I'm also really pleased that the Finance Committee in this Senedd is taking a strong interest in this. At the same time, we're looking internationally and working with the Wellbeing Economy Governments network to invigorate our connections with leaders in the world in this area, including in Iceland and Canada. So, there is a lot to learn, but I think our three pilots are going to help us greatly in terms of thinking differently about the way that we look at our budgets here in Wales.

Gender budgeting, as you know, promotes gender equity for women, men and gender-diverse groups. A survey by the Wales Tourism Alliance, UK Hospitality Cymru and the Professional Association of Self Caterers UK on the Welsh Government's proposals for self-catering accommodation and how it affects women and/or unpaid carers, to which 83 per cent of respondents were women, found that 71 per cent of respondents had caring responsibilities for school-age children, a disabled child or partner, or elderly parents; that 69 per cent fitted the self-catering accommodation around those responsibilities; and that 94 per cent were finding it difficult or challenging to run their self-catering accommodation business if an increase in the number of nights required to be available to rent, at 252, and the number of nights actually let to 182, came into force. In most cases, women are the driving force in these businesses. So, what consideration will the Welsh Government give to these businesswomen in Arfon, and across north Wales, when deciding on their proposal to raise the occupancy criteria for self-catering accommodation by 160 per cent before legitimate businesses are exempt from council tax premiums of up to 300 per cent from next April?

13:35

Well, I am aware that women, including those with caring responsibilities, and retirees in fact, are well represented amongst operators of self-catering properties. But it's not, however, clear that such operators would be less able than other people to let their properties for more of the year, given the fact that they're operating businesses. There is very little evidence available in this regard, and certainly none that can be validated by the Welsh Government, but I am aware of the concerns that the Member raises. 

Spending Priorities

2. What are the Minister’s spending priorities for Mid and West Wales for the next 12 months? OQ58269

The spending priorities for the next three years are set out within the final budget, published in March this year. This has resulted in a number of investments in mid and west Wales, for example, in health, education and transport, alongside our longer term commitment of £55 million to the mid Wales growth fund.

Diolch, Gweinidog. I wanted to ask you about the early progress with the mid Wales growth deal. I understand that some local authorities, including Powys, are concerned about the lack of revenue seed funding to kick start the capital projects identified as part of their programme that would give those communities and local government a real boost. The frustration is that projects are stalling because of that priority given to capital funding rather than revenue funding, and the question that has been put to me is how about greater flexibility around the use of the growth deal funding as revenue funding to kick start those projects. So, therefore, my question is whether there are any steps that could be taken to provide flexibility or to provide that seed funding to local authorities to kick start those projects. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

Thank you for the question. The mid Wales growth deal final deal agreement was, of course, signed by all parties in January of this year, and that does set out how the Welsh Government will work with the UK Government and the Growing Mid Wales board framework on how the deal would be delivered. And that does include those critical underpinning arrangements such as the governance, assurance, monitoring, evaluation and communications attached to this. And the focus now within the region should very much be on developing the shortlisted programme and project business cases, which are evolving as part of the portfolio business case. We anticipate the first draw-down of funding would be, as I say, in 2023-24. We do have officials meeting very regularly, though, with officers from Powys and Ceredigion councils on behalf of the Growing Mid Wales board, and I'll be sure that they do discuss the issues that you've described further. Of course, it's my colleague the economy Minister who leads on this, and I'll be sure, again, that he is aware of your concerns and your request today. 

Thank you for that answer, Minister. But, on the topic of spending priorities, I do wish to raise with you the preservation of Wales's historic buildings, of which west Wales has many. I recently had the pleasure of visiting Picton castle, a medieval building which was transformed into a stately home in the eighteenth century by the Philippses. The castle itself has a history that is entrenched in our culture, identity and historic nationhood, from being seized by Glyndŵr to housing American troops in the second world war. It is one of the only medieval properties in Britain to have been continually lived in. And whilst it was fit for royalty and has welcomed monarchs, roofs still need to be patched, bedrooms restored. So, how can the Picton Castle Trust work with the Welsh Government to maximise funding opportunities, ensuring that this historical site and important location in our nation's story is safeguarded for future generations? Diolch. 

I'd certainly encourage the Picton Castle Trust in the first instance to engage with the Deputy Minister for culture in order to explore whether there are opportunities for support. As a first step, I would encourage them to write to the Deputy Minister to seek further dialogue, potentially with officials, on the matter.

13:40
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Sam Rowlands.

Diolch, Llywydd. Good afternoon, Minister. As you'll be well aware, I'm sure, from your ongoing discussions with council leaders, one of the most important things for a successful council is the ability to plan ahead financially. Of course, last year's announcement that we're on a three-year indicative settlement is certainly welcomed by myself and councils as a whole. So, in light of this, Minister, what assessment have you made of how adequate next year's local government initial indicative settlement will be for councils?

Thank you for the question. As you say, we have a three-year spending outlook now as a result of the UK Government's three-year spending review, which in itself was welcome. But, one of the challenges that we've all recognised is that it was very much frontloaded into year one of the settlement. So, we had an uplift in this financial year, which we were able to pass on very well, I think, to local government, who described the settlement—at the time, at least—as exceptionally good. But, of course, we're facing inflationary pressures now, which are causing concern right across local government. So, what I can say is that we would look to the UK Government to provide a general uplift to departments—as they call all of us regardless of if we're devolved Governments—to look across all departments to provide an uplift to reflect the impact that inflation is having. And, of course, we would look to see what we can do then to support local government further. But, as it stands, I think the UK Government—. The messages that I'm increasingly hearing quite clearly, I think, from Treasury Ministers is that we will all be expected to live within the funding envelopes that we have, which means that there won't be any further funding, I'm afraid, at this point to pass on.

Thank you, Minister, and also thank you for acknowledging the pressure that local authorities are likely to be in in the next financial year with the indicative settlements that they are likely to receive. As we know, local government settlements do provide around 70 per cent of a local authority's spend in their area, which, of course, delivers those vital services that councils and councillors want to provide for their local communities. We also know councils are still feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of their lost income and extra expenditure, and, of course, they continue to receive further responsibilities, which I will continue to support. But, it is clear that next financial year is going to be very difficult for local authorities and I would expect that there's going to be a detrimental effect on some of the services they have to provide. So, to be able to balance the books, I wonder what you expect our councils to do less of to ensure that those essential services and that support does continue.

I would absolutely recognise that local government did experience real difficulties during the pandemic, both in terms of lost income and those opportunities lost in terms of making up income, and, of course, the additional pressures that they had on a range of services, which is why I think it's been well recognised that Welsh Government worked very carefully to provide support in terms of lost income and other support for local government at that point. But, as Sam Rowlands says, years two and three of the spending review are much more difficult because of the way in which the increase was very much frontloaded, and it does mean that local government will have to make difficult decisions, just as we will in Welsh Government, where our budget over the three-year spending review will be worth £600 million less than we understood it to be at the time of the spending review, as a result of inflation. So, local government will be facing difficult decisions just as we are in terms of what we're able to deliver and how quickly we're able to deliver it. How local government decides to deal with those pressures, I think, is a matter for each of them individually. But, obviously, we would look to support them and engage closely with them as they take those difficult decisions. 

Again, thank you, Minister. It would be interesting to hear, perhaps in a further response, of any particular areas you think councils may do less on. I absolutely agree it's up to those local democratic members to make that decision, but I'm sure an indication as to where some of those expectations might be would be useful. Of course, fundamental to delivering those services is the fair funding formula for local authorities. I'm sure, Minister, you were as excited as I was this week to see some of the headline figures from the census being announced. And some of those latest statistics are quite stark, actually. They're showing an ageing population, which we did know about already, but the census continues to point to that, with around 21 per cent of our population in Wales now being over the age of 65, 1 per cent being aged over 90 years old, and, in places like Conwy county, the figure for over 90-year-olds is actually the highest in Wales, at 1.5 per cent; around 2,000 people over the age of 90 years old in that one county alone. And as I've mentioned time and time again, the current funding formula, in my view, does not properly take into account and support older people at the level that they need support. And we also saw just last week the now Labour-run Monmouthshire County Council vote for a motion—a cross-party motion, supported by all, I understand—calling for a review of the funding formula. So, it's not just Conservative councils now looking at this; Labour councils also seem to be dissatisfied with the funding formula. So, in light of this, can you provide us here today, Minister, with an initial assessment of the information coming out of the census and how that may affect the funding formula in future, and also what your thoughts are on the Labour-run council for their calls for a funding formula review?

13:45

Thank you for raising these issues. I'll begin with your question in relation to where might local government feel particular pressure. I've already had opportunities to meet collectively with all of the leaders of local government, including our new cohort of leaders, and I think they're very keen to stress the importance of looking at their capital settlement, because of course our capital budget across the three years is particularly poor, being worth less in every single year in cash terms across the three-year period. And of course the implications are there for local government and particularly so in respect of inflation. So, obviously there'll be choices for them in terms of which projects they decide to invest in and how they profile that spend and how slowly they end up delivering projects, really, as a result of that. So, those will be some of the potential areas of difficulty. 

Yes, I had the same level of excitement as you when the census data came out, and that will continue, actually, because data will be provided, probably on a monthly basis, now, right through to November. So, there'll be lots more for us to get our teeth into as the various pieces of information come forward from the census. But, yes, clearly it will have an implication in terms of local government funding. The population projections, which are probably of the most interest, or one of the aspects of most interest, to local government, are used as part of the funding formula, and today's results, or the results of the census, will feed into future updates to local authority population projections.

The Welsh Government's local authority population projections are planned to be updated from 2024, and that's subject to the confirmation of the Office for National Statistics's plans for 2021-based national population projections and revised mid-year estimates of the population for 2012 to 2020. So, that data will be important. But I know the point you're really trying to make is around the funding formula for local government, which is under constant review. I'm seeing the Presiding Officer looking wearily at me at the moment, so I'll draw this to a close. But the funding formula is under constant review, as we've discussed, in terms of new data coming forward, but we will be meeting with the finance sub-group the week after next, where we'll be discussing the funding formula, and particularly the timeliness and the accuracy and the importance of data, and that point that you've made previously about age cohorts is very much still part of that discussion. 

I was looking with interest at you. [Laughter.] I'm always interested in the subject of the funding formula for local government. 

I need to work on my poker face, obviously. [Laughter.]

Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd. 

Diolch, Llywydd. The legislative consent memorandum for the UK Infrastructure Bank Bill is due to come before this Senedd quite soon. Now, the legislation states that the bank's activities will, and I quote, provide

'financial assistance to projects wholly or mainly relating to infrastructure'

and provide

'loans to relevant public authorities for such projects'.

It goes on to explain that its work is being supported by a new national infrastructure strategy that has three central objectives, namely economic recovery, levelling up and unlocking the union's potential. To what extent do you think that those three objectives reflect the investment objectives and priorities of the Welsh Government? And what are you doing to ensure that any investment that might come to Wales through the proposed investment bank actually complements this Senedd's broader objectives, as reflected in Welsh legislation around promoting sustainable development, equality, tackling the climate crisis and so on? 

13:50

This is a really important issue, and, of course, the UK Infrastructure Bank is supposed to be the successor to the European Investment Bank, but I think that, if you look at the sums available to it to invest, it really just pales compared to what we would have been able to access through the EIB. So, I would encourage the UK Government to reflect on the amount of support that's available to it. 

But the point made in terms of our Welsh Government approach to this is really important, because I'm not in a position yet to take a view on whether or not I would be able to recommend to this Senedd agreeing to the legislative consent memorandum. I think that there is certainly something to commend the bank for, absolutely—their focus, I think, on decarbonisation investment would be positive and something that we would support, and something that is in line with our own concerns here in Wales. But, in order to be able to recommend consent, I think I would have to know from the UK Government, and have that clear agreement through amendments to the Bill, that we would have a say in the governance of that bank, and also in the setting of the bank's remit. So, those are two conditions I think that are really important in being able to recommend consent. 

But my understanding is that none of those conditions are in place at the moment, and, if truth to be told, there's a real risk here that this Westminster Bill is just another example of the UK Government straying into devolved matters intentionally, riding roughshod over decisions made here, undermining devolution and the integrity of the Senedd and the Welsh Government in an effort to impose their Conservative agenda on Wales—coming hot on the heels, of course, of the revelation on Monday that Westminster is to effectively rescind the Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017 that was passed here to protect workers' rights just a few years ago. The days of subtly taking back powers to Westminster have now clearly been overtaken by a blatant and outright attack on devolution, on our Parliament and on democracy here in Wales. 

So, given that the First Minister, in response to Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price yesterday, said that he would resist—his word, 'resist'—these actions by the UK Government, that he would seek to protect the legislative integrity of this Senedd, although he couldn't tell us exactly how he'd do that, by the way, similarly, can I ask what are you going to do as finance Minister to protect the integrity of the Welsh Government and of the Welsh Parliament in a fiscal sense, when the UK Infrastructure Bank would actually be making decisions that proactively undermine policy and spending decisions set here in the Senedd? 

Well, I think that your question sets out why it is so important that we have these amendments to the UK Government's Bill, both in terms of the governance of the bank—so, at the moment, it's only UK Treasury Ministers who are allowed to nominate people to those positions on the board; obviously, we would see a role for devolved Governments in this space, and I made that case clearly to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury when I met with him a couple of weeks ago—and then also setting the remit of the bank is really important as well. It will be operating in devolved spaces in terms of economic development and supporting our Welsh businesses, so we would want that investment to be done in a way that complements and works with the grain of what Welsh Government is seeking to achieve. 

I did have the opportunity to meet with the chair of the UKIB, and I was able to set out what our priorities are to the chair of the bank. But I think that it has to come down to amendments to the Bill, and, if those amendments are made, then I could recommend consent to the Senedd, but we have yet to get to that point. So, obviously, I'll be keen to keep colleagues updated on this. 

Self-catering Accommodation and Tax

3. What impact will changing the classification of self-catering properties for tax purposes have on residents in communities with increasing amounts of self-catering accommodation? OQ58249

Our changes, which form part of our three-pronged approach, will help strike the right balance between capacity within the self-catering tourism sector, and the economic benefits that brings, and supporting viable communities of local residents to live and work in these areas.

Thank you, Minister. This is really good to hear, because I'm sure you would agree that tourism is vitally important to the Welsh economy, but, of course, with the rapid rise in self-catering units, there is a risk that some towns and villages will cater more to visitors than to residents. This is something that's been raised with me by concerned residents in Llangollen on numerous occasions, where parts of the town—as many as one in five properties—are now advertised as Airbnb self-catering units. Would you agree that we have to ensure that towns and villages across Wales are alive and active 12 months of the year, and can you guarantee that the measures that you have outlined will lead to a careful balance between our interests in driving the visitor economy and the need to ensure that towns and villages are living towns and villages?

13:55

Absolutely. This strand of our policy, in terms of addressing the impact that large numbers of second homes and holiday lets can have on some communities in Wales, is about doing exactly that which Ken Skates has described, and that’s creating sustainable communities where people can live year round and where, in winter, you don’t go into those villages and find that lights are off in the majority of those properties.

We know that in Newport, Pembrokeshire, for example, or in Abersoch, 40 per cent of properties there are second homes and holiday lets, and that’s just not a balanced community. So, we absolutely recognise the importance of tourism, but I think that we also need to recognise that sustainable communities are important, and giving those opportunities to people to live in the communities within which they grew up and where they have that attachment, and where they want to work and make a life for themselves.

I think that it’s also worth us reflecting that, where second home owners operate on a very occasional basis, or on a casual basis, within the self-catering sector, then they are actually entering into direct competition with those genuine self-catering businesses. So, that again is an indication that the system as it stands is not in balance, and we are taking, as I say, a number of steps to address this.

Minister, you will be aware that my Welsh Conservative colleagues and I have raised on many occasions our opposition to these changes. One of the reasons why is because of the unintended consequences that might come out as a result of it. I've since been in contact with a number of businesses who have raised serious concerns about some of those unintended consequences of the change. So, can I just ask a couple of questions?

So, for example, how will these days actually be calculated? What happens if businesses—and, unfortunately, this does happen—receive last-minute cancellations? Does that still count towards the quota of 182 days? Also, another concern, as it stands, is that refuse collection payments are payable if the business is on business rates, but what happens if this business is forced back onto council tax? Are they then still liable to pay for refuse collections, or will they see a reimbursement of some of that cost?

Finally, I'd be interested to know of what, if any, impact assessment on the number of projected self-catering properties available in Wales once this change fully takes effect, and if you could share those findings with the Senedd, so that we could have a greater understanding of the impact of those changes.

Thank you for raising this issue. We've shared as much detail as we can in the regulatory impact assessment, which was published alongside the legislation. We've been keen to provide operators with the largest amount of time possible to adapt their business model to address some of their concerns. They've had at least 12 months' notice before these matters come into effect. We will be providing a full FAQ, if you like, for operators, so that they can understand how it might impact on them personally.

But if operators are operating as a business and meet the threshold, they will therefore have all of the responsibilities and the benefits of being treated as a business. If they do not meet that, they will be considered a domestic dwelling for the purposes of council tax, at least. But I'll be happy to set out an FAQ, and, if colleagues have any detailed questions, we will be keen to address them in that.

Universal Free School Meals

4. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Education and Welsh Language regarding the funding of universal free school meals during the current financial year? OQ58274

As a result of the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru, we anticipate feeding nearly an additional 60,000 primary age pupils in our first year of roll-out. We will implement the scheme as quickly as possible to ensure that every primary school pupil receives a free school meal by 2024.

Diolch for that. It's actually revolutionary, isn't it, that universal free school meals will start being rolled out from September in Wales. I'm so proud that this is happening as a result of the co-operation agreement involving Plaid Cymru. I wanted to ask you, Minister, about support being given to local authorities to ensure that schools are able to cope with this change. I'm so thankful to local authorities across Wales for moving so quickly to ensure that the youngest infants will start receiving these meals from September, but there will be logistical challenges: some schools will need to get new kitchens, new staff, maybe find new suppliers. So, could you outline, please, how the Welsh Government is supporting local authorities to make sure that schools can overcome these barriers and that the youngest children can start to receive universal free school meals from September in schools across Wales?

14:00

I'm very grateful for the question and absolutely share the enthusiasm for this policy. I don't think it could have been a policy that could have come at a better time, really, because I know that when discussions started about this particular policy, we weren't in a place where we understood the level of the cost-of-living crisis that was before us, so it's absolutely the right policy, I think, for the right time.

We're keen to support local government in a number of ways in terms of delivering on this policy. Obviously, financial support is going to be critical in terms of delivery. We have committed £200 million in revenue across the lifetime of the agreement, and we have already made available an initial £25 million in capital funding, so that local authorities are supported to make those early investments in the equipment and the infrastructure necessary to deliver. There are discussions continuing with partners to understand what further support might be needed in terms of investment in the school estate, so I think that financial support is really important.

I think the support of frequent discussion with local government as they drive forward and deliver this policy will also be important to understand the implications for them and their experience of delivery, and we can learn from that as we move forward. And then I think that clear support for local government in terms of being flexible as well, as they start to deliver this, will be important, because, as we know, all schools aren't going to be physically in the position to provide the kind of hot meal that we envisage, but are there things that we can be doing to support the development of the policy while we get to that point?

Minister, as you pointed out, we know you've invested or will be investing £200 million and £25 million capital to address kitchens and facilities upgrades, and I know there is still some anxiety that that may not be enough, but I take it that those issues will be addressed with local authorities. However, with the rising inflation rates and the Russian invasion of Ukraine having a substantial impact on the cost of food, there are concerns that the funding announced simply won't be enough to ensure that schools can provide high-quality nutritious meals to all. Clearly, we are likely to see increasing costs as things move forward. As such, the Government's policy is at risk of not matching the outcomes that it hopes to achieve. Minister, what detailed analysis of costs associated with the universal primary free school meals commitment has the Government carried out, and what assurances can you give to local authorities, both from a capital and a revenue perspective, especially should food prices escalate as is likely? And will you publish this analysis so that we can see more clearly how these funding decisions have been made, and to what extent they cover the costs that will be borne by local authorities and schools? Thank you.

I think that this is another one of those areas of pressure on local government that your colleague Sam Rowlands was discussing earlier on in the session today, in the sense that their budget, like ours, is worth less than originally envisaged. The prices of food have increased by 8.7 per cent in the year to May 2022 and obviously there is still a lot of global uncertainty, and we can't be sure that this won't increase further still, so I do think that this is one of the many pressures on local government. That said, I think that local government is in the best possible position it could be, thanks to the good settlement that it did have in our three-year spending review, but obviously we will work closely and keep an eye on this with local government. That said, I think this does speak to that need for the UK Government to provide that general uplift to budgets to reflect the kind of pressure that Peter Fox is talking about in terms of the day-to-day real-life impact of inflation on the delivery of policies, and particularly those that support the most vulnerable in society.

Minister, improving the health and well-being and the education of our children and young people in Wales is so important—even more so now, following the pandemic. Free school meals will play a vital role in this, and I want to thank the Minister and the education Minister for all their hard work since the review, ensuring that this will become the new normal across schools in Wales. We know that free school meals help combat pupil absence, so more and more of our young people don't miss out on their education. We also know that family liaison officers are key to reducing pupil absence, but, unfortunately, these officers aren't a luxury that all schools in Wales can afford. Will the Minister explore the possibility of funding family liaison officers directly through local authorities to ensure more schools in Wales are able to benefit from their invaluable work?

14:05

I absolutely agree that those family engagement officers do excellent work in terms of being that bridge between the school and the family, and, as such, in the 2022-23 budget, we'll be investing £3.84 million in increasing the number of those family engagement officers that are employed by schools. The funding has been provided to local authorities, and that, then, allows them to target those schools that they think require that additional capacity, using their local knowledge. And, in addition, as part of our policy development, we'll also be advising schools on the effective practice of family engagement officers, and, of course, the wider professional learning, which has to be undertaken to best use those individuals. We're also providing £660,000 for a trial of community-focused school manager positions in Wales, and those roles will help develop better engagement between schools and the communities, recognising that children's lives don't just finish when the school bell rings, but there's a lot that needs to be done outside of those hours to support families as well. But we recognise really the importance of those family engagement officers. 

The UK Government's Economic Policy

5. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the UK Government's economic policy on the Welsh Government's budget? OQ58251

The UK Government’s economic and fiscal policies are responsible for the relatively poor growth of the UK economy. If the Welsh Government’s budget since 2010 had kept pace with long-run growth in the economy before 2010, it would be over £4.5 billion higher than it is.

I accept that Minister, but, sometimes, I think we place too much emphasis on simply spending. My question was about how we raise funds as well. The UK Government's obsession with austerity has created real significant structural problems in the economy. But their decision to go for a hard Brexit, leaving the single market and the customs union, has meant that the UK economy and the Welsh economy are suffering long-term harm. This will have, I assume, a direct impact on the money raised by the Welsh Government in terms of its taxation policy. My question to you, Minister, is: to what extent is this analysis correct? Have you had an opportunity to make an assessment of the impact of UK economic policy? And how, if you have made an assessment, are you able to ameliorate that impact?

Thank you for raising that. Alongside the draft budget, which we published back in December, the chief economist did provide an update in terms of his assessment of the impact, which included the impact of Brexit, and I would commend that to all colleagues. We know that we have lost, or the UK, I should say, has lost many billions of pounds in tax, as a direct result of Brexit. And, of course, that means that the Welsh Government's budget is harmed as a direct result of that; there's no question about that. I do get the opportunity to raise this particular issue this afternoon, at one of our inter-ministerial meetings with the UK Government, and I'll be reflecting on the points that Alun Davies has made, and using that to inform my contribution in that meeting.

Minister, the UK Government's strong economic policy since 2010, and having that long-term economic plan, has helped deliver the best settlement Wales has ever had: £18 billion-worth of funding this year. And, because of the UK Government's strong economic policies, we've got the levelling-up fund, the community renewal fund, city and growth deals, free ports, investment in green energy and the global centre of rail excellence in my constituency, delivered by a UK Conservative Government. Eighteen billion pounds extra this year, and you still keep moaning about Brexit. My word. So, does the Minister agree with me that because of a strong UK Conservative Government, with strong economic policies, the Welsh economy will grow because of the benefit to the wider economy of the UK and you will have more money in the Welsh Government Treasury?

14:10

Well, I have to say that the cheque must be still in the post if we’re expecting £18 billion additional to our budget this year, because Wales is actually £1 billion worse off as a result of the UK Government’s approach to replacement EU funding. The Finance Committee has the opportunity to question UK Government Ministers tomorrow and I’m going to be paying even more interest than I normally do to the Finance Committee’s meeting, because I would absolutely love to see the UK Government Ministers trying to defend their decisions in respect of post-EU funding, because I think they are indefensible. The UK Government did promise us that we wouldn’t be a penny worse off as a result of Brexit; we’re £1.2 billion worse off as a result of Brexit and as a result of the particular choices that they made, and I just don’t think there’s any point in trying to hide from that.

Monitoring the Use of Grant Funding

6. What structures does the Welsh Government have in place to monitor the use of grant funding awarded to projects in Wales? OQ58252

Monitoring is a key part of Welsh Government's grant processes. Grant managers have flexibility to tailor monitoring requirements according to the size, value and risk of projects. Monitoring requirements are set out in the grant award letter terms and conditions, which form the legally binding agreement between Welsh Government and recipients.

Thank you. Well, in contrast to my colleague there about how good the UK Government are when handing money out, the Welsh Government, certainly in my time—I’ve been here 11 years—and prior to that since devolution, have wasted millions and millions of pounds: £221 million on uncompetitive enterprise zones; £9.3 million on flawed initial funding—[Interruption.] I know it hurts, but let me finish. Nine point three million pounds on flawed initial funding for the Circuit for Wales; £157 million on the M4 relief road inquiry; £750,000 in the last financial year on the grounded Anglesey to Cardiff flight link; and, in my own constituency, £400,000 on G.M. Jones, and that was to build bespoke units in Llanrwst that up until very recently had been empty right from build. That business actually is no longer, because of the implications of the higher cost. I could go on, but the latter example in particular highlights a clear area where I do believe now that money is very tight; we’ve got a sort of cost-of-living crisis.

I raised it in the First Minister’s scrutiny committee, and I asked the First Minister in my question, 'When you’ve handed large sums of money over to these companies, how do you then monitor it?' And the response was very much a case of, 'Once we’ve handed that money over, it really is up to that business.' So, how can you convince me, Minister, that you have got good financial probity at the heart of Welsh Government, so that we do not keep seeing this repeating and a number of times when, actually, you are simply wasting taxpayers' money? Thank you.

Welsh Government issues thousands of award letters every year to a wide range of stakeholders, such as local authorities, the third sector and private sector organisations for a really wide range of purposes, and they are intended to help us drive forward our policy objectives. Monitoring our grant funding is an integral method to ensuring that those projects deliver what is intended, but it is the case that monitoring activities are quite rightly varied and they should be specific to the funding that is being awarded, and those grant managers are responsible for establishing the correct level of monitoring that is needed.

So, a wide range of activities can be used to obtain the assurance that we need that the grant requirements are being met. They can include progress reports, monitoring of targets and milestones, meetings and site visits, written reports, and claims from both the grant recipient and/or an independent third party. And as I said in the response to your first question, those form part of the legally binding award letter and those terms and conditions should be considered from the outset. Grant recipients should only be agreeing to those if they are convinced that they can meet those terms and conditions.

I will say that grant managers are now able to seek advice, support and guidance through a range of sources, including our grants centre of excellence, corporate governance, legal services and their own operations team, so we do have a wide range of support and guidance available to grant managers to ensure that they're able to undertake that monitoring correctly. Active grant monitoring is absolutely key.

14:15
Accessible Housing

7. What consideration did the Minister give to the duty of local authorities to provide accessible housing when deciding on the local government settlement 2022-23? OQ58267

This year, the Government is providing unhypothecated revenue funding of over £5.1 billion to support local authorities in the delivery of their statutory and non-statutory services, including priorities such as housing.

Thank you so much, Minister. Last week, I met with representatives from the Motor Neurone Disease Association Cymru, together with people suffering with the condition, at an event sponsored by my very able colleague Peter Fox. One of the issues raised with me was that of MND patients being trapped in inaccessible homes because local authorities have not provided necessary adaptations. To put it simply, the cost, lack of funding and timescales involved are causing people with MND and their families really genuine hardships. A third of people with MND die within a year of diagnosis and half within two years. During that time, symptoms worsen and needs increase, so sufferers living with MND don't have the luxury of time to simply just wait. What discussions have you had, Minister, with local authorities in Wales to fast-track support for people with MND, removing the means test for low-cost and high-impact adaptations, and to maintain a register of available accessible homes for them? Thank you.

Thank you for raising this issue. I absolutely recognise the importance of moving quickly to support people with MND. In terms of local government, in considering their general housing responsibilities, they must be mindful of their responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010, and we do encourage local authorities to hold those accessible housing registers so that disabled people can be allocated housing that is suitable for their needs. Work is also under way through a housing association to develop a standard accessible housing register for all local authorities to be able to use. And also, they have legal responsibilities under the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996 to provide mandatory disabled facilities grants for qualifying disabled people to make adaptations to a property. We've been working over a number of years to make that process as quick and as streamlined as possible, and to remove, where appropriate, that level of means testing to, again, try and speed things through the system. We also provide funding to enable local authorities to provide lower cost adaptations quickly. Again, this is without means testing. We increased that grant in April 2021 to £6 million a year. But I will take an opportunity, when I have it, with local government, and particularly their housing spokespeople, to explore this issue further, and if I'm not able to do it myself soon, I'll do it through my colleague the housing Minister. 

Supporting Small and Medium-sized Businesses

8. What consideration did the Minister give to supporting small and medium-sized businesses when determining the Welsh Government's budget for 2022-23? OQ58259

The final budget published in March provides £1.8 billion in 2022-23 to support the economy portfolio. This budget includes £35 million to specifically support small and medium-sized businesses. Other support includes £116 million for rates relief and £103 million for Transforming Towns.

Thank you, Minister. I've recently met with a number of businesses in the Cynon valley who are seeking to invest in renewable energy sources, or more modern energy efficient machinery. Of course, this can be very expensive for small family enterprises. How is the Welsh Government supporting this type of investment so that businesses can innovate, modernise and play their part in tackling the climate emergency?

Thank you for raising that really important point, because small and medium-sized enterprises are, of course, the backbone of our economy here in Wales, but also they have a huge role to play in terms of helping us work towards our decarbonisation goals. In November of last year, a £45 million package was launched by my colleague the economy Minister to train staff and to help Welsh SMEs to grow, and included in this package was £35 million that will help small and medium-sized businesses relaunch, develop and, importantly, decarbonise to help drive the recovery following the COVID pandemic. So, that will be an important source of potential support that I would encourage businesses in the Cynon valley and elsewhere to look to.

I think, also, it's important that we start off our new small and medium-sized enterprises on the right foot. And that's why, in February 2022, Business Wales launched their net-zero carbon start-up grant, which is a pilot scheme offering financial and technical support to help budding or start-up social enterprises get their businesses ready for trading or investment, and, crucially, to embed climate-friendly practices into start-up social enterprises from the outset. This scheme is open to any up-and-coming social business or trading voluntary organisation in Wales. Again, this will be something that I know that those eligible organisations in the Cynon valley and elsewhere will be keen to explore.

14:20
2. Questions to the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

The next questions will be to the Minister for rural affairs and north Wales. The first question is from Heledd Fychan.

Responsible Pet Ownership

1. What consideration has the Welsh Government given to providing regular public awareness campaigns on responsible pet ownership to counteract the risk of a rise in animal abandonment as a result of the cost-of-living crisis? OQ58257

Member
Lesley Griffiths MS 14:21:27
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch. Our #PawsPreventProtect social media campaign promotes responsible purchasing and serves as a reminder of the lifetime costs associated with owning a pet. We also continue to liaise with our third sector partners to support their work in promoting expectations of responsible ownership, particularly as pressures grow on household budgets.

Thank you, Minister. I realise that the #PawsPreventProtect social media campaign mainly runs over the festive period and that it is quite seasonal and limited, focused on responsible pet purchasing. It is obviously a successful campaign, but quite limited. By contrast, in England, they have Petfished, a long-running pet buying awareness campaign, while in Scotland, the Scottish Government has a Buy a Puppy Safely campaign—both with dedicated, enduring websites and awareness-raising resources, and both supplemented by other awareness-raising measures too.

You'll be aware, as many of us are, I'm sure, that the RSPCA's new animal kindness index suggests that 19 per cent of pet owners are worried about buying food for their pets amid the cost-of-living crisis. The RSPCA has already seen an increase in animal intake at RSPCA centres amounting to 49 per cent more rabbits, 14 per cent more cats and 3 per cent more dogs in the first five months of 2022. Therefore, will Welsh Government be committing to using a permanent promotional campaign to signpost owners to available support packages elsewhere, which could prove really useful to owners unsure where to turn, if we can't be running our own permanent campaign?

I will certainly consider looking at what we can do more permanently, but we do regularly promote and share messages from other organisations on responsible ownership. Just last week, we had one regarding the care of animals in hot weather, for instance, and leaving dogs, particularly, in cars. So, there are a lot of other social media outlets that we do promote and share, and I would encourage all Members of the Senedd to do so as well. I think you raise a very important point, and certainly, the couple of rescue centres that I've been able to visit this year are seeing, sadly, an increase in the number of pets that they are having to take in. We've had, obviously, people buying pets during the COVID pandemic and then, perhaps when they've had to go back to work full time, realise the difficulties in looking after a pet when they're back in work, and then, as you've just raised, the cost-of-living crisis. But I'm certainly open to any suggestions about seeing what we could do more permanently.

Minister, abandonment of pets is a big issue and it always has been a big issue. For some residents of homes, they have to abandon their companion animals because in the rented sector, some landlords say that no pets are allowed. In Westminster, they are bringing through a piece of legislation that will rule that out and make it illegal for landlords to insist that pets cannot be taken into homes, especially when the animal is a companion animal that plays an important role in the mental health of that individual. Are you minded to give consideration to that particular piece of legislation that's going through Westminster, and, in conjunction with your colleague the Minister for housing, consider similar measures here in Wales?

It is something, certainly, that I've discussed with the Minister for Climate Change, who obviously has responsibility for housing. And as you'll probably be aware, next week, we will be debating Luke Fletcher's proposed legislation around no-pet clauses. I'm sure that, as Ministers, we will be having discussions further with Luke.

14:25

Minister, my colleague Sarah Murphy and I recently visited Hope Rescue near Llanharan. We saw the brilliant work they were doing, but they told us about the massive increase in enquiries they're having from owners who simply are asking, 'How do I afford now to keep my pet? How do I feed it? How do I pay vet fees? How do I pay for insurance?' They're also having increasing numbers of abandoned pets, way beyond what they've ever seen before. We've seen the same at the Dogs Trust as well in Bridgend. With this, would you undertake to meet with those good, authoritative people who are out there in the field to see how they can best work not only with the dogs and the pets that are being presented to them, but also with the owners to give them good advice, so that they don't have to abandon those pets, that there are other sources of help out there, rather than them ending up stray or abandoned, or, frankly, dumped on rescue centres like Hope Rescue?

Thank you for that. I've already met with the Hope Rescue centre. I've also met with the North Clwyd Animal Rescue centre up in north-east Wales. My officials regularly meet with the third sector to see what we can do to help people who are obviously facing very difficult decisions. And certainly, again, having met with owners, they will tell me that they will feed their pets before they feed themselves, if they're faced with such a decision. So, I think it's just really important we continue to engage, particularly with the third sector, to see what more we can do to assist.

Support for Farmers in North Wales

2. What action is the Welsh Government taking to support farmers in North Wales? OQ58261

Thank you. Alongside the basic payment scheme, I recently announced a package of support worth over £227 million for a number of schemes available to farmers across the whole of Wales. My officials will also consider derogation requests from farmers experiencing hardship due to the current economic situation.

Thank you for your answer, Minister. I'm sure you were delighted, as I was this week, to see the announcement that Welsh food and drink exports hit a record high, with Wales seeing the highest increase in value of exports between all four UK nations in the last year. In addition to this, the highest value export category was meat and meat products, and, of course, it's down to our fantastic farmers up and down the country. Indeed, last week I had the privilege of being a panel member at the Da Byw future of farming event in north Wales, and farmers there were keen to remind the panel that quality food production is, and always will be, central to farming. I'm regularly reminded of this too on social media by farmers like Gareth Wyn Jones in Llanfairfechan, who highlight the hard work that farmers carry out in feeding the nation. So, Minister, will you join me in thanking and congratulating our farmers across north Wales for their efforts in food production, and give assurances today that the upcoming agriculture Bill has food production central to its ambition?

Thank you. I certainly will be very happy to join you in congratulating all our farmers and our fantastic Welsh food and drink producers, who've achieved such an amazing amount of exports. And you couldn't get more challenging times, could you, for our exporters? Just last week, I visited a new business, only a year old, in Monmouth, and they were already exporting. It was a drink company, and they were already exporting their drink. I think for a company to be brave enough to export in these particularly challenging times—. And they were very grateful for the Welsh Government support there. I particularly enjoy looking at Gareth Wyn Jones's Twitter feed. He's very good, I think, at showing just what hard work farmers do to produce that amazing food. We really lead, I think, the world in Wales on the food that we produce here. I can assure you that both the sustainable farming scheme, which I will be publishing before the summer recess, and the agricultural Bill will absolutely have sustainable food production at their hearts.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Samuel Kurtz.

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, I'll start with fisheries, if I may, as invites have now been sent to stakeholders to join the ministerial advisory group for Welsh fisheries, a new group that both myself and stakeholders hope will lead to better engagement between the Welsh Government and the sector here in Wales. Given that this is a new group looking to grow the industry, can you provide further information on the structures you will use to co-design a much-needed approach to co-management of our fisheries against a backdrop of huge landings decline and pressures being experienced across the sector? And, given your assurance to the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee that you were to hold the first meeting in mid July, is this still the case?

I thought you'd already seen the invitation. Yes, it is the case. It's 14 July that I will be holding the first meeting, which I'm sure you will welcome. As you said, I did give assurance to the committee. It will be interesting to see. I think it was really imperative that we had a new structure in place. We'd had the Wales Marine Fisheries Advisory Group for quite a long time, but we are in a new world now—we've left the European Union—and we have to make sure that our fishers have many more opportunities than they had previously. I have had discussions with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary of State to ensure that Welsh fishers absolutely get their fair share of quotas. We've always co-designed and co-managed fisheries, both management and the way that we've looked at schemes that we've brought forward, particularly with COVID et cetera. So, I don't think the structure will change. What I think is really important is that the advice I'm given, as Minister, and my officials, covers the whole range of fisheries and marine.

14:30

Thank you. And, Minister, I also want to raise your attention with regard to the several families fleeing the war in Ukraine who are seeking refuge here in Wales. As you will be aware, those family pets that wish to join their owners in Wales, must rightly fulfil certain criteria to do so: they must be vaccinated against rabies, be microchipped, undertake tapeworm treatment, and possess a full, issued pet passport. Your department has confirmed that they're doing everything possible to simplify this process and ensure that these pets are able to return to their owners as quickly as possible. However, I've had correspondence from a constituent who says that, despite the advice coming from the Animal and Plant Health Agency claiming that they are happy to release their cat, it is the Welsh Government who are refusing a Ukrainian refugee family the permit to allow them to home quarantine it, despite claiming that Welsh Government review each application on a case-by-case basis.

Now, there are instances where I do believe that this should be a viable option, therefore can I call on you to reconsider this decision and ensure that these pets, companion animals, important members of the family, are reunited with their owners as quickly and safely as it's reasonable to do so?

Absolutely. I obviously recognise it's a very difficult and distressing situation that has led Ukrainian people to our country and the decision to not allow home quarantining was not taken lightly. I've done it to protect both public health and the health of our animals here in Wales. You obviously raise one individual case with me; I'm not aware of those details. However, I will say, APHA are responsible for ensuring all that paperwork is correct. So, if that paperwork is correct, I cannot see why we would turn that down. I'll be very happy—. If you want to write to me, I am aware that you have written to me already about a constituent, I think in relation to Ukrainian pets—I don't know if it's the same one, but if you would like to write to me, I will certainly look into it as a matter of urgency.

I'm grateful for that, Minister, and I will follow that up in writing with yourself.

Finally, I wish to draw your attention to the recent 'Celebrating Rural Wales' event, held at the Royal Welsh showground earlier this month, an event that your Government's press release stated provided an opportunity

'to learn lessons from the many successes of the RDP'—

an RDP previously criticised by the Wales Audit Office. Now, this event came with a financial cost of over £85,000, which was confirmed as funded via the rural development programme technical assistance budget. In a press release, you stated that 200-odd people attended this event, placing an expenditure roughly at £425 per head. Now, given that public money was used to fund this event, I would expect this event to be held for the benefit of Rural Payment Wales applicants. However, having a customer reference number was not a prerequisite for being able to attend. If we are unable to measure the number of attendees who were in receipt of RDP money, i.e. those who can actually teach us the lessons of RDP funding, then what metric has been used to gauge the success of this conference? And in the interest of transparency, how are you demonstrating that this event represented value for money for Welsh taxpayers?

Thank you. Well, I think I should correct you when you say the Wales Audit Office criticised the rural development programme—there were literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of schemes, and the benefits to our rural communities I think are very apparent in many, many cases.

I think the event that was held, the conference, and the TasteWales event that was held next door to the conference, have been very successful. What I wanted to do was talk to people. I don't know if you attended yourself, but I wanted to talk to people who had been in receipt of rural development funding—what benefit it had brought to them. Some of the schemes, and some of the programmes—the people I spoke to had been doing them for about 10 years, so there was a wealth of data and evidence, and obviously anecdotal discussions as well, I appreciate, to help us as we bring forward the successor programme. What I have asked officials to do is draw that all together in a document, and if I'm able to, I will certainly publish it. 

14:35

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

Thank you very much, Llywydd. I want to raise an issue that I've raised in the past, if I may. The huge increase in the prices of fodder, fuel and fertiliser is hitting our farmers hard at the moment. There's a shortage of red diesel, which has increased 50 per cent in a year, and the cost of fertiliser has more than trebled in 12 months. There's a shortage of maize, for example, to feed animals. And the agricultural development board has suggested that the cost of intensive fodder will increase by 40 per cent, and farmers are already looking at adjusting their sowing plans. 

All the signs are there for us to see real problems in producing and supplying foods. As my colleague Llyr Gruffydd mentioned yesterday, in March the Irish Government announced a crop growth scheme worth €12 million, among a number of other steps. We need a plan here in order to avoid a food crisis, along with an animal welfare crisis. The recent pig farm crisis should be a warning of that. The answers provided yesterday show that there is no plan in place to secure the future of fodder. So, does the Government have a plan to tackle the animal feed crisis facing farmers this winter? After all, it's better to prepare now than to panic later. 

Well, I don't think there's any panic, and certainly, in the discussions I've had with stakeholders, with my ministerial counterparts, with the farming unions, and certainly the discussions that officials have had, I don't think 'panic' is the correct word to use at all. A lot of these levers do sit with the UK Government, such as fuel, for instance, so those discussions are ongoing. I met yesterday on another topic with the Minister of State in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and we are going to continue discussions around the fuel, food and fertiliser issues. At the Royal Welsh Show, we'll be having an inter-ministerial group meeting, where we will continue to have them.

My officials regularly attend the market monitoring group that the UK Government have pulled together with other devolved administrations so that we can monitor prices across all agricultural sectors, and, certainly, the schemes that we brought forward in February this year. And some schemes are open now; some more schemes will be opening around the £237 million I referred to in an earlier answer. Some of that funding—farmers are already saying it is helping them with their plans, particularly around nutrient management and spreading fertiliser. I mentioned in an earlier answer to Sam Rowlands that farmers that are in the Glastir scheme, for instance, can come forward with a derogation request. My understanding is, to date, nobody has yet done that, but these are all avenues that are open to them. 

Thank you very much for that response. If I could move on to my next point, one thing that's wonderful about this job is that one learns something new every day, and I've learnt very recently that y clafr is the term for sheep scab. So, I'm going to ask a question on sheep scab.

As we know, sheep scab is one of the most infectious sheep diseases in Wales, and it was noted as a priority by the animal health and welfare group. It costs around £8 million a year to the sheep industry in the UK, which includes 14,000 payments here in Wales, with 9 per cent of sheep farmers experiencing one case of sheep scab per year. Now, the Welsh Government's framework, the action plan for 2022-24, sets out that the framework group will work with Government and will engage with sheep farmers and their vets in order to develop an agreed approach to control this disease. It also notes that the approach should focus on preventing the disease from spreading to flocks by simple biosecurity measures that are effective and can be used by all sheep farmers. 

In the last Senedd, the Minister herself said that eradicating sheep scab was a priority for the Government, and a pledge was made that £5 million would be available to help to eradicate sheep scab on farms in Wales. Will the Minister therefore provide us with an update on the progress made to eradicate sheep scab in Wales, and more specifically, what assessment have you made of the impact of the £5 million programme for sheep scab in Wales? 

I haven't got the figures in front of me of what the decrease we have seen in sheep scab is. I know that there was one, and I will certainly write to the Member with that. What I think is really important, if we are going to eradicate sheep scab, is that we work very much in partnership with the agricultural sector. I remember visiting a farm—I was going to say last year, but it probably wasn't because it was pre-COVID, so it was probably about three years ago—and it was a farm in mid Wales that had really managed to eradicate sheep scab from their farm. I think it's really important that that best practice is shared between our farmers, but I appreciate it is absolutely a joint effort between us.

I did give funding. I don't think it was quite £5 million, the funding I was able to give. I certainly wasn't able to give as much as I had intended to, and that was definitely due to the COVID pandemic and the way we had to reallocate some funding. But, again, I will put the details in a letter to the Member.

14:40
Reducing Agricultural Waste

3. How will the Welsh Government's future farming policy help to reduce agricultural waste? OQ58278

Thank you. The proposed sustainable farming scheme will support farmers to undertake a range of actions to help them become more resource efficient. We will support farmers to take a circular approach, keeping resources and materials in use for as long as possible and avoiding waste.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. I fully recognise that the agricultural sector is improving all the time when it comes to reducing their waste, but one stubborn factor that seems to be harder to solve is the plastic produced by the sector for things such as silage, piping, irrigation, mulching, packaging and greenhouse covers. These activities create massive amounts of plastic waste that often ends up tarnishing the beautiful landscape. Silage wrap in particular will be a common sight for those who visit the countryside, but thinner plastics, such as that that's used in mulching and greenhouses, offer a different threat as they break down into microplastics.

The UN produced a report last year citing the disastrous way plastic is being used in farming across the world, which is threatening food safety and human health. Many of the worst practices are seen in other countries, but Wales and other parts of the UK are not exempt. At a time when pressures are profound on the agricultural sector, how are the Welsh Government ensuring that we support farmers and food producers to dispose of their plastic correctly, and how are we helping them to reduce their plastic use in the first place?

Thank you. So, if I can answer the second part of your question first, we absolutely remain committed to supporting our farming sector to farm in the most environmentally friendly way that they possibly can, and appropriate disposing and recycling of plastics such as silage wrap is actively monitored via farm assurance-type schemes. Certainly, as part of the sustainable farming scheme, we will be looking, as I said in my original answer to you, at those circular resources. There are services within Wales to collect farm film for recycling. Wales has two of the main UK farm film recycling plants here. We're also intending on introducing regulations to require recyclable plastic to be separated for recycling in all non-domestic premises in Wales, and that obviously would include farms.

I'd like to thank Jayne Bryant for raising this question. Your own figures suggest, Minister, around 30 per cent of waste produced on farms is of that low-grade plastic, and it can be extremely difficult for farmers to dispose of. What I'd like to know is what actions are the Welsh Government taking to set up co-operatives and work with farmers so they can actually help for that plastic to be taken away and recycled? And what research and development has been done with Welsh Government and its partners to help farming reduce its use of plastics for things like silage wrap, which are extremely difficult to recycle? Diolch, Llywydd.

Thank you. I'm not aware, off the top of my head, of any research and development, but certainly I've had discussions with farmers. I remember one farmer in particular who was very keen to see what he could do to find a way of dealing with this silage wrap particularly. We know that, predominantly in Wales, we have a grass-based livestock sector and very reliant on silage in our winter months. So, I'd be very happy if anybody wants to come forward with any solutions to this problem. I'd be very happy to work with them.

The Valley Greyhounds Stadium

4. Will the Minister make a statement on the future of the Valley Greyhound stadium? OQ58270

Thank you. The programme for government and our animal welfare plan include a commitment to bring forward a national model for the licensing of animal welfare activities in Wales. It is my intention to consider greyhound racing as part of the animal exhibits consultation on a revised licensing scheme.

Thank you very much for that response, Minister. I understand that Caerphilly council has decided to not continue with the existing number of animal welfare inspections at Valley stadium. Of the 10 planned inspections, six have been completed, but the remaining four are unlikely to be carried out. Data from Hope Rescue suggests that many dogs are injured at the track, and there are ongoing concerns about injuries, the welfare of the dogs and that vets are not always present during races, which, as I'm sure you would appreciate, puts the dogs at huge risk. Could I seek assurances from you that you are working with Caerphilly council to ensure that the welfare inspections at Valley, such as those conducted under the partnership delivery plan, will continue to be carried out, and, more specifically, will you work with the council and the racetrack to ensure the presence of vets at all races at the stadium? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

14:45

Diolch, Jane Dodds. You can absolutely be assured that I will be continuing to put pressure on Caerphilly County Borough Council. As you know, I wrote to the new owner of the racing track back in March. I still haven't had the courtesy of a response, even though I've chased up the letter too, and I met with the Greyhound Board of Great Britain also to see what further we can do. Obviously, now, Caerphilly County Borough Council has, as you said, had at least six inspections at the stadium, a vet was always present, and it's really important that those inspections continue and a vet is present. So, I've asked my officials to work closely with the council to make sure that it continues, and I'll be very happy to update Members.

Minister, nobody is more concerned about the welfare of greyhounds than the Greyhound Board of Great Britain. The board constantly strives to minimise the possibility of injury to greyhounds by funding track improvements, improvements at kennels and ensuring that independent veterinary surgeons are present at all GBGB tracks to check the health and well-being of greyhounds before and after racing. Do you agree, Minister, that the welfare of greyhounds is best served by having properly regulated racing as a controlled spectator sport, rather than forcing it underground and risking illegal and dangerous racing, which would only increase the number of injuries to greyhounds? Thank you.

Well, I certainly don't want to see any illegal racing. You'll be aware we've only got the one track here in Wales, and that's the one that Jane Dodds asked the original question about. My concern is about the number of greyhounds that are injured. I've seen some horrific injuries, and the track seems to pride itself on having the most difficult bend in the country. That seems to be a matter of pride to them, and it's just completely beyond my comprehension.

To build on Jane's question, and it's a question that I'm sure the Minister expects every time she sees a question on greyhounds or if there's any opportunity that I can ever link greyhounds to a supplementary question, I was wondering if the Minister is now in a position to provide an update on including greyhound racing as part of the future licensing scheme as set out in the animal welfare plan. I imagine the Minister, like me, is in close contact with many animal welfare charities across Wales, and this is a question they continuously raise with me. I'd also be keen to establish the Government's thinking on the petition submitted by Hope Rescue, though I accept that the Petitions Committee report has yet to be released.

Yes, I certainly do, when Jane Dodd asks a question, I expect one off you, and vice versa, on this really important issue. I'm grateful to you for raising it, as I'm sure many greyhounds are too. I thought the event that you had with Hope Rescue in the Senedd, Paws in the Bay, was fantastic and it was great to talk to people who were owners of greyhounds, like Jane Dodds, who'd rescued greyhounds. It certainly helps me with my thinking, and officials too.

It is absolutely part of our welfare plan. I can't give you a further update. As you know, it's a five-year plan and we will be bringing it through as we go through this term of Government. I am aware, obviously, of the Petitions Committee report that they're looking at. I'd be very surprised if we don't have a debate in this Chamber as a consequence of it, and I very much would welcome that.

Illegal Breeding of Dogs

5. How is the Welsh Government supporting animal rehoming centres to care for dogs rescued from illegal breeding? OQ58248

Thank you. Our local authority enforcement project has contributed to significant seizures of illegally bred puppies. However, I am aware of additional pressures facing the animal rehoming sector in a post-pandemic landscape alongside the cost-of-living crisis. We work with our third sector partners to consider and support solutions wherever possible.

Thank you, Minister. I recently visited Hope Rescue centre with Huw Irranca-Davies, as he mentioned, and I think we can all agree that the visit from Hope Rescue and south Wales greyhound rescue has left a massive impression on a lot of us, just by the questions that we've had today. But I think we can all see, like you said, just how outstanding the care for the dogs was. On our visit to the centre, though, the staff told us how they are now inundated with seized dogs from illegal breeders. The BBC reported that investigations into illegal dog breeding have risen by 63 per cent in Wales. This is very much a good thing, but they are of course then signed over to the rescue centres for care, and they're just absolutely inundated. They actually told me that, since our visit two weeks ago, 10 poorly bulldogs have been seized, and the issue is that whilst an investigation then takes place by the police, the seized dogs can't move on, so this is creating a huge backlog of dogs within the centre, and there's just a lack of space now for new dogs if they need to be rescued. They said that if there's one more call from the police now, they're just going to have to say 'no'; they can't take anymore. So, Minister, how is the Welsh Government working with local authorities to strengthen the regulations and prevent illegal dog breeding within our communities, but, more than anything, is there anything that can be done or a timescale put on how long the dogs can be in the home before they can be rehomed?

14:50

Thank you. I think you raise a really important point, and that small dog I had tucked under my arm for quite a long time on that walk was one such animal that they could not rehouse. I know in Scotland they have been looking at it, and I've asked officials to liaise with officials in Scotland to see if there's anything we can learn from them to be able to, as you say, look at that timescale from it. The capacity to investigate and stop illegal breeding has really increased significantly within local authorities, and that's as a direct result of the enforcement project that we brought forward. The project tackles the barriers to enforcement. It does provide enhanced training and guidance for our inspectors, and it maximises the use of existing resources within individual local authorities and across Wales. So, I was really pleased to see the project had been commended by the RSPCA and by the BBC recently, but I don't underestimate the significant work we still need to do.

Thank you, Sarah, for raising this important issue. You're right—63 per cent of illegal dog breeding has been reported by the BBC, although the number of prosecutions remains very low. What specific action can be taken as part of your animal welfare plan to ensure that there is capacity within the rehoming centres to deal with such an increase and work with the RSPCA to reinforce the importance of prosecution? Thank you.

Yes. I don't think we need to enforce the importance of prosecution; it's something that I've raised in my discussions with the police, which is obviously not a devolved area, but I've certainly had discussions with the RSPCA, and I've been out, as I suppose many Members in the Chamber have been, with the RSPCA and seen the difficulties they face if they come across a situation where they think that dog needs to be taken away and they don't have the powers to do so. So, we've worked very closely with the RSPCA around that and continue to do so. I am really grateful for the very strong relationship we have with those third sector organisations and with the local authorities. I think it really is now something that we need to continue to pursue with the police.

Dog Protection Legislation

6. What assessment has the Minister made of the effectiveness of Welsh legislation in protecting dogs? OQ58244

Thank you. We work in partnership with the Welsh Government-funded local authority enforcement project and animal welfare organisations to monitor the effectiveness of our work to protect dogs and to consider further actions. I am supportive of further measures to ensure high welfare standards are maintained in matters such as dog breeding.

Thank you, Minister, for that response. Like many Members of the Senedd, I strongly supported the introduction of the Welsh version of Lucy's law, which you brought in in the last Senedd. I, like many Members here, support the Justice For Reggie campaign, calling for the regulation of online sales of dogs, with the regulation of all websites where animals are sold, for websites to be required to verify the identity of all sellers, and for young animals 'for sale' pictures with their parents to be posted with all listings. Does the Welsh Government support the taking of such action, and is it a devolved responsibility?

Thank you. Whilst it's a very important step, I think I always maintain that the regulations I did bring in last year on pet sales didn't address all the problems associated with puppy trading. Reflecting this, we do support further measures to ensure high welfare standards at dog breeding establishments. I also acknowledge the lure of a quick, unregulated sale that really can attract unscrupulous breeders and dealers to websites. So, for that reason, we do support the work of the UK-wide pet advertising advisory group, and that seeks to ensure online advertising of pets is carried out legally and ethically. You'll be aware we also supported the local authority enforcement project, and that does liaise closely with the police, so it is a reserved area. But, I would just say that if anybody does have any specific concerns, they should contact CrimeStoppers as a matter of urgency.

14:55

Minister, on that point about unregulated or poorly regulated sales, you might recall, back in October, I raised with you the issue of a graded or scoring system to be implemented for dog breeders within Wales, and you responded at the time saying that was certainly something you were considering. Now, new figures released this week by the RSPCA and Hope Rescue show that local authorities received almost 1,000 enquiries from concerned members of the public in 2020 and 2021 and, as we've heard from Sarah Murphy and Altaf Hussain, the number of investigations have increased by 63 per cent as well, and I think the reason all three of us have mentioned that is because that is quite a stark figure. That suggests that, whilst consumers might be becoming more aware of some of the practices by rogue traders, that is a cause for concern as well. So, given that, Minister, can you provide an update on what progress has been made in implementing recommendations such as these, as set out in the expert task and finish group?

I haven't got a specific update, and I certainly can't give you a timescale. As I said in a previous answer, the plan is a five-year plan. We're only just into the second year of the plan, but it's certainly something that we will be monitoring very closely.

Young People in the Agricultural Sector

7. What is the Welsh Government doing to encourage young people into the agricultural sector and retain them? OQ58280

The Welsh Government continues to provide support for young entrants and those who want to enter the agricultural industry, through programmes such as Farming Connect and Venture. The proposed sustainable farming scheme will support new entrants to enter the industry and establish sustainable businesses.

Thank you, Minister, for that response, and I refer Members to my declaration of interest as a farmer myself. As a Minister, you've stated the Welsh Government has introduced some welcome initiatives to retain young people and, it looks like, hopefully, some more in the future, and that's welcomed. However, despite these initiatives, the sector is not getting any younger. The average age of a farmer is around 59 years old, and that's a similar age to me, and I certainly feel pretty old. Yet, recent events have shown that it's more important than ever to encourage new people into agriculture to help ensure domestic food security, as well as sustaining a vibrant industry that provides jobs and skills for our rural areas. As such, Llywydd, I do think we need to do more in Wales to encourage more people, and particularly those not already from agricultural backgrounds, to step into the sector. Minister, what consideration have you given to introducing a workforce strategy with the aim of retaining and expanding the domestic agricultural workforce, as well as upskilling and reskilling young people to open up opportunities for them? These young will be absolutely fundamental to a sustainable food system. Thank you.

Thank you. The Member raises a really important point, because if we don't encourage the next generation, we won't have that prosperous and dynamic industry that we really want to see here in Wales. So, since I've been in portfolio, it's always been something that I've been very keen on encouraging, and we did have the Young People into Agriculture programme that we had back in March. I think it finished in March 2020, and that was very successful—we had about 150 applications, and I think the majority of them were successful. So, it would be good to perhaps have another look at seeing if we can do something similar, going forward.

I mentioned that there are a few schemes we've brought forward to help young people into the sector, but I think you made a very pertinent point about people not from an agricultural background, because sometimes I think it's even harder for them, and not having access to land and capital is seen as the main barriers for those young people to go into the industry, particularly if they haven't got the support of a farming background or a family in farming.

I haven't had any discussions about having a workforce strategy specifically. As you know, we've got the Venture scheme. That's designed to match landowners and farmers who are looking to step back from the industry with new entrants who are then looking for a way into the sector, and I think it's a very good initiative. It's innovative, it's run through Farming Connect, which, as you know, is only available here in Wales, and it really does guide people on both sides through the key steps to making that potential business partnership. And, again, I've had very interesting discussions with the younger farmer and the older farmer as to how successful it's been. They certainly, I think, appreciated the mentoring, the specialist advice and the business support that's come forward. 

15:00
European Union Import Checks

8. What representations has the Welsh Government made to the UK Government about the impact on Welsh farming of the delayed introduction of European Union import checks? OQ58277

Thank you. Well, immediately following the UK Government’s announcement to delay and redesign import controls I wrote to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Yesterday, I had a further meeting with the UK Government's Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food and my Scottish counterpart, and I will chair further discussions next month at our inter-ministerial group.

Thank you, Minister. The Welsh Government have been correct to identify the continued delays to the introduction of European Union import checks, which are a risk to our collective biosecurity. The risk is intensified with the lack of access to European Union traceability, disease notification and the emergency response systems. The protection of biosecurity is a devolved matter, but obviously it is a commonsense approach that a UK-wide approach to this is adopted, with the UK Treasury funding any expenditure required on border controls. So, what further dialogue and assurances will the Welsh Government be seeking from the UK Government to ensure that Welsh farming interests are protected in the longer term?

I don't disagree with anything you said. I think this is now becoming very, very urgent, and I made that very clear to Victoria Prentis at the meeting last night. I also made it very clear that whilst—. I think we're on the same page with DEFRA on this, really, and the Scottish Government; we do want to see a UK-wide policy. But I made it very clear that they should not take our support for granted. If we see it and we're not happy with it, we will go on our own. As you say, it is a devolved area, and I am very concerned that these checks need to be carried out, because I go back to what we were saying about Ukrainian pets in my answer to Sam Rowlands—it's really important that we safeguard the public health of both people and animals here in Wales. This is the third delay now, and we've had to stop the design of our border control posts and, okay, we've started it again now, but have we got assurance about money? No, we haven't. So, I made it very clear again to DEFRA last night that we need the Treasury to come forward. You'll be aware my colleague Vaughan Gething, the Minister for Economy, made a statement yesterday in the Siambr on border control posts; I'm working very closely with him. But there is such uncertainty around what we should be preparing for, and what those border control posts should look like. Biosecurity, for me, is one of the most important parts of my portfolio.

3. Topical Questions

The next item, therefore, is the topical questions, and the first question today is to be answered once again by the Trefnydd, and is to be asked by Rhys ab Owen.

The Welsh Devolution Settlement

1. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to protect the Welsh devolution settlement following the announcement by the UK Government to remove the Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017? TQ645

Member
Lesley Griffiths MS 15:03:15
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Thank you. The UK Government's announcement of their intention to repeal the Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017 is yet another example of their contempt for the devolution settlement and their disrespect for this democratically elected Senedd. We will do everything in our power to resist it.

That's exactly right, isn't it, Trefnydd? Because, since the beginning of democratic devolution, by election or referenda, the people of Wales have voted time and time again to enhance the law-making powers of the Senedd. The very principle established through democratic means is being undermined by the Westminster Conservative Government. This very Chamber is being undermined. The Prime Minister's contempt for the rule of law and of devolution is judged in equal measure in this case. 

Plaid Cymru have warned on several occasions about the undermining of this place through the legislative consent memoranda process. I really hope that this Chamber now wakes up to this blatant disregard to our Siambr here, for the Westminster Government to undermine a primary piece of Welsh legislation through their own legislation. The time for stern letters, the time for fury, has come to an end. We need action. To borrow a phrase from those who had to fight for their democratic freedoms, it's time now for deeds, not words. So, Trefnydd, what is the Welsh Government doing to respond to this shameful and undermining act? Diolch yn fawr. 

Well, I don't disagree with anything that you said, and you're quite right, this is not the first time. It's happened before, and I think, again, when it has happened before, when they've overreached constitutionally, which they have, we've not been found wanting, and we've certainly challenged at every opportunity. Currently, the UK Government haven't taken any direct action, so there is nothing at the moment to engage with. But, obviously, the Counsel General will be having discussions with lawyers and with other relevant partners, and, if or when the UK Government do take some direct action, obviously Welsh Government lawyers would be ready to respond. I just think the UK Government is obviously incredibly anti-trade union in its stance, and its approach shows a complete disregard for workers' rights. But primarily it's that disrespect for devolution and for legislation passed by this Senedd that, I think, is so brazen at this time. 

15:05

Llywydd, at the last general election, the Tories came to communities like mine in Alyn and Deeside, and they promised to level them up; they promised to make lives better. And there was a clear implication in that, and it was: if you vote Conservative, you'll have more money in your pockets and more opportunities for you and the children. But that's far from reality, isn't it? Because, this week, we saw the stark reality of what a Conservative Government offers to working people.

Two years ago, Minister, they stood and they clapped key workers. What a shallow gesture this applause and their so-called levelling-up agenda has proven to be. The reality is that they are laughing at us. They are looking to remove powers from the Welsh Government with the sole objective of suppressing workers' pay and undermining their terms and conditions. Not only does that disrespect and undermine this democratically elected institution, but it disrespects and undermines the working people of Wales and their families.

Minister, will you take the message to the UK Conservative Government that communities like mine, and those communities across Wales, are angry? And will you take the message to them and share our anger with the UK Government? And could you outline, if the do make steps to progress this piece of legislation, how the Welsh Government will resist this change on behalf of the working people of Wales? And, finally, Minister, do you also agree with me—and I say this, Llywydd, as a proud trade unionist, for the record—that the way for working people to protect their living standards is to join a trade union? 

Yes, absolutely. I agree with your final point. It's a very important point that you raise. Again, I don't disagree with anything Jack Sargeant said. I think the levelling up—. How can this possibly be levelling up? It's an absolute disgrace, this assault on our devolution again. I outlined, in my original answer, what the Counsel General is currently doing, and what will happen if, or when, the UK Government do take any direct action, and the Welsh Government lawyers, as I say, will be ready to respond, if that's the case. I think it's just another example—the UK Government have complete disregard to the Sewel convention—of why the current devolution settlement really is in need of reform, and why we have set up the independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales to consider ways of strengthening the current settlement, and this may well be an area they wish to look at, but, of course, that would be a matter for them. 

I speak as someone who strongly supports devolution, and I'm really pleased that we've got devolution of powers to the large English cities. But does the Minister agree with me that asymmetric devolution does not work, that the primacy of Westminster means that it can override any Welsh law and also interfere with any Welsh laws, that we need an agreed devolution settlement, with a proper reserved-powers model, as opposed to the reserved-powers model we've got at the moment, which has very little in common with a reserved-powers model, and, finally, that we need devo max? 

I think the primacy aspect of what Mike Hedges has said, in relation to the UK Government, is obviously very important. And I go back to my answer to Jack Sargeant—it's why we've set up that independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, and that can look very closely at the suggestions that Mike Hedges had, to see if we could strengthen the current settlement. 

I hadn't intended to stand, but I do recall, from correspondence with the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, that today is the second meeting scheduled for the Interministerial Standing Committee, and one of the items—one of the two items—that was scheduled, and we thank Ministers for their transparency with the Senedd on this, was, indeed, UK inter-governmental relations. Would we be safe to assume—I believe that may be taking place, as we speak here now—would we be safe to assume that these matters are being laid on the table this afternoon for discussion? Because that is the forum that should be resolving these issues before they end up in legal challenges?

15:10

That meeting is indeed taking place. Obviously, I'm not in that meeting; that's why I'm in the Chamber answering this question. But I think we can safely say, I'm sure, that the Counsel General or the First Minister, or whoever is present at that meeting, will indeed raise that. 

I think one other point I would like to make is that, having looked into this now in far greater detail, the UK Government's position I think is very much weakened in that it did not challenge five years ago, during the intimation period. And suddenly to do this, to sneak it out in the way that they did—again, I just think it's a brazen attack. 

I thank the Trefnydd. The next question is to be answered by the Minister for health, and is to be asked by Andrew R.T. Davies.

Eye Care Services

2. Will the Minister make a statement on the warning by Dr Gwyn Williams, of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, that a tide of avoidable blindness could sweep Wales if eye care services are not reformed? TQ647

Diolch yn fawr. Llywydd, Gwyn Williams, who is our ophthalmology clinical lead, along with the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, has worked with us to develop an eye care strategy, which we are now implementing. Over the past 12 months, eye care services have implemented considerable innovations to ensure that patients at risk of sight loss are seen and are treated. 

Thank you, Minister, for that response. The waiting times are horrendous for eye treatments anywhere in Wales. And there are difficulties across the United Kingdom; I accept that, Minister. Dr Williams highlights three points that he believes need dramatic intervention on behalf of the Government, working with health boards. The first is, obviously, changing working practices and actually using a wider base of professionals to, obviously, deal with eye care services; the second is the recruitment of people into the service to increase the capacity of the service; and the third is to create three eye care centres of excellence across Wales and actually look at what optometrists can do in their high street locations to, obviously, increase the service level that may be available for people with eye conditions.

Nothing could be considered worse, I would suggest, than actually losing your sight over a given period of time, when you know an intervention could stop that deterioration in your eyesight and going into a world of darkness. How confident are you, Minister, that the plan that you've put in place will meet the three objectives that Dr Williams has highlighted as of critical concern if we are to expand the service here in Wales and that in 12 months' time we will not be here still debating, still discussing, large waiting times for eye care treatment in Wales, and, regrettably, many people having the lights going off in their eyesight and darkness prevailing in their lives?

Thanks very much, Andrew. I absolutely am very aware of the fact that there are certain conditions where we have to move fast, and this is one of them, which is why what we've done is to ask clinicians to sort out priorities, to put people into categories so that we are really getting to the people who need the most urgent help fastest. Of course, what we are doing is implementing the recommendations of the Pyott report, and one of those is now being implemented. So, we've got two new surgical mobile theatres dedicated to cataract treatment. They're in operation in Cardiff and the Vale, and that was funded by £1.4 million of funding from the Welsh Government.

In terms of working practices, we are looking to change the rules. So, the rules currently say that high street optometrists, for example, can only check eyesight, but their skills go way beyond that, and we need to change the rules to allow them to do that. So, the process is not as straightforward as it seems to change the rules, but we are absolutely in the process of seeing how far and how quickly we can do that. 

When it comes to recruitment, of course, we're working with Health Education and Improvement Wales in terms of specialising and making sure we've got the right people to do the right things in the right place. And certainly, when it comes to high streets, we are very, very keen to make sure that they are a part of the solution to this problem. 

Since 2018, the policy in Wales is that eye care and the kind of care that is provided is based on the level of risk. It was innovative in that regard, with patients being seen according to how much risk they face. And the highest risk factor is for those who face the risk of irreversible harm. And for people with eye problems, that means the risk of losing their sight. Now, in order for a system like that to work, people have to be seen within a specific time frame. It’s as simple as that, and that’s why the target notes that 95 per cent of patients need to be seen within that time frame. It should be 100 per cent as far as I’m concerned, but that 95 per cent is statistically quite close. But we hear now that 65,000 people aren’t being seen within that specific time frame: 65,000 people facing losing their sight. 

I drew attention to this in the middle of the dark months of the pandemic, in February of last year. I was concerned about the impact of the pandemic, but we’re hopefully moving out of the pandemic now and the problems are intensifying. It’s bad enough when people are waiting in pain for orthopaedic treatment, perhaps, but we’re talking here about people who are losing their sight. 

We’ve heard about the NHS starting to receive post-COVID targets, therefore, may I ask the Minister, very simply, when does she commit not to decreasing the number of people who are waiting longer than they should, but to getting rid of these waiting times entirely? There’s no point having a system that is based on risk measures if you then leave tens of thousands of people open to the highest level of risk. 

15:15

Thank you. As you’re aware, I was pleased to see, for the first time, that those waiting for two years and longer, that those lists are coming down for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. So, we’re travelling in the right direction, but, of course, we’re not travelling quickly enough. You must bear in mind in terms of the figures that we’re dealing with at the moment, that we published our plan in April, and it's April’s figures that we have. So, it does take time to put systems in place, and what we have now, for example, is the NHS Wales university eye-care centre. They are developing a workforce that can provide that sophisticated care and provide those opportunities for optometrists across Wales to work.

So, I am pleased to see that those structures in terms of risk are in place, but what we’re endeavouring to do now is to get through the list as quickly as possible, and that’s why having these places that stand alone and aren’t going to be knocked out for reasons such as urgent care and so on is so important. So, what we’re likely to see is that those lists will reduce far more quickly than we’ve seen in the past. If you look, for example, at Swansea, there's the new modular theatre there. We hope to see some 200 operations per month in addition to what happened previously. 

4. 90-second Statements

The next item is the 90-second statements, but Vikki Howells isn’t present to make the statement in her name. 

5. Statement by the Chair of the Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee—Welsh Government Consolidated Accounts 2020-21

And so I’m going to have to move on to item 5, the statement by the Chair of the Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee on the Welsh Government consolidated accounts for 2020-21. I call on the Chair of the public accounts committee to make that statement, Mark Isherwood. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Good afternoon and thank you to you, Llywydd, for the opportunity to make this statement today.

Members may be aware that there has been a significant delay in signing off the Welsh Government’s 2020-21 annual accounts. To provide context, the previous Public Accounts Committee would usually undertake detailed scrutiny of these accounts annually during the autumn term, and we had hoped to continue with this in the Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee during this term. To provide context, as I've said, this has always occurred. 

The Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee was informally made aware last summer by both the Welsh Government and the Auditor General for Wales that the Welsh Government’s accounts for 2020-21 may be finalised later than usual. We were told that the delay was due to the additional work being undertaken by Audit Wales on support to business grants provided by Welsh Government. This, we understood, was a complex matter that needed further review and discussion between the auditor general and the Welsh Government. However, at that time, we expected the accounts to be finalised no later than November 2021, which is within the statutory time frame for doing so. Yes, 'statutory'; this is bound by law. Towards the end of November, we were alerted to a further delay, when the Welsh Government needed to advise Audit Wales of a potential post-balance-sheet event in order to ensure full transparency.

At the time, the Auditor General for Wales also wrote to us, confirming this further delay and stating that he had asked for further information to be provided to him by Welsh Government officials by early January 2022. This was accepted by the committee, and we agreed to await the outcome of this further work, respecting the necessary audit process required. We value the role and work of Audit Wales in ensuring that the highest financial reporting standards are adhered to and that this work should never be undermined, rushed or fettered. The auditor general is bound by duties to ensure that the appropriate checks and balances are in place.

I must stress that we cannot discuss the specific reason for the delay. Until the accounts are signed, we are not able to discuss this, as it is not in the public domain and, as we understand, could even be subject to legal proceedings. I also want to put on the record that, while the accounts have been delayed, the committee has been in receipt of regular private updates on the progress being made in finalising the accounts. These updates have been provided by the auditor general and the Welsh Government, enabling the committee to monitor the situation.

However, in February of this year, when the accounts were still yet to be finalised, I wrote to the Llywydd, expressing my concern about the delay. The committee was becoming increasingly concerned about its ability to scrutinise the Welsh Government on these important matters. This delay has resulted in statutory deadlines for financial reporting being missed. And, given that we are referring to the accounts of a Government, it is important that this matter and the concerns of the Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee are placed on the public record and raised in this Chamber to ensure that the wider Senedd is aware of the issue. I only wish more Members appreciated that and attended to benefit from this short session.

Section 131 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 requires the Government to submit their accounts to the auditor general for audit no later than 30 November in the following financial year—i.e. April to March. The auditor general is then required to lay before the Senedd his examination and certification of those accounts within four months of receipt of an auditable set of accounts. This is statutory, enshrined in legislation, and yet we are now in June, with still no clear indication as to when these accounts will be laid.

The purpose of these timings is to ensure that public accountability, scrutiny and reporting to Her Majesty’s Treasury can take place within a reasonable time frame. The Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee has a serious job to do in terms of scrutinising these accounts as they report the largest amount of public expenditure by any public body in Wales. And the timing of our scrutiny is designed to ensure that our work is relevant and able to influence the financial reporting in the following year. The delay in the signing of these accounts has undermined our ability to do this.

Yet, despite this statutory deadline having now been missed, there are no safeguards built into the process that prevent this, thus hindering scrutiny. We are concerned about the lack of recompense for deadlines being missed, and we do not want this to set a precedent for the future. In fact, the processes that apply to the Welsh Government are not comparable to provisions set out in other legislation for other public sector accounts.

For example, the Health and Social Care (Quality and Engagement) (Wales) Act 2020 states that the citizen voice body for health and social care must, for each financial year, submit its accounts to the Welsh Government and Auditor General for Wales no later than 31 August. However, the key difference is that should the auditor general not be able to lay these accounts before the Senedd because it is not reasonably practicable to do so, a statement must be made to that effect, which must include reasons as to why this is the case.

This legislation, like the Government of Wales Act, recognises that sometimes the four-month time frame cannot always be complied with, but that if such a situation arises, the Auditor General for Wales must keep the Senedd informed of the situation in a public and formal manner. The committee will be taking a closer look at these processes in due course, to see if changes can be made to bring the Welsh Government's financial reporting into line with the expectations placed on other public bodies in Wales.

I also want to place on the record that the Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee takes these matters very seriously and we will not rush or be pressurised into curtailing our scrutiny once the accounts have been published.

We anticipate these to be a more complex set of accounts, with several important issues, which we will need the time to scrutinise in detail publicly. We're well aware that these accounts will include significant public expenditure arising from the pandemic, which is a matter of public interest. It is imperative that we undertake this work, fulfil our role in the financial accountability cycle, and instil public confidence that we are holding the Welsh Government to account on its expenditure. We hope that we can look forward to being able to undertake this work in the autumn term accordingly. Diolch yn fawr.

15:25

Thank you, Mark Isherwood, for bringing this statement to the Senedd today. I think it's important that issues of this kind are brought out in public in front of the Senedd. The public accounts committee has undertaken scrutiny of the accounts of various public organisations on an annual basis for very many years. The work is very important, although not usually headline-grabbing. This work has seen year-on-year improvements in the presentation and accessibility of the annual reports and accounts by the public bodies that have appeared before the committee. There have previously been problems with the accounts of Natural Resources Wales, which I will not go into but which are a matter of public record, and these have also been reported to the Senedd.

The committee scrutinises the annual report and accounts of the Assembly Commission and the Welsh Government every year. The committee have found that this work has been an important driver of transparent financial reporting, having identified issues and made recommendations for improvements. And just a reminder: we're discussing the 2020-21 Welsh Government accounts. 

Over the last five years, the accounts have been signed and laid within the statutory time frame for doing so, normally early. The statutory deadline for financial reporting has been missed, and as Mark Isherwood said, section 131 of the Government of Wales Act requires the Government to submit their accounts to the auditor general for audit no later than 30 November in the following fiscal year. The public accounts committee should have approved the report, either at the end of the autumn term or in January.

Just a reminder: these accounts are produced by Government civil servants with no political involvement. I'm sure everybody is actually pleased that there is no political interference in the production of these accounts. This is very much an administrative matter.

Three questions for you, Mark Isherwood. When will the committee conduct its scrutiny of the 2021 accounts? Is further information still required by the auditor general from the Welsh Government civil servants? And how will this delay affect the 2021-22 audit of accounts?

Thank you, Mike Hedges, a valued member of the committee, who of course has been party to the attempted scrutiny thus far of this important matter. I think, as I indicated, and as you know from participation in the committee, we hope that we'll be able to scrutinise this now in the autumn, and we hope that by then the accounts will be concluded, will be laid properly, with all the outstanding questions addressed to the satisfaction of the auditor general, and we can finally get down to handling or dealing with our role in this. The concern, of course, as indicated, is not only about the time delay, where, by November this year, we will be a year behind already, but the failure for the learning from our scrutiny of these accounts to influence the next set of annual Welsh Government accounts, which are coming down the road fast and will not be in a position to benefit from the work we have done.

I look forward to you sitting around the table with me—hopefully in the autumn—and getting our teeth into this, holding the Welsh Government to account as necessary, dependent upon what these accounts conclude, but also retrospectively seeking to influence in any way we can the accounts in the following year where these apply to the same or related matters.

15:30

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak on this. I've only been a Member of the Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee for a year, and it's evident to me that, sadly, a lot of double standards exist here. I seem to be calling a spade a spade today and this seems to be the theme, so I may as well continue. Publishing the annual accounts has been delayed due to a Welsh Government payout; it's a simple as that. I expressed concerns previously and said exactly the same words during a business statement right here in this Chamber on 18 January 2022 about the delay, which in my opinion has hindered the work of the public accounts committee in scrutinising and holding the Welsh Government to account.

As a country, each year, countless individuals and businesses across the UK have to legally submit their returns to HMRC and Companies House, or face a fine for the delay. No-one likes to be fined, including me and many of my constituents in south-east Wales, and I'm sure all across Wales, and quite frankly, I'm just astounded by the delay here in the Welsh Government, and by the Welsh Government's lack of embarrassment for this. I would like to pay sincere tribute to my learned colleague Mike Hedges, who, week after week, month after month, has enquired about the updates to the accounts to simply no avail. I must also praise the auditor general and his team for his patience in this matter. In a world where the public's trust in politicians is not very favourable, I'd like to ask the Chair of the committee: Mark, do you share my concern that an unnecessary continued delay can only fuel the fire in the eyes of the public towards politicians? I am truly disappointed by the Welsh devolved Government, as I expected a much higher standard of respect for deadlines being adhered to by a political institution.

My second question to you, Mark, will be: do you agree, as the Chair of the Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee, that the Welsh Government is systematically failing its Members and also the public now for the lack of transparency, professionalism, and integrity in this delay, which does not appear to have any light at the end of this very long tunnel? Thank you so much.

I fully agree with the first point. The second point, given that I’m speaking as Chair of a committee, perhaps I shouldn’t comment on. We'll be scrutinising these accounts in the future. But I get your general gist and the basis for your concern, because as we’ve heard, over the last five years, the accounts have been signed and laid within the statutory time frame for doing so, and this time, that statutory time frame has been breached. That is a serious matter and it’s lucky, fortunate and essential that we have committees such as the Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee keeping a weather eye on this, and an office such as Audit Wales, and the role of the Auditor General for Wales, acting impartially but essentially and tenaciously in such matters to ensure that their role is conducted in accordance with their statutory remit. So, yes, I think you’ll take that as an agreement to the first point, but perhaps a diplomatic avoidance of responding to the second. Thank you.

6. Debate on the Health and Social Care Committee Report—'Waiting well? The impact of the waiting times backlog on people in Wales'

The next item, therefore, is the debate on the Health and Social Care Committee's report, 'Waiting well? The impact of the waiting times backlog on people in Wales'. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion. Russell George.

Motion NDM8039 Russell George

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the Health and Social Care Committee report: 'Waiting well? The impact of the waiting times backlog on people in Wales’, laid in the Table Office on 7 April 2022.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Llywydd. I’m pleased this afternoon to debate the Health and Social Care Committee’s report on the impact of the waiting times backlog. I move the motion in my name.

What is important to say is that before the pandemic, people were already waiting far too long for diagnosis, care and treatment. COVID has of course made the situation worse across all specialities and all stages of patient pathways. It is frequently said that the equivalent of one in five people in Wales are on a waiting list for diagnosis or treatment. Behind those numbers are of course individuals whose daily lives and potentially those of their families, friends and carers are being affected by delayed diagnosis or care. Alongside written and oral evidence, the powerful case studies collected by the Senedd engagement team captured the experiences of people waiting for diagnosis or treatment themselves or for someone they care for, and we're grateful to everyone who was willing to share their experiences with us as a committee.

15:35

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

We heard about people who are in pain, discomfort or experiencing anxiety. And we heard about people whose needs are becoming more complex, which puts more pressure on health services and on unpaid carers, who may be asked to take on more complex caring responsibilities. We also heard about people who are less able to work, study or undertake their usual caring responsibilities, and whose costs of living have increased, of course, as a result of their condition. We also heard about the pressures facing the health service, and by the health and social care workforce, as they tackle the pandemic and the waiting times backlog. And, of course, we thank the social care workforce, including unpaid carers and volunteers, for all the work that they have done and continue to do. Without a sustainable, engaged and supported workforce—we must remember that the workforce is far broader than just doctors and nurses—we simply will not have the transformation in our health and care services that we need to see. 

Our report focused on the impact of the waiting times backlog, and what can be done to help people wait well. We are pleased that the Welsh Government accepted 26 of our recommendations in full, and the remaining one recommendation in principle. The vehicle for addressing many of our recommendations is the Welsh Government’s plan for transformation and modernisation in planned care and in reducing waiting lists in Wales. In recent weeks, we have gathered views on the plan in writing, and earlier today, actually, we as a committee, as members, met with stakeholders here at the Senedd. Stakeholders broadly welcome the plan; they want to see it succeed, as, of course, do I, but they also have concerns about whether the plan is sufficiently detailed, whether it provides a clear enough vision for the transformation of our health services, and whether there is enough capacity to deliver it. And that's a key message, actually, from the group of stakeholders I spoke with this morning. The key message was that the plan is great, the plan is ambitious, but they were concerned there is not enough capacity to deliver the plan. 

We all know it will take time to bring waiting times down. Audit Wales, in its recent report on planned care, estimates that it could take seven years or more to return waiting lists to pre-pandemic levels. It is vital, therefore, that people are supported to wait well. That's part of our recommendation 1. So, we strongly welcome the inclusion in the Welsh Government’s plan of a commitment to improve the information and support available to people while they wait for diagnosis and care.

However, while we welcome the developments such as the commitment to improving patient communication, particularly coming across this morning with stakeholders as well, they've told us that more information is needed about the time frame for delivery, how the power and experience of the third sector will be harnessed and how risks of digital exclusion will be managed. Some information and communications will need to be personalised and tailored to individuals’ needs to make sure that they have the right information for their circumstances. I heard a shocking experience this morning about how a template letter can sometimes have to go through 20 stages before it's finally agreed. However, stakeholders told us this morning that time, resource and expertise will be required for communication to be effective and accessible, and I would welcome further clarity from the Minister about what the Welsh Government can do to ensure that sufficient resource is available, and how a balance will be struck in national co-ordination to provide consistency of messaging and avoid duplication.

Health inequalities is a key priority for us, and we asked the Minister to explain how support would be targeted to people living in more deprived areas. We welcome the indication that a national group is being established to develop solutions to support local populations and identify how inequality gaps in prevention and planned care will be closed. We look forward to hearing more about the work of this important group in due course. However, in the meantime, stakeholders, including the Royal College of Physicians, and Macmillan Cancer Support, have told us that they are concerned that the Welsh Government’s plan lacks detail on how it will take account of and tackle health inequality. So, I would be grateful if the Minister could say something today about the work of the national group and how that will inform the implementation of the Welsh Government's plan to transform and modernise planned care.

Our report calls for the routine publication of waiting times data, disaggregated by specialty and hospital. The availability, transparency and detail of data was a real key issue that was raised by stakeholders this morning. Like us, they want to see more detail about the types of treatments people are waiting for, and that data broken down further. The Minister accepted our recommendation, but said that she is still considering her approach, including what information will be useful and meaningful. Stakeholders also told us that better data was needed about the health and social care workforce, warning us this morning as well that the age profile of staff in some specialties represents a cliff edge in terms of workforce capacity. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us more this afternoon about the timescales for improving the availability of data in relation to waiting times and the workforce.

Reducing waiting times will require leadership and national direction. Stakeholders have told us that they broadly support the plan’s ambition, but that further detail is needed on the leadership arrangements and how change will be delivered, including how health, social care and third sector partners will be engaged and involved. Key issues raised include the role of the new NHS executive and regional partnership boards, and the need for greater clarity about how overall accountability for delivery is distributed between different local, regional and national planning programmes, project groups and networks. We also heard concerns about whether the plan does enough to recognise the impact of challenges in social care.

In her response to our recommendation 26, the Minister explained that she would hold health boards to account against their integrated medium-term plans, and that a new national director of planned care, improvement and recovery has been appointed to work with the NHS to ensure that local improvement plans meet the Welsh Government’s commitments and ambitions. However, I would welcome the Minister’s views this afternoon on stakeholders’ suggestions that an annual progress report should be laid before the Senedd, and that more needs to be done to encourage health boards to work together and increase the pace of developing regional models.

Finally, in our report, we explored the different ways in which the waiting times backlog is affecting different physical and mental health conditions and services. Stakeholders have told us that it isn’t clear to them whether all specialties are covered by the Welsh Government’s plan. For example, Cymru Versus Arthritis notes that it isn’t clear whether orthopaedics is included, and Mind Cymru has called for urgent clarification of whether the recovery targets apply to mental health services, particularly as delays to the mental health core data set mean that detailed waiting times for many mental health services are not available. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify whether orthopaedics and mental health services are included within the scope of the recovery targets in the Welsh Government's plan. I look forward to contributions from Members this afternoon.

15:40

First of all, may I thank my fellow committee members for having collaborated with you on this report? I'd like to thank the clerking team and the wider support team and the research team, and everyone who shared with us as a committee their experiences and their expertise as we tried to better understand the impact of long waiting times for treatment. 

We're at risk at the moment of almost accepting that people are going to have to wait a long time for treatment. It's endemic. One could start to think that it's inevitable, but it isn't. And this report, I think, makes it clear in a number of recommendations that we can't accept the status quo, and that we can't accept that we will return to the pre-pandemic stage, as the Chair said.

The report makes a number of recommendations you could place under a broad heading of reducing waiting lists. We've looked at commissioning higher capacity to strengthen the workforce, to encouraging early diagnosis, to tackle health inequalities—those things that will make a different in the longer term—but I think it was timely to do a piece of work on dealing with the long waiting times we currently have and how they impact people. The statistics are frightening, with something like 0.75 million people in Wales on some kind of waiting list. And it's very important to always bear in mind that these are real people, not statistics, and that many of them are in pain, they're anxious, they see their health declining even further, they can't live their lives as they should, they perhaps can't work, and therefore we need to think of their well-being always as they wait. We make recommendations as to how to support patients as they wait, on investment in helping patients to manage pain, where there's been huge underinvestment. We need to inform people about alternative support that they can access in their communities whilst they wait, support through pharmacists and so on, and there are specific recommendations on those areas. 

It became very apparent to us that there are very fundamental weaknesses in the communication with patients. How many times have we as Senedd Members worked on behalf of a constituent who's reached the end of their tether because they simply don't know where they are on their journey through the health service, or how many times we have listened to someone whilst they explain their physical pain or their anxiety? Recommendation 19 relates to using technology as part of the communications work. I'm wearing another hat as the chair of the cross-party group on a digital Wales, and I will remind you of the words of the Deputy Minister Lee Waters in the Senedd, comparing the kind of service that we have in ordering something online, knowing exactly where your parcel is on its journey—comparing that with what we should expect in the twenty-first century in our health and care service, surely. You know that your Christmas shopping will reach you at 3.30 next Tuesday afternoon, but if you want to know when you'll get something far more important, such as a new hip, well, yes, you can knock on the door of your Senedd representative, but, as a rule, you would go to your GP, who would write to the health board, and they would write back—it produces work. It's ineffective and it leaves patients in the dark. It adds to that emotional strain faced by patients very often as they wait for treatment.

Dirprwy Lywydd, tackling waiting lists in the health service does have to be one of the great priorities of the Welsh Government, if not the priority, and holding them to account on the work that they do in tackling the problem does have to be a priority for us as a Senedd. That is why this report is so important. I'm pleased that the Government has accepted 26 of our 27 recommendations, and accepted the other partially, but we can't be content with that. And very often, in accepting a recommendation, what the Government says is that, 'Well, we're already doing this.' But this is a mountain to climb, and our message as a committee is clear: the Government is not doing enough as things stand, and the people of Wales are suffering as a result of that.

15:45

Can I start also by thanking the Health and Social Care Committee, along with Russell George's chairmanship, for bringing forward today's debate and report, 'Waiting well? The impact of the waiting times backlog on people in Wales'. As someone who isn't a member of the committee, I found this report extremely important, as the current waiting times across Wales impact everyone, and sadly impact my region of North Wales probably the most. In contributing to today's committee report debate, I'd like to highlight just three particular areas that the committee have looked into, which I think are key.

Firstly, as stated in the report, are the statistics regarding the waiting times and the data that should be made available. And as already outlined, around one in five people in Wales are on a waiting list—certainly not good enough, as I'm sure the Minister accepts. And behind these numbers, as Rhun ap Iorwerth has already said, are real people suffering day in and day out. And certainly, when looking at my region of North Wales, earlier this year in January 2022, which, of course, is going to be a peak time for a health board, but, nonetheless, there were around 148,000 patient pathways, people waiting to start treatment—148,000 people in a population of around 700,000 is quite a stark number. Of course, these numbers are repeated in other health boards, but I have a parochial interest as a North Wales regional Member, and want to see this number reduced as quickly as possible. Of course, it's not right that people are paying their taxes and national insurance for these health services, and yet, they're having to wait such a long time to be seen, and during that time waiting to be seen, they are, of course, having a difficult time and sadly are suffering. So, the first area is around the data and reporting the data and those statistics being readily available so they can be analysed quickly and easily.

The second area when looking at the impact of waiting times, and that the report highlights as a long-standing issue, is around the recruitment and retention of staff. As we know, the retention of existing staff is a huge problem for health services at the moment, meaning that the sector continues to struggle and maintain current staffing levels, let alone increase them, and it's certainly an issue in the region I represent in north Wales. Of course, if we want to attract more nurses and doctors and other healthcare workers to come in and work in the NHS, we certainly need to see some action to make the service more appealing and highlight the opportunities that come with it. And I certainly want to see our health boards performing well so we can see more people coming into the health service and taking those important jobs and we can retain them in those positions as well.

Finally, the third area, which has already been outlined in today's report and mentioned by the Chairman a little earlier on, is the need for really clear leadership and a clear plan to effectively deal with the waiting times backlog in Wales. Because, as we know, the problem, yes, was certainly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, but was certainly there before COVID-19 was upon us. And regretfully, whenever we see any waiting list statistics, it's the people of north Wales who continue to suffer the most. So, we urgently need clear leadership to take responsibility for a plan of action to rectify this and ensure that the people I represent are not forgotten about. And in this plan, there need to be effective measures to modernise the health service—again, as has already been mentioned by previous Members—with a renewed focus on innovation and digital, and moving forward with these innovative ideas, which will make the work of our front-line workers so much easier.

So, in closing, I would again like to thank the committee for their efforts and this piece of work. Also, I appreciate that the Welsh Government and the Minister have accepted 26 of the committee's recommendations in full and the other in principle, of course. Because the current situation is simply not good enough and it cannot continue; we can't afford for it to continue, for the sake of our people here in Wales. So, putting into action the committee's report could see real improvements to tackle this extremely concerning waiting list backlog in Wales, which we so desperately need. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

15:50

Thank you to members of the Health and Social Care Committee for your report and for the opportunity to discuss waiting times on the Senedd floor today.

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 most specialities. And I agree wholeheartedly with the recommendations in the report to raise awareness of cancer symptoms, 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 effect, not only to the individuals but their families and friends too. In your response to this debate, will the Minister please commit to making a statement on how Welsh Government will reduce the number of weeks and months people are waiting for cancer referrals?

15:55

Thank you, Deputy Llywydd, for the chance to contribute to this debate today. As a member of the Health and Social Care Committee, I've been moved by the contributions and testimonies of those affected by waiting times crises here in Wales. The frustration that my colleagues in the NHS express isn't just the frustration at them being unable to do their jobs and, indeed, the jobs that they love; my colleagues feel that they are letting their patients down, leaving them in pain and agony, yet despite their best efforts and hard work in many cases, there is nothing that they can do. And after 11 years working in the NHS for Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, I know exactly how they feel. But whilst the Government wants to squarely and only blame the COVID-19 pandemic, I will remind this Chamber, as other colleagues have done, that waiting times in Wales doubled in the year before the pandemic struck. On behalf of those who work in the Welsh NHS, I urge the Minister to properly listen to the committee's recommendations, and I must emphasise that this waiting time disaster needs addressing and fast.

Each one of the one in five people in Wales sitting on a waiting list, the 148,884 people under the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board awaiting the start of their treatment, are indeed somebody's loved one, a loved one who is suffering during these delays. And with respect to emergency care, only 54.5 per cent of responses to immediately life-threatening calls arrived within eight minutes, down from 60.6 per cent in May 2021, and a staggering 58.3 per cent of amber calls to patients, which includes those suffering from strokes, took over an hour to reach. This Government can blame ambulance shortages, staffing gaps or the pandemic, but these issues and this backlog were here before COVID, particularly so in north Wales, as Sam Rowlands alluded to in his speech. And other UK nations facing the same challenges are faring better on this issue, with the median waiting time of 12.6 weeks as compared to 22.5 in Wales—sorry, the 12.6 weeks was in reference to the rates in England. It was beyond disappointing to me and many others when the previous health Minister said it was foolish to try and tackle these issues earlier on. However, what my constituents and NHS colleagues want, regardless of the cause of the backlogs, is this Welsh Government needs to get on with the solution.

Minister, it is positive that you have accepted the 26 out of the 27 of the committee's recommendations, and the last in principle, but I'm disappointed that you didn't provide sufficient detail on the implementation in your response, and this is not only my view but also the view of many key stakeholders, some of whom I was lucky to meet this morning in the health committee. And it's also frustrating that the reason given for your partial acceptance of the other recommendation, which is recommendation 23, was because it would be complicated. Knowing the Minister, I know there's nothing too complicated for you to tackle and resolve, and I hope that you will take another look at that. To highlight the importance of the initial recommendation of this committee's report, asking that

'In addition to setting out how the waiting times backlog will be addressed, the Minister for Health and Social Services must ensure that the Welsh Government’s planned care recovery plan includes a focus on supporting patients to wait well.'

And I'd just like to share with you the plight of my constituent, who is Miss Isolde Williams. She is just one of the many people who are suffering due to the treatment delays and has been waiting since her initial appointment in 2017 for specialist treatment and a replacement for her knee. And she shared this with me, and I quote:

'My quality of life continues to deteriorate. I am totally reliant on my car to get out, and I am scared of how bad I am going to get before I get this treatment. This delay has led to further problems in my leg and hip, and I just wonder when all this is going to end. I am losing faith in our health service.'

Unquote. In conclusion, Minister, what assurances can you give Isolde and so many others across Wales in her position that they will receive the treatment that they need as swiftly as possible and that no-one should have to go through these drawn-out delays without adequate support in the future? Thank you.

16:00

May I begin by thanking the committee for their work on this important report? I think that it's very difficult to read, but it reflects the casework that we all receive, and I think it's very important that we remind ourselves very often that there are people behind every statistic, and, although we see that there is a plan in operation, that doesn't make it easier for those people who are living in pain or in a situation that does endanger their lives.

I had a question specifically with regard to section 3 of the report about those who are paying to go private at present, and this idea that came across very clearly of a two-tier system, and the shocking fact, if truth be told, that we're seeing one of the consultants in hospital considering, when they look at a patient, 'Well, is this person going to be able to afford to go private or not?' and that that goes through their minds. That echoes something that I've heard with my casework, with people telling me that they're being encouraged to go private, and perhaps they look as if they can afford to go private, but the truth is that they can't afford to do so.

One of the things that angered them recently—perhaps people in the Chamber have seen the BBC Wales investigates programme about the NHS, and the interview with the chief executive of the NHS in Wales, where she denied that the health service is in crisis. The question asked to me by a constituent at that time was, 'Well, why isn't somebody willing to acknowledge the scale of the crisis? If people were to acknowledge and recognise that there is a crisis and an emergency, at least they would then acknowledge the size of the problem and the size of the pain that we're facing.' I think there is something in that, that we need to be honest with people instead of trying to hide behind different plans and schemes. One of the things that the same constituent asked me was, 'Well, am I meant to just accept that my life is less important, because the health service can't provide the treatment that I need for two years?' She knows that doctors have said that she needs treatment as soon as possible, that she could die, but she has to wait for two years before receiving that treatment, and she can't afford to do so.

So, Minister, what would you share as a message to those people who are in similar situations today? And are you willing to do what the chief executive of the NHS failed to do and acknowledge today that there is a crisis and that we should come together as a Senedd to ensure that we come through that crisis and ensure that things do improve for people in these crisis situations?

Can I start by thanking, firstly, the committee, Russell George in his chairing, and participants for their work in bringing this report forward? It's a really important report. Thank you so much. And can I welcome the Government's planned care programme and response to the report as well, published earlier this year?

Firstly, I want to draw attention specifically to Powys Teaching Health Board, within the region I represent. I understand that Powys is actually the exception to growing waiting lists and has managed to decrease its waiting list backlog over the last two years by around 5,000 individuals awaiting treatment. But that does stand in contrast to other health boards, whose waiting lists are, on average, around 26 times longer than Powys's. So, I would like to commend Powys there.

In June 2022, we had a new record of over 700,000 people in Wales awaiting diagnosis or treatment, and, as you will know, Minister, this is around one in five people waiting for treatment. This doesn't include what we guesstimate to be around 550,000 potentially missing referrals, identified in a Wales audit report, that are likely to come forward in the coming months, which, of course, we welcome, and we want to encourage those people to come forward.

According to this report, the current waiting list is yet to peak, and will only return to pre-pandemic levels by 2029 if the Government's objectives are achieved. I am concerned that the five ambitions outlined in the programme do not reflect the real capacity pressures and limitations on capital funding of the NHS, but I want to emphasise that we know, from the committee report, that it isn't all about finances, and it isn't all about money. With the anticipated increase in the number of patients waiting for treatment, and an already exhausted workforce, and our NHS bursting at the seams, may I ask you what steps have already been taken and will be taken in the next five months for this objective to be achieved? 

Another issue I would like to raise, which I know has already been raised, is carers' mental health. As the committee report demonstrated, the long waiting times severely affect patients and carers' health conditions and financial security. I fully support the Government's financial resilience plan for carers, outlined in a response to the report, but I do worry that carers have not been given full consideration by the Government. Carers have to face the uncertainty about whether their loved ones will receive the urgently needed treatment soon enough. They're not being communicated the expected waiting time for the treatment, nor any assistance available to them, which leaves them feeling isolated and abandoned, which my colleague Heledd Fychan touched on as well. They're often forced to leave their employment or education, and become an almost professionalised workforce, administering medication, perhaps with no regular medical and health support. As Mind Cymru stresses, it is essential that the Government does not leave our carers without consistent access to clinical, emotional and well-being support throughout this period.

So, to summarise, I wonder if you could respond to the following. Beyond the additional financial support, how will you ensure sufficient support for carers to also 'wait well'? What steps are being taken to identify individuals who should be formally recognised as carers, so that they do receive the support that they are entitled to? The goal of no-one waiting longer than a year for an out-patient appointment by the end of 2022 is a tall order, and I wonder how the Government has progressed towards this target. And, finally, Minister, NHS Wales, as I understand it, has had to return to Welsh Government almost £13 million in March. What changes are being made in the type and scope of funding being made available to health boards to ensure that they have the right resources to deliver against the plan? Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

16:05