Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

14/03/2023

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.

1. Questions to the First Minister

Good afternoon and welcome to this Plenary meeting. The first item this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Laura Anne Jones. 

'LGBTQ+ Action Plan for Wales'

1. What consideration did the Welsh Government give to the Scottish gender recognition reform Bill when creating the 'LGBTQ+ Action Plan for Wales'? OQ59239

Llywydd, I thank the Member for that question. The commitment to seek devolved powers related to gender recognition, and to support our trans communities, was included in our programme for government and is part of the co-operation agreement. The LGBTQ+ action plan has included this commitment since its first draft. These are policies made in Wales, not in Scotland.

First Minister, last month, you stated your intention to copy the Scottish self-ID Bill with the release of your LGBTQ+ action plan, which intends to make it easier for biological males to enter women-only spaces, push gender ideology in schools, and unfairness in sport. First Minister, there was outrage in Scotland at the gender recognition reform Bill, with polling consistently showing that the Scottish public did not agree with the move. And it's clear from public opinion across Wales and the UK that people see the importance of protecting women and girls, and why such a Bill would put that in jeopardy. Yet, you still push ahead with your plans. Did you learn nothing from the debacle in Scotland? This move to copy Scotland would only serve to deny biological fact and appease a small minority in your party. Men and women up and down the country are genuinely concerned with your blinkered vision on this, and are also concerned by the shadow Secretary of State's sharing images directly from your Welsh Labour conference inciting hate against those standing up for women and girls. First Minister, do you condone their behaviour, and do you finally understand the genuine concern at your plan and your intention to copy the Scottish self-ID Bill? 

Llywydd, transgender people who are going through the process to change their legal sex deserve our respect, support and understanding. That is what the Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland said on the floor of the House of Commons when introducing the Government's proposal to block the gender recognition Act in Scotland. I think the Member could do very well to take what the Secretary of State for Scotland said to heart, and think about what she has said on the floor of the Senedd this afternoon through that lens. 

There is nothing in what this Government intends to do that would merit the description that the Member has offered us here this afternoon. We will pursue, as I said in my original answer, Llywydd, not policies developed elsewhere, but policies that we will develop here in Wales—policies that were in our manifesto, on which we were elected, policies that have been there in our programme for government since the start of this Senedd term, and policies that are set out in more detail in the LGBTQ+ action plan, with its 46 different policy proposals. Those are based on that sense of respect, support and understanding, and if this debate was more characterised by those qualities, it would be a lot better for it. 

The Roads Review

2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Government's response to the roads review? OQ59264

I thank Rhun ap Iorwerth. The Government’s response was set out by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change in a statement to the Senedd on 14 February.

Simply put, what I'm asking the First Minister to do today is to hold a genuine review of the decision not to proceed with the scheme for the Menai crossing. I note that the Burns commission has received a request to look at different options. I have put forward an argument to that commission for reviving this scheme. Of course, the roads review's focus on the environment was mainly the basis for the announcement. But I have a copy here of the consultation on the options for what kind of bridge to construct and what route to follow, and it shows that the Welsh Government itself selected the scheme that would be most damaging in terms of the impact on biodiversity and the environment, and would create the biggest increase in traffic. And it shows too that smaller schemes would be more cost-effective, potentially.  I have to say that I had foreseen something simpler—the dualling of the Britannia, to all intents and purposes, with active travel routes.

So, I want the First Minister to look again at the original needs for the crossing and how to deliver them, and at the need to improve safety, opportunities for active travel, and the economic boost that comes from having a more resilient crossing—for delivering on the free port, for example. The roads review itself shows that a new bridge would deliver all of those benefits. And part of the work, Llywydd, which needs to be done urgently, is to look again at how we can deliver that in a way that has the least negative impact on the environment. Will the First Minister agree to do that?

13:35

Well, Llywydd, I recall the context at the time when the then First Minister said that we would be continuing with the third crossing across the Menai strait, because I was Minister for finance at that time, and the context was that of Wylfa B. And I remember everything that we discussed at that time with the company responsible for the Wylfa B project—whether it was possible to draw funding in for a third crossing, because there would be far more traffic flowing to Anglesey and off Anglesey. I also recall the discussions with the National Grid, and the original suggestion from the National Grid was to create a tunnel under the strait, and we were discussing with them whether it would be possible to use that funding to help with the cost of a bridge. So, the context has fundamentally changed, hasn’t it, because everything that was on the table with Wylfa B isn’t there now.

But what I can tell the Member today is what is set out in our plan. We say that we want to see options for a crossing of the Menai in a way that helps us in our effort to create a shift in the way in which people currently travel. We’ve asked Lord Burns and the commission looking into transport in north Wales to look at how we can do that and to make recommendations to Government on that basis. And that’s how we want to proceed. We are open to whatever Lord Burns recommends, and everything that was contained within the report that Rhun ap Iorwerth has referred to this afternoon is available to Lord Burns and the commission that he leads.

The national road traffic projections 2022 study, published by the UK Department for Transport in January, shows that road traffic in Wales and England could grow by as much as 54 per cent between 2025 and 2060, with a 22 per cent rise under the core scenario, and the most modest estimate being an 8 per cent increase. Despite this, under all the projections, emissions are projected to fall by as much as 98 per cent as motorists move towards greener vehicles. However, following publication of the Welsh roads review, your Government stopped or scrapped all but 17 of 55 road projects, including all but one of 16 projects in north Wales. Whilst I've long opposed the red route in Flintshire, many of these projects were badly needed, from work on the Menai crossing referred to, to the scrapping of plans to upgrade the A483 around Wrexham. And only yesterday, their council leader told me this was a broken promise, which had already cost them hundreds of thousands of pounds, and the Welsh Government millions. What, if any, action will you therefore now take to ensure the well-being of future generations by planning ahead to meet the needs identified in the 2022 road traffic projections study?

Well, Llywydd, there are some basic things that the Member needs to take into account, particularly when he refers to the needs of future generations. The crisis of our time is a crisis of climate change, and it is those future generations, if we do not act now, which will be left with the consequences of our refusal to face up to that challenge. The roads review is the first root-and-branch review of road building in Wales for many generations. It challenges received wisdom on road building, but it needs to challenge that received wisdom because it is that received wisdom that has got us into the position we are in today. We have to reduce our carbon emissions. Transport makes up 15 per cent of our total emissions in Wales and it has been the most stubborn sector in reducing those emissions. That's why we have to face up to that fact and take the action that will leave those future generations in a better place than they would be. If we simply accepted those very challenging figures that Mark Isherwood set out in the opening of his supplementary question, are we prepared simply to see a future in which traffic goes on growing in that way and emissions go on growing alongside it? Well, this Government is not. That is why we have the roads review, and that is why, when it comes to schemes such as the Menai and such as Wrexham, we're not saying there isn't a problem, we're not saying there isn't something that needs to be done; we're simply saying that the plans of the future have to be based on our responsibilities to tackle that climate emergency, and simply carrying on with the solutions of the past is guaranteed to make that problem worse and not better. 

13:40

Fist Minister, you will, of course, be aware that for any projects that weren't given the green light by the roads review, the advice to local authorities has been to go back to the drawing board and to consider, in accordance with WelTAG 1, alternative measures to mitigate, for example, local problems of road safety. What specific help can Welsh Government provide to local authorities around this? And, most importantly, are there any plans to revise the criteria for the Welsh Government's road safety grant, for which evidence must be provided to show serious or fatal road traffic incidents before a local authority is able to gain financial assistance? 

Well, can I thank Vikki Howells for what is a very timely question. Llywydd, the road safety framework for Wales dates back as far as 2013, and, although there was a midway review of it in 2018, now is the time when we need to bring forward a new road safety strategy, one that will align with 'Llwybr Newydd' and the national transport delivery plan. And because the roads review is about reprioritising the investment we make on roads, it means that money that might have been spent on new roads can be reprioritised into improving existing road infrastructure, and, of course, that does include safety as well. When the Minister brings forward the new road safety document, then reviewing grant criteria will be developed alongside that new strategy, and I know that the Minister's officials are very happy to discuss specific schemes with local authorities in that context. 

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from party leaders. The leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies. 

Thank you, Presiding Officer. With your permission, Presiding Officer, I'd like to put on the record that our thoughts and prayers are with the family of the man who was killed yesterday in the tragedy in Swansea, and, also, I'm pleased to hear that two of the three people who went into hospital have now been discharged, and thank the emergency services and first responders at what must have been an apocalyptic scene when they arrived there to deal with the fallout from whatever the report into it will determine caused that devastating scene that we saw in the news reels last night and in the papers today. 

First Minister, last week, one of your Ministers called the Royal College of Nursing an 'extremely militant' organisation. He also said they were

'determined to have a fight',

and aren't seriously willing to negotiate. That's a direct quote. Is that your take on the RCN and the dispute that they're engaged with with your Government over nurses' pay?  

Well, Llywydd, can I begin by agreeing with what the leader of the opposition said about events in Swansea yesterday? It must have been a hugely frightening experience for others who live in that locality. And the leader of the opposition is right, isn't he—we expect our emergency services to run towards sources of danger that other people will be running away from, and they are immensely brave, and the response they mounted yesterday was, thankfully, effective. Of course, our thoughts are with the family of the particular individual who lost their life, while we are glad to see the recovery of others caught up in that very frightening incident.

As far as the second part of the leader of the opposition's question, I'm First Minister, not a commentator on what other people say. What I can do is to be clear about the Welsh Government's position: we approach all industrial matters as a Government on the basis of social partnership. The RCN is a long-standing and valued member of the social partnership arrangements we have in health, and they are there today in the room discussing with employers and the Welsh Government ways in which we can continue to improve the performance of our national health service and the way in which those workers who we rely upon within it can be properly rewarded for the work that they do.

13:45

I'm pleased that you clarified what the Government's view is on what the RCN stands for—it is a view that I have—and also I declare an interest in having family members who are members of the Royal College of Nursing, a dedicated professional body of people who look after us in our time of need in hospitals and community settings. But do you not think it would be appropriate for a Minister, Deputy Minister, to actually apologise for those remarks that have caused upset to nurses within the profession, who do not want to be on strike, who are not a militant organisation and aren't up for the fight? They just want to get on with the job of looking after the patients who they care so passionately about.  

I've never known any public sector workers who want to be on strike. Llywydd, the truth of the matter is that members of the RCN have been to driven to express their reaction to a decade of austerity, followed by galloping inflation on the money that they have to manage with every week. And you will never find a Welsh Government Minister who would say that public sector workers driven to that way of doing things don't deserve to be respected, and they are respected here in Wales, and they are included, as I say, within the social partnership arrangements. We'll have an opportunity tomorrow to vote on the Social Partnership and Public Procurement (Wales) Bill. I look forward to the support of the leader of the opposition and his members in that—. Oh, it's today, I beg your pardon—later today. So, I look forward to his support then. 

Many people say, in the heat of the moment, things. I've been reading what was being said between the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretary of State for Education when they competed with one another to criticise teachers during the COVID outbreak. I think those things are better put on one side. I've set out the position of the Government, and unambiguously that is one of inclusion, respect and joint approaches to problem solving.   

First Minister, you said that a Government Minister has not said that and doesn't support it. I gave you a direct quote of what the Deputy Minister said. That is a matter of fact. It is a matter of record, and people will see what the Minister said in the context of the Royal College of Nursing. Last week, you voted with the Conservatives—which was very pleasing, thank you very much for voting with us on our motion about the roads review—about the lack of consultation, the lack of the ability for the roads review panel to speak to communities, public representatives, businesses, the third sector. There was no ambiguity in what you were voting on, yet you clearly believe that there has been a lack of engagement in formulating this important policy that the Government has brought forward. If you believe there's a lack of engagement and constructive dialogue to formulate this policy, how can people have confidence that this policy stands the test of scrutiny and will deliver on your aspirations when you vote against the policy, as you did last week? 

Well, Llywydd, I imagine that any party who puts a motion down in front of the Senedd does so in the hope that they will persuade other people to support it. I'm puzzled that the leader of the opposition wants to take issue with the fact that we supported the motion that he put down. Now, I know that the—[Interruption.] He can't take 'yes' for an answer, indeed. So, the person who led the roads review has written to all Senedd Members today, Llywydd—maybe the leader of the opposition hasn't had a chance to catch up with that yet—setting out the engagement that the roads review panel undertook, and it is extensive, but also making the distinction—which the Minister made, I know, in answering the debate—that there was engagement of the sort that was appropriate to the roads review panel. And then there will be further opportunities for public consultation and engagement when particular schemes come forward for their implementation. That's a different sort of engagement. It doesn't mean that there wasn't engagement by the roads review panel, as the chair has set out, and there will be, in the case of the different aspects of the roads review, further opportunities, often statutory opportunities, for people to have their voices heard, their views known, and so to help shape policy, no doubt in the way that the leader of the opposition hoped he was doing last week when he put down his motion for debate. 

13:50

Thank you very much. May I, on behalf of Plaid Cymru, echo that our thoughts are all with the family in Morriston who lost a loved one in the terrible accident yesterday, and everyone else who was affected by it. 

First Minister, the UK Government has again and again refused to reclassify HS2 as an England-only project, robbing Wales of £5 billion in Barnett consequentials that could be transformative of our public transport infrastructure. That's even though the UK Government's own analysis shows that it's more likely to damage Wales than to provide any benefit. Will you be calling on any future Labour administration to rectify that mistake?

Llywydd, I believe it's common ground across all parties on the floor of the Senedd that HS2 has been wrongly classified by the UK Government, that it should be classified on the basis, as in Scotland, that there are Barnett consequentials. That is the policy of this Government. I've articulated it many times here.

Just on the specific, First Minister—because this is quite important, isn't it—will that remain your position in the event of a Labour administration in Westminster? Will you be making that point very forcefully to a future Labour administration, not just to give Wales its share of any future expenditure, but also to give us the £1 billion that we've lost already through the £20 billion phase 1 expenditure there's already been? Now, it was welcome to hear the leader of the UK Labour Party commit to the repatriation to Wales of powers over structural funds, but can you say whether you expect any future Labour administration as well to honour the commitment that Wales would not receive a penny less than it would have received under the 2020 to 2027 programming period for European funds? So, between 2024 and 2027, that would mean an additional £1 billion in funding to Wales on top of, of course, the £1 billion that you have pointed out as a Government we have lost between 2021 and 2025.

Llywydd, it was a very welcome announcement indeed that Sir Keir Starmer made at the weekend, that, should there be a Labour Government after the next general election, the powers and the funding that have been taken away from Wales will be restored to Wales, so that the decisions on those really important regional economic development decisions will be taken here in this Senedd. I look forward very much to working as hard as I can to make sure that we have that opportunity here in Wales. 

An incoming Labour Government inevitably will have to make difficult spending decisions, given the economic circumstances that it will inherit. We will be there, of course, working alongside our Labour colleagues, were they to be in that position, to maximise the draw-down of funds to Wales. 

So, if I understand the First Minister correctly, you're not able to say that a future Labour administration would commit to the same level of funding that we would have had under European funds, and you're not able to say that we will get the Barnett consequential.

In relation to the devolution of powers, the leader of the Labour Party said that he will await the publication of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales. Now, given its pivotal status, based on that statement in the formation of Labour Party policy for the next election, can you say whether you will be specifying in your further submissions to the commission the powers that you as a Labour Government here in Wales are seeking to have devolved? Will they still include areas like policing and justice, or indeed gender recognition, where senior Labour Party figures at Westminster have expressed opposition or scepticism, and they weren't included in the Brown commission report? Who will have the final say? Will the decision be made in Wales, to quote you from earlier, or will it be made in Westminster, and, if it's the latter, aren't you devolving the rulebook while leaving the power where it has always been?

Llywydd, I was able to discuss with Keir Starmer the work of the McAllister-Williams review. He referred to it specifically in the speech that he made to the Labour Party conference, and I was very heartened by the fact that he is determined to show proper respect to the work of that Welsh commission, and to await its recommendations before taking decisions on policies that will enter the Labour manifesto. That's very good news for Wales, particularly given the calibre of the work that the Williams-McAllister commission is undertaking. 

The policies of the Welsh Labour Government are unchanged in relation both to justice and gender recognition. We believe that the Thomas review concluded, in any sensible sense, the argument in favour of devolution of justice to Wales. The authoritative nature of its analysis and recommendations we believe mean that that case is made, and we'll continue to advocate for that.

Implementation of that policy has to start somewhere, and the Gordon Brown report suggests that it should start with youth justice and with probation, and those would be very, very important first steps. First steps are often the most difficult steps of all on a journey, and, in relation to gender recognition, we continue to pursue now, with the current UK Government, the devolution of those powers here to Wales. There is no reason why powers that we seek under one set of circumstances would not be powers that we would continue to seek in others.

The way that decisions are finally made in a Labour Party manifesto, which covers the whole of the United Kingdom and will have many, many competing priorities for an incoming first-term Labour Government, are well known. There will be Welsh voices in the room when that manifesto process is being undertaken, and they will be arguing for the sorts of policies that the leader of Plaid Cymru has rehearsed this afternoon.

13:55
Modern Sporting Facilities

3. What is the Welsh Government doing to deliver modern sporting facilities in Brecon and Radnorshire? OQ59252

Llywydd, using funding provided by the Welsh Government, Sport Wales will support 20 projects across Powys in the current financial year through the Be Active Wales fund. This is in addition to capital projects such as the new pump track near Talybont-on-Usk and resurfacing the athletics track at Brecon Leisure Centre.

I'd like to thank you, First Minister, for your answer. Earlier this year, the UK Government announced £12.6 million investment in grass-roots facilities in Wales, with individual projects of investment directed by the Football Association of Wales. I'm here today to bang the drum for more investment in Brecon and Radnorshire. Mid Wales has missed out on much-needed cash in Welsh Government funding streams for sporting facilities. Powys ranked in the bottom half of all Welsh local authorities, and mostly that is due to population numbers. But I am not just here to criticise, because I do have a solution where that money could potentially be spent. Rhayader in my constituency is in much need of a facility upgrade, to give them that high-quality pitch that can produce the Wales sports stars of the future. So, First Minister, I know that you don't have any direct influence over that money, but your presence—. If you would say on the record that the FAW should look seriously at Rhayader's proposals, I'm very sure that your influence would go a long way in making sure that we can get that much-needed investment in Brecon and Radnorshire. 

Well, the very best way, Llywydd, would be if the UK Government had not used the internal market Act powers directly to fund the FAW. That is money that should be here in Wales, being decided here in Wales. Then, I would be able to help the Member a lot more directly.

You will remember the debates in the House of Commons—and particularly in the House of Lords—when UK Government Ministers were put up to explain that the internal market Act powers were necessary only to intervene in the most serious matters, where there were profoundly important economic decisions at stake, and that was why they were being taken. Well, within a few months, they were being used not only to fund the FAW to deal with football pitches in Wales, but the UK Government has taken into its own hands the future of the Welsh tennis court as well. Now, there's a matter of profound economic significance. What it tells you is that the internal market Act was never intended in the way that those Ministers were put up to suggest. It was always designed for the UK Government to be able to act in that pet-project-type way, taking decisions and funding away from Wales.

Two pieces of good news, though, for James Evans: first of all, the Be Active Wales fund will be open again in April, and given that 20 different projects are being funded in the Member's constituency in the current financial year, I think that will be good news, I hope, for those projects in Powys. And as to the particular scheme that the Member has mentioned this afternoon, I'm quite certain it will be taken seriously by the FAW and that, provided it can bring itself within the criteria of the scheme, and I'm sure people will work hard to do that, I'm quite certain the FAW will give it proper and serious consideration.

14:00

Good afternoon, First Minister. I just really wanted to follow on from James Evans's question around sporting facilities and concentrate on swimming pools. Many of us, I'm sure, learnt to swim in swimming pools, literally giving us a life-saving skill, and we know that swimming pools are essential for mental health, physical health and particularly for people with disabilities. At this stage, we understand there's no action from the UK Conservative Government to help with bills for non-residential properties, so I just wondered what the Welsh Government could do to help local authorities who are really struggling with bills to heat our swimming pools, potentially picking up from I think it's Devon County Council and their innovation around a digital boiler, whether there are options there for us to consider innovative ways of ensuring that our swimming pools, particularly in rural areas like Powys, remain open. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

I thank Jane Dodds for that. I know that the leisure sector, not just in Wales, but across the border as well, is disappointed that swimming pools have been excluded for help under the UK Government's new energy bill discount scheme. If you're running a museum, you will get help from that scheme, but if you're running an energy-intensive place like a leisure centre, and particularly a swimming pool, then you won't be getting any help at all. That seems perverse, doesn't it, given that we know that the most expensive part of any leisure centre is the swimming pool itself. So, we will hope to see in tomorrow's spring statement some sensible change in that direction, so that leisure centres and the local authorities who support them will be able to cover those costs in that way.

The Devon example is an interesting one, isn't it, because it solves the problem in a different way. It doesn't just seek to pay the higher bills, it seeks to find new sources of energy that can be used. There are many, many examples here in Wales where you have industries that create a great deal of heat, where that heat is simply dispersed into the air, and where, if the geographical proximity was good enough, you could try to reuse that heat in a way that provides not just for swimming pools, but in district heating schemes and so on. A great deal of thought is being given in many parts of Wales to exactly that sort of innovative and experimental way of finding better ways of being able to heat those very important local facilities into the future.

Renewable Energy Industry

4. How is the Welsh Government supporting the renewable energy industry? OQ59277

I thank Sam Kurtz for that. Supporting the supply chain, co-ordinating investment in grids and ports infrastructure and setting up a publicly owned renewable developer are some of the actions we are taking to support the renewable energy industry in Wales. 

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending a round-table with the south Wales industrial cluster as they launched their decarbonisation plan. While at the meeting, I was delighted to be shown a tweet from your Twitter account, First Minister, celebrating consent being given for Blue Gem Wind's Erebus project off the south Pembrokeshire coast. Floating offshore wind, this joint venture between Total and Simply Blue Energy, will firmly set Wales on a path to net zero.

At the same round-table discussion, it was said that a Celtic free port would turbocharge the industry's journey to net zero while also securing and generating thousands of extra jobs. But with an announcement due imminently, I do wish to pivot and focus slightly elsewhere.

So, to achieve our net-zero ambition, industry must deploy the use of blue hydrogen in a limited and short-term manner. It is through optimising blue hydrogen creation that we can provide the industry with a critical stepping stone towards net zero, and without it, we risk failure. So, given this, what assurances can the Welsh Government give stakeholders that blue hydrogen as a transition is a route to net zero that this Government is willing to support? Diolch.

14:05

Well, Llywydd, I thank Sam Kurtz for those further questions. I thank him for drawing attention to the fact that the Erebus windfarm application has been approved now through all the processes here in Wales. It's a very important development and one that demonstrates that we have been able to use the streamlined and effective application process we now have in Wales to reach that outcome, while at the same time making sure that there are proper and robust protections for that very fragile environment that is the sea that surrounds us.

I won’t say anything on the free port; the Member was quite right about that, Llywydd.

As far as blue hydrogen and green hydrogen are concerned, we want to get a position where green hydrogen is deployable here in Wales on the scale we will need it for the future. Do we see any part for blue hydrogen in that transition way? Well, we do. But we want it to be as limited as it can be, and very clearly in the stepping-stone way that Sam Kurtz has set out this afternoon. It does have a part to play, but it’s not the destination we need to be at.

First Minister, if a local authority who have their pensions funds invested in a particular energy generation company were to receive a request from that company for a development in their area, do you feel that there would be a conflict of interest in such a scenario? Because clearly, if there were a proposal, a project or infrastructure where the local authority is part of the decision for that to go ahead, that would bring benefit to the pension funds of that local authority. Is there a risk to the impartiality of that process in your view?

Well, I haven’t had an opportunity to grasp that specific point that Llyr Gruffydd has made, Llywydd, so I’d better look at what is in the Record this afternoon. We do want to—. I’ve had a meeting with Jack Sargeant just a few weeks ago to look at how we can enable local authorities with their pension funds to invest in those things that are going to be part of the long-term response here in Wales.

So, in general, I think that it is something important to draw those funds into the infrastructure and other things, such as renewable energy. But, on the specific point, I’d better look again at what the Member said and come back to him.

I too was at the south Wales industrial cluster meeting that was held in the Millennium Stadium in my constituency, and a really interesting meeting it was, with lots of really important people there.

However, I want to just ask about a slightly different route to achieving net zero, which is the increasing demand for renewable energy in our homes. Forty per cent of houses in Wales are owned outright, with no mortgage, either by the people who live in them or by landlords who rent them out. So, what strategy is the Government using to appeal to them to invest in renewables now, to do the right thing for the climate, fix the holes in their pockets, and increase the value of their properties? What’s not to like as a way of kick starting demand for retrofitting measures in the private housing sector?

Well, Llywydd, I certainly agree with the general point that Jenny Rathbone is making. She will know that it is a confusing picture that faces the individual householder in this area, because there is an ongoing and sometimes a rather polarised debate on what the future of domestic heating should be. On the one hand, there are experiments going on and we’re working with the UK Government on that, about the role that hydrogen might play in that, and yet there is also evidence that suggests that hydrogen won’t have a widespread use in domestic heating, and that debate is holding up some decisions on the gas grid and on electrification. What I think is clear is that we will need—and we are funding, indeed, as a Government—local area energy plans that will go down to an assessment at a street by street level, so that there will be better information for householders on which heat solutions will work best for them.

There'll be areas where heat pumps are the answer, and some areas in which it may—and I think it's definitely a question mark, but may—be that hybrid solutions closest to sources of hydrogen may also have a part to play. The Minister intends to publish the consultation on a heat strategy, which will draw on all of this and seek to help resolve some of those debates so that, when the individual consumer has a clearer idea of what they can do in the most effective way in their particular property, they will have a less confused policy background to draw on and then can get on and make the investments to which Jenny Rathbone has referred. 

14:10
Ambulances Waiting Times

5. What is the Government doing to limit the time that ambulances are forced to wait in queues outside hospitals? OQ59276

Llywydd, we've provided additional funding, established a national improvement programme and increased staffing in the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust. Where health boards take concerted, whole-system action, clear results are already being seen in reducing ambulance waiting times outside hospitals.

Thank you for that.

After waiting for an ambulance for hours, when people get to hospital, there are often no spare beds, leaving them waiting outside for more hours. One constituent of mine's elderly mother was recently held in an ambulance for 15 hours after she suffered a fall. I am concerned that ambulances are effectively being used as waiting rooms. I want to ask you specifically, though, about the impact that so many ambulances waiting with their engines running is having on air pollution levels outside our hospitals, areas where people are already desperately poorly and are now breathing in polluted air.

Last month, I know the health Minister announced that there would be charging points outside each emergency department. BMA Cymru have welcomed that scheme, but there isn't much detail yet about where the funding will come from and when, and also on upgrading ambulances to electric vehicles. Could you give more detail on that, please, and could you also say how the Government will monitor air quality outside hospitals in the meantime, because if ambulances are being used as waiting rooms, we shouldn't be keeping patients waiting in environments that will make them more unwell?

Well, Llywydd, the fundamental answer is not to have ambulances waiting in that way, and while the position in the health service continues to be very challenging, there is some good news in this area. By taking the whole-system approach to which I referred in my original answer, Cardiff and Vale University Health Board, working with the ambulance service, achieved a 50 per cent reduction in the number of ambulance hours lost to handover at the University Hospital of Wales between January of this year and January of last year. And the lessons that are there to learn from that successful experiment are now being spread to other parts of Wales. So, Delyth Jewell will be, I know, interested in what happens in south-east Wales and, since the start of this month, a new safe-flow model has been in place at the Grange University Hospital, drawing very much on the work that has proved successful at UHW.

The way to improve air quality is not to have ambulances waiting to the extent that they have been. Where they do have to wait, they should be electric vehicles, not petrol vehicles, and that's why the Minister announced that we will be improving the infrastructure at the hospital front door, so that it is easier for ambulances to operate in that way. There is already very significant investment by the Welsh Government in improving the Welsh ambulance service fleet in that way. The money for the charging points will come from the Minister's own budget, and she has identified that, and I'm sure that there will be further information that she will be able to share with Members as that plan develops.

I notice that England and Wales had very similar ambulance response times to the most serious emergencies in January. But I noted that ambulances in England are 20 minutes faster at reaching their category 2 patients than those in Wales are at reaching amber patient calls. I listened to your answer to Delyth Jewell, and it's quite right to learn lessons from certain part of Wales where there is good experience and replicate that in other parts of Wales, looking for where best practice is. But I wonder what best practice the Welsh Government is planning to lift from NHS England to reach those patients faster, particularly in relation to the delayed transfers of care, of course.

14:15

My starting point, Llywydd, is always that where there are lessons to be learnt, inside or outside Wales, then of course we would want to learn them. From my long experience of these sorts of discussions—and I don't have this in front of me—what I would suspect would be that there will be different definitions of what is captured by a category 2 response, so we're counting different things, and of course we're counting them on a different geography as well, because a higher a proportion of Wales will be classified as rural areas, with the challenges that come, compared to across the border.

But I can assure the Member that the people who work in our ambulance services are always in contact with people who run ambulance services in England, partly because it is a porous border. The Minister herself is committed to doing that, and the learning is in both directions. We were the first part of the United Kingdom to agree on the current way in which ambulance service performance is measured. That was then subsequently adopted in England. And that's because there is a dialogue, always, between professional workers and officials hoping to see where there are things that can be learnt from one another.

Unpaid Carers Charter

6. Will the First Minister provide an update on the delivery of the unpaid carers charter? OQ59273

The first annual report on implementation of the unpaid carers strategy, including the charter, is published today. It covers a range of practical actions—the short breaks scheme and the carers support grant, for example—to support unpaid carers.

Thank you, First Minister, for that. The right of an assessment for unpaid carers to find out what support they need, if any, is a key principle of the charter of unpaid carers. Research from the Motor Neurone Disease Association has now shown that one in four MND carers across Wales had either received a carers assessment or were in the process of having one. These assessments are absolutely crucial for assessing a range of support, and it goes without saying that our unpaid MND carers, and indeed all carers, are absolutely doing an incredible job. I just wondered, First Minister, what steps is the Government taking to ensure that all unpaid carers have access to those assessments?

I agree with Peter Fox that the right established in the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 that unpaid carers are entitled to an assessment—it's a legal right that they have and it's not something that is a grace and favour of anybody else—is a really important right that was established in this Senedd. The strategy and the funding that lies behind it is there to make sure that that right can be a reality. There are a number of different ways in which we can advance that agenda. The unpaid carers register, to which we are committed, will make sure that, in future, we have a more direct way of informing unpaid carers in Wales of the rights that they have, to give them advice as to how they can make those rights a reality. There is work going on at the moment to see how we can use some existing sources of data to populate an unpaid carers register. But the real key to it will be when we are able to have self-registration. We're not quite there yet, but we are hopeful that some of the technical problems that have to be solved before people will be able to put their own names on the register and then get that information flow and make those rights a reality—. Our hope is that we will be able to achieve that during the next calendar year.

Mesh in Operations

7. How is the Government ensuring medical professionals understand the difficulties many patients face following the use of mesh in operations? OQ59241

Health boards must use National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance on the use of mesh to provide suitable treatment options for patients. Care plans should reflect informed choices, co-produced between clinicians and patients.

14:20

Can I thank the First Minister for his answer? I've been contacted by the inspirational campaigner and constituent of mine Maxine Cooper, who lives in Connah's Quay. Maxine's story is that she was left disabled following surgical mesh being implanted, and since then she has worked tirelessly to raise the profile of people who have suffered, and also to support others. First Minister, I fully support Maxine in her work to empower those who have suffered with mesh to have their voices heard, and this includes training for front-line medical professionals. Can I ask the First Minister what thought the Welsh Government has given to people like Maxine being able to inform these professionals through their training processes?

I thank Jack Sargeant for his continuing interest in this topic. I know that he has previously referred to the work of his constituent and the campaigning work that she has undertaken, and that he received assurances from the then health Minister that we expect, and indeed have seen, a significant reduction in the number of vaginal mesh procedures being carried out in Wales. While there is not a total ban on it, those procedures only proceed when there is a clear and properly informed choice being made by the patient. That's where the points that Jack Sargeant has made this afternoon are so important, Llywydd—that we have to be as clear as we can be with our clinicians that these decisions have to be joint decisions driven by the informed choices that women themselves make.

In order to bring that about, we've been doing two things since Jack asked his previous questions on these matters. First is to make sure that there are new training opportunities for those with the necessary clinical expertise, and to make sure as well that there is a properly multidisciplinary team approach to implementing those NICE guidelines. So, we're making sure that the clinical community is better informed, and we have been working closely with service users and patient representatives, which includes the Welsh Mesh Survivors group and Fair Treatment for the Women of Wales. The Minister plans to publish a women's health strategy for Wales, and that strategy will capture, on a broader basis, those very important principles of making sure that the voice of the patient, informed and authoritative, drives the decisions that are being made alongside them.  

NHS Dentistry in Clwyd West

8. What action is the Welsh Government taking to improve access to NHS dentistry in Clwyd West? OQ59250

I thank Darren Millar for that, Llywydd. Contract reform, financial incentives, additional investment and diversification of the profession are amongst the actions being taken to improve access for the Member's constituents.  

I appreciate that answer. I know there's a statement on this matter later on, but 16 years ago when I first became a Member of the Senedd, people were able to access two NHS check-ups a year, and most people in my constituency were able top register with a local NHS dentist without any issues. Sixteen years on, NHS dentistry, particularly in north Wales, appears to be falling off a cliff. I hear the same sorts of concerns raised by other people in this Chamber too. We've now gone down to a system whereby most people can only access a check-up every 12 months and, in addition to that, when people move home, they're not able to register with a local NHS dentist. I have constituents having to go to Scotland in order to receive their NHS dental treatment because they cannot register in my constituency. There's one single practice in my constituency that allows people to add their names to a list to register for NHS dentistry, and you will be waiting for two years in order to get off that list and into that dental practice. I appreciate that you're trying to take action, but I'm afraid it's not quick enough, and it's clearly not having the impact that people need it to have. So, can I ask you, on behalf of my constituents in Conwy and Denbighshire, when will they be able to get the sort of NHS care from a dentist that they need?

One of the ways in which constituents in the Member's constituency will get that service is when dentists in a thoroughgoing way deliver NICE guidance. The NICE requirement since 2004 is that people should never be called back twice a year for a check-up when there's no clinical reason for doing so. NICE guidelines said all the way back then that a two-year call-back was sufficient for very many patients.

What the new contract does is it substitutes the calling back of people for routine check-ups when there's no clinical case for doing so with services for new patients. While I appreciate that it's still challenging in some parts of Wales for patients to be able to register, actually, Betsi Cadwaladr has the highest number of new patients seen in the last 10 months of any health board in Wales. Across the health board, in the first 10 months of the new contract, over 26,600 new patients have been seen in the Betsi Cadwaladr health board. That is partly assisted, of course, by the new dental academy at Bangor, which, by this autumn, when it is fully operating, will be offering appointments to up to 15,000 new patients in that part of Wales.

What we need to do is recognise the very hard work that our dental contractors do in all parts of Wales. We need to work alongside them to implement the new contract, to make sure that the metrics we're using draw on the experience of the first year to get those metrics right, but that the metrics are properly focused not on handle-turning work, which is the way the old units of dental activity contract drove people to carry out their practice, but properly clinically stratified work. People who need to be seen more regularly should be seen more regularly; those people who do not need to be seen every six months certainly should not be being called back on that basis. That will free up more time for new patients to be seen. We're seeing that happen already. There's more we can do in that way, and that will help residents of the Member's constituency.

14:25
2. Business Statement and Announcement

The next item will be the business statement and announcement. I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement—Lesley Griffiths.

Member
Lesley Griffiths 14:27:39
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch, Llywydd. There are two changes to this week's business. The legislative consent debate on the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill has been postponed until next week. Similarly, the debate on the Packaging Waste (Data Collection and Reporting) (Wales) Regulations 2023 has also been postponed. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically. 

Can I ask you, Trefnydd, for a statement from yourself in your capacity as rural affairs Minister in relation to squirrelpox? There are huge problems with squirrelpox; it's affecting many red squirrels, our native squirrels, in Scotland, and I'm very concerned that we must do everything we can in order to prevent outbreaks here. There was an outbreak, of course, on Ynys Môn just a few years ago in 2020 and 2021, and 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the red squirrel population was wiped out. There is currently a petition that has been laid before the Petitions Committee in the Senedd. Some 8,000 people have signed that petition calling for the Welsh Government to release some resources to be able to invest in the development of a squirrelpox vaccine. We know that we have some excellent researchers here in Wales who could help to achieve that aim, which would be a huge move forward for our native red squirrels. So, can I ask you, as the red squirrel champion in this Senedd, will the Welsh Government take some action on that front, and will a statement be forthcoming soon?

We will certainly be taking action, and we've continued to take action since the outbreak on Ynys Môn that you referred to. I think at that time we did put forward a small pot of money to see what could be learnt from it. Obviously, I'll await the outcome of the petition—clearly, a significant number of people have signed it—and whether that will come forward for a debate. But it's also on the list of—. You'll be aware that the new chief veterinary officer, Richard Irvine, started yesterday. I met him briefly, but we're going to have a look at a lot of specific issues. Obviously, he's bringing different expertise to the role as well, but it is certainly something we'll look at.

I'd like to call for a statement, please, from the Government recommitting Wales's stance on welcoming refugees. The ugly and dangerous rhetoric that's been used in Westminster about stopping the routes that desperate people are being forced into using because boats across the channel are the only option available to them when all of the legal routes available have been removed—they've been cut off—is damaging Wales's international reputation by association. I would put on record my disappointment that some Conservative MPs, and some Labour MPs as well, have shared posts online with language that treats refugees as a problem to be solved rather than people to be helped.

Now, we in Wales, we are proud of being a nation of sanctuary. Could a statement please set out what the Government here can do to counteract the damage being done to our standing on the international stage? Because, surely, isn't it time that we stop letting Wales be tarnished by association with the cruelty and the callousness that's coming out of the Home Office.

14:30

Thank you. Well, we're very proud to be a nation of sanctuary, and, as you're aware, the Minister for Social Justice has written to the Minister for immigration to state unequivocally that we oppose the legal migration Bill, and that, of course, a legislative consent memorandum is likely to be required. And the Minister also noted the UN Refugees Agency's assessment that the Bill would breach the refugee convention, and, of course, the Home Secretary herself could not assure anyone that it was compliant with the human rights convention.

So, the Minister for Social Justice is working very closely on this issue. I think we all have to be very careful, don't we, about the language that we use, and, again, you will have heard UK Ministers claim that they've tried everything else, so this Bill is now necessary. We believe that simply to be untrue.  

I would like to ask for a Government statement on co-operative housing. Co-operative housing is popular in places as diverse as Scandinavia and New York, but has failed to become a standard form of accommodation in Wales. It's not accommodation only for poor people; John Lennon lived in the Dakota building, which was co-operative housing. The development agency, Cwmpas, the country's co-op, and the community-led housing sector were supported in 2022 to increase the number of housing co-operative properties in Wales. Can I request an update on progress?

I would also like to ask for a statement on cladding issues to include support for developments where the developer no longer exists, a date when the pact is expected to be signed, and when remediation to properties such as Altamar are expected to start.

Thank you. On your second question regarding cladding, the Minister for Climate Change will certainly be making an announcement in the very near future regarding that, and the date that the pact will be signed. 

I think you make a very important point about co-operative housing. Co-operative housing itself is very important, and I didn't know that about John Lennon, so that's something I've learnt today. We do know that one of the best ways to increase provision is to provide support to those who are interested in co-operative or community-led housing. And we have funding through Cwmpas—you referred to Cwmpas, which was, obviously, formerly the Wales Co-operative Centre. That is absolutely designed to deliver that support, and I'm very pleased that the Welsh Government is providing £180,000 this year, and for the next two years, to support community-led housing groups in Wales. 

I'm asking for a statement from the Minister for finance about changes to council tax premiums from 1 April, and, specifically, the exemptions to the proposed 300 per cent council tax levy on empty properties and second homes. While councils will have a wide discretionary power to decide whether to charge a premium, the consultation that the Welsh Government carried out on this issue showed that the majority of respondents wanted to have more exemptions than listed. In particular, this included an exemption for registered charities that provide respite for carers. Respondents didn't want this to be a discretionary power for local authorities. 

Now, despite discussions with the Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport to consider exemptions in these cases, there's been very little movement in this area. As outlined by the finance Minister in a written statement on the consultation, the only change made to the draft legislation was to ensure that properties that don't have a period of time specified in their holiday let planning condition are exempted from paying the premium. 

Trefnydd, this is perhaps a matter that may have been overlooked by the finance Minister, but these providers support a valuable and vital service. So, what discussions has the finance Minister had with other Welsh Government Ministers and stakeholders about these exemptions? What reasoning lays behind her decision not to extend them? Has the finance Minister been reassured by local authorities that they will not use their discretionary powers to tax those who provide respite care at a 300 per cent premium? And, most importantly, what analysis has been carried out to reach this decision? An update to the Chamber, and the opportunity to discuss and debate these issues further would be appreciated. 

Well, I think, with respect, you're asking the wrong Minister those questions. I think it would be best for you to write to the Minister for finance. I hear what you say about a statement, but you asked a series of questions there that I, obviously, can't possibly answer. I'm aware that the Minister did update us—I think, in an oral statement, but it might have been a written statement—if there is anything outside of that statement that hasn't been answered, I will ask her to bring forward a written statement.

14:35

Trefnydd, I'd like to request two statements, please. Firstly, I'd like to request a statement from the Minister for health, responding to the recently published report by Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and their review of patients being discharged from mental health wards in Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board. Significant risks were highlighted, and they are ongoing, and I'd like to seek assurances from the Minister that she and her officials are monitoring the situation and supporting the health board to put in place the improvements needed.

Secondly, as you will be aware, the discharge of human waste into our rivers and seas is a major issue. And last week in Pontypridd, we saw huge amounts of raw sewage pumping into the river Taf, after a pipe broke. Many Members have raised issues about this matter in the Senedd, and, as we remember, the Minister for Climate Change gave a statement about water quality to the Senedd last November. I'd like to request a statement from the Minister, updating the Senedd on any discussions that have subsequently taken place with water companies regarding this issue, as she stated that another summit on river pollution was due to be held in February 2023.

Thank you. In relation to the HIW review of the quality of discharge arrangements from adult in-patient mental health units in the Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board area, I can assure you that the NHS delivery unit is providing support to the health board, and the Minister for Health and Social Services's officials are monitoring progress through our targeted intervention arrangements with the health board. And of course, the Minister expects the health board to prioritise a plan of work to implement the recommendations from the report you've referred to in response to the findings of the review.

Regarding your second issue, I am aware that the pipe has now been repaired. The Minister for Climate Change meets regularly with the water companies for a variety of discussions. The second phosphate summit was actually held last Wednesday—it was delayed from February. It was chaired by the First Minister, and myself and the Minister for Climate Change were there, and, obviously, the health boards were represented too—sorry, the water boards, sorry, the water companies were represented too. I'm showing my age. [Laughter.]

I'd just like to associate myself with the concerns expressed by Heledd Fychan. Because I read today that sewage is being discharged into the river Taf, and who wants to have a toilet being developed just outside our building? So, this is a really serious concern, which we need to pursue elsewhere.

Trefnydd, I wonder if we can have an update on the discussions that supermarket bosses were due to have with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister, Mark Spencer, which you mentioned last week, on how we improve the shortage of vegetable and fruit supplies to feed our nation. What, if anything, did you learn from the inter-ministerial meeting I think you were hosting last week? In particular, I want to explore how it is possible that Kent growers of fruit are having to grub up their orchards, as we speak, because the supermarkets are refusing to pay them enough to even cover their costs, never mind make a profit to keep the business sustainable. And in your role as Minister for rural affairs, how are we going to use the Agriculture (Wales) Bill to make sure that this sort of open robbery is not happening in our country?

Thank you. Well, I can't remember where I was when I referred to this, but I certainly did refer to the meeting that the Minister for food and farming in the UK Government held with supermarkets. I obviously meet with retailers, with processors and with farmers around food supply, but the Minister in the UK Government held a sort of supermarket summit, which, unfortunately, he didn't invite devolved administration Ministers to, which I think was a shame. So I raised this with him at the inter-ministerial group, as you say, and he basically said that supermarkets weren't to blame. I tried to explain about the contracts, because I think that point is very important. Now, I don't know what's going on in Kent, but I think you do raise a very important point—that we need to make sure that those contracts are absolutely fair. And it was very interesting at the time, when we were seeing shortages of fruit and vegetables in our supermarkets that we weren't seeing that in the greengrocers.

In relation to your question around the agriculture Bill, obviously, that sets sustainable land management as a framework for our future agricultural policy, and we're obviously approaching Stage 2 of the agriculture Bill next week. And what we can do to help is, obviously, any future farming policy and support will reward farmers for, obviously, not just addressing the climate and nature emergencies, but also for that sustainable food production. 

14:40

Minister, could I request a statement, please, from the Minister for Economy on what work the Welsh Government is doing to help our pubs during this extremely difficult time for them? I've had a number of pubs close in my constituency, which is a real great shame for those families who are involved in that. I know that a lot of the levers sit with the UK Government, but I think it would be very interesting to hear what the Welsh Government are doing to support our pubs and hospitality industry during the cost-of-living crisis. 

The Minister for Economy and myself met with quite a few representatives from the pub industry, actually, at Brains brewery, not that long ago, probably about just before Christmas—a couple of months ago—to discuss what we could do as a Government to support. You'll be aware that we've got various schemes and levels of support as well. You are right: the UK Government do hold a lot of those levers, and I'm sure that the Minister for Economy is having discussions with his counterparts in the UK Government on this issue as well. 

May I ask for a statement from the Minister for health, please, with regard to tenancy assurance for partnerships of GPs? This follows the announcement that a Porthmadog landlord has put forward a planning application to turn the building into flats, which means that the surgery will have to possibly close, because there's nowhere else for it to be located in the town at the moment. It appears strange to me that such an important service as a GP surgery is going to be thrown out without any certainty, which will cause a great deal of concern to patients. I would be grateful to have a statement on this situation, please. 

Secondly, may I have a statement from you as Minister for rural Wales with regard to the phosphates summit that you held? Can we have an update—an urgent update—on that, please? 

The update on the phosphates summit will come via a written statement from the First Minister, and not from myself. In relation to your question regarding the GP surgery in your constituency, I would think, as it's such a specific issue, it would be best for you to write to the Minister for health directly.  

I would like two statements, the first being on the Welsh Government's response to the National Police Chiefs' Council—NPCC—report released today, that said that nine out of 10 complaints about violence against women and girls by police officers in England and Wales were dropped over a six-month period. But, of the resolved cases, only 13 of those officers were sacked, according to the data from the National Police Chiefs' Council, and two thirds of the public complaints were categorised as use of force. In these cases, complaints from women were regarding the use of force when being handcuffed, and some of those were complaints of sexual assault. We clearly can't go on like this, Minister. Something has to be done.

The second statement from Welsh Government that I would like is about what discussions, if any, you've had with the UK Government regarding Boris Johnson nominating his father, Stanley Johnson, for a knighthood. It's alleged that Stanley Johnson punched his ex-wife, the late Charlotte Wahl, so hard during their first marriage that he broke her nose. It's reported that supporters have said that it was a 'one-off', as if that is okay. Charlotte Wahl, on the other hand, has said that he hit her many times and described their marriage as 'ghastly', 'terrible'. What concerns me and most people is the message that the proposed knighthood could give to other perpetrators of domestic abuse that it's okay to abuse your spouse, and to the victims and their families that what they are being subjected to is acceptable, perhaps even trivial. This risks setting the agenda backwards, while this Government and Members here are trying to move the agenda forward. 

Thank you. I know that the Minister for Social Justice is very aware that the new data from the National Police Chiefs' Council does highlight what you stated, Joyce Watson—that nine in 10 complaints from members of the public led to no action being taken against police officers and staff who'd been accused of violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence, and that data was based around March of 2022, and it was a period of around six months. Obviously, policing is a reserved issue and the responsibility of the UK Government, but, as you know, as a Government, and certainly the Minister for Social Justice, takes the issue of police conduct very seriously, especially as violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence is of course a devolved matter here and one where we work very closely with our police colleagues. The Minister for Social Justice chaired the Policing Partnership Board for Wales just before Christmas and, there, the issue of trust in policing was discussed, and it was actually agreed it's such an important matter that it would be a standing item on every agenda of that partnership board.

In relation to your second point, as you say, as a Government, we are very committed to taking action to tackle domestic abuse. We have the Live Fear Free helpline—that's available to anyone needing to talk to someone about violence against women, domestic abuse or sexual violence. I'm not aware of any specific discussions regarding the honour that you just referred to. Again, the whole honours policy and process is completely a reserved matter and the responsibility of the UK Cabinet Office, but, again, I'm sure the Minister for Social Justice, if she has had any discussions, will update the Member, but I'm not aware of any.

14:45

Two statements, please. I'd like to declare an interest on the first one, as this affects a relative, however, it's also affecting a large number of my constituents. So, I wish to request a statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services on pre-operative assessments. Earlier this month, the Betsi board wrote to me, stating, 'Colleagues have confirmed that once a patient has passed the POAC, the health board aims to schedule them for surgery within 16 weeks of the date of the POAC.' Now, this has increased, to my knowledge—I think the Minister is almost agreeing there—because it used to be six weeks, whereas now, four months is considerably longer than it used to be. The Betsi board website has some information on pre-operative assessment, but I haven't been able to locate any public information on their timescales for such assessments, or, indeed, how the medical guidance influences these. The Centre for Perioperative Care published guidelines in June 2021 state that:

'All perioperative services should have a system for active clinical surveillance of patients on waiting lists, particularly those who have been on lists for longer than 3 months for P3 or P4 surgery.'

So, I am very concerned that the Betsi board has extended the timescales to up to 16 weeks at a time when there is no clear all-Wales standard. So, in the interest of patient safety, I would be grateful if a statement could be made.

Oh, and then—

Yes. You can do that next week, Janet. You're well over time.

Thank you. I wasn't aware of the change from six weeks to 16 weeks and, as you say, I would've thought there would be an all-Wales standard. So, I will certainly ask the health Minister to look at what you've just come forward with, because I do think there would need to be an explanation if it had gone from six weeks to 16 weeks for pre-operative assessments, because, obviously, if somebody has a pre-operative assessment, then their health could change considerably in that length of time. I'm not aware if there is an all-Wales standard, but I would've thought there would be, so I will certainly ask the Minister for Health and Social Services to have a look at that.

I would like to ask for a statement from the economy Minister, giving clarification about the process that will be followed—imminently, hopefully—for announcing the granting of free-port status to a port or ports in Wales, a decision made jointly, of course, by UK and Welsh Governments. And I'd like to place on record, again, my gratitude to Anglesey council and Stena for putting together a very, very strong bid that has the interests of the people of Anglesey at its heart. And it hasn't been an easy process getting to this point—the fighting for equal funding status with England; £26 million for an English free port and £8 million for Wales didn't seem fair—but I'm grateful to Welsh Government for making that case to UK Government, and for asking for those assurances around workers' rights and environmental regulations. And there'll still need to be an awful lot of monitoring, but, with those assurances in place, we had the firm foundations on which a solid bid could be built. We can, hopefully, with the status, move forward to building on our status as a trading island. This is a community-made bid to help a community that has suffered blow after blow from the closure of Anglesey Aluminium and Rehau and the Brexit effect of recent years and, of course, the devastating recent announcement around the Two Sisters plant in Llangefni. So, clarity would be most welcome.

14:50

Thank you. Obviously, this will be a decision for the Minister for Economy, who will update Senedd Members with a statement in due course. 

3. Questions to the Minister for Climate Change

The next item, therefore, is questions to the Minister for Climate Change, and the first question is from Joyce Watson. 

Empty Homes

1. Will the Minister provide an update on Welsh Government actions to bring empty homes back into use? OQ59269

We have a number of initiatives that provide both practical and financial support to bring empty homes back into use. In January, I announced a £50 million national empty homes grant scheme, which is now open for applications, to further add to these measures.

Thank you, Minister, and I'm delighted that all of the local authorities in my region will be taking part in this scheme, and Gwynedd already accepting applications. It's desperately needed. Can I ask, have you had an opportunity to read the latest report from the Bevan Foundation on the private rental market in Wales finding that only 32 properties advertised across Wales were available at local housing allowance rates, and 1.2 per cent of the rental market was available at local housing allowance rates, and 16 local authorities do not have a single property available at local housing allowance rates? So, this is clearly needed to bring those properties back into the market, and I suppose you're looking forward, as I am and others are, in tomorrow's budget that will match our investment into affordable housing so that we can deliver for those communities that we all serve? 

Yes. Thank you very much, Joyce Watson, for that very timely question. As I know you know, Joyce, empty homes are a complete blight and nuisance on our communities. They attract anti-social behaviour, they impose environmental health problems, they contribute to a general sense of decline in the neighbourhood, and a sense that, perhaps, nobody really cares about this particular street or this particular little neighbourhood. And that's very frustrating indeed when housing is in such short supply as well. It's a real shame and another symptom of our completely dysfunctional housing market that this is allowed to happen. 

So, as I said, we have allocated £50 million over the next two years to bring up to 2,000 long-term empty properties across Wales back into use through our national empty homes grant scheme. And, just to say, although there are varying numbers—around 22,000, for example, of empty homes—it's actually quite difficult to distinguish between those homes that are, for example, being marketed for sale or empty for other reasons, people in long term—. You know, there's a variety of things. So, we've got a very specific grant for homes that are empty and require refurbishment to come back into beneficial use, and that complements our existing scheme, including Leasing Scheme Wales. 

I am absolutely aware of the Bevan report that highlights a growing gap between LHA rates and market rents of private housing in Wales. As you know, the LHA isn't devolved—would that it were. I've repeatedly written to the UK Government calling for urgent and immediate action to address this, and just again saying to colleagues opposite, who I know are not heartless, this is now below—[Interruption.] This is below the poor law. This is below where the poor law was. It's just not acceptable that you cannot find a single property in 16 areas across Wales at local housing allowance rates. This really does need to be addressed. It's a really big problem. It's not a political point; it's a really big problem. And it doesn't make any economic sense. Because of the cost of homelessness to local authorities when people can't stay in the private rented sector because the LHA has been frozen in this unprecedented time of inflation and increasing rents, the amount of money going out of the public purse at local authority level is far more than the amount that would go in at local housing allowance level. So, it's baffling to me why the rate is frozen—it genuinely is baffling to me—and I really, really call on the UK Government to review that situation, because it's heartless and it's causing proper misery. It's also preventing us from helping really good landlords who want to do this scheme with us from coming into the scheme, because now the LHA rates are so low that it's becoming not worth their while to do.

So, just to explain what we do, the local housing allowance rate is what we pay to landlords who come into the scheme. It’s still worth while, and landlords should still look at it, because it guarantees that income every single week, every single month, and you don’t have to put up with voids and turnovers and a percentage going to management properties and so on. So, it’s still very much worth looking at, but the lower the LHA rate goes, the worse it is to try and market it on that point. We have made positive progress. A number of local authorities that have exceeded their initial targets for year 1. It’s positive news that Newport has just expressed an interest as the sixteenth local authority to join the scheme. But an increase in the LHA rate to the proper level would really help.

14:55

Minister, we do have a heart over here, and we do hear what you say, but it is the job of the Welsh Government. Housing is a wholly devolved matter and, as my colleagues have said, 22,000 homes are empty across Wales. So, we think it’s about time that the Welsh Government had a new, refreshed strategy on how they’re going to bring those empty homes back into use. When I was a county councillor in Powys, the number of people waiting for homes was astronomical. We only built 5,000 homes across the whole of Wales last year. So, do you not agree with me, Minister, that it is about time that Welsh Government took some responsibility for bringing those empty homes back into use and building more homes so we can actually give those people in Wales who are waiting on housing waiting lists the homes that everybody deserves to have here in Wales?

Well, you know—‘sighs’, as they say at the beginning of the thing—it isn’t wholly devolved. Local housing allowance isn’t devolved.

You started with a phrase that wasn’t accurate, because local housing allowance isn’t devolved—[Interruption.] It isn’t devolved. Whether you like it or not, it isn’t devolved. Therefore, we are hamstrung in what we can do, and that policy drives homelessness, because people cannot stay in their rented accommodation because they cannot afford it because the local housing allowance is not high enough. It's below where the poor laws were. You have to take some responsibility for this.

Now, we’ve done a lot of things. We’ve done a lot of things here in Wales, and, once the Tories had finally seen sense and taken the caps off housing revenue accounts, and taken the restrictions off HRAs, which is only a few years ago—and it took 40 years for you to actually wake up and smell the coffee—we have ramped it up since then. There’s no getting away from this history lesson. You don’t like it. You asked me the question, this is the answer. You don’t like it because you don’t like accuracy in answers. So, the answer is: we have done everything that’s been possible to do within our devolved powers, but we are, as always, hamstrung by a blinkered and quite heartless Tory Government.

Llyn Padarn Water Quality

2. Will the Minister provide an update on the impact of sewage discharge on water quality in Llyn Padarn? OQ59245

Diolch, Siân Gwenllian. Llyn Padarn is Wales’s only designated inland bathing water and has consistently achieved the highest classification of 'excellent'. As a designated bathing water, Natural Resources Wales imposes tight regulatory controls on all discharges, including storm overflows, that are located nearby.

Constituents have contacted me expressing concerns because they’ve found an invasive plant growing in Llyn Padarn in Llanberis, and they are convinced that sewage discharge into the water is feeding its growth. A specialist has confirmed that it’s a plant called lagarosiphon that is in the lake—it’s a new one on me, but that’s what this specialist has identified. These plants have created problems in lakes in Ireland, apparently. I would like an assurance that your Government is aware of this issue, which of course could have a damaging impact on the biodiversity of this very special lake. I’d also like an assurance that you are working closely with agencies in order to take appropriate action.  

Yes, absolutely, Siân, and I will certainly get NRW to check once more, because we are very proud of the fact that Llyn Padarn is designated in this way, and I absolutely will ask them to do that. We are aware—I can’t even say the name of it—of lagarosiphon, as I think it’s called. Curly water weed, anyway, in common parlance, is a very invasive non-native species categorised as a species of special concern. It’s a significant threat to native species, and you’re quite right that we need to check and make sure that it’s right, and I will make sure that that happens again.

Actually, the GB invasive species strategy was launched last month, and it provides a strategic framework for actions that we can take, alongside other Governments of the UK, statutory bodies and key stakeholders. So, it's pretty timely that the strategy is now in force, Siân, and I will absolutely make sure that NRW is aware of the concerns and does another inspection.

15:00

Could I support the Member for submitting today's important question on the impact of sewage discharge on water quality at Llyn Padarn? But of course, Minister, this is only the tip of a very dirty iceberg. Because we know that, at the end of last year, figures that were uncovered by ourselves found that, of the 184 sewage pipes operated by Welsh Water without permits in Welsh riverways, only one application had been submitted to NRW, meaning that 183 sewage pipes in Wales were operating without permits, discharging waste into our waterways, which we know has happened tens of thousands of times, in terms of that discharge into our waterways. So, in light of this, Minister, what assurances can you give me and my residents that you are taking this issue of sewage discharge seriously, so that places like Llyn Padarn can be enjoyed by people for years to come?

Of course, we take them extremely seriously, and there are a number of threads running through your question, and, indeed, Siân's there, Sam Rowlands. At the risk of testing the Llywydd's patience, because that's quite a complicated answer, we're in the process of agreeing a set of criteria for the price review mechanism for the water authorities in Wales, because we need to ensure both that bills are affordable, but that the money is available to invest in the upgrade of the various systems across Wales, including combined sewer overflows and a large number of other assets that require to be upgraded, and so we need to get that mechanism right.

In the meantime, just specifically on Llyn Padarn, the assets locally comprise two pumping stations and a storm overflow. The Llanberis sewage treatment works discharges secondary treated final effluent into the Afon y Bala, which drains into Llyn Padarn. Chemical dosing and sand filtration at the sewage treatment works provide additional treatment, removing excess nutrients from the effluent prior to discharge.

We've invested over £5 million—sorry, Dŵr Cymru have invested over £5 million—to improve Llanberis works. The work included increasing the storm capacity and screening and tighter phosphorus limits. I'm sure you know that we want to begin the process of designating more inland waters for wild swimming, and I should declare my usual interest, because I'm very keen on that kind of thing. And so we want this system to work. We want the system that NRW uses to tightly control the quality there to work. Of course, that will allow inland bathing waters, but it will also drive up the quality of water generally in the rivers. My colleague, the Trefnydd, just outlined the process from the phosphate summit last week, and there will be a written statement in due course, setting out the actions coming out of the summit.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Janet Finch-Saunders.

Diolch, Llywydd. It is now five years and nine months that have passed since Grenfell. For 2,099 days, hundreds of Welsh residents have been living in fear regarding the integrity of their own properties and risk of fire. Between 2017-18 and 2021-22, there were 1,323 fires in purpose-built blocks of flats, and 514 fires in buildings that have been converted into flats.

Now, you must be aware of the Welsh Cladiators and their campaign for recognition of the immediacy of the need for help from this Welsh Government. Now, last week, we did hear, to be fair, that you will make a statement before the summer. However, Minister, this is of such serious consequences, the issues that these people are facing, that I would ask, in all sincerity, whether you would bring that forward.

We're also anxiously awaiting you bringing some legislation forward. We realise that this isn’t a Welsh Government fix only. A lot of this is purely down to the fact that some developers are just refusing to accept their own responsibility. So, I suppose, for me—. We had the meeting on 1 March; it was really well attended. Since then, I've received numerous concerns and really shocking examples of some of the issues facing those living in these properties. Every single day that remediation delays, it is just making the costs go up, in terms of insurance, management costs.

Somebody’s doing very nicely out of this, I have to admit, and that's at the expense of these victims. So, we are very keen to see these victims protected, and I've listened to you so many times on the complexities around the issue. What steps are you going to take for those developers who simply will not engage to face up to their responsibilities and sign the developers' pact that you have actually brought forward? Thank you.

15:05

So, Janet, we've rehearsed this a number of times, haven't we? The scale of the problem is very different in Wales, and we've approached it very differently. We identified 15 high-rise buildings with aluminium composite material cladding following Grenfell; three in the social sector and 12 in the private sector. The three social sector buildings were remediated immediately with £3 million support from the Welsh Government. The 12 private sector schemes were taken forward by the private sector. These have all either been completed or are being completed right now at developers' cost. That's through our intervention in the first place.

We're also aware, through our expression-of-interest process, of one further building above 11m in height that might have ACM cladding, and our consultants are currently undertaking additional tests to confirm whether this is the case as quickly as possible. If it is, of course, it will be put into the same process for remediation. So, we acted very swiftly on the cladding.

However, I've also been very clear that cladding isn't the only issue, and I know you're aware of that. So, unfortunately, a large number of these buildings have a large number of different problems, and each building has a different set of those problems. So, you can't do a one size fits all; each building has a different set of issues. Some of them have compartmentation problems, some of them have stuff-that-holds-the-cladding-on problems, some of them have firebreak problems. There's a whole myriad of different problems. So, as I've said a number of times before—I'm very happy to repeat it—we're in the process of having the inspections done. They're nearly completed; there are only a few left to go. The ones that are left to go are either because we've had a problem with the managing agent getting permission from the freeholder to do the invasive survey, or, in a couple of instances, we've had problems because we've had to shut a major traffic thoroughfare in order to get access to the building, and, obviously, that takes some time to put the traffic orders and so on in place. But, other than that, they're largely there.

I will be making an announcement about the so-called orphan buildings shortly. We have a plan to deal with those. I won't pre-announce that, but I'm hoping to be able to make that announcement very soon now, where we can start the remediation for those buildings, which, just to explain the phrase, are buildings where everyone who ought to do the work has either gone bankrupt or can't be found, or, for very complex reasons, there isn't someone that we can hold responsible for that.

In addition, we have 11 developers who've signed our pact, and we expect them to sign our legal documentation imminently. There are one or two who haven't signed the pact and come forward. I've been extremely clear with those that we will be taking draconic action against them. We will move the same way as England exactly to stop them taking beneficial use of a planning consent that they may have and to debar them from doing any work in the public sector, which will, effectively, mean they can't work unless they remediate the buildings they're responsible for.

The last piece of this, and this is—. My heart goes out to these people, but we have got a scheme that buys out the flat for somebody who is in a really difficult situation. A number of people have written to me saying that they're in that situation, so we've encouraged them to go through that process. We have a number of those going through now, and we really want to be sympathetic to people who want to move on with their lives. We've also been working really hard with insurance companies and with lenders to make sure that the ES1W—I always get that the wrong way round—forms don't mean that people can't sell. So, an enormous amount of work has gone on in this sector.

But it is different here in Wales, because of the different scale and the market is a different scale, so we don't have some of the levers that the UK Government has. Also, we've just taken a slightly different approach. So, I don't believe that the leaseholders themselves should have to take legal action, and I know they want me to implement the provisions that allow them to, but legal action is not some sort of panacea. Just because you're taking legal action doesn't mean you have a sudden and effective resolution, and there are buildings just local to here that are in a litigation situation, and it's quite clear that it isn't an effective solution.

Our documentation is set up slightly differently. When the developers sign the documentation with us, it's the Welsh Government that would take them to court. We will bear the legal risk and responsibility for that. I think that's right, because I don't think the leaseholders should bear the lottery, a little bit, of litigation, or the legal costs that go with it. So, I make no apology for having done it differently here in Wales. I absolutely appreciate the frustration of the people involved, but in the end I do think that our system will work for them. And the last piece is, of course, we've always done it for buildings over 11m, not 18m, here in Wales, and so more of them are caught in our system than would be the case if we followed the English view.

15:10

Thank you. I think that’s probably the largest amount of information we’ve heard so far going forward of what has been done so far and what more needs to be done.

One of the issues that arose at the meeting I held was the cost of these surveys. There was one lady—and she had no reason to mislead us in any way—who made it clear she had two of these properties, and she actually was waiting for £75,000 reimbursement from the Welsh Government, and had been waiting for it for quite some time; nearly a year, I think she meant. And I was really shocked, because it’s a lot of money to put out for a survey to have been promised she’d have it reimbursed by the Welsh Government. If you want me to bring these to you on an individual basis, I’m happy to.

But one thing that did strike me—that 17 applications for reimbursement of survey fees have been submitted to you since October. Offer letters have only been issued to five responsible persons or management agencies. So, again, those victims are out of pocket until they have those payments.

Another issue that’s been raised with me is that you have received from the UK Government £375 million. Can you tell the Chamber here today—? I mean, that’s—. How you’ve had it in—. But that’s the figure; you’ve even used that figure yourself.

Yes, so tell us how you’re spending it, how much of that £375 million is left, and will you honour these surveys that these victims actually then—? They’re trying to sort this issue out themselves. Thank you.

Right. The £375 million is the amount of money the Welsh Government has put into the building safety pot. It is not a consequential and it is not direct from the UK Government; so, just to be really clear about that. If we were relying on consequentials from the UK Government, we would have nothing like that sum of money—nothing like it.

In terms of reimbursement, we are looking to reimburse surveys where the surveys have been done correctly—they've been correctly tendered for; they haven't been done by a relative or a friend; they have all of the right components in them that we can rely on that survey work and it's not wasted money. I make no apology for the delay, Janet. This is public money we're talking about; we have to go through the process of making sure that, in reimbursing that money, the survey that's been carried out is something we can rely on and make use of, and I'm afraid that does take a little time. But I'm very keen indeed that people who have done the right thing and acted are not disadvantaged by that.

We're also looking at other expenditure that's been incurred by the leaseholders to see if there's anything we can do to reimburse it. I can't promise that, because it has to comply with all of the standards for the spending of public money, and you'd expect me to comply with those standards, but, if we can find a way to reimburse people who are out of pocket, we will. I can't promise that we will be able to reimburse all of it, and this is a situation not-of-the-public purse-making either. So, it's very important that we do that.

If you want to write to me with individual examples, please do, and I can look into them for you. I obviously can't comment on individual examples on the floor of the Senedd, but, again, this is a process that must be gone through in order to comply with our own fiduciary duties. [Interruption.] Sorry. My watch is now getting involved in the act. [Laughter.] My watch does not understand the phrase 'fiduciary duty', I think that's quite clear. [Laughter.] So, Janet, it does take some time, and I know that's frustrating, but I'm sure we'll get there in the end.

Thank you. And then, another issue that arose was the moneys that you have spent on registered social housing, so £8.7 million, and £1.9 million provided to Cardiff Community Housing Association. I understand there are two blocks in the bay here where the ones having the remediation are registered social landlords, and that private owners of property just have to stand by and see these works ongoing. Surely, there should be an equilibrium applied here, that this money isn’t just going into registered social landlords. These individuals, on an individual basis, all tot up to quite a lot of money, but I just feel that they are not being taken as seriously by the Welsh Government as registered social landlords. Will you be seeking to claw back any money from those RSLs that have benefited from your intervention? And how do you as a Minister actually prove to me and this Chamber that you will fairly apply any process, any initiative, so that those individual private property owners feel that they're being taken equally seriously? Thank you.

15:15

So, Janet, quite clearly, there's a big difference between tenants in a social building and tenants in a privately owned building. There's a clear and obvious difference, not least that the people in a social building don't have any equity. It isn't an investment; it's not a private investment for them, it's merely a home and they rent it off a social landlord. Also, the complications of who exactly is responsible for that building don't exist where the social landlord is responsible. It's quite clear and obvious who is responsible for it, so it's just much more straightforward. Also, the Government has an overriding duty to social tenants. So, there is a clear and obvious difference between the two.

What we've been doing is trying to go as fast as possible whilst protecting the equity of the people in the building. I have a lot of sympathy with the people who have invested in those properties, but let's be clear, it is an investment, because the way that the housing market works in Britain is that property is often your home and also your biggest investment. That's the case for me and it's the case for large numbers of other families. So, I have a lot of sympathy with that. It's not a criticism, but it does make a very distinct difference between that and social housing tenants, who obviously don't have any equity in the property that they live in. They rely on their social landlord to keep them safe and adequately housed. So, it's a very different situation. And that is very clearly what is happening.

But, we are acting with pace to make sure that we can remediate all of the buildings that require it, working with the developers in order to make sure that the developers pay their full share of what they're responsible to do, but also going as fast as we can to make sure that the developers act, and act swiftly, and that we have work that's done to a high standard, which the Government is now overseeing to make sure that that high standard is there. And if the developers don't do what they're supposed to do this time, then the Welsh Government will be the contract holder and we will be the people who then take legal action against them and not the individual leaseholders, which will only lead to even more complex litigation and, I'm afraid, delays, as we've seen where litigation gets started.

Our natural world is precious and in order for us to understand how important it is that we protect it, we have to first understand how under threat it actually is. There's been alarm about reports that the BBC won't be broadcasting an episode of Sir David Attenborough's new series on British wildlife, reportedly over a fear of a backlash. Coincidentally, last week, 300 organisations from across Wales wrote to the First Minister, calling for the urgent introduction of the environmental legislation promised when this Senedd declared a nature emergency. We know that so much of our natural beauty in Wales is on the brink of being lost. Now, Minister, I would argue that the reports of a programme not being broadcast do suggest the extent to which the vested interests of some people in power stand in the way of positive change. So, in that new, more urgent context, would you agree to provide us with a timetable for when that legislation could be introduced, please?

Yes, so, Delyth, I'm afraid I'm going to give you an answer you've had many times before. I didn't know about the BBC programme. If that's true, it's appalling, and the BBC really needs to think about what message it's giving, if that's what it's doing. 

No, I don't need a point of order in the middle of questions.

It's not true. There's a BBC tweet saying that's untrue. That's all. 

Okay. I need to get everything back to order here. But, thank you for the clarification from both Sam and Huw. 

In answer to the substantive question, Llywydd, which is the timing of the environmental governance and biodiversity targets, we will bring those forward as soon as we can. I absolutely understand the urgency. But, just to be really clear, Delyth, we're not waiting for the legislation to be put in place and then taking action. I am absolutely signed up to the 30x30 goals. That gives us seven and a bit years to get to where we need to be. Clearly, if we waited for the legislation to go through we would be really struggling. So, we are already working at pace. We've done the biodiversity deep-dive, I've done a whole series of things this week, which the Llywydd will get very cross with me if I start to list, but trust me we are working at pace. We will bring that legislation forward. I want that legislation to be robust. I want the agency to have teeth to hold our feet, or any successive Governments' feet, to the fire, and I want the biodiversity goals to be meaningful and make real differences on the ground. So, we are working at pace to do all of that in advance of the legislation. I will be bringing it forward as soon as we possibly can, but we also need to get it right, and I want it to be robust and vigorous legislation, as I know you do too.

Thank you to Sam for pointing that out, something that has been published on Twitter too, but I'll return to that in a moment.

It is encouraging that the biodiversity deep-dive commits to bringing forward legislation that sets general targets for nature restoration, and also provision regarding environmental governance, and to do so as early as possible in this Senedd term, and I take on board what you just said. It also commits, of course, to a series of statutory targets that are more specific on nature restoration, which will have a role to play in ensuring that Wales plays its part in the global framework on biodiversity that exists.

Do you agree, and I'm bearing in mind what you just said, that you can't give a specific timetable, do you agree that it's now a matter of some urgency, perhaps following the decision, perhaps—? Yes, as Sam Kurtz just pointed out, no matter if this was a decision that had already been made by the broadcaster, some people think that a decision was made to not broadcast a programme that talked about how fragile the natural systems are in Wales and what the reasons for that are, and no matter whether that was done because of Government pressure—it seems it was not—or because the public wasn't in a position to want to hear that, or to be open to hearing it, no matter at what point that happened, do you agree that we need to do so much more to bring the public with us, so that we can all understand? We talk, for example, about a climate emergency and a nature emergency, but I'm concerned sometimes that we are losing this idea of how fragile the situation is. Over the weekend, we saw it on our screens. We will lose that, and the public need to understand that. What do you think that the Welsh Government can do to reinforce how critical this situation is with regard to nature in Wales?

15:20

Yes. Delyth, I share your concern there. Actually, David Attenborough's programmes have done an enormous amount over the years, haven't they, to raise awareness of the fragility of the natural world. I've only seen the first episode of the one in question, but my goodness, it's emotive in the extreme, and very beautiful as well. It does make you realise, doesn't it, as I said when I came back from COP15, when you see the beauty of the natural world and then watch the species extinction that goes alongside it, it really makes you realise quite how fragile the planet we live on actually is.

That's why I was so determined to sign up to those goals, and that's why we're so determined to get it right. It does matter to get it right. We've also—. I'm going to say this rather controversially, but it's absolutely true. We know from other legislation that's gone through this place that actually just getting the legislation through is just the first bit. I want this to be implementable. I want the legislation to go through, and then I want us to be able to actually do it immediately. I don't want to spend five years implementing it, so we need to get it right. If that's a bit slower introduction because then we get it right, I make no excuse for that. I think that's a lesson we've learnt.

We're about to embark on a behaviour change programme, which will help people come along the net-zero and nature-positive pathways with us. We're out to consultation at the moment. We're going to be doing a lot of work—. My colleague here, Jeremy Miles, has been doing a lot of work in schools with the Eco-Schools project and so on, because our young people are very evangelical about this. But I agree with you. We need to take the public with us. We need to counter some of the disinformation that's out there, and we need to work at pace with all sectors of society or we just will not—. This is an existential crisis. We will not do it alone. We have to do it with everyone else.

Access to Public Transport

3. Will the Minister provide an update on access to public transport in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OQ59268

Thank you. We are working to improve access to public transport in south-west Wales. Recently, we've invested in converting the T1 TrawsCymru service to using an electric fleet, and we are working on a groundbreaking hydrogen pilot, which will be implemented in the region. 

Thank you very much for that response, Deputy Minister.

I'm sure, Deputy Minister, you will be aware of my enthusiasm for the new St Clears railway station in my constituency of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. This is a project that the community is incredibly invested in. However, there is concern from Carmarthenshire County Council about shortfalls in potential source funding. I wrote to you, Deputy Minister, on 20 January to raise these concerns. However, I'm yet to receive a reply. Deputy Minister, local people want to see improved access to public transport and the UK Government have committed £5 million to this project, yet there seems to be little progress on the ground. So, in lieu of no reply to my correspondence, what assurances can you give my constituents and to me that the Welsh Government still intends to deliver on a new train station in St Clears? And what timescale can they expect it to be delivered within? Diolch, Llywydd.

15:25

Thank you. Well, I do hope the letter wasn't lost in the post, but we did reply to a written question from you on this very same subject, and the letter's reply would have said exactly the same as the reply we submitted to you on the written question, which is that the work is due to be finalised soon and will provide an outline design and an expected construction cost, which will inform the next steps and the programme timescales for this new station. But as Sam Kurtz rightly pointed out, there has been an increase in cost, as there has been with every infrastructure project in the country. There is now a gap that has doubled, which obviously creates a challenge for us at a time when our capital budgets from the UK Government have fallen in real terms by 8 per cent. So, there are consequences to the cuts by the UK Government to the priorities the Member and we have. So, we're going to have to try and work that through.

We are conscious, obviously, that one of the sites that Hywel Dda health board are consulting on for a new west Wales hospital is in St Clears, and that is very much part of our thinking, so we'll be following that process closely. Fundamentally, of course, this is rail infrastructure, and rail infrastructure is not devolved. It should be for the UK Government to be fully funding rail infrastructure, and perhaps we can work together to make representations to them to help us fill any shortfall.

Littering and Fly-tipping

4. How is the Welsh Government ensuring a reduction in littering and fly-tipping in South Wales Central? OQ59255

Duty bodies, including local authorities, have responsibility for managing litter and fly-tipping in their respective areas. Welsh Government currently funds Keep Wales Tidy and Fly-tipping Action Wales to support improvements in local environmental quality across Wales. This includes partner activities, enforcement work and the promotion of behaviour change.

Thank you, Minister. As you'll be aware, there is a major issue with regard to litter and fly-tipping, and we're all aware of the damaging effect that this can have, not just on the beauty of our communities, but in terms of nature and wildlife. We all, of course, have a part to play, and I'd like to thank the thousands of people across the nation who regularly litter pick in their communities as volunteers, in all weathers, and they play their part as conscientious citizens by so doing.

But there are some areas that are too dangerous to allow volunteers to collect litter there, such as busy roadsides and railways, yet there's a major problem with litter in many of these areas. I receive regular complaints about litter from people who catch trains from the Valleys to Cardiff, and roads users in my region, who mention the A470, the M4 and the A4232 as examples. When can we expect the publication of the final version of the Government's plan to tackle litter and fly-tipping, and how will this plan remedy the situation?

Diolch, Heledd. I share your concern. I've actually, before I had your question in fact, raised with my own officials my own perception that the amount of litter along particular roads and train lines has increased in recent years, and I think there are a number of reasons for this, which we are looking at. So, I am very keen to strengthen the ability of local authorities to take action there, both, actually, retrospective action to pick the litter up, but actually some behaviour change and education programmes for people to understand the real impact of throwing a bottle out of your car window or whatever it is. There also is an issue with the way that some waste contractors pick up skips without the correct netting on the top and so on, and blow-off from that. So, I'd already independently—and I'm more than happy to renew that—asked for a review of how that system works, how we fund it, and what the relevant duties are. We have the responsibility for some of the trunk road network, but we delegate that to local authorities, and I've asked for a review of that as well.

So, I share your concern, and I'd already started the process, but I'm very happy to invigorate it again, of looking to see what else we can do. But I do think there is a big behaviour change issue here. People really do need to understand what happens when they litter, what happens to the plastic that they leave on the side of the road. It's not just that one bottle, and what happens as that leaches into the environment on a longer term basis. So, as I've said, we've been working with Jeremy Miles, with the Eco-Schools initiative, to really drive home to people the effect of their individual behaviour, and a lot of this will be as a societal push, won't it, to making such behaviour just completely unacceptable.

I couldn't concur more with the sentiments expressed by you and the previous questioner about the amount of litter that's available to be witnessed on highways and railways, especially in South Wales Central. On the link road coming off Culverhouse Cross, there's a bed on the side of the road there that's been there for three weeks. There are also about 12 black bin bags in the nearest lay-by there, which have been there for at least 10 days. In the Vale of Glamorgan, at the Aubrey Arms pub, there's a load of black bin bags just on the kerb there, just left. I appreciate this isn't the Government's fault; I always try my best to blame the Government for most things, but in fairness, this isn't the Government's fault. It is a societal issue.

Education is one of the planks that we can use. Can you confirm whether local authorities have come through with ideas, with suggestions to your good self as Minister, to enable them to take people who do dump rubbish in our countryside, along our roadways and our railways—? Because the examples I just gave you, that is commercial dumping. That's not just the bottle going out of the window, which is repugnant in itself; that's someone consciously dumping a piece of either commercial waste or general household waste that amounts to a lot in an area that should be pristine, clean, and able to sell our great capital city of Cardiff, and, indeed, the great countryside of the Vale of Glamorgan.

15:30

Absolutely, Andrew. Obviously, it is a matter for the local authority, and I hope you've reported it to them. I actually have myself raised the slip road, as it's called, with Cardiff Council, in a recent meeting with the leader. We are doing a number of things. We've got Fly-tipping Action Wales, for example, working in partnership at the moment with Rhondda Cynon Taf to catch fly-tippers, using surveillance on Natural Resources Wales-managed land, and Keep Wales Tidy, through the Welsh Government-funded Caru Cymru project, works with local environment groups and the police to target litter hotspots caused by anti-social behaviour, and then to prosecute the people responsible. 

I'm very keen to highlight the prosecutions, because I think there is a deterrent effect of that. If you open the black bags, we can often find those responsible, and trace it back through the litter. We've been encouraging local authorities to do that; we have an action plan to do that. As I say, we're doing the behaviour change thing. That behaviour change goes for businesses as well. It's not just the people who tip it, is it, it's the business who actually asked for their rubbish to be disposed of in that manner. So, there are behaviour change programmes for commercial waste and businesses as well. 

That will ramp up as we bring in the new recycling targets for businesses and so on, because this is valuable recyclate; it's not just litter. This is valuable material that we can use as part of our circular economy effort, because we're beginning to attract really serious reprocessors here to Wales, because of the high-value recyclate we have. That material is, to my mind, not just unsightly litter; it's actually wasted raw material that can be used. We need to get that attitude out there into the public, but we also need to prosecute those people who do the things that you've just mentioned, because I couldn't agree more—it's both unsightly and environmentally hazardous, and we need to get that point across. 

Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon

5. Will the Minister provide an update on Welsh Government support for the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon?  OQ59237

Diolch, Mike Hedges. There are currently no ongoing public sector projects proposed to build a tidal lagoon in Swansea bay. The First Minister will be making an announcement on the tidal lagoon challenge at the Marine Energy Wales conference, which is in Swansea, on 22 March.

Can I welcome that answer? When the Swansea tidal lagoon was rejected by the Conservative Westminster Government, gas prices were low, and expected by the Government to remain low for ever. As we all know, they got that wrong. We know that tidal energy is reliable and capable of solving some of our energy needs. We also know that it does not involve expensive decommissioning or have a limited life. What action is the Welsh Government taking to convince Westminster that this safe, clean energy, that is now cost-competitive, should be commissioned, and should be commissioned immediately?

Thank you very much, Mike. I completely concur with the sentiments of your question there. I won't be tempted into pre-announcing the First Minister's announcement on 22 March, but the Welsh Government absolutely supports tidal energy as a means to achieve our net-zero goals, as well as providing socioeconomic benefits. As you said, it provides clean, reliable energy, and we've made a programme for government commitment to make Wales a world centre of emerging tidal technologies. The surging wholesale price of gas, exacerbated by Russia's war in Ukraine, has indeed brought into sharp focus the need for an accelerated transition to renewables. It has both affected the price of gas and the availability of gas too. Clearly, what we need is a source of clean, reliable and secure energy, and we have this in abundance around our shores. 

Can I thank Mike Hedges for tabling this question, and also concur with him, not on his assessment of the UK Government, but on the benefits of tidal energy, particularly in Swansea bay? As the three of us, I think, proudly represent the city of Swansea—I think the best city on planet earth—we will know the benefits that the proposed lagoon, the Blue Eden project, could have for our city. But it's important to remember that it's not only a tidal lagoon: there's a high-tech battery plant as part of the Blue Eden project, a floating solar array, data storage, and waterfront homes for 5,000 people, as well as floating homes and a research centre. But considering the scale of the project and the excitement that it can generate for the city of Swansea, I haven't heard a lot from the Welsh Government. I appreciate that there's predominantly private sector investment, but I haven't heard a lot from the Welsh Government in terms of the practical support you've been providing. Can you just illustrate what concrete assistance your department is providing—to ensure planning obligations are met, for example, and adhered to—as well as whether any need for public funding at any point throughout the process has been discussed at all, so we can finally get that project off the ground?

15:35

The project hasn't asked for any support from the Government so far. We've made it plain to the project that, if they wanted to discuss any potential support with us, we're happy to do so. But as of this moment, they have not asked for that support. If they do want that support, then I'd be more than happy to discuss it with them. We have, of course, discussed with Swansea Council, and other affected councils—because it's not the only place in Wales that a tidal lagoon could go—many times what the planning obligations might be. I'm very pleased to see that the UK Government did allow, in round 4 of the last contract for difference, tidal energies to be included, and we're currently lobbying them hard to make sure that that stays, because that's a route to market for most emerging tidal technologies, including tidal lagoons. The UK Government, I think, really missed a trick—and I think your benches agree with us—when they didn't fund the last project in Swansea bay, so we've been urging them to make good that, and make sure that the contract for difference round includes tidal technologies of all sorts, so that those projects can be brought to market.

Housing Support and Homelessness Services

6. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to help charities that provide housing support and homelessness services? OQ59248

Thank you, Peter Fox. The Welsh Government continues to support local authorities and third sector providers to assist people in housing need. We have provided over £207 million for housing support and homelessness services this financial year alone, supporting local authorities and third sector providers to deliver front-line services to prevent and relieve homelessness.

Thank you, Minister. As you know, more than 60,000 people across Wales currently rely on the housing support grant, which provides much-needed aid for those facing societal problems. The decision of your Government in its final budget to deliver a real-terms cut to this grant has unsurprisingly brought huge concerns through the third sector. One of those concerned organisations is the charity Pobl. They previously warned the Welsh Government that it was crucial that the grant funding be increased because homelessness and housing support services are already facing a 10.1 per cent increase in costs this year. But because of the real-terms cut to the grant, they have told me that some essential housing services and homelessness services are now under threat. Minister, do you agree with me that it was a mistake not to increase funding for the grant, and what will your Government do now to ease the third sector's serious concerns?

Thank you, Peter. In support of our ambition to end homelessness, as I said, we're already investing over £207 million in homelessness and housing support services this financial year alone. Our main homelessness prevention grant is the housing support grant, which is provided to local authorities. In 2021-22, this was increased by £40 million, which is over a 30 per cent increase, to £166.763 million. For 2023-24, we've been able to maintain that increase in the housing support grant budget, so it remains at £166.763 million, despite the extraordinarily difficult budgetary position we currently face. We also uplifted funding for the vast majority of projects funded by the homelessness prevention grant by 6 per cent in 2023-24. We recognise the pressure on homelessness services, so the homelessness prevention budget also will increase by £15 million in 2023-24, which is an additional £10 million more than previously planned.

We face an unprecedented problem, don't we, with the inflation. The inflation is causing a real problem out there, but it's also causing a real problem in here. The money we have had goes less far, and the money they have goes less far. So we've been working with our local authorities to make sure that services can be maintained. We're currently running a recruitment campaign into housing advisory services. I really pay tribute to the staff, who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic and really stepped up to the mark; I'm proud of what Wales has achieved. But the budget situation this year has been awful—it's the worst I've ever seen, and I've been a Minister here for a very long time now. It has not been possible to do everything we'd wanted to do. But we have managed to maintain an unprecedented increase in that budget, and we've put the homelessness prevention budget, as I say, up by £15 million already. I have a lot of sympathy with the sector, I pay tribute to the work that they do, but the budget situation this year has been very difficult. 

15:40
Homelessness in South Wales East

7. What is the Welsh Government doing to reduce levels of homelessness in South Wales East? OQ59271

Diolch, Natasha Asghar. The Welsh Government is committed to ending homelessness across all regions of Wales and has invested over £207 million in homelessness and housing support services, as well as a record £300 million in social housing in this financial year alone. This includes over £67 million in social housing grant for authorities in South Wales East.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. The number of people sleeping rough in Wales has grown to 116, and, concerningly, a large number of these—53, in fact—are in my region of South Wales East. Homelessness services are under immense pressure, as mentioned by my colleague Peter Fox, with 93 per cent saying that they are extremely or very concerned about their ability to continue delivering services if there is no increase to the housing support grant. Service providers and local authority commissioners are having to make tough decisions about making cuts and making staff redundant. Only last week, a number of people from my region with experience of homelessness visited the Senedd and spoke passionately about the need for high-quality services to help people ultimately out of homelessness. So, Minister, will you give me and the organisations working to reduce homelessness the assurance that the housing support grant will receive extra funding if there are consequentials for Wales as a result of the spring statement? Thank you.  

Thank you, Natasha. I've just set out quite a lot of what we've already done in answer to Peter Fox, but, in addition to that, we've allocated over £67.496 million to local authorities in South Wales East via the social housing grant programme. We've also established the £89 million transitional accommodation capital programme to increase good-quality, longer term accommodation to support all those in housing need. In South Wales East, we've provided £14.925 million to local authorities to support 192 homes for temporary accommodation in those circumstances. We've also given an additional £10 million a year to local authorities in year to support the provision of temporary accommodation to top up the existing £10 million we'd already allocated, as we move towards a rapid rehousing approach. 

But I will say, Natasha, I really do hope, of all the measures that we are hoping for in the budget, that an increase to the local housing allowance is in there, because this is driving a lot of the problem that we have. It's a big amount of money as a headline, but in terms of the money it saves, all of this money I'm setting out here it would save, because it would enable people to stay in the private rented sector homes that they actually have had quite long term in some cases. So, actually, if there is a single thing I'd be calling for in the budget, it is an uplift in the local housing allowance, as I've made very plain. 

Forestry and Woodland Restocking

8. What is the Welsh Government's forestry and woodland restocking policy? OQ59243

Thank you, Mark Isherwood. We need to increase tree cover in Wales. Woodland that is felled is normally required to be replanted as a condition of the felling licence. Where there are good reasons not to do so, loss in tree cover is usually compensated for elsewhere.

Thank you. There is widespread support for plans for a national forest for Wales, a vast network of woods and forests across the nation open for everyone to explore and enjoy. However, woodland continues to be seen as a public good even when it provides an ideal habitat for apex predators whose predation of nests and chicks is a primary cause of, for example, curlew breeding failure. What specific action, therefore, are you taking to ensure that the Welsh Government's target for woodland planting in Wales takes further account of this, which is central to nature recovery? Further, how are you addressing concerns raised with me by a Flintshire constituent that your My Tree, Our Forest scheme is seeing trees planted too close to each other with very little, if any, space for them to develop properly, and, finally, by the Country Land and Business Association Cymru that the planting of new trees should be accompanied by a tree health strategy to support those who manage woodland in removing diseased specimens promptly and replacing them, in order to reduce the spread of disease, when we have a crisis in ash and larch and emerging issues in oak? Diolch yn fawr. 

Thank you, Mark. I pay tribute to your efforts on behalf of the curlew. You know that I've come along to the meetings of the curlew protection programme. I'm really pleased to see that we're working alongside them. I'll just say, and I said this at the weekend to a number of groups I spoke with, that we use the tree as an iconic symbol of what we're trying to do in both carbon capture and in nature-positive work, in the same way as the World Wildlife Fund uses the panda. Nobody thinks that the World Wildlife Fund, therefore, thinks that pandas should be absolutely everywhere on the planet, and we don't think that trees should be absolutely everywhere in the countryside. It's an iconic symbol. You know as well as I do that we are restoring an enormous amount of natural peatland. Clearly, that should not be forest. Species-rich open meadows should not be forests. Where there should be forests, though, we are woefully behind, so we do need to restock, and we need to restock quickly, but the right tree in the right place.

In terms of the My Tree, Our Forest initiative, each tree comes with a programme to help you understand how and where to plant it and what it should look like at various stages; a wealth of expertise is available via Coed Cymru to help people and, of course, we will also plant your tree somewhere else for you if you're not lucky enough to have a garden capable of having it. It's been a very popular programme.

I've also planted trees through the National Trust initiative in schools in my area, and I'd encourage all of you to get involved in that. They're blossom trees, and they bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the children who are very excited to do that—very interested in my talk to them on a future career in forestry. So, we're doing a lot of the right things here.

I don't want to put people off planting trees in their garden, but it does come with a plan for how to do that—it comes with instructions, so to speak. I do encourage people to go along to their hubs while they're open and pick up a tree and donate it to your local school, if you want to, because it's a really important part of reconnecting our population back to the natural environment, but it's very much the right tree in the right place. If you go along to one of the hubs, the people who are handing out the trees will have a long chat with you about where you want to put the tree and what kind of tree will be best suited to your piece of land or your garden.

15:45

I'd love a Wales full of pandas, I must say. You could be the champion of pandas at that point, then, Darren Millar, to bring us—[Laughter.] Okay, okay. Thank you to the Minister and the Deputy Minister.

4. Questions to the Minister for Education and Welsh Language

We'll move on now to the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language, and the first question to Jeremy Miles is from Heledd Fychan.

Cost of the School Day

1. How is the Welsh Government supporting learners in South Wales Central with the cost of the school day? OQ59256

Our school essentials grant has made a huge difference to a number of low-income families across Wales, helping to reduce concerns about the purchase of uniform and kit, for example. Funding of £13.6 million will be available in 2023-24.

Thank you, Minister. So, you've outlined clearly that there are a number of things that have been put in place to assist families. You talked about reducing the concern, but the concern is obviously continuing, because the truth is that a number of families still find difficulty funding the essentials related to the school day. You referred to uniform, but although you've changed the guidance on the matter, a number of schools are continuing to demand a logo on school uniforms, and such things as a blazer, which add significantly to the cost of a school uniform. With costs increasing, we know that the grant available for families isn't adequate, particularly with regard to these additional costs.

Another matter, of course, is the cost of school trips—all those additional things that enrich the experiences of a learner. Often, these vary a great deal from school to school, depending on whether parents can raise the funds themselves, which means that a number of our most deprived learners are losing out on experiences such as theatre trips and so on if the school can't afford to pay on their behalf. So, may I ask what more the Government can do to ensure that no learner loses out on a day of learning or experiences that enrich their education because of the household's economic situation?

Well, Heledd Fychan raised some very important issues. She knows that I agree with her that schools should be accessible to children from all backgrounds, and the school essentials grant has made a significant contribution to that, and along with that, we are launching a campaign to market the availability of that grant in order to ensure that everyone who qualifies does apply for that funding. One of the challenges in spreading free school meals in all primary schools is that you don't have that free-school-meals data anymore, so it's important that we communicate this new programme, and a comms plan is in place at the moment and is showing some progress.

In addition to that, she mentioned that we have been consulting on changing guidance on school uniform. The new guidance hasn't yet been published, but I intend to do that in the next few weeks. It's very important that we do ensure that every governing body looks in earnest at this issue. Most do see this as an important priority already. There are important guidelines available to schools from Children in Wales, which does explain to headteachers and to governing bodies how they can ensure that the costs of schooling aren't a barrier to becoming involved with the school's life more widely, and I encourage all schools to do everything that they can to keep costs as low as possible.

15:50

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

You and I can debate the merits of the free-school-dinners policy that the Government have brought forward, but what is important is to understand how local authorities and schools in particular have been supported in rolling out this policy. The Vale of Glamorgan Council, which is the area that I come from, clearly has had to fund some of the capital expenditure themselves to the tune of £250,000—they replied to an FOI that I put in to them. What assessment has the department made about capital expenditure that local authorities have had to be making in the South Wales Central area to implement this policy? And, given the overrunning costs that some authorities are incurring with this, are the Government going to make up the shortfalls, in particular for the Vale of Glamorgan Council, which, as I said, is £250,000 capital money that they've had to use that could've been spent elsewhere?

The Member says that we can 'debate the merits' of it; let's be clear, he doesn't want us to be doing it. [Interruption.] He doesn't want us to be feeding every child in primary school, so that's absolutely the position that his party takes. So, there's no debate about the merits of it; it's pretty clear what his position is on it, so let's have that on the record.

There's a significant fund that has been invested in delivering this effectively. Part of that is capital—that's running at a £60 million budget at the moment—and part of it is revenue, running at around £260 million over the period. The work has been done with each local authority to identify their needs and has been allocated on that basis. I just want to pay tribute to the Vale of Glamorgan Council, and councils right across Wales, for the incredible speed, actually, at which they've been able to deploy that capital and roll out the scheme. When similar proposals were considered, for example, in Scotland, understandably, perhaps, the period between the policy being initiated and it being rolled out in schools was to the order of twice as long as we've been able to do it in Wales. That, in no small part, has been because of the commitment of local authorities right across Wales. And, actually, we've been looking carefully at how we roll out—and we'll be making some announcements again in coming weeks about the second year—and that does respond to the real challenges that there are in implementing some of the capital changes required on the ground—to adapt kitchens and so on. That picture varies right across Wales, of course, but the funding has been shared fairly in a way that reflects the needs of authorities, and I thank them for all their work.

Twenty-First Century Schools

2. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact the increased cost of living is having on plans for 21st century schools? OQ59244

We recognise that schools and colleges play a vital role in supporting our local communities. It's essential that investment in our education estate through our sustainable communities for learning programme drives energy efficiencies, reduces revenue pressures, and improves access to these important facilities.

Thank you, Minister. The benefits that the twenty-first century schools bring to our pupils and our teachers are enormous. We are fortunate in Rhondda to have three twenty-first century schools planned: one for Llyn y Forwyn, which will be completed over the next two years; one for Penrhys primary school; and one for Ysgol Gyfun Cwm Rhondda. Now, Minister, I know that you visited Ysgol Gyfun Cwm Rhondda and understand the challenges that the school faces at the current site. The school community there is desperate for new facilities. But I also understand that, due to the chaos at Westminster, the financial situation that we face since the initial twenty-first century schools announcement, is extremely different. Minister, what assurances can you give, if any, that future twenty-first century schools plans will begin and be completed at the very same pace as previous twenty-first century schools projects?

I thank Buffy Williams—and that's a very important question—and I thank her as well for inviting me to visit Ysgol Gyfun Cwm Rhondda, and I thank Mr Spanswick and the staff for the very warm welcome that they gave me when I was able to visit, and I saw, of course, the facilities in the school there and the important work that they do at first-hand. The sustainable communities for learning programme of course is subject to the same pressures—inflationary pressures, construction cost increases, labour cost increases, as any other aspect of Government investment or, indeed, local government investment. In order to try and do our part to compensate for that, and to make sure that projects aren't unduly held up in the way that Buffy Williams is mentioning in her question, that budget has been increased by 33 per cent over the next two financial years, partly to support our new rolling mechanism for delivery—so it's a much nimble and flexible programme than it has been in the past—to respond to the ability of some authorities to move faster and for others to be able to adjust their plans. But that funding will also support additional cost pressures within the construction industry. And she will, I know, have seen the announcement that I made at the end of last week of a further £60 million—£50 million for schools and £10 million for colleges—to support capital maintenance, but prioritising energy efficiency works across our school and college estate in Wales, which is obviously a very important part of our Net Zero Wales plan as well. 

15:55

Minister, I've said in this Chamber on a number of occasions that I want to see brand new Welsh-medium schools right across Wales, and I'd especially like to see them in Brecon and Radnorshire. I'd like to know what assessment the Welsh Government has done on the cost-of-living crisis and the rise of costs of everything that is associated with building these schools, and what impact that is going to have on the delivery of having more Welsh speakers right across Wales, especially in rural communities like mine in Brecon and Radnor.

Over the course of the 10-year period of the Welsh in education strategic plans programme right across Wales, there will be, roughly speaking, 50 new schools, either through the construction of new schools or increased Welsh language provision in existing schools, partly by taking those schools along the Welsh language continuum. And so, the plan isn't all dependent on actually physically building new schools; it's a mix of the two, and that's true in Brecon and Radnor as it is in Powys at large and across Wales, and that's really important. We've wanted to work with authorities to design plans that best reflect their needs, but it's a 10-year programme, and so, we are factoring in the cost implications of that, but we are confident that those plans can be met. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

I now call on the party spokespeople to question the Minister, and first of all, we turn to the Conservative spokesperson, Laura Anne Jones. 

Diolch, Deputy Presiding Officer. Minister, since having my education shadow portfolio, I've undertaken a tour of schools across Wales, and resoundingly, the No. 1 concern that they raise with me is ALN, additional learning needs. Reform was needed and no-one disagrees with that, but there are significant concerns about the reality of what is now happening in schools on the ground. Transferring those already diagnosed or identified onto the new ALN has been relatively straightforward, but all those, particularly younger aged children and young people who need to be identified for the first time, are taking worryingly long to be identified or diagnosed, and the waiting time for these children to get that support that they desperately need is astronomically long and extremely concerning to parents, teachers and, of course, heads.

This is not only detrimentally affecting the child or young person in question, as they cannot receive that vital one-to-one support or support that they need, but it equates to them missing out on an education that they need and deserve. It will also mean that a teacher in a class has to focus on the needs of that child who is struggling, which will, of course, have a detrimental effect on the rest of the class as their learning time will be cut short. This isn't just a problem—it's a huge problem, Minister, and differs massively between the 22 local authorities. You're currently failing children across Wales and it can't go on. Heads of these schools are crying out to this Welsh Government for a national solution to this. So, what are you doing as a Government to urgently sort out this problem and ensure that no child misses out on the education that they deserve? 

I thank the Member for the work that she's doing to improve her knowledge at first hand through speaking to schools right across Wales about the implications of the ALN reform. As she said, it's an important set of reforms and it's one that I know all parts of the Chamber are committed to. She says that transferring young people who are currently in the system onto the new system is straightforward—if she's hearing that, I'm very pleased. My experience of talking to teachers is that, actually, there are quite a lot of challenges in doing that, given the numbers involved and the timescales that t