Y Cyfarfod Llawn
In the bilingual version, the left-hand column includes the language used during the meeting. The right-hand column includes a translation of those speeches.
The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Good afternoon and welcome to this Plenary meeting. Before we begin, I'd like to inform Members that the next ballot for Member Bills will be held on 18 October. Information on the process will be circulated to you as Members shortly—something for you to ponder over during the summer.
The next item, therefore, is a motion to suspend Standing Orders to allow a debate on the motion to establish a committee. I call on a member of the Business Committee to formally move the motion.
Motion NNDM8336 Elin Jones
To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Orders 33.6 and 33.8:
Suspends Standing Order 12.20(i), and that part of Standing Order 11.16 that requires the weekly announcement under Standing Order 11.11 to constitute the timetable for business in Plenary for the following week, to allow NNDM8335 to be considered in Plenary on Wednesday, 12 July 2023.
The motion is formally moved. The proposal, therefore, is to suspend Standing Orders. Does any Member object? No. The motion is therefore agreed, which allows us to move to the motion to establish a committee.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Again, I call on a member of the Business Committee to formally move the motion.
Motion NNDM8335 Elin Jones
To propose that the Senedd:
1. In accordance with Standing Order 16.3, establishes a Reform Bill Committee to scrutinise Bills referred to it by the Business Committee.
2. Agrees that the committee will be dissolved either:
a) when all Bills referred to the committee have received Royal Assent and the Business Committee has decided that no further Bills will be referred to the committee; or
b) when the Senedd so resolves;
whichever is the sooner.
Lesley Griffiths has formally moved the motion. Therefore, the proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No. That motion is therefore agreed, which allows us to move on to the motion under item 2.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
This is the motion to allocate a committee Chair to a political group. I call on a member of the Business Committee to formally move the motion.
Motion NNDM8337 Elin Jones
To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.2A agrees that the political group from which the Chair of the Reform Bill Committee is elected will be the Welsh Labour group.
I have no speakers on this item. So, the proposal is—
Yes, I do have a speaker. Darren Millar.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I'm grateful for the opportunity to speak on this motion. My group, as you will know as a member of the Business Committee, object to the allocation of this particular Chair to the Labour group, on the basis of the number of Chairs already allocated by this Senedd and the Business Committee to the political groups in the Senedd. We believe that our group is under-represented, and, on that basis, we will be objecting to this particular item today.
The proposal therefore is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] Yes, there is objection. And therefore we will move to a vote immediately on this motion. I will move immediately to the vote—[Interruption.] Does any Member object and ask me to ring the bell? There are enough Members who do wish me to ring the bell to warn Members of the vote. So, the bell will be rung and the vote will be taken in five minutes.
The bell was rung to call Members to the Chamber.
Plenary was suspended at 13:32.
The Senedd reconvened at 13:40, with the Llywydd in the Chair.
We are in a position now to move to the vote. Just to remind Members, this vote will be on item 2, which is the motion to allocate a committee Chair to a political group. And, for Members' information, two thirds of the Members voting will need to be in favour of this motion in order for it to be approved. So, I open the vote. In favour 32, no abstentions, 14 against. Therefore, the motion is agreed.
Item 2. Motion to allocate a committee Chair to a political group: For: 32, Against: 14, Abstain: 0
Motion has been agreed
The next item is nominations for a committee Chair for the committee that's just been formed. Under Standing Order 17.2F, I invite nominations for the position of Chair. Jack Sargeant.
Diolch, Llywydd. I nominate David Rees.
David Rees has been nominated as chair of the Reform Bill Committee, which has now been allocated a Labour Chair. Is there a Labour seconder for the nomination? Sarah Murphy.
I just wanted to second the nomination of Dai Rees MS.
Thank you. David Rees is nominated and seconded. Are there any further nominations from the Labour group? There are no further nominations. Therefore, I will ask David Rees whether he accepts the nomination. He does. So, the nomination has been accepted. Is there any objection to the election of David Rees as Chair of the Reform Bill Committee? [Objection.] There is objection.
There will therefore be a vote on the position of Chair, and that vote will be by secret ballot. The secret ballot will be held in briefing room 13 in the Senedd from around 2 p.m. and closing at 4 p.m. this afternoon. There will also be an electronic vote for those working virtually this afternoon. I will announce the result of the secret ballot later today.
The next item on our agenda is questions to the Minister for Finance and Local Government, and the first question is from Ken Skates.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the creation of corporate joint committees? OQ59820
Corporate joint committees are established and have statutory duties to undertake regional transport and land use planning. CJCs also have a broad economic well-being power. Councils can choose how they will use their CJC to work together to drive economic development based on their own regional aspirations and ambitions.
Thank you, Minister. It's well known that local government in Wales has been better protected than elsewhere in the UK over many years and that councils really have risen to the challenges of COVID, austerity, preparing for Brexit and the cost-of-living crisis. Of course, the creation of corporate joint committees gives us an opportunity to strengthen and empower local authorities even more through regional working. So, what responsibilities and budgets is the Welsh Government considering devolving to CJCs?
I'm very grateful for the question and also to Ken Skates for recognising that councils in Wales have been better protected over many years in Wales, as compared to their counterparts in England. And you can really see that I think in the response to, as Ken Skates said, what they were able to deliver during both the pandemic but also now in the cost-of-living crisis, and they do go above and beyond, every day, to serve their communities.
But as things stand, it is the case that CJCs are relatively new, so, it’s really important that they really focus on their initial responsibilities, particularly in terms of economic development, transport and land use planning, and to capitalise on the interdependencies between these functions.
Outside of those responsibilities, I absolutely think that there is space for local authorities to make the case to the Welsh Government for further powers to be devolved to them. I do think that, at the moment, the focus has to be on making CJCs work—they’re still very new—but we’re obviously open to those conversations. In the first instance, I would suggest that those conversations are opened between the local authorities and the portfolio Ministers, but I see my role very much to support those conversations and to facilitate and enable any further powers to be devolved. But, as I say, in the first instance, it really is about making CJCs work and getting them on a strong footing for the future.
Speaking at Stages 3 and 4 of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill, I stated that, given their role in terms of regional infrastructure and economic development, the ability to allow Welsh Ministers to mandate the creation of corporate joint committees undermines the internal devolution and local partnership working established in areas by bodies such as the North Wales Economic Ambition Board—a coalition involving both Governments, all six north Wales councils, business and academia.
However, whilst acknowledging that principal councils have a wealth of experience in delivering economic functions, including at a regional level through, for example, the city and growth deals, the Minister stated that she was hoping that regions will transition their current regional arrangements into the corporate joint committees once established. How, therefore, would you respond to the concern expressed in north Wales that the corporate joint committees are instead replicating and disempowering the work of the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, now named Ambition North Wales, when, instead, the former Minister for economy and transport here has now joined his voice with theirs and mine in calling for internal devolution to a transport body in north Wales—[Interruption.] Hello? [Laughter.]
Sorry, I must stop laughing. I'm not laughing at either you, Mark Isherwood, nor you, Rebecca, but at—. Yes. [Laughter.] Minister, to respond.
So, rather than undermining joint working and regional working, I do think the CJCs rather facilitate it and they are a tool for local authorities to be using. But in respect of the specific point about aligning with city and growth deals, at the moment, South Wales East CJC is commencing its lift and shift exercise to formally move their city and growth deal arrangements into the CJC by the end of this financial year. And the other CJCs have indicated that they will bring their city and growth deal governance arrangements alongside other strategic planning for the region. The timescales for that do remain unclear at the moment, but they are discussions there that we continue to have. But I do recognise the underlying point, really, about the importance of coherence across the structures.
2. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Climate Change regarding funding public transport grants for local authorities in South Wales West? OQ59845
I hold regular discussions with the Minister, which include discussions on transport. Bus support this year has already included over £4.2 million for Swansea Council on behalf of the south-west Wales region. In 2023-24, we have also provided local authorities with £5.5 billion to spend on delivering key services.
Thank you for that response, Minister.
Every day, local authorities work hard to deliver high-quality services to residents throughout all of our communities. Aside from financial support they receive through the revenue support grant, local authorities rely heavily on a wide number of specific grants that help fund a wide range of projects or services. The bus services support grant, for example, is one of these regular packages of support that local authorities receive, which help them ensure the delivery of commercially unattractive bus routes. A few weeks ago, I received a copy of a letter from the leader of Neath Port Talbot Council to your colleague the Deputy Minister for Climate Change stating that quarter 1 allocation had not been received and that the council is having to pay out despite not receiving the required funding. I'm sure you'd agree with me that delays in funding allocations are unwelcome at the best of times, let alone during a difficult time for the bus industry and with all the existing challenges facing local authorities. So, can I ask, Minister, what work is being done across Government departments to simplify the grant system and ensure that there are no unnecessary delays to stop money getting to where it's needed most? Diolch.
I'm very grateful for the question, and I will make sure that I get a copy also of the letter that you describe and have the opportunity to discuss it with my colleague. But I think the overall point is very important, and it's really about reducing the administrative burden to local authorities. That's one of our programme for government commitments, and we've been undertaking a quite significant piece of work in partnership with local authorities, exploring how we can go about reducing that administrative burden.
When our officials talked to treasurers and others in local government, they were really clear that the No. 1 big thing that they thought was causing administrative burdens was the administration of grants. We have thousands of grants going out from the Welsh Government, so we've undertaken a piece of work looking to see, really, how much we can move into the RSG. Now, it won't be appropriate for every particular and single grant, but every Minister now is working through the grants that they provide to local government and exploring to what extent they can be moved into the RSG, making sure that, whilst doing that piece of work, they also undertake impact assessments to ensure that we're not inadvertently creating problems for the people who are most vulnerable and who need that support the most. So, I absolutely recognise the points made, but I just want to reassure colleagues that reducing the administrative burden is a major piece of work and we are making really good progress on it.
Minister, the announcement of the bus transition fund is welcome, but as the Welsh Local Government Association points out, it won't save all bus routes. Many of the routes facing cancellation cover the more rural parts of Wales and are a vital lifeline for the most disadvantaged, particularly the elderly. Our constituents without access to a car now risk isolation and further financial hardships as they have to depend upon taxis to conduct essential travels. Minister, what steps can the Welsh Government take to ensure that where bus routes and unviable, public funding will be made available to fund and perhaps incentivise alternatives to buses?
The bus transition fund is due to commence on the twenty-fifth of this month as we move away from the bus emergency scheme, which was developed during the pandemic and which comes to an end on the twenty-fourth. The new fund, developed collaboratively with local authorities, Welsh Government, Transport for Wales and the bus industry will replace the previous scheme and will provide that immediate support to bus operators in Wales. But I think that the thing that will really make the difference for the longer term is our approach to addressing the issues in the bus industry that were caused by the deregulation of the industry back in the 1980s that made the driver, really, of the work in the bus industry to be looking for those profitable routes rather than the routes that are most needed and serving the people who most rely on bus services. So, I think that piece of work will be really important, but what we really need to be doing also is supporting the bus industry so that we get from where we are now to where we need to be in the future without damaging the services that are available to people.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Peter Fox.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, we all know that families are being hit by the rising costs of living, but many small and medium-sized enterprises are also faced with the rising cost of doing business. As we all know, the tourism and hospitality industry faced two years' worth of restrictions as a result of the COVID pandemic. While many of those restrictions were necessary to protect the people of Wales, it's important now that we help restore the damage done to the sector, and it is clear that Wales is not doing enough to appeal to an international market, with only roughly 2.5 per cent of international holidaymakers visiting Wales in 2019. With that in mind, can the Minister clarify what assessment the Welsh Government has made of the impact of their tourism tax on SMEs in Wales, because surely we should be making sure that Wales's tourism industry is competitive with other parts of the United Kingdom as well as the rest of the world?
Well, I want to begin, really, by recognising that point about the impact that the pandemic had on small and medium-sized enterprises, and particularly, in places, on the tourism industry, and that's why, because of the way in which we managed our budget during the pandemic, we were able to support businesses across Wales with a more generous package of support than that which was available elsewhere in the UK. I think that that is important for us to continue recognising.
We've also put in place a generous package of non-domestic rate support for this financial year, and indeed, as part of the draft budget, I confirm that we will be providing a rate support package for the next two financial years, costing over £460 million, and that is, in fact, in addition to our permanent rate relief schemes that provide around £240 million of support each year. So, the support that we do provide the business sector is very significant in relation to non-domestic rates.
In terms of the visitor levy, of course, we are still working through the detail, because some of the things are currently unknown—for example, we haven't yet decided at what point we would pitch the visitor levy, so until we do that, there are certain things that we can't calculate as a result of it. But the visitor levy really is there to be a tool for local authorities to decide whether or not it's something that they want to use, and the aim is that it will support sustainable tourism in those local areas. So, this really is about supporting the local tourism industry and providing those conditions that give tourists a great experience when they come to Wales, so that they want to keep on returning.
Thank you for that, Minister. We welcome the support that's gone into business, but there is clearly still anxiety over the tourism tax. As you know, the overwhelming majority of businesses in the tourism sector in Wales oppose the introduction of a tourism tax. Organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses and Wales Tourism Alliance have firmly come out against the proposed tourism tax. It is vital, then, that Ministers listen to the concerns from the tourism sector, ensuring that Welsh Government works with and not against this vital part of our Welsh economy.
So, my question is, Minister: what engagement has the Welsh Government had with the sector itself regarding the impact of tourism tax on business? It's a fundamental part of this—understanding the effects and how businesses will be affected by the implementation of the tax, and ensuring that their concerns are listened to.
I will say that we do take the concerns and the views of the industry very carefully indeed. So, this is a piece of work, obviously, as you know, that we're undertaking in partnership with Plaid Cymru as part of our co-operation agreement, and Cefin Campbell and I attended a particularly useful engagement event. It was a kind of workshop, one of a number of which took place across Wales, and the First Minister and Adam Price, I know, had a useful afternoon at one of the other engagement events as well. So, there have been huge and endless opportunities for the sector to provide its views on this, but we're absolutely committed to continuing that engagement as we move forward with our proposals.
I will say that the Deputy Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism met with UKHospitality on 29 June and again, it was an opportunity to discuss the visitor levy, and I know that she gave reassurances at that meeting that the engagement will continue, with the aim of improving the tourism offer locally, and mitigating the impact on communities of tourism when it becomes unsustainable.
So, I think that we have had lots of really good engagement and we are really grateful to the sector for the engagement that they've given, albeit not the support that they've given.
Thank you for that, Minister. I'm glad there is engagement going on. The important thing is: is there a listening mode as well as the engagement, and that those key issues are taken on board? This week, it emerged that unemployment rose again to the highest it has been in half a decade; a rise of 1.2 per cent is the sharpest rise in the last year of any nation or region in the UK. This is the third month in a row that unemployment rates in Wales have risen. Unfortunately, while unemployment is the highest rate in the United Kingdom, wages remain at the lowest levels, at £2,500 lower than other parts of the United Kingdom, and this is while families across the country continue to battle with the rising cost of living.
I know Welsh Government has pledged not to raise the rate of income tax on the people of Wales for the moment, but I think the people of Wales deserve a longer term pledge. So, Minister, can you provide the people of Wales a cast-iron pledge today that your Government will not increase the Welsh rate of income tax for the rest of the Senedd term?
Well, you'll be familiar with the fact that, every year, we look afresh at Welsh rates of income tax. We decided that raising Welsh rates of income tax in this financial year was definitely not the right thing to do, bearing in mind the impact that the cost-of-living crisis is having on families, and the fact that to raise any significant amount of money through Welsh rates of income tax you would have to raise the basic rate, which would affect some of the poorest workers here in Wales at a time when they can least afford it—just recognising, really, that a lot of the difficulties facing those poorest people are as a direct result of some of the actions of recent UK Governments, in terms of the mini-budget, which is obviously having a huge effect on both the poorest people in Wales and also now those who are finding that their mortgages are increasing. So, I think that now, definitely, wasn't the time. We do look afresh at this every year. We'll have debates in the Senedd, we'll have votes in the Senedd, and I'm sure that the debates for the next financial year will be as lively as the ones we had for this one.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Peredur Owen Griffiths.
Diolch, Llywydd. In a similar sort of vein to that last question:
'Devolved taxation can be a powerful lever for influencing behaviour change, as well as generating revenue to support public spending to meet the needs of Wales and enabling us to develop more progressive taxes.'
These aren't my words, but the words of the Welsh Government's mission statement for its own tax policy work plan for 2021 to 2026. Plaid Cymru wholeheartedly agrees with the spirit of these words. Unfortunately, the current framework for devolved taxes in Wales is far too limited and is inherently undermining the aforementioned mission statement. We believe that there is a credible, progressive case for a further devolution of income tax powers to Wales; put simply, the tax bands currently set by the UK Government are a poor fit for the nature of the tax base here in Wales. Around 85 per cent of Welsh taxpayers are in the basic rate band, which means that, under the current band structure, any attempt to raise substantial additional revenue through the Welsh rates of income tax, or WRIT, would inevitably entail increasing taxes for the lower income earners. This, of course, has been one of the main reasons why the Welsh Government has yet to vary the WRIT, compared to the rates set by the UK Government, despite having the power to do so since 2019.
In Scotland, things are different and they have been able to raise £456 million in additional rates of income tax during 2020-21. The progressive nature of the bands in Scotland has also meant that people earning less than £27,850, which represents 52 per cent of Scottish taxpayers, are currently paying less in income tax. Could the Minister therefore outline whether the Welsh Government intends to commission any external research on the implications of further devolution of income tax powers to Wales?
I'm very grateful for the question, and it's something that we have been able to explore in some discussions that we've had with the Scottish Government, and it was a question that also came up in our tax conference. It's something that we discussed during the passage of our Welsh rates of income tax for this financial year. I think it's something, absolutely, that we should look at, we should explore, but that's not to say there aren't big risks attached to it as well. When you look at the situation in Scotland, the impact has meant that they've actually had a negative adjustment to their budget as a result of Scottish rates of income tax. And also I think they've seen some quite significant behavioural changes, which we're trying to explore as well to see to what extent they would apply here in Wales. So, as a result, I think there are too many unknowns. There's an awful lot of risk attached to this as well, which is why I think it's important that we do the kind of work that has been described, in terms of understanding better what those risks are and how they might apply here in Wales, and learning from what's happened in Scotland.
And I'd just draw colleagues' attention to the written statement that I published in the last week, which shows that the HM Revenue and Customs outturn figures show the revenue from the Welsh rates of income tax in 2021-22 has shown an increase of 11.4 per cent from 2020-21. So, we expect the net impact from WRIT in 2021-22 to have been positive, which is good news for us. I just draw that written statement to colleagues' attention, given the high level of interest that there is in Welsh rates of income tax.
Thanks. I think the point is that we need to be exploring these things to address some of those questions that you were picking up there. And following on from your answer there, a matter that doesn't receive much attention in this Chamber, but you mentioned it just now, was the impact of fiscal drag. The latest release of the Welsh income tax outturn statistics, as you mentioned, for 2021-22, did push a proportion of Welsh taxpayers into higher and additional bands of income tax. With the UK Government's freeze on income tax thresholds due to remain in place until 2027-28, it is likely that this will be an observable trend for the foreseeable future. I'd be interested to learn, therefore, how much additional revenue was raised by the Welsh Government as a result of the fiscal drag for 2021-22 and 2022-23, and how has this been factored into Welsh Government spending plans over the coming financial years. And given the fact that wages are continuing to struggle to keep pace with Tory-driven inflation, does the Minister also agree that this is another instance where the ability to set Welsh-specific bands of income tax would be a far fairer way of managing the effect of fiscal drag?
I'm grateful for the question. I think I will have to write to the Member with the specific calculation that he has asked for this afternoon. But I think that this is one of the points that would be part of the consideration of the benefits or the risks of having a different band structure here in Wales, and part of the narrative, I suppose, which will play into any future decisions in that space. But I would stress again that, when you look at what's happened in Scotland, that does provide a cautionary tale, which means, I think, that we just would have to go into this very, very clear-sightedly, and that we do need to explore from all angles. And I don't think that we're in a position, at this point, to make a decision one way or the other on that, in terms of if it's right for Wales for the future. But we keep an open mind.
3. What consideration did the Minister give to the need for additional support for local authorities to tackle the public bus emergency when allocating funding to the climate change portfolio? OQ59824
The £46 million bus transition fund announced in May will succeed the current bus emergency scheme, moving away from the current emergency-style funding towards bus networks that better suit the new travel patterns we have seen since the end of the pandemic and protect the majority of routes.
Thank you. Lots of talk about buses today; it shows how important it is. At the public bus transport cross-party group, it was raised by operators that Transport for Wales do not have the expertise for delivering bus services at a regional level. Local authorities have that front-line knowledge because they work with operators on a daily basis and the years of experience that have been built up. They regularly map out routes that suit the local communities as well. So, Minister, what conversations have you had with local authority leaders about plans to move bus delivery to corporate joint committees? And would you look at making resources available to local authorities so that they can ensure transport expertise is retained and passed on through apprentices?
Well, I would completely agree that regional and local intelligence is absolutely critical to making our plans for the future work, which is why I know that the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, who's leading on this, has had some quite extensive discussions with local authorities in this space. And as I say, he is leading on this work, so perhaps he would be better placed to give you a full update. Although I do know that, after the recent cross-party group, you've also written to him with a summary of the discussions that you had at that cross-party group, and I know that he will be able to address this particular point about engagement in his response as well.
Too often, we hear the Deputy Minister saying that there's just simply not enough bus usage. Now, thanks to the UK Conservative Government, passengers in England pay just £2 for a bus ticket to anywhere. Research from Transport Focus has revealed that 11 per cent of respondents are using the bus more thanks to this cap, with 80 per cent agreeing that the £2 tickets have helped them with their cost-of-living increases. In fact, the policy has resulted in some fares now being cut by as much as 87 per cent. What a brilliant model that is. So, whilst the UK Conservative Government is funding the scheme on 5,000 routes, the Welsh Government has not backed a single one. So, will you review the 2023-24 budget with the aim of making money available to support the very same cap on fares in Wales? Diolch.
Well, I would say that the approach taken by the UK Government has led over the last year or so to, I think, around 8 per cent of routes being cut, whereas in Wales I think the figure is more in the region of 2 per cent. So, I think you can look at different approaches, but what we're trying to do in Wales is protect as many of those routes as we possibly can. Of course we would like to go further in terms of supporting people to access buses, but we have to do what we can within the available resources.
Question 4 [OQ59831] has been withdrawn. Question 5—Mark Isherwood.
5. How does the Welsh Government hold local authorities to account for the discharge of their duties under Welsh legislation? OQ59816
Audit Wales, Estyn and Care Inspectorate Wales assess the performance of local authorities in Wales. The Welsh Government works closely with local authorities to address issues identified, where appropriate.
Diolch. Well, after I questioned the First Minister two weeks ago here regarding the statutory duties placed on local authorities under the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014, the First Minister concluded
'local authorities continue to be held to account for the discharge of responsibilities that lie not with the Welsh Government but with them.'
However, I continue to hear almost daily from neurodiverse people or people with neurodiverse family members in Flintshire whose rights under this Act are being dismissed. This includes cases where constituents are unilaterally accused of breaching a direct payment agreement, despite constituents stating that there's been no care and support plan review, direct payment agreement or support plan in place, and the legislation stating that a local authority must be prepared to be open to new ideas and be as flexible as possible. Attending an autistic constituent's review meeting recently, I also witnessed an autistic meltdown triggered by officer failure to adjust to my constituent's needs. Although an autistic meltdown is not bad behaviour, the council have blamed the constituent and dictated how future meetings will be conducted. How will the Welsh Government therefore ensure effective monitoring and evaluation of local authority discharge of their responsibilities when, without this, Welsh legislation is meaningless?
Well, I think that the Deputy Minister for Social Services would be able to do better justice to the question, bearing in mind that this would lie within her portfolio, but I would just like to try and helpfully demonstrate, really, the way in which the Welsh Government, through the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021, has put a new performance regime in to drive improvement in local authorities across Wales. That seeks to ensure that there is a culture where councils in Wales continually aim to do better and improve the services that they provide. Obviously, local authorities under the Act are now required to keep their performance under review, including publishing an annual self assessment of how effectively they are exercising their functions, and those first self assessment reports are now available, and councils are also required to undertake a panel or peer assessment once in every electoral cycle.
So, I appreciate it doesn't answer the specific question around social services, but I think that a different Minister would be better placed to do that, but I would stress, of course, that engagement with people with autism and people who are neurodiverse more generally should be done in a very person-centred way and understanding the additional needs that they might have or the reasonable adjustments that they might need to have in place. So, I will explore this issue further, but I'm afraid I can't do the question justice because it is a different Minister's portfolio.
6. What discussions is the Minister having with local authorities about the staffing and recruitment challenges they face? OQ59839
I hold regular meetings with local authority leaders and discuss a number of issues, including staffing and recruitment. It is essential that we work together in partnership to make the best use of our resources and the skills and expertise available across our public services.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. As the cost-of-living crisis deepens and public sector bodies such as local government are struggling to maintain the crucial services they deliver, the Welsh Local Government Association recently published a report, highlighting that workforce challenges was the top risk in terms of social care, and I know that council departments across the board, such as education, planning and transport, are struggling to recruit and maintain employees in the face of competition from the private sector.
The UK Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, is adamant that it's the public sector that will bear the brunt of fixing the Tory Government's economic mess. To do this after over a decade of austerity is leaving much of the public sector extremely stretched. We know that, in Wales, councils have been better protected because of the Welsh Labour Government here, and the commitment that the Welsh Labour Government has, but after 13 years of disastrous Tory mismanagement, what more can we do as a Welsh Labour Government to protect the ability of the public sector, like our local authorities, to deliver those crucial services?
Thank you for the question. I think the first and most important thing that we are doing is ensuring that we're providing local government with the best possible support that we can. So, in this current budget, local authorities received a 7.9 per cent uplift, which, at the time, was recognised as being exceptionally good, but, obviously, now we recognise that the impacts of inflation have eroded the benefit of that. So, we recognise, of course, the pressures that local authorities are under, which is really why it's so important that we work together on issues such as recruitment and retention of key staff.
We did run an intensive recruitment campaign over the summer months last year, to attract people to social care, and we funded free online introductory training for over 500 people who were interested in a career in social care. And also, we've promoted our social care apprenticeships and we've also, of course, got our personal learning accounts, which are really important in terms of helping people change career or upskill within the workforce that they're in at the moment.
We obviously made the investment, of course, in the real living wage, but we are now commissioning an independent evaluation to examine the impact and the success of the implementation, and that will help us learn and make improvements for the future as well. But, of course, we need to continue working very much in partnership, and exploring what more we can do in that one-Wales public service ethos, in terms of potentially finding ways to support people moving across the public sector, for example, between local government and health in a more seamless way.
Minister, as has just been acknowledged by Jayne Bryant, the councils in Wales are facing an enormous crisis in the social care workforce. One hundred per cent of NHS leaders agree that there is a crisis in their local area; 94 per cent believe the crisis is worse than it was 12 months ago; and 88 per cent expect it to deteriorate even more.
Minister, with there not being enough staff to fill the roles, agencies are charging a premium for social care staff. A perfect example of this lies with Monmouthshire County Council. They've announced that they've had to use £3.5 million from their reserves for the financial year of 2022-23, to support additional spending on services like staffing social care. The strain this is having on local authorities is immense and is something that is not sustainable, as I'm sure you'll agree, long term. We welcome the recruitment action, as you've just outlined that you've done previously, but what other actions are you taking, with the health Minister, to ensure that the social care staffing crisis doesn't deepen for local authorities, given the shift in the economic situation and, obviously, the urgent need? Thank you.
Well, I think the Member's reference to the use of reserves is important, because I'm often criticised on the floor of the Senedd by colleagues of yours in the Conservative Party for the level of reserves that local authorities hold, and for not intervening and preventing some of those levels. But it does show one example of where local authorities are using the funding that they have in reserves to meet some of the really extreme pressures that they are facing at the moment. I do know, having spoken to local authorities just last week about their specific pressures, in the finance sub-group of the partnership council for Wales, that adult social care and children's social care are two of the biggest pressures that they're facing at the moment.
We have provided recurrent funding to the sector in the form of a workforce and sustainable social services grant, and we've made sure that the criteria for that grant are very broadly set to try and give local authorities the maximum flexibility for using that. But I know that the Minister for Health and Social Services and the Deputy Minister for Social Services are in ongoing discussion with local authorities about social services, and what more we could be doing to support the staff already in the sector, but recruit and retain further into it.
7. How does the Welsh Government ensure that councils in South Wales West are properly funded? OQ59846
I support the proper funding of local authorities across Wales by prioritising funding to local government and public services in the Government’s budget decisions, and continuing to make the case for funding public services in my discussions with the UK Government.
Thank you, Minister, for your answer. The Labour leader of our local council in Swansea, Rob Stewart, when he's not too busy naming rooms in public buildings after his friends, is telling us all quite regularly about the perils of austerity. In fact, in October he said that Swansea Council was facing a financial firestorm. But while he said that, he said it against the backdrop of having squirrelled away £130 million more over the past four years in usable reserves. In 2018, there was £95 million in usable reserves in Swansea Council. At the end of 2022, there was £228 million in usable reserves. All the while, Swansea Labour council have been increasing council tax bills on average people that live in Swansea. Is that not immoral, Minister?
The setting of council tax is obviously a matter for the local authority, whichever local authority that is, across Wales. But I'll say again that the level of reserves held by a local authority should not be just looked at in a way that doesn't understand what those reserves are for. Now, you've seen, as I have, across Swansea, the absolute transformation that has taken place in the city, thanks to the vision of the leader of Swansea Council. And I think that many of those funds within reserves will be there to support the city and county in the further development of the area, and also to support the people who live in the area through the cost-of-living crisis. So, I think if you just look across Wales, local authorities are having to hugely go to their reserves now to support them, given the impact of inflation, which I think many of us will understand is a result of the decisions made by successive UK Governments.
8. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government financial support for Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council? OQ59849
In addition to specific grants, the council will receive £139.73 million through the local government settlement for 2023-24—an increase of 6.5 per cent. While the council will still have to make difficult decisions in the face of the current rates of inflation, this is a better settlement than authorities had expected.
Thank you very much, Minister. Does she think it's right that an area that has the highest proportion of children in low-income families in Wales, a third in relative poverty and over a fifth in absolute poverty, has the largest relative decrease in standard spending assessment over the past 15 years, the highest reduction in population, the weakest council tax banding and is bottom of the UK comparative index ranking, and that place receives an uplift of 6.5 per cent, compared to the Welsh average of 7.9 per cent? Now, the Minister said in her earlier answer that she thought it was quite generous. The people of Blaenau Gwent require and deserve support from this place that is relative to need. A Welsh Government that is committed to addressing the needs of some of the poorest people in the country needs to address the issues facing the people of Blaenau Gwent.
Absolutely, and I did have a really good visit to Blaenau Gwent very recently where the leader of the council and the chief executive of the council took me through a very similar argument to that which you've presented this afternoon in relation, particularly, to the importance of the deprivation measures within the formula. I know that there are particular challenges within Blaenau Gwent in terms of having a relatively older population, fewer people of working age, and so on. The finance sub-group and the distribution sub-group beneath it, I know, are continuing to look at how we develop and refine the formula, but with a particular focus on those measures that relate to deprivation, which I think are the specific measures that will be of interest, of course, in Blaenau Gwent.
Minister, we know that times are tough in many local authorities across the country at the moment. Blaenau Gwent council had been drawing up a long list of cost-cutting measures earlier this year, including closing all children’s play areas. I’m sure you’ll agree, Minister, that this would be a mistake, and we should be promoting play, sports and healthier lifestyles. Thankfully, the UK Government is on hand to boost grass-roots sports facilities, with Blaenau Gwent benefiting from two of its biggest schemes. Tennis courts in the area have been upgraded thanks to a £30 million investment from the UK Government and the Lawn Tennis Association, and £23,000 is to be spent improving Tredegar recreation and sports ground. So, Minister, will you join me in welcoming this fantastic investment from the UK Government to improve grass-roots sport in Blaenau Gwent?
In the great scheme of things, you just have to say, 'Well, big deal', you know? This is just a tiny, tiny scattering of money across Wales as a result of the UK Government's investment. Let's remember that the Welsh Government's budget is worth £900 million less at the moment than it was at the time we set our plans. We've got a debate by the Finance Committee this afternoon, and I'm going to be really setting out to colleagues how difficult the decisions that we are going to be taking in future are, and how we're really going to have to focus on doing less, essentially, to meet that gap within our budget. So, I think that if the UK Government really wanted to make a difference in Blaenau Gwent and elsewhere across Wales, it would certainly look to uplift our budget at least in line with inflation, or at least give us the flexibilities to use the funding that we have in a more appropriate manner.
Andrew R.T. Davies is not in the Chamber to ask question 9 [OQ59842], and therefore we move to question 10—Jack Sargeant.
10. What consideration does the Minister give to supporting care leavers when drawing up the Welsh Government's budget? OQ59828
Care-experienced young people have consistently been prioritised through our budget process. This includes our world-leading £20 million basic income for care leavers in Wales pilot, the establishment of the £1 million St David’s Day fund, and the £9.5 million looked-after children schemes, which are funded through invest-to-save.
I'm grateful for your answer, Minister. As we all know, care leavers are a seriously disadvantaged group. We'll be debating the report from the Petitions Committee and Jayne Bryant’s committee later this afternoon, and we’ll discuss the discrimination and assumptions that they face that the rest of us don’t have to deal with. But they also face financial uncertainty when starting to try and build a career, to find their first home or embark on some training to develop their lives.
Critics of the world-leading basic income trial have focused on the cost of the trial, but I’d like to shift the conversation and talk more about the benefits, including how this intervention could enable the recipients to achieve more in their lives. We know that poverty leads to all sorts of ills, costly for the individual and costly for the state as well. What assessment will the Welsh Government carry out when looking to evaluate the world-leading basic income trial?
I'm grateful for the question, and I'm really pleased that the data that we published in terms of the monitoring, covering the first six months of the pilot, shows that 92 per cent of the young people who were eligible to access the pilot signed up. So, hopefully we can increase that, but I think that’s definitely a really, really good start.
The basic income pilot is being carefully evaluated by CASCADE at Cardiff University. Of course, our policy driver is to support those care leavers to make a positive transition from local authority care, using basic income as a measure to achieve this. It’s difficult to count the number of times in this Chamber when colleagues on all benches are talking about the importance of prevention—well, this is a perfect preventative measure in the sense of investing before problems start to arise in terms of the more difficult outcomes that we know exist currently for care leavers. So, getting in early, supporting those young people to get on the best possible track, and letting them know that they have a Government that cares for them, I think, is really, really important.
Finally, question 11, Gareth Davies.
11. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that revenue support grant funding is sustainable for the future? OQ59818
I work closely with local authorities to understand the pressures facing them and continue to ensure local government and public services are a priority in our budget considerations. I continue to make the case for funding public services in my discussions with the UK Government.
Thank you very much for your response, Minister. The reason I want to raise this question this afternoon is that councils, and in particular my council, Denbighshire County Council, rely heavily on the RSG funding from Welsh Government as it makes up a large portion of the money that's raised and spent by the council. Near the end of the month, quite often councils, including mine, are in the situation of wondering what rate they're going to get every 12 months. What assurances can the Minister give that Denbighshire and councils across north Wales and across the country can have sustainable RSG funding, rather than coming back to the Welsh Government every 12 months, cap in hand?
The best I can do in those circumstances is to always commit to passing on certainty when we have it. For a number of years now, we've only been given one-year budgets by the UK Government, and in those circumstances, I was only able to pass on one-year certainty to local government. But fortunately now, we are in the middle of a three-year spending review period; we're in year 2 at the moment. At the start of this three-year spending review period, I provided local authorities with definitive figures for the first year, but then also indicative figures for years 2 and 3. So, we're now in year 2, local authorities know their figures, and they also have figures upon which they can plan in year 3. Whenever the UK Government gives us certainty in terms of a longer time period for a spending review, we will always look to pass that on to our partners and our stakeholders. We will continue to press the UK Government for a spending review that covers a number of years in future, because I agree that it does absolutely allow local authorities and other public services to plan with confidence.
I thank the Minister.
The next item, therefore, will be the questions to the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd. The first question is from Ken Skates.
1. How does the Welsh Government support food innovation? OQ59821
The Welsh Government provides a comprehensive package to support innovation within food and drink companies across Wales. We fund the award-winning Project Helix, delivered by a network of three food centres across Wales, as well as supporting access to the new, recently launched SMART flexible innovation scheme.
Thank you, Minister. We do have some fantastic innovators in food here in Wales, including in this area, with the likes of Village Bakery and others driving new product and packaging developments. The need to combat climate change requires us to reduce supply and consumption chains through innovation, including through novel food production techniques that reduce our dependence on those products that are the most damaging to the environment. From lab-grown steak to leather manufactured from mushrooms, there are huge opportunities to be leaders in food innovation, and in replacing animal-based products with less carbon-intensive materials. Has the Welsh Government assessed the value of food innovation funding and identified those businesses and institutions that are at the forefront of innovating in order to challenge climate change?
The Welsh Government continues to support close working with our businesses, with the three food innovation centres across Wales I mentioned in my opening answer to you, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre Cymru, which I think you opened a couple of years ago, and, of course, academia, to identify innovative ways to challenge climate change. There is funding to support these activities, and support has been designed to underpin our commitments under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. I outlined this also in my vision for the food and drink industry back in 2021. Examples include the food centres supporting process optimisation, AMRC Cymru, and also the factory 4.0 programme to improve data acquisition and energy saving within the production process.
I'm not going to ask about the Denbigh plum this week. A key component to good-quality food innovation is the food products offered to children across Wales. With the roll-out of free schools meals to primary school children, what steps are the Welsh Government and the co-operation agreement taking to ensure that the meals offered in the scheme are healthy, nutritious and conducive to providing a rounded education for children across Wales?
Thank you. I think it gives us an opportunity, with having such a major free school meals programme being rolled out right across Wales, to make sure that we have as much Welsh produce as possible. I think it's Monmouthshire council that are having a look at their school meals, and I think they are using local food producers entirely in their free school meals. So, I think it is really important that we make the most use, and maybe, indeed, the Denbigh plum could be part of that.
The Minister will have heard me talking about the idea of developing a food production park on Anglesey several times now. I visited Food Works in Weston-super-Mare a few weeks ago, where there is a development centre, a food technology centre, alongside business units for food. We have the food technology centre in Coleg Menai already. So, what we need are the units there with the support for businesses to be able to grow in them. The First Minister, in the scrutiny session last week, referred to the famous history of Môn Mam Cymru in the food sector and said that has to continue. He also said that there is funding there to be spent in the sector. I can't think of a better use of that money than to develop a food production park on Anglesey, and there is a company that I have been speaking to that is very eager to be a partner in a development of that kind. I don't know whether the First Minister was talking about the food business accelerator scheme in that session, but would the Minister agree with the First Minister that there is funding available to spend? And will she and her officials talk to me, the council and the developer that I'm talking to about how we can ensure that the funding is spent on Anglesey?
I'd be very happy to have that discussion with you. We have had previous discussions around a food production park. I do think north-west Wales is very well placed to have such a thing. We know, don't we, that if we've got companies coming forward, they need somewhere, then, that has to be of that food business unit quality to be able to take that forward. Obviously, the food innovation centre has those incubator units to start them off, but then they need to go somewhere else. So, yes, I'd be very happy to have a further meeting with you.
I draw Members' attention to my long-standing honorary role as vice-president of Ramblers Cymru.
2. How will the sustainable farming scheme deliver better recreational access to the countryside? OQ59814
The sustainable farming scheme currently being co-designed will support farmers to improve access above their legal requirements to help people interact with our rural culture, landscapes and heritage and generate significant health benefits.
Minister, I know you've had lots of representations and, indeed, engagement with Wales Environment Link and many others on the specific issue of access. If the SFS is right, it can help improve access; if the detail is wrong, it could worsen access to the countryside. Yesterday, we had the backdrop of the SFS co-design report, which the Minister released. There were some key headlines on access in that: 50 per cent of farmers who took part are not interested in the optional public access actions proposed, and 45 per cent not interested in the collaborative actions. That's a little bit worrying for campaigners on this, because they feel that access could be seen as a second-string part of the SFS. So, can I ask the Minister, how can she ensure that access is right up there as a key part of this? Would she, for example, look at making access part of the universal actions that apply to the historic environment, heritage and beauty—so, have something like 'farms with public rights of way and open access on their land will need to manage them in line with existing legislation' as a baseline, and the other bits are the extras that we get on top? How will we ensure that access is improved for the public from this, rather than worsened?
Thank you. The Ramblers Association did put forward their response to the sustainable farming scheme at the last consultation we had, and obviously they contributed to the co-design process, along with many other farmers and stakeholders, and I'm grateful to everybody. As I set out in the oral statement yesterday, I want to make the scheme as attractive as possible for everyone to be a part of it who wants to be. We're still in the process of co-design. There is still another final consultation to bring forward at the end of this year, so nothing is set in stone. We need to have a look at suggestions, such as you've just brought forward, around the universal scheme. I made it very clear yesterday that I want every farmer to be able to access the universal scheme from day one, and then we need to look, perhaps, at going into the other two tiers of the scheme—the optional and collaborative—later on. So, we will certainly be concentrating on the universal part of the scheme in the first instance.
Minister, in your opening remarks to Huw Irranca-Davies you said that having recreational access to the countryside will have massive health benefits for our population, but what we do need to make people aware of is the countryside code, and, actually, understanding that our rural environment is also a working environment as well. If we want to get more people having access to land, people need to be educated on how to respect that land properly when they're going over somebody's business. So, could you, please, outline what programmes the Welsh Government is delivering across Wales to educate people about how to access the countryside in a responsible way?
Thank you. You do raise a very important point. It is very, very important that, when people are on public land in the way that you've just outlined, they absolutely understand it's somebody's business. It's often somebody's home, and it's really important that they recognise that. We do all that we can to promote the countryside code and other issues around access.
Minister, you will be aware that, during the consideration of the Agriculture (Wales) Bill, there were calls for the inclusion of nature restoration as part of the objectives. In the absence of that wording in the Bill, you made a very welcome acknowledgement that sustainable agriculture is key to meeting our commitment for Wales to be net zero by 2050, thus contributing to nature recovery and to Wales's biodiversity commitments in accordance with the Kunming-Montreal biodiversity framework.
So, as we enter the second phase of the sustainable farming scheme co-design, could you outline for the Chamber how the scheme will aim to deliver on these duties, as set out in the explanatory memorandum of the Bill, supporting farmers to produce food in ways that will start to reverse the loss of nature by 2030, and addressing the nature and climate emergencies?
Thank you. Well, the scheme will support the sustainable land management objectives, alongside our international obligations as well, through actions including promoting nature-based solutions for healthy living soils, through the habitat baseline review that we talked about yesterday in the oral statement, supporting farmers to manage at least 10 per cent of their land as semi-natural habitat, restoring and managing ponds, and preserving native breeds.
Questions now form the party spokespeople. The Welsh Conservatives' spokesperson—Samuel Kurtz.
Diolch, Lywydd. Minister, your programme for government update published in November 2021 stated that you would:
'Develop a national model for regulation of animal welfare, introducing registration for animal welfare establishments, commercial breeders for pets...and animal exhibits.'
What progress has been made on this?
Well, it is a five-year programme. I think that I should make that very clear from the outset. So, we are now in year 3. We have made a great deal of progress, particularly around our codes of practice and our regulations, particularly in relation to dogs. We have had a big focus on responsible ownership of dogs.
We have also been doing other things alongside that. You will be aware of the greyhound petition. We have diverted resources to look at that also. We put a huge amount of effort into the kept animals Bill, which the UK Government, unfortunately, then did not take forward. So, again, I have been asking officials to look within that programme at what things we might need to do, having now seen the fall of that Bill.
Thank you, and I am happy to declare that I am an honorary member of the BVA, for the register of interests. Animal welfare is incredibly important. You mentioned the kept animals welfare Bill, and a lot of that good work is going to continue through secondary legislation, so it's not work wasted.
But one thing that really could be done within this is around the use of the RSPCA. RSPCA inspectors do an amazing job in ensuring that animals are looked after and treated well. However, the statutory powers lie with local authority inspectors. That work could easily be carried out by the RSPCA, freeing up our local authorities and utilising the skills and expertise available within the RSPCA.
Next year marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the RSPCA. So, what better present to give the charity than having these statutory powers? So, can I ask, what advances have you made on transferring enforcement and investigative powers from local authorities to the RSPCA to enable this to take place?
This is certainly something that we were looking at, probably pre this term of Government. I went out with the RSPCA and saw for myself how difficult it was because they didn't have enough powers to be able to deal with things as they saw them, and as they came across them. So, it was something that I very much supported, and I am very happy to continue to work with the RSPCA, going forward.
I think that it was really disappointing that the RSPCA took the decision to remove the office that they had here in Wales and the staff that they had here in Wales. We did have a really close relationship with them—particularly my officials. Unfortunately, we appear to have lost a little bit of that.
Given that there is a five-year commitment for the programme for government, is that something, with regard to the statutory powers for the RSPCA, that you'd be looking to conclude within the five years? Not to prejudge my final question, but what I am getting to is that COVID lockdowns saw an increase in pet ownership, and that, sadly, led to an increase in pet abandonments as well. The latest figures, again, from the RSPCA for England and Wales show that abandoned pets have increased by 25 per cent.
Pet microchipping is a proven way of helping to reduce these abandonments, but it appears that, in Wales, not all animals are created equal. The microchipping of dogs is now compulsory, and in England, from next June, the microchipping of cats will be compulsory too. Whilst I am, I have to admit, more of a dog person, I think Wales should be leading the way and be comparative across all animals. So, what are we doing to put feline and canine pets on an equal footing and what plans does the Welsh Government have on introducing cat microchipping here?
On the end of your last question, around the RSPCA, it's certainly something that I'm very keen to continue to pursue. Whether it would be done during this term of Government, because it's not just an issue for the Welsh Government, obviously, there are other institutions and organisations we have to work with—. But, for me, I can see the practical importance of the RSPCA having those powers to be able to deal with issues that they—. They are, obviously, first responders, if you like. So, certainly, it's something I'm incredibly keen to continue to look at.
In relation to the microchipping of cats, like you, I'm more of a dog person, but that doesn't come into it when we're looking at something as important as microchipping. I think it is really important, and, unfortunately, I think we all see more cats run over than dogs. You often hear about this on the road, and it would be really important to have the cat microchipped so that at least the owner could be found, because I can think of nothing worse than your pet not coming home. It is something that we will do within the five years of the animal welfare plan. However, I should just say it can be done. It is available for people to have it done. Just because we haven't told you to do it doesn't mean you don't have to do it, so, whilst it's not mandatory, you can do it voluntarily.
The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Minister, you told us yesterday that you hadn't had any kind of definitive assurance of funding from the UK Government for the implementation of the sustainable farming scheme. How, therefore, are you factoring funding uncertainties into the forthcoming consultation and the scheme development, and at what point are you going to have to have that commitment from the UK Government in order to deliver the scheme in full and as intended?
You're quite right, I did say that, and it is absolutely the case that we have no certainty about our budget beyond 2025. I mentioned that it is incredibly complex and difficult to design a scheme when you don't know what the budget is. So, you have to assume that we will have the level of funding that we've had over the previous few years, and, indeed, we will have for our basic payment scheme, which we are going to continue to the end of 2024.
I know farmers want some certainty. Unfortunately, these are really uncertain times, and if you wanted that certainty, we should have stayed in the European Union, where we had that cycle of funding where we always knew what we were going to get. When you only have one-year budgets and then you have a comprehensive spending review, the most you get is three years. So, I appreciate that people want answers around the SFS in relation to payments and funding, which I just can't give at the moment. As I mentioned yesterday, we will have budgetary planning in the final consultation so that we will be able to come forward with something more definitive next year. Obviously, we will know more after the autumn statement this year in relation to the funding.
Isn't assuming that the money will come from the UK Government playing a rather dangerous game, because the UK Government does have form in this respect, where they have reneged on promises made in the past to fully replace EU funding to Wales post Brexit? Would it not be more responsible to be at least very mindful of the possibility that the funding isn't forthcoming as the scheme is being developed? And if there is a shortfall, will the Welsh Government commit to plugging that funding gap, or will Welsh farmers and the environment have to bear the consequences of scaled-back ambitions?
I can assure you I am very mindful—I'm always very mindful of anything where you are having to look at a budget. I and my successors will have to sit around the Cabinet table and argue for funding in the way that every Minister has to. We get our budget from the UK Government, as you know. We know how reduced that budget is in real terms. So, any Minister has to look to the finance Minister for that funding, going forward, and it will be no different. I made that very clear, when I first came into this portfolio just ahead of the EU referendum, that that indeed would be the case—you wouldn't have the luxury of having that funding arriving from Brussels with no scrutiny, just straight out. That will not be the case for future Ministers for rural affairs.
3. How is the Welsh Government working with local authorities and other stakeholders to reduce the number of pets, such as goldfish, being given away as prizes? OQ59819
Diolch. My officials have been working with the Wales animal health and welfare framework group on this issue. Local authorities have previously been written to in order to gather information. Councils have the power to ban the practice of giving animals as prizes on their land, and 12 of the 22 have already implemented bans.
Thank you, Minister. I must declare an interest: my first-ever pet was a goldfish that I called Dewin Dwl, won at the fair in Sioe Môn. I won countless other goldfish there over the years and in Ffair Borth, but, unfortunately, all of them others the same fate of dying a few short weeks afterwards. Luckily, our understanding of the importance of animal welfare has increased since the 1980s, and we better understand now how cruel the practice of giving away pets as prizes truly is. Whilst, as you illustrated in your response, local authorities such as the Vale of Glamorgan have taken steps to ban such a practice on land they own, they cannot apply these prohibitions to land that they don't own and is in private ownership. So, what consideration has the Welsh Government given to introducing Wales-wide legislation to prohibit giving away pets as prizes?
I think I probably should declare an interest; I certainly remember having a goldfish. I don't think mine lasted a few weeks, actually; I think it was a few days. But, as you say, it's something that, over the years, we absolutely accept is not the way forward.
I did write to the Showmen's Guild of Great Britain back in 2019, and, on the back of your question, I asked to look at the response I received, because I remember at the time thinking, 'Oh', and it's a tradition to give these pets away. But it's really pleasing to see RSPCA Cymru campaigning on this. I think it's something that the public need to understand, and my officials have met with the RSPCA to see what more can be done, going forward, without legislation; you'll be aware of the increased legislation we have in this area. But I do think there is more that councils can do. I mentioned the 12 of the 22, and you mentioned the Vale of Glamorgan. I know my own constituency of Wrexham, along with another 10 councils, are not doing this, which I think is incredibly powerful, and, as I said, I hope the other 10 disallow the activity to take place where they, as you say, are able to hire the land and, therefore, have that impact.
But I certainly think we should do all we can to encourage people to look at alternative prizes. I know the RSPCA have been giving out leaflets to people how they can look after a goldfish if they are given one. But I just wanted to assure you that we are looking within the animal welfare plan to see if there is more we can do in relation to this.
I'm still tortured by the fact that my goldfish lasted a matter of hours only, as I transferred it from the little plastic bag to the bowl in the sink, and it disappeared down the sink hole. I was seven years old when that happened, by the way, and I can—
You still remember it.
I still remember it vividly, and it's been brought back to my mind as you were discussing this. Janet Finch-Saunders, any goldfish memories?
Yes, many, actually. So, a really good question from Heledd Fychan, and I'm really sorry about the sad demise of your goldfish, which happens too often, I'm afraid. Now, in 2019, the Petitions Committee actually considered calls for a ban on goldfish given away at funfairs. Four years on, we haven't really moved much further, and, as the Minister says, there are still 10 councils or local authorities still allowing this to happen. More action is needed to protect animals, predominantly goldfish, from this practice. To receive a sentient goldfish in a small plastic bag that is often carried around for hours, and temperatures go up and down, is not a good omen to getting them home and into a suitable container and giving them a life. It's actually quite cruel, if we look at how we've moved forward in animal welfare issues of today.
So, Minister, would you consider—and I'd like to endorse the sentiments by Heledd Fychan—would you actually consider now looking for Wales-wide legislation to bring forward an outright ban on these, whether it be private or council-owned land? And do you think maybe you could write a letter to those 10 authorities, because we're coming up to all the shows, and I saw some goldfish in bags the other week and it was a really warm day, and I just felt so sorry for them—whether you could write to the other 10, and maybe just ask them for some action on this?
Thank you. I don't disagree with anything Janet Finch-Saunders said in relation to that. I don't think I can answer any more fully than I answered Heledd Fychan, but, just to reassure you, when I asked my officials to write to all 22 local authorities back in 2019 to ascertain how many of them were still allowing it to be done, we certainly said we would follow it up. So, I do commit to writing to the other 10 to see what action is being taken, because, as you say, we are coming up to show season now as well, where we will see far more of this.
4. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's response to cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza? OQ59844
In light of a reduced risk to poultry, the avian influenza prevention zone was lifted on 4 July. While there are no current disease control zones in Wales, we continue to monitor risk levels to poultry and wild birds, and a ban on gatherings of higher risk bird species remains in place.
Well, there have been recent outbreaks, and it is of huge concern. It's something I raised with the climate change Minister last week, and I was effectively referred to you on this, so I'd like to ask what additional support and advice is being given to poultry farmers in those specific areas. I mentioned the Dee estuary, and I know, off the coast of Anglesey as well, there are huge concerns there at the moment. Also, what guidance and support is the Government giving to local authorities and public health officials to make sure that they're fully equipped in their response to handling enquiries from the public, which of course have a key part and role to play in this respect?
Thank you. They indeed have been. We've had a total of eight cases in Wales. The reporting period begins on 1 October, so since 1 October 2022, we've had eight cases of AI confirmed in kept birds in Wales. There were two in Anglesey, a case in Flintshire, and five cases in Powys. As I said, due to where we are now, we lifted the prevention zone on 4 July, but unfortunately there are bans on gatherings of certain species remaining in place. We do continue to monitor the situation not just in Wales, not just in the UK, not even just in Europe, but we are doing it on a global level, as well as the effectiveness of any disease control measures. So, the office of the chief veterinary officer is responsible for working closely with our bird keepers, with our farmers, and with the local authority and public health also, and guidance and support is given to them.
Minister, as you are aware, the risk to humans from HPAI virus is relatively low. However, due to the scavenging nature of certain animals, there has been an increased number of infections in mammals who consumed infected birds. Sadly, since October 2022, red foxes in Powys, Eurasian otters in Shropshire, common dolphins off the coast of Pembrokeshire, and grey seals in Cornwall have all been identified as being infected. Minister, although infection rates are still relatively low, what assessment has been made of the potential vulnerability of mammalian species to widespread infection, and what preparations have you made to help reduce infections? Thank you.
Thank you. Well, we are aware of the reports of mammals infected with AI that you just mentioned, and the office of the chief veterinary officer works very closely with the Animal and Plant Health Agency, and with the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, going forward, as well as, obviously, with international collaborators as well. Obviously, any outbreak in the way that you have just outlined is of concern, and there are reports of dolphins and whales being infected in other parts of the world, so it is something that we have to keep a very close watch on, but there is no evidence that the new findings represent significant mammal adaptation of the current AI virus strain here in the UK.
5. What discussions has the Minister had with government colleagues about Transport for Wales's recently announced improvement plan for services on the Wrexham to Bidston line? OQ59829
I have regular discussions with the Deputy Minister for Climate Change regarding transport in north Wales, and that includes the Wrexham to Bidston line. I welcome the improvement plan Transport for Wales have developed, and Welsh Government will be monitoring its delivery closely.
I'm grateful to the Minister for the work she does under her responsibilities as the Minister for north Wales and for having those conversations with Cabinet colleagues. It's fair to say, Minister, that the Wrexham to Bidston line users are patient people—they've had to be, in fairness to them. But what they are seeking more than anything is that the recently announced five-step improvement plan does demonstrate and deliver real-term and long-term improvements in reliability on that line. I think we've both been tagged in a tweet this afternoon again about the service. So, can I ask you to update the Chamber on how the plan is working, but also ask you, whether it be through the Deputy Minister’s office, to instruct Transport for Wales to open regular dialogue with the Wrexham-Bidston Rail Users’ Association so that they can see the work that's being done on a regular basis?
Thank you. I absolutely agree with you around people being patient. I use that line myself, as I'm sure you do, and the performance of the services on that line has not been good enough. I think that's very fair to say, and I know that the Deputy Minister for Climate Change did visit the area recently. He really wanted to see the issues that were faced by passengers first hand, and he met with the rail user group that you referred to, and also with local elected representatives.
I think it's fair to say that the Deputy Minister's been very challenging to Transport for Wales, to make sure that that performance is turned around and obviously, they've got that five-point plan that you referred to. I had the opportunity when I was travelling to Cardiff this week to—well, I thought it was an opportunity, but I'm sure he didn't—. But one of the senior officials from Transport for Wales, I was able to question him quite a lot about the five-point plan. One of the things is minimising bus replacement services. There's nothing worse than hitting a station waiting for a train and you see a load of buses outside, because you know that that's going to be an even longer journey. They're reviewing the timetable, they've committed to one of their senior officers working to provide improved focus on issues and connect better with stakeholders.
We are investing £800 million on brand new trains and, of course, that will benefit services right across north Wales going forward, and those trains are now coming into operation. And I do think that's in very stark contrast to the UK Government train operator, Avanti West Coast. They're removing services this summer from the timetable at very short notice and with very minimum engagement.
Growth Track 360, as you know, is the public-private partnership, uniting north Wales, the Wirral, and Cheshire West and Chester, working to improve cross-border transport connectivity, with specific emphasis on rail. After local concerns about poor service delivery and delays to the introduction of the long-promised half-hourly service on the Wrexham-Bidston line required them to make representations to the Welsh Government, they welcomed the commitment from Welsh Government and Transport for Wales to improve services on the borderlands line.
However, how will you engage with Welsh Government colleagues regarding the concern expressed to me by the Wrexham-Bidston Rail Users’ Association about the statement made to me by the chief executive of Transport for Wales that the class 230 trains have generally been operating reliably, and the major technical issues seem to have been resolved, where they instead state that the continuing unreliability of the class 230s and their inability to keep scheduled time throughout their full-day's diagrams, suggest that this units will be unable to maintain an hourly service this summer, still less operate a 30-minute frequency in the autumn?
The new class 230 train did begin on the Wrexham to Bidston line on 3 April, and I think it's again very fair to say that there were some very disappointing delays bringing them into service. And I know that Transport for Wales had to rigorously ensure the train's safety and reliability following incidents during initial testing. The reliability of those trains has to be Transport for Wales’s focus going forward, and I know they've invested in the Birkenhead depot, and trains no longer have to travel to Chester for service and repair, which I think is a very positive move.
6. How is the Welsh Government supporting the beverage industry based in Wales? OQ59837
Thank you. The Welsh Government is committed to supporting the beverage and drinks sector across Wales, and has a comprehensive programme of business support measures in place. This includes a highly successful drinks cluster, which promotes collaboration across the industry sector.
Diolch, Minister. We do love our food and drink in Wales, and I'm going to focus on drinks today. And, of course, I'm going to take this opportunity to give a bit of a shout out to the companies in my own constituency. I know that you met Ferrari's Coffee; they also roast the beans for Jenipher’s fair-trade coffee. We have Double Trouble Coffee, we have Dog's Window, Bang On Brewery and The Coach Brewing Co all in Bridgend. And we also have a Bont Gin and a Porthcawl Gin. We also know that people do love—[Interruption.] I know, I'm just showing off now. We also know that people do love to buy Welsh. So, is there somewhere at the moment where all of that information is collated, on a map, for example—beverages that include coffee, spirits, beers, and everything else?
And my other question was, I recently had some constituents get in touch because when the Welsh Government is promoting beer and other alcoholic beverages, they asked if it was possible to always include the 'please drink responsibly' on there, which hasn't always been included, and if we could have that balance with also suggesting non-alcoholic options, which, of course, are very popular now. So, we have Drop Bear Beer Co. based in Wales, which are fantastic. Tiny Rebel do a non-alcoholic lager and Gower Brewery also do one, so, that would be wonderful as well. Thank you. Diolch.
Thank you. I quite agree, we do really enjoy our Welsh food and drink, and it's great to be coming into the agricultural show season now because what better place to show off the fantastic food and drink we have here in Wales, and really showcase our producers who do so much work to bring those forward? I did indeed visit Ferrari's—I think it was back in the autumn—in your constituency. And you do mention—there's always a lot of photographs of you on social media—a variety of cafes and restaurants, promoting and supporting your local businesses.
There is all that information in one place. I would imagine it's on the Welsh Government website, but I will have to check, but I know that information is there, particularly the food and drink producers that we do support. You'll be aware we have Cywain, which is a business delivery partner, and what they will do, particularly at the Royal Welsh Show—they'll do it in quite a few shows—is promote new businesses, because I think that's really important. It always surprises me that every year, there are new gin producers, there are new cheese producers; we have that space for them, and they do really well, and within probably a year of seeing them, they're exporting—they're really, really successful businesses. So, it will be great to visit the food hall at the Royal Welsh Show, and I'd encourage anybody attending the show to do so.
7. What consideration has the Welsh Government given to the introduction of mandatory cat microchipping in Wales, either via its own regulations or through legislative consent? OQ59815
8. Has the Minister given any further consideration towards the introduction of mandatory cat microchipping in Wales, either via its own regulations or through legislative consent? OQ59848
Our animal welfare plan makes a commitment to consider extending compulsory microchipping to include cats by 2026. Whilst a consultation is not planned for 2023, my officials are considering a joint report on microchipping to inform this work and monitoring progress of the English regulations, which were made in April.
I thank the Minister for that response. Cats are roaming animals; that's why it's important to ensure that cats are microchipped in case they get lost or killed. Cats can be microchipped by most vets for between £20 and £30, and for those on lower incomes and means-tested benefits, additional support is available from charities such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Cats Protection, but still not all cats are being microchipped. Will the Government take action on compulsory microchipping of cats as a matter of urgency? The Minister talked about 2026; if you bring in a legislative consent motion, you could do it sooner.
Well, you will have heard my earlier answer to Sam Kurtz, and you're quite right to point out that not everybody is microchipping their cats even though, as I say, it is available—you mentioned the cost of it. So, just because we're not telling people to do it and it's not mandatory, it doesn't mean they don't have to do it. But, I think you make a really important point. So, I have asked officials to look at what we could do on the back of the Microchipping of Cats and Dogs (England) Regulations 2023, which were made on 25 April 2023, which means all owned cats over the age of 20 weeks will need to be microchipped by 10 June 2024.
I had agreed to a grouping request for questions 7 and 8—
I wasn't told. Sorry.
Well, I thought the request had come from you, Minister. But, there we go.
It had, but I hadn't been told. Sorry.
There we go. We'll assume that it did, and that I agreed to it, and Luke Fletcher can ask his supplementary question to question 8.
Diolch, Llywydd. Cats, of course, as Mike rightly pointed out, do roam more than any other pet, so microchipping your cat does make sense, but it doesn't stop at just the act of microchipping. A persistent issue in both cats and dogs is that the information is not being kept up to date on microchips. On my last visit to Cats Protection in Heol-y-Cyw, there were a number of cats there that had out-of-date information on their microchips. So, alongside the work of microchipping cats, what work is the Government doing to ensure that people are keeping their information up to date so that owners and pets can be reunited?
I'm not aware of any specific work that we are doing in relation to making sure that people do update their microchips. I was quite surprised to learn myself that it's very easy to actually change the information on the microchip, so it is something that I will ask officials to look at.
9. What discussions has the Minister had with Cabinet colleagues about the impact of energy infrastructure development on communities in north Wales? OQ59830
As well as discussions at Cabinet, the impact of energy infrastructure has been discussed at the Cabinet sub-committee for north Wales, including offshore wind, nuclear and hydrogen infrastructure deployed across the region. We are very clear that communities in Wales need to benefit from new energy infrastructure investment.
Thank you for your response, Minister. I want to speak in particular about the community of Cefn Meiriadog in Denbighshire, and you'll be aware that Cefn Meiriadog is a largely rural community, but there are a number of significant energy infrastructure pieces of work taking place there, which is going to drastically change that rural community. First of all, it already has a substation there. There's a substation also associated with Gwynt y Môr offshore windfarm at the same site as well. I understand that the Awel y Môr offshore windfarm project will trigger an extension to existing substation sites, and an additional 31-acre site will also be required to host a substation for the planned Mona windfarm. I also understand that the MaresConnect project is likely to have a connection at the substation there as well, and I also understand that there are proposals for an 80-acre solar farm within that very small rural community. So, you can understand there are five or six large projects there in one very small area.
I appreciate that many of these perhaps sit with National Grid plc at a reserved level, but I wonder, from a planning point of view, with your north Wales hat on, working with colleagues on the Cabinet, how the consideration of all these projects' cumulative impact on some of these rural communities is considered, as a Cabinet, and what your thoughts are about how we minimise that impact on those rural communities.
Thank you. Well, the issues you outline obviously sit within the Minister for Climate Change's portfolio, and she's heard your question. As I say, we do have discussions at Cabinet; we had a very good discussion at the north Wales Cabinet sub-committee a couple of months ago in relation to renewable energy, because we know north Wales has many opportunities in the area for really innovative energy technologies, and there are lots of opportunities with hydrogen as well.
You refer to some projects that are being discussed—I think you mentioned Denbighshire mainly—and it is really important that when—. We need to get our energy from renewable energy as much as possible, but what's really important is that our communities benefit from it as well. So, that, I know, is a priority for the Minister, to make sure that the communities are taken with them, and it's really important that the developers have those discussions ahead of bringing projects forward.
I remember opening a hydro project in Corwen when I was the Minister with responsibility for energy, and it was so great to talk to local people, who said they knew that, when they put the kettle on in their house, that they were getting benefits from that renewable energy that they were using.
Finally, question 10, Cefin Campbell.
10. Will the Minister make a statement on efforts to eradicate bovine TB in mid and west Wales? OQ59835
In March, I published our new TB delivery plan, setting out actions that we will take to eradicate bovine TB across Wales. This included a Pembrokeshire project addressing persistently infected herds, re-introducing pre-movement testing, and extending post-movement testing in intermediate TB areas. I will further update in my annual November statement.
Thank you very much for that response, and everyone in the Chamber is very aware of the very damaging impact that bovine TB has on the agricultural community.
I had an experience very recently visiting a farm in Bancyfelin in Carmarthenshire, and I saw, in a very striking way, how a bovine outbreak had had an impact on the economy of that farm business and also an impact on the mental health of those living there. The Minister is probably aware of the proposals passed by Carmarthenshire County Council and Ceredigion County Council, noting the concerns, sometimes, about the way that the Government deals with farms that are facing an outbreak TB, and perhaps there's a need to be more sensitive about how the news is conveyed.
But specifically, I would like to hear from you about the vaccine—the recent developments with regard to the vaccine—against TB. There are cynics who say, 'Well, we've heard, over a number of years, "Oh, well it's almost there, it's almost there".' So, specifically, could you give us an update on the Government's efforts, particularly with regard to the vaccine, and is there hope for progress in the near future?
Thank you. I don't underestimate the massive impact, both financial and to farmers' well-being, that a TB outbreak—. Or even when they're having TB testing. It's incredibly difficult for them. You'll remember that we went out to consultation back in 2021, and one of the recommendations that came forward from that consultation was that, as a Government, the way we corresponded needed to be far more sensitive than perhaps it was, and the language being used not just needed to be more sensitive, but needed to be more straightforward. And that's certainly something that my officials have taken on.
In relation to your specific question around the vaccine, I absolutely agree. I was told when I first came into portfolio we were nearly there and, seven years later, we're not there. So, are we nearly there? Well, certainly, academia and the experts tell me that perhaps in another couple of years we will be there, so that would be something very much to welcome in 2025. I'll certainly make sure—. I don't have any update since my statement earlier this year, but I will certainly make sure that I update Members when I do my annual TB statement in November.
I thank the Minister for that session.
We move now to item 6, the topical questions, and the first question is to be answered by the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language, and to be asked by Sioned Williams.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the Government's decision not to provide free meals to eligible school children during the summer holidays? TQ820
Holiday provision for free school meals was time-limited support that we introduced during the pandemic. Due to the extremely difficult funding situation Wales faces, this provision has not now been able to be extended further beyond May.
Diolch, Weinidog. Without any statement to the Senedd either in written or oral form, with just a few weeks left of the Senedd term and before the end of the school term, children's charities, third sector organisations who support families, along with families themselves, heard in the media that free school meals during the school holiday will no longer be available for the most vulnerable children. Children's charities in Wales and the Children's Commissioner for Wales are unanimous in their view that, as the cost-of-living crisis plunges even more Welsh families into poverty, this decision will result in children going hungry over the coming weeks, and Plaid Cymru agrees.
Minister, why have you decided not to find the funding needed to support this much-needed intervention, which in the words of the Welsh Government's director of education and Welsh language in his letter informing local authorities, has proven popular? 'Popular'—an odd choice of word to use for the provision of food; 'proven essential' perhaps is more accurate. We have heard a Labour backbencher suggest that Plaid Cymru somehow has power over the Welsh Government's budget. If only that were the case. The policies in the co-op agreement, such as universal free school meals, only make up a small part of that overall budget.
This funding is unfortunately not part of that agreement, but, if the Welsh Government is serious about tackling child poverty and food insecurity, it could prioritise the spending needed to ensure our most disadvantaged children's access to food. Yesterday, in answer to how the Government will support those who need it when the school term finishes, the First Minister referred to the food and fun programme and how it will reach more children than ever—30,000 of them. While this scheme, of course, is to be welcomed, we know the number of children who are eligible for free school meals from low-income families is more than treble that. The First Minister also denied this was short notice, but parents have had little time to plan, for those who can plan their finances, for this cut.
This also comes at a time when the Welsh Government has announced a cut of £100 in the school essentials grant from next term, and at a time when the Government has received recommendations from a United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child to address food insecurity, improve access to free school meals for disadvantaged children, and to enhance children's access to food. And you are consulting on your draft child poverty strategy. So, Minister, what evaluation has been done therefore on the impact of these decisions on child poverty? Why weren't families and third sector organisations given more notice? Doesn't this decision run counter to the ambitions and priorities set out in the draft child poverty strategy, and what is your response to Save the Children Cymru, who say all this is a huge step back in tackling child poverty and food insecurity?
Well, the Welsh Government's budget is worth £900 million less due to the inflationary consequences of Conservative management of the UK economy. This is not a decision that the Welsh Government wants to have to take. We are a Government, after all, that has increased education maintenance allowance, increased access to the school essentials grant, and is bearing down on the cost of the school uniform. The school holiday free school meal was brought in by this Government during the pandemic, and we have found ways to continue extending it by finding underspends from time to time. We’ve sought to work with Plaid. It’s not something, as the Member says, that Plaid pressed to have in the co-operation agreement, nor, as the First Minister said yesterday, is it in the top priorities that Plaid articulated for budget outside the co-operation agreement. But during the co-operation agreement period she will know that we have been keen to be able to work together on this, and we last issued a joint statement, in fact, in March, announcing an extension to May, and that that was in fact funded by the co-operation agreement budget. This time we again asked Plaid if we could try together to find funds in the co-operation agreement, but Plaid did not wish to do that.
The Government has, however, funded a larger provision of summer food and fun schemes for this summer, reaching thousand more children this year, and now in all 22 local authority areas for the first time, as well as the Playworks scheme that, in fact, reaches almost 40,000 children.
The latest news is indicative of Welsh Labour once again talking the talk but failing to walk the walk when it comes to free school meals in Wales. The UK Conservative Government is continuing with the holiday activities and food programme in England, providing support for vulnerable children with free meals during the school holiday.
This announcement is a surprise to us all, as just outlined by Sioned Williams, but it comes as no surprise to me, Minister, as, when there are free school meals in term time, you have failed to properly fund schools to expand their kitchens to be able to roll out the scheme, and now we’re coming out of term time, you want to cut the scheme altogether. Your food and fun scheme just simply won’t cut the mustard. Minister, why are you giving with one hand and taking away with the other by cutting free school meals in the school holidays?
Well, the public are certainly not crying out for us to stop feeding children in school during a cost-of-living crisis, which is not a view that the Member shares, certainly, and in Conservative England they are in fact not providing holiday free school meals, and they're also not providing universal primary free school meals, either. If people in Wales are looking for who is responsible for the pressures that they face at the moment, they won't be looking at a Welsh Labour Government that's doing all it can to put billions of pounds into people's pockets at a difficult time; they'll be looking at a Conservative Party who have presided over a decade and more of austerity, coupled now with a crippling cost-of-living crisis, rising interest rates and rising unemployment for families right across the UK.
I'm very disappointed that the Government are not providing free meals for children who qualify for free school meals during the summer holidays. Inevitably, children—even more their mothers, who will prioritise their children—will go hungry. Government is about priorities. I do not understand why £4 million can be found for a zipwire run by a private company in my constituency rather than feeding children in families in need. It is very late for the Government to change course now. Can I urge the Government to ask local authorities to fund free meals this summer from their reserves and pay for it in next year's budget? Feeding children who are poor has to be a priority for a Labour Government.
Mike Hedges will know that I share his priority, and he will also know that we made an announcement in March that indicated that the extension was until the end of May. He will also know that the Government's budget is worth almost £1 billion less and, as a consequence of that, it is impossible for any Government to proceed with no impact on people’s lives. We are not talking about impacts on a list of things that we might all be able to say are nice to have. We’re talking about the impact of that on programmes that are very important to lots of people. That is the direct consequence of the failure of the Conservative Government to manage the economy in a way that is responsible, and to fund public services adequately in England. We will do—[Interruption.] We will continue doing—[Interruption.] We will continue—[Interruption.] We will continue to do everything that we can to support those families in need.
Can we please take a step back and stop blaming people? Because what I would like to know is: what about those circa 50,000 children that will be going hungry this summer—50,000 that we could be helping and that we have helped previously? Foodbanks are worried. They've contacted me. I've been visiting them. They're worried that they're already seeing an increase in demand, and that's with students in schools and the increase in free school meals, thanks to the co-operation agreement. They are concerned, and there is no plan in place. You've talked about some of those children, but we're talking about, potentially, 50,000 children and young people going hungry this summer. I don't want to know whose fault it is, I want to know what the Welsh Government is going to do to ensure that that's not the case and how are you working practically with partners on the ground to ensure that everybody will be able to access food this summer.
Also, regarding the school essentials grant, we already know that, even with the increase last year, which was very welcomed by a number of families, they are still struggling to make ends meet. Teachers speak of having to raise funds, of having to run school uniform exchange schemes, but, even then, not being able to meet the demand. So, we're talking about children not being able to eat, not being able to have clothes to go to school. This is such a sad, sad state, and we're pointing fingers at people, rather than finding solutions. So, please tell me how are you actually working with people to help these children and young people.
I agree with the Member that the appropriate way of looking at this is to try and find solutions rather than to point the finger of blame. It's important to put some context around why the decision was taken, which is, after all, the question that I was asked to answer. In terms of the help that we are providing, she referred to the school essentials grant. That is now available in every school year. It's the highest fund of its kind in any part of the UK. The cost of school is very significant for many, many families. So, we are doing everything we can to bear down on that, and we are working with schools, giving them support and guidance in order to be able to make that a reality on the ground. But she is right to say that many, many families are struggling notwithstanding that. We have now extended that scheme, so it's available for every school year, which is very different from even a few years ago, recognising the scale of the pressures that families meet.
I've given the context of a budget that is worth £900 million less. When that is the case, we have to look at every aspect of the budget. As she will know, as I mentioned earlier, we've been able to extend from time to time this scheme temporarily, actually most recently using funds from the co-operation agreement. It has not been possible to do that on this occasion, either from the general budget or, with the agreement of Plaid Cymru, from the co-operation agreement budget, but we will continue to do everything we can to support those families that, as she says, are struggling.
I thank the Minister.
The next question is to be answered by the Minister for Climate Change and is to be asked by James Evans.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Water having its rating reduced by Natural Resources Wales? TQ825
Yes. I have been very clear with Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water that we expect water companies in Wales to provide the highest standards of service to customers and to protect the environment. The reduction in Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water's rating is very concerning. My officials are working closely with them and Natural Resources Wales to ensure the necessary improvement in their environmental performance.
I'd like to thank you for your answer, Minister. It was very deeply concerning to read about the recent announcement that Dŵr Cymru have been downgraded again, for the second year running, for failing to make the improvements necessary to clean up our waterways right across Wales. The company is reporting more and more serious pollution incidents, and it seems that nothing is being done to stop them. Their self-reporting of these serious pollution incidents is being reduced as well. Minister, Dŵr Cymru customers have the second highest bills in England and Wales. They have one of the highest-paid chief executive officers in Wales, who took home a bonus this year of £232,000. It is shameful that Dŵr Cymru cannot get its act together, and I do think it's about time that the Government stepped in here. So, will the Government step up to the plate and sort Dŵr Cymru out once and for all so we can clean up our rivers and bring forward urgent legislation to clean up our inland waterways within Wales, which is the devolved competency of your Government?
I'm not entirely certain what I'm being asked to do there. Are you asking me to nationalise Welsh Water? Welsh Water is a private not-for-profit company. It's not controlled by the Welsh Government, so I'm not really certain whether you're asking me to nationalise it. I have a limited number of levers at my disposal. Many of the levers are, of course, with the UK Government. This is a privatised utility, so it is—
You can regulate it.
I cannot regulate it, actually.
Yes, you can.
No, I cannot. The regulation powers are not with the Welsh Government.
Pollution is your responsibility.
Pollution is, but the regulation of water companies is not with the Welsh Government, so, you could very helpfully suggest to the UK Government that the regulatory framework is not fit for purpose, as we do, and—[Interruption.]
Darren Millar, this is not your question. You're seeking to intervene on your own Member here. It is James Evans's question, and the Minister is trying to respond to it.
So, a number of the things that James Evans set out there—. I believe all Members have received the same information as I have as a Senedd Member, from Welsh Water; if you haven't, then I can certainly forward it to you. As I say, I do not control Welsh Water; it is not a nationalised industry, it is a not-for-profit private company. But we scrutinise Welsh Water, alongside Ofgem, and, indeed, the UK Government, all the time. I am very concerned at their drop in performance. I absolutely agree with that. And a large part of that is because of the way that the price mechanism works. The price mechanism is set at a UK level, on a five-year slide, as it's called, and, unfortunately, the way that it is currently regulated means that any improvement has to be paid for by bills. So, I'm not entirely certain what the Member is asking me, really, because I do not control Welsh Water. So, I will respond, as I said—[Interruption.] I hold Welsh Water to account; the Member is more than happy, I'm sure, to do the same thing in any committee he is part of, or in his private capacity, to ask for a meeting with them. We do that on a very regular basis. I meet with Ofgem, Ofwat on a very regular basis, and with the UK Government. I will be holding Welsh Water Dŵr Cymru's feet to the fire over this. But the truth is that they have a limited ability to invest because of the price mechanism. They have set that out for you, and every other Senedd Member, in the information that they've provided.
You also said, I think I'm right in hearing you, James—forgive me if I got it wrong—but I think you said that there were a large number of serious pollution events. [Interruption.] Well, actually, the increase in serious pollution events, just to be clear—and it's not acceptable—but just to be clear, it's from three to five. So, just to be really clear. It's absolutely disappointing to see that, and I don't think it's good enough, but those are the figures. There is a further drop in the number of self-reported incidents, and a slight increase in the number of low-category incidents—from 81 to 84. None of these things are acceptable, but it's important to get the figures right. So, it's also—. There's no point shaking your head at me, those are the figures—[Interruption.] Those are the figures. So, I agree, it's not good enough, and we will be taking it very seriously indeed. I am not happy at all about it. But I'm not entirely certain where your question was leading—forgive me if I'm not quite understanding it, but you seem to be asking me to nationalise the company, which is clearly not really acceptable.
Minister, surely part of what we're witnessing here, and, indeed, with sewage increases across the UK, is a consequence of weakened environmental governance in the wake of Brexit. Wales has waited for too long for the delivery of new arrangements to tackle this issue. European Union regulations protected and empowered Welsh citizens to report on breaches of environmental law, holding corporations to account. Since leaving the EU, with the disastrously hard Brexit that was pursued relentlessly by the Tories in Westminster, all nations apart from Wales have developed their own environmental governance mechanisms. We are, unfortunately, still the only country in the UK without those robust environmental governance arrangements. I know that you share my frustration about the situation.
Could you talk us through, please, in this interim period, what powers are at your disposal to take swift action to address this increase in pollution incidents? Because I think that this is one of the issues that, when members of the public look at this happening, people are in despair about it, and nobody seems to be able to, or at least there doesn't seem to be clarity about what can be done. So, do you agree that part of this is a consequence of that environmental governance gap because of the hard Brexit that we have? And what can be done to further empower Welsh citizens and to improve the well-being of, yes, our waterways, but also the people who want to live near, who want their children to be able to play in waterways, for us to be able to actually get the right engagement and be able to have that back in our lives? Diolch.
Thank you, Delyth. I think it is really important to get the facts straight. So, I completely agree with you about the hard Brexit and the difficulties of that, but just to be really clear, and just to set out for Senedd Members exactly how this works. So, performance is measured by NRW and the Environment Agency, who apply targets for each business planning cycle, with what's called a 'glide path', which is a tightening of standards over a five-year period. So, we're currently in the 2020-25 period. The five-year glide path thresholds set are evidence based, taking account of the previous performance of water companies over a three-year period, which for this assessment will be the 2016-18 period, and the water industry's strategic environmental requirements expectations. So, for example, for serious pollution events, the targets for Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water are one incident for green, two to three incidents at amber and four or above for red. For the 2023-24 period, there will be one, two and three, and for the 2025 period, nought, one and two. So, you can see that they're going down. So, they're being held to a higher standard at each point in the glide path. That's not an excuse, by the way; it's clearly not good enough, but just for you to understand what they're being held to account by.
We put a guide in for the price review mechanism, so we put our priorities in. Tackling overflows is a key focus of our work to improve water quality, but, again, it's important to get the facts right, and I'm not suggesting this is good enough, but just to be really clear: 44 per cent of our rivers are in good environmental status, which is against a very much lower number in England, and we still have—despite the fact that we have more coastline—we still have a very high proportion of our beaches in good environment. So, I don't want the public to be unnecessarily concerned and not, for example, take advantage of the Welsh coast over the upcoming summer. But it's not good enough. I would very much like it to get very much better than that. So, we're working closely with delivery partners, regulators and the relevant sectors to implement sustainable solutions. The water companies are all currently developing their business plan, so 2025-30, which is the price review mechanism that I was mentioning, which will include the programme of work to address any environmental harm caused by storm overflows.
Now, I have to say, I suspect you agree with me, Delyth, that I do not understand how putting the infrastructure in place to have the very best water quality in the world is not an investment programme capitalised by the Government. I do not understand why that has to be put onto the bill payers. That is a choice by the UK Government, and is not a choice that I approve of, and it absolutely limits the amount of investment that can go in, because, obviously, we can't have water bills unaffordable across Wales. So, it is a really difficult conundrum, if you're limited to the amount of money that you can charge your bill payers in order to put the investment in. It's, in my opinion, a fundamentally wrong way to do it. But, as I say, Welsh Water is a private company; it is a not-for-profit, which I am very pleased about, but it is a private company not in the control of the Welsh Government.
Thank you for all that information, Minister, and I think it's really important, as you say, to get the record straight. But it is also really important that we get this right, because there is an increasing shortage of water across Europe, across the world, and, therefore, we should be husbanding our water and ensuring that it is of the best possible quality. So, I agree with you that it all ought to be funded out of taxation, but we haven't got that at the moment; it's just loaded on to bill payers. But, I think, one of the ways I would like to see progress made is to ensure that we can make money out of muck, if we handle it correctly. It can be made into—. Particularly if the water is squeezed out of it, it can be used suitably for enriching our soils and improving the growing environment. So, in your conversations with Welsh Water, I wondered if you could talk to them about how we improve the handling of waste in our sewage plants, so we can have more of what they produce sold for the benefit of the country, and less of it—much less of it—going into our rivers and seas.
Jenny, that's a very good point. As part of the summit process, as we call it, working on the phosphate problem—although the phosphate problem is just one of the problems that's being looked at—we are looking at a variety of solutions, one of which is exactly that: to try and turn what is now a difficult waste into a money-making product for sale, and that is definitely one of the considerations that we're looking at. We've also done some source apportionment for that. So, we've commissioned an independent company to do a source apportionment across all of the SAC rivers—the special areas of conservation rivers—for the nine in Wales. The models can be used to determine the contribution of sources to phosphorous concentrations in the river and assist to develop a programme to reduce the inputs, which we do via the better river quality management boards and the nutrient management boards. We have a number of boards set up to work on these, who are looking at your point as well. And then, actually, this is additional to what I was saying to you, Delyth, which I know we've discussed before.
And just to say, and, again, I think the facts are very important here—and this is not to take away from the fact that Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water needs to up its game in big way, but—rural land use is the leading contributor of phosphate in six of the nine SAC rivers, including four of the failing SAC rivers. That's just a fact. It represents the largest proportion of phosphorus loading in the Tywi, for example, at 86 per cent, compared to 11 per cent from waste water treatment works, and 2 per cent from combined sewer overflows. I make that point not because 2 per cent from combined sewer overflows is okay—it isn't—but we have to get some sense of proportion into what we're actually trying to do here, and until we accept that every single sector of Wales has got to up its game, including the water companies—every single sector has got to up its game—we will not get the water quality we want.
I just want to be brief here. I, like others, met with water pollution campaigners outside the Senedd yesterday, and there is real confusion here, because Dŵr Cymru do say that they don't have money to do some of the work that they're supposed to be doing, and yet—and I'm sorry to go back to this—three of their top executives had bonuses worth £931,000, with the chief executive annual salary being £309,000. I hear what you're saying, Minister, about not having them in our control, but what confidence can we give to the Welsh public—including those campaigners who were outside the Senedd yesterday—that we are holding them to account in some way, and that we can have confidence in Dŵr Cymru and our water company? Diolch yn fawr iawn.
What we have is a privatised utility, effectively, and it would not be my particular view that that was a very good model for providing any kind of essential utility, but that's what we've got. I have no formal role in determining executive pay for Wales's water companies, but we do monitor pay and performance. We expect the relevant remuneration committees to reflect carefully on performance and delivery against the breadth of current water sector and environmental challenges. Ofwat has also set out the expectation for companies to provide robust and clear explanations of performance-related executive pay. They are clear that performance-related executive pay should demonstrate a link to stretching performance delivery for customers, which includes environmental commitments and obligations.
I'm not here to be an apologist for people who are paid an enormous amount of money. It is an enormous amount of money. It isn't an enormous amount of money compared to some of the other water companies, but I don't see how that is relevant, because it's an enormous amount of money. I am informed—I have no power over it—I am informed that the chief executive and the chief finance officer have forgone their executive bonuses for 2022-23. But I would suggest, Llywydd, that there are a number of committees in this Senedd who could also invite Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water in to give an account of themselves.
I thank the Minister. The next question is to be answered by the Minister for Economy and it's to be asked by Jack Sargeant.
3. Will the Minister make a statement on Monmouthshire Building Society's decision to stand down from the community bank project? TQ830
Thank you. It is disappointing that due to a changed economic environment, Monmouthshire Building Society is halting its community bank project. The road to establishing a community bank is not straightforward, but our vision remains unchanged. I will continue to explore all options towards creating a community bank aligned to community needs.