Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

28/06/2023

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 Minister for Economy

Good afternoon, and welcome, all, to this afternoon's Plenary meeting. The first item on our agenda will be questions to the Minister for Economy, and the first question this afternoon is from Carolyn Thomas.

Digital Connectivity

1. How is the Welsh Government supporting digital connectivity projects in North Wales? OQ59751

Thank you for the question. In addition to delivering a range of projects and schemes across north Wales, including our £56 million broadband roll-out, Access Broadband Cymru and local broadband fund schemes, we also work with the UK Government and Ambition North Wales projects to improve digital connectivity across the region.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. Llywydd, I'd like to ask if the Minister would join me in welcoming the efforts of the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, Bangor University and others to establish north Wales as a 5G innovation region within the UK. This, in combination with other initiatives, such as the north Wales growth deal, will assist in bringing much-needed improvements in broadband connectivity to households and businesses in the region. Please could you ensure, as Minister, that the Welsh Government will provide all possible support in these efforts? Diolch.

Yes, I'm happy to give the assurance. I'm interested in the work that is already being done. I'm particularly keen to support partners across north Wales, including the ambition board, to make sure that Wales gets a proper share of the £40 million fund announced by the UK Government in April of this year, to ensure that we do support practical 5G innovation and delivery across north Wales. It's part of what we'll be able to do, and, of course, we're in the fortunate position of having it to build on with the work already being undertaken in Bangor University in the digital processing centre, and I think there's more to come for the future.

Last summer, I joined National Trust Cymru for a visit to the upper Conwy catchment project and a meeting with Cwm Community Action Group to discuss the lack of mobile coverage in Cwm Penmachno. In a subsequent meeting with Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited—DMSL—and Cwm Community Action Group, we discussed the shared rural network programme. DMSL, I'm sure you're aware, is a joint venture between the four UK mobile network operators, or MNOs, to work for a disruption-free digital life for people across the UK. The shared rural network, with £532 million from MNOs and £500 million from the UK Government, aims to extend coverage in north Wales to 83 per cent 4G coverage from all MNOs, and 98 per cent from at least one MNO, and, across Wales, to 80 per cent from all MNOs, and 95 per cent from at least one mobile network operator. As we heard, you can't have connectivity without the infrastructure. What engagement are you having with DMSL accordingly?

I met with Julia Lopez, before her maternity leave, in the UK Government, because, of course, the challenge here is this isn't a devolved area, but we recognise that the UK Government's programme to actually improve connectivity should reach 85 per cent of homes. That means there are others where mobile connectivity will be the reality of ensuring that there is proper connectivity within them. I'm more than happy to check again with my officials about their specific engagement with the organisations you refer to, to make sure that it's planned into our activity, because we will still need to make sure that we're filling in some of the gaps that exist in the UK Government programme. But I think it stands, to add to my earlier answer to Carolyn Thomas, about what we are already doing to improve connectivity in north Wales.FootnoteLink

I very much welcome the question from Carolyn Thomas. As someone who sat as an unpaid member on the 5G project consortium with Bangor University and those industry partners, it's clear to me, Minister, that we do have a real opportunity in this space in north Wales. I welcome the ongoing support from the Welsh Government in this non-devolved area, but, crucially, we do need collaboration between the Welsh and, importantly, the UK Government. So, I wonder, Minister, what further conversations you can have with UK Government Ministers to ensure that they understand the opportunities in front of us in north Wales.

Funnily enough, I mentioned the meeting I'd had with Julia Lopez before maternity leave, and had a subsequent meeting with John Whittingdale, who's covering her maternity leave, on a range of areas. And one of the areas we do need to get right is the roll-out for broadband connectivity and, like I say, filling in the gap that exists, once the 85 per cent target is reached. So, again, this does build on Carolyn Thomas's question and the work of the digital signal processing centre. We're in discussions with them about the support we may be able to provide, in addition to the support that the north Wales ambition board has provided. But it is crucial there is a constructive and pragmatic conversation with the UK Government, otherwise we won't provide the connectivity that communities and businesses need for them to be able to undertake what are now fairly normal functions of life. But I'm optimistic—cautiously optimistic—that we'll find a way through. 

13:35
Unemployment

2. What action is the Welsh Government taking to reduce unemployment in Wales? OQ59746

We continue to invest in employability programmes that we either run or fund from the Welsh Government. Two good examples are Communities for Work Plus, which is delivered by local authorities, and ReAct+. Together with Jobcentre Plus—a UK Government function—we have in place a wide range of measures to help support unemployed people into work.

Thank you, Minister. As you know, the latest data shows that, despite a UK-wide improving picture, Wales continues to fall behind in terms of employment and continues to see a rise in unemployment. According to the latest Open University's business barometer report, 69 per cent of small and medium-sized enterprises are currently facing skills shortages in Wales. This is a dramatic increase on last year's report, where only 32 per cent believed that finding the right skill set was the single biggest challenge facing businesses. The demand for jobs is out there, Minister; we just need the Welsh Government to invest in the workforce. With that in mind, what is the Welsh Government going to do in order to ensure the reversal of this incredibly disappointing trend?

Well, there are a couple of points to make in response. The first is on the employment and unemployment figures. As I and the First Minister have set out, actually, on the figures themselves, it's important not to over-rely on another month's worth of figures, because the Office for National Statistics figures do show a rise in unemployment, whereas, actually, the pay-as-you-earn figures over the last year show an increase in employees of 1.5 per cent in Wales. The last month's figures show a 0.3 per cent increase. Now, it's unusual to then have the ONS figures come out and say something entirely different. So, we do need to understand what's going on in that picture, and, to be fair, ONS are looking to increase the size of the labour force survey they undertake to try to make sure that those figures are more reliable and don't have to wait for the annual population survey. 

When it comes to skills, this is directly related to our overall budget, which, as you will know, is reducing in value. You'll also know that, in the area of skills, we have unhelpful competition from the UK Government cutting across us. It would be much better, in the way in which we work practically with Jobcentre Plus local management and offices, if we had that sort of relationship with the UK Government. It is about both the direction and the value of shared prosperity funds. It is also about pragmatic policy making. And that, I think, would be a good deal for this place, and respecting devolution. It would also, crucially, be a good deal for businesses and for people who are looking to improve their skills to improve their prospects of work. 

Minister, I was pleased to see the announcement you made with the education Minister last week about rolling out a scheme whereby young people at risk of leaving education and becoming unemployed are provided with meaningful work experience to ensure that they can reconnect with their learning and are encouraged to develop their aspirations. What role do you believe that this initiative, working alongside, for example, the young person's guarantee, could play in reducing unemployment, and youth unemployment in particular, here in Wales?

Thank you for the question. I'm very pleased that we've been able to announce a £0.5 million investment in tailored work experience. It follows a successful pilot in the area, undertaken with year 10 learners that Careers Wales undertook. And this is about providing work experience for young people to gain an opportunity to look at their own prospects in the world of the work, and to re-engage in some of their learning as well, to make sure that the learning itself is both interesting and directed to their potential future careers, and to enhance their opportunities to go into the world of work. And this does underpin the work we are trying to do across the country in the young person's guarantee, to ensure that we don't have a lost generation. This again is further evidence of us using budgets that are under pressure, but still investing in the future, and supporting young people to make sure they can plan a successful future here in Wales. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Paul Davies. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, this morning, I had the pleasure of hosting a breakfast briefing with the Federation of Small Businesses and Economic Intelligence Wales to discuss some of the challenges facing businesses here in Wales. Of course, many of those challenges are macro-economic and fall under the remit of the UK Government. However, it was made very clear that there are several actions the Welsh Government can take to support businesses in Wales at this time too, and one of those actions is improving the skills landscape. I heard your earlier answer, but the reality is that you are responsible for skills. So, can you tell us what steps the Welsh Government is taking to support businesses to ensure they can fill their skills need and can recruit, retain and upskill staff?

13:40

We have a range of programmes—for example, I have announced more money, together with the education Minister, for personal learning accounts. We have all the advice that businesses can get through Business Wales themselves. We continue to invest in our apprenticeship programme as well. I’ve unfortunately had to indicate that the delivery of 125,000 new apprenticeships will take an extra year. That directly comes back to the honesty that it’s important to have with business—I’m sure you’ve told them this yourself—about the reality of the pressure on our budgets, about the reality of the shared prosperity fund being redirected. Previously, money from former European funds funded over 5,000 apprentices a year. That’s money that has been redirected somewhere else. We also have unhelpful competition and a poorly designed Multiply programme. Previously, that money would have come here and we could have made better use of it. So, we do continue to invest in skills and in productivity. They’d be in a much better place for all of us if there was clarity about responsibility, not competition and if we had the budget we were promised we would have, with the full replacement of EU funds, rather than having over £1 billion taken away from us over three years.

Well, Minister, as you know, my committee is looking at post-EU funding, and I'm sure you'll welcome our report when we will publish it in due course.

Now, Minister, the Welsh Labour manifesto for the 2021 Senedd elections committed to promoting good-quality skills in the areas where we know the economy will grow and to strengthen regional skills partnerships to ensure supply meets the changing economic needs of Wales. Now, prior to the Senedd elections, the then Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee undertook two particularly important inquiries in relation to skills, one on regional skills partnerships and one on degree apprenticeships. Now, those reports made a series of very important recommendations to the Welsh Government on ways in which the Government could improve the system, and we should be seeing the benefits of implementing those recommendations now. So, therefore, Minister, can you tell us whether the Welsh Government has now fully implemented the recommendations of both of those committee reports?

No, I don't think we'd say we've fully implemented them. I think it's not a fair test to try to say that they should all have been fully implemented now, given what has happened in the intervening period, and given the reality of the different challenges we now face ahead of us. 

I look forward to reading the committee report. I'm sure I'll broadly welcome it. I may not welcome every single recommendation on every single page, but I look forward to receiving the report. And, of course, one of your Members, Hefin David, has undertaken a report for the education Minister, which is directly relevant to me, on how we look to improve not just the skills landscape, but the connectivity and the choices for young people. I'm looking forward to a constructive debate on that report. But, in a range of areas where there is growth and growth potential—think about aerospace, think about broader advanced manufacturing, think about the semiconductor world—these are all areas where it's possible to have degree programmes that work with them. We already see degree apprentices, we already see people who gain degree-level qualifications through the world of work. And our challenge is how we work alongside businesses to make sure the opportunities that come from investing in our workforce are real, and the bargain between the Government and public funds, and the clarity we can provide and what businesses themselves are prepared to invest not just in front-line workers, but crucially to invest in the quality and the skills of leaders and managers as well. That's one of the areas of the economy in Wales where we need to see more investment and more appreciation of the value of that for those individuals, for the companies and the businesses they run and, of course, the workers they're responsible to and for.

Minister, I think we are at a crucial point in time with the introduction of the new curriculum and with the creation of two free ports having recently been announced. We have therefore reached a critical period in my view, and we need to harness this opportunity and make some significant changes in this area. Now, you referred to the 'Transitions to Employment' report, published recently by the Member for Caerphilly, which considers the experience of professionals supporting learners in the transition from education to employment in Wales, and I hope very much the Welsh Government will respond positively to the recommendations laid out in that report too.

Now, Minister, I’ve been meeting with businesses and business organisations, and they’ve made it crystal clear to me that skills is a pressing issue and that they need more of a say on how skills are delivered here in Wales, and, of course, given the latest ONS statistics on Welsh employment rates and economic activity, it's more important than ever that you as a Government get this right. The Welsh Government must listen to businesses and ensure that there are sufficient provision, capacity and indeed resources in place to develop the skills needed for the future. So, Minister, can you tell us what discussions you're having with those delivering degree apprenticeships in Wales, and indeed vocational skills in Wales, and importantly, what discussions are you having with businesses and indeed business organisations too to ensure that all stakeholders are informing the development of skills delivery in Wales for the future? 

13:45

Well, what the Member sets out is exactly what the Government is doing. My officials have regular conversations with further education providers and higher education as well; we're continuing the roll-out of degree apprenticeships; we're doing exactly what we said we would do in our manifesto, and, of course, at almost every appearance at your committee, with your other hat on, Hefin David takes the opportunity to talk about this, to remind us of our commitments, and I've always given a positive response to that. We continue to engage directly with regional skills partnerships as well in every part of Wales, and not just my officials, but I take an interest directly in this. For example, I met businesses last week on exactly this subject—about the skills that are being provided, what that means for the learner as well, but also to make sure that those skills are directly relevant to the world of work for today. So, it's a conversation that needs to have a direct loop involving the Government, involving businesses themselves, including through our regional skills partnerships and those people providing the training and the skills for learners to make sure that they are directly relevant. I want to make sure we get good value for the public money that we invest in that, and that learners themselves get good value to enhance their career prospects.

So, I recognise the points the Member makes, and it's exactly what this Government is committed to doing, and taking advantage of the new curriculum that is broadly welcomed by people in the field of business.

Diolch, Llywydd. Last week, the ONS published data on sub-regional productivity across the UK as well as the performance of city or regional growth deals within this context. On the basis of current price output per hour worked, not one of Wales's local authorities is above the UK average, and in the case of areas such as Gwynedd, Ceredigion and Powys, the gap is over 30 per cent. A simple reality is that, in Wales, our low productivity means we work longer hours for less pay, and this has largely been the situation for the best part of a quarter of a century.

Now, to their credit, early Welsh Governments did draw up targets in an effort to close the productivity gap with the rest of the UK, however these have long since been abandoned. While the Welsh Government's current economic action plan acknowledges the problem, it does nothing to commit to any specific or meaningful targets to deliver improvement in this area. So, my question is this: if the Minister does not think that targets are necessary to measure whether or not we're successfully closing that productivity gap, what methods does he think are effective in doing so?

So, we do actually publish information on what we're doing on productivity, not just in relation to the UK overall, but in particular regions, and that's also published objectively as well, and we continue to invest resources that we do have in areas that we know will help to improve productivity, whether that's support for capital—my colleague Lesley Griffiths; there's a programme available for up to 40 per cent capital investment going to help to improve the productivity of business in the food sector. We continue, as the previous conversation has just shown with Paul Davies, to invest in the skills of individuals—that's perhaps the biggest lever we have available to us. But, actually, over the course of devolution, there has been an increase in productivity here in Wales, and it's actually been faster than most regions within the UK.

The confounder is actually in London and the south-east that significantly outperforms every other part of the UK. Boris Johnson hasn't always been straight with people in every statement he's made, but he did say, he did recognise at one point, when he talked about levelling up, he recognised that London and the south-east are significantly unequal with the rest of the UK. The challenge has been actually having a series of not just policy announcements but budget choices, working with people responsible for a number of these areas, to make sure that the resource follows the argument. That's what we still haven't seen, and I'm afraid we won't see that until we see a Labour Government with a Labour Prime Minister and Chancellor in Downing Street.

It's worth remembering, obviously, that productivity isn't an abstract concept of significance only to economists; it's a fundamental measure of how the labour of a workforce is valued. I think of what Paul Krugman said:

'Productivity isn't everything, but in the long run it's almost everything. A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.'

Of course, last week's set of ONS data is now one of a series of releases showing the weaknesses of the Welsh economy, and I have to say, as a young person—and, Llywydd, I'm not over 30 yet—all I hear is how I should be looking to get out of Wales and the rest of the UK. The outlook is bleak. I mean, what faces my generation and the generation after mine? Stagnant wages, increasing costs, being unable to afford rent or even buy our own houses. I mean, what would the Minister say to a young person today—what are the merits of staying in Wales? Because, so far in this job—I've been in the job now just over two years—all I've seen are endless strategies and warm words acknowledging that there is a problem, but very little action or progress.

13:50

When I actually talk to businesses and sectors and individuals, there are some who face real challenges—that's true and undeniable; I've never tried to walk away from that. But there are also a range of sectors that are very optimistic about their opportunities here in Wales and why they're here in the first place. And what we have tried to do is to gather a sense of not just optimism, but based in the reality of why businesses choose to place themselves here in Wales in growth sectors. I talked earlier about aerospace, about advanced manufacturing, about semiconductors—all growth areas with really good jobs. Good jobs in those areas well above the real living wage, well above the average wage. If you look at engineering jobs that help to underpin all those jobs, we're investing in more engineering subjects, getting more people interested in those, and manufacturers and businesses around engineering want to come to Wales and want to know that the skills and the talent are there.

So, for young people, it is in areas where there are opportunities, there's a Government here that doesn't just see the opportunities, but looks to invest in that, pre 16 and post 16, when people are around the world of work and within it. That's why so much of our skills programme supports people already in work as well, to improve and change their skills. It's why the tech and the fintech sectors see such growth here in Wales and a whole range of different opportunities. There are reasons to be optimistic about the future of Wales, if we have the right investment, if we have partners to enable us to make that investment in an environment that is stable, and that is why businesses recognise that they can come to Wales and they want to grow here as well.

The Museum of Cardiff

3. What discussions has the Government held with Cardiff Council and other partners about the future of the Museum of Cardiff? OQ59732

Can I thank Rhys ab Owen for that question? The management and funding of the Museum of Cardiff is, of course, a matter for Cardiff Council, but Welsh Government officials have met and corresponded with Cardiff Council, its museum staff and the Cardiff Museum Development Trust, advising on benchmarking museum services, museum accreditation standards, funding, income generation, governance and operating models.

Thank you for that response, Minister.

Thank you for the support towards Cardiff museum. I welcome also the recent investment in the museum. I think we can all agree it's important that our capital city has a place that highlights our rich and diverse history. I also know you agree with me, Minister, that attendance numbers are only one measure of success and that museums make a huge contribution in so many different ways. However, there is a concern with the attendance numbers of the museum. There's a concern that the museum is not well advertised, that the people of Cardiff don't even know of its existence, let alone tourists, and there are accessibility issues getting into the Old Library in Cardiff. How will you work with other partners to promote the museum and to ensure that it's accessible to all? Diolch.

Well, diolch, Rhys ab Owen. I think those points are very valid points, and I was very pleased to see that, just last week, Cardiff Council has now signed a lease agreement with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and that's going to enable the museum to remain within the Old Library building for a further five years. And that's a positive development, because, clearly, that's going to give some stability to the museum and the council to examine options and to undertake feasibility for any future moves. But it also gives them the opportunity to promote the museum more effectively and to introduce those accessibility measures that you've quite rightly outlined as being an important step towards ensuring that the museum becomes something that is a more attractive place to visit. Because it's clearly one of Wales's key local museums, and it's got an excellent reputation for outreach work and supporting community groups and telling the diverse stories of people in our capital city. So, I very much hope that the partnership with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama will help to deliver the objectives that both you and I want to see for that museum. 

13:55

I think we can all agree, Deputy Minister, that the Museum of Cardiff is a vital tourist attraction for our capital city, as well as an important host for educational visits and cultural events. I fully appreciate that Cardiff Council faces difficult choices because of the shortfall in funding, but I believe it was extremely shortsighted to have even thought about making Cardiff museum a mobile attraction, because it provides another reason for people not to visit the city centre. In my mind, Deputy Minister, for a city such as Cardiff and the history that it has to not have a dedicated museum can only lead to reputational damage. It will simply show that we don't care about our culture and have no pride in our past. With this in mind, what conversations have you had with the council to ensure that it fully understands the wider ramifications of not having this museum based in the city centre, and what analysis have you made of the council's specific heritage and cultural fundraising capabilities? Thank you. 

Can I thank Joel James for that further question? I think in my response to Rhys ab Owen's question, I made it very clear that we have been in consultation with Cardiff Council, that we've talked to the Cardiff Museum Development Trust, and that we've talked to them about benchmarking museum services and about museum accreditation services. We were very clear with them that the prospect of moving the Cardiff museum out of a static venue and into a mobile arrangement would put at risk their accreditation, and by putting at risk their accreditation, they put at risk various forms of funding.

Now, what we've seen is that Cardiff Council, the same as every other council in the country, was faced with serious financial issues and financial choices that they had to make, and this was one area that they sought consultation from the public on. As a result of that consultation, they've listened to what people have had to say and they are actually staying in the city centre in the Old Library. Again, as I mentioned to Rhys ab Owen, they're entering into a new partnership with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, which I hope will very much see a sustained future for the museum. 

I'm aware that Cardiff Council has worked closely with the Museum of Cardiff as part of the 'Anti-racist Wales Action Plan' to ensure that museums are not perpetuating an uncritical eye towards our approach to our colonial past, and that's a very important contribution. They also lead on Cardiff Fusion, which Joel James briefly referred to, to encourage everyone, including those living in disadvantaged areas, to understand and appreciate culture and heritage. So, could you tell us a bit more about how the Welsh Government is working with the museum to ensure that the most disadvantaged communities are really encouraged to visit and learn about their history in a way that reflects the diversity of our historic past?  

Can I thank Jenny Rathbone for that question? I think it's a very important point that she raises. The Museum of Cardiff is certainly an exemplar in those positive relationships with diverse communities, ensuring their involvement, representation and inclusion, which is the most important. But in terms of the wider point that you make, Jenny, we've awarded £642,000 via the anti-racist Wales culture, heritage and sport fund to museum sector organisations, and that funding specifically is to work with local museums to support them through training, mentoring, grants to reflect and represent black, Asian and minority ethnic communities' histories and cultures in their collections, displays, events and learning programmes. We're already seeing that that funding is leading to change in the way that local museums are operating. For example, a number of local museums have conducted reviews of their collections to identify items that can help give a more honest reflection of the locality's history, and training sessions have built greater understanding amongst museum staff and volunteers around engaging a new audience and co-creating with diverse communities. Because one of the things that clearly is so important if museums like Cardiff museum are to thrive, when people walk into that museum, they want to see themselves and their histories reflected, don't they? So, that is very much the objective that we've been working towards through the anti-racist Wales culture fund and other initiatives to promote greater inclusion from disadvantaged communities as well. 

14:00

Deputy Minister, I understand—contrary, perhaps, to what you were saying—that it's still the plan to move the museum from that building, and that they are still looking for an alternative site. So, I wonder if you could perhaps explain the support your officials are giving in terms of finding a suitable location. As you've said, rightly, it is a very important museum, not just for Cardiff, but for Wales, attracting visitors. It's a high-quality museum also in terms of accessibility. I've been contacted by a number of disability groups because of the accessibility of the interpretation. This required a huge amount of investment, which was secured; I'm concerned to see that investment lost without there being clarity in terms of where this museum is actually going to be located. So, I wonder if you could clarify in terms of those specific discussions. 

I think it's a very fair point that you've raised, Heledd Fychan. I was literally only made aware two or three days ago that Cardiff Council had actually signed a lease agreement with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama to enable the museum to stay in the Old Library, so literally that's kind of hot off the press, and I don't have the detail of that and what it will mean at this point in time. But, as I said in my answer to Rhys ab Owen, I would expect that lease contract with Cardiff Council to take on board the fact that, if that museum is to stay in the location that it is, and that lease has been signed for five years, there's a significant amount of work that would need to be done to make that building and the collections that are in it as accessible as possible. That's certainly an objective of Welsh Government, and I know it would be an objective of Cardiff Council, and it was one of their concerns about staying there, as you quite rightly point out. So, as soon as I've got more detail on that, I'd be happy to share that with you. 

Increasing Productivity

4. What action is the Welsh Government taking to increase productivity in South Wales West? OQ59740

Our economic mission sets out clearly the values and priorities that shape the decisions we are taking in supporting our economy. For South Wales West in particular, a good example is the Swansea bay city deal, looking to deliver £1.2 billion of investment, with the aim of creating 9,000 jobs.

Thank you, Minister. Despite numerous strategies, plans and massive injections of cash in the form of Objective 1 funding, productivity per capita and GVA remain well below the UK average across my region. In fact, gross value added per hour worked in Bridgend and Neath Port Talbot has fallen from 87 per cent of the UK average to 85 per cent over the past two decades.

Now, in every economic index, Wales continues to lag at the bottom. Minister, you can't simply blame this on the mythical Tory austerity or the pandemic; productivity went up during the Cameron Government. You are in control of the Welsh economy, so when will you take responsibility and take charge and get to grips with the ailing economy of my region?

Well, of course, when it comes to productivity increasing here in Wales, from 2012 to 2021 productivity in GVA terms increased in Swansea and Neath Port Talbot by 21 per cent and nearly 18 per cent respectively. As I said earlier in response to Luke Fletcher, the confounder in UK economy terms is actually the over-performance and overheating of London and the south-east compared to the rest of the country.

We continue to invest in areas to improve the productivity of the economy more generally; we continue to invest in supporting the economy to grow. A good example is the work that we've had to do, pragmatically, with the UK Government alongside free ports, not because we see free ports as the answer to everything, but actually to accelerate the opportunities that will take place in our renewables sector, what that will mean potentially for advanced manufacturing, the opportunity to see a longer term future for Tata, and all of the other jobs we think could be created if we are able to properly maximise and take advantage of renewable energy along our coast. It's just one of the examples—I've given examples in many other areas in response to earlier questions from Luke Fletcher—where we are already seeing growth taking place in some sectors here in Wales.

We could always do more with a stable partner in the UK Government who wants to work with us, not around us, that respects the devolution settlement rather than always trying to find a way directly through it. I'm optimistic we'll have that in less than a year or so's time, when the next election is called and we a see a Labour Prime Minister and Chancellor in Downing Street. 

14:05

I totally agree, Minister, with the need for real joined-up government with the UK Government; they need to be a willing partner to work with us to drive increases in productivity. But you've actually visited several of the companies in the region, including in my own constituency of Ogmore—some of the leading, not just Wales-leading but UK-leading, high-productivity companies, including Sony Pencoed, where you were recently, looking at some of the companies there in the incubator unit as well.

Steve Dalton, the former chief executive of Sony Pencoed, said of previous Welsh Government support that the investment, including from the economy futures fund, would drive growth in multiple businesses at Pencoed, drive growth in the Raspberry Pi business and drive the development of Sony UK Technology's prototyping business, which brings new product designs to market for third parties as well. Just in the Bridgend area recently, I know that we've had 27 projects, 17 businesses, supported with SMARTCymru funding for innovation as well. Does he agree with me that productivity improvements are delivered by excellent private sector organisations in our area, but they need an active Welsh Government with targeted financial support to provide the foundation for their success?

Thank you, and I will acknowledge that, in terms of the investment you've spoken about with Sony, that was a decision made by the previous Minister, Ken Skates, and I'm delighted to acknowledge the choice he made, because it does exactly what you say: it's a private sector company that is investing in the future of its workforce alongside an active Government. When we visited, of course, we did see the significant increase that was taking place in Raspberry Pi production. We visited the incubator and saw different businesses that are growing there on that site. In fact, some of those businesses are now moving out because they've outgrown the incubator space. That's exactly what we want to do and it's exactly what this Government is aiming to do, and that's how we target the limited resources we have now to make sure they deliver maximum return. I'm delighted to see that there are real examples of that in the Ogmore constituency and beyond. 

Economic Development in Blaenau Gwent

5. What is the Welsh Government doing to support economic development in Blaenau Gwent? OQ59738

We're taking a range of measures, including, of course, the Tech Valleys programme, a £100 million programme for government commitment over 10 years to create 1,500 sustainable jobs and to increase the average weekly wage and GVA, focused on Blaenau Gwent. The impact of that investment is, of course, being seen in other Valleys communities too.

It is, and we're very grateful to you and the Government, Minister, for that, and grateful also for the work that the Government continues to do to alleviate the impact of the loss of businesses like Tillery Valley Foods. But we're aware also in Blaenau Gwent that we bear the brunt of the economic mismanagement that we've seen from the UK Tory Government; we're also bearing the brunt of hard Brexit, both of which are combining to make the economy less viable in places like Blaenau Gwent.

The role of the Welsh Government in this context is more important than ever. Minister, what we need in Blaenau Gwent is a focus on the industrial and business infrastructure to enable businesses to flourish in the borough and across the Heads of the Valleys region. The Welsh Government has an opportunity to invest in an industrial strategy, if you like, for the Heads of the Valleys—to invest in, for example, our energy infrastructure as well as training infrastructure and the transport infrastructure, which has already seen that investment. But we also need investment in business units and in industrial units, which enable businesses, then, to locate in Blaenau Gwent, create work and create jobs for the future.

I can completely agree with the Member. The Member referenced some of the transport infrastructure—making sure, having invested in the A465, we actually deliver investment to make sure that jobs take place within the northern Valleys and not simply take people out of the northern Valleys to other centres of population, we're continuing to invest in Rhyd y Blew, for example, and I look forward to giving a further update on a significant investment there—£8.5 million invested—and I'm confident we'll see significant opportunities there.

The Member has discussed before some of the other opportunities that might exist within Blaenau Gwent. It's also worth pointing out, of course, that we continue to invest in current businesses as well as those that aren't there. I'll happily write to the Member with more detail, but there are 12 businesses in the last two years that have received over £230,000 in Blaenau Gwent to help improve their productivity—real examples of supporting businesses to grow, which then have a footprint in the Valleys—as well as making sure that the infrastructure and the ambition are there to do even more to have really well-paid work available within the Valleys communities themselves.FootnoteLink

You mentioned, Minister, and I'd like to press you further on it, one of the major projects that the Welsh Government have invested in, and that's the Tech Valleys project that you mentioned in the Member's area. The aim of this is to turn the Valleys area of Blaenau Gwent into a high-tech hotbed for developing new technologies and advanced manufacturing, a noble aim that I agree with and hope to see come to fruition. As you've said today, the aim is to create 1,500 jobs in 10 years, with £100 million investment ring-fenced for the project over a decade. However, a written question that I submitted has revealed that the programme, which has already received an investment of £40 million, has only created just 29 jobs. Minister, nearly half of the money has been spent, and yet we have yet to hit 50 jobs in the area two years in. So, my question to you is: when will my region start to feel the effects of this investment and when will we actually start to see those 1,500 jobs? Thank you.

14:10

Well, we have, of course, seen the opportunity to create a nearly 300,000 ft new, fit-for-purpose office and manufacturing space from the Tech Valleys programme. You're right, about £40 million has been spent on an economic future for Blaenau Gwent. You've also seen a number of headline manufacturers, like Apex Additive Technologies, PNR Pharma consulting and, of course, Thales, locating there, because there is an active Government here to work alongside those businesses. Actually, the Thales investment is a good example of an industry and a leading partner for the future. So, Blaenau Gwent definitely has a place in the future of the cyber sector, not just here in Wales, but across the UK. When I met Thales in Paris recently, they were extraordinarily positive about the future for the investment. They see it as a real jewel in their investments for the future and the opportunity to grow skills and jobs because they have a reliable partner within this Government. I look forward to seeing more job growth in that area, and I look forward to the Member welcoming and recognising it.

Anglesey Free Port

6. Will the Minister make a statement on the governance of Anglesey free port? OQ59750

Yes. A joint Welsh and UK programme board is overseeing the implementation of prospective free ports in Wales. The prospective free ports will need to demonstrate appropriate governance structures are in place for the set-up phase before any capacity funding is released.

Thank you very much for that response. The Minister and I have agreed to a great extent on the issue. Both of us have insisted, in the context of the original prospectus offered us, that we wanted more certainty on workers' rights, on environmental regulations, and also on having a level playing field in terms of funding as compared to England. That certainly wasn't the case when the Conservative Government proposed this initially. But it's only part of the work. There are all sorts of free port models and the work now is to make the most of the opportunities and ensure that the more negative elements that can be related to free ports are managed. Governance is the solution to ensure that the Anglesey free port does boost local skills, increases local employment and that there is strong financial management in place there, so how will the Minister help, by working with Anglesey council, to ensure that governance brings real benefits to the people of Anglesey?

I'm more than happy to continue not just to update the Member individually, but also Members generally on progress with free ports. One of my key concerns in conversations with the UK, and, when they turned into conversations rather than the headline shouting that was taking place, we got parity on funding, but then to be really clear that growth not displacement of activity would be the yardstick on which they'd be measured and to make that we're then looking to deliver metrics that will allow us to understand whether we're doing that, as well as the points that we have made, and we're glad the Member's recognised again, on fair work and on environmental standards as well.

So, getting through this next phase, before any capital is released, we then need to have measured in how we're going to measure and assess growth not displacement and to make sure that we can come back and report back to this Parliament on whether we think that is taking place, and the council on Ynys Môn, but more broadly afield as well, are key partners in making sure that a free-port vision that looks positive on paper is actually delivered in practice. So, I'm cautiously optimistic, and I know that I'll face scrutiny questions both here and in committee about whether that is actually being delivered in reality, whether public money going into these ventures is going to deliver the return that all of us want to see, whether it's Holyhead or, indeed, the Celtic free port.

Jobs

7. What is the Government doing to safeguard jobs and create employment in South Wales East? OQ59739

The Welsh Government works with a variety of partners, including local authorities, to try and offer a comprehensive range of support for new and existing businesses to help them to futureproof and continue to grow where possible. This support is actively promoted through Business Wales, with dedicated business relationship managers and, of course, regional offices.

Thank you for that reply.

Over the last month or so, we’ve seen a series of devastating job losses in my region, as referenced by Alun Davies earlier on: the closure of Tillery Valley Foods in Cwmtillery, Avara in Abergavenny; nearly 700 jobs have been lost from an area that cannot afford to lose jobs on that scale. With the rise in raw materials and energy prices, which will not return to the levels that they were at two years ago anytime soon, there is a clear pressure on the food sector as well as the hospitality sector in Wales. How has this Government adapted to the rapidly changing circumstances for the food sector in Wales, and what are they doing to ensure it is protected from further devastating job losses?

14:15

There’s a challenge about which areas of the food sector we’re describing and discussing, because actually, over the last 10 years, we have seen the food sector grow significantly—it’s a real success story in that span—and it’s worth recognising that the Member for Blaenau Gwent isn’t just the current Member there: when he was Minister, he set the ambition to grow the sector, and at the time, there was some scepticism about whether that would happen. Actually, it overachieved the targets for growth that he set. The challenge now is making sure that we retain real value in there, so not just the challenges about Tillery and Avara foods, and both local authorities have been genuinely constructive, as indeed have both constituency Members—I should recognise the political polarity with Peter Fox and Alun Davies being engaged around that—but to understand the challenge those businesses face, and post-Brexit trading terms are part of the challenge they face. The reality of energy prices and of inflation across the food sector are also challenging some parts of the sector.

So, we are actually proactively doing work with the food sector to understand where the challenges are still and where the opportunities are, and how the different resource that my department and Lesley Griffiths’s department can bring to this, and indeed, we’re looking at a round-table with actors in the sector to understand current prospects and what we can do alongside them and with them to make sure there's still a healthy opportunity for the food and drink sector in Wales to be a real part of the future economy, and not just simply make a contribution to having the healthy food we want to see on plates across the country.

Investment Activity in Businesses

8. What action is the Welsh Government taking to support investment activity in Welsh businesses? OQ59761

Thank you. The Welsh Government supports investment activity in Welsh businesses through Business Wales and indeed the Development Bank of Wales. Regional economic frameworks and the growth deals are used as investment activity tools and support across Wales. We also, of course, have the advantage of having a stable and reliable Government in Wales for businesses to partner with.

Thank you, Minister. The Development Bank of Wales, which is wholly owned, I believe, by the Welsh Government, is a powerful lever for facilitating investment in Welsh businesses and across the Welsh economy. In its last financial year to the end of March 2023, it invested £22.9 million compared to £11.6 million a year earlier—a rise of 66 per cent. The bank said its investment and lending activities created 2,552 jobs, and safeguarded a further 2,117 jobs. So, this is obviously very critical to Wales.

Minister, how would you therefore assess the decision of the Welsh Government in creating the UK’s first regional bank? And also, Minister, how would you envisage the bank reaching out to other Welsh stakeholders to support people, businesses, and communities across Wales?

I think it’s been a significant success, and again, I need to recognise Ken Skates’s role in creating DBW in the first place, to some scepticism, but actually, when you look at the five-year results that have been published, there are strong results in every region of Wales, and you can see how successful it’s been in that the Federation of Small Businesses in England, one of their key asks for the next election is to have something like DBW in regions in England. And, you know, that is the most sincere form of flattery, is it not?

It also is more recognised now in the landscape, the number of businesses that can point to the fact that DBW’s been crucial to them surviving and investing in the future. Look at the green business loan scheme, helping companies with their bottom line, as well as doing the right thing for the planet. I think you will now find an environment where, if we took DBW out of the equation, we'd see a real hole to be filled and real pain for a range of businesses. So, the success is there; it is obvious in DBW's figures, and crucially, in the way that other business partners look to it and talk about it as a key opportunity for investing in the future of our economy.

2. Questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services

The next item will be questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services, and the first question is from Luke Fletcher.

Health Inequalities

1. How is the Welsh Government monitoring the management of health inequalities across Wales? OQ59758

14:20

In collaboration with Public Health Wales and the World Health Organization's regional office for Europe, Welsh Government launched the Welsh health equity solutions platform on 22 June, to monitor the management of health inequalities across Wales, and it's leading the way with its complex interdisciplinary technique.

Diolch am yr ateb, Gweinidog. The cross-party group on cancer's inquiry into cancer inequalities in Wales really brings to life the brutal realities of getting a cancer diagnosis in Wales and living with the fall-out. Cancer death rates are 55 per cent higher among the most deprived Welsh populations. Swansea bay health board in my region contains the joint highest proportion of areas in the most deprived quintile. Today, Minister, I'd like to ask what the Welsh Government is doing to help people who directly suffer from these inequalities whilst navigating a difficult stage 4 cancer diagnosis.

I have been told by those managing stage 4 cancers that short staffing has meant being placed on waiting lists for treatment, while only some health boards have a key worker or a point of contact to support people with stage 4 cancer. How does the Welsh Government plan to measure progress in the treatment and support of stage 4 patients, as they deal with the inequalities outlined in the cross-party group's report?

Thanks very much. I've looked at that report and I think there are a lot of things for us to consider and to act upon. Before we get to stage 4, I think we've got to get to the prevention bit of it, and you heard the announcement yesterday by my colleague. The obesity crisis in Wales—and I'm going to call it a crisis—when you've got 60 per cent of your population who are overweight or obese, you're heading for a very difficult place, and what we know is that that issue is more prevalent in poorer communities, which is why we do have to intervene in order to avoid the kind of situation that you're talking about, in which, then, you see very clearly the disparities between those richer areas and poorer areas in terms of numbers suffering from cancer.

When it comes to the diagnosis, what is clear is that there are parts of Wales that are performing much better than others. It was quite interesting—. If you look at Betsi, Betsi is consistently actually quite good in terms of cancer treatment compared to others. I'm very concerned at the moment, for example, with the performance in Cwm Taf Morgannwg. That's probably one of my biggest headaches at the moment. And we're putting a lot of support into that. We've put them into a special intervention framework to make sure that we're monitoring what they should do, and we're working with communities to see if we can chase down people who perhaps might not have been taking part in screenings, for example. I know that in relation to colon cancer and things, for example, it's trying to get people to take up that screening facility and working with communities, engaging with them, learning the lessons that we know, and we've learnt a lot of lessons during the pandemic: how do you communicate with people? How do you get into those hard-to-reach places? And I think some of that learning, we've got to now take into all those other areas.

But cancer is absolutely—. I've got six priorities, but now, with the very difficult financial pressures we're under, I have asked the health boards very much to focus on the top three, which are to avoid people going into hospital in the first place, shifting resources into the community, and working with local authorities to avoid delayed transfers of care; secondly, to bring those waiting lists down; and, thirdly, to focus on cancer.

Minister, sadly the simple fact is that our black and minority ethnic communities are not getting the same healthcare as the rest of the Welsh population, whether that is in cancer care, as recently highlighted by the CPG report; or in maternity care, as shown by the shocking report into maternity care at the University Hospital of Wales; or the whole host of other ways that BAME patients are being let down by the system. Population-level assumptions do not work. Treatment has to be tailored to the individual, taking account of their sex and ethnicity, as well as the usual things such as lifestyle and genetic make-up.

Minister, when I raised this issue with the First Minister yesterday, he said that the 'Anti-racist Wales Action Plan' would improve the situation. Can you expand on what specific actions within the plan will improve health outcomes for our BAME communities?

14:25

Thanks very much, Altaf. Part of what will happen next is that we have this new constituted organisation, this group, the NHS health inequalities group, and what they're going to do is to focus on a small number of areas, which aim to maximise the contribution of the NHS and make sure that the NHS now becomes an exemplar when it comes to tackling inequalities. The thing you've got to start with is data, data, data. So, let's find out what's actually going on, let's make sure that we've got that analysis, and then you can target and you can respond to the gaps. So, that's what we're doing in relation to that.

We do, of course, have the 'Anti-racist Wales Action Plan'. There's a very specific—. I had a meeting with my colleague who's responsible for this, the other day. She's really holding us all to account, making sure that we're delivering on our responsibilities within the 'Anti-racist Wales Action Plan'. I'm really pleased I was able to report to her that the actions that we have as an NHS are being taken very, very seriously in relation to the 'Anti-racist Wales Action Plan' and, obviously, all of that will feed into the planned-care challenges that we're facing.

Minister, building on your statement yesterday regarding the national immunisation programme for Wales, Public Health Wales published data last year on the take-up of childhood immunisation vaccinations, and that data showed that clear inequality gaps had increased in the majority of age groups and in the majority of health boards, with children from the most deprived quintile being less likely to be up to date with routine immunisations than those from the least developed quintile. So, Minister, what is Welsh Government doing to monitor this clear inequality, and how is it working with health boards and other partners to put this right and eliminate the gap?

Well, thanks very much, and you're quite right to highlight the fact that, actually, in terms of childhood vaccinations, we don't have a bad level, but, actually, the pandemic pushed things back a bit. So, we do have about 20 per cent of the child population who are perhaps not taking up that opportunity.

So, what are we going to do about it? Well, we're taking that national immunisation framework and making sure that we take those lessons that we learned during the pandemic, making sure that we look at the evidence. What worked during that roll-out? What was best practice? And how do we avoid that unnecessary variation across Wales? What we're trying to do is to make sure that this is being led by local teams, who are engaging and empowering their own communities to understand the advantages of taking up the offer of vaccination. I think it's really important that we make this easy to understand, that we communicate well, that people understand the risks of not having vaccinations. So, each health board now is being asked to develop a vaccine equity strategy and a programme of work with dedicated public health input. So, that's how we're going to address the issue that you put forward.

Diabetes

2. What is the Welsh Government doing to improve support for people with diabetes in Blaenau Gwent? OQ59762

I made an oral statement to the Senedd on 13 June, describing our approach to improving diabetes services, as set out in the quality statement for diabetes. My officials discussed the implications of the quality statement for local delivery with NHS chief executives on 21 June.

I very much welcome that. I welcome the statement that you made on diabetes treatment in Wales. There are 5,400 people in Blaenau Gwent who are living with diabetes, and that's not much less than 10 per cent of the population. It's an epidemic in the borough. And that requires, I think, Minister, a significant intervention from Government.

I welcome the statement made by the Minister yesterday on our relationship with food, if you like, in its wider sense. But we do need a more holistic approach to ensure that we have prevention of diabetes rather than simply the treatment of diabetes. I'm glad the Deputy Minister for sport is in the Chamber this afternoon, because that also involves investment in physical activity, investment in sports opportunities, as well as other sorts of physical activity, and it involves an investment across the whole of Government to deal with diabetes, rather than simply treating the impact of diabetes. I hope, Minister, you'll be able to put a focus on that in somewhere like Blaenau Gwent, and I'd like to invite you to the borough so that we can debate and discuss how we can help people avoid diabetes in Blaenau Gwent.

14:30

Thanks very much, Alun. What you know is we've got this quality statement, so people know what 'good' looks like, so they should be working to that. And now we have the NHS exec holding health boards to account for delivering on what 'good' looks like. What I think we have got to do is to recognise that the problem is more acute in some areas than others. I know that the Minister responsible for the public health aspect of this is absolutely clear that, actually, you do need to target some areas more than others. The same thing everywhere is not what we're looking for here; you do have to put those additional resources in some places. What we've got is, for example, a pre-diabetes prevention programme, to help people avoid getting type 2 diabetes. Let's not forget that a huge, huge proportion of type 2 diabetes is avoidable, and, actually, if you can catch it before it really becomes full-blown diabetes, then you're really saving a lot of health issues for that member of the public, but also you're saving a lot of resources for the NHS.

On that early intervention, we've got pilots across Wales, including one in Aneurin Bevan. It's important that we look at the outcomes of that pilot. We know they work; we've put £1 million into rolling out what we know has worked in Port Talbot, for example. We need to now make sure that people understand their responsibilities as well. It's not a one-way street, this; we've got to be there, holding their hands through what is a very difficult journey for them. We've got to make sure that the environment is right, and that was part of what the Deputy Minister was speaking about yesterday. But we cannot continue with a situation where the trajectory—. If we carry on as we are now, we won't be spending 10 per cent of our budget on diabetes, we'll be spending 17 per cent of our budget. We don't have any more money, so it's got to come from somewhere. So, this is not sustainable in its current form. Something has to change. But the people of Wales have to come with us on this journey. We can't do it all for them, but we will be there with them on the journey.

Minister, it's no secret that Wales has the highest prevalence of diabetes in the UK, with more than 200,000 people living with the condition. There are a whole host of organisations and initiatives out there, which I know you work with as well, helping people with diabetes, and pushing to improve care and support. However, there are some serious concerns about the lack of funding on several programmes—whilst I appreciate the answer that you just gave—something the Welsh Government did say would be addressed in the quality statement last week. From the feedback that I received, it wasn't discussed in as much detail as was perhaps needed. Services such as the all-Wales diabetes remission service, as well as the SEREN programme, which I know my colleague Joel James has raised before in the Chamber, are at serious risk, going forward. It's not clear whether these services, which are delivering life-changing results, will indeed continue to receive funding. Dedicated NHS clinicians are behind these schemes and have been left in limbo as they have no idea about future funding. Earlier today, the British Medical Association held an event, which I, alongside many colleagues in this Chamber, did attend. I met some of the fantastic GPs there, including Gareth and Natasha, who are both from south-east Wales, and they wanted answers. So, Minister, my question is: can you please give them some much-needed clarity this afternoon about what's the case, going forward? Thank you.

Thanks very much. We have got a ring-fenced amount of money for the pre-diabetes programme I was talking about. We've got £1 million for that programme, and that's being rolled out. Every health board in Wales really understands this. The secret is to get ahead of the problem; that's the real issue here—we've got to get ahead of the problem, not wait for the problem to develop. When you've got 60 per cent of your population who are overweight, you've got to target that lot there, because they're the next generation of people who are going to have diabetes type 2. That's what part of yesterday was about—it's about acknowledging that we can't go on like this, that, actually, you do need to intervene, we do need to create the right environment for them.

And just in terms of finance, the financial situation is really, really challenging at the moment. It's challenging for everyone; it's challenging for people in our communities—the cost-of-living crisis is really difficult—but it's also difficult for the NHS. All of the inflationary pressures that everybody else is feeling, the NHS is feeling. We haven't had additional money to cover it, and we've got the COVID costs and everything else that's going on. So, the pressures are real, but that's why, actually, it makes sense for us to go as far as we can in the prevention space, because if we don't, the costs going forward are going to be very, very difficult. 

14:35
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Russell George. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, yesterday, Andrew R.T. Davies, on three occasions, tried to extract an answer from the First Minister, and the First Minister failed to answer on three occasions. You're the health Minister, so I will ask you, Minister: when is the Welsh Government going to eliminate two-year waits in the Welsh NHS, and when can we expect you to issue your revised target?

Thanks very much. I'm more than happy to send you the revised target that I've sent out to the NHS. I've made it clear to them that we have got to stick to a plan. We've discussed this with them, in terms of what the targets are, and whether they think they've got the ability to hit the targets. We're going to be doing this in the context of a very, very tight financial situation, so I think we've got to understand that. But, as health Minister, I've got to acknowledge that having people wait for longer than two years is not acceptable, and so we are expecting them to speed up their processes. We are putting more money into things like diagnostics, and more into surgical hubs. I was very pleased to go and open officially the surgical hub in Neath Port Talbot recently. So, there are lots of good, positive things going on, but obviously we're very keen to make sure that they speed up the process, and I've made it very clear to them that, this time, there will be no excuses for missing those deadlines.

Thank you, Minister. It would be very helpful for you to write to me, but, of course, if you could verbally give the answer in the Chamber this afternoon in terms of what the date is for the revised target for two-year waits, that, of course, would be appreciated, because, of course, we are not seeing the progress—and you've alluded to it yourself, and I appreciate that—that's needed. We saw the last set of data with only 245 people coming off that two-year waiting list. We've still got tens of thousands of people waiting for treatment in Wales, when you know, of course, the target's been virtually eliminated in Scotland and in England. Often, we talk about numbers, don't we—tens of thousands of people; these are individual people, and often many of them are waiting in pain, which impacts their lives and their wider families' lives as well.

Minister, you committed to ensuring that 80 per cent of cancer patients will start treatment within two months by 2026. That's a laudable aim, and if that is reached, I will be the first in this Chamber to congratulate you on the efforts of the Welsh Government. But cancer waiting times have actually gotten worse—they've fallen from 59 per cent in April last year to 55 per cent this April. So, can you commit, Minister, to setting out annual milestones for the delivery of the target that 80 per cent of people with cancer will start treatment within two months, and provide an update on actions being taken to improve cancer waiting times, specifically for the cancers with the longest waits—gynaecological, head and neck and urology? But, ultimately, Minister, please do give us that target this afternoon. Tell us when the two-year wait target is set for; that would be appreciated. Thank you, Minister. 

On two-year waits, we're expecting 99 per cent of people to be seen by the end of this financial year. We're expecting, by September, anybody waiting over three years to have an appointment, so that they know exactly when they're going to get their treatment. And we have made it clear that we want to see significant improvement when it comes to cancer.

Cancer is quite interesting, because some areas of cancer are doing much, much better than others, so it depends on the specialist area, and the same thing is true also for the number of longest waiters. There are, amongst the 40 or so specialist areas, about 24 where, actually, we're down to zero. The real issue is with about seven specialist areas, and that's where I've asked them to concentrate now: 'Go for those areas.' We've got GIRFT in, Getting It Right First Time, making sure that they're getting the pathways right, putting pressure on them, looking at what's happening in terms of use of theatres in Wales, maximising that use of capacity that is available, because there's no point in having new hubs if people are not working efficiently. We've got to make sure, first of all, that we get the efficiency right wherever they're working. There's no point in investing in brand-new centres if they're still not working to top capacity.

So, that's what we're looking at now; we're driving it. The NHS executive is up and running. They're putting a lot of pressure on these people just to make sure that we see that productivity improvement that we expect to see. And, of course, you've also seen, in particular, when it comes to cancer, that diagnostics is absolutely key. The difference between us and England is that we count diagnostics and we count it from the beginning, because, if you've got cancer, you've got to start from the time when you suspect it, not from the time when you're actually put on a treatment path. So, the way we count is different, and that's why we're putting a lot of money into diagnostics. We've got to speed up the diagnostic centres and you will have seen that we're in the process of putting significant investment in that space. 

14:40

Thank you for your answer, Minister. I'm just going to pick up on the seven specialist areas that you referred to, because, as I understand it, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, in your previous target, those seven specialist areas weren't included. [Interruption.] You say it's not true. I look forward to your answer, because, as I've understood it, Minister, because you said it yourself, the recovery target was most specialties by 2023. So, if it says 'most specialties' it means some aren't included. I suppose I'm asking you, therefore, what are those specialist areas that weren't included, because, as I understand it, there are seven areas that weren't included in the target, and one of them was general surgery. So, it would be good to understand the areas that weren't included in your original target that you were due to meet by March 2023. You said in answer to Altaf Hussain earlier on today that data is important. You said that at an event we were at this morning. I agree with you entirely. So, surely it would be right to have a target that includes all 17 specialist areas and to break that down by speciality as well. I hope, Minister, that you will be able to commit to doing that, because data is king if we're going to get on top of some of these issues. 

You're singing from the same hymn sheet as I am on this. Just to give you reassurance, those 30,000 that are on the two-year waiting list include all specialities, including the seven that we know are challenging. So, they're not excluded from the numbers. I think that's really important. It's not 30,000 plus a whole load more in the seven specialist services.

I think what's important is for us to acknowledge that there is a huge amount of work being done in those areas. You'll have seen that already there is a breakdown now on the basis of health boards. I've asked now for more transparency, all the time—let's just get some transparency on this, let's have a look. I think the public need to know where are they on the lists—where are they, around where. We may not be able to give a definite number. And, of course, the other thing you've got to remember the whole time with this is that, actually, clinicians make calls on this. If there's an urgent case, they're going to take priority. And that's the challenge.

Actually, if you look at the numbers on waiting lists, they are coming down in Wales compared to England, and that's because we're seeing more urgent cases. That's the situation. I have been asking them, 'Listen, I know that in England they've been very focused on just doing the longest waits', and actually, it means that some of the more urgent cases perhaps haven't been seen. And if you speak to the BMA, it's quite an interesting conversation with clinicians, who sometimes say, 'Hang on a minute, you've got to see the urgent cases.' So, there is a little bit of a dialogue that we have. What I'm saying is the balance is in the wrong place at the moment. We need to get the longest waits seen, because enough is enough. 

Thank you very much, Llywydd. Today, the BMA launches it's Save our Surgeries campaign. There was an event today here in the Senedd, and it was good to see the Minister attending that event. This crucial part of our health service has suffered a decade of decline and they are now reaching a critical point. This isn't a new crisis. The sector has been warning us of this for over 10 years. 

The proportion of the NHS budget committed to GP services has fallen to historic lows in recent years, compared to the 8.7 per cent level in 2005-06, which has not only led to swingeing cuts in provision, but also an increase in the number of practices handing back their general medical services contracts. So, can I ask the Minister, therefore, whether she will commit to restoring the proportion of the NHS Wales budget spent in general practice to its historic level of 8.7 per cent by the end of this Senedd, as has been recommended by the BMA?

14:45

Thanks very much. Well, I had the very same conversation as you, and, before I go any further, I’d like to welcome you to your new position. 

Best of luck to you in your new role. You'll have a lot of work to do.

So, just in terms of the BMA, and I was very happy to attend that event earlier, I think there are a few things that we need to bear in mind. First of all, actually, 'A Healthier Wales' is very clear about the direction of travel here—it is about the need to move resources from secondary care into the community. And rather than talk about that, you’ll have seen very recently that I’ve just done it—I have just ring-fenced £30 million and said, ‘Enough. This actually needs to happen. I’m not waiting for the health boards to do this anymore, I’m moving that money.' So, that’s happened, and I think the key thing for us to remember in relation to primary care is that, with primary care, it’s not just about GPs; it’s got to be about the wider group that supports the GPs. And if you look at the number of GPs in Wales, there are more fully qualified GPs per head of the population in Wales than there are in England. The number of GPs have gone up from 1,926 in 2017 to 1,974 in 2022. So, we’ve got more GPs. The real issue is that the demand, demand, demand just keeps coming. And the demand is absolutely unstoppable. We had the case of a week in December when there were 400,000 contacts with GPs in a week—in a week. Can you think about the pressure on those 1,900 workers? That is a lot of people to get through. So, everybody acknowledges this, which is why what we’re trying to do is to do things slightly differently and not put all the pressure on GPs.

Thank you for that response. Of course, it's not just money that's important, as you've emphasised; it's the GPs who are important—that workforce. But as you've noted yourself, whilst the registered patients on GPs' books have increased hugely—over 100,000 in 10 years—the number of practices has declined from 470 to 386. And despite the fact that you say that the number of GPs has increased, this has led to a fall of almost 22 per cent in the workforce.

Wales is now 664 GPs short of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average. It's a damning indictment of the extent to which the vitality of our health service has been sapped in recent years. It's no surprise that GPs are complaining of heavy workloads and that many of the younger GPs are finding employment in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere where they are better appreciated. Eighty per cent of respondents in the BMA survey have claimed that their high workload is compromising their ability to provide quality and safe care to patients. And with almost 27 per cent of respondents seriously considering leaving the profession in the near future, it's inevitable that these pressures will soon intensify. So, will the Minister agree to develop a workforce plan to specifically address the glaring shortfall in the GP profession, with the aim of reaching the OECD average within three years?

Diolch yn fawr. Well, you'll be aware that there is a worldwide shortage of healthcare workers, so we're in a very competitive market here. And we did have a target for the number of GPs we wanted to train and we exceeded that target last year by 90, and that's not for the first time. So, the question then is: with this incessant demand, what does the workforce of the future need to look like? Well, Health Education and Improvement Wales is working on that already, looking not just at GPs, but at the broader need within communities. And I think that is where we need to go now, not just to focus on GPs. And I think it's probably worth thinking also about not the numbers of surgeries, because, actually, what's happened is a lot of amalgamation. So, lots of surgeries have joined up together and it makes the system more robust. So, on the number of single-handed practices, for example, there is definitely a weakening of the appetite of people to do a single-handed practice; they do want to work together. So, you will get a reduction in the number, but I think you'll get a more robust system where people can, for example, at least go on holiday if they're in a bigger group of workers and they can get a bit more relief.

14:50
NHS Dental Services

3. Will the Minister provide an update on the availability of dental services through the NHS in the Ammanford area? OQ59748

Thank you. I am aware that a fairly large contract in Ammanford was handed back to the health board last July. The health board have retendered the contract successfully and the new practice will be opening later this year.

Thank you for that response, Minister. It's to be welcomed, of course, that the new contract will commence at some point over the next few months because of the huge demand in the town after the service came to an end. During the last year, the contract for the Llandeilo Road Dental Surgery in Cross Hands came to an end in August last year. So, the same thing happened in Llandeilo and there is huge demand now in the surrounding area too. So, what assurance can we give to the residents of Ammanford in the first instance, who were former patients of the old service, that they'll be prioritised, and are there plans in place to meet the demand in neighbouring areas and to generate new capacity there too?

Thank you very much. Well, as I said, what's happening is, where people hand contracts back, you have to retender, and what's interesting is that they have been able to get somebody else to take on that contract in Ammanford. They are now redoing the surgery so that it's ready to accept patients—in September, I think, we hope that that will reopen in Ammanford. In the meantime, if there are urgent problems, then people can use the capacity available in terms of the urgent pathway.

What we do know is that there are some areas where the problem is worse than in others. In order to try and get more people to go to those areas, one of the things that we've done is to give that additional £5,000 for people to train in those areas, particularly in rural areas, where we are seeing a problem.

So, what you will now see is the contract going out in Llandeilo and Cross Hands to try and get more people to take the contract on. I understand that the contract in Llandeilo is quite a big one in terms of the numbers being affected, so maybe that will take a little longer.

Can I thank Adam Price for tabling this question? Adam Price spoke about the pressure that is put on dental services in Ammanford, from Carmarthenshire, but obviously, as you know, the Amman valley crosses into Neath Port Talbot as well, in my region. I just wonder, in terms of your answer there to Adam Price in terms of the availability of NHS dental services to other parts of Carmarthenshire, can you also confirm that you will prioritise as well people who, perhaps, live in a different health board or indeed a different county, but would perhaps look to somewhere like Ammanford for their dental needs on the NHS, and that they're also prioritised, not punished for having that border, if you like, put up between them and the most convenient location?

Thanks very much. Well, dentistry is quite different from the way that people deal with GPs. So, quite a lot of people want to go to a dentist near, for example, where they work. So, the patterns of where people go are not necessarily close to where they live. So, that is something that I think is acknowledged within the system. But, one of the things that we've asked health boards to do now is to make sure that they are keeping lists of people who are looking for new dental appointments. Some are further ahead than others. So, Powys, for example, have a centralised system; everybody knows exactly where they are on the list. So, that's a system that is developed. In Hywel Dda, parts of it are developed and parts of it are not. But, by the end of this year, we're hoping to have one national system so that we can get a much better picture of what the demand is, because part of the problem at the moment is that we're not clear what the demand is, despite the fact that, obviously, the new contract has meant that we have been able to provide an extra 178,000 new dental appointments.

14:55
Glan Clwyd Hospital

4. What is the Minister doing to reduce waiting times at Glan Clwyd Hospital? OQ59754

Thanks very much. Waiting times for both elective and emergency care have shown improvements over the last year. There's obviously still work to be done, and, as part of the special measures escalation, I've set clear targets for the next 90 days to improve waiting times. I expect to see continued improvements.

Thank you for your response, Minister. The reason I want to raise this question this afternoon is that I was contacted recently by a very concerned Vale of Clwyd resident, who informed me of a 55-hour waiting time at the A&E department at Glan Clwyd Hospital recently. And just to repeat that: 55 hours. That's over two days, Minister, and, quite frankly, it's an obscene amount of time for my constituents to wait for treatment, from arriving at ED to being seen and treated by the relevant health professionals. And this is further evidence to my constituents that the Welsh Labour Government is failing the people of the Vale of Clwyd and failing patients in managing the perennial issues at Betsi Cadwaladr health board. So, do you think that a 55-hour waiting time is acceptable, Minister—and I sincerely hope that you think they are not—and what specific arm of these special measures of Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board is laser focused on tackling waiting times at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd, as my constituents have had enough and need leadership, actions and answers?

So, look, 55 hours is utterly unacceptable. It's utterly unacceptable. We had some issues earlier this week with some very long waits in Wrexham, and immediately we got on to it and tried to clear the system. But, actually, if you look at the overall picture, and so you are going to get individuals, which is still unacceptable, but the overall picture is improving. Now, it might not feel like that to many people, but, just to give you some information, over the last 12 months, the performance in terms of the four-hour emergency department has increased from 42 per cent to 56 per cent. It's not great, but it's definitely going in the right direction. And in terms of the 12-hour waits, that was reduced from May 2022 to May 2023—we've seen a 14 per cent improvement there. So, we're definitely heading in the right direction.

But I just want to give a shout-out to Betsi for some of the improvements they are making—and they are genuinely are. And, do you know what, it's really important that we all celebrate together when that happens, because the last thing this board needs is more people talking it down. So, the improvement in relation to out-patients in Betsi has been quite, quite astounding. So, since January, we've seen a 43 per cent improvement in terms of the number of out-patients waiting for a year. That's an incredible—an incredible—effort by the people in that health board, and I'd like to thank them for that incredible effort.

Emergency Ambulance Services Committee

5. What assessment has the Minister made of the engagement process used by the Emergency Ambulance Services Committee in relation to the service review? OQ59726

Officials, through regular meetings with representatives of EASC, are assured the emergency medical and transfer service's service review engagement process has been comprehensive and transparent. Phase 1 is complete and enabled the public to contribute via meetings across mid and north Wales through online feedback and a dedicated phone line.

Thank you, Minister. Of course, this time last year, there were no proposals on the table, at least not publicly known about, and people across Wales were very grateful, as they still are now, for the amazing air ambulance service. So, it was a huge surprise when proposals came forward last August to close bases in Welshpool and Caernarfon, and the proposals were based on dubious data, I think it's now fair to say, that have now been removed off the table. But the basis for change seems to be not about cost saving, but about improving the service, and we're told that the service could be changed, leading to better results, without changing that financial envelope that's available. But, Minister, I agree with you, by the way, that the consultations that have taken place have been transparent. I've been very pleased to meet with Stephen Harrhy on a number of occasions, and I appreciate the time he's taken to listen to views across mid and north Wales. He's now taken time to consider those comments and come forward with further proposals. But can I ask you, Minister, if a proposal came forward that retained the current bases with suggestions of further bases that were appropriate in other areas of Wales that would need a greater financial resource, would that be something that you'd be willing to consider? Of course, I appreciate that the air ambulance charity themselves do not have any financial resource from the Welsh Government; the Welsh Government support is in terms of paramedics and equipment for the air ambulance service. But, ultimately, to give the air ambulance commissioner that steer in terms of his proposal for the next steps, would you be prepared, given the value of the air ambulance service, Minister, to financially contribute a greater sum through the Welsh NHS to support this very valuable air ambulance service? 

15:00

I think the first thing to say is that I don't want to pre-empt anything that's going to come from this consultation, and this is only the first phase. The commissioner will consider the outcome of that engagement process. We'll come up with some options for future configuration, and then we'll go back out to consultation. So, there's a second phase to go out to the public. So, I don't want to pre-empt that, but I really need to underline how serious our financial situation is. We are not in a position to start committing to resources that are already difficult to find in the system. So, it will be difficult for me to do that. Obviously, I'll wait until I see what comes forward. If there's a good clinical case for it, then we'll have to obviously consider that.   

Metastatic Breast Cancer

6. How is the Welsh Government supporting patients with metastatic breast cancer? OQ59736

As I set out in my response to the Petitions Committee debate in October, we are focused on NHS planning of services, improving data capture in the new cancer information system and new breast cancer audit, and setting out what should happen for patients in nationally agreed pathways of care.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Weinidog. You'll be aware of the campaigning work from the petitioner who secured the debate here in the Senedd, Tassia Haines, and her calls for improved services for metastatic breast cancer patients. You're right, Minister, that we had that debate a few months ago now, but Tassia continues her campaign for specialist nurse provision and improved quality of care, even though she is very ill herself. She was hoping to be here today; she's not, but she is watching online, I'm told. Minister, I've had the honour of meeting Tassia on a number of occasions in my role as committee Chair, and her knowledge of what needs to be done is evident. Tassia has shared the experience that she has been through and other patients that she knows have been through in Wales at a recent conference in Manchester as well. I wonder, Minister, if you would commit today to meeting with Tassia at the earliest possible opportunity to discuss with her her campaign further, and hopefully, Tassia can aid you in helping to develop that strategy going forward.  

Thanks very much. Listen, I want to pay tribute to Tassia, because I hear that she's done an incredible job of campaigning on this issue. I don't usually and I'm not going to start committing generally to meeting people, but I am on this occasion willing to meet with Tassia, because of the incredible work that she's done. I acknowledge that there is work to be done here. I think things have already improved, so all health boards now have specialist nurse provision for people with metastatic breast cancer in Wales. That's already moved from when she started this campaign, but that's partly thanks to her and you, the Petitions Committee and everybody who keeps on making sure that we respond when necessary to these requests. Certainly, if I can't meet her in person, then certainly, we will arrange to meet remotely.  

The big C is something that, unfortunately, will touch everyone in Wales somehow, whether it be through a family member, friend or someone who we know, who we live by. We all have a story of how cancer has affected us or someone we love in one way or another. My own family's been affected by breast cancer, and statistics from Cancer UK highlight that every day in Wales, 55 people are diagnosed and 24 people pass away from cancer. By 2040, it's predicted that the number of cases is set to rise by more than 25 per cent. As you know, Minister, metastatic breast cancer is late-stage cancer, and we need to do all that we can to avoid cancer getting to that stage. Early diagnosis saves lives, and makes metastatic breast cancer far less likely.

I welcome the new unified breast cancer unit at Ysbyty Ystrad Fawr and the effect that this will have on my region of South Wales East. What practical steps, Minister, are you taking to increase the chances of early diagnosis of breast cancer in my region of South Wales East? Thank you.

15:05

Thanks. Well, I think the stats that you quoted are important. We're expecting one in two of us to develop cancer at some point in our lives, so making sure that we are clear, first of all, about prevention where possible—and let’s be clear, it’s not possible on all occasions. People develop cancer, and what we need to do is to be there with them on that journey. What we also know about cancer is that you have to treat it early; if you can treat it early, you’re in a much better position.

In relation to metastatic cancer, I lost my sister-in-law to metastatic breast cancer about three years ago, so this is something that does chime with me, something that I know there are thousands of women in Wales who have been affected by this. So the fact that we have these new resources where people can go that are expert centres I hope will change the dynamic, and give people more confidence in the system. What we do have is the NHS executive now, and they’ve started development of the national pathway for metastatic breast cancer, and that’s due to be completed this year. So, we also have a new cancer information system, which is rolling out this year, and that means we can collect data and we’ll know what to do where.

Before I call Buffy Williams, can I just remind Members that if you expect to be called in an oral question session to the Minister, you do need to be present for the question session, whether here in the Chamber or on Zoom? That's to show respect to the Minister's answers and to the Senedd. But I will make an exception this time. Buffy Williams to ask question 7. 

Cancer Treatment in Cwm Taf Morgannwg

7. How is the Minister improving outcomes for residents receiving cancer treatment in Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board? OQ59752

Diolch yn fawr, Buffy. The health board have been placed in targeted intervention for quality issues relating to performance, and this includes cancer. The NHS executive is providing peer support and undertaking a number of interventions. Officials hold monthly meetings with health boards to oversee their cancer performance recovery.

Diolch, Minister. One in two of us will be diagnosed with cancer in our lifetimes. Earlier this year, as part of my Rhondda Against Cancer campaign, I set out to raise awareness of the symptoms to look out for and the importance of early diagnosis. The sooner we receive our diagnosis, the sooner treatment can begin. But we know that the treatment for some cancers can be extremely invasive and difficult, and although it saves lives, it can leave those on the receiving end with a worse quality of life. For example, men with prostate cancer can be left with incontinence, leading to isolation and loneliness. I’m currently running a survey for Rhondda residents to share their experience of life after cancer. Will you please meet with me to discuss the responses and provide an update on how the Welsh Government are supporting residents in Wales, following their cancer treatment?

Thank you very much, Buffy. It's traumatic, going through cancer, and for people who survive cancer, it's not something that ends, you then have to process it all and there are mental health issues you need to deal with. So, I really commend you on that work that you're doing in your constituency.

The diagnosis part that you mentioned I think is really crucial; we've got to catch this early. What's really interesting for me is getting into, 'What does the future look like?' So, we have things like liquid biopsies, which mean that you don't have quite such invasive diagnostic approaches. It's quite early days on some of this, but actually, Wales is world leading on some of this new genetic formulation. I'm really pleased to be able to speak to organisations that are very much at the forefront of this, and I think there are real opportunities. One of the things that I don't want to do is to be in a situation where the digital and the genetic developments move faster than we're able to move. So, it's a real challenge for us, because we don't have as much money as I'd like, but, certainly, the other thing I'm trying to avoid is to invest in kit that might be out of date by the time we start to use it. So, we just need to make sure that we get the balance right of treating today and thinking about tomorrow as well.

15:10
Grange University Hospital

8. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of access to healthcare at the Grange University Hospital? OQ59745

Access to healthcare at the Grange University Hospital has been below where I expect it to be for some time. I have been clear with the health board that this is not good enough and I've set clear expectations of the improvement required.

Thank you, Minister. In November, as you are quite aware, Healthcare Inspectorate Wales issued a report highlighting the need for urgent improvement in the emergency department at the Grange hospital. The inspection identified that Aneurin Bevan University Health Board did not have adequate arrangements in place within the department to support the delivery of safe healthcare. This is not the fault of any hard-working NHS staff; rather, it's the fault of increasing pressures and demands on the department. Indeed, I've had really positive feedback from people who've entered, once they're in the care system. We know that these changes aren't going to happen overnight, but what more can the Welsh Government do to help the health board accelerate the changes that the people of my constituency so desperately need? Are you confident about the progress being made there?

Thanks very much. I think there is improvement. The fact that performance has improved since December 2022 by 3.4 percentage points and that the 12-hour waits have decreased by 33 per cent means that we're heading in the right direction. Some of the things that we've done to support the health board are the £3.5 million capital funding that we've given to help them to establish the new SDECC, or same-day emergency care centre, which I think will transform the surgical urgent pathway and ensure that patients are seen and treated much faster. We also have seen that the health board have expanded the children's emergency assessment unit and the health board have introduced a flow centre in addition to a rapid diagnostic clinic, which has been established in the Grange hospital for patients with vague symptoms of cancer.

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

3. Topical Questions

We'll move now to the topical questions, and the first is from Cefin Campbell.

Redundancies at the Stradey Park Hotel

1. What assessments is the Welsh Government undertaking of the predicted redundancies at the Stradey Park Hotel, Llanelli? TQ807

Thank you for your question.

I understand that up to 100 jobs are at risk as a result of the Home Office's decision to use the Stradey Park Hotel. I've been informed that the Home Office accommodation provider Clearsprings is exploring opportunities to offer existing employees alternative employment, and we are monitoring this concerning situation closely.

Thank you for your response, Minister. I've been alarmed, as you have been as well, by recent reports that around 100 jobs at the hotel will be lost as a direct result of the Tory UK Government's decision to take over the hotel for the purpose of housing asylum seekers. Now, I'm extremely proud of the fact that Wales is a nation of sanctuary and that we are committed to offering support and a home to those who have faced unimaginable hardship, be it as a result of war, torture or persecution.

Plaid Cymru has been absolutely clear that the UK Government's hotels policy does not serve the needs of asylum seekers. The Tory Government's approach to the whole situation has been disgraceful. Carmarthenshire County Council has raised concerns that no additional resources have been allocated to address increased demands on local government services, already stripped to the bone due to a decade of Tory-imposed austerity measures. There are many important questions to be asked about placing hundreds of people in the Stradey Park Hotel, rather than pursuing a more sustainable model of dispersal, which would allow asylum seekers to better integrate into our communities. In addition, this would allow the Stradey Park Hotel to continue providing key events, such as weddings, and protect the jobs of current employees. 

We now know that about 95 staff members may face redundancy, and this in a town where unemployment and poverty figures remain stubbornly high. So, could I therefore encourage the Welsh Government to intervene with urgency? I would also ask what support might be made available to support those who will lose their jobs as a result of this decision.

15:15

Diolch yn fawr, Cefin Campbell. Can I say we are extremely—extremely—disappointed, not only about the situation that those valuable workers for that hotel with long service are facing, but also the proposed new use of the Stradey Park Hotel, the way it's been handled by the hotel owners—who we know are Essex based, they're not the people on the ground, we know, in the hotel—and, of course, by the Home Office? As you say, staff have only recently been made aware that they are being made redundant and have little clarity on their position and alternative employment offers. I've made the point about the Home Office provider Clearsprings, but we have no clarity about what that actually means in terms of offers.

I do want to say that the Minister for Economy, Vaughan Gething, will be writing to the Department for Business and Trade, the Secretary of State, to convey his deep unhappiness about this matter. But I've also been raising this, the whole picture of the way in which the Home Office are treating people who are in need of sanctuary, as you acknowledge in the support that you give to the nation of sanctuary. I have raised this with the Minister for Immigration, Robert Jenrick, and I just heard this week that he is prepared to meet me. I've raised a number of issues with him, including, of course, our rejection of the Illegal Migration Bill, and raised with him the fact that this is because they are not processing asylum applications appropriately and speedily so that people wouldn't be put in this situation. So, I just want to say that we've made it clear to the Home Office the negative impact of the hotel owner—Essex based, we recognise—making redundancies, not only on the employees themselves, but also on the wider community.

We know the tensions that are present, and we've raised these concerns on a number of occasions, and I have to say with the local Member and also the MPs. I've met with the leader of Carmarthenshire council on two occasions. What's very important is that the Welsh Government is participating in multi-agency meetings, of course, as well as the work that's being done, multi-agency, with the police and the police and crime commissioner. I will be meeting again with the leader.

Of course, we're not responsible—the Welsh Government is not responsible—for the procurement and operation of asylum accommodation in Wales, but we do believe that the sustainable model of dispersal is the right way forward across the whole of Wales, and we work with our local authorities and leaders to address this.

Just finally from me, of course, we will work with Carmarthenshire County Council in terms of offering support to employees if it does transpire they lose their jobs. We have the ReAct programme, of course, Welsh Government working very closely with Jobcentre Plus, Working Wales, and also intensive support for alternative employment as well. Actually, Working Wales, Communities for Work Plus and the Department for Work and Pensions are meeting employees on site next Tuesday and Wednesday.

Thank you, Minister.

The second topical question is to be asked by Tom Giffard.

Reporter on Senedd Proceedings

2. Will the Minister make a statement on the recently announced establishment of a fund for a reporter to cover the proceedings of the Senedd? TQ808

Can I thank Tom Giffard for that question? Funding will support a dedicated full-time journalist to cover Senedd business, providing free content to all news outlets in a similar way to the BBC local democracy reporting service. There is currently no full-time local media journalistic coverage of the Senedd, an issue that has been raised by the industry and sector representatives.

I thank the Minister for the answer. Now, the idea of a Government paying journalists to cover itself is not something from the cold war Soviet Union, it is Wales in 2023 and our Government here is spending £200,000 of taxpayers' money on journalism projects, including £36,500 on salary and expenses for this particular journalist. That is, of course, as you know, Minister, significantly higher than the average salary here in Wales. Obviously, it's important that we have more democratic scrutiny of the decisions made in Cardiff Bay, something we’ve long advocated, and, from my perspective, the more people that know that this is a Welsh Government that’s failing on health, failing on the economy and failing on education, the better. But, given those failures, is this the most appropriate way to do that, really, to directly spend public funds on creating a new job for a journalist? Now the Caerphilly Observer, who’d be running the pilot, said there’d be no editorial interference in the content that this journalist produces. Editor Richard Gurner has even said that, quote,

'If there was any sort of suggestion that there would be editorial interference, I wouldn't be involved in the project.'

End quote. And I’ve no doubt that his comments are genuine and they’re well-meaning, but, on a day-to-day basis, that’s going to be difficult to maintain. The idea that, despite the fact that this journalist’s job—

15:20

—depends solely on funding from the Welsh Government, there would be no indirect influence on news stories being produced, doesn’t seem sustainable, so that could place any young journalist hoping to do this job in an extremely awkward position, especially when it comes to publishing critical stories.

So, Minister, do you accept that a press that is bought and paid for by Government is bad news for democracy and democratic accountability, and raises serious concerns about their independence and their preparedness to scrutinise the Government in a way that a more independent journalist would?

Well, it’s kind of where to start, isn’t it, with that ill-informed nonsense, Tom, frankly. I mean, you will have heard my colleague Lee Waters say—and I was going to mention this myself—that it was the UK Government, your Government in the UK, that set up the BBC democracy service to do exactly—exactly—what we are proposing to do with this local democracy reporter in Wales. And I think you also need to understand the process that we’ve been through to get to this. You’re a member of the culture committee, Tom, and this was a process that started when the Deputy Minister for Climate Change and I were members of the culture committee in the last term, when we had an inquiry into the democratic deficit that we’ve got in Wales and how we deliver reporting on news in this Senedd. We’ve seen, over the years, historical and recent budgetary constraints within the journalism industry that have led to a reduction in the coverage of Senedd business, and an issue that’s been raised, as I said in my initial answer, by the wider sector representatives and the industry itself. So, this is something that we’ve done that has been informed by the industry.

And as a result of all of that work, we came into this period of Government, I was appointed Minister, and, as a result of discussions with the National Union of Journalists, we set up something called the public interest journalism working group, and it was that group that came up with the proposals to take forward this pilot project. And be clear about that: it is a pilot project; it’s a pilot project to see how this works. And the approach and the idea behind this is that it will increase the coverage of Senedd business on an engaged level, a local level, across Wales, helping media plurality and providing an elevated political news service to residents in Wales. The cost of this is around £36,000. The post is going to be based in Cardiff Bay.

But I noticed the comments that you made on this on social media last night, Tom, and you went into the usual kind of Welsh Tory vanity project stuff. You’ve already had all that debunked by a Welsh journalist, your whole list of Welsh Government vanity projects, by a local political journalist on WalesOnline. So, I don’t think we need to go down the road of talking about vanity projects; it is a vital gap that we’re looking to fill in terms of reporting the work of this Welsh Parliament. It’s a vital part of any democracy that we have independent and accurate reporting on our democratic processes. And contrary to what you say, Tom, I can understand why the Tories want to resist this, because I can understand that you don’t want to see scrutiny of the nonsense that you often spout in this Chamber, but let’s be clear: Welsh Government welcomes any additional scrutiny, and we have nothing to fear—

I will ask all Members on all sides, please, to remain quiet, so we can all hear the answer from the Deputy Minister.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. So, we have nothing to fear from additional scrutiny, and we welcome this kind of democracy reporting, which will do far more for our democracy than we’ve seen up to now.

15:25

It's really weird to hear the Conservatives attacking the much-loved institution that is the Caerphilly Observer, which is run from my constituency. Richard Gurner, the editor, is held in huge respect by the population of Caerphilly, and the only people who accuse him of any kind of bias are the people who are held to account by his newspaper, which includes Plaid Cymru, the Labour Party, the Conservatives and every other political party, when in fact what he is offering is impartial, unbiased journalism. It's really unfortunate that the Conservatives are attacking that kind of journalism in this way, and I will not stand for it. I'm absolutely confident that the journalist that will be employed by the Caerphilly Observer through this scheme will be absolutely impartial and will do their job with professionalism and diligence. I want the Minister to confirm that's the case, and also recognise that the Conservatives have removed a tweet from their misleading account that suggested some untruths about this programme.

Thank you, Hefin David, for that comment. And yes, of course, the Caerphilly Observer also covers journalism in part of my constituency as well, and I do know the journalist that you're taking about, Richard Gurner. He holds you and I to account all the time, Hefin, as you well know, and I've got the greatest deal of respect for him. This is not a journalist that would be bought out by a £36,000 grant, and I think it's absolutely outrageous for anybody to be suggesting and attacking that journalist's integrity in the way that you've done today, Tom Giffard. I don't think it does you or your party any—[Interruption.]—credit at all.

The pilot—[Interruption.]—the pilot, as I've said, will be free from editorial interference by Welsh Government. The content will be made available to all news publishing outlets right across Wales, with responsibility for translation sitting with the recipient publication. It's going to be expected to deliver articles—25 to 40 news pieces—every month. That is something that is not being reached at the moment, and this pilot project, as I've said—I will repeat it again—is about trying to spread the local democracy reporting across Wales, so that more people—not less, more people—can access independent reporting of the operations and the work that goes on in our Welsh Parliament.

Plaid Cymru warmly welcomes this additional investment in our democratic infrastructure. Of course, as you are aware, providing support to the media is a commitment in the co-operation agreement, and specifically we committed to provide additional investment to develop initiatives that are already in existence and new initiatives. It's important that we tackle the information deficit that exists, and we do see that this is a positive step, but it's not a new development either. The independent taskforce for the Llywydd in the last Senedd suggested establishing a small team of journalists, so, in reality, the question should be, 'Why one?' rather than that small team.

I do think that we also have to look at this small contribution as being important in ensuring that the citizens of Wales understand what this Senedd does and what party is in power, and that they understand that they too have a role in holding representatives to account. After all, a survey undertaken by our group showed that 35 per cent of respondents to that survey believed that the Conservatives have had Ministers in the Welsh Government since the May election in 2021; 44 per cent believed Plaid Cymru had Ministers in Government; but 78 per cent of respondents couldn't name a single policy introduced in Wales over the past year when they considered the Senedd and the Welsh Government. If we think that there is no problem, then I think we have to raise some very serious questions indeed, and that's why we welcome this.

But we need to do more, of course. One journalist isn't going to close this democratic deficit. The whole broadcasting framework is inadequate. That's why we need to devolve broadcasting and communications in full, so that we can invest strategically through a broadcasting and communications authority that would be at arm's length and ensure that broadcasters such as the BBC do serve Wales properly with the funding provided by the people of Wales through the licence fee. So, may I ask, Deputy Minister, do you agree that the most effective way of investing and closing that democratic deficit is by establishing a communications and broadcasting authority and securing full powers over these areas for this Senedd?

Diolch, Heledd, for those comments and questions. I agree with everything you were saying. Under the Welsh Government's co-operation agreement with Plaid, we've had £300,000 allocated over three years, which will help to provide and develop new and existing enterprises, in seeking to improve journalism and tackle that information deficit that you've referred to. And, yes, would I like to see more journalists doing this? Of course, we would, but this is a pilot, specifically within that funding pot, to run for a year, see how it goes, does it make a difference—I think it will make a difference. And if it makes a difference, as with all pilots, you can build on that. So, that's very much where I hope that we're going.

As you know, again, as part of our co-operation agreement, we are moving towards building the case for the devolution of broadcasting, and I've been working very closely with your colleague Cefin Campbell on that one. We've been making good progress on that; we've had the first report from the expert panel on the devolution of broadcasting. And quite interestingly, actually, the work of the Wales public interest journalism working group that they've just produced, talking about how they feel we need to move forward in terms of identifying or talking about public service journalism as a public service—as something that we should identify as a public service—links very much into the work that we're doing on the devolution of broadcasting. And one of the recommendations from the expert panel is that, if we progress the work on public interest journalism, we maybe need to combine the work of the public interest journalism working group and the work that's proceeding on the establishment of a shadow broadcasting authority.

So, we've still got a lot of work to do on that. I've been very clear, as has Cefin Campbell, to be fair, on the work around the devolution of broadcasting: we want it to be evidence based, we want it to be factual, we want it to be watertight. So, I'm not going to stand here today and say that this is absolutely what is being delivered, but this is something that we are working towards, and we know what our intended objectives and outcomes are. But we want to make sure that, when we get to that point, we have a case that we can all sign up to.

15:30

I very much welcome the funding of a reporter to cover the Senedd. The written media, both online and on paper, generally provides very poor coverage of Senedd proceedings. The big improvement recently has been the expansion of Nation.Cymru, which now provides the best all-Wales coverage. On local news, the South Wales Evening Post in Swansea bay is very good, but with limited Senedd coverage due to a shortage of journalists. Will the appointed reporter be providing copy to regional and Welsh language newspapers, and to Nation.Cymru?

Again, Mike Hedges, I agree with the comments that you've made, and Nation.Cymru is a classic case in point. And actually, we do help support and fund Nation.Cymru. I don't think anybody would suggest that Nation.Cymru is a big friend, necessarily, of Welsh Government—they are very critical of us when they feel they need to be, and quite rightly so. So, I think they are a classic example, and a case in point, of an independent news outlet that we have helped to support to keep on the road, that is very much holding us as a Welsh Government to account. And I think that, where we can do that, where we can help to support and nurture independent journalism, that is exactly what we should be doing.

We're out of time and I have two more people wishing to raise questions, so, please be succinct in your questions. Alun Davies.

People up and down Wales will have different views on the decisions of the Welsh Government, but one thing that unites people, from Anglesey through to Monmouthshire, is that we have the world's worst opposition. And if you want an example of poor opposition, look at this question today. Most opposition parties would want more scrutiny of Government. Most opposition parties would want the people of Wales to know what the Government is doing, because you are supposed to believe that the Government is doing it wrong. And yet, what we have here is people who are very happy to appear on things like GB News, which is funded by right-wingers in Dubai, and other sources of news from people who don't even pay UK taxes, but object to Welsh media covering Welsh politics. And the reason for that is, of course, that they don't have the confidence in their arguments, and they don't have the confidence in what they're saying. They should be ashamed of putting forward this question this afternoon.

Minister, will you ensure that this is the beginning and not the end of the programme, to ensure that the work of this place, both the Senedd and the Government, has the prominence that it requires, and that the materials produced through this scheme are entirely independent of Government, independent of the Senedd, but inform the people of Wales of the work that is being done in this place, and what a shambles of an opposition we have to face?

15:35

Yes, absolutely, Alun Davies, and I don't think I need to say what an awful opposition we have in this Senedd; it's been widely reported in the Welsh media. And again, the same journalist that tore apart your vanity projects list has also questioned the validity of your opposition, basically saying that the Welsh Government has no opposition in Wales. And I think that that's the point that you were making. And for any opposition party to want to support a position where the Welsh Government is scrutinised less rather than more is really, really quite bizarre—absolutely bizarre.

So, yes, absolutely, Alun Davies, I will want to ensure that this is the beginning of a programme that ensures that that prominence, and ensures that that reporting remains independent of Government, informs the people of Wales, and continues to rightly scrutinise the Welsh Government.

And just to inform the Member for Blaenau Gwent, that was not succinct. [Laughter.] Rhianon Passmore.

Oh, what can I say? The Welsh Senedd funding, Deputy Minister—the financial costs of a reporter to cover the proceedings of this Senedd—is to be very much welcomed. How often does this Chamber, cross-party, and in committee, decry the paucity of coverage of this place, and the need for greater participation, and to rectify a democratic deficit? So, this pilot—and it is a pilot—will be conducted by the Caerphilly Observer. They already hold, as has been stated, the contract for the local democracy reporting service, funded by the BBC at a local level.

So, Deputy Minister, would the Welsh Government echo with me, and guarantee, in the words of the Caerphilly Observer editor, Richard Gurner, that the pilot will mean impartial reporting and an adherence to all the usual high standards? And Minister, will the Welsh Government continue to champion the emergence of a truly free Welsh press, epitomised by the qualitative rise of the Caerphilly Observer from very humble origins as a website on a laptop to a highly respected, objective, award-winning news service now? Thank you.

Well, again, can I thank Rhianon Passmore for those comments and her question on that? And, yes, again, I absolutely agree with her, and when I look around at what we refer to in the United Kingdom as our free press—the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, The Sun—these free media outlets that apparently—. Well, they're clearly not impartial. And they're not funded by Government, but they are funded by interests within the Tory Party—let's be under no doubt about that—and that's what they report on. But I have to say, even the Daily Express now are writing your obituary, so just be careful what you wish for in paying your masters, because even they know about the extinction-level, whatever it is—extinction-level event—that they called it. So, that's what you're facing next year in the general election.

But, absolutely, Rhianon Passmore, we want to champion a free Welsh press, and the fact that we are supporting a pilot to deliver that is not in any way an indication that that would not be impartial. If it were to be in any way deemed to not be impartial, if there was any indication that there would be any political interference at all, then Richard Gurner and the Caerphilly Observer would immediately withdraw, I have no doubt, because that is the integrity that people like that have. But as I said in response to Heledd Fychan, I see this very much as the start of a process, and not the end of it. I hope that it will be a successful pilot project, and that we can build on that going forward.

Diolch i'r Dirprwy Weinidog. I have received a point of order from Tom Giffard. Tom Giffard. 

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. There was obviously a lot I disagreed with in that debate, but there were some things that were just patently untrue, I'm afraid to say. And Hefin David and the Deputy Minister, Dawn Bowden, both alleged that I'd called into question the impartiality and the neutrality of the Caerphilly Observer and its staff. Can I encourage you to check the Record, and check whether I actually said that, because I can tell you I didn't?

I will check the Record. I didn't hear any criticism of the journalist or the paper, but I will double-check the Record and I will come back to this Chamber with a view on that. I'm sure the Deputy Minister will also reflect on the Record as well to make sure that her comments were accurate. 

4. 90-second Statements

Item 4 this afternoon is the 90-second statements. First of all, Carolyn Thomas. 

15:40

Diolch. On Saturday, 1 July, we celebrate National Meadows Day and the vital role they play in our ecosystem, supporting biodiversity. This is an important opportunity to take part in local events, such as helping with the wildflower survey count or learn why councils are allowing our grass verges and amenity land to be grown and encouraged to be maintained to allow wildflowers to thrive, which has been happening under our local nature partnerships' 'It's for Them' campaign. 

Last Saturday, as the butterfly orchid species champion, I took part in a butterfly orchid count at a wildflower meadow, owned by Plantlife Cymru and managed by the North Wales Wildlife Trust. The meadow was rich in diverse species, which has created habitat in return for many animals and insects, such as butterflies, ladybirds, damselflies, crickets, spiders and tiny frogs. The place was alive and very beautiful.

We currently focus on tree planting for carbon storage, yet three to five times more carbon is stored within our grasslands than in our forests, and, unfortunately, 90 per cent of meadows have been lost. Wildlife is declining at an unprecedented rate in human history, and one in six species in Wales are at risk of extinction, which is why we need to look at putting protections in place urgently and manage wildflower meadows, verges, amenity grass and even our own gardens in a different way. 

I also want to pay tribute to landowners who manage land for nature, and hope that the incoming sustainable farming scheme will offer the right incentives to encourage others to do the same. If we are to cultivate a fertile future, one in which our biodiversity is allowed to bloom, much more needs to be done to protect our natural environment, and I know the Welsh Government is working really hard with partners to do just that. Thank you. 

Last Saturday, the 2024 Eisteddfod proclamation came to Aberdare, and it was a real honour to be able to join the procession, as we welcome the Eisteddfod to Rhondda Cynon Taf and Rhondda Cynon Taf to the Eisteddfod, and what a welcome it was. As Members will know, the proclamation is an important milestone in the preparations for next year's festival. This will see the Eisteddfod being held in RCT, returning to the area for the first time in almost 70 years. Indeed, this follows on from the proclamation revisiting in Aberdare, the town where the first modern Eisteddfod was held back in 1861.

It was good to see so many local people and so many children coming together to welcome the Gorsedd and celebrate our shared culture and heritage. In fact, members of the Gorsedd said to me that the reception they received from the residents of Aberdare was the best they'd experienced in many years.

Saturday's celebration built on the grass-roots project that the Eisteddfod has already carried out in RCT, funded by the Lottery Heritage Fund. These include a historical walking tour for Welsh learners in Aberdare and the marchnad haf in Aberdare Park, involving local schools and Scout groups. I'd like to express my thanks to everyone who was involved in putting this magical day together, with special mention for RCT council and all at Our Aberdare business improvement district. Diolch. 

Last weekend, at the Royal Highland Show, the Golden Shears wool-shearing and wool-handling championships took place. The wool-shearing and wool-handling championships is an international competition, held to determine the best and fastest sheep shearers and wool handlers in the world. It showcases the art and the skill and techniques it takes to be a world champion. The event brings together skilled shearers and wool handlers from 30 countries to compete in various shearing disciplines.

It's fabulous to say that team Wales came away with winning the team wool-handling championship, the team shearing championship and the individual machine-shearing championship. I'm sure I and the whole Chamber want to pass on our huge congratulations to Gwion Evans, Richard Jones, Elfed Jackson, Gareth Owen, Ffion Jones and Sarah-Jane Rees on all their success at the Royal Highland Show. And I wish all our shearers across Wales, young and old, all the very best for the sheep-shearing competitions at the Royal Welsh agricultural show in the next couple of weeks. Diolch.  

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Eid al-Adha or 'Festival of Sacrifice' is one of the most important festivals in the Muslim calendar. Today marks the start of Eid al-Adha and the festival ends on Sunday evening.

It is the second and the largest of the two main holidays celebrated in Islam. It honours the willingness of Ibrahim, or as many of you know him, Abraham, to sacrifice one of his sons, Ismail or Ishmael, as an act of obedience to God's command. The devil tempted Ibrahim by saying he should disobey Allah and spare his son. Ibrahim ignored temptation and prepared to sacrifice his child. As he was about to kill his son, Allah stopped him and gave him a lamb to sacrifice instead. In commemoration of this intervention, we celebrate Ibrahim’s sacrifice.

Eid al-Adha takes place on the last day of Hajj. Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam, which states that each Muslim, once in their lifetime, should stand before the Ka’bah—a shrine built by Ibrahim in Mecca. This occasion of Eid is a time when community, sacrifice and sharing are at the forefront of people's minds, with a particular focus on showing compassion for those less fortunate. It is also a moment for gratitude. So, in that spirit, I wish you all Eid al-Adha Mubarak. May your life be always filled with light, love, happiness and good health. Diolch yn fawr.

15:45
Motion to elect a Member to a committee

We now move to a motion to elect a Member to a committee, and I call on a member of the Business Committee to formally move the motion. Darren Millar.

Motion NNDM8313 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Heledd Fychan (Plaid Cymru) as a member of the Business Committee in place of Siân Gwenllian (Plaid Cymru).

Motion moved.

The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No. The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

5. Debate on a Member's Legislative Proposal—A civic duty to vote Bill

Item 5 this afternoon is a debate on a Member's legislative proposal—a civic duty to vote Bill. I call on Adam Price to move the motion.

Motion NDM8293 Adam Price

Supported by Rhys ab Owen

To propose that the Senedd: 

1. Notes a proposal for a Bill on the introduction of a civic duty to vote.

2. Notes that the purpose of this Bill would be to:

a) to seek to emulate the success of other democracies that have introduced a civic duty to vote in increasing levels of voter turnout at elections and thereby improving the level of engagement and representativeness across all ages, classes and communities;

b) to introduce a civic duty for all those eligible to vote to participate in Senedd and county council elections;

c) to allow those wishing to indicate their dissatisfaction with a candidate, party or politics more broadly to so by means of a positive abstention option on the ballot paper;

d) to allow for the introduction of an appropriate sanction for non-compliance with the civic obligation to vote or positively abstain, with legitimate exemptions; and

e) to provide for the introduction of a pilot phase for the introduction of the duty on an age-specific basis.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. It's an honour to propose this motion on universal civic duty voting. It's not the first Senedd motion on this proposal. Six years ago, a motion advocating universal voting was tabled by Dawn Bowden, Jeremy Miles and the late Steffan Lewis, but was not selected. So, this is the first time we've had the opportunity as a Senedd to debate the proposition that every citizen, as part of their basic civic duties, should be required to participate in the nation's democratic life. 

A Senedd of 96 Members, at least half of them women, elected by more than 90 per cent of the electorate, would be more representative than any other Parliament in these islands. It is a massively transformational idea, but it's not a new or unusual one. It exists in 26 countries across the world: countries as diverse as Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Ecuador, Greece, Singapore, Switzerland and Uruguay. In Australia, participation in elections has been mandatory since 1924. And the idea that citizenship involves not just rights but duties is a familiar one here in Wales too, as we accept our duty to pay taxes, to serve on a jury, to fill out the census, and, yes, also to register to vote.

So, why extend that principle to the act of voting itself? Well, there is one central premise behind this proposal: that the health of any democracy is only as good as the extent to which the people participate in it. This Parliament, though created by a majority of Welsh electors in 1997, has not been elected by a majority in any of the elections since then, and the same goes for local government elections in Wales over that period as well.

The first reason to introduce universal civic duty voting is that it would dramatically increase turnout to the 90 per cent plus that we typically see in elections in those countries like Belgium, Australia and Uruguay, where it is the norm. There can be no doubt that higher turnout would give the Senedd and the Welsh Government far greater legitimacy. But higher turnout would also make this Senedd more genuinely representative. The just under half of the electorate that vote at the moment is heavily skewed towards the older and more affluent voter, so the views of many of the young and the working class, especially those who feel that mainstream politics has the least to offer them, will go unheeded. Universal civic duty voting would give us instead a system in which everyone would count, not just those likely to vote. And if everyone is voting, every voice is heard. 

Introducing a civic duty to vote would also likely mean that, instead of making it more difficult for people to vote, as is happening for the Westminster Government at the moment, we would try to make it as easy as possible, through, for example, moving voting to a Saturday, introducing digital voting, and allowing people to vote at any polling station. And if every young person were required to vote, schools would have an even more powerful reason to provide political education as part of the mandatory curriculum.

Universal civic duty voting will transform our democracy's legitimacy, its representativeness and its culture. No citizen would be forced to vote for anyone against their will, and each of us will have the option of voting for a 'none of the above' option or simply returning a blank or spoilt ballot if that’s our wish. There would be reasonable grounds for exemption. Enforcement should be light touch, as it is in all jurisdictions that have introduced civic duty voting. Fines should be small and more symbolic in nature, with community service requirements as alternatives to fines for those on low incomes and the young, and we should consider the possible use of incentives as opposed to penalties, to minimise any possible adverse consequences.

For us to assess the different models for implementation, then it does make sense, I think, to have a graduated plan of implementation involving the use of pilots. I can think of two different ways we may want to do that—one area specific, the other age related. We could trial a civic duty to vote in a given local authority area during the next 2027 round of elections, and maybe use that as a basis for designing a national roll-out. We could decide, as a first step, to introduce a civic duty vote for first-time voters at the Senedd election in 2026. There's strong evidence that getting young voters into the habit of voting leads to a stronger propensity to vote in later life.

If there's broad agreement that this is a useful discussion for us to be having, then I have two practical suggestions—one for the Government, and one for us as a Senedd. For the Government, as I said yesterday, commissioning some independent research from the Wales Centre for Public Policy on how a civic duty to vote might impact the indicators of a healthy democracy would furnish us with a good evidential basis for an informed debate. For the Senedd, I think it would be useful if we held what would be the first ever committee inquiry specifically on universal civic duty voting in these islands. I'm thinking particularly of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee. 

I look forward to hearing Members' contributions and the ministerial response to this historic first debate.

15:50

I'd like to thank Adam Price for bringing this important motion. I'd like to speak in favour of it and see it as a beginning of a very important discussion.

According to the research from the US think tank the Brookings Institution, the evidence shows what we already know, that a civic duty to vote can iron out disparities in turnout along class, ethnic and racial lines. We know these exist. We see them. We see huge differences in wards within our areas. For example, in last year's local elections, the turnout in the affluent ward of Rhiwbina was 57.5 per cent. In contrast, the turnout in Ely was 23 per cent. We have recently seen what happens when a community feels they are forgotten and ignored. And bear in mind that this is the percentage of registered voters, not of all those eligible to vote. I'm sure we've all canvassed in some wards, such as Ely, when we pass house after house who have not registered. I dread to think what the real turnout in Ely is. I can assure you it's far less than 23 per cent.

In Australia, registration became compulsory before the civic duty to vote, back in 1911, and turnout in Australian elections is always in the high 80s of those eligible to enrol. I was pleased to hear yesterday of the Welsh Government's commitment to bring forward a Bill that will take steps to ensure that every eligible voter in Wales is on the electoral register. Closer to home, all Belgian citizens are automatically registered to vote. Why are we creating additional barriers for people to express their democratic voice? It should be as straightforward as possible, and that is seen in Belgium, with voter turnout on average over 90 per cent over the last 10 elections. 

I can imagine that some of my friends on the Conservative benches may feel uneasy about the civic duty to vote, but bear this in mind: you might fear losing out in elections, you might fear losing votes, but just remember, at every Senedd election, your leader Andrew R.T. Davies talks about the need for your voters in Westminster elections to turn out and vote in Senedd elections. That doesn't happen for you at the moment; you don't inspire your Westminster voters to turn out in their droves to vote in Senedd elections. Who knows, a civic duty to vote may be one way to boost your support in Senedd elections. I made a quick calculation before this debate, and if your Westminster support was reflected in the Senedd elections, well, the Cwnsler Cyffredinol, who responds to this debate, would only have a slim majority of 17 votes. So, bear that in mind when you vote this afternoon. 

In proposing the introduction of a civic duty to vote—

15:55

—it would be a continuation of our innovative work in Wales in expanding the electorate, with votes at 16 and votes being more representative. Many will ask, 'Why divert from Westminster?', but we've had divergence in elections in Wales since 1999. As we heard earlier, we do have a democratic deficit in Wales; this Bill will be one step to address that. Diolch yn fawr.

Thank you, Adam Price, for introducing this Bill. I think it's really important. I really worry about the fact that we only had a 46.6 per cent turnout in the last Senedd elections, in 2021. Granted, it was the highest it's ever been, but let's compare that with a slightly larger but not dissimilar-sized electorate in Queensland, Australia, where the turnout in the 2020 Queensland state elections was 87.9 per cent. Queensland has had compulsory voting of one sort or another since 1915, and the effect of the civic duty to vote can be clearly seen. Whilst there is a fine for those who don't vote, a first-time offence can be discharged for as little as AU$20 and the maximum penalty is AU$180. I'm afraid I don't know how these amounts equate into pounds, but we're talking really moderate sums of money. And these fines are regularly enforced.

On top of that, there are several opt-outs built into the system that allow leniency. If someone is travelling, if they're ill, they can have an opt-out. In addition, there are exemptions for religious objection, seasonal workers, and those with no fixed address. If someone is not registered to vote, they can also be included as an opt-out. However, it must be noted that Queensland's electoral enrolment rate is apparently 96 per cent. I'm not quite sure how they equate that, but they don't have the same problem that Rhys ab Owen has just described, where they pass, endlessly, houses where no-one is registered to vote when they go around canvassing. This is in contrast to the situation that we have today with the UK Government's determined intention to suppress the vote amongst young people, linguistically marginalised communities and people who are poor. 

Queensland state encourages people to vote, not just enshrining it in law. They also have the phenomenon of the democracy sausage, where community organisations organise barbecues outside polling stations so that those queuing up to vote can pay a small fee to have a hot dog or another snack while they queue. Presumably that creates a sort of festive environment where everybody thinks this is something that we do together and something we should celebrate. And for many community groups, election day is their biggest fundraising day of the year. So, there's a win-win on all sides.

As Adam Price has already said, they vote on a Saturday, which means most people don't have to take time off work and it has a minimal effect on schools, and it means schools are available as one of the centres of polling because they're not being used for children's education. It's also to be noted that Australians can also vote near the beach. If it's in the summer, you get people turning up to vote in their beach gear with surfboards. And we have to really understand that if voting were compulsory—I completely agree with Adam Price—schools would have to provide political education. And I was really disappointed to hear from the discussions with ethnic minority young women last night in the Neuadd, that the schools they attend are still not providing young people with the information they need to appreciate the importance of voting, and that we have to change immediately.

16:00

It's certainly the case, isn't it, that in the UK and in Wales, we do not have the thriving democracy that we would wish to see, and I very much welcome ideas to improve on that situation, and I'm very pleased that Adam Price has brought this proposal forward for discussion and debate today. We do know that, as well as the lack of democratic legitimacy and the lack of the healthy democracy that we want in Wales, due to the low turnout and never having reached 50 per cent in Senedd elections, for example, there is also the question of equality and social justice in participation, as Adam Price said, and trying to ensure that more voices are heard and indeed that virtually every voice is heard.

I note that, in 2014, the European Social Survey found that over-55s in Britain were twice as likely to vote as under-35s, and those in the top income quintile were twice as likely to vote as those in the bottom quintile. So, there are real issues here that we need to get to grips with. And it's not just about coercion, is it; it's about sending a clear message and having an educative effort around a new civic duty to vote that I'm sure we would all be enthusiastic to help and take part in. And I think pilots are a very good idea in terms of the way forward, and we could test it in the ways that Adam Price has mentioned.

Sometimes, when I knock doors, Dirprwy Lywydd, and I'm met with a response that 'I'm not interested in politics', I sometimes say, 'Well, maybe, but politics is interested in you'. And that's the point, really, isn't it—that political parties are not going to concentrate on younger people and people in relative poverty, as much as they would otherwise, if they think those sections of society are less likely to vote, and their policies are then tailored accordingly, including if they get into Government, what they actually do. And I note that there is research, actually, that shows that those marginalised groups in terms of not voting at elections tend to suffer the greatest cuts to their household income from elected Governments in the UK. You know, these are real nitty-gritty, substantive issues that we need to try and address to a much greater extent than we have up to now.

And I do believe, Dirprwy Lywydd, that we could get to the stage of having a virtuous circle, where, if more people turn out to vote, including those marginalised categories, then political parties pay more attention to them, Government policies address their issues to a greater extent, and in turn, they become more interested in politics and they are more likely to vote. All of this I think sits very well with our new Senedd proposals—again, as Adam Price has mentioned—and, perhaps, an automatic registration system, which I also think is badly needed. So, a very timely debate. I very much welcome it, and I hope that this is just the start of something that will lead to concrete proposals implemented here in Wales.