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 Deputy Presiding Officer (David Rees) in the Chair.
Good afternoon and welcome, all, to this afternoon's Plenary meeting. The first item on our agenda will be questions to the Minister for Social Justice, and the first question this afternoon is from Tom Giffard.
1. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Climate Change regarding the impact of blanket 20 mph speed limits on the work of the police and fire services? OQ59873
8. What discussions has the Minister had with the police regarding the implications for them of the forthcoming blanket 20 mph speed limits in Wales? OQ59870
Thank you very much for your question.
Deputy Presiding Officer, I understand that you've given your permission for questions 1 and 8 to be grouped. So, in response, the new 20 mph speed limit is not a blanket limit. Emergency services were part of the 20 mph taskforce that made the recommendation for 20 mph to become the default speed limit on restricted roads, and the police believe response times will not be affected, and the fire service does not foresee these changes adversely affecting their overall response times.
I thank the Minister for her answer. For most people in Wales, drafting in our fire and rescue crews across the country to help enforce your blanket 20 mph scheme will seem like a barmy idea. But I note that the Fire Brigades Union had to clarify that front-line firefighters would not be called away from their duties to help out with the campaign, and that staff already doing fire safety events, such as school visits, would be involved. But one of the reasons we have fewer fires in the UK today than in decades past is because of that very important engagement and educational work carried out by the fire and rescue services across Wales. So, unless, Minister, there's an announcement from you today announcing that there are going to be more fire and rescue service personnel across Wales, I can only therefore assume that this increased work in 20 mph enforcement will lead to fewer educational and engagement sessions being carried out by the fire service, putting the people of Wales, potentially, at a higher risk. So, can you reassure the Senedd today that that will not happen?
Well, thank you for that supplementary question. As I said, the emergency services, including our fire service, were part of the 20 mph taskforce, and, of course, that was the taskforce that made the recommendation for 20 mph to become the default speed limit on restricted roads.
The fire service does not foresee these changes adversely affecting their overall response times, and they are going to undertake a review by collecting six months' call-out data, so to allow them to conduct a robust evaluation of each retained fire service station response, as each fire station's location and local road layouts are different.
Also, what's important is I think education and fire safety is crucial to this. The fire service road safety team have been closely working with partner agencies and emergency service colleagues to engage with members of the public on the changes and the benefits of driving at lower speeds. But I think what is most important, which they recognise, is that 20 mph could result every year in Wales in 40 per cent fewer collisions, six to 10 lives saved, and 1,200 to 2,000 people avoiding injury. And this, of course, as the fire service is very keen to be part of, is a big step change in community safety for our generation, saving lives, encouraging more people to walk and cycle, and improving the quality of life in our communities.
As you've just grouped questions 1 and 8, and the Member speaking to question 8 has just joined us remotely, Mark, your supplementary to question 8, please.
Is this on fuel poverty, please?
No, it's on the 20 mph question—question 8.
Okay. Well, my opening question was what discussions the Minister has had with the police regarding the implications for them of the forthcoming blanket 20 mph speed limit in Wales, where, in a North Wales Live survey last month, 88 per cent opposed this. Behind the Welsh Government's selective evidence, we know that independent 20 mph research studies for the UK transport department found no significant safety outcome in terms of collisions and casualties, and research by Queen's University, Belfast, Edinburgh University and the University Cambridge found little impact on road safety. We know that police-recorded road accidents and Transport for Wales data show that the blanket change will mean that the accident rate on 20 mph roads would exceed 44 per cent, whilst falling to 4.2 per cent on 30 mph roads. So, what discussions has the Minister had with the police given the leaked letter from South Wales Police's assistant chief constable stating that the change would influence the speeds at which responders can get to emergencies, and the statement by the North Wales Police chief constable that her approach is going to be
'one of deploying my resources in the areas of the highest harm...if it's an area where we've had people killed or serious injuries on a road where a 30 becomes a 20, then I'll be interested in looking at those areas.'
Thank you, Mark Isherwood. Well, this has been discussed at our policing partnership board, which I co-chair with the First Minister. We discussed this on 22 June of this year, and it was noted there that the police have worked closely with the team in the Welsh Government to deliver the 20 mph implementation, and, as I said in response to the first question, the emergency services were part of the taskforce that actually made the recommendation for 20 miles to become the default speed limit on restricted roads.
And can I just, again, repeat—and it had to be repeated several times yesterday in the Senedd by the First Minister and Deputy Minister—that the new 20 mph speed limit is not a blanket limit? What's important, in terms of the new default limit, is it's not a blanket 20 mile but a default speed limit for those built-up areas where pedestrians and vehicles mix, and it is likely this lower speed limit will reduce the likelihood and severity of collisions on our roads, leading to a reduction in the number of pedestrians or cyclists seriously or fatally injured, and reducing the impact on the NHS and emergency services, and that's where the emergency services have played their part in in terms of recognising the importance of this. And can I just say finally, over the first decade, it's estimated a lower speed limit will save up to 100 lives and 20,000 casualties—think of that for our emergency services—and, also, that this change comes after four years of work with local authorities, police, fire service, road safety experts to design this change in the law?
2. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact that blanket 20 mph speed limits will have on promoting prosperity and tackling poverty in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OQ59881
Thank you for the question As I said, and I will repeat again, the new 20 mph speed limit is not a blanket limit. It would be great if we heard an acknowledgement of that this afternoon from the Welsh Conservatives. As well as increasing social cohesion, improving physical and mental health, and reducing NHS and emergency services' workloads, as I've already outlined, it's expected to strengthen local economies through increased footfall.
Thank you for that answer. I was joined last week on BBC Radio Cymru's Dros Ginio programme by MS Mabon ap Gwynfor, where we discussed a variety of topics, including the introduction of the 20 mph speed limit across Wales on 17 September. During this interview, I quoted the Welsh Government's own assessment that the introduction of this policy could cost the Welsh economy £4.5 billion, something that will surely hamper the prosperity of the Welsh people. However, the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd was quick to push back, live on air, stating that the figure was incorrect. So, given that that figure of £4.5 billion is published in black and white on page 32 of the Welsh Government's explanatory memorandum, who is correct? Is it the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd or the Welsh Government?
Well, I think this was answered very clearly by the First Minister and, indeed, the Deputy Minister in terms of the costs of implementing this once-in-a-generation opportunity to save lives. Can I just say that the lower speed limit aims to help older people, disabled people and people with additional needs to feel more able to travel independently, and organisations like RNIB Cymru and Guide Dogs—I know you support those organisations—who voiced their support for the policy change in 20 mph? And let's just look at costings and what this actually means, because, in fact, in terms of the savings that we will make—not just saving of lives, but also saving of casualties in terms of avoiding casualties—it also will save money in terms of the costing on our emergency services as well. Ninety two million pounds it's been estimated it will save. So, we know that this is an investment in community safety and it will have an economic benefit, and, I think, yesterday, the fact that the facts were laid out—. I think, I would just like to have the opportunity to repeat the words of Dr David Hanna, as Lee Waters, the Minister, outlined yesterday, from paediatric emergency at the University Hospital of Wales. It's his job to deal with the consequences of children being hit by cars traveling at 30 mph or more, and he's described the devastating, life-changing injuries children, young people and their families have to deal with as a result of road traffic collisions, more than half of which occur on roads where the speed limit is currently 30 mph—the point that was made by Mark Isherwood—and to recognise that this will save lives, reduce injuries and, of course, reduce those costs in terms of the impact on our health service as well as saving lives.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Joel James.
Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. Minister, as I’m sure you and everyone here will agree, remaining mobile as we age is extremely important not only for preventing isolation and loneliness, but being able to maintain fitness and cognitive function. Free bus passes are, of course, a huge positive for older people being able to do this. However, Minister, studies have shown that there are a considerable number of challenges for older people when using the bus, most notably that they have an increased likelihood of falling when getting on and off or when the bus moves before they have found a seat. And studies have shown that this not only can lead to injury but to anxiety, fear and a loss of self-confidence when using public transport. Minister, given that we have an ageing population and buses will likely be relied upon even more in the future, what steps have you taken to work with the older people’s commissioner, disability charities and bus operators to reduce the challenges that older people face when using the bus? Thank you.
I thank, Dirprwy Lywydd, the Member for his question and his clear interest in what is a very important area that you're raising. For many communities in Wales, buses are the key form of public transport. I represent a constituency myself that has just one train station. For most people, access to services is through buses. So, I and the Minister for Social Justice, Jane Hutt, work very closely with all three commissioners, and there is also work in terms of the various older persons forums in terms of actually getting their lived views in terms of what we can do to build on that and improve it. And I would hope, using our partnership approach across Government at the point when we’re looking at the buses Bill, that we make sure that those voices are heard as part of that and make sure that, when we create a service fit for the future, people’s experiences in the community, of different ages, different diversities and different backgrounds, all form part of that.
I thank the Deputy Minister. In terms of the elderly being able to travel around, the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales has recently made a public statement highlighting how older people in Wales feel trapped and excluded because of a lack of public toilets. I’m sure you recognise, Deputy Minister, that current provision is woeful at best, and in Cardiff city centre, our capital city—a city that receives hundreds of thousands of visitors a year—there are only three available public toilets: one on the Hayes, one on St Mary Street and one on Castle Street. And these all close by 5 p.m., with the Castle Street toilet being closed completely on Sunday. Whilst each council across Wales has to provide a strategy for public toilets, it is evident that this policy is not working and is leaving a huge part of society isolated. With this in mind, Deputy Minister, what conversations have you had with the older people’s commissioner and the Minister for Finance and Local Government in order to provide an up-to-date national strategy to improve public toilet facilities across Wales? Thank you.
I thank the Member for his considered question, once again, on an area that we know impacts on people in communities across Wales, and the need to make sure that we have those services in place. And I know that it is a challenge in many communities. Obviously, in a capital city, you have access to other facilities—it might not just be public conveniences as well, but also ensuring that there are things like changing places and such facilities too that are accessible for everyone. And it’s certainly something that I know the Minister for Social Justice picked up in her conversation with the older person’s commissioner, but it’s something that I will certainly take forward following today. And I actually have an event next week coming up, talking at the National Pensioners Convention. So, perhaps this is something that will be on the agenda as part of that, Joel James, and I’ll make sure that it’s followed up, following questions today.
Thank you, Deputy Minister, for that positive response. Finally, as you're aware, there remains a significant number of older people in Wales who are digitally excluded, which means that they don't have the same level of access to information as others might have. Data shows that around a third of people aged 75 and over are not online, and a third of people aged over 60 do not have a smartphone. This excludes so many people from potentially living a full life. With the phasing out of analogue telephone lines and the introduction of digital phone lines, there seems to be an unique opportunity to help encourage those who are digitally excluded to embrace new technologies and increase awareness of the many options that are available to them. With this in mind, what steps are you taking to work with the telecommunications industry and relevant education providers and charities to help raise awareness amongst the older generation of the benefits of embracing digital technology? Thank you.
In terms of digital inclusion, we have a strategy right across Government, working with those communities most likely to be excluded, so making sure that they have the support available and perhaps the training to access digital services, whether that's at home or within a public facility, like a library near where they live. But we also recognise that, as well as actually supporting people to have the confidence and the resources to access digital facilities and digital services, we must ensure that, actually, when we are doing things as a Government and working with other partners—public sector organisations, the many third sector organisations that we know support people and provide the support in communities—things aren't just done digitally as well. We are very conscious that things need to be provided in a format that is accessible to everybody, and that's where we work through our various forums and through our equality streams and action plans to ensure that that support and access is there as part of our digital inclusion strategy, but also to make sure that we don't just do things digitally and that there are other people there.
But the Member raises an important point, in that, as technology evolves, we need to evolve our approach in terms of how we make sure that nobody else is excluded, and that people take those challenges as opportunities as well. So, we're able to work with partners across local government and those service providers to ensure that people do have access to those facilities, whether it's actually making sure that reconditioned equipment is readily available as well, and that people have—. You know, not everybody has somebody to help—perhaps they're the older generation in their family—and to teach them how to use modern technology. And perhaps I could've done with that—. She'll probably kill me for calling her 'older' now, but with my mum, sometimes, we have actually recorded our own little help videos for how to re-tune the television and things like that. But it's making sure that things are there for everybody and that people have the support in place when they perhaps don't have a member of the family there to help them do that.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Sioned Williams.
Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. Good afternoon, Minister.
We've seen a very worrying further rise in anti-refugee sentiment over the summer, with far right groups causing unrest and preaching racist hatred in Llanelli, fuelled by the rhetoric and actions of the UK Government and their inappropriate plans to place hundreds of asylum seekers in the Stradey Park Hotel. Refugees are also experiencing racism and humiliation when trying to access the free public transport for which they are eligible. I've received reports of people being refused travel by bus drivers, even though they've showed their biometric residence permit cards to prove eligibility, and then suffering racist verbal abuse as a result, and this sort of refusal is a common occurrence according to those who support refugees, and one that I have raised with you previously.
People believe that the explanation of the free travel scheme on the Welsh Government website is too unclear and that some bus and train services apparently think that the scheme only applies to certain nationalities. Refugees are being traumatised, and many are too intimidated to use the buses. So, Minister, what is the Government doing to tackle racist hate crime aimed at those who we should be ensuring are welcome in our nation? And will you commit to contacting all the bus and train companies that operate in Wales to make sure that they're complying with the Government's free travel scheme, that they understand the guidance, that they train their drivers to ensure that the rights of refugees are expected and also investigate any incidences of refusal causing such distress and discrimination?
Thank you very much for that important question.
It has been a summer when I have been involved, as Minister for Social Justice, in addressing these very issues. We are a nation of sanctuary—that's what we seek to be. And although we obviously don't have all the powers, we have to influence UK Government, we have to raise our concerns, but we also have to take responsibility where we have got power, resources and policies.
Can I just say also that I absolutely support and agree with the points that you've made about the rise of the far right coming here to Wales, stirring up hatred? We believe in hope not hate. We stand up to racism. We stand up to racism every year, when many of us join in a procession through Cardiff, and I'm always very proud to join the chants and shouting, which say, 'Refugees are welcome here. Refugees are welcome here'. So, we are making our representations to the Home Office, particularly about the appalling way they've been handling the situation, and us being willing, with local authorities, to support asylum seekers.
I met with all the leaders of local authorities in July, including Carmarthenshire and counties and areas where there have been real challenges, and they all want to play their part. We're committed to a dispersal strategy across the whole of Wales. I say this to Home Office Ministers: we are working with local government, we're working with the Wales Strategic Migration Partnership, so we're committed to playing a full, proportionate part in accommodating asylum seekers in Wales, in partnership.
The issue where we can, obviously, support and enable—indeed, we have a real challenge financially, of course, in terms of UK Government and our spending settlement, leaving this £900 million hole—we've been working on the welcome ticket in terms of the public transport scheme, which, of course, was extended until the end of July and then, working again with the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, in terms of how we can move that forward. Because the welcome ticket—and I met with Ukrainian refugees on Saturday in Caerphilly—makes a huge difference to integration in terms of access to work, education.
Can I just finally say that yesterday I met with—sorry, Monday, I met with the Deputy Minister for Climate Change and Transport for Wales to discuss the anti-racist Wales action plan. Because they have got to implement this. They were committed and they're working with Race Council Cymru for training for their staff, for their workforce, because we cannot tolerate racism in our public transport, from the workforce and, indeed, from passengers.
Thank you, Minister. A new report by the Bevan Foundation published some weeks ago shows that many people are finding it difficult to make ends meet, and that number remains very high: 15 per cent are having difficulty in buying the essentials of daily life, 26 per cent are eating less or are skipping meals, and 29 per cent have had to borrow money. It's clear from the report that the economic crisis is hitting some groups particularly hard: those on benefits, those renting homes, disabled people and families with children under 18. Of course, the intersectional impact is creating an even bleaker picture.
The report makes it clear that we need targeted support for these people, and although the discretionary support fund is available, the report says that it isn't enough to support homes this winter as compared to last winter when there was more support available. With the conclusions of the report highlighting a lack of progress in terms of reducing the impact of the cost-of living crisis, what are the Welsh Government's plans for helping people with the crisis this winter, particularly those groups noted that will be most affected, in order to ensure that people will be able to put food on the table and keep warm this winter?
Thank you for that also very important question. I'm very aware of the snapshot of poverty report for summer 2023. Just, of course, to record that during this financial year and the last we provided targeted support worth more than £3.3 billion to help mitigate the cost-of-living crisis. But that was because we did have the money in the 2022-23 budget, and as I've just said now, it's £900 million lower in real terms than expected at the time of the 2021 spending review. So, there are very difficult decisions, but can I say that the whole Cabinet is recognising that tackling poverty and inequality is a priority in our decision making?
For me, one of the most important lifelines is the discretionary assistance fund, and I think the discretionary assistance fund in itself is proving to reach out and to provide that access to people who most need it, and I would say that that includes people who are particularly needing those emergency payments. You know we reformed the discretionary assistance fund—we've enabled it to be increased by inflation by 11 per cent for those payments—but also, importantly, in the much more longer term, we're working through our co-operation agreement on work in progress about how we administer welfare in Wales, and the important meeting we held with the Bevan Foundation and Policy in Practice to take that work forward.
3. What is the Welsh Government doing to alleviate fuel poverty? OQ59888
Diolch yn fawr, Joyce Watson. The Welsh Government’s support package includes the Warm Homes programme, which improves home energy efficiency for the long term, but we also provide short-term relief through our discretionary assistance fund and our support via the Fuel Bank Foundation partners to provide vouchers to those experiencing fuel crisis.
I thank you for that answer, Minister. Energy bills have doubled in the past three years and the research from Warm Winter Campaign shows how the cost-of-energy crisis is affecting households, with 13 million adults in the UK now falling behind on bills or finding their repayments a heavy burden, with household debt up 66 per cent since 2017 and more than 9 million adults living in cold, damp homes last winter, and cases of hypothermia having surged by 36 per cent. We all know it’s a crisis made in Downing Street, but the Welsh Government does what it can to alleviate the burden, and you’ve named some of those just now.
So, Minister, ahead of the introduction of the new price cap in October, which will see energy bills similar to those energy bills last year, but people having less ability to pay because the Tories crashed the economy, can you outline how Welsh Government support will be targeted this winter?
Diolch yn fawr, Joyce Watson—a really important question following on from the questions from Sioned Williams prior to this. It is a crisis made in Downing Street. We’ve allocated significant funding; I won’t go over the figures again. Our evaluation of the support that we give shows that around 75 per cent of households were expected to be supported in some way, but nearly twice as much actually does go to the households at the bottom half of the income distribution compared with the top half. But of course, that significant funding is no longer with us.
I would like to just give some figures in terms of access to the discretionary assistance fund, particularly for rural areas, and I know all Members will be interested in this. Since April of this year, we’ve actually paid out £179,000 in emergency assistance payments. This is payment for the basics of life: food, fuel, the basics of life, through those independent emergency payments, and it is important to recognise also off-grid fuel payments—the latest statistics show off-grid awards, with 672 made between 1 May and 31 July, totalling £135,000.FootnoteLink We have actually got geographical and socioeconomic data relating to DAF, and we’re going to get more figures on that shortly, which I will publish. But what we can do is make DAF work. But I would also say the Warm Homes programme is critically important, and I continue to call on the UK Government to help those hit hardest by the crisis and I hope we can all share this call across this Chamber for the UK Government to move forward on the social tariff. They did agree—Grant Shapps said he would look at the social tariff. It’s been dropped as far as we can see. I’m writing to the new Secretary of State. Can we join forces in the Senedd to say we would like them to look at and to introduce a social tariff, because that would offer permanent support for low income households.
Unless we recognise that the energy price crisis was made in the Kremlin, we’ll never be able to tackle this responsibly. But during the most recent meeting of the cross-party group on fuel poverty and energy efficiency, I asked the climate change Minister how likely it was that the Welsh Government’s new Warm Homes programme, including the successor scheme to the Nest fuel poverty scheme, will be up and running before this winter. The Minister replied it was very difficult to say and it would depend on the outcome of the procurement, who the contractors are, and how much tooling up they’d got to do. As we’re now nearing the winter months, National Energy Action Cymru have called for the Welsh Government to ensure their new demand-led scheme to replace Nest is operational as soon as possible and state that in future years, it’ll be vital the scheme receives as much funding as possible. Could this Minister therefore provide an update on when the Welsh Government now intends to launch its new Warm Homes programme, including the successor to Nest?
Thank you, Mark Isherwood, chair of the cross-party group, of course. The invitation to tender for our new Warm Homes programme demand-led scheme has recently been issued. We're on track to move to contract award and begin mobilisation this year. We'll continue to provide free advice on energy-saving measures to those who need it, and signpost households. But can I just say again—and you know this across this Chamber—that the next iteration of the Warm Homes programme will focus on the worst first, meaning that eligible families living in the least energy efficient homes will receive support to improve the fabric of their homes and improvements to their heating systems.
4. What discussions has the Minister had with the Older People's Commissioner for Wales about reducing loneliness and isolation amongst older people? OQ59860
Thank you for your question, Natasha Asghar. I regularly meet with the older people's commissioner to discuss equality issues. However, the issues of loneliness and social isolation are the responsibility of the Deputy Minister for Social Services. So, I will ask her to write to you in response to your question as well.
Thank you so much for your answer, Minister. As I'm sure you're aware, Wales is facing drastic cuts to bus services as a result of this Government's decision to withdraw vital funding for the sector. We've already seen major cuts in operations here in Cardiff and it's estimated that almost 10 per cent of bus routes have been axed over the summer. Age Cymru has warned that loneliness and isolation could increase amongst older people as a result of the reduction in bus services. Buses, I'm sure you can agree, are a lifeline for many elderly people, who use them to get to vital appointments, go and see friends and family, and simply to just get out and about. I'm sure, Minister, just like me, you were deeply concerned to hear this stark warning. The last thing we want to see is an increase in loneliness and isolation here in Wales. We need to see this Government protect our bus services, just like your Senedd 2021 manifesto promised, not slash them and leave our elderly people behind. Minister, in light of your talks with the Older People's Commissioner for Wales, have you raised concerns with the Deputy Minister for Climate Change about the terrible impact of the cuts in bus services, which have happened on his watch, and the impact it will have on our elderly population? And if not, will you commit to doing just that, as this is an incredibly serious situation? Thank you.
There's no doubt that access in terms of travel for older people is critically important, and for many people it is the bus service that they look to. And, indeed, also we have a very effective community transport system and service across Wales as well. With your support for buses, I would hope that we could see that the Welsh Conservatives will fully support the legislation when it comes forward from the Deputy Minister—fully support the fact that we need to have regulation of our bus services, which we lost. I recall, knowing how long ago this was, in the 1980s, one of Thatcher's—. Deregulating buses, we've never recovered from it. But can I also hope that you will, as well as supporting our bus service Bill, actually join with us as well in making our representation to the UK Government? We cannot repeat and support the schemes that we supported with our bus services support when our budget is £900 million less in real terms this financial year as a result of the UK Government settlement. So, you can't call on us to do these things without backing our legislation and backing our funding calls.
Before I call the next speaker, can I ask the Government's backbenches to make sure I can hear the Minister, please? Similarly, the opposition in this sense as well. Vikki Howells.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Minister, I was delighted to visit Bryncynon Strategy over the summer recess, which is a long-established local charity serving the communities of the lower Cynon valley. One of the many brilliant schemes that they run is a befriending project to tackle loneliness and isolation amongst older residents. This project is funded by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust's coalfields community grant scheme, which is itself funded by Welsh Government. Minister, there are so many schemes in our communities tackling loneliness and isolation that are either directly or indirectly funded by Welsh Government, so I'd like to thank you for your commitment to invest in this area. Will you also join with me in thanking the staff and volunteers at the Bryncynon Strategy for all the work they are doing through their befriending project within the lower Cynon valley?
Thank you very much. Diolch yn fawr, Vikki Howells, because I was very pleased to visit the Cynon valley and to see the good work of the coalfields grant scheme and to recognise that that was also funded by the Welsh Government. This goes back to what we are doing with the powers and resources, however limited they are, and we are supporting those on the front line. It's those community-based organisations that actually support people, older people, and they offer vital services to tackle loneliness and isolation. And I think specifically in the Cynon valley, you've got the wider range of entertainment afternoons for older people, hot meals again. Post COVID, we're still doing—. Volunteers are doing that work, but it has to have some underpinning of public funding, and I'm glad that Welsh Government is playing its part.
5. What support is provided to foodbanks in South Wales Central to ensure that they continue to be able to meet people's needs? OQ59864
Thank you very much for that question. We have supported the development of cross-sector food partnerships across Wales, enabling the co-ordination of on-the-ground food-related activity to help to tackle the root causes of food poverty. This will support local initiatives such as foodbanks and will ensure that resources are targeted at areas of greatest need.
Thank you very much, Minister. Unfortunately, as we know, the impact of the cost-of-living crisis is still weighing heavily on families across Wales. A recent survey by Citizens Advice shows that 43 per cent of people are very concerned or somewhat concerned about being able to shop for food over the next six months, and according to the Bevan Foundation a quarter of people in Wales are either skipping certain meals or are eating much smaller meals.
Over this summer, a number of the foodbanks in my region saw an increase in the numbers that they were supporting, and particularly an increase in the number of children who needed food. How do you therefore work with foodbanks to gather data and also to understand why there's an increase—are there policies such as the end of the summer food scheme, for example—in order to ensure that they have enough food to meet demand, but to also ensure that people know how to obtain food? Because one of the things that local foodbanks shared with me was that a number of people said, 'I didn't know this was available' or, 'I didn't know how to gain access to it.' So, even though this work is happening, it's obvious that the message isn't out there, and people are starving across Wales.
Diolch yn fawr. You're absolutely right. I spent the summer visiting, meeting groups, going to communities. I went to Rhymney valley foodbank in July, and Baobab Bach in Bridgend with Luke Fletcher and Huw Irranca-Davies, earlier on this year. We did have a food poverty round-table last year to make sure we have all stakeholders, all partners, working together. You'll be aware of Food Sense Wales. I've met with them to look at how food partnerships are progressing. This is joint working between the food partnerships, local authorities, partners such as Public Health Wales, local health boards and we have to—. Because so much good community work is going on.
But I think, crucially, as well, it's working with the Minister for rural affairs, the Trefnydd, on the community food strategy. But foodbanks, of course, do some much more. They are absolutely vital to the community. They provide financial and welfare signposting and advice, cost-of-living advice. But can I just say also that there's been a real pressure on, actually, access to food? You'll have heard that from your food banks, because FareShare—. They redistributed nearly 1,500 tonnes of good food surplus last year, but they've had a short-term issue in supply over the last four or five months. So, I'm continuing to work with all of those who are working in this field.
And can I say I also in the summer was very pleased to visit and see how well some of the holiday enrichment schemes were providing food as well as fun in our schools across Wales?
6. What action is the Welsh Government taking to deal with the cost-of-living premium facing residents in rural communities in Arfon, as highlighted in a recent report by the Bevan Foundation? OQ59879
Thank you very much for your question. I welcome the report and agree that we will continue to target the support that we can provide to those who need it the most, doing all that we can to support people through the cost-of-living crisis. We will also continue to press the UK Government to increase its support for households at this time.
The Bevan Foundation report, which was commissioned by MP Hywel Williams, representing Plaid Cymru in Arfon, refers to the fact that there is a cost-of-living premium facing people in rural communities in Arfon. That is to say that the situation, which is very difficult for many in any case, is exacerbated as a result of a number of factors related to rurality. These factors include poor public transport infrastructure, high transport costs, high housing costs, high energy costs because of the poor condition of the housing stock, lack of access to shops and supermarkets, and therefore the cost of food is higher, and so on and so forth. Now, in terms of the mitigation policies for the cost-of-living crisis put in place by your Government, do they really acknowledge this rural premium adequately?
Diolch yn fawr Siân Gwenllian, and I was very pleased—. I think it was the day after or the day I came to the Eisteddfod that this report was published, and I thought it was an excellent report, and I thought the recommendations could apply for not just Gwynedd, but across Wales. I thought what was very interesting is that they came up with findings and solutions, and those are local solutions, for example like how to strengthen the economy, addressing low pay in Arfon. I felt that these were very, very—. And I'm sure it's being followed through now as a result of the MP's commissioning of this work with Bevan Foundation. It obviously involves all the statutory authorities, but also social enterprise and communities. But, obviously, we need to learn from this report as far as not just addressing that in terms of the cost-of-living premium for Arfon, but also for Wales.
And I look forward to the recommendations in the report that's coming from us. We've had a technical advisory group working on the cost-of-living crisis so that that can assist us in looking at where our priorities need to be. But, absolutely, you're right, the high transport costs—we've just been discussing that. But also accessing warm homes and also food and childcare. Can I just say, in terms of food, Gwynedd received £97,000 in December last year to support the development of a food partnership, which I hope is working with local partners? And looking at DAF also, during July, 460 awards were made from the discretionary assistance fund in Gwynedd, totalling more than £68,000 in grants to those in most need, and £315,000 allocated in Gwynedd to help with the cost of school uniform and equipment. So, those are important figures, just in terms of highlighting how that funding is reaching people facing those cost-of-living premium prices.
Thank you to Siân Gwenllian for again raising the issues that many in our rural communities face at this time. Of course, Welsh Government do have a number of levers that they could be pulling to support people in our rural communities at the moment, and one such example, of course, is the local government funding formula, which Welsh Government has responsibility for. We know that delivering services in our rural communities and the ability of people to access those services in rural communities that councils provide is much more difficult for rural communities than it is in urban areas. And it's been the case for many years, and a number of MSs in this Chamber and a number of councillors have raised it with Welsh Government on a number of occasions. So, I wonder, again, whether the funding formula will be looked at to properly reflect the pressures that our local authorities are under in serving our rural communities and making sure that those people aren't struggling at the moment.
Can I just put the record straight about our funding for local government? Thank you, Sam Rowlands, for that question. Welsh Government core funding for local government has increased by 7.9 per cent in this financial year, to over £5.5 billion, and that funding can be used flexibly by local authorities to provide services in response to these needs and also, importantly, the council tax reduction scheme. So, I'm going to quote the figures from Gwynedd, because we've been looking at Gwynedd. In 2022-23, 8,449 households in Gwynedd received support through the council tax reduction scheme, with 6,723 households paying no council tax. So, I think we need to look at where we are and what we're doing in terms of the local government settlement and how we can help people in terms of meeting those costs of council tax.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on support for people from Ukraine seeking safety in Wales? OQ59893
Diolch yn fawr, Alun Davies. As a nation of sanctuary, we aim to ensure all people seeking sanctuary in Wales are welcomed from day one of their arrival. We are continuing to support guests, helping them to move on into longer term accommodation and be supported in our communities.
I'm grateful to the Minister for that response. I think Members across the whole Chamber continue to welcome this support and the leadership of the Counsel General on these matters. Mick Antoniw has made a great commitment to supporting the people of Ukraine. We visited Ukraine at the beginning of the summer recess, along with representatives, in fact, of the south Wales National Union of Mineworkers, and we met with representatives of the miners' leaders in Ukraine to continue the support and the links between the people of Wales and the people of Ukraine. The Welsh Government has, since the beginning of this conflict, demonstrated a very real depth of support for people here in Wales who are fleeing Putin's illegal war and demonstrating that the nation of sanctuary concept is a reality as well.
As we face the second anniversary of this war in the next six months, we do need to redouble our efforts both to provide support for people from Ukraine who are here in Wales, but also to continue to build the support from the people of Wales for the people of Ukraine to ensure that that support remains robust. At the beginning of next month, there will be a plaque unveiled in the national library in Kiev, commemorating the work of Gareth Jones. I know that the Welsh Government also has other activities planned over the coming months to demonstrate the reality of these links between our two countries. I'd be grateful if the Minister could make a statement outlining all the work that the Welsh Government is continuing to do to provide support for people from Ukraine and in Ukraine.
Diolch yn fawr, Alun Davies. Can I also take the opportunity to acknowledge the leadership of our Counsel General, Mick Antoniw, and yourself, and the visits you've made and continue to make, visiting in the recess to deliver vital aid? And I assure you that I'm making a statement next week on the nation of sanctuary. Of course, I'll be updating you on our support for people who are here from Ukraine—I met with them in Caerphilly last Saturday—but also what we can do to support Ukraine, and obviously the people who struggle in Ukraine today.
I want to echo the comments about the leadership shown by the Counsel General and indeed my colleague from Blaenau Gwent. I think it is important that we continue to maintain cross-party support for the action that's been taken by the Welsh Government and indeed the UK Government in respect of the response to the illegal invasion of Ukraine. It is only right that we should offer sanctuary to those people who have been fleeing the violence, and we have given them a warm welcome, I believe, in Wales, and that's something we can be very proud of.
One of the organisations that's been very active in extending that warm welcome in north Wales, of course, has been Link International, which I know has done an awful lot to ensure that people who have arrived in north Wales from Ukraine have been able to keep in touch with one another, have been able to engage at a local community level with one another, in a way that they wouldn't have had the opportunity to do before. There are many faith-based organisations as well, which, through their civic contacts in Ukraine and Wales, have also been able to afford those opportunities. Will you join me in thanking Link International and those faith-based organisations that have been working to that end, and can you tell us specifically what further support you'll make available to them so that they can keep up that excellent work?
Thank you very much, Darren Millar. I regularly meet with Link International. I meet with all the third sector organisations. We also, obviously, are funding key partners like the Welsh Refugee Council and Housing Justice Cymru. British Red Cross play a crucial role as well. So, just to reassure you that that is ongoing support. It's about collaboration; it's about voluntary effort; it's about commitment to the nation of sanctuary.
Finally, question 9, Rhianon Passmore.
9. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the performance of the Royal Mail in delivering its statutory services in Wales? OQ59894
Whilst Royal Mail matters are not devolved to Wales, Welsh Government regularly meets with both representatives of Royal Mail and the workforce. We recognise the crucial role that services provided by Royal Mail makes to communities across Wales and the need for the postal service to remain accessible and able to be fit for purpose.
Diolch. Minister, my constituents in Islwyn were disappointed last week when Royal Mail announced that a book of first-class stamps will now cost £10. This is the second time in six months that Royal Mail have raised prices, despite their failure to hit delivery targets. And that increase means that the price of a first-class stamp is now 31 per cent higher than it was in March—that's an increase of more than four times the rate of inflation. And earlier this year, Royal Mail's former chief executive Simon Thompson resigned, but with a £650,000 pay-off for his failed leadership. This month, we found out that the Royal Mail has failed also to hit its delivery targets in every UK postcode this summer. So, whilst Ofcom is investigating Royal Mail for failing to meet those statutory targets in 2023, the dangers of this awful performance have serious consequences, and for important institutions such as our NHS, where missed hospital appointments are becoming a common occurrence, with poor communication to patients. So, Minister, the Royal Mail, we know, was once a proud national public service that delivered for Welsh residents, and it's now the emblem of Tory privatisation and it's about the bottom line, which is failure. Minister, what actions can the Welsh Government take to make Royal Mail fulfil its statutory duty across Wales?
Dirprwy Lywydd, can I thank Rhianon Passmore for bringing this to the attention of the Senedd on behalf of her constituents? I know they will be concerns reflected in communities right across Wales. The Member hits the nail on the head as to how we've seen Royal Mail go from a public service, and the impact that years of privatisation are having on not just the services that are provided, but those people who provide the services, who are very proud to work for Royal Mail and recognise the key role they have as public servants in many communities, particularly more rural communities in Wales. And I very much share the concerns the Member has around the rise in postage costs—so rapidly in recent months—and I will make sure that I raise this issue and the service standards the next time I meet with representatives of Royal Mail.
I know that the performance of Royal Mail has been receiving regular scrutiny too from the Labour spokespeople in Westminster, and I'm sure that the Member will agree with me that, in all key services where powers are still reserved, people will be better served when Welsh Labour Ministers here can work together with Labour Ministers in Westminster for the benefit of people across Wales.
I thank the Minister and the Deputy Minister.
Item 2 this afternoon is questions to the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution, and the first question is from Delyth Jewell.
1. What legal advice did the Counsel General provide to the Welsh Government regarding the Ffos-y-frân opencast mine in Merthyr Tydfil when it continued to operate after its mining licence expired in September 2022? OQ59886
I thank the Member for the question. Planning enforcement was initially a matter for the local planning authority, Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council. Because legal proceedings by Coal Action Network are ongoing, the Member will appreciate that I'm unable to comment further.
Thank you for that response. There's clearly something wrong with our planning system that has allowed the company operating Ffos-y-frân to keep extracting coal for a year, and counting, after it was told to stop. Now, during that period, the local council failed to issue a stop notice, and I take into account, Counsel General, what you've just said, but I would ask whether the Welsh Government could have intervened. I understand that the Government would have needed to consult with the council before itself issuing a stop notice, but I'm not sure whether that would have required the Welsh Government to sit and wait and watch the illegal activity continue for a year.
I understand that because of the ongoing action you may not be able to comment on this case specifically, but could you tell us at what point you'd be able to be in a position to tell the Chamber whether the legal advice that was provided to the Welsh Government took account of the urgent need to stop the extraction of around 1,000 tonnes of coal a day and how necessary stopping that has been, and remains to be, for the sake of our collective climate? When would you be in a position, please, to publish that advice, and how do you think the law could be strengthened in future to make sure that something like this doesn't happen again?
Well, it's not the practice to publish legal advice between myself as Counsel General and the Government, but you are correct in respect of the fact that because of those ongoing legal proceedings, it's not appropriate to comment further. There can, of course, be further comments once the legal action is concluded, once the outcome of that is known. Perhaps I could just refer you to the comments that were made in response to the question to the First Minister yesterday.
2. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with UK Government counterparts about the statutory inquiry into the Lucy Letby case? OQ59885
Thank you for the question. Officials have had some very early discussions with officials from the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Welsh Government will co-operate fully and transparently with the independent inquiry to ensure that we learn every possible lesson from this distressing case.
Can I thank the Counsel General for updating the Chamber today, and also his commitment on behalf of the Welsh Government to co-operate fully with the inquiry into this harrowing Lucy Letby inquiry? Counsel General, families need answers, they deserve answers, and they also need full openness, transparency and candour from the Countess of Chester Hospital and those who previously worked there when answering questions in relation to this case. I was pleased that the UK Government accepted calls from me, accepted calls from Samantha Dixon, the MP for the City of Chester, and others in relation to a statutory inquiry. I think that is a particularly important step forward in getting these answers, but what we now need to ensure, Counsel General, is that the families have access to fully funded legal teams when taking part in this inquiry. Can I ask you what conversations you can have with UK counterparts to ensure that the legal costs associated with the Letby inquiry are met by the UK Government, and not the families affected?
Thank you. You raise a number of really important points that have also related to other issues to do with the postal service, to do with Hillsborough, and so on. I think it's probably appropriate just at this stage that all the thoughts and condolences, I'm sure, of everyone in this Chamber are with the families that have been affected. I think for those who are not directly affected, even just to think about the circumstances of what happened is distressing. So, how the families cope with that is obviously very, very difficult.
Welsh officials have had initial discussions with their counterparts on the statutory inquiry, in particular through our chief nursing officer. Further engagement is planned. I will come on to the legal support issue in a minute, but just perhaps for the record also, officials wrote to the chief executive on 25 August following the verdict and in advance of a more formal review and inquiry, to ask them to take stock, and to be assured that the mechanisms that we do have in place in support of quality and safety of all those who use these services are robust and well implemented across all organisations.
The duty of candour and quality, of course, we introduced with our Health and Social Care (Quality and Engagement) (Wales) Act 2020, and the duty of candour certainly builds upon our ongoing work to try and embed a culture of openness and transparency across NHS Wales, and to strengthen the 'Putting Things Right' process. As a result of the Letby case, the Welsh Government has issued a framework for speaking up safely in NHS Wales earlier than was originally planned. It will be kept under active review for the next 12 months to ensure that it remains fit for purpose. And NHS organisations are expected to develop action plans to address any gaps upon considering the framework for speaking up safely. The framework will be published formally shortly, with a written statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services.
On the issue of the statutory inquiry, I have long supported the view that the crux of the problem really is that people should have proper access to full legal aid within those. There have been discussions, of course, on the Victims and Prisoners Bill that is currently going through Parliament, with regard to the issue of independent public advocates and so on. That is something I have discussed with the Ministry of Justice. It's ongoing because we're not satisfied it's by any stretch clear enough yet how it would work and how it would relate to devolved services. I did make yesterday, with the under-secretary in the Ministry of Justice, the point that the crux really is that legal aid should be available in full for people. Those who are core participants within a statutory inquiry, of course—and I hope this will apply to all those families who are involved, or want to be involved—will be able to apply for financial support through the inquiry process. I hope that happens, and that's certainly something that would have my support.
I now call on the party spokespeople. First of all, the Welsh Conservative spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
Diolch. I'm unfortunately stuck at home having tested COVID-positive once again, and was therefore unable to attend this lunchtime's Legal Services Board's reshaping legal services in Wales event, at which I understand you spoke. Their reshaping legal services strategy sets out their ambition to make sure regulation supports access to legal services for everyone who needs them, especially those individuals and small businesses whose needs are too often unmet. Although this states that the UK Ministry of Justice's legal support strategy set a new path for overhauling the legal support system, and that its emphasis on early intervention solutions like legal support hubs and focus on innovation is welcome, it lists a number of challenges, including achieving fairer outcomes for people experiencing greater disadvantage. What consideration have you therefore given to the needs of autistic and disabled people, who regularly contact me after failing to obtain representation from lawyers willing to take on their complex cases, with the relevant expertise, or both, when senior local authority officials have failed in their statutory duties to them, made false statements about them, or both?
Thank you for your question and the very fair point you raise with regard to those that have a particular need of access to legal services but difficulty in accessing them. Of course, the issue of public law is equally important.
Firstly, I hope you're feeling well soon. I'm sure you will be and you'll be back in your seat in this Chamber next week, I would hope.
In terms of access, of course, the crux of the problem initially is that, since 2013, since the legal aid Act that your party brought in, legal aid has been savaged. At a stroke, in the first year after legal aid cuts were made, £350 million was knocked off. So, what you do actually have is a whole series of people who no longer have access to legal aid who would have had access to legal aid previously. Legal aid is something that is not devolved to us. We've tried to make some repair to that through the single advice fund, and, of course, that is available to all families and people living in Wales. We've put £11 million into that. I don't think it is a substitute for proper legal aid, and I hope where you're coming to is to support the view that, really, legal aid does need to be reviewed, it does need to be extended, it does need to be made available to people.
One of the areas I'm very keen to support, which will also be relevant in terms of the point you've raised, is with regard to law centres and pro bono work and so on. There are those who do provide free legal services; that's very valuable. The Speakeasy Law Centre, one of the participants in the Legal Services Board event today, talked very strongly about the support and representations that they give. It is one of the issues that I actually raised yesterday with the under-secretary from the Ministry of Justice in terms of the fact that we have to look innovatively at other ways of ensuring that people have access to justice whoever they are—whether the issue is with the Welsh Government, whether it's the local authority, with whoever it is. The sad fact is that, as a result of the legal aid Act that was introduced in 2013, 80 per cent of the population probably no longer have access to legal support in the way they might have done previously. There are many people—the most vulnerable in our society—who basically no longer have that. We do the best we can. It's not a devolved area, but we nevertheless recognise its impact in so many areas of our devolved responsibilities.
Thank you. Of course, as the Legal Services Board documents, as referred to earlier, they themselves reference legal aid is being reviewed. I know, from previous exchanges with you, that you've been having some input into that. But the issue I highlight applies also where people have been eligible for legal aid but have still been unable to secure legal representation because of the complexity and specialism of the law applying to their situation.
However, moving on, in the context of access to justice, and as you stated in your address at the Bevan Foundation's summer social, justice is not just the system of courts and judges where laws are enforced; it's as much about, or should be as much about, the delivery of social justice. You also stated that, although the Welsh Government is working with the UK Ministry of Justice on the establishment of an alternative women's residential centre in Wales, this is yet to happen. How can you reconcile this with the fact that, although it was the UK Government that published a female offenders strategy to divert vulnerable female offenders away from short prison sentences wherever possible, invest in community services and establish five pilot residential women centres, including one in Wales, it was the Minister for Social Justice here who subsequently wrote to Members announcing that one of these centres would be near Swansea in Wales, and who could not answer how this would help vulnerable women offenders in north, mid and west Wales to access the services they need closer to home, and, further, that Swansea's planning committee subsequently refused this?
Thank you for that question. Just on that very last point on Swansea's planning committee, I think there has now been an appeal against that and the inspectorate has now overruled that, so it looks as though that centre will now actually be proceeding. That's my understanding of the current position.
But on the point you raise in terms of centres elsewhere and access across Wales, I thank you for probably putting part of the case for the devolution of justice, because that would enable us to actually plan things in Wales, whereas we don't actually have any control over it. The Minister for Social Justice, Jane Hutt, and I went round the various prisons and so on. We went round Eastwood Park in Bristol, we've been round Berwyn. I think we've got other visits that are planned. Of course, those are not areas where we have any responsibility or authority over, but we nevertheless work to engage with them, because we provide, for example, the education services, we provide the health services within those. But we recognise very much the situation with, for example, Eastwood Park, which is a women's prison, where the actual governor of the prison told us that every prisoner that was in that particular prison was a victim. That highlights, really, the social justice issues.
I do have to say that I have real concerns over the current state of not only the prison estate, but the fact that since 2010 the prison population has doubled from about 45,000 to just under 90,000. So, in the 13 years of this Government and its handling of the justice system and the prison system, we've had the most appalling increase in the number of prisoners. Wales has probably the highest level of imprisonment of its citizens in the whole of Europe. That is one of the reasons why we really do think there needs to be a review of justice and the devolution of justice so we can actually look at, I think, some of the broader alternatives and the social justice elements that you're referring to, which I think are at the heart of the reason why we want to see justice devolved.
Might I suggest, in that context, and as we raised in the committee inquiry I was party to many years ago, that custodial sentencing levels in Wales are higher in Welsh courts than in English courts under the same legal system? There were questions there that we highlighted 15 years ago.
You also referred positively in your presentation to the Bevan Foundation to a pilot drug and alcohol court, funded jointly by the Welsh Government and the UK Ministry of Justice, and to a similar pilot under way in north Wales to tackle the issue of private family court hearings as part of a problem-resolving, dispute-resolution approach, which is part of a UK Ministry of Justice pilot. However, despite your repeated references to the delivery of social justice by such UK Ministry of Justice programmes, you concluded by describing the devolution of justice as the way forward. If, as it appears from your repeated public statements, including earlier today, you’re basing this upon your perception of different policy approaches by governments at a particular point in time, rather than long-established geographical and operational reality, how can you justify this when, for example, and in the context of your previous response, Wales has the highest proportion of children in the UK in care, and one of the highest proportions of children looked after by any state in the world—devolved services—and when, during their visit to HMP Eastwood Park women’s prison, members of the Senedd’s Equality and Social Justice Committee were told that when released from the prison to services in Wales, nine out of 10 Welsh inmates go on to reoffend, compared to one in 10 of those from England?
I’m not quite sure what the question is out of that. If I might just refer to what you were saying about the pathfinder project, which is the one you’re referring to in north Wales, that is an MOJ-funded project. It does, of course, involve very heavily the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service Cymru. An element of that project is also in the south-west. That project has proved incredibly successful. The Minister for Social Justice and I met up there with some of the key judges within that, and I can tell you that not only do they think the project has been very successful, but also it’s partly been successful because of the ability of all the devolved agencies and bodies to be able to engage collectively in problem solving. And, again, one of the interesting developments up in north Wales also is the development now of a new law centre up there that is going to focus mainly on women’s and domestic abuse issues initially. But I think that goes hand in hand.
In terms of the children in care issue, well, of course, we don’t control the family courts; we don’t control the decisions that are made in those courts. There are, of course, I think, very valid issues that will be addressed I think by other Ministers in respect of the delivery of those services—why there may be divergences from one area to another. What I think there is is common agreement, probably across parties and across everyone in this Chamber, that we don’t want to see people going into the care system. We want to see children staying with their parents or with their mothers. There are many factors that affect that, but it is not solely a question as to what happens in terms of the care system; there’s also a question of how that engages with the court system and the support that’s available.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Delyth Jewell.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I declare an interest because my mother is one of the Women Against State Pension Inequality about whom I'm about to ask a question. Can I thank the Counsel General for the meeting he held with me over the summer alongside Welsh representatives of the 1950s women who've been denied their pensions? Whilst we don't have a responsibility over pensions here, as it's a reserved matter, we do have a responsibility as a Senedd to represent and advocate for the women of Wales. After that meeting, could you, Counsel General, provide an update on any news that you've received from the all-party parliamentary group on state pension inequality in Westminster and from the UK Government about the scandalous plight that is still facing these women?
Firstly, thank you for the question and thank you for the consistency with which you’ve raised this issue that’s been kept on the radar here. As you know, the Welsh Government has written on a number of occasions to the UK Government, particularly now to the ombudsman in terms of the consideration of the agreement that the original reports were unacceptable and didn't actually do justice to the issue. I think that is the issue that we're waiting for the outcome of at the moment. All of us will know WASPI women; there are so many of them. The crux, as I said, in this, of course, is the way in which the matter was dealt with was certainly an injustice, in my view, as a breach of the contract people have when they enter into the pension system, when they enter into the work system—to suddenly change and move the goalposts just as people are beginning to approach their retirement age.
What I can assure you is I think that everyone in this Chamber is very much supportive of justice for those women. We look forward to a favourable outcome in respect of the ombudsman work. We will use whatever influence we have to try to speed that up, to try to encourage that that be resolved as quickly as possible. So many women have passed on before hearing the outcome of all this incredible campaigning work that was going on, and I’m very happy to continue to engage with any further information that would useful as time goes on.
Diolch, Counsel General. Can I thank you for all the work that you have undertaken in this area? And I join you in paying tribute to the brave campaigners, who have not given up in spite of the fact that, as you've alluded to, so many women have died before the outcome of their compensation has actually been arrived at. I'm very glad that you have written to the ombudsman and I, alongside you, await what they will say in response. There are so many campaigners who have taken hope from the words that you have said in this place. So, could you commit again now, please, as you've just done, that whatever the political colour of the Westminster Government after the next election, you'll continue to push for improvements for women born in the 1950s, and that you would stand alongside the pledge that was signed by the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, last year for the need for fair and fast compensation for 1950s women? I would again thank you sincerely for all that you have done in leading on this issue.
Well, certainly my position, my analysis of what has happened, doesn’t change. There is of course a new shadow pensions Minister, I think, Gill Furniss, Member of Parliament. I’m sure the position of the Welsh Government remains the same—that there’s been an injustice and we want to see that injustice resolved. We think that the correct way to resolve it is actually through a proper decision by the ombudsman, of recognising that Parliament got it wrong and that the Government got it wrong, and the way the matter was handled was wrong, and that therefore there are consequences that flow from that, and that should be in terms of trying to properly compensate all those who were affected.
3. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to support legal advice centres? OQ59877
The Welsh Government has long recognised the vitally important role of legal advice providers in the third sector and the legal sector in supporting people across Wales, including the most vulnerable, as evidenced by our single advice fund and our support for the development of the legal sector in Wales.
Thank you, Counsel General. I often refer constituents to these incredible legal advice centres that we have in Cardiff, but recently I've seen an increasing number returning saying that there is no capacity at these centres to support them. Now, following on from your response to Mark Isherwood, I know about your interest, and the Minister for Social Justice's interest, in this issue, and that the Welsh Government is providing £11 million to legal advice centres in Wales. But it's clear that many people aren't getting the advice that they need. Compared to this, the £10 million that the Westminster Government has added to housing legal aid sounds tiny, particularly given the deep cuts that have been experienced. Now, I know that the budget is very tight indeed, and I know that justice is not devolved, but would it be possible for the Welsh Government to perhaps work more closely with these centres and with the professions, and with law schools, in order to expand the provision available, because at the moment, as you will know, Counsel General, many of the most vulnerable people in our society aren't receiving the advice that they need? Thank you.
Thank you again for raising this particular point. Of course, one of the real unfortunate developments over the past decade or so has actually been, as a consequence of legal aid cuts since the 2013 Act, the demise of law centres—law centres that were so important in so many of our communities. The number of legal aid cases to help people get early advice dropped from almost a million in 2009-10 to just 130,000 in 2020-21, and the number of advice agencies and law centres doing this work has fallen by 59 per cent.
What I said, of course, in the legal services board event today in the Senedd is that one of the advantages of having legal advice available to people on a whole range of social issues, from housing, to debt, to rent and accommodation and so on and so forth, is that what you get out of that, of course, are lawyers who are committed to that work and who've developed the expertise and specialism in that work, and they go on to continue to be able to provide that work.
The point you're raising now is a very valid one. For example, in terms of immigration advice within Wales, we are now in a crisis stage, in terms of the number of lawyers who are available to actually do that sort of work. It may well be that, in the not-too-distant future, we don't have any lawyers who are able to do that work and we don't have enough lawyers to do this sort of representation and give this sort of advice in a whole series of other areas. Now, we have supported financially, through the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives system, in terms of some training. Of course, we are in a very, very difficult financial position, but I have certainly raised with the Under-Secretary and with the Ministry of Justice, just about on every occasion, and the last occasion was actually yesterday, that we have to start looking at law centres and how they can be accredited and funded more easily through the legal aid system. But, also, we equally need to look at how we actually co-ordinate all of the different bodies that collectively give specialist advice in one way or another. Effectively, what we do need to look at is the creation of an embryonic legal advice and support system that builds on the single advice fund. That is not easy in this environment. Again, it's one of the reasons why we've asked for the devolution of some of these areas. But, there is work that is ongoing and I'll happily discuss that with you as time goes on and again in this environment.
4. What discussions has the Counsel General had with the Ministry of Justice regarding the condition of the court estate in Wales? OQ59874
Thank you for your question. I have discussed the condition of the court estate with the justice Minister, Lord Bellamy, in our regular meetings on many occasions, and I have raised this issue in writing with the new Lord Chancellor. I continue to press the Ministry of Justice about the need for investment in the Welsh court infrastructure.
I hope to visit the civil courts and the magistrates' courts in Cardiff myself so that I can familiarise myself with the facilities available for those seeking resolution of their concerns to ensure that they are accommodated with the dignity they deserve. But, I am concerned that this ongoing issue that has clearly not been resolved, despite your excellent conversations with Lord Bellamy, has been exacerbated by the presence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete in so many public buildings, in England in the main. Asbestos, rightly identified by Rhianon Passmore yesterday as a major worry for all custodians of public buildings, has the potential to exacerbate an already deteriorating condition of the public realm. So, what hope do you have that the courts, particularly those in Cardiff, which are my concern, are actually going to be able to get any attention to this matter, given the problems we are seeing in schools in England?
Thank you, you raise a very valid point and, of course, the court in question I think is within your constituency, so it's a matter not only of concern more broadly, but also in terms of your constituency responsibilities. As you say, it is a reserved matter, but, of course, so many people in Wales are actually engaged within that—people who work within it, and families have to go into the civil justice centre. It is not fit for purpose; it's recognised that it's not fit for purpose. I can say that, when I have had discussions, the response I'm given is that, 'Well, there are some places that are even worse'. A point I'd come back with is that, 'Well, that's not a matter for us.' But, the fact is that this is the capital city of Wales and we don't have a fit-for-purpose civil justice centre. I've been around the court, I've met with the judiciary and I've met with those who work within it. There's common agreement that what is not happening is money being made available to make it fit for purpose.
It is not the only court. I attended the civil courts in Newport, and I have to say that I was quite astonished at the state of those as well. In fairness to Lord Bellamy, he has actually been visiting those courts and he's well aware of it. He doesn't hold the purse strings. The new Lord Chancellor has said that we must invest in the infrastructure of the court estate. I've written to him welcoming that particular statement and asking him to ensure that he takes into account the situation of the estate within Wales.
With regard to RAAC, I have made enquiries. I'm not aware that RAAC is an issue within the court estate within Wales, certainly not in terms of the information that I have so far. I think seven courts have been identified across the England-and-Wales area, but I don't know what the state or the extent is yet of all the investigations into those buildings.
5. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Welsh Government regarding potential relationships between Wales and the EU? OQ59890
Thank you for your question. The Welsh Government remains committed to long-standing relationships with EU partners, and also maximising the benefits of the trade and co-operation agreement, supported through our international strategy, appointed representatives on Europe and participation in a range of EU regional networks. We welcome the UK’s overdue association to the Horizon and Copernicus programmes.
I'm grateful to the Counsel General for that. We are witnessing, of course, the collapse of Brexit, not only with UK capitulation and rejoining Horizon two years too late, but we're also seeing the UK failing to deliver basic customs checks, the UK failing to deliver its own standards and having to adopt EU standards for the sale of goods. So, we're seeing, on every promise made back in 2016, UK policy collapsing. We have a review, of course, of the trade and co-operation agreement beginning in May 2026. It's important that Wales has a strong voice and is represented in the structures of that agreement and the structures that create accountability for the relationship, not only over that agreement but the wider UK-EU relationship. At the moment, the situation certainly is far from being one that would be welcomed on most sides of this Chamber. Is it possible for the Welsh Government to begin work now on a policy response to the review of the trade and co-operation agreement and to ensure that Wales has a strong voice in these EU-UK structures, but also that we begin preparing for the UK rejoining the EU?
Thank you for your supplementary question and also, again, thanks to you and others within this Chamber who have carried on the work on, I suppose, the vicarious body that's been set up to keep some relationship going after we had to leave the Committee of the Regions. I think that work and that engagement—. It is vitally important that we don't lose those connections and that we maintain them as best we can in what is not an ideal situation. Again, one of the issues that was very important and was part of the programme for government was, of course, that we kept the Brussels office operating, and I think that is a very important indicator and will become increasingly important again now, particularly as regards the Horizon programme, as well. And we might hope, at some stage in the future, to see developments in respect of Erasmus as well.
The trade and co-operation agreement, I think, is scheduled to be reviewed by 2025, and, of course, the extent to which it will lead to further change is going to depend significantly on the new European Commission and Parliament that will be in place from mid to late 2024, and on the outcome, I suppose, of the UK general election, which is due by no later than January 2025. So, in the meantime, the Welsh Government is committed to ensuring that those existing structures work effectively and that we maximise the benefits of the existing trade and co-operation agreement. The inter-ministerial group on UK-EU relations, which is chaired by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office of the UK Government, is a useful opportunity for Welsh Government to raise issues. I can confirm that the Welsh Government are also engaged with UK Government counterparts in the development of the UK positions on a range of UK-EU committees provided by the trade and co-operation agreement to explore and resolve issues relating to the trade and co-operation agreement's operations. I think the nub is that we are in a position where a number of consequences of Brexit are being recognised that have to be resolved. That process has started. There is momentum there. I'm hopeful it will continue and no doubt those processes have changed. I suspect it may lead to much greater co-operation in the near future.
I laughed and smiled to myself when I saw the order paper and the question from the Member for Blaenau Gwent, because it reminded me of a time that he and I travelled to Brussels as part of the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, where I found myself becoming a staunch Brexiteer to counterbalance the Member for Blaenau Gwent's Europhile style. But it was interesting that both you and the Member for Blaenau Gwent mentioned Horizon, and I think it's right that we celebrate that the UK has now rejoined Horizon under better terms than we had when we were members of the European Union. So, does the Counsel General agree with me that the binary, polarising chat of Brexit either being the best thing in the world ever or the end of the world as we know it is not helpful, it's polarising and it does a disservice to celebrating successes that UK Government and other Governments have when they negotiate with the European Union? And on the Member for Blaenau Gwent's discussion about rejoining the European Union, does the Counsel General agree with the EU's assessment that any country looking to rejoin the European Union must also sign up to the Euro and single currency?
Those are the rules.
I will ask the Member to allow the Minister to respond.
Those are the rules.
As far as I'm aware there are no discussions on any clear matters in terms of the issue of rejoining. Whatever personal views I or others may have, that is not on the agenda at the moment. I think what is on the agenda is, actually, damage limitations with regard to the consequences of Brexit. Horizon now, which was always an area that was under continual review between the various Governments, was incredibly successful, and the UK played a significant part in it, and the years that we've been out of it—it will take a long time to repair that damage and to get back into the position that we were in. I think, in several years' time, it may be an area that we will want to review how successful it has been. It is always better being on the inside of an organisation like Horizon 2020 and working within it than coming from the outside on an ancillary basis. The crux of the matter is, though, it was an absolutely disastrous mistake not to stay in Horizon 2020 when we had the opportunity, even with Brexit.
6. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Welsh Government about reducing the commission rate from the sale of residential park homes? OQ59861
Thank you for your question. The Mobile Homes (Wales) Act 2013 and the Mobile Homes (Selling and Gifting) (Wales) Regulations 2014 prescribe the maximum amount of commission that is payable to the site owner by the new occupier upon sale of a mobile home. That maximum amount is currently set at 10 per cent.
Thank you. Of course, calls have been made by a number of my constituents now to establish whether this rate can be reduced or abolished. I remember from my time here when Peter Black brought this through, and, at the time, it was concerning many mobile home owners and sellers about this high commission rate. Now, I found out that the Welsh Government commissioned financial analysis to inform its decision on 5 June 2018 to lower the commission rate by one percentage point per year over a five-year period until it was reduced to a maximum of 5 per cent of the purchase price, which I'm sure everyone would agree is a more—. It's more fair and balanced. However, that change didn't go ahead. In fact, in January 2019, on the application of the British Holiday & Home Parks Association and a park owner, the administrative court for Wales gave permission for a judicial review of the Welsh Government's decision. So, in light of the previous judicial review, would you arrange, Counsel General, for legal advice to be provided to the Welsh Government and this Welsh Parliament on the legality of charging the maximum commission rate? Thank you.
Well, can I just say that I understand that you are representing your constituents, residential mobile home site owners, but I think any question on proposals for the future of the commission rate payable on the sale of residential mobile homes really needs to be addressed to the Minister for Climate Change. Should mobile home residents have any queries about the terms of their site residency, including commission rates, there is the leasehold advisory service who can offer free and impartial advice. It's not appropriate for me to talk about legal advice that may or may not be engaged between myself and the Welsh Government. The issue of policy that you are specifically raising, though, is something, really, that needs to be addressed to the Minister for Climate Change.
7. Will the Counsel General make a statement on the availability of disaggregated data on the justice system in Wales? OQ59875
Thank you for your question. We continue to work alongside the Ministry of Justice on the provision of disaggregated data. We are also taking forward our own work—notably we published a dashboard on youth justice on 31 August. This will be the first of a series of Welsh justice dashboards.
Diolch, Counsel General. That's really good to hear, because as we know, via the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, also known as the Williams-McAllister commission, and the Brown report, we have heard and read vital discussions and recommendations about the constitutional future of Wales. One of the key points of these discussions is of course the fact that justice is currently not devolved in Wales, despite most of it being devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland. So, one of the key first steps to righting this imbalance would be to begin devolving both youth justice and probation service, which would also help with some of what we were discussing earlier on about women in prisons as well.
But currently, Counsel General, due to the nature of the lack of devolution in Wales, much of the data on justice is only available in a way that groups England and Wales together, and as such, we are unable to determine a clear picture of the justice system in Wales alone. I actually wanted to come back to Mark Isherwood: one of the statistics that you used earlier on from the equality and social justice report—it was actually nine out of 10 Welsh women are more likely to relapse into substance misuse if they don't receive support straight from prison, not that Welsh women are more likely to reoffend than English women. I'd like to set that straight; it's unfair and inaccurate to say that. The problem that we have is that, at the moment, it's just, all we know is that 70.7 per cent of women reoffend within one year after they receive a short custodial sentence, but that's women in England and Wales. Therefore, Counsel General, would you be able to confirm what steps the Welsh Government has taken thus far in terms of detangling this data from England and establishing a clear picture of the future of the justice system in Wales? Diolch.
Thank you very much, and thank you for that clarification of those points that were made earlier. One of the areas of concern we do have, of course, is that we are only now really seeing some of the work from within Cardiff University, getting an understanding of some of the issues around imprisonment rates, and not only the scale of them, but also, over the past year, the significant increase in the rate of imprisonment of women from Wales. So, it's a very serious issue. It's an issue that I and the Minister for Social Justice have been discussing with various bodies, with various agencies. We have developed as best we can our own system in terms of interactive dashboards to bring together and, I think, make more accessible the justice data that there actually is, to extract it from the various sources where it is. The first of these dashboards focused on youth justice; that was published on 31 August and this makes data available about youth justice easier to find in one place. Analysts are currently developing the remaining dashboards that will deal with areas such as courts, prisons, crime recurrences, legal aid, workforce statistics, and again, with the view of making these publicly available.
But it does move away from a point that I raised yesterday with the Under-Secretary from the Ministry of Justice, Lord Bellamy, at the inter-ministerial group meeting, and that is: we do need much better data in order to develop justice policy, and this will become an issue that is much more important as parts of the justice system are increasingly devolved to us, as we expect to happen, to have the data that enables you to develop the social policy. If you don't know what's happening, if you don't know what the rates of imprisonment are, what the reasons are, the backgrounds of the people who are there, the people who are coming into the court system and how long the court systems take, and so on, it is very difficult to work out how you actually engage all the agencies together, how you actually develop a policy that is aimed at primarily keeping people out of the justice system but then ensuring that if they are in the justice system that it works as effectively and as efficiently and in as rehabilitative a way as can be possible.
So, it is an ongoing battle. I hope you will continue to raise and monitor these issues, because I think they are becoming increasingly important. We raise them on every occasion that we can. It is, of course, dependent on access to other systems and to the Ministry of Justice. There aren't particular disagreements with the need for it, but making it actually happen at the moment is one of the products of having a very centralised justice system, unfortunately.
And we'll conclude with question 8. Alun Davies.
8. What assessment has the Counsel General made of the possible impact of a change of UK Government on the devolution settlement? OQ59891
Well, I hope that any new UK Government would pursue a different path and that they would support the devolution settlement and collaborative inter-governmental working, instead of undermining the constitution and the union of the United Kingdom.
I'm grateful to the Counsel General for that response. What has become clear in recent months, over the summer, is that there is a clear assumption in all quarters across the United Kingdom that we are heading towards a change of UK Government at the next general election. I think it's clear to everybody that there is no way that the Conservative Government is going to be re-elected. Now, whilst this will be welcomed in certainly most parts of this Chamber, it is also an opportunity for us to prepare and to refresh our constitutional policy for the new United Kingdom Government and for the Welsh Government to make a very clear statement of what its priorities will be for the new United Kingdom Government. And any incoming Labour Government of the United Kingdom will require, I think, a very clear statement of constitutional policy so that we can collectively support the incoming Labour Government and to ensure that this place, as you say, has the respect it deserves from the basis of its mandate.
Well, thank you for that comment. You make good points, and you made specific reference, I think, to the report that was commissioned by Sir Keir Starmer. It was his report, the Gordon Brown report; it was a report that he wanted. It is one that has been accepted and has significant consequence. We also have our own independent commission that will be reporting at the end of this year, which will also no doubt deal with a number of those particular points.
What is very clear is that there are different perceptions as to how inter-governmental relations are actually working. There is no doubt in my view that one of the consequences of the Energy Bill going through in the way it has, without legislative consent from Wales, is that it is basically yet another breach—significant breach—of Sewel. But a further breach because it goes beyond arguing that the changes are a consequence of leaving the EU or constitutional issues, this is just a matter where the UK Government has turned around and said, 'Well, we don't agree. We're going to do it anyway.'
And we talk about Sewel, but we should also be talking about the fact that the Sewel convention is in statute. It is there in legislation, and there are significant consequences I think to continual breaches of constitutional relations. None of this is really mentioned in the UK Government's report on inter-governmental relations. Their annual report is a bit like a brochure inviting you to join the British Airways executive lounge. In fact, it says at the end, on legislative consent mechanisms,
'a total of 18 legislative consent motions...across 13 pieces of legislation, were passed by the devolved legislatures on the advice of the devolved administrations.'
Welsh Government has published its own inter-institutional relations report on the agreement between the Welsh Government and on the inter-governmental relations. I'll just read one part of that, which I think summarises it:
'There have been areas in which constructive joint work and dialogue has been possible with the UK Government, for example in relation to aspects of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in relation to Ukraine.'
'However, the UK government’s attempts to undermine the devolution settlement and its continued disrespect for the Welsh Government and the Senedd during much of this period has impaired intergovernmental working and damaged the union of the United Kingdom.'
What I would hope with an incoming Government is that there will be an opportunity to refresh and put on a secure footing the constitutional convention to give it some status legally, so that it cannot be overridden at whim, which is what's happening at the moment, and that there will be also further developments in terms of the broader constitutional relationship between us. It's one that has to be respected and seen as being important to the future of the UK. At the moment, the fact that it is not being fully respected, I think, in the long term, is something that eats away at the unity that exists between the four nations of the UK.
Thank you, Counsel General.
Item 3 is next, questions to the Senedd Commission. All questions will be answered by Joyce Watson. Question 1, Mike Hedges.
1. Will the Commission make a statement on the security of the Senedd's e-mail system? OQ59866
I thank you for your question. The Commission employs a broad range of technical measures to safeguard the security of the Senedd's e-mail system. These measures augment the standard security protections applied by the system supplier. Human error remains the greatest threat to our e-mail security. Therefore, technical protections are underpinned by regular training and internal phishing tests for system users to raise awareness, identify vulnerabilities and strengthen our defences against genuine threats. The Commission provides specific training and awareness sessions for Members, but attendance could be better. The Commission will deliver a two-day cyber security event in November, including sessions from a number of well-respected external experts. I would encourage all Members to attend this to understand more about the current threats and the actions that we are taking to mitigate these.
Can I thank Joyce Watson for that response? I also believe the system is as secure as any other in the public sector. Civil servants in the education department have stated it is not secure enough to share school governor agendas and reports. Does the Commission know why they do not consider it secure, and will they discuss with the Welsh Government education staff where they consider the weaknesses are?
I think it's an odd situation I think is all I can say, because what I do know is that there is a high level of technical protection. We apply the latest security fixes to address vulnerabilities and weaknesses; strong access controls including multifactor authentication for user logins, to prevent unauthorised access to e-mail accounts; robust e-mail filtering and anti-malware solutions to prevent malicious content, including spam phishing attempts and malware. We have enforced encryption of e-mail communications, which protects data from eavesdropping and unauthorised access, with comprehensive back-up and recovery to ensure data can be restored in case of data loss. So, I don't really understand how this has happened, and I think I would advise Mike, the Senedd Member, to write to the Commission so that we can look at and investigate and give you a more rounded answer into how this has happened.
2. How will the Commission facilitate closer and deeper relationships between the Senedd and the institutions of the EU? OQ59892
I thank you for that question. Engagement with the EU is a key strand of the Commission's international framework. Commission staff support Member and committee engagement in a range of new UK-EU structures, which include the UK Committee of the Regions contact group and the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly. And the Senedd also has hosted a number of inward visits from EU institutions and organisations that provide valuable opportunities to further develop relationships. Most recently, these included hosting visits from the EU's ambassador to the UK, the Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions' Atlantic Arc conference, and the EU's European Economic and Social Committee.
I'm grateful for that response. The independent remuneration board seems to be doing its best to prevent Members travelling anywhere outside Cardiff Bay and, over the last few years, we've seen this place becoming increasingly Cardiff Bay centric, and that's something I very much, and I'm sure other Members very much, regret. Members on all sides of the Chamber will want to see greater scrutiny and greater accountability of all the different structures and bodies and processes that currently exist to manage the relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU. Members will also want Wales to be represented in its own right in many of the institutions and bodies that currently exist within that relationship. It is important, then, and perhaps more important today than it has been in the past, that the Commission doesn't simply respond to requests to host visits, but actually is more proactive to enabling committees and Members to visit institutions of the European Union, to have those conversations, but also to structurally hold all of those people and Ministers, whether they happen to sit here or elsewhere, to account for the management of these relationships. That is something that I hope the Commission will regard as a priority in the coming months and years.
In answer to your question, and you said particularly about the rem board, my understanding is the rem board has made no decision in relation to international visits. There may be some confusion following the review of the determination, which removed references to Brussels and European Parliament, but they were merely, I've been assured, technical wording changes and have no bearing on resource. For committee business, the relevant section of the rem board's determination states this is a matter for the Commission, and there has been no freeze on spending via the determination. But, if Members wish to make arrangements for visits abroad, they can apply in advance for this to be funded through the determination provided the journey is necessarily undertaken to enable the performance of the Member's duties and meets the requirements of that.
In terms of budgeting, and a lot of this is about budgeting, the Commission is still in the process of assessing in detail the impact of making a cost-of-living payment to staff, and part of this will be examining what requires prioritisation within the resources available. There will be some difficult decisions to be made, but the Member's comments will be noted and fed back into that process.
3. What assessment has the Commission made of the impact of the Senedd in engaging the people of Wales in Welsh democracy since devolution? OQ59883
Our communications and engagement strategy places greater emphasis on gathering the impact of our work. We're conducting audience research to gather insights into knowledge and public perception of the Senedd, with the latest survey finding that 97 per cent were aware of the Senedd, with 64 per cent recognising how issues close to them are affected by Welsh laws. And we've introduced new ways of capturing feedback from audiences, like customer surveys for visitors and attendees at our events. And we've also introduced tools to monitor the reach of our social media and media coverage. We'll conduct an evaluation of our communications and engagement strategy at the end of this Senedd.
I think engaging the people of Wales in our democracy is a vital part of the work of every Senedd Member, as well as the institution itself, and I'm sure all Senedd Members are keen to encourage people from their constituency to visit the Senedd and to engage in the work of the Welsh Parliament in various ways. But there is a lot of work to do, and turnout in Senedd elections, for example, as with other elections, is disappointing and something that we need to improve. I believe that the education programme and school visits are very positive in this respect, and it's great to see the children that come along so regularly to the Senedd. But I wonder whether, in analysing the engagement of the institution with the people of Wales, it's possible to identify particular groups, particular sections within society, that are not engaging as much as others, whether it's possible to look at those demographics and perhaps particularly promote engagement to those people who perhaps are less involved than others.
I accept exactly what you're saying, and I think that evaluation is necessary and would prove useful. In October, we are hosting a big event by WEN Wales, and it will be called 'We belong here', and it's specifically aimed at engaging people from all backgrounds, albeit women in this case, to make sure that they understand fully what it is we are doing and, hopefully, to encourage them to take part in that and become more aware of that.
We do also, of course, have the Youth Parliament structure, which is fed back into schools, and there is a wide range of differing backgrounds in terms of the membership of that Youth Parliament, but we are always striving to ensure that access and knowledge of the work of the Senedd is as good as it can be, and we will take your request back. Thank you.
I thank Joyce Watson.
The next item is the topical questions, and the first will be asked by Mabon ap Gwynfor.
1. Will the Minister provide an update on the safety of the health estate following the news that a major incident was declared at Withybush Hospital in August? TQ832
Thank you very much. Ensuring that the NHS estate in Wales is safe is a priority for the Welsh Government. My officials have been working closely with health boards and the trusts as well as expert advisers on the presence of RAAC—reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—across the health service to ensure that patients, staff and visitors stay safe.
I thank the Minister for that response. It's interesting that everyone is now talking about RAAC and building safety following an announcement by Gillian Keegan about schools in England at the beginning of September, but nobody had thought twice about patient safety in Wales when the news broke that a ward was to close at Withybush hospital because of the dangers of RAAC. Indeed, because of Keegan's RAAC announcement, the education Minister here in Wales felt the need to make a statement on the safety of Welsh schools yesterday, however, we've had no announcement on the health estate in Wales, never mind other public buildings in Wales. But we know from meeting Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board at the beginning of this year that only 62 per cent of health board buildings there are operationally safe, and health board officials tell me that the capital cost of repairing the estate is one of the greatest challenges facing them. So, can the Minister provide us an assurance that there is a programme of work in place to remediate the estate, not only looking just at RAAC, but also the other problems that exist? What's the timetable for ensuring that the buildings in the health estate are safe? And what additional capital is available to carry out this necessary work? Finally, will we see more wards or other estate buildings closing at short notice because of concerns about safety?
Well, I thank you. I understand that this has been something of a surprise to some members of the public, but certainly we were very aware of this as a problem as a Government, and we have been keeping an eagle eye on this situation.
We had commissioned some specialist structural engineer reports in November. On 20 February this year, shared services—that is the group that commissions work, so that we have work across the whole of the NHS that is commissioned and procured, so that we have a once-for-Wales approach—wrote out to all of the NHS organisations to ask them for enhanced assurances on where RAAC was located, making sure that mitigation and safety measures had been identified and implemented, and making sure there's robust monitoring for the future. So, all of this has been in place since February in relation to the NHS.
Now, what I can tell you in relation to what we found is that there are two areas where there were significant concerns: Withybush was one of them; we've known about that for a while. On 18 August, I visited Withybush just to have a look at exactly what the condition of the RAAC was. Six wards have been closed as a result of the presence of RAAC in Withybush. Many patients have been relocated to South Pembrokeshire Hospital, and already, £12.8 million has been given for initial mitigation for support in Withybush and to make safe.
The other area that we're particularly concerned about is Nevill Hall Hospital in Abergavenny. Mitigation and safety measures, so there's still work to do on that, but it's not in a clinical area, and those areas we're a bit more confident about.
There's a small part of Bronglais Hospital in a remote plant room where RAAC has been identified, but it's only authorised personnel who have access to that part. And in Llanfairfechan, RAAC was identified in a canteen at Bryn y Neuadd, but that was decommissioned in January. So, we're fully confident so far in terms of the big concerns that those are the areas that we have to focus on, and we're on it, I think, in relation to the NHS.
Minister, as you will appreciate, I'll be focusing my comments on Withybush hospital, and asking questions on the presence of RAAC at the site. Now, yesterday, I called for a statement on this matter, and so I'm pleased that we now have an opportunity to better understand the Welsh Government's actions on this issue. I have concerns that Hywel Dda University Health Board, and possibly the Welsh Government, have known about this since 2019, and that little action had taken place to address the problem until an expert survey in May 2023 revealed the need to take urgent safety measures. Therefore, perhaps the Minister can confirm exactly when the health board notified the Welsh Government of the problem at Withybush hospital. If the Welsh Government has known since 2019, what exactly has the Government and the health board done since then to address this problem in the last four years?
Secondly, as you've said, Minister, six wards have been closed off, and many patients and staff have, quite rightly, been moved to South Pembrokeshire Hospital in Pembroke Dock, temporarily. Now, it's vital that this is a temporary move and not an opportunity to once again centralise services away from Withybush hospital permanently. So, can you, Minister, provide a cast-iron guarantee today that any services that have been temporarily relocated will be returned to Withybush hospital once it's safe to do so?
And finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, I want to put on record my thanks to the staff at Withybush hospital who have been affected and continue to be impacted by this matter. It's crucial that there is some understanding of the timescales involved in resolving this problem, so that those staff can plan and co-ordinate service delivery. Therefore, can you, Minister, update us on the latest discussions you've had with the health board regarding the time it may take to return services to Withybush hospital? Some reports have speculated that three wards may be reopened by Christmas, and the remaining three by April. And so, I'd be grateful if you could confirm whether that is still the case, or have there been any further developments on this front?
Diolch yn fawr iawn. And I will be issuing a written statement following this debate today. I know that the Minister yesterday suggested that I had put out a statement. That was because I thought I had, actually, because I've been responding to a lot of media reports in relation to RAAC. So, apologies if I hadn't done a formal statement, but I have been trying to keep members of the public informed in relation in particular to the situation in Withybush hospital, where I know a lot of people have big concerns, and I would also like to put on record my thanks for the huge efforts that have been made by staff in Withybush hospital to make that situation safe.
Now, I am very keen to make sure that there is an understanding of the timeline of what's been happening. This, as I say, has not come as a surprise to us. This is not something that came as a surprise to us in August. We have been on this ever since there was an alert in May 2019, which told us that there were potential risks posed by RAAC. What happened then was that the NHS organisations were tasked with undertaking investigations to try and identify the presence of RAAC across the whole of the Welsh NHS estate. In June 2022, the Welsh Government appointed a specialist structural engineer to review those reports, just to make sure they were absolutely accurate. Those were completed in November 2022. A further request was made in February this year, in terms of making sure we followed up on that engineer's report, and those reports are currently ongoing, they're being completed, they've been collected, they're being reviewed, so all of that is still happening, but we know we've identified where the biggest problems are already. Since February, as I say, we have identified where the biggest problems are and there's been huge work done to make sure that we're on it.
In terms of what happens next, as I say, I visited in August, and it was interesting to see how quickly the hospital had moved to shore up and make sure that lots and lots of poles were put in place to make sure that there was no danger of ceilings falling. So, the initial safety issues, I think—we can be confident that that's in the right place. Of course we had to decant people from those particular wards. There is a huge effort being made to make sure now that we address the issues of RAAC in those wards. It's not going to be cheap and it's not going to be fast, but, yes, as you say, we're hoping that three of those wards will be reopened, hopefully, by the end of this year. But obviously we'll have to see what they find as they go along, so I think we're confident in that. So, the intention is very much to reopen those wards, if possible, but obviously we have to make sure that we do not put people back into a hospital setting if there is the slightest chance that it is unsafe.
I thank you for your statement, and it is important to remember the £12.8 million mitigation funds that have gone into Withybush. And it is also right to recognise the work that has been done and the effort and commitment by all staff to step up and keep services running wherever that was possible. Of course, the question here that people want to know is: are those services that currently can't be provided in Withybush being provided as close to home as is possible? And they will seek answers to that. But I'd also like to thank the chief executive, who called an emergency meeting of all the politicians to let us know what was happening and who has kept us informed and updated, like you have yourself, Minister, so that we could understand and relay that understanding back out into the community. And that is my request here, that we play our part also—all of us—in keeping people informed in such a way that we don't leave them concerned about their situation.
Diolch yn fawr, Joyce, and you're quite right: we consider this to be something we have to respond to very quickly. Making sure our hospitals are safe is fundamental. So, we have had to raid our capital budgets to find that £12.8 million. That £12.8 million will now not be available to spend on some of the other projects that we had hoped to spend it on, but there is an absolute priority to keep people safe. So, yes, there is a need to keep the public informed as well, and that's why I have been trying to give a commentary, certainly in the press, over the summer, just to make sure that people are reassured that we are on top of this issue—we're taking it very seriously. As I say, it's not come as a surprise to us, but once we found the detail and the potential for danger, then of course we acted as soon as we were aware of it.
Thank you, Minister. The next topical question is from Peredur Owen Griffiths.
2. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government’s 2023-24 budget, in light of continued commentary by Ministers via the media over the summer? TQ836
We've been considering where spending can be delayed, deferred, reprioritised and reduced. We are working to minimise the impacts of making difficult decisions to ensure that public services continue to have the funding needed so that we do not breach our budget, which would create a more difficult situation next year.
Thank you for that response.
Over the summer, we were notified that the Cabinet were working through the summer on measures to mitigate the financial constraints that affected the current budget and which are likely to influence the design of the next budget. And we fully appreciate the extremely challenging circumstances that the Welsh Government currently faces from a financial perspective: the implosion of the UK economy by the Truss administration and the subsequent implosion of a new wave of austerity measures by the Sunak administration have pushed public finances, which were already in a precarious state, to breaking point. It’s for a good reason therefore that the current budget was described by the Government as the most difficult in the devolved era.
We’ve been informed on many occasions that the Welsh Government’s current budget is £900 million lower in real terms compared to when it was originally set during the UK Government's 2021 spending review. And I’m grateful for your explanation this morning in the Finance Committee as to how that figure was calculated and that a further statement will be coming in due course.
Given the events that have transpired since the UK Government’s spring budget, including the downward trajectory of consumer prices index inflation since June, could the Minister clarify to the Senedd how this deficit is currently being factored into the aforementioned Cabinet work on mitigating financial pressures, and to what extent you expect it to inform the design of the subsequent budget? And can you confirm the overall total quantum of the saving that you’re currently asking your Cabinet colleagues to find within their budget lines, and what figure are you working to? Are you looking for £900 million in total savings; and then, could you split that by revenue and capital? At times of financial hardship like these, where every single penny counts, enabling effective transparent scrutiny of the Welsh Government's budgetary decisions becomes even more important. Diolch yn fawr.
I'm very grateful for the question and also for the opportunity in committee earlier on today to be able to set out some of the work that the Welsh Government is doing to try and meet that gap that we now have in our finances as a result, as you've described, of the period of austerity, the mismanagement of the economy, and particularly the impact that inflation is having on our budgets.
Over the course of the summer, the Welsh Government has been meeting regularly and I've been meeting with my colleagues on an individual basis as well, to understand the pressures within those departments. And I think that the fact that we've done work relatively early on in the financial year is really important because we have a monthly monitoring process where my officials are informed by our groups right across Government of what the pressures are and what the potential overspend or underspend is on all of their budgets, so we actually have really, really good visibility on what's happening in the budgets across Government, and it became very evident early on that inflation was having a big impact. So, we thought we needed to take some remedial action and do so before decisions have become so locked in that actually our room for manoeuvre is reduced.
So, it's been a really helpful piece of work. I wish I could say more today. It is my intention to give a full update to the Senedd on the work that we've been doing, but we still have yet to agree the package across Government, and I'm really clear that it has to be a cross-Government piece of work and a cross-Government-derived solution to the challenge.
In terms of the £900 million, just to reassure colleagues that I'm not looking for £900 million to be reprioritised across Government; we're looking at what else we can do. We have to consider assumptions around, for example, NHS pay consequentials. We're really keen that we finally have some clarity from the UK Government on that particular point when we meet as a Finance: Interministerial Standing Committee next week. I spoke to the Deputy First Minister of Scotland again just today, and she was very keen that we take that opportunity to really press the UK Government for that clarity. When we have that, then we can factor that into our decisions, and it might mean that we have some different choices to make. So, there is some clarity that we need yet before we're able to bring forward the package and describe it in more detail to colleagues.
Until this morning, I believed the Welsh Government got the actual income from the Welsh rates of income tax in-year, rather than just the Office for Budget Responsibility estimate; I thank the Minister for earlier correcting that misunderstanding. But for every additional £10 million paid to civil servants in England paying basic tax, the Treasury receives £2 million in tax, creating a net cost to the Treasury of £8 million. In Wales, the £10 million stays the same, while Treasury still gets the £2 million in tax. The Welsh Government receives nothing until tax reconciliation occurs, which can take up to three years. Is the Minister happy with this system? If not, is any representation being made to correct this?
I'm really grateful for those comments and also for the discussion that we had in committee this morning, recognising the importance of our devolved taxes and also Welsh rates of income tax in terms of enabling us to set our budget. I do think that the system that we have—. You know, it's very early days; we only had the first reconciliation payments for this budget, and we're looking ahead now to what that means for the next budget as well.
I think what the system as it is at the moment does is give us at least a level of certainty on which to plan. The OBR's forecasts thus far have been fairly robust. They've given us really good confidence upon which to plan, and I think that's been helpful, rather than, for example, perhaps having monthly returns from HMRC that provide us with our Welsh rates of income tax that wouldn't give us the kind of confidence we need upon which to plan. So, I think the system we have at the moment is good; we're definitely still testing it at the moment in terms of the robustness of the forecasts, but as I say say, they've been good so far.
This year, we're hoping for a positive reconciliation next year, and, of course, if we do have situations where we have negative reconciliations, as they have had, for example, in Scotland, there are some measures there that can help us manage that across financial years—for example, in terms of borrowing. Normally, we're only able to borrow for capital so that we're able to invest in infrastructure, but there is some flexibility for us to borrow specifically to manage tax volatility. So, I do think the system that we have is fit for purpose at the moment. It's still early days, so if there needs to be any adjustment to it, we can certainly identify that, and I know the Finance Committee will keep a close eye on how the system is working as well.
Thank you, Minister. The final topical question will be asked by Russell George.
3. Will the Minister provide an update on today's Welsh Government announcement that all of Wales' seven health boards are in escalation status? TQ841
I've escalated a further three health boards for planning and finance to enhanced monitoring. This means that all seven health boards are in escalation for planning and finance, due to the extremely challenging financial situation following a period of considerable inflation and austerity.
Minister, I shouldn't have to come to this Chamber today and submit a topical question; you really should've brought forward a statement yesterday on such an important issue to Members in this Chamber. Perhaps you can explain why a statement wasn't issued yesterday.
What the public do want to know, Minister, particularly those 28,000 people who are waiting over two years for treatment, which, of course, have been wiped out in other parts of the UK, is what this actually means for them. Can you clarify and set out what does your statement mean today for the thousands of people in Wales who are waiting for treatment on the Welsh NHS? Because your statement doesn't set that out. Tell us today, Minister. Your statement says that health boards have not provided plans in accordance with your direction. Is it the case that the direction that you have set to health boards was not reasonable or achievable, or is it in your view a failing of senior health board teams in every health board in Wales? Because it's got to be one or the other.
You said in your statement there are growing financial deficits, operational pressures, long waiting lists, as well as extremely challenging financial positions, and this is not unique to Wales. I accept health services are affected right across the UK and around the world—I accept that—but this Labour Government is the only Government in the UK to have cut the health budget not once, but twice. That's a decision that you've made here in Wales. You're asking health boards, Minister, to do more for less. You write to health boards, you set out your priorities, correctly so, but if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. What I would ask, Minister, is have you also told health boards what should not be their priority, because I don't think you can have it both ways on this. So, please, Minister, tell us what should not be health boards' priorities.
Can you also confirm that the Welsh Government will be protecting this health budget in this financial year? Can you confirm that no further cuts will be made to the health budget, and can you also set out today what this statement means for the next budget in 2024-25? Will you be seeking to protect the health budget in real terms next year? Ultimately, what is the Welsh Government doing to fix this situation? Because I read your statement today, every page of it, and it doesn't actually set out what you are doing as a Government, what you are doing as the Minister to fix this situation. I think the Welsh people want clarity on what this means for them.
Thanks very much. I understand the frustration. I understand the frustration of the public when they see that health boards are finding it difficult to balance the books. There's a reason why they're finding it difficult to balance the books. It's because the poor way in which the UK Government have managed the economy has led to significant inflation, which is impacting massively not just on all of the public in Wales who are finding it hard to find the money to pay for their energy—health boards are also finding it difficult to pay, for example, for their energy.
On COVID costs, we started vaccinating people this week—another COVID booster—but all of a sudden we're not getting any additional money from the centre for that. But we have to find the money. They have to find the money, the health boards, from within the budget that they have. This is at a time when demand on the NHS is still going up, because we've got an ageing population, we have complex care, we have 60 per cent of the population who are overweight or obese. We have all of these things that health boards are trying to contend with. So, you're quite right—we do have to have a very serious conversation about whether we can do it all, can we continue like this. I've made it very clear on the anniversary of the NHS that that is not possible—that, actually, this situation is not sustainable and we are going to have to make some very tough decisions.
Already, yes, I have been very clear with the health boards that, actually, they have to focus on six priorities. That's the first time they've had such clarity on, 'I recognise you can't do everything under the current budget situation, so here's your six priorities for you to focus on'. So, I have been very clear on that. The next question is, 'What are you going to deprioritise?', because that's true as well. So, I've already asked them to make sure that they are not making interventions where we know that the health consequence is not where it should be, and there are explanations from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence and clinical reasons for doing that. So, I've already, again, given an instruction that they have to stop doing those interventions.
So, we are being clear with them, but let me make it absolutely clear that the determination of where this money gets spent within health boards rightly has to be the responsibility of the health boards, because they're closer to the public. I can't tell you what is safe to cut because I don't know if you've got a bigger cancer problem in one area or a bigger orthopaedic problem. That's the kind of local intelligence that those health boards have to determine themselves. So, you can be prescriptive to a point, but, actually, there's a reason why we appoint health boards.
Of course we are concerned about the deficit situation. There was one time when there was a cut to the health budget and what we did years ago was to increase the care budget. Everybody who's involved in health and care understands that there is an inextricable link between health and care. Everybody understands that. Why the Tories don’t understand that, I don’t know. But everybody in the health service understands that link, so I think it’s really important for you to understand that. There hasn’t been a cut to the health budget—let me make it clear. There’s been an increase in the amount of money going to the health budget, but the problem is that, if you think of things like the fact that medicines have increased in terms of inflation by about 11 per cent, there’s no more money for that—you have to find savings from somewhere else.
So, it’s a massive challenge. It’s not just a Welsh challenge. I’ve been speaking to my Scottish counterpart this morning. We’re all in the same boat. We’re all struggling with this and it’s really important, I think, that people understand that change is coming, this is going to be difficult, and we’re going to have to have a very serious conversation about what it is we do. The public has got a responsibility to come with us on this journey to help us in supporting their own health positions as well.
Paul Davies took the Chair.
It's the start of a new Senedd year, but I’m afraid it’s the same old story when it comes to the health service in Wales. The fact that this announcement was made late this morning without a pre-arranged oral statement in the Senedd suggests that the Government would rather avoid scrutiny. I noticed that the Minister didn’t respond to Russell George’s first question, so I hope that the Minister will explain why the Government consider it sufficient for such a major announcement to be made in this manner, and with little scope for scrutiny.
People will be rightly scratching their heads at this point as to the actual effectiveness of these escalation measures and the ability of the Welsh Government to deliver them. We’ve already witnessed Betsi Cadwaladr being put back into special measures earlier this year, a little over two years after they were originally lifted against the advice of the auditor general. But the limited effectiveness of the escalation protocols is also apparent in other health boards. For example, Cardiff and Vale is remaining in enhanced monitoring for planning and finance despite having run a deficit for four of the past five three-year periods. Hywel Dda has failed to break even at any stage since 2016-17, and yet it will remain in its current escalation status of targeted intervention. On this basis, how effective is the special measures framework, and is it time for an independent investigation into whether it delivers improvements for health boards and, most importantly, the quality of care across Wales? Something somewhere is failing. Either the frameworks or the Government that is implementing them is not fit for purpose. Which is it? What will these enhanced measures mean to services on the ground? Will the Government refuse to bail out any overspend this year or next year? Are health boards expected to stop further planned care to save costs? People simply don’t understand what these enhanced measures mean and what they intend to deliver, so I hope the Minister can elaborate.
While the impact of COVID and inflation have undoubtedly contributed to this situation—and we heard the Minister blame COVID earlier—this is only part of the picture. The Audit Wales report published last week shows that expenditure on agency staff reached a record level of £325 million in 2022-23, and that permanent staff vacancies were by far the main reason for this. You may recall that, here in Plaid Cymru, we put forward a plan earlier this year to address some of the most urgent challenges facing our health service, which included prioritising staff retention and getting to grips with eye-watering sums being paid out to the private agencies. At the time, the Minister responded by saying that work was already under way to reduce the Welsh Government’s spending on agency staff. So, nine months on, how much confidence does she have that this work is actually bearing fruit? Will we see a reduction in agency spending over the current financial year? Finally, does the Minister agree with me that the failure of the Conservatives in Westminster to provide Wales with the funding we need to run public services effectively and efficiently here is threatening the health and well-being of the people of Wales?
Diolch yn fawr iawn. I think an explanation of the escalation and intervention framework is important. What we have is four levels of escalation. This is something that happens on a frequent basis. It's not something where we automatically give a report to the Senedd. If that is something that you would like to see in future, I'm happy to entertain that as something that we consider, but I think that's why the statement was issued earlier today.
So, let me just tell you about the escalation and intervention framework and why we've done what we've done today. Health boards have a responsibility to balance the budget over a three-year period. If they're unable to do that, then it means that the monitoring is increased and enhanced, and that's the situation that they are now all in, so that's why we've had to put them all into that escalation framework. Now, what does that mean? Well, it means that they'll all get significantly more hand-holding from the NHS Executive, there'll be a lot more monitoring and, of course, at the moment we're having very frequent discussions with them about how they're going to address the issue of the significant deficits that they are foreseeing this financial year.
It's not fair to say, 'Look, actually, they always just go up one way.' The fact is, in this statement, that Cwm Taf Morgannwg—we have seen some significant improvements in Cwm Taf Morgannwg, in particular in relation to their maternity and neonatal care. So, because of the efforts they've made, we've been able to reduce the intervention on that, so it does depend on where we're at.
Let me address some of the other issues that you asked about. Money to bail out—we don't have the money to bail out this year. You've heard that we're effectively £900 million down on where we should be, which is why, very often, they say that they're going to have a deficit, but, actually, we can find something centrally, usually, to help them out. That's not going to happen this year, so we're in a really, really difficult situation, which is different from the usual situation, and that's because of the way that the economy has been run by the Conservatives—that runaway inflation that we're seeing at the moment.
Now, just in relation to the agency staff, look, your priorities, and it was good that you commissioned that report into how we should fix the NHS—the fact is we were doing all of them already. But the agency staff situation—of course, what we want to see is permanent staff being recruited and a reduction in agency staff. I can give you a guarantee that we will see a reduction in agency staff. We've been working with Health Education and Improvement Wales and the appropriate partners to say, 'How do we do this?', without, actually, as far as possible, damaging the services that we will see provided, because the fact is, I remember going and spending the evening as a nurse in Withybush hospital, and 50 per cent of the nurses that were working that evening were agency nurses. Now, you can switch that off, but you'd have to switch off most of the hospital at the same time.
So, you've just got to do this very, very carefully and understand that there is a consequence to switching off agency staff, in terms of the numbers of beds that you can provide and what is available within the community. Obviously, in an ideal world, that's what we want to see—permanent staff, where we won't have to pay agency staff. It's about how you do that without seeing the services tip over and fall. We're on it—there's a huge amount of work being done—but I can give you an absolute assurance that we will see a reduction in the number of agency staff that we use.
I thank the Minister.
We'll now move on to item 5, the 90-second statements, and the first today is from Heledd Fychan.
Thank you, temporary Presiding Officer. It is easy to forget that the heroic generation of Gareth Miles is ageing—he was 85 years old upon his passing last week—but we won't, and we shouldn't, forget that he was one of the main pioneers of the revolution that transformed Wales and the status of the Welsh language, as one of the founders of the Cymdeithas yr Iaith, and that, of course, led to the Welsh Parliament.
Having been brought up in Waunfawr near Caernarfon, he quit his job as an English and French teacher, moved to Pontypridd and became an organiser of UCAC, the National Union of Teachers, Wales, before taking the brave step of becoming a full-time writer.
With his commitment to Marxism and the anti-apartheid movement, his life attested to his passionate belief that the fight for Wales and the Welsh language was part of the international fight for justice.
In aiming for a million Welsh speakers, we should all have listened to Gareth Miles over 50 years ago. In 1970 he published his first book, Pelydr-Ll—not 'pelydr x', or 'x-ray', but 'pelydr ll', a machine that would turn everyone into Welsh speakers. All that was needed was to point the machine at them, and we would've smashed the target of a million Welsh speakers by now.
In expressing our deepest condolences to his wife, Gina, and his daughters, Elen, Branwen and Eiry, we remember the humour as well as the seriousness that characterised the great Welshman, Gareth Miles. Our debt to him is great.
Throughout September, Bus Users UK hold their Catch the Bus Month campaign. Every day, people in communities across Wales catch a bus. Buses are essential services that many people rely upon and that we all benefit from. Buses are good for our economy. They help people to get to education, employment, shops and leisure activities, contributing billions to the economy.
Research from the University of Leeds found that improvements in bus connectivity is associated with decreases in social deprivation. Buses are good for our health. Aside from ensuring access for all to key public services like health and social care settings, buses promote physical activity and can also help to reduce loneliness and social isolation. Buses are good for our environment. A fully loaded double-decker bus can take 75 cars off the road, reducing congestion and emissions. In fact, if everyone across the UK switched just one car journey a month to a bus instead, there would be a billion fewer car journeys and a saving of 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year—just one journey a month. At this difficult time for buses and those affected by the cuts to services we're seeing in Wales, I think we should all take this opportunity to support this important campaign, while we continue to debate funding levels for buses and the best way they can be delivered. Let's all get on board and catch the bus.
Thank you for those statements.
We'll move on now to item 6, a debate on petition P-06-1337, 'Sycharth, the home of Owain Glyndŵr, should be bought to safeguard the site for future generations'. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion—Jack Sargeant.
Motion NDM8345 Jack Sargeant
To propose that the Senedd:
Notes the petition P-06-1337 'Sycharth, the home of Owain Glyndŵr, should be bought to safeguard the site for future generations', which received 10,539 signatures.
Diolch yn fawr, acting Presiding Officer.
On behalf of the Petitions Committee, thank you for the opportunity to bring forward this important debate.
In the week when we celebrate Owain Glyndŵr Day, this debate concerns a petition signed by 10,539 people calling for action to safeguard his birthplace, Sycharth castle. This petition is about protecting, it's about celebrating and it's about learning from our history. We do not just do that from books or online, but by celebrating key locations in Welsh history. Sycharth castle is one such location.
As the committee Chair of the Senedd Petitions Committee, I had the privilege of visiting the site earlier this year. We were joined by my committee colleague Joel James, the lead petitioner, Elfed Wyn ap Elwyn, who is here today with his beautiful children, members of the Owain Glyndŵr Society and the agent for the owners of the land. I'm also grateful, Presiding Officer, to the Deputy Minister for allowing senior officials from Cadw to join us there too. During the visit, it became clear that there were challenges. The current tenant has a lifetime lease, the site is not easily accessible, or easily found—and trust me, I struggled myself—and we don't have as much information as we would like regarding what the site looked like in Glyndŵr's day. Now, the final point, Presiding Officer, makes a rebuild more difficult. However, it does not mean that we should not act. Future generations, those like Elfed's children, must be able to mark that historical site. The pupils of a local school, Llangedwyn Church in Wales School, made this very clear to me on the day myself and Joel visited. They are proud of their famous forbear and they want their community to be a place that people from across Cymru and across the world can visit and learn about Owain Glyndŵr.
Now, Presiding Officer, there are two ways in which the Welsh Government could respond positively to this popular petition. Firstly, they could improve signage at the site. A small, discreet sign on the road just to show you you're in the right place. At the moment, as I said earlier, it’s far too easy to be looking for the site and to drive straight past it. It happened to me a few months ago. Secondly, Presiding Officer, the Welsh Government could and should give serious consideration to supporting proposals to create a visitor centre. This is a solution that not only would provide a way for local people to keep the history alive, but also create an accessible way for everybody to be able to come and engage with the story of Owain Glyndŵr through this ancestral home.
Llywydd, Cymru is an increasingly confident nation. If we are to build on that confidence, then we need to understand and celebrate our history—whether that is the Chartists, Presiding Officer, or what happened in the 1980s when the Tories decimated communities like mine in Alyn and Deeside, or, indeed, Owain Glyndŵr. We as Welsh people must be able to understand better the events that shaped us.
As I said earlier, Presiding Officer, place is an important part of history. I thank the petitioner for bringing forward this petition and bringing it to the heart of our democracy. I thank the over 10,000 people that signed this petition and engaged with it since.
I look forward to Members' contributions this afternoon, in which I hope Members and the Deputy Minister bear in mind that on Saturday we do celebrate Owain Glyndŵr Day, a day where in Wales we come together to celebrate the life and the legacy of the 'rebel' Prince of Wales, and we use this debate today in the Senedd to support a solution remembering a Welsh hero. Presiding Officer, as the students at Llangedwyn school said, let’s do more to promote Sycharth castle. Let's do more to promote the story of Owain Glyndŵr, and as myself and Joel James will remember for a long, long time to come, as they said, and I quote, 'Long live Sycharth castle'. Diolch.
I would like to start by thanking the petitioner for raising such an important topic as this and to also thank the Petitions Committee Chair, Jack Sargeant, for opening this debate. This petition, once again, highlights that we have a major issue in Wales with regard to protecting and promoting our historic and cultural heritage. The fact that we've received this petition with over 10,000 signatures shows the people right across the country clearly feel that, once again, they are not empowered enough to be able to decide for themselves how their community is shaped.
We learnt from our visit to Sycharth and Ysgol Llangedwyn that, in collaboration with the landowner, Cadw are taking steps to improve and promote greater awareness and access to this site, but considerably more needs to be done to engage other stakeholders, such as the local authority. Indeed, as already mentioned, there were no street signs at all directing me to the scheduled monument, and I believe that the underlying reason why other stakeholders haven't engaged is because they don't see this site as an asset. This brings me to what I feel this petition is really highlighting. As mentioned, Cadw have a positive relationship with the landowner and they have guardianship over Sycharth, but this wasn't always the case. There are many other examples throughout Wales where this isn't the case. More needs to be done to address this and make sure that our heritage and community assets are not allowed to rot. While Cadw do recognise, promote and conserve many significant historical buildings and sites, those that fall short of Cadw's strict criteria but nonetheless have high community value are the ones most often left without adequate protected status, and are left to either crumble or are wantonly destroyed. Cowbridge old girls' school and Cardiff velodrome are just two examples in my region that I can highlight. I believe the Welsh public shouldn't have to be signing petitions of this kind in a desperate attempt to get the Welsh Government to recognise the importance and significance of what we have to offer here in Wales in order to spur Cadw and others into greater action. There should be a much better mechanism in place to ensure that communities are properly consulted and their views are held as valid when deciding what needs to be protected. Furthermore, there is a clear need for a larger range of protected statuses that recognise that, even if a site or building does not measure up to a grade I or II listing, residents can still be assured that something they value won’t be wantonly destroyed.
Finally, acting Llywydd, I believe that we should also have much harsher penalties for land and building owners who clearly flout the rules regarding places of historical and community importance. As was mentioned in the Chamber yesterday, Guildford Crescent in Cardiff, which the community heavily campaigned to save, is now just a pile of rubble. Clearly, the developers are not worried about the consequences of destroying this heritage.
In the case of Sycharth, I believe the present landowner is very mindful of the historical significance of the site, but the truth is that subsequent owners may not be so caring, and therefore a site of such historical importance to Wales should always be able to rely on the strongest possible protections and the full weight of their enforcement.
We have a valuable resource in Wales in our heritage that we can use to help promote tourism and to learn more about our own history, and whilst there are some exemplary examples where we have protected, renovated and developed living history—St Fagans being the obvious example—we clearly do not go far enough. I believe I speak on behalf of all those who are frustrated at seeing heritage lost because this Government has failed to act, and failed to put into place a means by which a community can be empowered to protect those sites and those buildings that are important to them, and I would ask that the Welsh Government strongly considers taking positive action to address this. Thank you.
I would like to start by thanking Elfed for submitting this important petition, and echo the fact that it’s lovely to see you here, and I’d also like to thank everyone—the 10,539 people—who signed the petition. And although I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about and support the petition, I have mixed feelings that we, as Welsh people, must continue to make the case for the importance of not only protecting but celebrating and promoting sites like Sycharth; these are sites that have played such an important role in the development of our nation, including this Parliament, but are effectively forgotten, with very few people here in Wales knowing about their existence, never mind their significance. And perhaps that’s reflected in how many people are here listening to this debate and contributing to it. Someone mentioned to me this morning, who was aware of this debate, 'Think, if Sycharth was in Ireland, what would be made of that.’ It’s something for us to think about and reflect on, perhaps.
I have received quite a lot of correspondence on the matter since becoming a Member of this Senedd, and I wrote to the Deputy Minister to express my personal concern regarding the lack of attention that has been given to the Sycharth site, receiving a defensive reply that stated:
‘I do not agree with the claim that the Welsh Government has neglected Sycharth. In recent decades, the Welsh Government has invested significant money to protect Sycharth, along with other privately owned historical sites’,
and so forth,
‘presenting a combination of conservation, public access and interpretation on each site.’
But I would like to challenge that today, and you only need to visit Sycharth or visit Cadw's website to know that Sycharth has been neglected and that its significance is not celebrated or promoted. In fact, if you go to Cadw's website, there is not even a picture of Sycharth on the Welsh history map that traces the history of Owain Glyndŵr, although there is a reference to it. There is no way to know where the site is or how to get to it either. In fact, if you click on a link on the Cadw website regarding another important site in the history of Owain Glyndŵr, namely Glyndyfrdwy, you will be directed to an English-only website with the title ‘Welcome! to the Ancient Historic Sites of England’.
If you search for 'Sycharth' within the Cadw site, you can also find a monolingual English document dating from 2010, ‘Owain Glyndŵr and his Uprising: Interpretation Plan’.
The preface to this document states:
'This interpretation plan aims to help guide and inform Cadw’s Heritage Tourism project and expenditure',
'objectives are to maximise the economic value of heritage by increasing the volume, length and value of heritage visits. This plan recommends actions and initiatives which make sites associated with Owain Glyndwr and his uprising more intellectually accessible and enjoyable for both tourists and residents.'
It makes a number of recommendations, and I would like to know what became of this study. Because, from visiting the sites identified in the report, including Sycharth, and from looking at Cadw's own website, and also the Visit Wales website, it doesn't appear to me that Cadw or the Welsh Government have implemented this plan.
Why is it important to address this? If you've visited Sycharth or seen a picture of it, you'll be well aware that there is very little to see in Sycharth today compared to the majestic castles of Edward I, which are celebrated and promoted by Cadw and Croeso Cymru. There is a good reason for that, as it was burned down by the army of Prince Henry in 1403, who later became Henry V. Nevertheless, thanks to Iolo Goch's poem, which describes not only the buildings in Sycharth but also the fun and excitement that was present there, we have a very good idea of what Sycharth was like in its heyday. This is supported by excavation work carried out on the site in 1962 and 1963 and, more recently, the independent archaeologist Spencer Smith has done some further work. But more is needed.
Having now ensured through the co-operation agreement that the history of Wales, at last, will be taught in our schools, we also urgently need to secure sites such as Sycharth and improve the way that we interpret, promote and market them. As was mentioned earlier, it will be Owain Glyndŵr Day on 16 September, and what better way to celebrate that than to commit to supporting this petition and also ensure that Cadw and the Welsh Government pay due attention to a site that is the basis of this Senedd?
And for those of you who haven't visited Sycharth yet, why not follow in the footsteps of Iolo Goch:
'I will go to his court in haste, / the most splendid of the two hundred. / A baron's court, place of refinement, / where many poets come, the place of the good life'?