Y Cyfarfod Llawn
In the bilingual version, the left-hand column includes the language used during the meeting. The right-hand column includes a translation of those speeches.
The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Good afternoon. We are ready to begin today's meeting. The first item this afternoon will be questions to the Minister for Finance and Local Government, and the first question is from Vikki Howells.
1. How is the Welsh Government prioritising interventions to eliminate fuel poverty within its draft budget for 2023-24? OQ58945
The Welsh Government sees the elimination of fuel poverty as a distinct priority, particularly in the context of the ongoing fuel crisis. To reflect this, in our draft budget, we have allocated more than £190 million, over the next two financial years, to interventions aimed at reducing fuel poverty across Wales.
Thank you, Minister. Even before the recent increase in the fuel price cap, we know that nearly half of all households are at risk of fuel poverty, and I'm sure that colleagues, like me, will have experienced an increase in constituents contacting them in desperate need of advice and support. Welsh Government interventions have made a real difference in supporting communities such as Cynon Valley, but, in the face of UK Government failure to reform the broken energy market, what reassurances can you give that protecting families and children most at risk of fuel poverty will remain a priority despite wider budgetary pressures?
We have a wide range of schemes available to support people who are facing fuel poverty. I mentioned, for example, the £90 million that we've allocated to run a second Welsh Government fuel support scheme in 2022-23, and that's supporting people on low incomes with non-repayable £200 payments towards their energy bills. That scheme launched on 26 September, and now it's been extended to make sure that we encompass more eligible households. We've also provided around £4 million for the Fuel Bank Foundation so that it can introduce a national fuel voucher, and also a heat fund scheme in Wales—again, this is bespoke to us here in Wales—to ensure that households that have to prepay for their fuel, including people on a prepayment meter, who are at risk of self-disconnection, and off-grid households, who have to buy bulk fuel but can't afford to top up their tank, can both benefit from this particular scheme. Since August, the Fuel Bank Foundation has brought on board 69 partners, who can now refer people to vouchers. That includes eight national partners, alongside partners in every single local authority across Wales. And we know that fuel vouchers have already benefited more than 14,000 people living in struggling households. So, it's important that people do find out what support is available to them. And I would also recommend the discretionary assistance fund, which, again, is there to support people with energy bills if they are absolutely, really struggling, and I know that all colleagues will be signposting their vulnerable constituents to that fund.
Good afternoon, Minister. I've looked at the Bevan Foundation's evidence to the Finance Committee. I'm struck by the point, and I quote,
'that short-term measures to ease cost-of-living pressures are not a substitute for action to reduce poverty'.
And they noted that there had been limits to investment in social housing and energy efficiency. Now, aside from the need to bring forward a new Warm Homes programme, there should be a focus on ensuring new properties are available that are energy efficient and warm. In Swansea, however, just 91 homes were completed by registered social landlords, and 18 by Swansea Council, in 2021-22. And we know already that Swansea Council is a council that's failing to meet its housing targets more generally. So, what immediate efforts are you therefore making, Minister, to close the gap in Swansea's housing, to ensure that more of my constituents are safe and warm this winter?
Well, I'd first start off, of course, by commending the work that Swansea Council is doing in terms of building council houses. They've really invested significantly in social housing and have a really strong vision for council housing across the city and county of Swansea. So, I would certainly begin by recognising that. And, of course, if the Minister for housing was here this afternoon, answering this question about the housing portfolio, I'm sure that she would be keen to point you in the direction of the optimised retrofit programme, which is there to ensure that existing housing is able to be upgraded to meet the standards required to ensure that the residents therein are not experiencing fuel poverty, and would also point to the ongoing significant funding that we do provide to support the building of social housing here in Wales. And she'd also point, I'm sure, to the commitment that we have to have 20,000 more low-energy social homes across the term of this Senedd also. So, clearly, there's a huge amount of work going on in terms of delivering on those pledges. Those pledges have become more difficult, of course, because of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, which impacts on contractors, it impacts on the supply chain. So, evidently, there will be some challenges in that regard also.
2. What discussions has the Minister had with local government partners on how they can support residents during the cost-of-living crisis? OQ58962
I hold regular meetings with local authority leaders and discuss the impacts of the cost-of-living crisis, including in regard to the funding the Welsh Government is providing to enable authorities to continue their crucial support for residents.
Can I thank the Minister for her answer? She will be aware that, over the last two months, I've been raising the issue of the installation of prepayment meters and calling for an immediate ban on their installation. These meters mean the poorest residents in our society pay more for their energy, and, Llywydd, I have spoken to a number of charities who've given me evidence that court orders are being passed hundreds at a time. Now, this means that due diligence isn't being shown, so that the installation of prepayment meters is the suitable option for customers. This isn't happening. What is happening is extremely vulnerable residents in our society are being inappropriately switched. I was pleased, Minister, to see that Ed Miliband this week joined my calls for a ban on the installation of prepayment meters, but the crux of the point is we shouldn't be switching people in the middle of winter and during a cost-of-living crisis. Can I thank you for the support that you're offering to our local government partners, but can I ask you what more the Welsh Government can do to support local government partners when they're advising residents who have already been switched to prepayment meters?
I'm very grateful to Jack Sargeant for raising this this afternoon, and I do want to recognise the incredible work that Jack Sargeant is doing in terms of leading the campaign in respect of prepayment meters. Colleagues within Welsh Government are absolutely taking up that campaign on your behalf. So, the Minister for Social Justice is having a further meeting with energy suppliers on 23 January, and, again, she will be raising these concerns over reports of people, including vulnerable customers, being moved onto prepayment meters. And I know that she's made those same points in previous meetings that she's had with energy suppliers. The Minister also wrote to Grant Shapps on 23 December, outlining our concerns around prepayment meters, and we are taking opportunities, when we have them, with the UK Government again to make those cases. And officials are continuing to liaise with Ofgem to understand if customers who are moved onto prepayment meters are able to appeal the decision, because, as yet, we don't have clarity on that.
As Jack Sargeant says, this is an issue that particularly affects the most vulnerable households. It's a real concern that almost half of social housing tenants are on prepayment meters at the moment, and, obviously, that means that many of those will be paying above what other customers will be paying for their energy. So, it is quite right for us to focus our efforts in this particular space. And, obviously, I'll take opportunities in my regular discussions with local government to ensure that they're also making the right moves in this space.
Minister, surely the best way for local government to support their residents is for them to avoid hikes in council taxes. Rising energy costs due to Putin's illegal war and rising food costs as a result of the pandemic and climate change are impacting households hard. The last thing they need are excessive tax hikes. Minister, will you urge restrain among your local authority colleagues, and will you be prepared to cap council tax in the coming financial year?
Well, I'd begin by saying that we absolutely don't underestimate the challenge that our colleagues in local government are facing from the inflationary pressures that they're experiencing at the moment. Because, of course, just as the Welsh Government's budget has been eroded in value, so too has local government's budget been eroded in value. But, nonetheless, we've really focused our efforts within our budget for the next financial year on public services, which is why, next year, we'll be providing unhypothecated revenue funding of over £5.5 billion, and over £1 billion of specific grants to support local authorities in their statutory and non-statutory services. That means that core funding for local government for 2023-24 has increased by 7.9 per cent, or £403 million, on a like-for-like basis compared to this financial year. So, we're doing absolutely everything that we can to put local authorities in the best possible position, but, of course, we know that the additional funding that we're able to provide doesn't meet that gap caused largely by inflation, and, as a result, local authorities will be needing to make some difficult decisions.
Now, it is the case, of course, that local authorities set their own council tax levels. I know that many are consulting at the moment. The Welsh Government, as you say, does have the power to cap those, but I don't think that we're at the point yet at which we could make a decision on that, and it's certainly something that we wouldn't do lightly; it's something that we would do only in cases where those rises were palpably excessive. So, just to set out, we really do think it's for local authorities to be setting their council tax levels; it's an important part of local democracy.
We know the economic issues we're facing were made in Downing Street—[Interruption.]—and the incompetence of economic management in London, together with Brexit, has led to one of the biggest cost-of-living crises that many of us have ever seen. Now, this makes the Conservative Party laugh, of course, because when people are hungry, when people are cold, they really don't give a damn what's happening to those people, but, on this side of the Chamber, of course, we do. And what I would like you to do, Minister, is to use your power as a catalyst to bring people together. The two crises facing people in Wales of hunger and of heating are crises, as I said, that are not being resolved by the United Kingdom Government, and what we need to do is to step into this vacuum to bring people together, so that we can share best practice and share resources to address the real crisis facing some of the most vulnerable people in Blaenau Gwent, in Gower and across the whole country.
I would absolutely agree that one of the most important things the Welsh Government can do is to bring together parties with responsibilities for serving our citizens to ensure that our efforts are combined and that we're all focused on those things that matter most to people, and that's one of the reasons why, over the course of the autumn, we did have fortnightly meetings with our colleagues in local government. One of the standing items on those fortnightly meetings was the cost-of-living crisis, alongside another standing item, which was Ukraine. We've moved those meetings now to monthly, because the situation, at the start, did require us to come up with some new interventions, but those new interventions are now in place. But, of course, it's also a standing item now on the partnership council for Wales, which will be next meeting on 2 March, and, of course, that's a much wider public services forum, to ensure that all public and voluntary sector bodies are working in the same direction, all putting their shoulders to the wheel to support our citizens through the cost-of-living crisis. And, then, I'd also mention the cost-of-living Cabinet sub-committee that the First Minister has set up. Now, to every other meeting of that committee we invite partners from outside of the Cabinet. So, we've had the Federation of Small Businesses, for example, and the Confederation of Business Industry joining us, and we've had representatives from the voluntary sector, to ensure that all of our efforts are there together in terms of supporting our residents through the cost-of-living crisis.
Questions now from party spokespeople. The Conservative Party spokesperson, Sam Rowlands.
Diolch, Llywydd. Before I go into my question, I'm sure, Llywydd, you'd like to join me in welcoming members of the Canadian Parliament who've joined us today through the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, and have the pleasure of observing our proceedings this afternoon. I'm sure they'll enjoy it as much as we do.
Good afternoon, Minister. You touched, in response to one of your questions earlier, on the provisional local government settlement, and, indeed, the 7.9 per cent increase to local authorities has been broadly welcomed by those authorities, but there are concerns a number of leaders have expressed. The Labour leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, Andrew Morgan, who, I'm sure, you know well, has said there are some tough decisions ahead for councils. The Plaid Cymru leader of Isle of Anglesey County Council, Llinos Medi, says hard cuts to local services are ahead, as a result of this settlement. Lib Dem-run Powys County Council are looking to close rural schools, and Labour-run Monmouthshire County Council consulted on cuts to leisure centre hours as well. All of this whilst our council tax payers are likely to face a further hike in their taxes. So, in light of this, Minister, like the comments from those council leaders, and as a result of your funding decisions, what further difficult decisions do you think our local councils will have to make? And what services do you think our residents will have to face being cut?
I think it is important to recognise that, overall, our settlement for local government, at a 7.9 per cent increase on this financial year, has been broadly welcomed across local government. I do think that we have provided the absolute best possible settlement that we could have. We gave to local government in excess of the funding that we received in consequential funding from measures that the UK Government had outlined in its autumn statement in the fields of social care and education. We were able to do that by undertaking a very painful exercise ourselves across Government in terms of identifying areas where we could reprioritise funding towards local government and towards our health service. You'll see all of those details, of course, in the draft budget that was laid. So, I don't underestimate that local government will have to make a series of difficult decisions locally. Those decisions now should be locally led; I know that they'll be consulting with their residents as to what their residents' priorities are. But, under the circumstances, we have provided the best possible settlement. It is, of course, for the Welsh Conservatives to provide their alternative budget, which I know we were promised last year, but have yet to see materialise.
Thank you, Minister, for your response then. A key issue in regard to that funding for those local authorities is the way in which that funding is dished out. As you'll know, a significant part of funding for those councils comes in the form of grants. I believe around £1.4 billion of the funding that those councils receive comes in grants. Of course, the money itself is welcome, but perhaps the direction from Welsh Government as to where and when those grants should be spent can be both restrictive and cause an administrative burden, which holds back the work of our councils. So, in light of this, Minister, how are you working with those councils to ensure there can be further flexibility on grant allocation? How are you working to see that grants go into an unhypothecated section of their funding so they can spend that money on what is best for them and best for their local residents?
I think this is an area probably where we have more common ground, because this is a piece of work that we have been undertaking with local authorities over the past few months, at their request, to explore which areas of grant funding could potentially be moved into the revenue support grant on a short-term or permanent basis. So, that piece of work is ongoing at the moment, but we've absolutely committed to looking at that. Timescales, of course, will be important for that piece of work. But, I just want to reassure you and other colleagues who have an interest in this that our Welsh Government officials are working with officers in the WLGA and talking to treasurers across Wales to explore what might be possible.
Thank you, Minister. If I may, I just want to focus my last question on virtual council meetings. It's an issue that I've raised a number of times here in the Chamber and an issue that I raised with you last week as well. Also, we saw yesterday another media story showing a shambolic situation where it looks as though an alleged sex act took place over a Zoom meeting during a meeting of Flintshire council's cabinet—completely inappropriate, but again highlights some of the issues that we see in meetings of local government taking place virtually. Whilst virtual meetings, of course, do have positives, I raised with you last week my concerns about how these are being managed. I raised with you the concerns about a councillor allegedly driving whilst voting, we've seen evidence of proceedings being edited before they're published online, and now the latest news reports of this awful act that took place up in Flintishire council. It shows how virtual meetings can be abused in a way that can't happen in face to face, in-person meetings. So, last week, when we met, Minister, you said that you'd be looking to issue further guidance to councils. I wonder whether you would look to accelerate the issuing of that guidance and have those discussions with councils to ensure they're offering hybrid meetings and not just virtual meetings, because face-to-face meetings are so important for our residents and in the working of councils.
Thank you for raising that point this afternoon. I'd begin by recognising that hybrid working and virtual working can be a really important way in which to increase diversity in democracy, as we were discussing last week, in terms of making those meetings more accessible to people in full-time work, people with family commitments, caring commitments, people who are self-employed, and for others. But, absolutely, we would expect that the same behaviour is expected of people attending those meetings as you would expect in a council chamber. So, I will explore with the local government chief digital officer what more we can be doing in this space to ensure that everybody is clear about what's expected of them in those meetings, and perhaps we can have a further conversation about some more of your ideas in this space outside the Chamber.
Before I call the spokesperson for Plaid Cymru, can I reiterate the welcome to the parliamentarians from Canada to our Senedd, our Parliament, today? And I hope you have a fruitful visit to Wales and to our Parliament, and thank you for bringing just a tiny little bit of your winter weather to us as well.
So, a very warm welcome to all of you. Plaid Cymru spokesperson next, Llyr Gruffydd.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. And it was very good to share an hour of our time as well to compare notes in relation to the work that we do as the Climate Change, Environment, and Infrastructure Committee as well.
So, thank you for that.
Minister, we've heard about concerns about contracting public services, particularly in relation to local government, as a result of the financial situation that our councils find themselves in. Now, one graphic demonstration of that of course was the fact that Newport are actually considering switching off alternate street lights between midnight and 6 a.m. to cut down on energy costs. Colleagues of mine on these benches have already raised concerns about the impact that might have and the consequences particularly in terms of compromising the safety of night-time pedestrians, especially women and those who maybe aren't confident and stable on their feet maybe—older people et cetera—and potential consequences in terms then of deteriorating health, mental and physical. There is a strong correlation of course between improved street lighting and reduced crime rates as well. So, one simple decision—I say 'simple' in a qualified manner, but one decision—can obviously have much wider implications and impacts.
So, my question to you is: what advice are you giving to local councils, or what discussions are you having with local authorities? Because, obviously, at the end of the day, these isolated decisions—. And you could scale these decisions up if they're collective decisions—collective impacts of similar decisions made elsewhere. But what advice are you giving to local councils about the risk that some of these decisions, made today to save money, may well cost the public purse more money in the longer term?
I think the example that you give really serves to highlight the difficult decisions that local authorities are considering at the moment, and they span a really wide range of matters that are of importance to their residents. So, decisions must be taken, of course, through the lens of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, so, they'll be needing to consider what the decisions that they're taking mean in terms of sustainable communities. And of course, the equality impact assessments will be important as well in terms of understanding the impact on people with particular protected characteristics: on women, older people, which you've given as examples.
So, I know that councils will be diligent in that work, but I know that councils will have to make some decisions that are difficult, because they do speak to me about the gaps that still remain in the funding that they have for next year. And I know that they're setting out some of those proposals in their consultations with local residents. So, clearly, they will have to listen very carefully to what local residents are telling them are their priorities for their communities as they move forward. But, as I say, we've provided local authorities with the best possible settlement. I think that you probably would have to go a long way to find a local government leader who'd rather be in England than in Wales and you'd probably find a fair few in England who would also prefer to be here as well. That's because, over those long years of austerity, we still protected local government as far as we possibly could. So, that remains the case, that we're protecting them in the next financial year as far as we can. And I described earlier in this session the difficult work that we did to repurpose money towards local government and health from other areas of Government.
Well, my concern is Wales of course; I have no jurisdiction for England. But certainly I think we need to be mindful that these individual decisions will consequently lead to, maybe, pressures coming from other directions.
Now, linked to this, really, the Welsh Government is introducing legislation and regulation, much of which we support, and they are very worthy in terms of what we want to achieve and are well intentioned, but much of this is introducing additional duties and responsibilities to local government. We've seen it happen with organisations such as Natural Resources Wales, where, a few years ago, the Planning (Wales) Act 2015, the future generations Act, the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, all stacked up additional duties on that particular organisation at the same time of course as reducing budgets, to put it on quite an unsustainable trajectory in terms of delivering on those services. I'd ask you how mindful you are of those pressures in terms of local government. I've touched on this with you before: what consideration has the Government given to re-profiling the introduction of some of these duties? The 20 mph zones are obviously bringing with them a hefty burden of work that needs to be completed. Is that something that the Government would be open-minded to maybe delaying or looking at re-profiling in terms of its expectation around local government to introduce that? Even the single-use plastic ban—there will be an enforcement responsibility on local government. Now, we would all want to see that coming into being as soon as possible, but I think we do need a pragmatism and a practical approach to some of this. So, my question is: to what extent are you actively looking at this agenda, and to what extent are you actually discussing this with local government? And if you are, maybe you could give us a few examples of some things that you are actively considering in that respect.
So, just to return briefly to the first part of your question, I would just like to say that this is one of the reasons why the strategic impact assessments are so important, because they do look at the cumulative impact upon people of various decisions and, of course, upon people who have more than one protected characteristic as well. So, those types of impact assessments are really helpful in terms of helping us understand the impact of decisions.
But, then, in terms of local government, the things that they asked us to look at, and we were pleased to do so, included the point about moving grants into the revenue support grant, either for a time-limited period or permanently. So, that's something that we are actively looking at at the moment. We're looking at all of our different grants and exploring what might be possible. That's an ongoing discussion, as I said, with the WLGA and with treasurers across Wales.
Another thing that they asked us to look at was the impact of regulatory burdens. So, obviously, this is a programme for government commitment, that we would look at the administrative burdens on local authorities, and that's a piece of work that, again, is actively under way with local authorities. But I think some of them had a particular concern about some of the regulatory systems, so we are looking at some of those specific concerns that they had as well, because we are really open to having all of these discussions with local authorities to try and ensure that we treat them with trust to get on with the jobs that they are required to do.
And then, on the point about re-profiling or looking again at some of our commitments, again, this is something that we are exploring with local government. I think that there are different views on some of these things. For example, the 20 mph zones, clearly, that's a programme for government commitment. I know there are strong views out there about that particular commitment. But we are engaging openly in all of these discussions with local government.
3. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Health and Social Services regarding funding local authorities to promote public health? OQ58963
The resource for core public health promotion sits with local health boards. Local authorities have responsibility for other areas of public health, such as health protection and environmental public health. Local authorities work closely with partners, including local health boards, on some areas of health promotion, such as the national exercise referral scheme.
Yes, thank you very much for that response. Of course, the Minister for health pointed her finger a little at the public with regard to the public's responsibility to be more careful of their health and to do more to exercise and to eat more healthily and so on. I felt that pointing the finger at the public with regard to the NHS's difficulties was rather harsh, but I understand the point she was making. But, of course, the Government itself isn't helping in this regard, because we've talked about the cuts that local authorities are facing, of course—leisure centres are closing, public health programmes are being cut. So, do you agree with me that there is a contradiction—a major contradiction—here where, on the one hand, the Government is saying, 'Well, do more to live more healthily', and on the other hand there is a lack of funding from the Government that means that the leisure centres and the public health programmes and the support available to help people to live more healthily are being cut?
Well, first of all, I would just reassure you that we are acutely aware of and equally concerned about the pressures that the current energy crisis and the cost-of-living crisis are having on the sport and leisure sector. Of course, the provisional local government settlement means that some local authorities have now reversed their plans to close some of their facilities, which I think is really important, demonstrating that they're prioritising those facilities with the additional funding that we've been able to provide. I know, for example, that there are areas such as swimming pools, where authorities and their swimming pool operators are concerned because they haven't been offered protection under the UK Government's new energy bills discount scheme, so we're supporting those efforts for those kinds of facilities to be categorised as intensive energy users. It's also worth recognising as well that as part of their capital funding investments, Sport Wales is looking into ways in which they can support the sector regarding green energy, and they've made links with the Welsh Government's energy service to discuss the practicalities there. So, there is obviously a financial outlook that is very challenging at the moment, but I know that authorities are trying to prioritise these non-statutory services and we've got several questions on those this afternoon as well, as part of their response to the cost-of-living crisis, and to support people.
Given that the over-65 population is likely to significantly increase over the next five years, it is essential that our local authorities receive adequate funding to support our older population, and we know that our social care in Wales is in a mess. We've heard the concerns about the hypothecation and how money is afforded to local authorities. We've heard our colleague Llyr Gruffydd outline the responsibilities that have fallen on local authorities as a result of some bad legislation going from here, and then being picked up by local authorities.
The World Health Organization describes age-friendly communities as being places in which older people, communities, policies, services, settings and structures work together in partnership to support and enable us all to age well. In April 2022, the Welsh Government announced that £1.1 million was being made available to local authorities to support their work to become age friendly, and to ensure older people are involved in the design and planning of local services. This is something I've worked on with the Older People's Commissioner for Wales, and she has emphasised the need for such investment to continue. Minister, what progress has the £1.1 million investment achieved during the current financial year, and is it your intention, and indeed that of the Deputy Minister for Social Services, to continue to invest in creating age-friendly communities in 2023-24? Diolch.
I'm grateful for that question and I've also had a really good meeting with the older people's commissioner, who talked very passionately about the potential for age-friendly communities. I can confirm that, for 2023-24, the Welsh Government via the social care reform fund will provide a grant of £50,000 to each local authority, so that they are able to appoint a lead officer to support their working towards becoming part of the WHO network of age-friendly communities and cities. I know that the Deputy Minister would be more than happy to provide more detailed information about the activities that are taking place on a local basis.
4. How is the Minister working with the Minister for Climate Change to ensure that local authorities have the funding required to meet their climate change commitments? OQ58967
Climate change is a cross-government priority and I work closely with the Minister for Climate Change and with my other Cabinet colleagues to support delivery of Net Zero Wales, and to support local authorities in delivering their commitments.
Thank you, Minister, for that answer and we've had many discussions in this Chamber about making sure there's enough capital to decarbonise, for local government to decarbonise and invest in their green projects. But it's not all about money, either. There is also a need to make sure that there is sufficient human capital with the right skills and knowledge that they need to fulfil those roles, and I know that the Welsh Local Government Association, in their evidence on the Government's draft budget, have shared their concerns about the shortage of staff with green skills, as well as the difficulties experienced by public bodies in retaining staff with the required skills due to wage differentials with the private sector.
I'm just wondering, Minister, what discussions you've had with local government colleagues about developing and funding a recruitment, retention and upskilling strategy, so that staff have the required knowledge and skills in green issues. And what consideration have you given to, perhaps, enhancing the role of corporate joint committees, so that pooled budgets and pooled efforts can achieve some of these commitments?
I'm very grateful for that question this afternoon, and I'm really pleased with the work that the decarbonisation panel for Wales is undertaking in terms of ensuring that all local authorities have plans in place in order to help move them towards that goal of net zero in the public sector by 2030.
I think one of the areas where we need to put a great deal of focus, of course, is on procurement, because over 60 per cent of councils' emissions arise through the procurement of goods and services. I mention that because that's one of the areas where the Welsh Government is investing in skills for that particular sector. So, we've been investing in the professional qualifications, and supporting people to achieve those professional qualifications within the public sector, so that they have that skills base and the knowledge that they need, but particularly so with a focus now on decarbonisation. Just yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet the individuals through Curshaw who were driving forward our alpha phase on the centre for excellence for procurement. That was a really interesting meeting, talking to them about what they'd heard from talking to procurement professionals within the public sector, and also, particularly, in local government. I think skills and recognition are part of that, a concern that there must be that continuous opportunity to develop those skills within the very modern context and within the context of that journey towards net zero by 2030. So, that is a field of work where there's a lot of work going on at the moment, but particularly with that eye on procurement.
Of course, the best way to achieve this, as we all know, on every side of the Chamber, would be to go back to the old eight counties where you've got local government with sufficient capacity and clout to be able to deliver those schemes. You know that, they all know that, but there we go. I won't go after it this afternoon, everybody will be pleased to hear. But what I would like to—[Interruption.]
What I would like to challenge the Minister on is this: local government can act as a catalyst within its particular area to enable far more community-based renewable energy schemes. We do see that in some places, but we don't see anything like the number and the quantity that we require in order to deliver on our net-zero ambitions, but also to address some of the social issues that we debated in an earlier question. So, what can the Welsh Government do, Minister, to bring local government together to ensure that local government has the tools—the financial tools as well as the expertise that Peter Fox described—in order to provide local communities with the means to deliver renewable schemes that will address all the issues that we've been debating earlier?
I agree that local authorities have an important role and an important potential in that particular space, which is why I know that the Minister for Climate Change is engaging with them in respect of the development of the Unnos work, and I hope that she'll be making more information available to colleagues on the development of that work before too long. So, perhaps that would be an opportunity to explore that in greater detail.
I won't be tempted to bite either on the point that you made about the formulations of local government, and I realise that I neglected also to respond to the finance spokesperson's point on CJCs, but there'll be other opportunities.
5. What discussions has the Minister had with local authorities about the expectation for them to maintain non-statutory public services following the 2022-23 budget? OQ58968
I meet regularly with all local authority leaders to discuss key issues that affect us all, including the current financial challenges. It's the responsibility of each local authority to determine how they deliver their non-statutory services, based on local priorities.
Thank you very much for that response, and you're placing the responsibility on local authorities, of course, but you're the one making the cuts. What advice do you therefore have for local authorities who are now having to decide between closing day centres for the elderly, cutting economic development programmes, closing leisure centres and libraries, reducing public transport, doing less to deal with the climate emergency, not spending on the promotion of the Welsh language and all sorts of other crucial things that local authorities do on behalf of the people of Wales? How are councils supposed to choose between these unacceptable cuts, and what advice does the Minister have for the people of Wales who will not be in receipt of these crucial services from here on in?
I'll make the point again that the Welsh Government has provided the absolute best possible settlement to local government, and I know that was recognised by local government leaders and members of local government across Wales. As I've mentioned, we're providing revenue funding of over £5.1 billion and over £1 billion of specific grants to local authorities next year, and that's a rise of 7.9 per cent. Now, that's a significant rise in the context that we're facing, with our own budget reducing in its value over the course of this Senedd term, and as I've mentioned previously this afternoon, we allocated local government in excess of the funding that we received in consequential funding from the UK Government as a result of the autumn statement, and that has come at a cost to colleagues, who have had to divert funding away from treasured programmes in their own portfolios. So, I would say that we've done the absolute best that we could for local government. We're scrutinising the budget at the moment. What I'm not hearing from colleagues on other benches are examples of areas where they would have funding diverted away from in order to provide additional funding to local government or to other priorities that they might have. But I look forward to those ideas coming forward.
6. What discussions has the Minister had with other Ministers regarding the funding of preventive health measures across the Government? OQ58961
Building on our previous budget, the 2023-24 draft budget continues to focus on preventing harm to the most disadvantaged. Alongside the £165 million to protect our NHS, actions include protecting the £90 million funding for free school meals, investing a further £10 million in homelessness prevention and providing £2.2 million for our basic income pilot.
Thank you very much for that response, but it's the same old sermon from me, I'm afraid. We need to do much, much more on the preventative agenda if we are to make Wales a healthier nation, and right across Government. In Anglesey there are genuine concerns about the future of the national exercise referral scheme, or NERS, because of a lack of investment. Now, the £145,530 that the council has received this year for NERS is the same amount that's been received since 2015. The county council has written to the health Minister on this. They have a waiting list of people, but a lack of resources, and we have to do more of this kind of thing if we are genuinely going to focus on preventative measures.
I've also been speaking to the Nifty Sixties in Holyhead, a body that is trying to extend its work across the island to offer better health to older people. They need to be able to have people referred to them. Will the Minister commit to discussing with the Minister for health how to increase the sum that I mentioned? Because unless this relatively small, short-term investment is made, then the pressure will increase in the long term on the entire budget.
I will commit to reflecting the concerns that you raised this afternoon to the Minister for Health and Social Services. Obviously, this is a matter for her to decide within the confines of the MEG that she has, but I will be more than happy to make her aware of the contribution this afternoon.
7. What financial assessment has the Minister made of local authorities' approach to investing in school catering? OQ58952
Two hundred and sixty million pounds has been committed to implement the universal free school meal provision programme over the next three years. I anticipate that this funding will be sufficient for the majority of local authorities, but have committed that any additional requirements will be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Thank you very much for that reply, which is extremely useful to clarify that. I just wondered if I could probe you on what financial assessment you may have done on the different models that local authorities are using, as the rise in food prices is far higher than the 1.65 uplift local authority budgets are getting in total, and there's also a world shortage of chefs, not just in schools, but in restaurants and cafes across the UK.
There seem to be three main models of delivery. Ynys Môn, maybe among others, have outsourced their catering provision to private contractors. Most local authorities rely on in-house caterers and cooking our expanding primary school meal service in school kitchens, which often involves capital to refurbish kitchens that are no longer fit for purpose for our expanding meal service. The third model, in Flintshire, is exploring advanced discussions with a social enterprise about a third option, of cooking the main meal centrally, sometimes known as cook-chill, with final preparation of food that doesn't need to be cooked, like fruit and salad, done in individual schools, prepared by the kitchen assistants who are going to dish out the meals anyway. How much of this presupposes the individual kitchen model, and how much of it is looking at the cost of having meals prepared centrally, at least while we have such a crisis in the provision of chefs?
Thank you very much for that question. I can say that Welsh Treasury officials are part of the working group that has been established to take forward the review of the unit rate. Obviously, it's not straightforward, and they will be looking at the impacts of those different models in terms of agreeing the rate. At the moment, the current free school meal unit rate across local authorities is being looked at alongside the evidence of the rising costs and the expectation that we're putting on local authorities in respect of sourcing local ingredients. Obviously, they're exploring the sustainability of the offer. I'm sure that part of that work will include exploring the different models of delivery, looking to see which delivers best value for money, and looking to see which delivers on those wider socioeconomic and environmental goals that we have. Perhaps I'll ask the education Minister to provide a letter to the Member with more detail on that.
And finally, question 8—Heledd Fychan.
8. What discussions is the Minister having with councils in South Wales Central regarding the future of non-statutory services in light of the financial challenges that they are facing? OQ58953
I meet regularly with all local authorities to discuss key issues that affect us all, including the current financial challenges. It is the responsibility of each local authority to determine how they deliver their non-statutory services based on local priorities.
Thank you, Minister. I understand that it is a matter for them to prioritise, but as we've heard from a number of Members, there is concern about that non-statutory. We are seeing budget consultations currently in my region where you have questions around, 'Do you want a museum or a library, or do you want social care?' Of course people are going to choose those services, but it also discredits the important and valuable role of both libraries and museums. We're seeing the Museum of Cardiff, formerly known as Cardiff Story Museum, under threat. We are thinking also about the economic benefit of such institutions. So, please can I ask—? I know it's a matter for local authorities, but surely it's a matter of national concern if we want to deliver on the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, if we want to go and ensure that people have the benefits from culture and sport, which we know in terms of health and well-being are so, so valuable in order to protect our NHS. What is the role of Government other than saying it is a matter for local authorities? Surely there is a role in terms of non-statutory as well if we are to deliver on the future generations Act.
The Welsh Government's culture division does support the delivery of local cultural services, including museums, which are non-statutory services, as you say. Funding is available to enable museums to meet and maintain the museum accreditation, including providing access to the annual capital transformation grant scheme. The culture division also provides a programme of training and workforce development for museum, archive and library staff, and also supports services with advice and funding to enable them to engage with and deliver on our priorities, such as the anti-racist Wales action plan. So, there are other sources of funding available through the culture department.
Of course, local authorities do have a responsibility to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service that is open to all, and that is set in legislation under the provisions of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964. Obviously, local authorities will be mindful of that when setting their budget. Of course, we monitor the provision of local library services through the Welsh public library standards, and we support the development of library provision through initiatives such as our national digital library service.
I can also say that the Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport and Chief Whip has discussed the specific examples with local authorities where there have been proposals relating to cultural offers in the budget consultations, and officials have also liaised with staff in those institutions to provide relevant advice. I know that the Deputy Minister is taking an active interest in proposals that fall within her portfolio.
I thank the Minister.
The next item is questions to the Minister for rural affairs and north Wales, and the first question is from Altaf Hussain.
1. What action is the Welsh Government taking to make Wales pollinator friendly? OQ58955
Our nature network programme is funding projects that will support pollinators, including the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales healthy and resilient grasslands project, which aims to create a network of high-quality grasslands across 11 protected sites. This builds on our action plan for pollinators and the Bee Friendly scheme.
Thank you, Minister. Without bees and other pollinators, we would starve. And if we are to avoid the fate of farmers in the US, who have to rely upon bees being transported by lorries over large distances, we have to ensure bee-friendly corridors across all of Wales. Next week I'll be planting a blossom tree as part of the National Trust's blossom project. Minister, will you encourage farmers to plant blossom trees, and will you urge gardeners across the nation to plant blossom trees and wildflowers to provide corridors for our vital pollinators? Thank you.
Thank you. You're quite right; bee health is absolutely essential for our existence. It's very good to hear about the action that you're taking. As you know, the Welsh Government is giving a free tree to everyone right across Wales, so that's one way we're encouraging people to plant more trees. Certainly, we've worked with local authorities about planting wildflowers on verges and roundabouts; I've seen some very good examples up in north Wales in relation to that. But I think if we can all do just a little bit, that will help in the future.
2. Will the Minister provide an update on efforts to combat the spread of disease in livestock in Mid and West Wales? OQ58965
Will the Minister provide an update on efforts to combat the spread of disease in livestock in Mid and West Wales?
Before the Minister responds, you don't need to translate 'da byw'. We are all aware of its meaning. Stick to the question as it has been presented, please. The Minister to respond.
Control of endemic and exotic diseases in livestock in Wales is central to our animal health and welfare framework for 2014 to 2024. We have robust surveillance, control strategies and ongoing animal disease eradication programmes and projects in place to control and prevent their spread, in collaboration with keepers and vets. Biosecurity, of course, is of the utmost importance.
Thank you very much. As we all know, sheep scab is a great concern for sheep farmers in Wales, and the disease has a very significant impact on the health and well-being of livestock. Across the UK, it contributes to losses of around £8 million in the sector per annum. As you've already explained, the Government is committed to eradicating sheep scab in Wales, and I particularly welcome the proposals drawn up with Coleg Sir Gâr to deal with this disease.
However, like many farmers across Wales, I was shocked by the proposed fees that have been noted as part of the recent consultation with Natural Resources Wales. The sum for dealing with sheep dip is to increase tenfold to a total of some £3,700. Apparently, very little explanation has been given as to why this is happening. So, does the Minister share my concern, and the sector's concern, that introducing these kinds of unreasonably high fees during a cost-of-living crisis could have far-reaching impacts on the Government's attempts to eradicate sheep scab in Wales?
Thank you. As you pointed out, sheep scab is a disease that we've had a particular focus on. We've provided, for the last couple of years, free year-round sheep scab skin-scrape testing through our Carmarthen veterinary investigation centre for our Welsh flocks, and we've just brought forward a three-year contract worth £4.5 million for the all-Wales sheep scab eradication programme.
You mention the ongoing Natural Resources Wales consultation regarding their regulatory fees and charges for the next financial year. What that review intends is to ensure that NRW do achieve full cost recovery, with some of the current charges not having been reviewed for a number of years. But I appreciate what you're saying, and it is a particularly challenging time for everyone, and of course for our farmers too. NRW do expect the increased cost of licences to impact on a very small number of farms in Wales, because obviously spent sheep dip needs to be disposed of in a particularly environmentally friendly way because of the chemicals it contains. There is a push for—you know yourself—the mobile units that go around farms as well. However, I think with some of the figures that we've seen, I can quite understand why that has brought forward some fears with our farmers. I am due to meet the Minister for Climate Change, who obviously has responsibility for NRW, to discuss this. I have been told that NRW have been talking to stakeholders—and that, of course, includes our farmers—around this. I was asked was it for NRW to make a profit. Well, it isn't; it's about that full cost recovery. But it is really important that we do go ahead with our sheep scab eradication project, and I wouldn't want anything to divert attention from that.
Minister, I share the concerns of my colleague Cefin Campbell around this, and obviously the rising costs for the disposal of sheep dip. I do recognise your comments about sheep dip being disposed of in a safe and environmentally friendly way. Your sheep scab eradication policy includes sheep dipping as a way of eradicating sheep scab. It has proven to be the best way of getting rid of the disease. Have you had conversations with the chief vet around these increasing charges around any potential impact this is going to have on the Welsh Government's sheep scab eradication strategy?
Thank you. Yes, I've had conversations. You'll be aware that we've got an interim chief veterinary officer at the moment, and I've had several conversations with him around this. He's obviously had conversations, and the fact that, as I mentioned, NRW do expect the increased costs to impact on a relatively small number of farms has come out of those discussions. It is right that it's only one of the ways, as you say, to dispose of spent sheep dip, but if it is the way that's most effective, then you would hope that that would be the one that farmers would use, because it is highly toxic to our aquatic plants, for instance, and animals, and it's really important that it is disposed of in a correct way. So, as I say, I will be meeting with the Minister for Climate Change, because NRW will obviously put their proposals to her at the end of the consultation.
Questions from party spokespeople now. Conservative spokesperson, Samuel Kurtz.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, in September 2021, you announced that the basic payment scheme and Glastir funding for advanced, common and organic would continue until December of this year, 2023. Rightly, you've always stressed that Welsh farmers won't face a funding cliff edge ahead of the new sustainable farming scheme in 2025. The Welsh Government currently has over 5,500 Glastir-based area contracts, most of which have been involved in this subsidy arrangement for a number of years, with their business models reflecting that involvement. So, given that you've already extended the Glastir programme once, what consideration have you given to extending it once more so that farmers have certainty ahead of the SFS transition in 2025?
That is something that we're looking at over the next couple of months, because, as you say, I have announced that it's extended until December 2023, and then we'll obviously have 2024, and I do hope then that we'll be able to transition to the sustainable farming scheme in 2025.
Thank you. I know that the farmers in Wales who are signed up to the Glastir scheme will welcome that call.
During lockdown, we saw the rise of the farmer influencer on social media platforms. With a new ITV Wales series, Born to Farm, and the presence of TikTok star Farmer Will—I'm sure you all know him—in the Love Island villa, farming and farmers are being seen in a new and more positive light, attracting a new audience and maybe even new entrants into the industry. If farming in Wales is to survive, it will always need these new entrants, and one of the best routes into farming is through the young farmers club. I know that first-hand as a former member. There's a few former members in this very Chamber. Wales YFC now only receives Government funding via the Welsh language grant, having missed out on funding from the Welsh Government's national voluntary youth organisations grant. Given the role that the young farmers movement plays in educating young people about the agricultural industry and the environment, not to mention the host of other skills learnt, will the Minister look at other ways her department can support financially Wales YFC, so that the charity can continue its good work in Wales?
Yes, I'd be very happy to. I think the young farmers is a very, very impressive organisation. It's very clear from just looking around this Chamber that the skills it teaches its members are transferable life skills, if you like. So, I'll be certainly very happy to look at it, but that comes with a health warning, because there is very little spare money around. But I'll be certainly very happy to look at any requests that should come forward.
Excellent. I'll pass that information on to the new chief executive of Wales YFC, who starts very shortly.
But if we are to bring new entrants into the industry, Minister, then we must ensure that safety and welfare is enshrined within the sector's work. Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive show that agriculture, with forestry and fishing, has the highest rate of self-reported non-fatal workplace injuries, with 92 per cent of farmers under the age of 40 suggesting that poor mental health is the biggest hidden problem facing farmers today. Sadly, it's not just injuries that occur; the community of Carreglefn in Ynys Môn was rocked following the death of 26-year-old Macauley Owen following an on-farm incident in January this year. How is the Welsh Government working with not just the stakeholders but with the farmers on the ground, feeding the nation, to improve the health and safety within this industry?
Thank you. I think, unfortunately, we've seen too many farmers' deaths over the past few months. And it's not just about mental health and well-being, it's about safety on the farm as well. And I was very pleased to launch a specific leaflet aimed at schools at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show, back in November. But in relation specifically to your question around mental health and well-being, improving mental health and well-being, right across Government, is a priority for us—for me, for our farmers, it absolutely is. Because I know that they face a great deal of uncertainty, which can only add to the issues around mental health, wellness, and obviously well-being as well. You'll be aware that we support several important activities to aid mental health in our rural communities. We've got the farming support group. I meet with the farming charities on a regular basis, and, every time I meet them, the number of people who've contacted them increases.
Certainly, we saw a real peak during COVID, and, unfortunately, it hasn't gone down over the past year or so. I think the work of the farming charities is more important than ever in these very uncertain times—it really is vital. And I think it's good that you've raised this in the Chamber, because it's really vital that people know where to go for help. You'll be aware of FarmWell Wales, which is available to farmers throughout Wales. That information hub is there for business questions, and also for their own personal questions as well, to see what resilience can be built up, both in their business and their own well-being as well. And I think, to date, we've sent out a hard copy directory of FarmWell Wales to about 16,500—so, probably the majority—of farm businesses in Wales. And it does really provide the most up-to-date information for our farmers.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Mabon ap Gwynfor.
Thank you, Llywydd. The Government has ambitious tree planting targets, which are reflected in the proposed Agriculture Bill. The Deputy Minister for environment has been vocal in talking about the possible economic benefits of tree planting for farms and communities in Wales. But the work of planting trees on farms has been ongoing for years, through the Glastir woodland creation scheme. So, what social and economic benefit does the Minister believe that the Glastir woodland scheme has given to farms and communities in Wales over the years?
Thank you. Well, I believe that it's brought forward a great deal of benefits. Sam Kurtz asked in his first question around Glastir contracts and our plans for that, so I was very pleased to be able to announce that extension. I've just actually met with National Farmers Union Cymru this morning to discuss that. I know how much our farmers do involve themselves in Glastir—some of them have had Glastir scheme contracts since they first started, for many, many years. So, I think it is really important that we continue to do that. I work very closely with the Deputy Minister for Climate Change around tree planting, and you'll be aware of the tree-planting targets we have as a Government.
I thank the Minister for that response. So, according to the Minister, there have been great benefits for communities in Wales, and you want to continue with this. How, therefore, does the Minister explain that almost half of the successful applications under the woodland creation scheme in window No. 10 had gone to applicants with addresses outwith Wales? According to an answer to a written question recently, of the 385 hectares of land accepted for the programme in window 10, 45 per cent went to companies registered outside of Wales. Does the Minister believe that this is right, that large companies from outside of Wales are taking advantage of Government funding and Welsh taxpayers' money to offset their carbon at the expense of our communities here? And is it in keeping with the Government's objectives, as we've heard, to support farms and rural communities in Wales?
Well, obviously, I would prefer all the money to go to Welsh farmers, but, obviously, the criteria is that trees have to be planted here in Wales. So, I'm afraid, at the moment, with that criteria, if the address is outside of Wales, they can apply for that money.
I think the issue of large companies buying up farmland—which, I think, is what you're obviously getting at—is something that I am told is happening on a big scale. I haven't personally seen it myself; I know that there are pockets. And I also know that there have been companies who have been cold calling our farmers to see if they can sell their farm to them. It's not for me to tell farmers who to sell their land to, but it's certainly not something I want to encourage.
3. What is the Minister doing to help manage common land in South Wales East? OQ58943
Thank you. We've provided funding to improve management of common land through our support schemes, and are working collaboratively with stakeholders to ensure that commons are integral in future support. In the South Wales East region, our sustainable management scheme has funded three projects on common land, totalling over £1 million.
Thank you for that response.
I raise this matter as there have been problems occurring on common land within my region. The current relaxed model of ownership and accountability means that all it takes is a rogue landowner to expose the inherent flaws within the system.
Without going into too much detail about a local case that springs to mind, there is a glaring example in my region of how a landowner can get away with a multitude of crimes against the environment without significant repercussions from the authorities. I recently met with Caerphilly County Borough Council, and they told me how they are frustrated by the current arrangements. There need to be clear lines of accountability, and swift enforcement action where needed, if we are to protect and preserve our precious common land for future generations to enjoy. Can this Government provide clear direction and guidance, so that bad practice is tackled robustly and deterred from happening again? And can the Welsh Government also provide direction, guidance and support for any remedial action that needs to happen?
Thank you. I'm probably very well aware of the case that you refer to; it's something that has been very prominent. Hefin David and I have met a few times over the past few years around issues in relation to common land.
As you referred to, common land is managed by a range of organisations through a collaborative approach. You mentioned local authorities. Obviously, enforcement and strategic support is provided from Natural Resources Wales, and, of course, the police. And, unfortunately, sometimes, I don't think it's as collaborative as it should be, but, certainly, as a Government, we work closely to make sure that any issues around the management of common land are addressed. As I say, we provide strategic support to those organisations who have the responsibility for the day-to-day running of our common land.
We have provided significant funding to improve the management of common land. A huge amount of land in Wales is actually common land, and I mentioned, in my opening remarks to you, that the sustainable management scheme has funded three projects for over £1 million. As we bring forward the sustainable farming scheme, we have a specific working group that's looking at common land, because I think it is such an important part of our land here in Wales. And we've got a number of stakeholders who sit on that working group for us. And that is really to ensure that farmers on common land will be able to access the future support that they need.
Minister, RWE Renewables has given notice that they intend to apply to the Welsh Government for planning permission in respect of a development of national significance. They wish to construct and operate a wind farm, a battery energy storage system and associated infrastructure on common land at—pardon my pronunciation—Pen March, Gelligaer. I've also been contacted by my constituents who are concerned by the development. If approved, they feel that it will damage small wetland areas that are home to rare plants, as well as birds and bats. Also, we already know—and I've spoken on this many times on the importance of wetlands, here in the Chamber, as they are important in relation to carbon storage. Wetlands are, in fact, some of the most effective carbon sinks on the planet—even more so than rain forests or coastal seagrass.
So, Minister, how will the Welsh Government, going forward, balance the environmental benefits of generating energy through wind power with the potential damage to the environment caused by this development on common land? Thank you.
Thank you. Well, I am aware of the proposed Pen March wind farm on Merthyr common. I think it is really important to state, now, that the application is still in the preliminary stages, and obviously will need to be fully assessed to determine its potential impact.
4. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Climate Change regarding the use of genetic modification of plants for carbon sequestration? OQ58948
I have not had any specific discussions with the Minister for Climate Change regarding genetic modification. Use of technology is an important means by which we will reach net zero. Welsh Government actively funds a range of research. At the current time, we do not see an important role for GMO in carbon sequestration.
Thank you, Minister. Whilst I acknowledge this Government's cautionary approach to genetic engineering, I believe that it is shortsighted to ignore the fact that this technology has the potential to solve many of the problems that we are currently facing. I also believe that there is considerable potential for the genetic modification of certain plants, that will not enter the food chain, to help Wales meet its climate change target.
There's been considerable scientific study into the genetic engineering of plants, which has shown that gene editing can be used in native tree species to allow them to grow faster, to become more drought-resistant, more tolerant to temperature extremes and become disease-resistant, and I believe that this would not only help with sequestration of carbon in Wales, particularly in carbon sinking, but also help the Welsh Government combat plant diseases, and speed up the growth of trees using the Welsh timber trade for construction. Moreover, it has been shown that microalgae cultivation uses CO2 from industrial settings, such as power stations and factories, and can provide an environmentally friendly approach to reducing CO2, and the use of strains that have been genetically modified by biomass productivity could provide enormous benefits to these. With this in mind, I would, therefore, like to know, Minister, what evidence would this Government need to see in order to allow the use of genetically modified plants that will not enter the food chain to be used in Wales for carbon sequestration? Thank you.
Thank you. Well, you are quite right: we do have a precautionary principle, absolutely, at the heart of our policy in relation to genetic modification and gene editing, and, obviously, I don't think you were in the Chamber yesterday, but we had a debate on the LCM on the UK Government's Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill.
New genetic techniques are powerful tools, but that power must be used very responsibly, and I think that it's really important that, as law makers, we carefully consider the evidence for change, and the potential ramifications that any change could have, or would have. We need to understand the scientific basis and the risks and benefits for Wales, and, as I say, we do put significant funding into that sort of research. I think we also need to consider the public's view, the consumer choice and their view on that, and the ethics that are associated with these technologies. I think, only then can we really decide what role gene-edited plants could have in tackling the climate emergency.
5. How is the Welsh Government encouraging local authorities to enhance urban green infrastructure in Gwent? OQ58964
Thank you. Through our Transforming Towns regeneration programme, local authorities are encouraged to bring forward integrated green infrastructure solutions, as part of place-making plans for our towns. Green infrastructure projects across Gwent are enhancing the biodiversity of our town centres and improving the well-being of residents and visitors.
Thank you, Minister. Tory austerity is now a teenager; it's almost 13 years of age, and it continues to decimate local government budgets—this is despite the heroic efforts of Welsh Government. Caerphilly County Borough Council has just unveiled its draft budget proposals for 2023-24, along with the detail of how it plans to plug the projected £48 million gap in finances over the following two years. Minister, in Islwyn, urban green infrastructure, such as the beautiful Waunfawr park, sits at the heart of community life in Cross Keys. The park covers over 22 acres of land and comprises of a children's playground, rugby, football and cricket pitches, and it also includes a bowling green and tennis courts. When local governments must fund statutory services, what support and assurances can the Welsh Government give the communities of Islwyn that green urban infrastructure can be protected from Tory funding attacks?
I think you raise a very important point, and certainly in the Minister for Finance and Local Government's questions, we heard lots of questions around different non-statutory functions and services that we value greatly, and I think you've just obviously given a very good example there.
I mentioned that we have several schemes. We've got the Transforming Towns placemaking scheme, we have our green infrastructure projects within that in your area, with significant—about £0.75 million—Welsh Government funding being awarded to four dedicated green infrastructure projects. I think it's really important that we continue to have those discussions with local government, because, at the risk of repeating myself, there is no more money. There is no money hidden away. So, I think those conversations need to be undertaken with local authorities.
I thank the Member for raising the question. I will remind her that local government is devolved to Wales and has been for 23 years. But, green infrastructure is of course an important tool to help communities to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as to help us meet our climate change commitments. Access to green space is also obviously beneficial to people's well-being. However, it's important that we don't just enhance the accessibility and quality of existing urban green infrastructure, but increase the coverage as well. As such, Minister, what consideration have you and your Cabinet colleagues given to encouraging local authorities to better map out existing green spaces and to assess whether communities have access to enough of the right kinds of green infrastructure in the right places? Using such data, how are you working with councils to identify suitable areas of land for new green infrastructure projects and then providing additional financial support and guidance to help them get these projects off the ground? Thank you.
You raise a really important point. It is important that there is integration in a town centre or a specific area with other investments in that particular town centre or that particular area. I think only that way will you achieve better outcomes. We provide a great deal of support for developments that form part of wider placemaking plans and green infrastructure projects, so those conversations will go on. I haven't had any specific—this has only recently come back into my portfolio—discussions with local authorities, but I know my officials do work closely to ensure that the cumulative impact, if you like, of a variety of schemes shows good integration.
6. What measures is the Welsh Government taking to reduce the catfish population in Denbighshire? OQ58949
I'm aware of the discrete catfish population present in the Brickfield pond in Rhyl. NRW have been working with Brickfield angling club, who have been actively removing catfish. They are aware it is an offence to return any catfish caught to the water or move them to any other water.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Do not worry, I'm pleased to inform you that I won't be asking about online dating apps today. I've been contacted by constituents in the Rhyl area who are concerned about the amount of catfish in local waters, particularly around the Brickfield pond, as you mentioned, Minister, off Cefndy Road in Rhyl, and the Rivers Clwyd and Dee. To provide a brief background, large amounts of catfish were introduced to local waters in the 1990s and 2000s for the purpose of trophy catches, so that people could pose with their successful catch for photos and then return them to the water. But, in reality, and as the years have gone on, catfish numbers have increased and they are dangerous aquatic predators with teeth that kill many other species and birds in the water and are vastly reducing small fish populations in Denbighshire waters.
In a recent meeting with NRW, they told me that culling all of the fish in the Brickfield pond and Rivers Dee and Clwyd, or using nets to catch them, would be unethical and using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, which I quite agree with. So, how do we solve this problem, Minister, practically, and what action can the Welsh Government take to rectify this problem and ensure the long-term sustainability of small fish in local waters? Thank you.
As you were told by NRW, if we eradicated all the catfish in that pond, you wouldn't be able to do that without eradicating all the other fish. So, I absolutely understand the information you were given from NRW. My understanding is that Brickfield pond is part of a former quarry and is a self-contained water body. It's not connected to any other sources of freshwater, so that means it's not possible for the catfish to spread to other areas, reducing wider risk.
7. How will the Government measure the success of the Agriculture (Wales) Bill 2022? OQ58966
Diolch. There are a number of monitoring and reporting provisions contained in the Agriculture (Wales) Bill designed to measure success. Alongside an annual finance report, Welsh Ministers will be required to report on the impact of the support provided against the sustainable land management objectives.
Yes, one thing that isn't implicit in what you just said is that one important measure, according to much of the evidence received by the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee, which has been scrutinising this Bill, is to what extent this Bill helps to protect family farms. When you have a network of family farms, you withstand the move to larger scale farming—which tends to be more intensive—which is better for the environment. You are more likely to keep the local pound local through family farms. It's also an important measure in terms of the viability of the Welsh language in those rural areas. So, do you, therefore, agree that the number of farms in Wales is an important barometer and that seeing a reduction in that number would be a signal of failure?
Everything I do is to protect family farms. You're quite right, we have a significant number of family farms. They're very, very important to our rural communities and, of course, they protect the Welsh language. The agricultural sector uses the Welsh language more than any other sector here in Wales. Absolutely everything we do is under that focus, if you like, going forward. And so, we’re looking at this as we bring forward the design scheme for a sustainable farming scheme, and we will have an impact report. That will be required to be completed periodically to assess the impact of all support provided and that will, of course, include the family farm.
Diolch, Llywydd. I didn't think I had a question today. [Laughter.]
Well, if you didn't think you had a question, then you don't have a question.
No, that's fine. I've already been called once. I'm thinking of others.
Question 8 [OQ58959] has been withdrawn. Question 9 by Vikki Howells. She appears just as I call her name. So, the next question will be question 9 by Vikki Howells. Your microphone was closed for a bit longer than usual. Vikki Howells.
9. What are the Welsh Government's priorities for creating a vibrant agricultural industry sector? OQ58946
The Agriculture (Wales) Bill establishes four sustainable land management objectives as the legislative framework for future agricultural policy. The objectives are designed to be complementary, reflecting our approach to supporting the economic, environmental, social and cultural sustainability of the agricultural sector in Wales.
Thank you, Minister. As a Member of the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee, I visited the Agriculture Research Centre at Gelli Aur last year to find out more about their farm-nutrient partnership. What conclusions have the Welsh Government drawn from this project in terms of the ways in which slurry treatment can be used to support the agricultural sector, but also to protect the environment in Wales?
Thank you. I visited the Agriculture Research Centre at Gelli Aur twice myself to hear about the amazing work that's under way, and it was good to see so much progress had been made between my two visits. I very much welcome the research that's been undertaken there. I can see great promise to enable our farms to utilise the nutrients from manures much more efficiently. Slurry separation and the management of the separated nutrients really do provide an opportunity, I think, particularly in light of high fertiliser prices, which we've certainly seen over the last year or so, and that really ensures that valuable nutrients are able to be added to nutrient-deficient areas so that they can increase their resilience and reduce the reliance on manufactured fertilisers. The work being done on the nutrient management plans with the precision spreading of the separated materials I think will also help ensure the right nutrient application at the right time, and, of course, that's essential if we want to reduce the risk of pollution.
10. What action is the Welsh Government taking to protect threatened wildlife species? OQ58941
A team Wales approach is taken to protect threatened wildlife. On 10 January, my colleague the Minister for Climate Change announced measures to support a wide range of wildlife species, including many that are threatened. These measures include direct stewardship and enhancements to the habitats and ecosystems that support our wildlife.
Thank you. Trees provide numerous environmental, social and economic benefits, and tree planting is widely considered to be one of the most important ways to combat climate change and poor air quality. However, the decline in the curlew is strongly associated with increased amounts of woodland near breeding sites. Although the iconic curlew is our most pressing bird conservation priority, it will be extinct as a breeding population within a decade without intervention. However, woodland continues to be seen as a public good, even when it provides an ideal habitat for the apex predators whose predation of nests and chicks is a primary cause of curlew breeding failure. As the Welsh Government Minister responsible for the protection of management of wildlife, what specific action are you taking to ensure that the Welsh Government's target for woodland planting in Wales takes account of this, and that, although the snares of yesteryear are not acceptable, modern humane cable restraints are recognised as holding devices not killing devices, with a key ole to play amongst the range of urgent intervention measures needed to prevent imminent curlew extinction and to reverse biodiversity loss?
Thank you. You're quite right, the curlew is an iconic farmland and moorland bird. I am pleased that you continue to champion it. I was due to meet Curlew Wales and, unfortunately, I had to postpone the meeting. I can't remember quite why, but I will make sure that I reschedule that meeting, because I'm certainly very interested to hear what they have to say.
You're quite right about trees and, certainly, if we're going to meet our net-zero commitments, we have been told in very clear terms by the UK Committee for Climate Change we need to significantly increase our woodland planting targets.
You refer to humane cable restraints and, as you know, we're looking to ban snare and humane cable restraints in the Agriculture (Wales) Bill 2022, and that really is about preventing inhumane methods being used, and it doesn't prevent other more humane methods of control.
11. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Climate Change about how farmers can contribute to improving energy efficiency in Arfon? OQ58969
Diolch. I have regular engagement with the Minister for Climate Change on a range of portfolio issues. Regarding farmers improving energy efficiency, our sustainable farming scheme will offer future support to help farmers decarbonise and, currently, we offer farmers energy efficiency support through our small grants efficiency scheme, which opened two days ago.
Recently, I had an opportunity to visit a new centre on the site of an old factory in the Nantlle valley, which is decarbonisation hub or centre in Tŷ Gwyrddfai in Penygroes, which brings a number of partners together with a core aim of improving energy efficiency of people's homes, not just in Arfon, but across north Wales and further afield. An important part of this work will be innovation with new methods of improving housing stock, and Bangor University is part of this work. I believe that the agricultural community has an important contribution to make to this agenda, and one example is the use of wool as an insulation material in homes. So, what is the Government doing to harness the innovative potential of the agricultural community to improve energy efficiency in Wales?
Thank you. You make a very important point about the role that our agriculture sector and our farmers can make in relation to energy efficiency. I met with the British Wool Council—it's probably 18 months ago now—where we discussed the use of Welsh wool, obviously, particularly from my point of view, in relation to insulation, for instance. They believe that there are more—probably 'worth while' is the wrong term—more efficient uses of British wool than just insulation, but I think what we need to look at is all the technology that's available, all the innovation that's available to help us with energy efficiency. I mentioned that we just open the window for the small grants efficiency scheme. I really want that scheme to be able to offer direct support to our farmers so that they can invest in new technology and equipment to really enhance the technical and financial and environmental performance of their business.
12. What assessment has the Minister made of the health of the Welsh egg industry? OQ58957
Thank you. The egg industry has been impacted by cost inflation rising through 2021 and latterly by avian influenza. These are common factors across the UK, with Welsh egg producers and packers integrated into UK-wide supply chains. We anticipate UK-level Government-industry discussion to consider means to bring stability to producer contracts.
Thank you for that response, Minister. I'm very pleased that you do recognise the pressures that are out there in the egg industry. As you will know, Wales is the biggest producer of free-range eggs in Europe, and that is something that means that this is a particularly important issue for Wales, perhaps more so than any other part of the United Kingdom. But those pressures on producers are becoming all the more acute. We've seen shortages of eggs in our supermarkets, with some supermarkets actually rationing them in recent months. And we've seen significant rises, of course, for consumers. In terms of the retail price, they've gone up by about £1 a dozen, and yet the producer costs have gone up by 40p a dozen, and, unfortunately, the increase in the payments by the supermarkets per dozen is just 25p. So, lots of egg producers are actually now facing losses as a result of those shifting prices. Can I ask you, Minister, will you convene a summit between the supermarkets and egg producers in order that we can get fair prices for our egg farmers here in Wales, in order to protect this industry for the future?
Thank you. I think you make a very important point, and I think it's really important to highlight that it's not just avian influenza that's impacting on our egg producers. There is a series of issues that have brought together a bit of a perfect storm. I think any such summit would need to be at a UK level, for the reasons I outlined in my original answer. I have written to Mark Spencer, the Minister for farming, fisheries and food, and we've got an inter-ministerial group on Monday, and certainly egg production will be on the agenda. If it's not, I'll bring it up under 'any other business'. He brought forward a round-table, which unfortunately other Ministers weren't invited to. My officials were there, so I'm not saying we weren't involved. But I think it would be good for Ministers to be able to meet with the egg supply chain, with producers, with retailers, with packers, with all the trade bodies, which is what he did with officials there. So, I have written to him, asking for an update. I only wrote on 15 December, so, obviously, with Christmas, I haven't had a response as yet. But I do think it does need a UK-wide—. I could certainly meet with the supermarkets, and I do meet with the supermarkets regularly, where we do have discussions, but I think if we're going to have a summit of the type I think you're referring to, it would be better to do that on a UK-wide level.
Thank you to the Minister. All tabled questions answered well within allocated time—it's making me think we should go back to 15 questions being allowed to be tabled, with that record. Thank you to the Minister.
Item 3 is next, the topical question. The question is to be asked by James Evans, and is to be answered by the Minister for education. James Evans.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on his expectations of his meetings with the teaching trade unions later this week in terms of avoiding school closures? TQ711
I'll be meeting with teacher and head unions tomorrow, along with local authorities, who are the employers, to discuss the outcome of ballots and discuss next steps. I am committed to working with partners to secure a resolution to the dispute, and this tripartite meeting will help explore ways of addressing teachers' concerns.
I'd like to thank you for that answer, Minister. The Welsh Government do hold all the levers here to prevent the strikes, and it's time that the Welsh Government did take some responsibility for this, by, for example, not cutting the education budget in real terms and rising it in line with inflation. Under Welsh Labour, children in Wales are being left behind. Not only did they miss more school days than anyone else in the UK due to lockdowns, not only are they getting less money spent on them than their counterparts in England, but now they have to deal with these strikes and potentially missing more lesson time, when I'm sure, Minister, you should agree with me that it's better that our teachers are in the classroom, educating our young people for the future.
I do have a suggestion that perhaps the Minister goes back to his Cabinet colleagues and asks them to free up more hundreds of millions of pounds earmarked for vanity projects that aren't in his portfolio, like the expansion of this Senedd, the owning of Gilestone Farm, owning an airport that is losing money. And if the Government gets its priorities in order, I'm sure you, Minister, would have more money to spend on our teachers. So, Minister, given my suggestion, will you stop passing the buck, as you did on tv, and stop using the same old Welsh Government line of blaming Westminster? And what constructive options will you be taking to the table this week for preventing school closures, because this one is surely your responsibility?
Well, these are serious matters that deserve better than political knock-about in this Chamber. His mischaracterisation of the education system in Wales is consistent with that of his colleagues on those benches. Unlike the Conservative Government in Westminster, we are not responding to strikes by bringing forward draconian laws that undermine people's fundamental rights. In Wales, we believe, as a Welsh Government, that the best way to resolve disputes of this sort is through discussion, respectful discussion, with our partners, with goodwill and an in attempt to reach a constructive solution, and that is very much the spirit in which we will have the discussions with unions and local authorities in Wales.
Thank you, Minister. I'm very pleased to hear your commitment to having discussions this week. Clearly, this isn't an easy situation for anyone, choosing to strike, and it's regrettable that we've reached this point. But it's not unexpected either that we have reached this particular point; the unions made it clear that the Government's offer wasn't going to be acceptable to them. So, will you be able to commit to making an improved offer to them? Because, clearly, this isn't just about teachers but also those working in our schools in supporting the teaching workforce, doing very important work. And in terms of your personal commitment in terms of ensuring that our pupils don't lose out on crucial education following COVID and so on, why have we reached this point, and what will be different about these discussions in order to give us that hope that we won't reach a position of having to see teachers on strike?
Well, I think that everyone agrees that our children should be at school receiving their education, but nobody takes these decisions to strike lightly. We have four unions, and two have had votes in favour of industrial action, but whatever the thresholds the unions have, we respect and we hear the messages that we are hearing from teachers in those ballots. I'm not going to discuss in the Senedd today the nature of the discussions we intend to have or the proposals for any discussions that we have with regard to the settlement. Those discussions take place in the context of our social partners, in the way that we always operate, and I know that the Member accepts and supports that stance. But, as I've said, we'll do everything within the very real limitations on us as a Government to get the best possible settlement.
Thank you, Minister.
I have agreed to a point of order, and Heledd Fychan with that point of order.
Thank you, Llywydd. May I ask you review your guidance in terms of hybrid working, given an unfortunate situation that arose in the Culture, Communications, Welsh Language, Sport and International Relations Committee this morning? The start of the meeting had to be postponed as we were scrutinising the draft budget, as the Deputy Minister was unexpectedly not in attendance in the committee room, despite being in the building. Given your recent communication, our understanding was that everyone, Ministers and committee members, were expected to be in attendance for scrutiny sessions, and, most importantly, if we are in the building, that we are expected to be in this Chamber. And we thought that that also applied to committees. As the temporary Chair today, I asked officials to ask the Deputy Minister to attend, as she was in the building, but it became apparent that, to avoid further delay, we had to proceed in a hybrid format, but we missed three quarters of an hour of the meeting. So, to avoid future delays of that kind, further guidance would be beneficial.
Alun Davies, further to that point of order.
I'm grateful to the Presiding Officer for allowing me to contribute to this point of order. It was certainly unfortunate what happened this morning, and we accept that. However, the Deputy Minister herself was put into a difficult situation and I attach no blame to the Deputy Minister for the circumstances of what happened this morning. I think the lessons we need to learn in terms of Standing Orders, Presiding Officer, are to enable other committee members to take the chair when necessary and not simply when the Chair is absent. I think that would be a useful thing to do, to look at again, but also then to ensure that the Government is in a position to fully give evidence when it is required to do so. And the point I would make to Ministers—there's one Minister in the Chamber this afternoon—is that we took evidence subsequently from the education Minister, Jeremy Miles, and the evidence we received from Jeremy was first class, and one of the reasons for that was that he was in the room with us and he was able to provide a far greater explanation for his policies and his approach as a consequence of that. So, I attach no blame to the Deputy Minister for the circumstances this morning; it was outside of her control. But I hope that the lesson that Ministers will learn from this is, from their own point of view, they're better off here than there.
And the Deputy Minister herself is intending to, or wanting to, contribute to the point of order. Dawn Bowden.
Diolch, Llywydd. I just think perhaps a fuller explanation of the circumstances would help the Senedd, and I'm not necessarily opposing Heledd Fychan's point of order in terms of getting some clarity around this and the way that the committee scrutiny takes place, but, just to put on record what actually happened, the weather, as you know, was very, very bad this morning and I nearly never made it from Merthyr Tydfil. So, had that happened, I would have had to have joined remotely in any case, but I did come in to Tŷ Hywel. It took me somewhere in the region of an hour and a half or more to get from Merthyr Tydfil to Cardiff, so I only arrived in Tŷ Hywel literally just before the meeting was due to start, and it wasn't until I arrived, just before 9:30, that I was advised by my private office that none of my officials would be attending committee in person; they would all be joining online. I'd been completely unaware of that until that point, and, in those circumstances, I didn't feel it was reasonable for me to attend committee in person on my own, when I would be unable to have direct access to officials, as I'd be able to do if they were there in person. However, if I joined remotely, I would be able to communicate with them electronically if I needed to, and, on that basis, I advised the committee that I would join online to give my evidence.
It took the committee some 45 minutes of discussion to conclude that they were prepared to allow me to do that, so the only issue I would take on that is that the delay of 45 minutes was not of my making; I was ready to give evidence online at 9:30 as scheduled. I would have preferred to give my evidence in person, and I think the point that Alun Davies has made is a point well-made; I do believe that evidence sessions are better in person. The last time I gave evidence to the committee was in person, and I had officials with me in person as well. I'm unaware of what discussions took place between committee clerks and my officials before the meeting that agreed to their online participation, but I was unaware of that, as I thought that the entire meeting was being held in person. So, it was about ensuring that I had the appropriate official support in the appropriate way to be able to present my evidence effectively.
Thank you to the Deputy Minister. Unusually, I've allowed a point of order on a piece of committee business for this session. I've heard all the perspectives of the Members involved, and, as Members know, we're in a new way of working: this is uncharted territory to a certain extent. Guidance, as Heledd Fychan has said, has been issued to Members. We have new experience as of this morning. Regrettably, a committee was delayed by 45 minutes in its ministerial scrutiny. If it is the case that guidance needs to be strengthened as a result of this morning's experience and the experience of committees generally over the past weeks, then I'll ask the Chairs' forum in its very next meeting to reflect on all of that and what has been shared with us from today's experience and to see whether there is a need to strengthen the guidance to all Members, including Ministers, on attendance in committee virtually or in person. So, yes, we'll move on to Plenary business now. Thank you to all concerned for sharing your views on that.
The 90-second statements are next. The only statement today is from Sioned Williams.
Diolch, Llywydd. This month marks 200 years since the birth of Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist whose ideas helped change the world. Born near Usk, he spent much of his early life in England and moved back to Wales to work as a surveyor in Neath. During his spare time, he furthered his scientific pursuits, and, in his autobiography, he referred to the impact his time in Neath had on him, developing his interest in the natural world, saying,
'I cannot call to mind a single valley that in the same extent of country comprises so much beautiful and picturesque scenery, and so many interesting special features, as the Vale of Neath.'
Following his time in Neath, he travelled the world, and upon his return published some of his findings. He wrote to one of his heroes, Charles Darwin, and they jointly published articles on their studies. A year later, and likely prompted by Wallace, Darwin would publish On the Origin of Species. Though his work on evolution is what many remember him for, Wallace wrote on many other subjects, including workers' rights, women's suffrage, land ownership and poverty.
Today, he continues to be remembered and celebrated. The Alfred Russel Wallace trail in Neath Port Talbot includes many of the places he lived, visited or worked at during his time there, including places like Bryncoch farm, Neath abbey, the Vale of Neath Railway, Melincourt waterfall and Neath mechanics' institute. Recently, Theatr na nÓg, a Neath-based company, commemorated Alfred Russel Wallace by putting on special performances of their award-winning production of Geinor Styles's play You Should Ask Wallace. More than two centuries after his birth, Wallace is rightfully regarded as one of the most influential thinkers who ever lived. Neath and all of Wales are rightfully proud of him.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Rees) took the Chair.
Item 5 this afternoon is a debate on the Climate Change, Environment, and Infrastructure Committee report, 'The future of bus and rail in Wales'. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion. Llyr Gruffydd.
Motion NDM8180 Llyr Gruffydd
To propose that the Senedd:
Notes the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee report, 'The future of bus and rail in Wales', laid on 6 October 2022.
Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'm pleased to be able to open this debate today, and I'd like to start by thanking all the stakeholders and members of the public who contributed to the committee's work. I'm also pleased, of course, that the Minister has accepted all but one of our recommendations, but we'll get to that later
This report comes in two parts. Part 1 reflects the committee’s annual scrutiny session with Transport for Wales, and part 2 covers broader issues concerning the recovery of bus and rail services in Wales post COVID-19. It's therefore a wide-ranging report, and I won't have time to do more than touch on some of the more critical issues as I open this debate today.
First, I want to talk about our scrutiny of Transport for Wales. The committee had concerns about several aspects of the governance arrangements in Transport for Wales. This mainly concerned the publication of business and financial plans and, consequently, the organisation's transparency. To be fair, the COVID pandemic period was a challenging time for Transport for Wales. We were told that its budget during this period was very much in flux and was changing almost weekly. It seems churlish to criticise the organisation for not publishing business and financial plans in this context perhaps. But having said that, they are fundamental tools to assess how well Transport for Wales performs against its remit and whether it delivers value for money. One of our recommendations was therefore that Transport for Wales should get its house in order. From this year onwards, it should publish business and financial plans before the start of each financial year.
There have been historic problems with the presentation of Transport for Wales's budget allocations, making it almost impossible to scrutinise how much money is being allocated and for what purpose. Again, we had some sympathy with Transport for Wales. The chief executive told us that the budget-setting process could involve as many as 25 bilateral discussions with different Welsh Government budget holders. This seems terribly bureaucratic to us as a committee. Openness and transparency should be fundamental principles for public organisations such as Transport for Wales, and streamlining this process would in our view help in that regard.
I'm grateful that the Welsh Government accepted all the recommendations in part 1 of our report and that Transport for Wales are therefore to take them forward. Since the publication of the report, we've seen good progress in the areas of governance and transparency. We will be holding our annual scrutiny session with Transport for Wales later this year and, of course, will return to these issues to see whether the situation has improved.
The second part of our report covers the broader issue, as I was saying, of bus and rail recovery after the COVID pandemic. On behalf of the committee I would particularly like to thank the members of the public who fed into the committee's work through the various focus groups and interviews held across Wales on this issue. The pandemic had a massive impact on the numbers using public transport. Many people were scared to get on the bus or the train. There were reductions in services, and those in the poorest areas, by the way, were the hardest hit in that regard. But many of the fundamental changes we saw during the pandemic, such as online shopping and the increasing prevalence of working from home, were becoming far more common in our society pre pandemic. But of course it’s become far more usual now for people, as I say, to work from home and so on.
Bus and rail services are critical not only in order for us to meet our climate change targets in Wales, but also to create a society where people can easily access the services, education and work they need for a full life. So, the question for us as a committee was, of course: what needs to be done to encourage more people to use public transport? Our report, as you would expect, considers many of these issues.
Achieving modal shift must be at the core of this work. First, we need to understand what kind of public transport people want and how they want to use it. How permanent are the changes we saw during the pandemic and since, and what will future patterns look like? I’m pleased that the Deputy Minister has accepted all of our recommendations in this area. I was also pleased to see that the Deputy Minister referred to a national travel survey for Wales in his response. I would be grateful if he could tell us more, perhaps, about the survey and how it will be used to influence future policy and budget decisions, when he responds to this debate.
Secondly, we need to base policies on suitable targets. The Welsh Government's transport strategy and net-zero plan set modal shift targets. For example, 7 per cent of trips should be made by public transport by 2030, and that should increase to 13 per cent by 2040. These are stretching targets, and I’m certainly not going to criticise the Deputy Minister for showing ambition in this area, but too many of our stakeholders questioned whether the current public transport offer is good enough to put us on the right trajectory to reach the 2030 target.
We need to make it easy, and easier, for people to leave the car at home and take the bus or the train instead. We know from our work with stakeholders that cost, convenience and access to services are the three priority areas for users. We can discuss the intricacies of behaviour change as much as we like, but addressing those three points would certainly be a good start.
I had the pleasure earlier today of speaking at the launch of the Confederation of Passenger Transport Cymru’s report about encouraging car users to switch to bus and coach. It is notable, by the way, that very similar issues are raised in our report and the report published this afternoon.
On the cost of public transport, transport poverty was a particular concern for us as a committee. Transport poverty affects some demographic groups disproportionately, including disabled people, older people and women. One of our recommendations was that the Welsh Government should provide subsidised fare pricing and other aspects of financial support. I would like to hear more from the Deputy Minister on the latest position on these proposals.
Delivering an integrated transport network that people can easily access when they need to, and which is affordable, will not be easy. For a start, we know that it will take substantial investment. Members will all be aware of the historical underfunding of rail infrastructure in Wales. How can we develop an integrated transport system if we don’t have proper investment in rail infrastructure? And I’m pleased that the Deputy Minister recognises the case for the full devolution of responsibility for rail, and for ensuring that the UK Government does allocate fair funding. In the face of decisions like those we saw in the context of HS2 and the fact that the UK Government has apparently refused to even consider an appropriate funding solution for Wales, it's difficult to disagree with the case for devolution.
On funding for buses, the current Welsh Government policy is for 50 per cent of the most polluting service buses to be replaced by a zero-tailpipe-emission bus fleet by 2028, and for all taxis and private-hire vehicles to be zero emission by 2028—the same year. Now, the cost of decarbonising the bus sector will be high, and the sector will need financial support to deliver that. The Deputy Minister has said that delivery plans are being prepared to meet the targets set out in Net Zero Wales, and I'd be grateful if he could tell us more about that in his response.
Dirprwy Lywydd, as I said at the outset, this is a wide-ranging report, and I have not been able to cover all issues in my contribution. It's possible that other Members will have an opportunity to focus on some of those. But I want to conclude by saying that the next few years will be exciting for bus and rail. The bus reform Bill offers a significant opportunity to improve bus services in Wales and, most importantly, to ensure that they are more customer focused. There is also progress on metro schemes, and there's a major piece of work for us to do as a committee in keeping an eye on developments in that area. But although progress is being made, we do need to ask that same old question: is that progress happening swiftly enough? The broader financial context has made it more difficult to reach the Government's net-zero transport targets, but all I will say in concluding the first contribution to this debate is that, as a committee, we will certainly continue to assess progress and to report back to the Senedd on it. Thank you.
First off, I'd like to thank the Chairman, my fellow committee members, as well as all the panelists and staff who supported us in our work on this report. Now, between the pandemic, strike action and the cost-of-living crisis, public transport in Wales and across the UK is facing a wide variety of challenges. This means it's even more important than ever for the Welsh Government to deliver a joined-up sustainable plan for bus and rail companies. It's also important to look ahead to the future. Recommendation 6 of the report states that
'The Welsh Government should provide an update on the work it is undertaking with other partners to understand future travel patterns...and their impact'.
I know that my colleague Natasha Asghar will have more to say on the scrutiny of Transport for Wales, but as shadow Minister for climate change, I'd like to reiterate how important public transport by rail and bus is to meeting our environmental targets. If the Welsh Government wants to meet Wales's net-zero obligations, people need access to travel that is both reliable and affordable. Only this morning we were talking about the road scheme having been stopped by the Deputy Minister. That's all well and good if you've got the public transport infrastructure in place, and sadly we don't have that in Wales.
Access to public transport, particularly bus travel, is essential to address social deprivation and mobility. University of South Wales research found that the most deprived areas saw the greatest decline in access to services due to the pandemic. Evidence from Transport for Wales shows that 13 per cent of Welsh households don't even have access to a car, and 25 per cent of bus users have a disability or a long-term illness. So, the Welsh Government, Minister and Deputy Minister, need to consider what can be done to help our most vulnerable, often living in quite socially isolated areas. The current cost-of-living crisis cannot result in those who are struggling losing their access to public transport.
Recommendation 15 states that
'The Welsh Government should set out what assessment it has made of the impact of energy costs and the cost-of-living crisis on its modal shift targets.'
As we mentioned in the report, the UK Government has already moved to cap bus fares outside of London at £2. Silviya Barrett confirmed that bus services in Wales declined by 45 per cent in the 10 years between 2011-12 and 2020-21, but in that last year, between March 2020 and March 2021, which was the first year of the pandemic, the cuts were 36 per cent. According to Joe Rossiter, the reduction of rail and bus services has had a significant impact on our rural communities and—this is the crux of the issue—not everyone is being affected equally by the reduction in services. People in remote and rural communities will disproportionately feel the impacts of reductions in service. And as we note in the report, there are risks that the proposed franchising system outlined in the bus reform Bill could actually close out smaller operators. These operators, particularly in rural Wales, are well placed to understand the needs of their local communities and respond to changes in demand. Certainly in my constituency, we have Llew Jones, who's a small bus operator, and he really works with the community and the passengers. We've also got now the introduction of the Fflecsi bus service, and that's proving to be a really worthwhile scheme.
We agree with the suggestion that the Bill should include provision to ensure that smaller companies can participate in the franchising process. We're pleased that the White Paper acknowledges this and includes proposals for addressing it. However, we do need to emphasise that the process should be designed in such a way as to minimise the cost of submitting bids for those smaller operators. Whilst I appreciate the financial constraints, there is more that could be done with the organisations that are already in place. In particular, we've seen clear evidence of a lack of co-ordination in delivering transport between different local authorities. Josh Miles believed that ‘Bws Cymru’ has lots of the right areas in it, but his main concern was that some of the underpinning elements of the strategy were simply not being delivered. He said there needs to be a focus on delivery, and that
'Local authorities don't have much by way of staff or resources to be able to put into the process at the moment.... So, there are just a lot of things going on and we haven't quite got the coherence or the investment to deliver things yet'.
Comments made by our witnesses such as these highlight that a lack of joined-up thinking can impact transport policy. It’s something that the report's already identified and we need to seek to address. I appreciate that some of these views have been taken on board. The reputation, consistency and reliability of public transport—
Janet, can you conclude now, please?
—all need to improve if we are to return to public transport, as per recommendation 7. Diolch.
Professor Mark Barry, who was one of our witnesses, and who's a transport expert, told us that Wales has been poorly served by the rail industry ecosystem for the last 30 to 40 years in terms of investment and enhancement funding. That takes us back to roughly 1980, so this is a problem of both Conservative and Labour administrations. However, the current UK Government seems to be very difficult to follow in terms of the logic of any of their arguments. To argue that the £52 billion HS2 investment should not generate any consequential for Wales is really absolute gobbledygook. It makes it very difficult to work out whether or not we're going to be able to have a grown-up relationship with them, because, regardless of that futile argument, they have yet to upgrade the infrastructure on the east-west main rail line. That is of particular concern to the area I represent, because the Burns plan for the south-east Wales metro assumes that two of the four rail lines that run east to west will be the spine of that proposal. The economy Minister was unable to elucidate us in any shape or form yesterday, so I'd be grateful if the Deputy Minister could indicate whether there's been any glimmer of light as to whether the Rishi Sunak Government is taking this issue more seriously. Because it really is a justice issue, as well as something that should be given his attention if he wants to hold the UK together. So, that is absolutely key for me.
I think the other issue is around the bus industry. I'm very glad to hear from Janet Finch-Saunders that the Fflecsi buses are working up in north Wales. And that's really helpful, because it could be that that's a model for elsewhere where there's not such a concentration of people. I have to say that the investment that we've managed to secure in Cardiff and Newport for electric buses has hugely improved the air quality of the areas, because they're no longer belching out horrendous diesel. So, that really has been fantastic. Thank you to the Welsh Government, which has empowered local authorities to get on with claiming for what is available from the UK Government. That's something that other local authorities really need to to something more about.
In terms of the really serious debate as to how we get people out of their cars and onto public transport, there's obviously a huge amount of work to be done. I heard that, at the seminar that was organised by the public transport organisation that Llyr took part in—I wasn't able to go—somebody suggested that pricing people out of using their cars was a non-starter because they would have to up the costs of running a car by more than £250 before people would stop using their cars and switch to public transport. I have to assume that that figure has well been passed, because insurance has gone up massively and petrol prices have gone up massively. For most people, it must have exceeded that £250. So, that is an opportunity for us, as well as a threat—[Interruption.] Yes.
I accept the point you make, although I wouldn't go all the way down the brutality of that route. But pricing people out of a car only works where public transport is available. In places like the ones I represent, that public transport isn't available, so what you're doing is hammering the poorest and most vulnerable people.
I accept that argument, Alun, and I think it's a well-made point. But I think, clearly, we've got to develop more services, and we can't hammer people. I would be in favour of using those fiscal levers as soon as there are those alternatives. Clearly, if you look at the Cardiff population, people do not need to bring their cars into the city centre, and, happily, it's increasingly more difficult for them to do so. I'm hoping that Cardiff Council will have the guts to raise significantly the price of city centre parking. People, futilely, queue to get into particular car parks at Christmastime, and it's just amazing—
This has almost become a conversation, but—
Time is also running out.
—my constituents use those car parks, and your constituents who work in the city centre rely on my constituents using Cardiff as a local city. We don't have the opportunity to do anything except drive into Cardiff. We need that, and so the danger is you're creating a division between Cardiff and the Valleys.
Thank you for your intervention, and you're completely wrong. You're wrong because—
Jenny, if you wish to answer the question and then close up, because time is going on.
The park and ride system is absolutely excellent. It costs you £2 for the whole family and then you don't have all the sweat and bother of trying to find a car parking place. Those arrangements are available right around the city, so that is not an argument that I will accept.
I think there's a lot more we need to do, but I also think we need to do a lot more to get people without cars able to get around, not just for their everyday journeys but also for leisure opportunities, to be able to go and visit Storey Arms. I do recall the free bus service that was started by the previous economy Minister, which enabled my constituents to get to Storey Arms for nothing on a Saturday. I'd be very keen to find out exactly what the outcome was of that, and whether we could do more things like that to make people understand that travelling by bus is a great opportunity.
Thank you to the Chair and clerking team for their important work in this area. It's entirely clear—and it's become apparent as we listen to the debate—that bus and rail transport play a vital role as we strive to reach our climate change targets, and create a society where everyone can access the services that they need, be that in care, leisure, work, education, or anything else that's important to people's lives. However, at the moment, that is not possible for everyone. All too often, for many, public transport is neither affordable or frequent, and trains and buses don't go where people need them to go.
I welcome the Welsh Government’s target of seeing 45 per cent of journeys being made in a sustainable way by 2040. I would also ask whether that is sufficiently ambitious. Perhaps the increase of around 1 per cent per annum during the climate emergency doesn't really reflect the ambition that we need. What exactly is the Government doing, and what is planned, to facilitate people's efforts to make this shift? That's the core of the problem. We have a rail system that often grinds to a halt during heavy rain, or extreme heat, or if it's snowing—any sort of weather that's not frequent—and this is going to happen more and more often. What is normal is going to change. Trains are often late or cancelled, tickets are far too expensive, and working conditions of railway staff are declining as the economic impacts are felt. It's a kind of perfect storm.
It's important to be honest in politics, so I want to put on record that this isn’t all the Welsh Government’s fault. The heart of the problem—we've already heard this—is the Westminster Government that doesn’t care a jot about the people of Wales—a Government that underfunds our railways deliberately by denying us £5 billion in HS2 funding, for example, money the Welsh Government could use to transform our railways. As Jenny said, it's a gobbledegook decision. Decarbonising rail is another challenge for the Welsh Government. We need to improve rail infrastructure, improve grid storage, connectivity and capacity, and this is relevant to transport too. I would like to hear more from the Deputy Minister about progress in this area, as well as the next steps in terms of decarbonisation.
Turning, finally, to accessibility, I asked the Minister about women’s safety on our railways last week. Since then, I have learnt that some councils, for example Newport, intend to turn off street lights overnight in order to save money. What are the implications of that for the safety of women who want to use public transport at night? What's the Government's view on that?
In moving forward, improving people’s ability to use public transport is vital to tackle social inequality and people’s ability to travel. Again, this has already been raised. Bearing in mind that 13 per cent of households in Wales do not have a car, and 25 per cent of people who use buses have a disability or a long-term illness, as well as the fact that the most disadvantaged people saw the greatest decline in terms of people’s ability to access and use services, it is important that action happens now. What is clear is that we need a route to the provision of free public transport in future, starting with those in greatest need: young people, people in rural communities and those on low incomes. In the meantime—and I will conclude with this, Dirprwy Lywydd—will the Welsh Government bring forward plans to tackle transport poverty?
Thank you to the Chair, the committee members and the clerking team of the climate change committee for producing such a comprehensive report. I'm glad to see the joint approach used of considering bus and rail services together. In the last Senedd, I sat on the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee, and I enjoyed taking part in our separate investigations then into bus and rail, but a point that I often made at that time was that, for areas like mine in the Cynon Valley, buses are the vital element linking what can be remote communities into the train network. We cannot see them apart, so I welcome the committee's approach. I'm also pleased that this joined-up thinking is embedded within the heart of the south Wales metro plans, and it's positive to note the progress towards delivery of this, which I can visibly see in my constituency. I'd like to put on record my thanks to the Transport for Wales team for keeping me informed of local developments in this regard, not least so that I can keep my constituents informed in turn.
Turning to the recommendations in the report, I want to touch on a few key points. I think recommendation 6 around understanding future travel patterns is key to what we all want to achieve in terms of putting in place a transformative public transport network that is fit for purpose. That network must enable Welsh citizens to travel for work and education, leisure and pleasure. I look forward to the Welsh Government releasing information on its planned national transport survey in due course. I also look forward to hearing what mechanisms will be put in place so that it captures the views and experiences of all sections of Welsh society.
Recommendation 7 is also vitally important. We want to make sure that people get back on the buses. I applaud the money that the Welsh Government has made available to support bus services during the pandemic, but I am also concerned that forthcoming plans for legislation on buses won't achieve all that they could do unless, for example, councils are given sufficient funding to run services. For example, I'm dealing with cases in my constituency where there is no bus service to Cwmdare or Cwmbach after 5.30 p.m., and these are not rural outposts, they're villages just outside the town itself, leaving constituents—many of whom are older and do not have private transport—effectively isolated. That cannot be something that we allow to continue. If these services, as I am told, are unsustainable for private providers, how will this differ for the local authority? How can this be facilitated during the current economic climate? Without getting this right, all we may achieve is shifting the blame for poor bus services onto local authorities. So, I look forward to any reassurance that the Deputy Minister can give on this point.
Recommendation 8 is also vitally important. The best planned bus network in the world will come to nothing if we don't have drivers in place to make sure that it can operate. I've supported my own local trade union branches to resolve local issues as they arise, and I'm certain that Welsh Government will ensure that our trade unions also have a part to play in these discussions. We must recognise that decent pay across all areas, not localised pay awards, and ensuring good working conditions are key to workforce retention.
Finally, recommendation 9. We need to make it economical for people to access public transport, but I'm deeply concerned that the reality of ticket prices may be having a deterrent effect, especially when other circumstances are factored in, such as services being cancelled at short notice. For example, consider a parent from Pen-y-Waun, one of the least affluent parts of my constituency, taking their two teenage children, for example, to their nearest GP surgery in Trecynon. That journey would be just over 1.5 miles, but the price of three tickets is actually the same as the cost of a taxi journey that would take you door to door. Worryingly, one local bus provider has announced that ticket prices will be increasing by almost 10 per cent from the end of this month, and return adult tickets would also be scrapped. I notice the various strands of work that Welsh Government has put in place to try and seek a resolution, and again, I also recognise the very real funding pressures that Ministers are under, but we've got to get this right to make public transport a sensible, sustainable, realistic and affordable choice. Diolch.
I welcome this report. As the Chair began with saying, I note that, of its 26 recommendations, only one was rejected by the Welsh Government. I'd also like to address my remarks this afternoon to some of the recommendations that it contains. Recommendation 7 refers to encouraging passengers to return to public bus services. I very much agree with this, as I'm sure many of my colleagues in the Chamber and beyond do as well. The Welsh Government's aim has been, from day one, from what I've been hearing, to get people out of their cars, off the roads and to use public transport instead. All well and good. This is a noble intention without any doubt, and it would reduce congestion and carbon emissions. However, it can only work if a strong and efficient public transport network is here in the first place.
There is no doubt that people living here in Wales and across south-east Wales in my region, as my colleague Alun Davies said, are very car dependent. You can't deny the reality. We've had countless debates, speeches and questions in this Chamber, and no-one can deny here that bus services are inadequate, infrequent and non-existent across Wales. The lack of a decent bus service undermines the economy and makes it more difficult for people all across the board to access jobs and essential services. The number of local bus journeys was falling before the pandemic, thanks to years of inadequate financial support from, sadly, the Welsh Government, and they still haven't returned to pre-COVID levels. Many bus services have not resumed since the pandemic, leaving residents isolated within their communities. After numerous debates, questions and speeches heard here in the Senedd, I really do welcome the fact that the Welsh Government has finally recognised the importance of bus services after years of chronic underfunding.
I do look forward to seeing detailed proposals going forward to support bus services in their forthcoming legislation, and I'm keen to see how the Welsh Government will help rural areas afford eco-friendly buses, moving forward. We really do need to address the shortage of bus drivers who have left the sector for higher pay elsewhere, and rather than getting into a situation, as we see with GPs, we need to work on this now rather than later. Improvement in the pay and conditions of lorry drivers has resulted in many bus drivers leaving their jobs, causing what's been called the most challenging resourcing position that the bus industry has ever seen. It's lovely that we all talk the talk, but we now need to walk the walk when it comes to buses.
Recommendation 23 calls on Transport for Wales to provide an update on the latest position on metro costs. The metro project is a key component in the Welsh Government's strategy to encourage people off the road to ultimately use public transport. In February 2021, the chief executive of Transport for Wales said that the completion of the south Wales metro project would be delayed by months—and not years—as a result of the pandemic, with the completion date remaining as 2023.
In May last year, TfW said that the cost of the metro project was likely to be significantly over its £734 million budget, with the overspend likely to run into tens of millions of pounds—that’s tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Completion of the project was put back to 2024, and last November, further delays were confirmed to the upgrade, with the majority of work forecast to finish in 2024, but with no date for full completion of the project being given, which is concerning for me and many people, I’m sure. One of the reasons given for this further delay was COVID, which TfW had previously said would not cause delays beyond 2023. So, once again, I repeat my call for a statement from the Deputy Minister to advise when work on the south Wales metro will be finally completed. And, what is the latest estimate of the total cost of the Welsh Government’s flagship project to get people off the road and to use public transport?
Recommendation 25 calls for TfW to provide an update on the integrated ticketing pilot and explain what are the next steps. One of my first acts, after being elected to the Senedd, was to call for an all-Wales travel card to allow seamless journeys across the whole of Wales, just like one card—similar to what all of you have probably seen—as the Oyster card is in London. To his credit, and I must give him credit for this, the First Minister did respond with optimism and said that it was an idea worth exploring and really committed to exploring the possibility of introducing such a card for the people of Wales.
In October last year, in a reply to a written question, asking for an update on these plans, the Deputy Minister for Climate Change said and I quote,
'We continue to work with Transport for Wales to explore options for integrated ticketing'.
So, going forward, let me put my feelings on the record here today when I say that I’m deeply disappointed at the lack of progress on this issue, as Transport for Wales put up a page on their website saying that the travel card would be coming soon, then all of a sudden removed it. I would like to ask for regular updates in this Senedd on delivering an all-Wales travel card as it will be the foundation of a strong and sustainable public transport network here in Wales for the people of Wales, because if we don’t work on it now, I really don’t feel that we will ever achieve a strong bus and rail network here for the people of Wales.
I'm grateful to the committee and to the clerking team of the committee for producing this report. Of course, the test that I will establish for Government policy is how it affects the people of Blaenau Gwent, because the exchange that I enjoyed at least—I don't know if anybody else did—with Jenny Rathbone earlier was about the difference in experience between those in the centre of Cardiff and those who live in the heads of the Valleys. And I think it's an important differential to make, because what stood out for me in the report was the emphasis on behavioural change, and the Chair emphasised that in his introduction. And behavioural change will only happen if there are viable alternatives to using the car. And all too often for my constituency—the people I represent—those alternatives do not exist.
And this, Deputy Minister, is where the test for the Government lies, because I've spent too long, possibly, in this Chamber listening to ministerial speeches, and I feel frankly let down by some of those speeches. Because, I heard the contributions—which the Deputy Minister will, no doubt, make this afternoon—on how the Welsh Government want us to move from car to bus or to rail or to whatever. And then, of course, I see them building a grand hospital—and I very much support the building of the Grange University Hospital in Cwmbran—we had a bus every hour to Nevill Hall Hospital in Abergavenny; no bus at all to the Grange. And it was promised for five years by Ministers in this place that those services would exist. The current Minister has promised that he will investigate it, but today, those services simply don't exist. So, it isn't good enough for the Government to say that it wants the people to do all of this and then it makes it more difficult for the people to actually use those services. And those services all too often don't exist, and that isn't fair and it isn't right.
And, you know, one of my great regrets in this place—. Members may not believe this, but I was silent when it happened, and I should've opened my mouth. When the south-east Wales—I can't remember the correct name—transport executive was abolished by a previous Minister, it took away all the ability of local government and others to co-ordinate and to plan transport. Now, I understand, of course, that this is being reintroduced through corporate joint committees—and we understand now that the Conservatives all of a sudden support these things, and I welcome their conversions—but we need this level of co-ordination because—. I met a constituent in an advice surgery in Cwm last year, and he was explaining to me that, for him to get to the Grange, he would have to go via Brynmawr. Now, anybody who knows the geography of the south Wales Valleys knows that you don't tend to travel south by travelling north. And it is unfair to put vulnerable people in this position. We know—and we've explored this on many occasions in this place—that it was the Thatcher reforms that destroyed the bus industry. We understand that. But we've also had responsibility in this place for over 20 years, and we need to ensure that we are demonstrating that that actually means something. And I want the Deputy Minister, in responding to this debate, to explain how behavioural change happens alongside equality, so that my constituents have the same opportunity as the constituents represented by Jenny Rathbone. And I'll give way.
On this issue of equality, I just wondered if you'd picked up, in the report, the suggestion by Professor Barry that, perhaps we ought to get older people, who currently don't pay at all, to pay £1, and that would then give us more money to perhaps lower the fares of other people, particularly younger people under 25. Now, I know this is the holy grail, but there is very little extra money in the system, and we might be able to encourage some people to pay—
Jenny, you might find this surprising, but I'm celebrating my fifty-ninth birthday next month, so my thinking is developing on the bus pass, shall we say, and perhaps I should declare an interest in it. But, look—
Would you be prepared to pay £1?
Yes, I would be prepared to pay £1. But, I also think that perhaps we should be making public transport free, or £1 flat rate for everyone, wherever they're travelling to, at any time. I actually think that we need to think about investing in public transport and not just putting up barriers to public transport.
So, I don't have the sacred cows that all too often we parade in this Chamber, and I would be prepared to look at any of those different examples of how we encourage investment in the system. But, for me, the purpose is to make public transport easier to use. And, if that means a flat rate of £1 for everyone, so be it. But I would like to ensure that we don't have the chaos of ticketing that we have at the moment. And it's a standing regret for me—. And I hear what the Members opposite are saying, and it is good to see the leader of the opposition in the Chamber for this debate. What I would say to them, in all seriousness, is that, until you devolve responsibility for rail infrastructure to this place, there is no chance at all of any of the ambitions that Natasha Asghar has outlined this afternoon actually being achieved, because the money simply isn't in the system. Welsh taxpayers are being robbed day after day after day. The decisions taken over HS2 are appalling—absolutely appalling—and Conservatives should stand up, be counted and call that out—
Alun, you need to conclude now, please.
—in the same way as we do elsewhere. So, I'm grateful for your indulgence, Deputy Presiding Officer.
Minister, in replying to this debate, I want to see the equality of treatment for people up and down the country, and I want you to pass the Blaenau Gwent test. I want you to pass it with flying colours, and I want to ensure that we have the investment in the buses, the rail, and the integration of transport services that mean that my constituents have the same opportunities to use public transport as Jenny's constituents, and we promise, then, that we won't plug up your car parks in the centre of Cardiff, Jenny. Thank you very much.
May I echo my thanks to the committee for all of this work on this vitally important issue. And, similarly, I agree with a number of the points that Alun Davies made. This is an issue of equality, and I was going to raise similar points in terms of residents of South Wales Central. If you think about how—. I represent the Cardiff area, where it's far easier to change your practice; you can choose not to have a car, because of alternative methods of transport. If you move towards Pontypridd and further into the Valleys, and Vikki referred to those areas—. Well, that's all within my region, and the complaints that I hear on a daily basis from people where they don't have alternative modes of transport, they don't have a car, so, when the bus or the train isn't there, isn't running, then they are entirely stuck in their homes—. That means that they lose opportunities in terms of employment, they lose opportunities to access medical appointments, which are very difficult to get these days, but also in terms of getting their children to school on time or picking up children who are poorly from school. There's huge inequality at the moment. When we talk about changes of practices or routines, a number of people in my region do use the bus or the train because that's the only option available to them, but the problem and the complaints that we hear now are that the trains aren't running. We know about the upgrade with regard to the metro, which is very much to be welcomed, but the thing is that those buses don't turn up if the trains don't run, and often buses are cancelled too.
I was very pleased to see recommendation 8 specifically, because we do know that there is a crisis in recruitment. We have to remember then about the statistics and the people behind those statistics. As I've been a councillor, a number of people in Pontypridd still have my phone number, and I receive a text every time that one bus at 16:29 in the afternoon—it's the last bus that goes up the hill in Pontypridd—doesn't run. I receive a text almost every day that that service isn't running, and I hear time and time again about the same old services. So, this is a problem for people, and we're not just talking about people in rural areas. We know about the huge problem there, but you can live in a town such as Pontypridd, you can see the shops, you can see all of the things that are going on, but you can't get there if you don't have a car and if you're not able to walk. And then we think about equality issues, because even if you do have that bus pass, even if you can afford it, if the service isn't available, then it's a fact that people are stuck in their homes.
One of the concerns that are raised with me when I talk to young people in my region is their lack of confidence in terms of taking the bus or the train, because a number of them haven't had an opportunity to do that at all because of the pandemic, to be able to make that journey without their parents for the first time, and there are a number of schemes now where youth workers are having to take children and young people for the first time on a bus and show them how the system works, almost holding their hand through that process. So, one of the things that I was going to ask—. If we are going to change our practices, then starting with young people is going to be vitally important. So, with regard to that practical support, which can be very costly, how are we going to use the new curriculum, for example, to be promoting using public transport and normalising that use of public transport? Because, clearly, there's a number of steps here with regard to transforming the system for the future, but it's vitally important that we support people through that process too, because, in nations where public transport is normalised, people know how it works.
But there are more fundamental issues to bear in mind here too. I think that the issue of cost is very important. We're hearing in other committees at the moment about children and young people not getting to school if they aren't within the catchment area of being able to access a free bus ticket to school. So, cost is an issue, and we need to look at that range of issues. But I would hope that the Deputy Minister would agree with me that we shouldn't see a situation where a young person is being refused access to a bus that is taking them to school because they don't have the money to pay for the fare. I would hope that we could look at measures in terms of anti-poverty measures and the cost-of-living crisis to deal with the current crisis in terms of transport costs, which is preventing people from getting to school. I'll let Sioned Williams come in.
Thank you, Heledd. Would you agree that one of the cohorts of young people very much affected by the cost of living and the high cost of transport is students? They very often have to live in cities. We know that they sometimes have to live on the outskirts of cities, because rental costs are so high in city centres, and they've told me they're having to travel in then for their courses and, as we heard from Jenny, they are a group of young people who can't get reduced cost transport. So, should they too be a priority?