Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

20/09/2022

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

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

Statement by the Llywydd

Good afternoon. We are about to begin. Welcome to this afternoon's meeting.

If I can welcome everybody to the meeting this afternoon. 

Before we begin today's business, I want to note the sad news received over the past fortnight on the passing of former Member, Mick Bates. Many of us, I'm sure, will remember Mick, who was with us for the first three terms of this Senedd, and he made an important, consistent and prominent contribution on issues around sustainability during that period. I'm sure that we would all wish to extend our full sympathies to the family and friends of Mick Bates during this difficult time. 

I also wish to inform the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 26.75, that the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Bill and the Welsh Tax Acts etc. (Power to Modify) Bill have been given Royal Assent. 

1. Questions to the First Minister

The first item this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Gareth Davies. 

Educational Excellence in Denbighshire

1. What is the Welsh Government’s plan to achieve educational excellence in Denbighshire? OQ58379

Llywydd, provision of education in Denbighshire remains the responsibility of the county council and, where relevant, the diocesan authorities. They operate within the framework established by the Welsh Government and this Senedd. This September, for example, schools across the nation will begin delivery of the new Curriculum for Wales. 

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. As you may be aware, over the summer, Christ the Word Catholic School in Rhyl received a damning Estyn report following an inspection, which has resulted in special measures being imposed on the school. Now, the school is still very much in its infancy having only been opened in 2020 following a merger between the former Ysgol Mair and Blessed Edward Jones schools. And this is further compounded by the fact that Wales is lagging behind fellow UK nations in the GCSE results league table, leaving my constituents concerned that further education and/or university opportunities may not be available for those aspiring to get on in life. So, what assurances can you give people in Rhyl that the Welsh Government is working with the school senior leadership team, Denbighshire County Council and the governing body to rectify these issues and provide a plan of how you aim to turn around the fortunes of exam results so that my constituents aren't left behind?

Well, Llywydd, unfortunately the Member mixes up two completely different issues. I am, of course, aware of the inspection report into Christ the Word. I was able to discuss this with the new leader of Denbighshire council and with the cabinet member responsible for education. It is, as the Member, I imagine, is aware, a complicated situation because it is a voluntary aided school. It is the diocesan authorities that are responsible for the hiring of staff at the school, and there is a job of work to be done there, as the inspection report sets out, to make sure that standards of teaching and learning at the school are brought up to what would be regarded as acceptable elsewhere. 

There is a great deal of support being offered by the consortium and by the local authority, and evidence will now be needed—and it's the responsibility of the governing body to provide the action plan—that shows how the recommendations of the Estyn report will be put into practice. There is a need for evidence that the advice that is being provided is being properly followed up. I was encouraged to learn that the new cabinet member for education, Councillor Gill German, is meeting the school authorities in the next week or so, and that the head of service for education at Denbighshire is meeting the Bishop of Wrexham this week. So, I think we can be confident that a great deal of attention is coming together by the relevant authorities to make sure that the improvements that are clearly necessary at the school are put into place. 

The more general points that the Member made about examination results are simply mistaken in fact and have no relevance to the actions that will be taken by the authorities in the case of the individual school. 

COVID in Care Homes

2. Will the First Minister provide an update on the Wales-specific investigation into COVID-related deaths in care homes? OQ58416

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. Certain categories of care home residents are already included within the national programme of work announced in January this year by the health Minister. Learning from the early period of the programme is being used to support the care home sector in investigating remaining COVID-related deaths.

13:35

Diolch, Prif Weinidog. The information that there would be a greater and specific investigation into care homes was widely shared on social media by the COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru campaign group, following their meeting with you a few weeks ago, and it would be helpful to receive clarity on the approach timeline and whether it will cover discharging the elderly from hospital to care homes without testing. In addition to seeking clarity on this, the bereaved families also reported that they had discussed with you the investigations of hospital-acquired infections in Welsh hospitals. Can you confirm, First Minister, when reporting and implementing of the recommendations will take place? And I understand the campaign group have prompted your team and the health Minister's team on this twice but have not heard anything since, and, given that 1,619 investigations have been completed, I'm told families still haven't been contacted and are desperate for an update. 

Well, thank you to Heledd Fychan for those additional questions. She's right to say that I have, once again, met the bereaved families group earlier this month, so not many days have elapsed since that meeting, and, in the extraordinary circumstances of last week, I think it's understandable that not every question has been responded to immediately. So, for the sake of clarity, then, Llywydd, anyone whose care is funded by the NHS, including people who were transferred from hospital into a care home, and who subsequently contracted coronavirus and died within 14 days of transfer, those cases are already covered by the 'Putting Things Right' regulations, and those incidents are already being investigated following the actions that the health Minister outlined earlier this year. We are able to do that because there is a direct line from the NHS to the care of those patients.

The general care home sector, as the Member will know, is far more diverse than that: over 1,000 registered adult care homes in Wales, the vast majority of those privately owned. Inevitably, that adds complexities and challenges to the investigation process when you're relying on that much wider set of individuals and circumstances. Individual health boards are already reporting the results of the investigations that they are carrying out. Aneurin Bevan health board reported and put up onto their website their first report in June of this year, and Swansea bay did the same in July, and I expect health boards to continue to do that. The delivery unit, which was funded by the Minister in order to assist with consistency of approach in every part of Wales, will produce its interim report in March of next year, and a final report will be provided in March of 2024. 

First Minister, data related to the number of deaths due to COVID in care homes shows that, in Wales, COVID-19 was the second leading cause of death in male and female care home residents in both the first and second waves of the pandemic. Given that winter and, indeed, the flu season are fast approaching, I am sure that many people will be worried about the safety of elderly and vulnerable people, especially if we see another deadly COVID-19 strain emerge. Given that the Welsh Government has declined to have a Wales-only COVID inquiry, I'm keen to know what evidence and data analysis this Government has subsequently used to develop its strategic plan for care and nursing homes, going forward, and how you have used this analysis to develop plans for the safe transfer of residents to and from care accommodation, the safe treatment and care that they receive whilst in care, and what measures have been put in place to prevent and control future outbreaks. Thank you.

Well, an all-Wales inquiry would not be of any help to someone wanting to look forward, as the bulk of the Member's question did, to conditions in care homes in Wales over the coming winter. I'm grateful to the Member for the question, Llywydd, because it just enables me to remind everybody in the Chamber and beyond that coronavirus has not gone away. We saw, earlier in this summer, record numbers of people falling ill with the omicron wave compared to any other part of the pandemic period. And, although the link between falling ill and severe illness has been successfully eroded by vaccination, just being ill with coronavirus itself is a difficult experience, and the more vulnerable you are, the more difficult it is likely to be. So, that is why we have prioritised care home residents for the autumn booster campaign. First letters inviting people to come forward for vaccination were issued on 15 August. The first vaccinations happened on 1 September. Yesterday, while most people were focusing on the events that were happening at Westminster Abbey, vaccination teams in Wales were out there in care homes making sure that all those vulnerable residents had the earliest possible opportunity to be vaccinated.

That's a general message that I hope Members here will help to convey to the population at large. There is a fear amongst the professional community that, because people feel that coronavirus is in the rear-view mirror, we will not have the take-up of vaccination that we would have seen in earlier waves. Nothing will be more important to do on the day that you get the invitation than to go and have that vaccination, and that is particularly true, of course, for elderly and vulnerable residents in our care homes, which is why they have been put, in Wales, at the front of the queue.

13:40
Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Party leaders to question the First Minister next. The leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. If I may, with your permission, put on the record my sincere thanks and my group's thanks to the Commission staff over the events of the period of mourning, and in particular the extensive preparations that went into the King's reception here last Friday? If I could also thank the First Minister for the civil servants who put a huge amount of work at very short notice into the arrangements around Llandaf cathedral, and the generosity that the First Minister extended to party leaders and others to attend events in London as part of the Welsh delegation? I'd just like to put my thanks on the record for that, First Minister. 

First Minister, there is a cost-of-pain crisis within our NHS. Many people, sadly, in orthopaedics are waiting for procedures for a considerable amount of time, some as long as two years and more. We heard from you in July that there was to be an orthopaedic summit held by the Minister in August, but we've had no update as to any positives that might have emerged from that summit. Could you now update us as to what exactly has happened from that summit and what we might see as we go into the winter months so that people can have confidence that they will get the procedures that they require?

Llywydd, the health Minister will be very happy, I know, to provide Members with an update on the more detailed results of the summit. In general, the leader of the opposition is right to draw attention to the pressures that the health service is under and the very hard work that is going on to try and recover the ground that was lost during the pandemic. Very long waits in the Welsh NHS continue to fall. Activity in our NHS continues to recover. In the last month for which figures are available, we are back to 97 per cent of all out-patient activity, compared to the month before the pandemic began. And in planned operations, we're back to over 80 per cent. Now, that means there's still ground to go. The COVID issue that Joel James raised is still part of that picture. A thousand staff in the NHS in Wales are not in work today either because they have COVID themselves or they've been in direct contact with somebody who has. So, a huge amount of work is going on inside the health service to try and recover ground and to be able to deal with people whose operations are outstanding. The context remains a challenging one.

I appreciate the context is a challenging picture, to say the least, First Minister. Other parts of the United Kingdom have managed to bring the extensive waiting lists that they had for the two-year period down and, in fact, in some cases, eliminated those waits. In Wales, we see in excess of 60,000 individuals on those waiting lists. I had hoped that I would have heard something more tangible about the summit that you yourself referred to in July that was happening in August around orthopaedic services. Surgical hubs have been talked of at length in this Chamber by me and you in questions, but also the Royal College of Surgeons have pointed out the benefits of dedicated surgical hubs in bringing waiting times down. Now, I appreciate that surgery happens at all district general hospitals, but the definition of a surgical hub, as defined in other parts of the United Kingdom, allows for all of the procedures to take place in a secure setting, and ultimately a secure staffing base, to allow the processes to continue to bring those waiting times down. Can you update us today as to the roll-out of surgical hubs here in Wales, and what resources has the Welsh Government made available to health boards to allow for those establishments to be created within our district general hospitals?

13:45

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. Very long waits in Wales continue to fall as well. They were 4 per cent down in the last month for which figures are available. A word of caution about assuming that everything is fine in any other part of the United Kingdom in relation to the NHS, and some of the claims that are made: when you look at the exceptions that lie behind them—'We have achieved this, apart from this, apart from that, apart from the other'—I think the figures are not to be taken just at the headline value. 

As for surgical hubs, we have indeed discussed them here before. The leader of the opposition will know that there are particular geographical challenges in Wales in identifying any hospital as being given over entirely to planned surgery, because those hospitals continue to provide necessary emergency responses as well. Nevertheless, there are efforts in different parts of the NHS in Wales to try to concentrate more planned surgery on a smaller number of sites in order to be able to protect the resources—the theatre space, the ward space—to allow planned surgery to go ahead.

At the orthopaedic summit, a whole range of these issues was discussed. How can we, in orthopaedics, make better use of things that prevent people from needing operations in the first place? If you are waiting for an operation, what more can be done to make sure, through physiotherapy and so on, that you can be looked after while you are waiting? As we emerge from the COVID experience, what more can we do to return theatres to the level of productivity that they were able to manage before the additional cleaning regimes became necessary to prevent the spread of the virus? All of these things were discussed and the Minister, as I said, will provide more details of it.

In parts of Wales, as I said—in Hywel Dda, at the Prince Philip Hospital; in Swansea bay at the Neath Port Talbot Hospital—dedicated protected space is being provided. They are not surgical hubs in the way that that definition is used elsewhere, but they perform the same function.

I take from your answer, First Minister, that we do not have dedicated surgical hubs here in Wales. I appreciate that you identified three, I think it was, hospitals there that have areas identified for specialist surgery, but they wouldn't fall under the criteria of surgical hubs. Is it your Government's ambition that, should people find themselves on a waiting list for a considerable period, it should be able to actually offer a second offer, so that they could go to an alternative establishment and have that procedure undertaken, as happens in other parts of the United Kingdom?

Indeed, previous Welsh Governments have made this available to people who have found themselves, in their own locality, having inordinate waits placed on their procedures, which, as I said, does give a cost-of-pain crisis to that individual, whether that be emotional, whether that be a monetary loss, because they are unable to work, or whether that be a whole host of other issues that compound that individual's ability to get on with life. Would it be the Welsh Government's ambition to create a second-offer scheme that would allow patients to access that ability, where those facilities exist, so that they could get that procedure done in a timely manner?

Well, I thank again the leader the opposition for that. I am very familiar with the second-offer scheme that we had here in Wales over a decade ago, having been heavily involved in it at the time. We already use capacity outside the area in which somebody lives in order to be able to accelerate treatment wherever we can. We are using capacity in the not-for-profit sector. We are encouraging health boards to make sure that if they are able to, they work collaboratively together, so if there is capacity in a neighbouring health board, that becomes used for patients as well. 

There were downsides to the second-offer scheme that those of us involved will remember. Many patients are very reluctant to travel long distances for treatment. What they look for is effective treatment as close to home as possible, and not everybody is resourced—not simply in monetary terms, but just in terms of having somebody who can go with you. Our second-offer scheme paid for you to be accompanied by a family member or a friend if you were going a long distance for an orthopaedic operation, for example. Not everybody's in a position to be able to find somebody in a position to do all of that, so what you found was that some people were able to take advantage of the second-offer scheme—not always the people who were in greatest clinical need—whereas other people, their circumstances simply meant that the scheme wasn't useable by them. So, a simple return to a scheme of the sort we had before, I don’t think that is what we will be looking for. But we do expect the health service to use every available piece of capacity, and not simply to expect that people will use the capacity directly available in their own local health board area.

13:50

Diolch, Llywydd. Prif Weinidog, Governments all over Europe are asking urgently what more they can do to help their citizens with the cost-of-living crisis, and with the rising cost of fuel, making public transport more affordable has become a key theme. Spain has announced free rail journeys from September until the end of the year. In Germany we've had the highly successful €9 a month ticket trialled over the summer, which will now become a €49 a month scheme for the whole of next year, following agreement with the Länder regional Governments yesterday. In Austria, we've had the climate ticket, which works out at €3 a day, and the Republic of Ireland cut fares by 20 per cent in May.

These policies do two things at once: they push money into people's pockets and they pull pollution out of their lungs. Do you see the merits of this kind of approach, and will we see it being implemented here in Wales?

Well, I'm aware of the schemes, and I'm aware of the two merits that the Member mentioned, Llywydd. They do a third thing as well: they reduce the revenues available to those companies that provide those services, so lowering fares leaves a gap that has to be filled. The leader of Plaid Cymru will be aware of the tens and tens of millions of pounds that the Welsh Government has had to provide to bus services and train companies in order to make good the collapse of the fare books as a result of coronavirus. So, yes, I'm absolutely aware of the schemes, I see their merits, they do not come cost free, and the Welsh Government's budget today is worth more than £600 million less in purchasing power than it was in November of last year, when the comprehensive spending review set it. So, while I see the merits, I'd need to understand better where the leader of Plaid Cymru thinks the funding for such schemes is to be found within the Welsh Government budget.

Reductions in prices for public transport fares actually don't automatically, inevitably lead to that kind of revenue reduction. It depends on the elasticity of demand for public transport. This is the case that the rail unions have been making, that, actually, if you reduce fares, you increase patronage, and of course you have a situation at the moment that, still, train journeys have only returned to around 50 to 70 per cent of pre-COVID levels. So, I think the First Minister is wrong in his analysis there.

Now, generally speaking, fare increases in rail transport in Wales follow the retail price index in July, which would mean an increase of 11.8 per cent for next year. Can the First Minister at least say that we're not going to see that? Scotland and England have announced a freeze in fares until at least March next year; in Northern Ireland, rails fares have been frozen since 2019. If the First Minister's not prepared to say he'll reduce fares, can he at least commit to the kind of fare freeze that we've seen introduced elsewhere?

Well, it's an interesting argument that the leader of Plaid Cymru makes. He wants to persuade us that elasticity of demand for public transport could be affected in the way that he suggested, and yet he has to tell me at the same time that patronage of the rail industry is nowhere near what it was prior to the pandemic, despite the over £100 million that the Welsh Government has spent in keeping fares at a level that would not have been beyond what they were previously. So, I'm afraid it is simply not a basis on which public policy could responsibly be conducted to say that we could take a punt on the idea that we could reduce fares and it would pay for itself. Unfortunately, I'm afraid the real-world experience is that that is not the case, and the Welsh Government budget—. Although, I'm very happy to take advice from Plaid Cymru on this. If you're prepared to tell me where the money could be taken from in order to mount such an experiment, I'd be very pleased indeed to look at that.

I'm aware, of course, of the way in which fares are calibrated through the consumer price index at the level of inflation at a point in the month, and the Welsh Government is looking, with those who provide our transport services, at what the impact of that will be on fares for next year and what we might be able to do to respond to that dilemma.

13:55

I have to say that the argument you're making is directly in contradiction to what Labour-affiliated unions like ASLEF are saying, that, actually, a substantial reduction could help us increase a modal shift that will create a new habit of using public transport, which will actually have benefits in terms of revenue generation.

Let's move from rail to buses. The Labour mayor of the north-west of England, Andy Burnham, has capped bus journey fares in Greater Manchester to £2 for adults and £1 for children, and, indeed, the UK Government now is going to follow that for England in January of next year. Why don't we do the same in Wales? Capping it to £2 would halve, pretty much, the average cost of a single journey in Swansea. It would address the huge increase we've seen in Arriva bus fares in north-west Wales. Are you comfortable, First Minister, with a Labour regional mayor in England and a Conservative Government in England doing more for bus travellers at the moment than a Labour Government here in Wales?

Well, Llywydd, the leader of Plaid Cymru has had three opportunities this afternoon to explain to people in Wales how he would fund the proposals that he puts in front of us. Every time he gets to his feet, he spends more money. Every time he does it, he can't offer us a single suggestion—not a single suggestion—as to which Welsh public service would have to be reduced in order to fund his latest wheezes. Now, I think Members here might understand that unions affiliated to the Labour Party are a little bit more likely to talk to us than they may be to talk to him, and I can assure you—[Interruption.] You may not like it, but it turns out to be true. And I can assure you that, when we talk to them, they understand the limitations of what Welsh Government budgets can do, even if he doesn't.

The Broadcasting Sector in Wales

3. Will the First Minister make a statement on support for the broadcasting sector in Wales? OQ58389

I thank Hefin David for the question. Of course, the sector plays an important role in informing people here in Wales, and in helping us to create content for our citizens. We support the sector through a range of actions. We work with the sector and help them to resist the proposals of the UK Government in this area.

The Prif Weinidog will be aware of the Plaid Cymru councillor who was pictured holding a gun, threatening to prevent English people from entering Wales, which was reported by the Local Democracy Reporting Service. [Interruption.] The councillor has been suspended by your party; don't shout 'Come on' at me. He's been suspended by your party. It was reported by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, and it was Rhiannon James who broke the story for the Caerphilly Observer. That was then shared nationally—it was in The Times, The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, The Mirror, The Sun; it was shared also on the BBC. This demonstrates the importance of local democracy reporting in Wales, and particularly the value of the Caerphilly Observer.

Now, I know there's a task and finish group that's going to be reporting to Dawn Bowden later this year on how we can support further that sector. One of the things I'd like to say just in advance of that is that there are some things the Welsh Government could do, and I would say first of all is ensuring that Welsh Government advertisements are targeted towards those small hyperlocal news agencies, such as the Caerphilly Observer. They would benefit hugely from having Welsh Government ads in them. And also, the £100,000 the Welsh Government has put on the table this year, I think that that could be directed not at the likes of Newsquest or Reach, who already have a national conglomeration; I think it would be better targeted to those hyperlocal people, like the Caerphilly Observer. That's not to pre-empt the task and finish group, but I think that's really important. Can the First Minister just confirm that those views will be taken into account by the Deputy Minister when the time comes?

14:00

I thank Hefin David. There are two different sums of money that are available through the Welsh Government. There is the Welsh public interest journalism fund, and nine awards have been made from it already. The Caerphilly Observer was one of the beneficiaries of it, along with organisations like Llanelli Online and Wrexham.com, all of which were very regular participants in the series of news conferences that we held during the COVID crisis and which did a very good job indeed of keeping their readers informed of those hyperlocal issues.

There then is another sum of £100,000, set aside as a result of the co-operation agreement. As Hefin David said, there is a group working on the best way in which that money can be deployed. I know that they are looking at the issue of how, through combining purchasing power, more money from the Welsh Government's advertising budget can be drawn down towards them. The Minister will have heard the remarks that the Member has made this afternoon, and I'm quite sure that they will be conveyed to that working group. And, of course, we look forward to being able to draw properly on their expertise.

First Minister, public service broadcasters are at the heart of the creative economy in Wales, boosting the television production sector, creating jobs and nurturing talent all across Wales and the rest of the UK. Aside from their economic contribution, they bring people together right across our country. Our public service broadcasters come into their own particularly at moments when our nation comes together, as we saw with some of the excellent coverage of the passing and the funeral of Her Majesty over the last week and a half, which, I think, has been a prime example of that. However, the contribution is under threat in an era where tv is increasingly delivered and consumed online, with the risk that global online technology platforms become gatekeepers of PSB programming. Without reform to the current system, UK audiences might struggle to find the PSB content that they value, and large financial sums will be extracted from its ecosystem and the UK creative economy by these online platforms. Therefore, First Minister, while I am aware, as Hefin David referred to, that there is that expert panel that has been set up by your Government to explore the possibility of devolving broadcasting to Wales, given the engagement of people with PSBs over the last week and a half, the concern around online consumption and the potential of audiences struggling to find the PSBs they value, how would you ensure that, if broadcasting were to be devolved to Wales, it would keep the content valued most to the people of Wales?

Surely the greatest threat to public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom comes from the proposals of his Government at Westminster to privatise Channel 4—utterly friendless as proposals and simply ideologically driven by the previous culture Secretary—the failure to find a proper basis for ensuring that funding of the BBC can be guaranteed into the future, and the failure of the UK Government to go out to consultation before the summer, as they promised us they would in June. We're still to see that consultation exercise launched. Now we must hope that the latest Conservative Government at Westminster takes a different view on these matters. Because I agree with what the Member has said: public service broadcasting is absolutely intrinsic to the way in which UK citizens and Welsh citizens are able to receive news that they regard as reliable and which allows them to be properly participating citizens. The big dangers to all of that are the ideological attacks that have been made on public service broadcasting by his friends in Westminster.

Health Services in Preseli Pembrokeshire

4. Will the First Minister make a statement on the delivery of health services in Preseli Pembrokeshire? OQ58385

Hywel Dda University Health Board continues to develop its proposals for the future delivery of services across its area. That has involved workshops with members of the public, staff and partners. The latest decisions were taken by the board at its meeting on 4 August.

14:05

First Minister, it's vital that high-quality dental care is available to people when they need it, and yet I continue to receive correspondence from frustrated and indeed angry constituents who are living with discomfort and pain because they've not been able to access a local NHS dentist. In one case, a constituent was advised to buy a self filling kit in order to provide some temporary solution whilst waiting for an appointment. I'm sure you will find that totally unacceptable. I appreciate that we've experienced a COVID pandemic, but this is a long-standing issue that was prevalent well before the COVID pandemic. So, can you tell us what the Welsh Government is doing to ensure that people can have access, or indeed register, with an NHS dentist? Can you also tell us what intermediate support is being offered to patients who are waiting for long periods of time for dental services and treatment?

I thank Paul Davies for that. I agree with him, of course, on the importance of dentistry. It's not that long ago in the Chamber, Llywydd, that it was being suggested that dentists across Hywel Dda would en masse decline to take up the new dental contract that has been available since 1 April. I'm very pleased to say that 92 per cent of contracts in Hywel Dda are now being provided under the new contract, and that the new contract is already working to do what we hoped it would do, which is to reduce the amount of handle-turning work that was required under the previous units of dental activity contract, and to release dental time to take on new patients.

Twenty-eight thousand new patients across Wales have received NHS dental treatment in the first three months of this calendar year, and we expect that anything up to 110,000 to 120,000 new patients will receive dental care from the NHS over the 12 months as a result of the contract. Given the very high take-up of the contract in the Hywel Dda area, that will begin to make a difference for some of the patients to which Mr Davies referred. As a Government, we continue to provide additional funding for dentistry across the NHS—recurrent funding provided last year and again this year in order to support our colleagues in the local health boards in trying to ensure that there are dental services available.

There is a longer term issue here, which it is very important that we grasp, and that is in the nature of the profession. As you know, if you go into a GP surgery and you need relatively minor things to be done, you're very likely to be seen by a practice nurse, by a paramedic or, if you need physiotherapy, by a physiotherapist—you won't automatically see a GP. We need similar diversification to happen in the dental profession, so that when people need relatively minor procedures, there will be people properly trained, capable of doing that under the supervision of a dentist, releasing the dentists themselves—the most highly trained people we have—to do the things that only a dentist can do. That is something that we have to pursue actively with the profession during the rest of this Senedd term.

Wales Air Ambulance Charity

5. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the Wales Air Ambulance Charity regarding the reconfiguration of base locations in Wales? OQ58386

I thank Russell George for that question, Llywydd. The configuration of bases is the responsibility of the Wales Air Ambulance Charity. Officials of the Welsh Government have discussed the joint strategic review that has been undertaken by the charity and the emergency medical retrieval and transfer service, and those discussions have taken place with both organisations. 

Thank you, First Minister, for your answer. You will appreciate that Powys has no district general hospital, and large parts of Powys are extremely difficult to get to by road. A proposal to move the air ambulance base and crew from Welshpool has been met understandably with huge concern and opposition in my constituency. The people of mid Wales were left surprised and disappointed over the summer with the proposal from the Wales Air Ambulance Charity and the Welsh NHS’s emergency medical retrieval and transfer service. Can I ask what the Welsh Government’s view is on this proposal? Will there be a proper consultation, given the involvement of the Welsh NHS? Have you seen the data and analysis that sits behind this proposal, and would you and the Welsh Government be willing to make this information available? Despite the fact that the charity has said that they do not want funding from the Government, would the Government be prepared to consider funding so that there is an adequate air ambulance service in mid Wales with a base kept in mid Wales? You'll appreciate that this service is hugely valued and loved, which is why so many people donate to this charity, and this is why it has caused so much frustration and anger across mid Wales.

14:10

Of course I understand the points that the Member makes on behalf of the people he represents. It has long been the position of the Wales Air Ambulance Charity that they do not wish to receive direct funding from the Welsh Government, and they do that for very good reasons to do with their own model. They are fiercely independent in that way. I know that they have provided public assurances that none of this is about cost cutting. It is simply about optimising the service that they provide. I have seen figures that come from the work that has been carried out, but they are not figures that belong to the Welsh Government; they belong to the air ambulance charity itself. It wouldn't be right for me, I think, to publicise those figures on their behalf, but they will undoubtedly be in the public domain. I do know that the chief ambulance commissioner is involved in discussions with the community health council as to the nature of consultation or engagement that will now be necessary with stakeholders when there are formal proposals to put in front of people, and that the chief ambulance commissioner is happy to offer a direct briefing to Members of the Senedd so that questions can be put to him and the proposals properly interrogated. 

I want to put on record, first of all, my sincere thanks to the air ambulance charity for their work in saving lives. They're a charity that have proved to be crucial to our communities, and our communities raise thousands of pounds per annum as a sign of thanks. But since the news broke that the air ambulance was looking to centralise its services, many constituents have been in touch with myself, Cefin, Rhun and Siân, expressing concerns about the impact of this on rural and remote communities in mid and north Wales. If the ambulance is to be centred in Rhuddlan, for example, closing the site at Dinas Dinlle, then it's likely that that will add 20 minutes to a journey to the end of the Llŷn peninsula or to Holyhead or to south Meirionnydd. As a percentage of the funding of the charity comes from the public purse, what part have you played as a Government in the process to date, and what will you as a Government do in light of these developments? Also, you just said that this wasn't Government data. Just to correct you; it's EMRTS data that has been provided. So, will you consider releasing that data for us too? Thank you.

Of course I acknowledge the points that the Member makes on behalf of the people who live in his constituency, and others, but these aren't questions for the Government. We haven't done this work. The charity is leading on this work, with the people who have expertise in the field. The data is their data. The discussion and debate is to be had with them. As I said to Russell George, they have said that they are willing to come here to meet with Members of the Senedd and to respond to the questions that they have. That is the best way forward on an issue where I am clear that the reason why the charity and the people in this field have done this work is that they want to improve the service. That is important to acknowledge from the beginning.

The New Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

6. What steps is the First Minister taking to engage with the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom? OQ58388

I have held several productive conversations with the new Secretary of State for Wales, but no opportunity to meet the new Prime Minister has as yet been forthcoming. 

Thank you for your answer, First Minister. I was encouraged to see your tweet welcoming Liz Truss to her new position. She is, of course, the third woman Conservative to hold that office. It's hugely important to the Welsh people that you and the new Prime Minister work together with mutual respect from both Governments to tackle the shared challenges that people face. I know at times, First Minister, you had, shall we say, a complicated relationship with the previous occupant of No. 10 Downing Street, so can we have assurance from you and your Ministers that you'll work constructively with the Prime Minister and her Government in a constructive manner to produce the best outcomes for the people of Wales in what will be very challenging months ahead?

14:15

Well, Llywydd, as the Member said, I welcomed the appointment of the latest Prime Minister—the fourth in six years—and I hope that it will be possible to conduct relationships between the UK Government and the other nations of the United Kingdom in that spirit of mutual respect. There has been no opportunity as yet to test the appetite of the new Prime Minister for such an approach. I think it would just be fair for me to say that, on the day that he was appointed, the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, telephoned me and telephoned the First Minister of Scotland, and the same thing happened on the first day that Theresa May was appointed and the day that David Cameron was appointed. Now, I understand that the new Prime Minister has not had the first week that she would have expected and that business as usual has not been characteristic of recent days, and now the Prime Minister has left the country. But, I hope that it will not long be delayed before she does find an opportunity to speak with the elected leaders of other Parliaments in the United Kingdom. 

First Minister, in your engagement with the new Prime Minister, when that happens, could I ask you to raise the pressing issue of clarification on the issue of fracking? Now, fracking is unsustainable and untenable environmentally and in respect of the climate change emergency. It contributes diddly squat to affordability or to supplying domestic UK markets because it is sold onto global markets for the profits of the shareholders of those companies. So, the Prime Minister and the Rt Hon Member for south-west Norfolk can frack to her heart's content in her constituency and receive, no doubt, the enduring thanks of her constituents, but if you do get a chance, First Minister, could you explain to the Prime Minister, in an idiom that she might well understand, 'You frack if you want to. Wales is not for fracking'?

Well, I do thank Huw Irranca-Davies for that. I can assure him that the Prime Minister's announcement in relation to fracking has no impact here in Wales, and the Welsh Government's policy remains entirely unchanged. We will not solve the energy crisis by reverting to ways of supplying energy that have done so much damage to our planet. And it is particularly frustrating to see time, energy and money being diverted in that direction when there is so much that could be done, and done more quickly and done with better effect by investing that time, energy and money in the production of renewable forms of energy generation in which Wales has such potential. Our efforts as a Government will be in that direction, looking to use our natural resources to find the power that will be needed here in Wales to develop those ideas that will be useful around the globe and to defend the energy security of the United Kingdom at the same time as making sure that we are not vulnerable to the global shifts that have created part of the cost-of-living crisis that faces families in Wales this coming winter. 

Health Services in North Wales

7. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to improve health services in north Wales? OQ58418

I thank Mabon ap Gwynfor for the question. The Welsh Government works with the local health board, for example by providing direct financial assistance, access to national clinical expertise and support for board development. These joint endeavours are all directed to securing the best possible outcomes for patients.

Thank you very much to the First Minister for that response. I want to take this opportunity to thank the chief executive, Jo Whitehead, for her leadership of the board over the past 18 months. I was hopeful that things would improve under her leadership, but in her last annual report published in August, the chief executive said,

'There are processes requiring significant improvement in relation to patient safety and compliance assurance' 

—when it comes to the health board in north Wales. The health board in north Wales is the only board in Wales to receive limited assurance from the investigation. The annual report is damning, and it's clear that the board is failing. It's clear that everything that you as a Government have tried to do to solve the problems of the board have failed. Do you now accept that it's time to look at a new structure for the provision of healthcare in north Wales?

14:20

Well, Llywydd, I too want to pay tribute to Jo Whitehead for everything that she has done and to pay tribute to members of the board, too. We were lucky to reappoint Mark Polin as chair of the board for the next term, and I know that the board and those leading at a clinical level are persevering in doing what Jo Whitehead set out in her annual report. As I've explained many times on the floor of the Chamber, we as a Government don't believe that the best way of helping people in north Wales is to put the board in a position where they don't know whether the board will continue. That isn't going to help people focus on the work that needs to be done, and that is work that we, as a Government, are eager to help the board with in undertaking the hard work that they are facing.

The Climate Emergency

8. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of how the new Prime Minister's agenda will impact the Welsh Government's strategy to tackle the climate emergency? OQ58414

Llywydd, we cannot ameliorate the immediate crisis of energy costs by worsening the long-term crisis of climate change. In Wales, we remain determined to deliver our net-zero commitments and to place the development of renewable energy at the forefront of our efforts to do so. 

I'm concerned that borrowing over £100 billion on underpinning overpriced and unsustainable energy markets will still leave the poorest households in my constituency having to choose between heating and eating. What, if anything, can the Welsh Government do to protect citizens from having to pay for this mountain of debt for the next 20 years or more? And what levers, if any, does it give the Welsh Government to get energy-generating companies to decarbonise to protect our economy from this neoliberal madness and meet our net-zero target?

I thank Jenny Rathbone for those important points. Llywydd, if it turns out on Friday that, as we hear, the UK Government intends to pay for the help that it will provide to citizens facing enormous hikes in their energy prices by putting the debt that will be raised to do so back into the hands of those households, then it will not have provided a solution at all. There are better ways—ways being used by other countries—to take some of the unexpected and enormous profits that are being made by energy companies in order to help them to deal with the current crisis. And there is the need, Llywydd, for a fundamental reform of the way in which energy markets operate.

Here in Wales this year, we expect that 56 per cent of all the energy used in Wales will be produced by renewable sources. Now, the sun didn't start charging more this summer and the wind isn't costing any more either, yet, despite the fact that more and more of the energy we consume is being produced by sources where there isn't a global crisis in costs, those bills are going up at the same rate as everything else. This just tells you that the way the energy market is organised simply does not reflect the new realities of energy generation.

The European Union has announced that it will sever the cost of electricity from the most expensive therm of gas bought on the previous day. That's how energy prices are driven—you look at the most expensive therm of gas you had to buy and you price the whole of energy accordingly, whether it relies on gas or on renewable sources. That simply is not a sustainable way of organising these markets and it leads to enormous distortions of the sorts of profits that we will see—the Treasury itself estimating that up to £140 billion-worth of unlooked-for profits will end up in the hands of energy companies over the next two years. Of course there are better ways of dealing with that crisis than making poor families the length and breadth of the United Kingdom pay for the next 20 years for the schemes that the UK Government appears to be bringing forward.

14:25
2. Business Statement and Announcement

The next item, therefore, is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement—Lesley Griffiths.

Member
Lesley Griffiths 14:25:48
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch, Llywydd. Plenary business this week is as set out on the Plenary agendas published this morning. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.

Minister, could I ask for a statement, please, from the Minister for education on the development of coding skills here in Wales?

The week before last, I visited the Office for National Statistics in Newport where concerns were raised and expressed that not enough emphasis is being placed on the teaching of coding skills in schools and that it's a heavily male-oriented vocation at the moment. Coding is undoubtedly a skill that every organisation needs, and today, coding is so fully integrated, not only across businesses, but also across our entire lives, that almost all businesses have some sort of code at their ultimate core.

Teaching youngsters how to succeed in the digital world is absolutely crucial, in my opinion, and one major issue is that the skills needed to get by in our digital lives are changing so fast that educators are actually struggling to keep up. A person's level of digital prowess is fast becoming a key determinant of their earning power, yet in Wales, it seems to be a patchwork of digital skills. In June 2017, the then education Minister launched 'Cracking the code: A plan to expand code clubs in every part of Wales', which made several commitments under different strategic headlines. So, may I ask for a statement on the results of the strategy and what the Welsh Government is doing specifically now to ensure that pupils in Wales are provided with specialist digital skills to keep pace with the scale of the challenges that lie ahead? Thank you.

Thank you. As the mother of a daughter who is a coder, I absolutely appreciate what you're saying about it being a very male-dominated sector. I don't know if you're aware—I'm sure you are—that it's National Coding Week this week. That was begun a few years ago now in recognition of the need to fill that growing skills gap that was there.

The Minister brought forward the digital competence framework in Wales 2022 just this year. It's an integral part, obviously, of the new curriculum that has come into being this month, and it is an area of learning that sets out how to teach children the knowledge, aptitude and skills that they need to be able to use technology and systems confidently, and also creatively and critically. I know that the Minister continues to work closely with the four regional skills partnerships to identify regional employment and skills priorities, and that's absolutely based on what employers are telling us they require going forward. The Minister specifically requested that RSPs consider digital skills as part of this work.

Is it possible to have a statement, please, from the Deputy Minister for Climate Change on communication with the public regarding changes to Transport for Wales services, particularly those made at the last minute? A number of people have contacted me, having had difficulty in getting to work, college, school and emergency appointments because the trains weren't running between Pontypridd and Cardiff. This is nothing new; it happens often with services being cancelled at the last minute with insufficient numbers of buses to take people when the trains aren't operating. In one example this morning, a train ticket was sold to a person around 8 o'clock before they were told straight away that the train wasn't running and that a minibus would be running every 15 minutes. With so many others waiting, it was obvious that it would be hours before they reached Cardiff, meaning that they had to find alternative transport. This isn't good enough, and communication with the public is appalling, so I'd like to know what discussions the Government is having to improve this communication.

Secondly, I'd also like to ask for a statement from the Minister for Economy on preparations to take full advantage of the Wales men's team's participation in the World Cup.

Thank you. In respect of your first question, you're quite right, the lack of communication is unacceptable if it was as you outlined, particularly in the case that you identified this morning. I am aware that the Deputy Minister for Climate Change meets regularly with the chief executive and other officers of Transport for Wales, and I will certainly ask him to update Members if there is anything further to say. 

In relation to taking advantage of the many opportunities I think there will be right across many of our portfolios in the Welsh Government in relation to the World Cup in November in Qatar, the Minister for Economy obviously leads on major events, but other Ministers will also be participating. I know, from my portfolio point of view, Welsh food, and the promotion of Welsh food, we'll be having an event ahead of the World Cup in Qatar to promote that, and Ministers will bring forward statements as appropriate. 

14:30

Minister, I'd like to ask for two statements, if possible. We understand that there is an economic or a fiscal statement being made by the UK Government later this week. I'd like to ask for a statement from the Welsh Government on how that will impact our public services here in Wales. We're already concerned, I think, many of us on all sides of the Chamber, that economic mismanagement and economic illiteracy in London is already affecting our ability here to fund public services. The impact of galloping inflation is going to have an impact on our budgets, and, at the same time, if the UK Government is going to pursue a policy of tax cuts for the rich, we are going to see real impacts in our ability to deliver public services for everybody in this country. So, I'd be grateful if we could have a statement on that. 

The second statement I'd like to ask for, Minister, is this: one of the issues we've seen over recent months has been the growing impact and the damage done to our economy by leaving the European Union. We have seen already investment decisions moving away from Wales, moving away from the UK. We've seen a £40 billion black hole in UK Treasury as a consequence of leaving the European Union. We're seeing growth affected as a consequence of Brexit. Will the Welsh Government commit to providing a regular update to all Members here on the damage that is being done to our economic well-being by Brexit and by the foolish economic policies being pursued by the UK Government, so that we can all understand the damage that Brexit is doing to our economy and our communities?

Thank you. Well, if there is a fiscal statement coming forward from the UK Government, I'm sure the Minister for Finance and Local Government will update Members. You're absolutely right about the past few months. As a Government, we have £600 million less spending power since the comprehensive spending review brought forward by the UK Government last year, so we are very well aware of the impact on our budget. So, I do think the Minister will be very happy to update Members if there is such a statement later on this week or indeed this month. 

In relation to your request around updating Members on the cumulative impact, if you like, of the damage that we believe has been done to our country from leaving the European Union, I think it would be very hard to bring that all together in a statement, but I think certainly the way that we've brought forward our policies—and certainly, in my own portfolio, I'll be bringing forward the agricultural Bill for instance and showing just how, the support for farmers, how we're having to adapt to that because we don't know what our budget will be. 

Minister, in February of this year, a wind turbine at Gilfach Goch crashed to the ground, destroying its blades. I have since this challenged the Health and Safety Executive about the potential for this to happen elsewhere and what measures can be taken with landowners to ensure safety. As we potentially see an increase in the development of onshore wind, and we evaluate how to secure our long-term energy security, people need confidence that such turbines are safe. The Welsh Government says that it is pro clean energy, so will the Minister schedule a debate on how this can be achieved in a safe and sustainable way? Thank you.

I will certainly have a discussion with the appropriate Minister and report back to you. 

Trefnydd, we've already heard about the concerns expressed by residents in mid and north Wales on the possible intention of reconfiguring Wales Air Ambulance services. We've heard from the First Minister that perhaps it's not the role of Welsh Government to deal with this issue, but I would argue that the air ambulance service is part of that bigger jigsaw, part of the range of services that deal with emergency cases in rural areas. 

Now, in addition to concerns about the air ambulance, there's also concern about response times for ordinary ambulances. Within Powys, only 43 per cent of red calls at the beginning of this year were responded to within the target time. So, given all these concerns, could we have a statement from Government on the steps being taken to improve emergency healthcare provision in our rural communities? 

14:35

Thank you. Well, as you said, the First Minister addressed this during his question and answer session, and I certainly don't disagree, and I don't think the First Minister would, that the air ambulance is part of a jigsaw. However, it is fiercely independent. I remember, when I was health Minister, 11 years ago, they were fiercely independent then also. They don't receive any direct funding from the Welsh Government, so the decisions that they're taking now are absolutely a matter for them, and I do hope Members will take up the invitation from their chief executive to have ongoing discussions with Members. In relation to ambulance times and ambulance services, the Minister regularly makes statements in relation to that. 

I call for two Welsh Government statements, the first on support for children and young people impacted by migraine. During the last week of the Senedd summer recess, 4 September to 10 September, Migraine Awareness Week was held, and, at the start of the week, the Migraine Trust published a short report outlining research they've conducted into the impact on children and young people and putting forward recommendations to improve their well-being at school and in other settings, because an estimated one in 10 children and young people live with migraine and this can impact their development and participation in education, social activities and other key parts of growing up. Their aim is to ensure children and young people receive effective tailored information and support and guidance for carers, schools and healthcare professionals. I call for a statement accordingly. 

My final request for a statement relates to support and empowerment for deaf people in Wales. This month, September, is International Deaf Awareness Month. This week, 19 September to 25 September, is International Week of Deaf People, and next Sunday is world deaf day. Deaf awareness is a great opportunity—or the deaf awareness month is a great opportunity—to really celebrate and support the deaf community, encourage accessibility and educate ourselves and others about deafness. The theme of the International Week of Deaf People for this year is building inclusive communities for all, and the World Day of the Deaf on Sunday recognises the rights of deaf people all around the world and calls on different organisations to uphold these rights.

You're aware that at UK level there's been a recent British Sign Language Act, but that doesn't extend reporting or guidance duties to the Welsh or Scottish Governments, and only Welsh legislation can do so. As a north Wales constituent and BSL user recently e-mailed me, 'The voice of disabled people is still not heard. Nearly all products and services are still controlled by the non-disabled and hearing people who still use the medical model of disability. Moving to the social model of disability is vital for my community and disabled consumers'. So, I call for a statement accordingly both in the context of the month, week and forthcoming day on Sunday, but also in the context of the Welsh Government's proposals to fill the gap in Wales that now has been filled in England in relation to legislation that doesn't apply to services for which the Welsh Government is responsible. 

Thank you. Both the questions you asked, I think it shows the importance of having awareness days or weeks or months. I wasn't aware actually that it is deaf awareness month. I normally have a long list ahead of the business statement, but I wasn't aware of that, so thank you very much for highlighting that. Both of the conditions that you refer to are very debilitating, and I think the points that you raise around migraine in children and young people—if you'd like to send that report to the Minister for Health and Social Services I'm sure she'd be very happy to look at the recommendations. I think it is important that we do build inclusivity as much as we can for people who suffer from deafness. I think exclusion is something that's unacceptable in this day and age. 

14:40

I would like to raise two issues with the Trefnydd this afternoon. I hope that the royal family will have an opportunity to grieve in peace now that the period of public grief is now at an end. There are some important issues arising from statements made last week, and I would like to know how the Government will respond to these. Specifically, the decision to give the title 'Prince of Wales' to William, without consultation with Government or the people of Wales. There are also plans for an investiture. The Welsh Government has a key role now in leading a national conversation with the people of Wales on these issues, and the Senedd too has a crucial role as the democratically elected body representing the views of the people of Wales. So, will you confirm that the Government is planning to allocate time in the parliamentary timetable to allow the Senedd to have a meaningful vote on these issues?

And, secondly, I'd like to ask for a statement from the Minister for education, providing an update on the introduction of sex and relationships education as a statutory part of the Curriculum for Wales. Plaid Cymru is entirely supportive of this change, but we are aware that there is some fake news being spread and that protests have been held based on that news, including in my constituency in Caernarfon. The cabinet member for education in Gwynedd, Beca Brown, has been targeted in an entirely inappropriate way, but I stand shoulder to shoulder with her. I would ask the Government to explain what they are doing to prevent the spread of this misinformation, which is leading to totally inappropriate behaviour by some within our society.

Thank you. In relation to your second question, the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language has already published a written statement on 26 August regarding the very factually incorrect information that unfortunately was being discussed in a public domain from a certain group of people. I think the Minister for education was very clear in his written statement—I do hope you've had the opportunity to see it—to set out the Welsh Government's position. 

In relation to your first question, I absolutely agree with you that I do hope the royal family will now be able to grieve. I think it's been absolutely incredible the way they've been going around the country, particularly the King and the Queen Consort, to talk to people and visit the different parts of the UK. I do hope they have that private time now. 

You will be aware, because it's been out in the public domain, that even if the Prime Minister couldn't find two minutes to speak to the First Minister, the Prince of Wales did during his time of grieving call the First Minister. This decision has been taken now, and I think that's really important to recognise. But what the First Minister made very clear was that it's important how he develops his role going forward, and there is a debate to be had around that. 

Thank you, business Minister. I'd like to request a statement from the Minister for education—as he turns around. Over the summer, I, like many other MSs, have seen a deluge of e-mails from concerned parents who are fearful of the Welsh Government's intentions when it comes to potential changes in homeschooling. There are real concerns that proposals laid down by this Government are over-reaching and negative towards the homeschooling community. Could I ask for an oral statement from the Minister for education that will provide clarity for homeschoolers up and down Wales on any Government proposals that could significantly impact them? Thank you.

Thank you. Well, no proposals have been published at the current time—they will be in due course—but I know the Minister for education is talking to the relevant organisations and partners.

3. Statement by the First Minister: Update on the Cost of Living

A statement from the First Minister is next, an update on the cost of living. I call on the First Minister to make his statement.

Thank you very much, Llywydd. In recent years, our work as a Government and as a Senedd has been dominated by a series of national emergencies, from the impact of austerity to preparing to leave the EU, as Alun Davies mentioned earlier, to responding to the climate emergency and dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. 

Llywydd, none of these matters are over. All are compounded by the latest emergency to face the United Kingdom: the escalating cost of living.

The war in Ukraine has seen millions of people seeking shelter and sanctuary from conflict. Many thousands of people, mainly women and children, have been welcomed here to Wales. That war is one of the reasons why food, fuel and energy prices are increasing globally and driving rising inflation. Those pressures are felt in every part of Welsh life, whether that's businesses facing bills that simply cannot be passed on to consumers, farmers dealing with rapid and rocketing costs, or public services trying to respond to never-reducing demands and ever-growing costs as budgets are eroded by the highest rates of inflation for 40 years. The Welsh Government's own budget is now worth at least £600 million less than when fixed in the UK Government's comprehensive spending review less than a year ago. And, of course, families up and down Wales face a winter not knowing how they will be able to afford the basics of food, warmth and shelter. This afternoon, Llywydd, I want to concentrate on the immediate actions we, with others, will take to address the domestic impacts of this crisis. Other ministerial colleagues will come forward with proposals to address other sectors as we understand more of the proposals emerging from the UK administration.

14:45

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

Dirprwy Lywydd, I welcome any action to reduce the impact of this cost-of-living crisis on families, but if the cap on energy bills is to be financed by borrowing, then that really is, to quote so many previous Conservative Ministers, mortgaging our children's future. Instead of opting to fund this by using a windfall tax on the extraordinary and unanticipated profits made by oil and gas producers, the new Government appears to choose to load debt onto the lives of every UK citizen for years and years to come. And in doing so, it will, by deliberate decision, provide the most help to those who need it least, and the least help to those who need it most. The Resolution Foundation has estimated that the energy cap, coupled with the expected reversal of the previous Conservative Government's rise in national insurance contributions, will provide the top 10 per cent of UK earners with £4,700, and the lowest 10 per cent with £2,200—an outcome described by the new Prime Minister as one that is 'fair'. Now, as the pound depreciates further on international exchanges, and the bond markets demand higher interest rates to lend money to the United Kingdom, the result will be yet further rises in the cost of domestic borrowing, and that means more expensive mortgages and more expensive credit for Welsh citizens. Dirprwy Lywydd, this is why we will focus all our efforts this autumn on doing everything we can to support people through this crisis.

A new cost-of-living Cabinet committee has been established to take forward this work. It will meet weekly, I will chair it, and it will involve key social partners from beyond the Government. Here are just four ways in which we hope that all that work will be a real difference. Firstly, we will reframe, refocus and add to the many actions we already take to maximise the money left in the pockets of Welsh citizens to extend the help already available. And we will set new expectations for our partners to play their part in this effort. In this year alone, we will spend over £1.5 billion on schemes that put money back in people’s pockets—schemes that have a direct impact on the cost-of-living crisis. These are programmes such as the council tax reduction scheme, free prescriptions here in Wales, the education maintenance allowance, free bus travel for the over-60s, free breakfasts in primary schools, the most generous schemes for student support and funded childcare, as well as help for families with the cost of the school day.

Dirprwy Lywydd, that is only a selection of the schemes that I could have identified. And now there is to be more. Earlier this month, as part of the co-operation agreement, we started the roll-out of free school meals in our primary schools. Next week, we will open applications again for our unique winter fuel support payment, extending the eligibility so that, this time, 400,000 people in Wales will be entitled to help.

Next week, our new fuel bank scheme, which offers help to people on pre-payment meters and those who buy energy off-grid, will become operational. And next month, as the education Minister will set out in a statement later this afternoon, and in discussion with our co-operation agreement partners, we will extend free school meals again during the school holidays for the rest of this financial year. All of those measures, Dirprwy Lywydd, result in money being retained in the pockets of those citizens who need that help the most.

And in a second strand, we will fund a further round of our successful Claim What's Yours campaign this autumn. We know that millions of pounds' worth of help from UK Government schemes go unclaimed here in Wales. Forty per cent of Healthy Start vouchers, available for families with children under the age of four, are not taken up. They are worth £4.25 every week. For a family with two children under four, that's £442 a year. And every extra pound we can draw down from those schemes to which people are already entitled will go directly into the budgets of the poorest Welsh families. 

As we move into what will be a very difficult winter, it is vital that every part of the public sector here in Wales plays its part to make sure that people are able to benefit from all those sources of help—whether that's governing bodies in schools making sure that every eligible child gets a free school meal, or looking at how they can reduce the costs of school uniforms, to health visitors encouraging families to claim all the help that is available there for them. We need to make sure that, in this winter, every contact really does count.

Dirprwy Lywydd, my third strand today focuses on financial exclusion. For many Welsh households, even without the current inflationary pressures, there is little or nothing left between money coming into the household and money going out. Now, we have a network of credit unions here in Wales, which can help, and we have some innovative finance organisations that provide responsible lending to Welsh residents. But there are other examples that we can draw on in other parts of the United Kingdom to help more people who face the very real prospect of falling into debt this winter. We will bring this network of organisations and individuals in Wales together. We will involve other organisations, such as the mutual sector, our own plans for a community bank, and providers of essential services, such as Dŵr Cymru, to find new targeted solutions to help those most at risk.

For this afternoon, the final area that I want to focus on is one that is already attracting widespread attention and activity: 'warm banks', as they are called, in local communities—places where people can come to stay warm this winter. Dirprwy Lywydd, it's very difficult to believe that we have reached the point where community councils, faith groups, sports clubs, community centres are having to plan to prevent people from facing extreme fuel poverty this winter. And while we applaud these efforts, of course, motivated as they are by a determination to make a difference, every organisation I have met over this summer has told me that they wish that that sort of help were not needed.

As a starting point, we will make as a Welsh Government an additional £1 million available to support those efforts, extending their reach and their remit. A modest addition of, say, £10,000 can be the difference between enabling the effort I have mentioned to succeed, and it failing to get off the ground.

Deputy Llywydd, winter is usually a challenging time for all of us and for our public services. But the cost-of-living crisis and extraordinary energy bills, even with the Government’s cap, put incredible pressures on every family and business in Wales. The Office for Budget Responsibility has warned that the impact of this crisis could lead to the biggest drop in living standards ever seen in modern times. As a Government here in Wales, we will continue to do everything we can to support people through this crisis. Thank you.

14:55

First Minister, thank you for your statement this afternoon. It is without doubt the biggest crisis that we are facing in the current climate—the cost-of-living crisis that every household and every business is facing, whether that's here in Wales, whether that's across the rest of the United Kingdom, or indeed across the globe, in fact. There isn't a country that's immune from the pressures coming from the Ukrainian conflict, or indeed the fallout from the COVID pandemic and the squeeze on productivity around the world.

It is a fact that there will be a major financial statement on Friday highlighting how the new Government in Westminster will be making available money to households to the tune of £150 billion—£50 billion for businesses and approximately £100 billion for domestic households. That shows the strength of the union working together to bring money to the table to alleviate many of these cost-of-living pressures that we're seeing, building on the work that the UK Government has done to date, with the £37 billion that has been put on the table to alleviate the cost-of-living pressures that we've seen to date. And only today we're seeing £150 going to 6 million individuals who benefit from disability claims, going straight in to help them with cost-of-living pressures, along with the energy payments that have been made to date across the United Kingdom as part of that £37 billion. 

But I welcome some of the measures that the Welsh Government are undertaking, in particular the way the First Minister's configuring the Government to deal with this by having a sub-committee within the Government to look at this on a week-by-week, day-by-day, month-by-month basis. This is going to be a challenging winter; no-one is underestimating that whatsoever. But it is a fact that we must all make sure that, when we do put policies forward, they are affordable and, above all, they can be delivered and don't offer false hope to people, wherever they live in these islands. 

And I do have concerns—I'm quite happy to put that on the record—as to the quantum of money that would be required. But I think the quantum of money that is required emphasises the scale of the problem that not only this country is facing, but all countries are facing. I did notice that the First Minister talked about farmers and the pressures that farmers are facing. Farmers aren't immune to those cost pressures, just like everyone else. But I did offer a solution some four months ago, where the Government had within their powers—and I declare an interest as a partner in a farming business—and where they could have brought forward the single farm payment window to July, to put money into farm bank accounts so that seeds and fertilisers could be bought and so that this autumn planting season could have put crops in the ground that could be harvested. I was told at that time by the rural affairs Minister I was chasing a press release. Today, farmers in Wales have to stand shoulder to shoulder with English farmers who have their single farm payment in the bank account, but, here in Wales, we don't have that. That is one tangible implication of what the Government could have done for one particular sector to get money into bank accounts. 

I welcome the initiative around school meals, although I'm not convinced on the universal nature of the school meal concept. The First Minister and I have debated this, but when resources are tight, is it sensible that 40, 45 per cent of taxpayers benefit from the universality of school meals? But that's an ideological debate that the First Minister and I can have. The reality on the ground is that the Government is rolling this scheme out, so what I'd like to hear from the First Minister is whether schools and education authorities will be reimbursed for all the costs associated with the reconfiguration of kitchens, the increase in staffing levels that might be required for this policy, and any other associated costs specifically related to this roll out of the policy that the Government are continuing to roll out across Wales.

I'd also like to try and understand whether the First Minister will be using any of the levers around taxation that he has to raise money here in Wales. The First Minister has highlighted how he doesn't believe there should be tax cuts. I'm someone who does believe in tax cutting as a way of incentivising people to go out, put that extra shift in, put that extra overtime shift in that brings more money into the household, but the First Minister does have—[Interruption.] The First Minister—. Well, I can hear the backbench chuntering away and the finance Secretary, but if the Minister wants to raise money, he has the ability to do that by using the financial levers that were passed to him by the various Wales Acts from the Conservative Government in Westminster, and I'd be grateful to understand whether the First Minister is considering using any of those levers for the 40 or 45 per cent tax rates that are able to be adjusted accordingly, should the Government here think that necessary. It's not a route that I would suggest, but, ultimately, from his ideological position, from your ideological position, where you talk about raising taxes, you have that ability to do that.

What I would also like and fully endorse and support the First Minister in his measures around awareness, because his statement clearly identifies that money is going unclaimed. The example that he uses about a family that could be claiming an additional £450 into their household budget is a good example, because that is real money that is going unclaimed by many people across Wales, and that will help greatly with the cost-of-living pressures that they might be facing today. 

I would also like to try and understand how the First Minister is addressing the child poverty numbers that we're seeing here in Wales. Loughborough University brought forward some research work that they did just before the summer recess that indicated that, across the rest of the UK, child poverty levels were declining down to 27 per cent—still too high a figure—but regrettably, here in Wales, it has gone up to 34 per cent. Now, this statement has many initiatives that the Government have brought forward over many years, but, regrettably, we are seeing increased levels of child poverty here in Wales rather than following the UK trend, which is a declining trend. Those aren't my figures; those are Loughborough University's figures. And also, only today—

15:00

The Member has used an awful lot of his time, and gone beyond it. I've been generous. 

My final point then, if I may. And only today, we've seen figures come out about female employment in the workplace where, again, in the rest of the UK the numbers are going up, with greater numbers of females employed in the workplace, but, regrettably, in Wales we've seen a declining headcount in the workplace—a 3.5 per cent decline. What is the Welsh Government doing to make sure that there is equality in the workplace, so that we can follow the rest of the UK in increasing female participation in the workplace to get people bringing home a wage to pay those household bills? Thank you, First Minister.

Dirprwy Lywydd, thank you very much. Can I say in opening that I think, in answering First Minister's questions, I failed to recognise the generosity of the leader of the opposition's remarks about the work of Welsh Government officials over the last week? And if I failed to do so, then I want to make sure I've put it on the record now, because extraordinary efforts were made and I was grateful to the leader of the opposition for the way in which he recognised that. 

I'll focus, if I can, on the specific points that have been raised. In relation to farmers and cost pressures, 70 per cent of people's single farm payment will be in the hands of almost all farmers in Wales in October of this year. Ninety-seven per cent of all farmers in Wales received those payments in October last year, and we'll be aiming to do the same again.   

On school meals, I don't think it can be fair to say that this is an ideological difference between us. The measures that the Conservative Government in London will announce on Friday will go to every family in the land. In fact, more help will go to the best-off families than will go to the worst-off families. It is a universal approach that the UK Government will be taking. And it seems to me that if it is good enough to make sure that help goes to everybody in the energy crisis, then it can't be an ideological difference to say that help should go to every child in a primary school in Wales when it comes to free school meals. There are very good reasons why the universal approach is being taken, particularly in the free school meal sense, to make sure that we avoid the stigma that, sadly, has, for so many years, been associated with free school meals uptake.

The point that Andrew R.T. Davies raises in relation to the costing of it all: we'll provide £260 million to support local authorities to deliver that policy; £60 million of that is capital and £35 million of the £60 million was announced in detail on 7 September, to make sure that your local education authorities have the certainty that the money is there for them to improve kitchens, buy equipment and so on, to deliver the policy successfully.

I continue to be a bit bemused by the Member's question, when he tells me that he believes in cutting taxes, but wants to know what plans I have to raise them. And I've explained to him before that, if you look at what we said in our programme for government, we took a decision at the start of this term not to raise more money in taxes from people in Wales while the economy was seeking to recover from the impact of the pandemic. The stresses and strains on our economy, for all the reasons we've already explained—the impact of the war in Ukraine; the continuing impact of leaving the European Union—does not lead me to conclude that the circumstances that led us to that conclusion have been ameliorated.

On the issue of unclaimed benefit, of course we absolutely want to draw down everything that Welsh families are entitled to. And to give another example there, Dirprwy Lywydd, we believe that at the moment, in Wales today, up to £70 million may be unclaimed from child trust funds. So, children who had child trust funds deposited for them—and I know that the leader of the opposition will remember that we decided here in this Chamber to add money into the child trust funds of looked-after children, for example, in Wales—well, that money has stayed there for 18 years and now children are becoming entitled to draw it down. But because the scheme was ended back in 2010 by the coalition Government, the publicity around the scheme has diminished considerably. And already £70 million, which is there waiting to be claimed by young people in Wales, has not been drawn down. So, there clearly is more that we can do together to make sure that we do better in that way, and that will help, as will many of the measures I've outlined today, with issues of poverty in families and with children.

As to employment rates, employment rates in Wales are higher than employment rates across the United Kingdom, and the growth in employment rates has outstripped the growth in employment rates across the United Kingdom as well. One of the real challenges for the incoming UK Government is that the total workforce in the United Kingdom is still lower than it was before the pandemic hit. Many people, for whatever reason that may be, have decided not to return to the workforce, having found themselves outside it as a result of the COVID experience. Of course we want to make sure that, here in Wales, women and men have equal access to the employment market, but there are more fundamental issues at play here. The leader of the opposition began by referring to the productivity gap and one of the real constraints in being able to deal with the productivity gap is the fact that we do not have workers, sufficient workers in the United Kingdom, in order to be able to do the jobs that are available for them.

15:05

There are a number of things to be welcomed in today's statement, particularly, of course, the agreement that we've come to in terms of the provision of free school meals during school holidays. That will help very many families that are facing hardship at the moment. And, particularly, the warm banks that the First Minister referred to. Although it is regrettable that we do have to refer to these kinds of developments in the twenty-first century, they are much needed, unfortunately, at the moment. 

The Scottish Government has recently announced a set of proposals as part of its response to the cost-of-living crisis, and I was wondering if I could ask you, Prif Weinidog, if you also have plans to introduce measures that they have announced in relation to housing, particularly a moratorium on evictions similar to the one that was introduced in the pandemic and an associated rent freeze across all sectors—public, private and social. We’re seeing huge inflation, aren’t we, in rent costs in Wales? Indeed, the Centre for Cities recently pointed out that, actually, Wales was one of the worst areas in terms of inflationary costs in the UK. In fact, it’s Wales and the north of England that are actually seeing the highest rises in costs for families. So, the proposal that the Scottish Government has introduced is, I think, absolutely imperative here in Wales.

In relation to energy, of course, investing in insulation, important for environmental, long-term reasons, is now even more important as a result of this immediate crisis. So, we seem to be in a little bit of an interregnum between the old programmes that are coming to an end and the very extensive, ambitious plans that the Welsh Government has to meet its targets for decarbonisation and energy insulation by the end of this decade. Can we pump prime now? Can we bring forward those capital investment plans, so that we can provide as much immediate help to families as we can, again using that dual purpose of addressing the cost-of-living crisis while doing something that we need to do for more longer term reasons?

Bringing you back, of course, to transport, which we discussed earlier. And, by the way, the Scottish Labour Party is criticising the fare freeze in Scotland, saying that it’s not going far enough; it’s calling for the halving of rail fares in Scotland. But could the First Minister say when we can expect an announcement at least on rail fares in Wales for next year?

You mentioned the educational maintenance allowance. Of course, I think it was created about 20 years ago; it hasn’t kept up with inflation. So, could we not see that increase to £45, which is where it would be if it had kept up with inflation? Now, surely, is the time to do that, when so many young people are suffering the worst effects of this cost-of-living crisis.

You refer to the ‘Claim what’s yours’ campaign. I absolutely support making sure that people claim what they’re entitled to. Are we doing the same for Welsh Government funds, so that we make sure that there isn’t underclaiming there as well? Perhaps if you could say what plans you have on that.

And, in relation to the Scottish Government as well, one thing that they have been able to do in the areas where there is devolution of welfare payments—so, about 15 per cent, there or there about, of welfare payments are devolved—they’ve uprated those using the power that they have. Surely, this is the strongest argument in favour of the devolution of welfare payments. That 15 per cent of welfare payments is not devolved to Wales, therefore we are entirely dependent on the decisions of the Conservative Government in Westminster, which is not as progressive. So, surely now is the time as well to make sure that we are making the strongest case possible for the devolution of those powers.

You said you were focusing here on the domestic aspect of the crisis, but can I just ask, obviously, the effect on businesses is going to have a domestic consequence, isn’t it, if people lose their jobs? So, is the Welsh Government going to propose increasing the level of funding for businesses that are also facing extreme economic pressure, which in many, many cases will drive those businesses into bankruptcy and lead to unemployment? Welsh Government urgent support for the business sector is critically important at this time as well.

15:15

Thank you very much to Adam Price for what he said at the beginning of his contribution. We are eager now to do more to help families during the holidays in October, at Christmas, in February and at Easter too. That is going to cost millions of pounds, and I'm very grateful for the discussions that we've had to come to that conclusion.

Llywydd, I find myself in much the same position as I was earlier in the afternoon. There is a strong case to be made, I'm quite sure, for almost everything that the leader of Plaid Cymru would like us to spend more money on: more money on insulation, more money on EMAs, more money on rail fares, more money on businesses. Every one of those will have a case to be made for it.

The Scottish Government, of course, faces the same dilemma as we do. In order to fund the additional measures that they have taken, they have had to reduce other budgets by £700 million, and alongside the additional things they are doing, they have already outlined £560 million of cuts that they will make to things that otherwise they would have been able to do. That's the point I make to the Member, really: that for every one of the things that we could do more of, you can only do it by doing less of something you've already planned to do. Our budget is 100 per cent committed and more. Our capital budget in this year is overprogrammed to the tune of £100 million. There is no reserve. There is no sum of money waiting to be drawn on for these new purposes.

As he will know, we had long negotiations over the sums of money needed to support the 47 items in the co-operation agreement to make sure that they can be properly implemented, including the £260 million on universal free school meals in primary schools. So, there is no difference between us on the idea that there is more that we could do, or would want to do, but we face the same dilemma that the Scottish Government face, that if we want to do anything new, it can only be done by stopping doing something that we are already doing. That's the more difficult conversation that has to be had, alongside listing all the good things that could be added to that list.

We have a rent freeze in the public sector here in Wales until the end of March, because we've already announced any increases in those rents. We will continue to work, as we are committed to doing, on proposals that we will bring forward in a White Paper on rent controls here in Wales. Because I agree there as well with the leader of Plaid Cymru that there are particular costs that drive inflation and the impact on families here in Wales, including, as we often say here, the impact of standing charges in the energy field—standing charges that I've long regarded as being ought to be part of the past, not the current way in which we charge for energy, and that fall particularly heavily on consumers in Wales.

I can't be alone in feeling my blood boiling when I listen to the weasel words of the Conservative Party and when I watch their crocodile tears whilst they wring their hands at the consequences of the policies that they themselves are delivering: lifting the limits on bankers' bonuses, tax cuts for the rich, whilst cutting services for the poorest. It is appalling. And they walk away from it, of course. They leave the Chamber when we are talking about poor people and when we are talking about how poor people are suffering the consequences of their policies, because they're not interested.

The comparison between what we hear from there and what we hear from the First Minister couldn't be clearer. It's a Government that is taking all of the actions that it can in Wales to protect people, a Government that is using its power as a catalyst to bring people together, to bring communities together, to act as a catalyst to protect people, and a Government that is mobilising the whole resources of Welsh taxpayers to help people when they're at their most needy. That is the sort of Government that we need. First Minister, it is a credit to you and the team of Ministers that we can rely on a Welsh Government at a time of crisis like this, and it's a credit to this Government that they are taking the actions they are taking.

Could you, First Minister, assure me that you will be doing everything that you can to communicate what you are doing to protect people to people in Blaenau Gwent and across the whole of Wales so that people know what help is available, people understand what the Welsh Government is doing, people know that they've got a Government that is on their side when they're facing a time of crisis? It is important, when we'll hear from the so-called Chancellor of the Exchequer later this week that they are protecting the interests of the richest and party donors in London, that this is a Government that will stand with the people of Blaenau Gwent and the people of Wales and will ensure that every resource we have available to us is put at the disposal of the neediest, the most vulnerable and the poorest in this country. 

15:20

I absolutely agree with Alun Davies that, in this crisis, we have to do absolutely everything we can and that that is not a job just for the Welsh Government. We fund a single advice service here in Wales. It's one of the things that Lord Thomas, in his report on the devolution of justice, pointed out—that increasingly Welsh Governments have had to take on responsibilities for plugging the gap in services that are not devolved. We're glad to do it, because those advice services really matter to people. But if we think that those advice services are going by themselves to shoulder the burden of all the need for advice that there will be in Wales this autumn and winter, then I'm afraid that is unlikely to be something that they will be able to sustain.

I am very clear in my mind that in every single encounter that a public service worker has with a family in need this winter, there will be a responsibility on that public service to make sure that that person or that family is getting every piece of help that they can. When a social worker is out there meeting a family, making sure that every scheme that the Welsh Government can offer, every bit of help that can be drawn down from the UK Government—. That should be a responsibility that they are prepared to shoulder. As I said in health visitor terms, when a health visitor is there with a family, the financial health of that family will be having a direct impact on the physical health of that family as well. And this winter, of all winters, all public service contact should have that income maximisation, drawing down whatever help is available, at the forefront of their mind. We will want to do that as a Welsh Government, but we need to rely on that wider army of people that we have in Wales, whether they are in the third sector, in voluntary organisations and in our public services. When they are in contact with a family who needs help, as well as all the other things that I know they have to do, this winter, that cost-of-living lens must be one that I think they apply. In that way, I think we will be able to make the inroads we want to make so that nobody misses out on help that is available to them, because that help is going to be so urgently needed. 

First Minister, there is no doubt that very many families in the most vulnerable circumstances in Wales are extremely worried at what will come at them this winter, and I think we can all understand that, given the situation that we face. This does require urgent action, I believe, from all levels of Government and partner organisations. And of course, the UK Government has the prime responsibility, given the levers that are available to it, including the benefits system. I chair the cross-party group on poverty in the Senedd, as you know, First Minister, and we're very concerned at the UK Government's approach to universal credit: removing the £20 uplift; the long waits that people face as new claimants; the deductions that are made, very often, to those benefits because of either overpayments or debt; and also the UK Government's approach to sanctioning. I know that the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee has called for a pause to deductions to recover debts to give some breathing space to families at such a difficult time. Will you, First Minister, support the calls of that committee, and take every opportunity to urge the UK Government to do the right thing and help our struggling families during this incredibly difficult time to come? 

15:25

I thank John Griffiths for those important points. He's right; families across Wales face this coming autumn and winter with a real sense of trepidation. We've been in a sort of phoney war, haven't we, on this, really, because people are yet to see the real impact of the increasing bills that began on 1 April this year. During the long summer months, people are in some ways able to make adjustments—you don't have to heat the house, you don't have to turn the light on in the early evening—but they see October coming and they know that that way of coping will no longer be available to them. John Griffiths is absolutely right about the sense of foreboding that that creates for so many families.

The benefits system ought to take the heavy lifting of all this. That's what it was designed to do. That is why James Griffiths, the Member of Parliament for Llanelli, designed the social security system in the way that he did, so that no family should be fearful of destitution here in the United Kingdom. But with £1,200 taken out of the budgets of families just as these bills begin to rise, the holes in the safety net become ever greater. Thousands of people in Wales now rely on the discretionary assistance fund to see them through the five-week waiting period, the five weeks before you get any help out of the UK system. Thankfully, our discretionary assistance fund allows families to draw down some help to get them through that very difficult period.

While I don't agree with all the points that the leader of Plaid Cymru made earlier about the dismemberment of a UK benefits system—because in the end, it has the potential to be a great engine for redistribution in the hands of the right Government—I do agree, and have said so previously, with the conclusions of the committee in the last Senedd term that John Griffiths chaired, that devolution of the administration of social security would make a real difference here in Wales. Of course we would have a different sanctioning regime if it was in the hands of this Senedd; of course we would have a different approach to deductions from people's bare-bone benefits for debts that they owe elsewhere. The case for devolution of administration of welfare has become even stronger since his committee first investigated it and made those recommendations. I'm very pleased indeed to associate myself strongly with those proposals.

I really value these measures coming forward, but to deliver them, we need public services, and I'm really concerned; I've heard from the Prime Minister about funding for businesses and also for households, but nothing for public services, and they're facing the rising energy costs as well, and the cost-of-living crisis. They've had 10 years of austerity, so they're already cut to the bone going forward, struggling to recruit, and dealing with the pandemic as well, and they're needed more than ever, I think, to help people. Does the First Minister know if the funding for businesses will include public services? If not, would you be able to have conversations with the UK Government Treasury regarding funding for public services going forward, so they can deal with rising energy costs as well? Regarding the discretionary assistance fund, I've been contacted by different agencies including the Flintshire Local Voluntary Council. Could I ask that you look at whether that could rise from a £250 payment to a £500 payment, so that residents could afford to buy a tankful of oil? Because they cannot at the moment with the £250. Thank you. 

I thank Carolyn Thomas for those questions, Llywydd. In relation to public service funding, there are two different issues, aren't there? There is the issue of energy costs, and the announcement on 8 September did suggest that there would be help for public services with energy costs, as well as help to businesses, but we will not know any more than that until we see the mini budget, or whatever it is to be called, on Friday of this week.

But, beyond the energy costs, there is the general impact of inflation, which erodes the purchasing power of the budgets of all public services. I said earlier: the Welsh Government's own budget will buy £600 million and more less value than it would have in November last year. In November last year, the UK Government, in their comprehensive spending review, decided how much money the Welsh Government needed to discharge its responsibilities. In effect, we now have hundreds of millions of pounds less than they said we needed then. So, I think it's a completely legitimate expectation that the UK Government will want to put public services back in the position that they themselves had decided was necessary less than a year ago.

As to the discretionary assistance fund, it is under enormous pressure. The claims on it go up every month from people who have nowhere else to go. Fortunately, in relation to the specific point that Carolyn Thomas made about people who are off-gas and therefore have to buy heating oil, the fuel bank scheme that will become operational this month will offer help for people in those circumstances. People on pre-payment meters—nothing at all in the Government's announcement to help them, the poorest people who buy the most expensive energy, and nothing to help people who are off-grid either. Our fuel bank scheme will do both.

15:30

Behind every threat, there is an opportunity, and I've long been an advocate of community-focused schools. So, I've already had conversations about heat banks in schools, in community centres, in churches, and people are really pulling together. And I just wondered if we can somehow extend the remit of community-focused schools to enable us to offer community learning, community-focused homework, community sport in the schools that we are already funding as part of the taxpayers' contributions. This would obviously be hugely beneficial to enable people to get together and learn together, rather than simply be shivering in front of a metal box. 

Llywydd, they are really important points that Jenny Rathbone makes. The only way that we will be able to succeed in creating banks that people can use is by using facilities that are already there and operating. And community-focused schools is one of those, but there are many, many others—rugby clubs that are open and are the focus of many communities; maybe they can do more if there is a bit of help for them. Voluntary and faith group-run centres that could extend their opening hours if they had a bit of extra help. 

We can't start this from scratch; we're talking about this coming October. We have to build on what is already available and get that to do more. And then, we have to bend the budgets of other organisations to support them in that work. I absolutely expect the arts council and the sports council, for example, to be looking at their budgets and asking whether there are things that they could do, so if people are coming together in new facilities of that sort, there are things for them to do. The idea that people just come there and sit there all day and do nothing is not going to be attractive to anybody. So, we have to see that all the budgets that are there, in every part of the public sector, are being interrogated again through the lens that we've been discussing this afternoon. And then, as Jenny Rathbone says, opportunities for sport, opportunities for learning, opportunities for creativity—all those things that will make people's time, if they come to such centres, productive and worthwhile, we need to see all that being part of this rapidly needed new set of arrangements. 

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Prif Weinidog, you've rightly outlined the crucial importance of getting what support is available into eligible people's pockets. So, could I ask you: what evaluation of the last round of the winter fuel support scheme across local authorities has taken place? Because I'm sure that you agree with me that we need to know what worked well and what needs to be improved, especially around processing and engagement procedures and practices, to ensure maximum take-up.  

15:35

Thanks to Sioned Williams for that important question. So, there is an evaluation of it all. It has led to the change in the eligibility criteria that I mentioned earlier to make sure that some people who, the first time around, the rules didn't accommodate them, didn't respond to their circumstances, will now be able to take advantage of the scheme. That's why the number of people who we hope to help can be as high as 400,000 people.

There are things that local authorities will want to do to help as well. We know that some local authorities in Wales do better in the business of automaticity. If you are entitled to one form of help, without you having to do anything, it opens the door to all sorts of other help that you might be able to get. Other local authorities require people to apply time and time again; every time you want a piece of help, you've got to apply again. Unsurprisingly, local authorities that have the first approach have higher levels of take-up than local authorities that go for the second way of doing things. And we've been talking with the Welsh Local Government Association to make sure that the experience of those local authorities that—I can't think of the right word—automatically provide the help to which people are entitled as soon as they first ask for help do better in fuel bank delivery, as well as in other things; in winter fuel delivery, as well as in other aspects. And we want more local authorities to learn from the experience of the successful ones.  

4. Statement by the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution: The Environmental Protection (Single-use Plastic Products) (Wales) Bill

Item 4 is the statement by the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution on the Environmental Protection (Single-use Plastic Products) (Wales) Bill. I call on the Counsel General, Mick Antoniw. 

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Today, the Minister for Climate Change laid the Environmental Protection (Single-use Plastic Products) (Wales) Bill together with the explanatory memorandum before the Senedd. I am making this address, as she cannot be here herself. 

Plastic waste is pervasive, persistent and polluting, and it is urgent that we take steps to prevent the flow of plastic waste into our environment. It can be difficult to recycle plastic goods and they are frequently littered or fly-tipped. Microplastic residues have been found on our highest mountains, in our food and in our water supplies, in the air that we breathe and inside our bodies. In the Arctic Circle, plastic waste from the UK has entered the oceans. Once in the environment, plastic attracts other pollutants, making it more hazardous to animals, plants and humans encountering it.

Plastic products have supported technological development in areas like healthcare, workplace safety and energy efficiency. Yet, these benefits have come with a growing environmental cost that is not sustainable. As part of developing a more responsible approach to using plastics, the first step must be eliminating its unnecessary use, particularly for items designed for single use. 

Most plastic is made from fossil fuels. Reducing it can assist our efforts towards net zero, helping reduce our carbon footprint to minimise the worst impacts of the climate emergency. A 2015 study found that twice as much fossil energy is burned for plastic production as is contained in the plastic itself. So, changing our habits to reduce demand for plastics and encourage reuse will help save this colossal waste. A wholesale switch to plant-based plastics is not the answer. While these products can help reduce carbon, their production can compete with food crops for increasingly valuable agricultural land and water. Wherever possible, we must first reduce the need for plastic products, including, where relevant, by making the switch to reusables.

People and businesses in Wales are already making changes. As a Government, we are committed to supporting them, building on their enthusiasm for change. People are demanding that this Government and their Senedd builds on their efforts, and that is what this Bill does today. It sends a clear message to everyone living and working in Wales. It will encourage more of us to change our habits and reduce plastic waste. To do this, we will all need to get used to doing things differently. We are alive to the fact that some people and businesses will find changes more difficult than others will, and they will need time and guidance to do so. Nevertheless, such change is entirely possible. As a Government, we must not shy away from the urgent need to accelerate the rate of change already in train.

The purpose of the Bill is to reduce the flow of plastic pollution into our environment. This Bill forms part of our response to the climate and nature emergencies. The Bill will build on the momentum created by communities across Wales who have already chosen to go plastic free, defy throw-away culture, and help tackle littering.

Dirprwy Lywydd, on 15 August, we published a draft of the Bill to give Senedd Members and interested stakeholders an opportunity to see the proposed scope and direction of the Bill, and the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee an opportunity to consult on the proposal. In the same spirit of openness, the Minister for Climate Change has written to the Chair of the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee today to set out some changes that we intend to propose to the Bill at Stage 2. The changes are technical and legal clarifications that do not alter the purpose or intent of the Bill. As we work together in the coming months, I hope that you will support these amendments that will provide the necessary clarity for the Bill.

The Bill will make it a criminal offence to supply or to offer to supply to a consumer in Wales the single-use plastic items in the Schedule. It will also make provision for Ministers to introduce civil sanctions as an alternative means of enforcing the ban on prohibited single-use plastic products, which is similar to the arrangements for the existing ban on plastic microbeads in place since 2018. The Bill will also allow us to introduce regulations to ban or restrict more products as evidence of harm and the impact of these actions becomes available. Ministers will be required to report on the items they are considering banning under this provision. Such regulations will be subject to the approval of the Senedd by affirmative procedures.

Many items in the Schedule of items to be banned include everyday products associated with food and drink on-the-go. This includes single-use plastic cutlery, plates, drink stirrers, expanded and foamed polystyrene fast-food containers and cups, as well as polystyrene lids for fast-food containers and cups. We are also banning drinking straws, which have an exemption to ensure that they can still be provided to those who, for medical reasons, need them to eat or drink. We have also included plastic-stemmed cotton buds and balloon sticks. And we also intend to ban all products made of oxo-degradable plastic, which is a type of plastic to which additives have been added that have been shown to alter the way it breaks down.

Dirprwy Lywydd, building on the success of the 5p charge for single-use carrier bags, the Bill will take our ambition to cut waste from these products to the next level. Research shows that most households have changed their habits such that they no longer require these products. So, thin, single-use bags will also now be banned.

This Bill will enable Wales to be at the forefront of action on plastics by removing single-use items from the supply chain. It will help achieve our ambition to develop the circular economy by focusing on reuse, generating value whilst reducing overall demand. It will help to address the visual and ecological impact of littered plastic and take us a step closer to being a nation that takes responsibility for what we consume, using no more than our fair share of the world's resources. Together, we can make a difference and we can create a better environment for current and future generations.

So, Dirprwy Lywydd, I hope all Senedd Members will agree that the time for action is now. All Members of the Senedd will have been approached in their constituencies to act on this important matter. I hope Members are supportive of our proposals throughout the scrutiny process that will now follow, as I'm keen to see that this legislation is passed to achieve a greener, fairer and more prosperous Wales and to help make this Bill a success. Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd.

15:45

I realise, of course, the Minister isn't here to introduce this today, but the Counsel General has very ably pointed out the problems that we have with so much plastic. By the time I've actually given my contribution, around 5 million plastic bottles will have actually been purchased, because 1 million are purchased every minute on our planet.

The plastic plague, of course, is here in Wales. Single-use plastic was found on 64.2 per cent of our streets in 2021. Three beach cleans that I've been involved with, held by the Marine Conservation Society and One Global Ocean at Llandudno, Colwyn Bay and Rhyl saw nearly 100 volunteers cleaning up and recording over 70 kg of litter. And if you've ever undertaken a beach clean, that is one of our biggest issues.

Certainly, as this legislation comes in, and the Bill, which we welcome, as well as this statement, I would hope that we as Welsh Conservatives can have some say and some influence to ensure that we actually look at addressing all kinds of other types of plastic, for instance, the thousands of plastic-tipped cigarette ends that you find on beaches, which are really damaging to our marine environment. If we follow a business-as-usual model, where countries do not reduce the amount of plastic produced or recycled, the World Economic Forum has estimated that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.

Already, Scotland has introduced bans on plastic drink stirrers, plastic-stemmed cotton buds, plastic drinking straws, disposable plastic plates, single-use plastic cutlery, balloon sticks and expanded polystyrene containers, which I think are absolutely dreadful things, when you buy food. Since October 2020, the UK Government themselves have banned the supply of plastic drink stirrers, plastic-stemmed cotton buds and plastic drinking straws.

So, whilst it is the Counsel General introducing this today, I would like to ask some questions. Counsel General, do you agree with me that it is regrettable that we've had to wait so long for this legislation when we're so far behind England and Scotland and it really is contributing to our climate crisis? Even when considering the responses to the reducing single-use plastic in Wales consultation, it was apparent that there is disappointment that the bans are not already in place. We've called for this for years.

So, having read the draft Bill, I do have serious concerns about enforcement. You're relying an awful lot, once again, as you often do with your legislation coming forward, on our local authorities, and in particular our enforcement regulatory departments. It is stated many times in our Senedd that these departments are vastly under-resourced. In my own authority, vastly under-resourced because of a very poor settlement by the Welsh Labour Government. So, how on earth do you expect local authorities to pick up the mantle with this? What extra resources will you actually be putting into this legislation? I'm worried that section 7 gives local authorities a legal right to investigate complaints in respect of offences under section 5. What other steps do you take with a view to reducing the incidence of offences under section 5?

Counsel General, can you clarify whether every local authority in Wales has been consulted on their ability to take on further enforcement responsibility, and can we have some of that feedback here today? I genuinely, and my colleagues in the Welsh Conservative group genuinely, want this legislation to work. Will you work with us to consider possible amendments to the draft Bill so that enforcement responsibility is given to another body, perhaps, that is not a local authority? As it stands, this so-called made-in-Wales Bill, which is supposed to enable the Welsh Government to be at the forefront of action on plastic and place Welsh Ministers in the driving seat for future action in this area, does pass the buck to local authorities. There's so much of this Bill—. It is a good Bill coming forward, but you've got to be open—none of the political dogma that we've seen in past legislation that comes through, where the Welsh Conservatives put forward some really good and constructive suggestions only to have them overruled and ruled out simply because it has come from Conservative Members in the Senedd. If we all work together on—

15:50

Yes, of course. If we all work together on this, then we could have a Bill to be proud of here in Wales. Diolch.

Can I firstly thank the Member for the earlier comments? The point I think I do agree with is that the issue of single-use plastic, the contamination of our environment, the need to tackle that challenge, is a global one, but it's one where we have to do what we can within Wales in terms of our own responsibilities, and that that, in general, is a cross-party issue; it's not an issue that creates political divisions between us. We can all see what is happening. I've been out with volunteers myself in Beddau woods in my constituency; you see the amount of plastics and the fantastic work the volunteers do in recovering that. I very much welcome that spirit of support for protecting our environment.

You ask why it takes so long and why we are so far behind. I always get a bit despondent when legislation is treated as though somehow it is some form of Olympian race in terms of first, second, third. There are various different things that are happening in Scotland and in England. England has introduced secondary legislation, back in April 2020, relating to straws, cotton buds and stirrers. It's considering expanding its list to include some of the things that we are actually starting to legislate on ourselves, and, of course, I think you'd be supportive of the fact that we, in terms of our devolved responsibilities, are and should be legislating within Wales itself. Scotland banned cotton buds in 2019; in June 2022, they added some additional items. They are looking at the issue of oxo-degradable plastic, which we are legislating on. What I will say is that, in legislating in these areas, it is not really just a question of trying to look up a list; the issue of definitions and impact is considerably complex. I think our Bill goes further, and the Welsh Bill will be the most extensive piece of legislation. But, importantly, what it also does is that it will create powers—and, again, subject to affirmative resolution in the Senedd—to enable the list to continue to be worked on, because this is a changing environment. We know there are other items we would like to see added but where there is still further evidential work that is needed. But we do need a framework, which is what the Bill creates, to actually add, or, indeed, to delete from that.

In terms of enforcement, what I'd say is local authorities, I think, with their environmental responsibilities and, in fact, responsibilities that well extend into areas of health and safety as well, are the natural body to actually take enforcement action. Of course, any reasonable proposal that comes forward will be properly considered. I do reject the fact—. I don't think any resolution is rejected, any proposal is rejected, on the basis that it comes from the Conservatives. I think there are, clearly, very clear ideological reasons why proposals coming from the Conservatives are rejected, but I think that is a different matter. 

And then perhaps just one final point. Obviously, any technical amendments and so on that would improve the legislation are obviously things that would want to be considered. And again, as I have said, Government will bring forward its own amendments, which are very much of a technical nature. And again, the Bill was tabled early in draft form to enable the committee to start a consultation process. That process has, I understand, been under way and—if I believe rightly—has been completed, and Government at the moment is considering its response to that consultation at the moment.

15:55

Thank you very much, Counsel General. We as a party welcome this statement. We've been campaigning for years to ban single-use plastics. But, since the growth in plastic's popularity in the 1960s, it has become a prominent part of our lives, from food packaging to plastic fibres being blended into our clothing—so, that's visible and invisible plastic around us and surrounding us.

Although we have all become aware of plastic pollution—a great deal of good work has been done by Sir David Attenborough on The Blue Planet programme, which has brought the issue to the fore—issues such as COVID-19 have accelerated the harmful impact of plastics on our environment and our biodiversity. We will all remember that distressing image of a bird unable to move because it was tangled in a face mask, or that fish with its stomach full of plastics. As you said in your statement, from the heights to the depths of this planet, plastic is to be found.

We can all agree that we want the elimination of such plastic waste, but I am afraid that the path ahead of us is riddled by obstacles—riddled by man-made obstacles, Westminster-made obstacles. The infamous internal market Act—not only does that Act enable UK Government to spend within devolved areas and ignore the devolved settlement, it also enables the UK Government to ignore food and environmental standards set here in Wales.

Why does that matter? I hear some complaining from the benches opposite. Why does that matter? It matters because it means that if this Senedd legislates—the democratic voice of the people of Wales legislates—to ban single-use plastics, products made elsewhere in the United Kingdom would be legally allowed to be sold here.

According to the Institute of Welsh Affairs, the internal market Act and its principles, which is totally inappropriately called 'mutual recognition'—there is only one-way mutual recognition there—are likely to significantly reduce the ability of the Welsh Government and this Senedd to pass effective legislation with regards to the regulation of goods and services. The minimum regulatory standard in any of the four constituent parts of the UK will apply across the United Kingdom. And in reality, what that will mean is that the English market rules of anything goes in the pursuit of profit over the environment will apply here in Wales.

We cannot allow the hard work of the good tradition here, within our young Senedd, of protecting the environment, such as the first charge on carrier bags back at the beginning of the last decade—we cannot allow these good works to be undone by political dogma, by the internal market Act. We must continue to resist its effects. Otherwise, colleagues, we face the death of devolution and our environment. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 on the effectiveness of the proposed ban on single-use plastics? And will you use it as a practical example in a new court challenge against the Act?

I agree that this is a good, practical example, and I do hope that the Counsel General will use it for a future challenge. But I hope that, in the rush to do that, we do not bypass proper scrutiny of this Act. This Act is far too popular to be rushed through without proper scrutiny within committees and here on the floor of the Senedd. I hope that you bear that in mind. 

Finally, I want to make the point about accessible alternatives. There are many alternatives to plastics; unfortunately, many of them are far more expensive than plastics. To persuade, to enable people to switch from plastics to alternatives, we need to make sure that we do the right choices—that those choices in terms of materials are in fact affordable to the vast majority of the people who live within our communities. What steps will the Welsh Government take to ensure plastic-free alternatives are readily affordable and accessible to consumers? Diolch yn fawr.

16:00

Thank you for those questions, and perhaps just one statistic to put in to add to those: of course, within Wales alone, in one year—or, I think, in the last two years—there have been produced an estimated 100 million plastic cup lids. So, that’s an indication, I think, of the scale. And of course you referred to the pollution of the seas, and of course that’s why our concern about the banning of oxo-degradables as well, because all they do is actually break down the plastic, but they don’t eliminate the plastic—the plastic just gets into even smaller items, miniscule items, to contaminate our seas, our waterways and our land.

You raised some very important issues with regard to the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, and of course this is a matter I’ve spoken on on many occasions. In fact, I made a statement on 18 August with regard to the Supreme Court rejecting our application for permission to appeal the order of the Court of Appeal that our claim for judicial review of the Act was premature. So, we were disappointed with that, but that was a judgment very much to do with process. But in terms of this legislation, and I suppose in accordance with the points that the Member has raised, our position—and this is why we sought the judicial review through the Supreme Court—is that UKIMA does not have the capacity to take away our devolved competence, and I am confident that this legislation is within our competence. If a different view is taken, then there are options that are open. There are options for me, if I thought it appropriate, to refer the matter under section 112 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, to refer a Bill to the Supreme Court. I see no reason why that would arise on this occasion. It was also open, of course, to the UK Government to take similar measures. But our view is that the Bill is within competence. We do not expect the UK Government to refer the Bill to the Supreme Court, and if actions are taken, then obviously we will consider our position at that stage, and in particular with all the issues and arguments that we wanted to raise in the Supreme Court, where the Supreme Court said they would rather have an example of legislation that they could test it against. It seems to me that the appropriate course of action at this moment in time is to base the assessed competence on our analysis of what the competence is, and that is UKIMA does not have the competence to overturn our statutory devolution powers, and therefore it is within competence.

You correctly raise issues of scrutiny. We do want the Bill to move forward quickly. This is one of the reasons why the draft Bill was tabled as early as possible, to enable yet further consultation by the committee. But it is a relatively simple Bill. There are technical complexities—those, as I mentioned earlier, in terms of how you actually define something, and of course in legislation, as the Member will know, you have to be very clear about what you’re defining, what it is you are talking about and what action can actually be taken. But of course I will do everything I can, and I know the Minister will, in respect of supporting the scrutiny.

In terms of the longer term issues, of course there’s ongoing work that perhaps it’s fair for me to mention now—not within my portfolio, but certainly within the portfolio of the Minister—looking at the issues of reusable bottles and bottle banks and so on; deposit schemes, packaging and so on. Those are discussions that are under way. Policy is being developed and, in actual fact, this legislation also enables us not only to add to the list, but also to support adding to that list by looking at alternative schemes and encouraging those schemes, and also through educational processes and the work that governments naturally do to shift culture, to change culture in terms of our orientation, our reliance on and our addiction to the use of single-use plastics. But I think this particular Bill is a very significant step forward and is the most comprehensive piece of legislation in this area in the UK.

16:05

Thank you very much for making this statement, and I'm sorry our very able Minister for Climate Change is unable to be with us, but we wish her a speedy recovery, I'm sure. I just wanted to ask you why the Bill is proposing to make it a criminal offence for somebody to supply single-use plastics, but it would be a civil offence only for somebody to wilfully leave their plastic rubbish on the beach or in the countryside rather than taking it home. Because it seems to me that where there's such clarity about the need not to do this that we ought to have quite strong sanctions, given the implications of the results. 

The other question I had was: why the hesitancy in banning single-use plastic straws? Because to pick up on Rhys ab Owen's point, there are already—and have been for years and years—alternatives to plastic straws. Personally, I was brought up on paper straws, but, equally, there are excellent metal straws that can be washed and reused, and so there is absolutely no need for any plastic straws for the number of people who do need straws to help them drink. Whether they're very young people, frail elderly people or people with certain disabilities, straws are very useful, but there's absolutely no need for plastic straws. So, I just wondered why we're not being a little bit firmer on this, in the sense that there are perfectly good alternatives available.

Thank you for the question. In terms of the issues around the criminal offence and the power for civil sanctions, well, of course, a criminal offence is where someone has created an offence and you are basically penalising or prosecuting them for breaching the law. Civil sanctions give you an additional power, in the sense that if you know something is happening or something is proposed to be done that would be breaching it, it gives you the power also to seek reliefs that actually prevent them from doing it—to apply, perhaps, for an injunction or whatever it is to prevent something being done, so, in some ways, to prevent the criminal offence actually being caused in the first place.

It's the sort of thing that exists also in health and safety. You can say with regard to health and safety that you can be prosecuted for a criminal act, but there are also sanctions that can be taken that you'd call more like a civil sanction, which might prevent you doing something, making something, or acting or producing in a way that might lead to a criminal offence. So, it really just, I think, gives a more comprehensive set of powers in terms of ensuring the enforceability of the objectives of the legislation.

With regard to plastic straws versus paper, of course, as a child I have to say I was never appointed a milk monitor, so I never had the direct personal experience of having to distribute these straws, but we only ever had the paper wax straws, so plastic straws were something relatively more modern in my life. I think it's a consequence coming out of the consultations. There were concerns expressed that in some fairly small sectors, but areas where there were particular types of need, there were reasons why it was felt that a different type of straw—a paper straw, for example—might not be appropriate where plastic and those examples were given. It was felt appropriate that there should be exemptions where that could be justified.

So, I think within the scale of things, it was a relatively small part of it. There's no comparison in terms of the scale of the number of straws that are in general use as opposed to those that are for a fairly specialised use. And it would only be within that context that that would be acceptable, but for reasons that have arisen and been accepted as valid within the consultation process.  

Thank you, Counsel General. My party are very glad that this legislation is coming forward because we need to do as much as we can to reduce single-use plastics right across the globe, because it is the great scourge of our time that we are seeing plastics littering our oceans and killing our animals, and that is totally unacceptable.

With the Welsh Government going further, banning more items than they have in England, this is going to cause problems—as my colleague Rhys ab Owen has said—with the internal market Act. The Scottish Government went further than what they did in England and managed to get exclusions agreed on the list. And I'd like to know, Counsel General—it's probably more your brief than the climate change Minister's—what discussions you are having with the UK Government to see if we can get exclusions put in, to make sure that this legislation can pass through this Senedd quite seamlessly, to make sure we can get this in place to reduce single-use plastics. Because, unlike my colleague Rhys ab Owen, I don't want to see this going to the Supreme Court; I want this actually going where both Governments can work together to get good legislation through this place and to respect the devolution settlement here in Wales.

16:10

Well, listen, thank you for those comments, and perhaps taking from the end part that you raised, of course there were framework discussions, so the internal market Act was never necessary. The whole objective of the frameworks was, basically, a co-operative agreement on it, and it's the internal market Act that drove a coach and horses through those fundamental principles.

There has been engagement with officials at the UK level. There has been no indication that there was any aspect of this Bill that would be challenged, but, you know, that doesn't mean that there won't be. It's a matter, obviously, that UK Government will consider in due course. I suppose that all I can really say on it is this: my assessment of this is that this is within competence. And it's within competence because, as I've explained in this Chamber before, I don't believe that the internal market Act actually does take away that devolved competence, but there was an unclarity there that we wanted to have resolved. That unclarity actually remains, but my view, and the view of the Welsh Government, is that this Bill is within our competence, and if issues do arise, well, we'll assess those as and when they arise, under the normal processes.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and of course I welcome the Bill. We've all seen the unnecessary devastating impact that single-use plastics have on our environment and our wildlife. So, what are we talking about? Well, currently, 11 million metric tonnes of plastic waste is entering our ocean every year. If we keep on as we are now, that will double by 2040. And, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, if it is the case that, globally, we cannot deal with reusing any of that plastic, it's going to triple by 2040. So, we're talking about a potential 33 million metric tonnes of plastic waste in our sea alone by 2040. So, that is why I welcome this Bill. We have to act and we have to act now.

The one question I have is that I notice there's a list of things that are single-use plastic, but we all know that we suddenly discover that there's plastic in other things that we didn't know about, and wet wipes are a good example of that. So, my question is clear: can we then use that existing legislation, if we need to, to add things that we become aware of, which we might not be aware of now, that are single use and that have plastic in them? Thank you.

Well, thank you. That is a really important question, because, you know, we are not in a static environment. It's not about producing a list and then we can all go away and be satisfied that everything is satisfactory. And, of course, your question partly led on to what's been asked earlier, and that is, 'What are the other areas?' And, of course, we can all identify, I think, other areas that we'd be concerned with, and we wonder whether there should be changes there—particularly deposit schemes. I mentioned about the paper straws earlier. Well, as a kid, I spent a lot of my time hanging around building sites at the age of six and seven, picking up the bottles, because there was fourpence—four old pence—on each bottle, and that was how you got your pocket money in those days. And it was really disappointing that we never retained something that was so logical to use.

But I think you mentioned about other items, such as wet wipes, for example, well, those are things that are being looked at. There are certain complications over wet wipes, because there are issues to do with labelling. Wet wipes apparently aren't as simple a product as they’re made out to be; some of them contain different substances and so on. There are probably good reasons why wet wipes should be banned in any event because of the impact they have on the sewage systems. But, of course, one of the issues is labelling as well. Product labelling is not devolved to Wales but is reserved to the UK Government. But, it’s an area that we’re looking at and there are other areas as well that will be looked at.

The importance of this legislation is that it creates powers, but it does obviously retain anything that’s added or removed from the list—the power remains by the affirmative resolution within this Senedd. I think that is something that is extremely important. I suppose I should add also, of course, that under section 79(2) of the Government of Wales Act, a sustainability report has to be produced each year, and what the legislation does do, which again I think is important, is it creates a duty on Government to actually set out to the Senedd in that report what other items it is looking at, what progress is being made, what other items may be listed. So, this is an ongoing, continuing debate, as it should be, that will take place within this Senedd. So, this legislation is really the start of that process and not the conclusion of it, I suppose. Banning single-use plastic items is a process, not an event.

16:15
5. Statement by the Minister for Finance and Local Government: Visitor Levy Consultation

The next item is the statement by the Minister for Finance and Local Government on a visitor levy consultation. I call on the Minister to make her statement—Rebecca Evans. 

Today, I'm pleased to announce the launch of a public consultation on enabling local authorities to raise a visitor levy. The proposals set out in the consultation have been developed with Plaid Cymru as part of the co-operation agreement. Our collective ambition is to grow tourism for the good of Wales with economic growth, environmental sustainability and social and cultural well-being at the heart of that ambition. We are working together to ensure our local communities are given the support and the tools that they need to thrive.

Wales is not alone in pursuing this approach. Over 40 countries have visitor levies in place, including Greece, the Netherlands, France and New Zealand. Many of us will have paid a levy when traveling abroad, and some will have done so without even noticing. Across the world, more and more destinations are opting to use visitor levies to enhance local services and infrastructure. These taxes can enable a more sustainable form of tourism. Following a call for public ideas for new taxes in 2017, it was suggested that a visitor levy be considered. We are now taking forward this idea through our programme for government commitment.

Local taxes support the funding of local infrastructure and services, from keeping beaches, footpaths and coastlines clean to providing local transport infrastructure and maintaining areas of natural beauty. These are vital ingredients for successful tourism destinations. Is it not fair that visitors should make a small contribution to these costs? This is an increasingly common and well understood approach, which more and more places are looking to adopt. Revenues raised from a levy could provide additional funds to safeguard local areas for future generations. Within the UK, Wales might be one of the first places to introduce a visitor levy, but I doubt it will be the last. Other parts of the UK have actively called for similar powers to be introduced, recognising the benefits a levy can bring to local areas.

In publishing this consultation document, I want to be clear about our intentions. This policy is consistent with our long-standing support for Wales’s tourism industry. Tourism-related expenditure in Wales was estimated to be over £5 billion in 2019 and we want to continue to see a thriving tourism industry in Wales as part of a strong recovery following the impact of COVID-19. It is well known that public services and infrastructure are integral to the visitor experience, and a levy will help encourage their continued investment.

I want to emphasise that the proposed levy would be fairly applied in a manner consistent with our core tax principles. Any visitor levy introduced would be clear, stable and simple, and it would strive to create a more equal Wales. Our intention is to bring about a sense of shared responsibility between residents and visitors, to protect and invest in our local areas. A levy would represent a small charge and would encourage a more sustainable approach to tourism. It's important to remember that our proposal considers discretionary powers for local authorities; we want local areas to decide if a levy is right for them. We are fortunate to live in a country that has such a diverse offering for visitors. We recognise that the scale and the impact of the visitor economy varies across Wales. Our goal for any levy proposal taken forward is for a consistent manner of application across those destinations that choose to implement it.

Over the past eight months, we have engaged with a wide range of partners to understand and consider differing perspectives. These views are reflected in the consultation document and the impact assessment, to support others when providing their responses. Discussions have been held with local authorities, businesses, third sector representatives, industry bodies and officials in overseas administrations that have well-developed visitor levies. I am grateful to all partners who have contributed to the process so far.

We will be issuing a partial regulatory impact assessment alongside the consultation that will outline the potential costs and benefits of the different options for introducing a visitor levy. We hope that this provides a solid foundation on which to elicit more evidence and feedback. This work will help inform a final impact assessment for any measures taken forward, alongside outputs from the independent research that we have commissioned.

A decision on how we proceed will be made following due consideration of the consultation responses and other evidence. Enabling a discretionary visitor levy across Wales would take several years following this consultation, and follow a careful process of design and implementation. This would provide ample time for businesses, local government and local communities to plan ahead.

Llywydd, there will always be a warm welcome for visitors in Wales. This progressive policy is about supporting local areas, ensuring that visitors, whether they have travelled from within Wales or from further afield, make a small contribution towards maintaining and enhancing the place they are visiting. Done properly and fairly, this can be of great benefit, and provide an opportunity to enhance our beautiful country. I encourage all of those with an interest to get involved in the consultation to ensure that their views help shape our plans as we take them forward.

16:20

The Llywydd took the Chair.

Can I thank the Minister for her statement? I must admit, I did have to check who the Minister was with responsibility for tourism today, because it's the finance Minister, yet again, who is making another announcement from the frontbench on the Welsh Government's approach to tourism, rather than the economy Minister who is responsible for it. Indeed, the economy Minister, responsible for the tourism industry here in Wales, has never made an oral statement in the Chamber on plans for the sector since taking the role. That's because the Welsh Government sees tourism in Wales not as something to nurture, protect and enhance, but something to tax instead. And the fact that we're pressing ahead with a consultation on a tourism tax only underpins that further.

I'm afraid that when it comes to the Welsh Government and consultation to do with the tourism industry, you'll forgive me, Minister, for not being overly enthusiastic about your track record. The recent consultation on the changes to holiday let properties had only 1 per cent of the total number of respondents backing the increase to 182 days, but you totally ignored their views and pressed ahead with the changes anyway. How on earth can the tourism sector in Wales have any faith that this will be a fair consultation undertaken by your Welsh Government when your track record is so poor?

This industry has felt so ignored and so taken for granted by this Welsh Government for so long that, over the summer, we saw a farcical situation where Welsh Government Ministers were banned from visiting one of Wales's premier tourism attractions, Dan-yr-Ogof caves, because of it. In a statement that they released on the announcement of this unprecedented move, they said, and I quote:

'Owing to the Welsh Government’s anti-tourism, and anti-English policies being imposed on the Welsh tourism industry, members of the Welsh Government are no longer welcome at this attraction. Their policies will lead to tourism businesses being forced to close, and thousands of tourism jobs lost.'

Your own evidence backs that up. The partial regulatory impact assessment that you mentioned states, and I quote:

'Reduced competitiveness is a possibility'.

They also cited a study that states clearly in the abstract that

'The study’s empirical evidence suggests a strong case for reduced taxes on tourists in order to improve the competitiveness of tourist destinations and support the local tourism sector.'

That's in your evidence. The real effect of this tax being introduced will put livelihoods at risk in Wales, as one in seven jobs—around 200,000—rely on the tourism industry. This is the wrong policy at the wrong time. People across the world are dealing with high levels of inflation and an increased cost of living. Adding another bill only increases the probability of potential visitors choosing to stay away.

We know that the hospitality sector in Wales specifically, which includes tourism, has been the worst hit from COVID-19 after being locked down longer than their counterparts in the rest of the UK. Not only that, but such a tax targets exactly the people that we want to encourage to come to Wales in the first place. If this tax, as seems likely, will take the form of a charge on overnight visitors, we're taxing exactly the people who spend the most money in our local economies. But the sector has been telling you this all along, Minister, and they'll tell you again in the consultation, but they'll need to feel like they've been listened to. You also say that tourism taxes are common across the world, but under 'tax purpose and scope' in the document, it says that some destinations use visitor levies as a mechanism to restrict or reduce visitor numbers—the key side effect of your policy explained in your own document in black and white. 

And finally, as I've asked time and time again during these statements, I'm still yet to hear any assurance from the Minister, or anyone in the Welsh Government for that matter, that introducing this tax will actually increase spending by councils on tourism. Buried in the small print of the consultation, actually, is the concession by the Welsh Government that whilst there will be an expectation that local authorities will use the revenue raised through a visitor levy to fund activity that is of benefit to the visitor experience and that local stakeholders are consulted in this process, there will be no formal requirements set out in a national framework. So, there we have it: we're launching a consultation on a tax where the Welsh Government has a track record of ignoring the results. It will damage businesses across the country, reduce competitiveness and won't even see any financial benefit to the communities affected. Surely now, Minister, isn't this the time to ditch this scheme for good?

16:25

He finally got to a question in the very last sentence. No, this isn't the time to ditch this idea. This is the time to launch a consultation to engage widely and to take as many views as we possibly can on the idea that has come forward.

This goes back, of course, to the Holtham work, which suggested that this might be a particular tax area that would be a good fit for Wales. It came forward again in 2017 when the now First Minister asked people in Wales for their ideas of taxes that could be introduced in Wales, and a tourism levy or an overnight levy came forward as one of those ideas. People came up with that idea because they'd experienced it for themselves and they'd seen the benefits for themselves when they had gone abroad to a whole range of countries across the globe that have introduced a tourism levy, and done so with success and done so in a way in which they're able to reinvest in their local tourism infrastructure to make those conditions for successful, sustainable tourism. 

I think that there are very clearly, as set out in the documentation that you see before you today, a whole range of benefits that can be brought forward as a result. We've seen investment in public spaces, for example, in countries that have a tourism levy, we have seen investment in sustainable local transport. There will be lots of options, I think, for local authorities to consider in terms of where the pressures are because of tourism in their areas and how those can be alleviated, but also the ways in which the investment in the infrastructure can enhance the local area and invest in those conditions that make tourism a success. 

We have consulted widely over the course of the development of this policy. We've had a whole range of engagement with the sector, with local government, with the third sector, with all sorts of parties who have an interest in this, and we'll be doing more of that work in the period ahead. Myself and the designated Member, Cefin Campbell, will be up in north Wales on Friday, in Portmeirion, holding a round-table event for the sector so that they can get into some of the proposals and give their particular responses to those. I know the First Minister and the leader of Plaid Cymru are planning on holding similar events to listen directly to the views of those who will be interested in these proposals. 

It is true that any tax can be introduced for one of two reasons. You have behavioural taxes, which seek to change people's behaviour. We have some examples of those that we're considering in Wales and that we already see being implemented across the UK. For example, in Wales, we've got the landfill disposals tax. That's about changing behaviours and reducing the amount of waste that goes to landfill. But then at the same time, we have those taxes that aim to raise revenues. In Venice, for example, they want to reduce the number of tourists who are visiting Venice because of the extreme pressure that they are under. However, in a whole range and almost the vast majority of other areas, they introduce these taxes to raise revenues to reinvest in those communities and the services that make tourism a success. And that's the space that we're in; we're not seeking to reduce the number of people who come to Wales, we're seeking to support sustainable tourism where people who visit Wales can make a fair and small contribution to the upkeep of local areas.

So, as I say, we are only launching the consultation today. I think it's important that we all recognise that. I know that colleagues on the Conservative benches, as on other benches, will all take their opportunity to be part of that consultation, and we look forward to hearing more views as we move forward.

16:30

Thank you to the Minister for her statement. The first thing to say, of course, is that the importance of the tourism sector is undoubted; myself and my party and everyone else here would recognise the important contribution made by the sector. What we must guard against is finding ourselves in a position where there is too much extractive tourism. We have found examples over recent years where that has been a problem in communities across Wales, so we need to move to a more sustainable position—that’s what we need to do.

We've seen the pressure on local infrastructure, local services, natural resources. Last year, there was an increase, and there are statistics to show an increase in littering, human waste being left on pathways, wild camping and the erosion of pathways. So, in order to create a more sustainable future for the sector, we need to move towards a more sustainable model, and a levy like this—for me, at least—isn't a punishment for the sector or a punishment for anyone else. I see it as a source of revenue that can be invested in infrastructure, not only to improve the experiences of communities welcoming people, but also the experiences of the visitors themselves, who will ultimately attract more visitors—that's a virtuous circle, that is, that we have a more sustainable situation than we currently have.

This, of course, is a consultation; the beginning of a consultation, a discussion and a conversation. Hopefully, the comments we hear from the Conservatives won't mean that the sector won't come to the table, and that they don't share the cynicism that we heard in the previous contribution. It is an opportunity for everyone—the sector, the communities and everyone else—to share their views, and if it's done properly and if it is something that is co-produced, then I do think that something like this has the potential to bring real benefit to the sector. And we're talking about a discretionary power here for local authorities. They won't be required to implement this.

The Conservatives often remind us that devolution doesn't stop in Cardiff Bay—well, fair enough, but here's a practical example of empowering local authorities to tackle an issue—and you're opposing it. If you're serious about helping the sector in Wales, then speak to your own Chancellor about value added tax. There are plenty of other opportunities whereby you could be supporting the sector. The Conservatives in other parts of the UK support this step. Conservatives leading on the Isle of Wight and Bath and North East Somerset Council have been calling for this. The Conservative leader in the Cotswolds is also saying they support this. We've heard about the many tens of other countries that have such levies, so we sometimes have to identify the opportunity and not just identify the problem.

So, just a few questions from me, Minister. There are different ways, of course, of introducing a levy—the overnight levy is the most prominent—but I wanted some clarity as to whether the Government thinks that is the way forward, or are you open-minded in terms of other approaches in terms of such a levy?

We've heard quite rightly that there is a cost-of-living crisis; how will you ensure, therefore, that any levy would be proportionate and fair for those people who will be paying such a levy? Can you also confirm that it is your intention—it's implicit; I'm not sure if it's sufficiently explicit—that the intention is that any funding raised locally will be spent locally? I think there's an important question that needs to be answered there.

And we hear people saying that it'll take a few years for this to become a reality, if it does happen. Is it the intention that that would happen within this Senedd term, or do you anticipate that it could be a longer timeline than that? Thank you.

I'm very grateful for that series of questions, and for the contribution that started off, really, about talking about how this does not have to be something that causes antagonism between Government and the tourism sector. Quite the contrary, it can be something that can be co-produced effectively with the sector, understanding the benefits that could be brought to the local offering for tourism through a levy. We see it across the globe, really, in terms of the benefits that are being brought forward.

In New Zealand, for example, they funded 10 projects in their 2019-20 scheme through their international visitor conservation and tourism levy. They aim to protect sensitive and ecologically valuable landscapes; to upgrade visitor amenities, footpaths and signs; protect endangered species; enhance visitor access through opening new car parks and walking and cycling trails; and promote tourism careers. I think all of those things are things that we would like to be seeing more of happening here in Wales. A tourism levy would allow local authorities to be able to take initiative and to do that as well. So, I think that there are great examples that we can look to in those places that have introduced them.

Llyr Gruffydd also referred to some of the other parts of the UK that have also called for a tourism levy. Of course, we see the work being taken forward now very seriously by Scotland, but also those Conservative councils and former Conservative councils that have called for the power to be given to them to introduce a tourism levy. And Llyr Gruffydd gave a whole list of them, including the Isle of Wight and the formerly Conservative Bath, and I'd add Cornwall to that list as well. So, I think that there is a growing interest across the UK in introducing a levy.

In terms of what kind of levy, I think that our consultation is clear that the development of the thinking thus far has been around an overnight levy, given that that is the most popular kind of levy globally and it's where we've been drawing our inspiration from. But it is important to recognise that the consultation document does have that open question to people: are we focusing our efforts in the right place or do they have ideas for a day-visitor levy, for example? You see it working quite effectively for cruise ship or ferry passengers; you see that happening in places like Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Catalonia, where they have that day-visitor levy for cruise ship and ferry passengers. That, I think, reflects the high number of those visitors that they have very frequently.

Elsewhere, you have entertainment taxes, for example, in Amsterdam, and that's for operators of boat tours, renters of canoes and peddle boats, tour operators and city tours. That's not the area where we've been putting our effort into in terms of developing policy, but we are aware that there are different models elsewhere, and we very openly welcome any contributions, through the consultation document, to that.

'Proportionate' and 'fair' are two of the things that are very much our core principles that guide, really, our thinking in terms of tax, which is why we're really keen to explore some of the questions as to at what point we pitch the rate. So, we've done some work around price elasticity, which we're publishing alongside our document today, which will help us with some of the thinking around that. Also, the consultation document asks people for their views in terms of do we charge the room per night, do we charge per person per night, or do we do something that would be about a percentage of the cost of the room per night or a combination of those things. So, again, this is very early in terms of our consultation and we're keen to hear the views of people and their ideas as to what they think would work best.

In terms of whether the funding would be spent locally, it's very much the case that, in giving local authorities the power to raise funds locally, we would expect them to be used for the enhancement and the protection of the services that tourists come to Wales for because they know we have them and they love them. We have an idea in our consultation document, again, about how we can add some transparency around that, so perhaps an annual report from local government. We do have to be proportionate in terms of the level of reporting that we require on this, bearing in mind that we are going to be talking about relatively small but important sums of money but, again, that's something in the consultation document in terms of the level of transparency that we're able to produce for people who'll be rightly interested, both visitors and, of course, the tourism industry.

16:35

I'm grateful to you, Minister. Members will be pleased to hear that I'll just make a short intervention this afternoon. I'm fully in support of a consultation, and fully in support of the levy that you are proposing. I believe that we do need to have a real debate about the nature of tourism and the impact of tourism on our communities. All too often in this Chamber, we make assumptions and we work on the basis of assumptions, and one of those assumptions is that mass tourism is only for the good. But we know that there are very negative impacts from mass tourism on many communities, and we've had that debate about the place of housing, homelessness and the ability of people to live in their own communities. So, I think we do need a real debate about how tourism impacts Wales in a positive way, as well as some of the more negative issues. 

I pay a visitor levy, or a tourism tax—whatever you want to call it—when I travel, in many places, and it doesn't affect me at all. In fact, I think I have a very real duty to pay for the services that I use when I'm visiting another place, and I think I have a responsibility to do that as well. I want the tourism that I embark upon as an individual or as a family, whatever, to benefit other places, and if that means contributing towards infrastructure, I'm very pleased to be able to do that, and I think we should argue for that. 

I would say to you, Minister: I hope that you will explore the options that will be available to local government in terms of delivering this tourism levy. I hope also that you will look at examples elsewhere in the world. I have, for example, paid a toll, if you like, to drive into a national park in the United States, as well as paying a room tax, or a city tax, in places across Europe. I think there's a whole range of different options available to us. And I hope, Minister, you will not listen to the siren voices behind you, but you will look at the hard facts from different parts of the world, where a tourism levy helps contribute to the integrity of the community that is being served, and we should ensure that the community, that people, come first. I know that the Tories always prioritise profit—they'll be doing it on Friday again in London, they're doing it today. But I want this Government to prioritise communities, people and people's livelihoods, because I think that's what the people of Wales expect us to do.

16:40

I'm very grateful to Alun Davies for his comments and his support for the consultation that is launched today. He's absolutely right that whilst we of course want to share what we have here in Wales with people from across the globe, we also need to ensure that tourism is done in a way that is sustainable and that doesn't harm communities. And it is important to get that balance right. Also, I think this really ties into some of the work that my colleague Vaughan Gething is doing in terms of ensuring that kind of year-round tourism can grow in Wales, so that we have a better balance throughout the seasons, and we're better able to meet the expectations of people when they come to visit us here in Wales. And they will absolutely always be assured of a really warm Welsh welcome when they come to us here in Wales.

I think that the point about feeling that shared responsibility is a really important one, because when you do feel that responsibility to the community that you visit, it does give you a different emotional tie, I think, to the place in which you're taking your holiday or visiting. And I think that, for people to have an emotional tie with Wales and then leave, is a lovely thing, and they'd probably be very keen to come back to see us again. 

The voices behind me are many things; siren voices I wouldn't describe them as. But, absolutely, we'll be looking at what the evidence tells us in terms of developing the proposals for the tourism levy. We'll look really hard at what's happening in other countries. We've engaged with places such as Philadelphia in the US, for example, to get a sense of their experience. We had representatives from Amsterdam speaking at our tax conference last year. And we're learning many things from them, not only about how the taxes are developed locally, but the implementation of those taxes. We don't have to be the same as another part of the globe to learn from them in terms of implementation of taxes and delivery of taxes and so on. So, I think that the more that we can learn from other countries, the better. We have world-class tourism destinations putting in place tourism levies and it doesn't turn people off. Why don't the Conservatives have the same level of ambition for Wales to be that world-class tourism destination where people will come back to year after year?

Thank you for your statement, Minister. Minister, you are here today putting the idea of a visitor levy, also known as a tourism tax, to the people and businesses of Wales in the form of a consultation, although it's quite frankly staggering that it has got this far. It will punish the tourism sector, and as, Llyr, your own party leader, Adam Price, admitted, the money raised this Government doesn't even intend to go back into the tourism sector. This is a tax that industry experts such as Jim Jones, the north Wales tourism chief, deride, in saying, and I quote:

'A tax on tourism would be a hugely regressive step that would damage an industry that is already reeling after being battered by the pandemic'.

We want and need to be encouraging people to stay in Wales and to take staycations, not only for environmental reasons, but to stimulate our economy and to protect our local businesses. So, at a time of economic crisis, when many in our tourism sector have been battered by the pandemic and the economic crisis and need our support and help the most, what you do, Minister, is present to the people of Wales something that has been proven to have a detrimental effect in many countries as well across the world: a tourism tax, a tax that will put off people coming into Wales and staying in Wales.

Minister, you have talked about exemptions. You have said that you'd make some exemptions, but you've not said what those exemptions may be. Could we have some clarity on, in fact, who would be exempt from the tourism tax, and transparency around where the money goes, if this goes ahead, this ludicrous idea? If it goes ahead, we need to follow that money to see if it is, in fact, going back into the tourism industry, as it's not something that you can stand here and guarantee that it will, especially if it's up to local government. So, it's not something, surely, Minister, that you can sell it to do that. 

16:45

So, I'll just begin with this point about it being a time of economic crisis, which it absolutely is. We're facing a cost-of-living crisis, and let's hope that the Chancellor comes forward with a seriously strong package of support for business when he makes his announcement later this week. We are talking about an overnight levy, but we're not talking about it being introduced overnight. The point here is that what we're launching today is a consultation on the idea, so that people can engage with us and help us shape this proposal.

Colleagues will know very well that this will require legislation to be moved through this Assembly—sorry, through this Senedd—and that will require a serious amount of work. It's a four-stage process, so there is lots and lots of time for colleagues to look to scrutinise and to develop the idea with us. So, it absolutely isn't going to be introduced overnight. It takes a number of years in order to bring forward the legislation, to fully develop the ideas and then to move to the implementation phase, which in itself is a significant undertaking.

I think that the question about exemptions was an important one. I'm happy to share with colleagues the kinds of areas that we are looking towards in terms of exemptions. One would be Gypsy and Traveller sites. We'd look to exempt Roma and Gypsy primary residence sites from the levy because their lifestyle is inherently transient for cultural reasons. We would also look perhaps—and this is all part of our consultation, so views would be gratefully received—to exempt local authority-arranged emergency stays; for example, people who are experiencing homelessness or who are fleeing domestic violence.

Also, exemptions could include Home Office-arranged stays for asylum seekers and refugees and also others who are fleeing domestic abuse, perhaps staying in specialist accommodation for that purpose, and then emergency stays within premises operated by charitable or non-profit organisations—again, stays for respite or refuge purposes. It's our preferred position that visitor accommodation provided by a charity or non-profit organisation for the purposes of respite, refuge or shelter is not included in the scope of the levy.

So, the consultation document sets out a range of circumstances where we think that it might be inappropriate to introduce a levy, but of course we're asking for people to share their comments and their conclusions on that to help us, again, shape the levy. And I think I've already spoken to the point about transparency and the importance of the question in the consultation document that refers to annual reporting and other mechanisms. The document also talks about soft hypothecation and looks at different models that have been used in various different places, in order to help us further our ideas as we move forward.

The Member talks about places that have been destroyed by tourism levies across the globe, but we don’t see that. We have looked at examples of where tourism levies have not been successful—one would be the Balearic islands, which introduced an eco tax in 2001, perhaps before its time, and it did repeal the tax shortly after, because visitor numbers declined, but that was against a backdrop of globally declining visitor numbers anyway across a number of destinations at that time. But they have subsequently reintroduced the tax, many years later. They did it in 2015, and they saw an 11.2 per cent rise in international arrivals the following year. So, I think that, when you do look closely at the examples where this has been introduced elsewhere, you do see positive work that has been able to be undertaken because of the tourism levy, and it’s not viewed, in those countries that do operate one, as being one that stifles business; it’s viewed as something that creates investment to support those businesses.

16:50

I met with Brecon Beacons Tourism recently, Minister, and they have many concerns, but one of their biggest concerns was the lack of clarity from the Government over this. The change in language used from a focus on tourism to a visitor levy has contributed to uncertainty. The First Minister himself said it isn’t just for people coming to Wales for tourism purposes—the levy will apply to visitors for other reasons as well. This is a big shift and will have massive consequences, but there has been no detail behind that, so I just wonder if you can expand on what the First Minister was talking about. Is this going to go further than overnight stays? Because there is no detail around that.

We’ve also heard the leader of Plaid Cymru saying that funds will be going towards paying for free school meals, and you've said yourself today, and in written statements, that this money will be invested back into local services. So, which is it here? Because the coalition between yourselves and Plaid Cymru doesn’t seem to know where it’s going. The left hand doesn’t know how further left the other hand is going. And I'd also like to know: can the Minister give proper assurances to those genuine businesses out there that this will affect—their livelihoods are affected, their families are affected—that you will listen to the consultation and, if the tourism industry does not want this, that you will respect their views and opinions? Because that’s what democratically elected Governments do—they listen to their people; they don’t dictate to them from the top. 

So, I will address that point where the Member asked about the difference between a tourism tax and a visitor levy and why the language around that changed, because I do think that’s an important question. The reason that we moved away from the word 'tourism' to 'visitor' was because a tourism levy or a tourism tax didn’t fully capture everybody who would be undertaking an overnight stay in Wales. It would be our intention for business travellers, for example, to also pay the overnight levy, because they have a similar impact on the local environment, but also because you can’t always distinguish exactly between somebody’s business and a tourism visit, because often, of course, people on business trips undertake some leisure and tourism while they’re here and we want to continue to encourage that. So, that’s the reason why—because we wanted the visitor levy to encapsulate all of those who would be undertaking overnight stays apart from those exemptions that I've just given some examples of, of course. So, I hope that clarifies why we moved away from the wording 'tourism tax' to a 'visitor levy'.

In terms of the funds going back into local services and to being reinvested in those things that make tourism a success, I think that we’ve been amply clear, working with Plaid Cymru on this, to demonstrate, through the consultation document, which has been launched today, and through everything that we’ve been saying about the levy, that this is very much about investing in the things that make tourism successful—investing in local infrastructure, protecting local amenities and so on. We’re very clear on that. We’ve done lots and lots of good work with Plaid Cymru. You’ll be hearing a statement later on today on free school meals, in terms of our support for that. So, I think that these are two really clear examples of where the co-operation agreement is absolutely working very well. It’s working really collaboratively, and it’s absolutely going to be delivering for people in Wales.

I do want to say that of course the consultation is a genuine consultation and we want to hear all of the views. What we want are practical responses to the practical suggestions that we’ve made within the consultation document. I look forward to hearing as many views as possible and look forward to considering all of them. Similarly, I look forward to having the round-table discussions that we'll be having—the first one, as I mentioned earlier, with Cefin Campbell up in Portmeirion on Friday. 

16:55

Thank you, Minister, for the statement. Just a couple of things. This is a tax—it's not a levy—and it's Labour's prerogative to put taxes in, and they do that generally. That's why we're so different on this platform, certainly here in Wales. I would ask what evaluation have you already made of local authority spending plans and budgets around economic development and tourism, so they can achieve the goals you're trying to achieve with this levy. Because don't be naive in thinking that this levy will suddenly flow out to extra pavements and extra beach whatevers, or any attractions—this will go to fill gaps in hard-pressed budgets, and you won't see any additionality; you'll see an expectation of just clawing in an additional tax within that authority. I would like to know what reassurances you could give that those local authorities that decide not to do this aren't penalised through their future settlements as a result of not taking this up.

And again, a point that has been raised a couple of times—how will you ensure that that tourism tax goes to do what you want it to do and it doesn't just backfill or substitute already economic budgets that are then diverted to social services, education or whatever? I'm absolutely one for unhypothecated moneys running through to local authorities, but I'm fearful that in this time of great need in local authorities that additional taxes like this will just go to fill in some of the pressures that authorities are facing.

So, I would have said there's a far better way to have looked at some of the needs of our tourism communities, by working with local authorities and their current economic development strategies to enhance the offer we have in Wales. Many people in Wales—. What if you live in Wales and holiday in Wales? You're paying tax twice. You're paying tax into your local council tax to enhance the local economy and tourism, then you're asking them to pay again in Wales to stay and enjoy their holiday in Wales. So, there are so many things within this consultation that beg a lot of questions, and I think it's just an easy way out—just tax, tax, tax. 

So, I'll begin by just responding to that very specific question in terms of local authorities being penalised through the RSG. I just want to be really clear that there is no link whatsoever to the revenue support grant from this work at all. This is about giving local authorities the power to choose to raise additional funding within their areas; it has no knock-on impact whatsoever on the revenue support grant. I think that's important for us to recognise. It will be a legal requirement that any funds raised from the levy must be used to fund local authority expenditure. 

I think that you'll find within the consultation document some questions that we're keen to hear people's responses on in terms of how that should be reported, whether or not—you know, what level of hypothecation people believe would be appropriate. I think we have to strike a balance, really, between being pragmatic and practical in terms of the amount of information that we ask local authorities to gather and to share. And I think that perhaps that annual report that is suggested in the consultation document might be a good way to have that level of transparency and for people to hold their local authorities to account and for visitors to understand where their contribution has gone. 

So, that's a suggestion in the consultation document. We're open to all ideas, because this is genuinely a consultation where we're seeking to hear as many views as we possibly can on the proposals, and, of course, I'd encourage all colleagues with an interest to have their say. 

Diolch, Llywydd, and thank you, Minister, for bringing forward today's statement. Minister, you'll be aware, of course, that this summer's report by the Federation of Small Businesses on tourism showed that tourism accounts for over 17 per cent of Wales's gross domestic product, and accounted for over 12 per cent of employment here in Wales, showing how crucial that sector is to us as a country and to many of our communities across Wales. Within that report, Minister, you'll also be aware that they've stated—the FSB—that

'discussions on more tax are unhelpful, so tourism tax should be kept off the table'.

In addition to this, Minister, across the summer recess in my capacity as chair of the cross-party group on tourism, I had the delight of meeting a number of businesses within the tourism sector, listening to their concerns and the challenges that they are facing at the moment. And it's clear to me, from those in the sector, that this is the wrong time to introduce a tourism tax, and, in their words, it could be detrimental to their businesses. So, Minister, we have your side of the story, which seems to say that a tourism tax is a wonderful idea, and we've got hard-working businesses and the Federation of Small Businesses saying that this is not a good idea. So, who's wrong here, Minister? Is it them or is it you?

17:00