Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

18/10/2023

In the bilingual version, the left-hand column includes the language used during the meeting. The right-hand column includes a translation of those speeches.

The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

Statement by the Llywydd

Good afternoon, all, and we'll begin. Before we move to our first item, I want to announce the result of the ballot for the Member's Bill that took place today, and I'm pleased to announce that James Evans may seek the Senedd's agreement on his proposal for a mental health (Wales) Bill. So, I wish James Evans well, following that ballot result.

1. Questions to the Minister for Economy

The first item, therefore, is questions to the Minister for Economy. The first question is from Jayne Bryant.

Heritage Sites

1. What is the Welsh Government doing to support heritage sites in Newport West? OQ60122

Can I thank Jayne Bryant for that question? Newport has a rich and diverse heritage of international significance, ranging from the Caerleon Roman fortress and baths to the Newport transporter bridge. The Welsh Government will continue to invest in Newport’s heritage in the interest of the Welsh public, international visitors and, of course, future generations.

Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. Last month, I attended a free tour of Newport castle, organised by Cadw as part of their open-door session. This was really a fantastic opportunity and the first time it had been done for many years. The tour was done in conjunction with the Newport Market Arcade, which worked really well. Will Davies from Cadw brought the history of the castle to life, and his energy and passion for the castle shone through during his talk, and I can’t speak highly enough about that event thanks to his expertise. While only 30 people were able to join, I’ve been inundated with requests from people who would like to take part in the future, and there is really a strong appetite from people from Newport to have a look around the castle. I’d like to take this opportunity to extend a warm welcome to you, Deputy Minister, at a future tour of Newport castle and to meet with me to discuss how the Welsh Government can support the rich, cultural offer in Newport, from the medieval ship, Chartism, Caerleon Roman fortress and the transporter bridge to Tredegar House, and there’s so much more. And with the changes proposed to the Old Green roundabout, as part of the plans by the Burns delivery unit, what opportunities are being looked at to open up the castle, because it would be a really good opportunity in the immediate area to improve that area by the castle and to deter anti-social behaviour and heritage crime?

Can I thank you, Jayne, for that supplementary question? And can I say that I was absolutely delighted seeing your positive experience of the open-door visit at Newport castle? I did see it on social media as well—you looked really chuffed to be there, so, I did see that. And you were with Will Davies, who is such a really passionate historian, who knows so much about that period of history. Any visit to a medieval site with Will will really, really make it come alive, as you’ve said.

What I can say is that Cadw and Newport City Council’s museum and heritage services are keen to raise the profile of Newport castle and improve the access for that particular monument. So, what they’ve done is they’ve agreed to establish a collaborative schedule of monthly guided tours now on the site, which, as you say, sadly, is otherwise inaccessible due to the concerns that there have been about anti-social behaviour, which is why the castle was closed to general access in the first place. And as the site is not staffed, as you know, it would become a bit of a health and safety hazard if we just allowed people to walk in and out without that kind of supervision. But officials from those two bodies are also in talks about approving the setting of the monument and producing a guide book for the castle as well.

The redesign of transport arrangements, which you’ve talked about, Jayne, in the centre of Newport, does give the opportunity to restore the castle to its proper prominence in the city centre. So, Cadw will be discussing that with colleagues in the Welsh Government and Transport for Wales and Newport City Council to see how we can maximise those opportunities that that new road development provides to improve the access to the castle. And, yes, of course I’d love to come and visit. It’s somewhere I’ve passed many times, but, obviously, because it’s not been accessible, I’ve not gone in, but it’ll add to my list of visits in Newport, from the transporter bridge to the Roman fort that I’ve also been to with you as well. So, yes, I’d be absolutely delighted to do that. Thank you.

I'd like to second and concur with everything that the Member for Newport West has just said. I think Newport castle has always been overlooked and undervalued as a site and it adds to a very interesting history of Newport once you start delving into it. So, it's something that we should all be proud of and celebrate and promote better. So, I welcome what you said too, Deputy Minister.

Our region and Wales are home to a number of UNESCO world heritage sites. I'm just wondering what steps the Government is taking to encourage more residents, and tourists of course, to visit these wonderful places.

13:35

Thank you, Laura Anne Jones, for that supplementary. Generally, the encouragement to visit sites is part of the core work of Cadw, in promoting access to the sites, promoting the sites that are in the custody of Cadw—and not just Cadw, but our historic sites more generally. But certainly through Cadw's website you will find that promotion, and it's something that is now part of the Visit Wales strategy, around attracting tourists to Wales and making heritage sites part of the significant and unique tourism offer that Wales has to offer.

The Mid Wales Growth Deal

2. Will the Minister provide an update on the mid Wales growth deal? OQ60109

Thank you. We have released the first tranche of funding to the growth deal. This is a crucial milestone and an important step forward, signalling to investors that the deal is entering its early delivery phase. This should act as a catalyst to secure further investment, which will contribute to economic prosperity in the region.

Thank you for your answer, First Minister. I am delighted that progress has been made on the mid Wales growth deal. It's been a long time coming, and it's taken a considerable amount of time to get to the point it has, but I very much welcome the progress that's been made. You'll be aware, Minister, of the significant funding through the UK Government's levelling-up fund that's been awarded for the restoration of the Montgomery canal project, and I certainly hope that the Montgomery canal restoration project will improve that tourism offer. Now, through the mid Wales growth deal, I hope additional funding can be levied as well, because this is a key project in the mid Wales growth deal—a project, of course, as a partnership between the Welsh and the UK Governments. But what I specifically want to ask, Minister, is, in terms of that investment into my constituency through the growth deal, how the Welsh Government can then lever in further private investment, and what it is doing to facilitate and encourage private sector support on the back of that taxpayer-funded incentive through various projects. I think, for example, of the Montgomery canal—the opportunities that that can bring to the private sector in enhancing the investment that the Welsh Government is bringing.

I think the Member makes two important and distinct points. The first is around the levelling-up fund. There are a range of projects that, individually, people will want to support. But the levelling-up fund, and the way it was actually delivered, does not take away from the budget reductions overall, and it's not a partnership—it was not agreed in partnership with us or, indeed, with local authorities. The growth deal, in contrast, is a partnership, where the Welsh Government and the UK Government have co-funded to put that money in, and working together with local authorities to make sure there is a plan for how to do that. And it's important, as I think you get more from that partnership, where people do sit down and work together. And I think that, when you look at what they're looking to do—. They're looking to create up to 1,400 new jobs over the next 10 years or so, but, crucially, that money, as the Member has made clear, is to secure an additional investment from the private sector, to lever in additional investment. The target that the mid Wales growth deal has is to try to secure a further £400 million over the next 10 years or so. Now, I think that, whilst they started later than other parts of Wales, despite the fact there's been an election and a change in the leadership of both local authorities, they're both committed to the growth deal, and I think everyone, regardless of party, should have some confidence that they're entering the delivery phase. And I'm optimistic that we'll be able to report not just on the release of the public funds from both the Welsh and UK Governments going into it, but I think that we can have some confidence we'll be able to report back on that investment reaching projects and helping to deliver the extra private sector investment and the jobs that we all want to see. I'd be more than happy to update the Chamber again on direct progress of the growth deal as I and the Wales Office Minister continue to work alongside the growth deal to deliver on its objectives.

Good afternoon, Minister. Thank you to Russell George for raising the issue around the mid Wales growth deal and the growth of businesses in mid Wales. One of the massive challenges we face in mid Wales is the lack of infrastructure, which means that businesses are lacking, literally, the power and the energy to be able to grow. That has an effect on them as businesses, but also on the opportunity in order to employ people as well in mid Wales. So, companies don't move in because of that particular challenge, and the projects don't develop either.

I was pleased to read in the 'Future Energy Grids for Wales' report that constructing a north-south transition link would support distribution reinforcement in mid Wales, and we should look at all the options that are before us, including the option of building a more local distributed power grid, which means that local businesses can get the energy they need. So, what we need is local power generation in mid Wales to support projects such as the one that Russell is supporting, and other mid Wales growth bids as well, but, also, we need that local power generation. So, would you be supporting that, and what would be your view on how we get more energy and more local distribution into mid Wales? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

13:40

I think it's a really important point, and, as with 'mid Wales', you could read 'other parts of the country' too. The current infrastructure we have for delivering energy to homes and to businesses isn't actually fit for the medium-term, never mind the longer term, future. So, we do require significant investment in that power infrastructure, and it will open up more economic development opportunities. Lots of the businesses of the future are actually quite power hungry. That's an opportunity for us here in Wales, and we expect we'll generate more electricity as we move away from fossil fuels progressively towards a net-zero future. 

What we need with the work that we've done on the Wales future energy grid is to actually have a plan where a UK Government, alongside the grid, are able to invest in that future, because without that significant investment and a pipeline to do so, we won't see the confidence from businesses who want to move into the sector, as well, of course, as the opportunities in delivering grid infrastructure, where Welsh businesses can be part of delivering that infrastructure itself. I recently visited Prysmian Cables & Systems Ltd in north Wales, and they're actually delivering lots of the physical cabling to help deliver those power networks. So, there's a number of different opportunities. 

What we need is a reliable partner at a UK level with some clarity of vision and a real plan to work alongside as well. And, whatever your politics, when you listen to businesses, one of their big frustrations has been the lack of a plan and the lack of certainty, and the churn in Ministers at a UK level has meant they haven't had partners to work with. We're keen that the work we have done, led by the climate change Minister, on the future grid for Wales can lead to a real plan to invest in our future in Wales, because, otherwise, we won't see the opportunities to both generate cleaner and greener power and then to be able to use it on a much more local level right across the country, including, of course, in mid Wales.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Natasha Asghar. 

Thank you so much, Presiding Officer. Minister, this week is Wales Tech Week, with a hybrid international tech summit taking place at the International Convention Centre Wales in my region of south-east Wales. I know you're fully aware of this conference, as I believe you gave a speech on Monday. There's no denying that technology is advancing at a rapid speed and can bring benefits to all areas of society. This is something I saw first-hand when I attended the world's biggest tech conference earlier this year. I came back full of ideas of how we can bring this tech benefit to Wales, and our residents, particularly when it comes to health tech—something I have raised with the health Minister previously, Minister. So, Minister, I'd be interested to know what your main takeaway points were from this conference and what we can see this Welsh Government delivering as a result.

I think the main takeaway is that we have a vibrant tech sector covering a whole range of areas. It will be even more important in the future to stay internationally relevant, but there'll be a whole range of areas in life where we're going to need to be capable in a whole range of technologies, and we have advantages where I think Wales is internationally excellent already. 

And, actually, on medtech and life science, I think we punch well above our weight as a country, and there are people who are interested in the opportunities to do more here as well. If you look at fintech, and the cyber sector as well, you've also got lots of opportunity there as well. Our challenge will be how we gather together the ambition that we have for the future, and the talent and the skills of people, so that for people who are either from Wales, or come to study in Wales, we have a home for them to actually stay here as well, and to build on the achievements that already exist as well. 

When going around the opening conference event for Wales Tech Week, I was really struck by the buzz and the international interest in what we're doing, and I had the opportunity to meet the Australian ambassador, who was visiting for Wales Tech Week, and the potential synergies for us. So, I think this is an area where there's real opportunity for the future, and, again, stability at a Welsh Government level and a UK Government level will allow us to achieve even more, with really good jobs for people right across the country.

Excellent. Thanks for that answer, Minister. Sticking with the Wales Tech Week theme for the moment, one of the big billed events was celebrating Welsh women in tech. It's absolutely right that we celebrate those women who are leading the way in this industry, which many see as a male dominated industry. A recent survey carried out of more than 500 people working in the tech sector found that 91 per cent believe that there are more men than women in tech, and a staggering 76 per cent of respondents revealed that they had experienced gender bias or discrimination in the workplace at least once. So, Minister, as I said, it's absolutely right that we do celebrate those women already in the tech industry, but I'd be interested to know what action the Welsh Government is specifically taking to attract more women to the sector in the first place.

13:45

We do a number of things and, actually, you are right that it is still a sector where you're likely to find more men than women. That isn't how talent is distributed. It isn't how a desire to achieve is distributed either. So, there's a challenge about shifting working culture. Some parts of the tech sector are better at it than others. To make sure you continue to see that change, there's a need to both visibly promote the leadership that exists—. The chair of FinTech Wales, for example, is a woman who helped to set up Starling Bank here in Wales. So, you've got visible leadership there from different figures. What we also need to do, and what FinTech is a really good example of, is the way that they engage with people at a younger age, so not just post 16 and at university, but throughout a school career. The top end of primary school and into early high school are really important times to show that there are good careers to be had and, actually, it's a sector that often thrives on its diversity. If you look at west coast America, they are proud of the fact they're very diverse and they talk about it as a business strength.

The really good news yesterday that PwC are going to invest at least 1,000 extra jobs here, in and around Cardiff, is really good news, and that is a business that prides itself on where it falls within the diversity index of major businesses. They see diversity as a strength and we have lots of that to offer here. It's about making sure people understand there really is a career for them. That's not just young people themselves; it's often people of my age and younger—I recognise I'm getting older with every day—but, actually, a parental generation, to understand there are really good jobs to have here that they may not have recognised, certainly for people of my age and a bit older. But, actually, it's a really, really good opportunity.

Thanks, Minister, for the answer. Minister, several towns up and down the country have become smart towns. These digital infrastructure projects see different types of electronic methods and sensors used to collect data, which then, in turn, help shape assets, resources and services to boost town centres. The overarching aim is to regenerate our high streets and futureproof them, something that I'm sure everyone in this Chamber will want to see. I must admit, Minister, it's a project that has really fascinated and intrigued me as shadow Minister for technology. And I'd be interested to know, Minister, in your opinion, what your thoughts are on smart towns: have they proved successful and will we be seeing more roll-out of this happening in the future across Wales?

I hope we will, because technology is going to become more and more a part of everyday life. I see it with my own son, the way he thinks about technology and answers. He's regularly bemused when I explain that things he takes for granted just didn't exist when I was his age. Every now and again, when he says, 'In the olden days when you were my age', it's a bit painful, but there we are.

When you look at what we're looking to do, transforming towns and the funding that's gone in there, a lot of that is about how you understand footfall, using technology to understand that, using technology to actually improve people's experience when they're going through a town centre as well. So, I don't think this has to be a threat to the high street and, actually, when the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership and I were meeting with the retail sector yesterday, to take forward the retail action plan, how you make better use of technology and skills is part of what will, I think, deliver us a viable future for our high streets in towns, villages and city centres as well. So, I think we're definitely going to be seeing more of this not less of it, and it's how we make sure we take advantage of the future that's coming, rather than trying to stick our finger in the dyke and thinking it isn't going to happen and that you can hold that wall back. That will, actually, I think, be a road to decline for our town centres, not the future we want for them. 

Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Heledd Fychan. To be answered by the Deputy Minister. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Over the past decade, both the National Library of Wales and Amgueddfa Cymru have written to Welsh Government and the culture committee to warn of the risks to national collections because of budgetary constraints. Both the committee and I have raised this with you since you became Deputy Minister on a number of occasions. What steps have you personally taken to ensure our national collections are safeguarded?

Well, thank you, Heledd, for that question. I have regular conversations with both the library and the museum, as you would expect. They are arm's-length bodies, so I meet with them on a regular basis. And the conversations that I've had with them about safeguarding the collections have primarily been around the maintenance of the buildings, and fire security in the case of the library. So, it has not been so much an issue around the security of collections from theft or the like, it's been more about being worried that if building maintenance is not done correctly, then collections can suffer from water ingress, and so on. And as I say, in the case of the library, they were particularly concerned about fire security.

Now, in the last budgetary round, we allocated nearly £5 million of capital money to the national museum specifically for the purpose of building maintenance and part of that would be helping to secure the collections. And for the library, we also allocated money for them to introduce a new fire security system, which they are now in the process of doing. And in my recent conversations with them, they've both indicated that they have no further concerns around the securities of their collections. In terms of security around collections being stolen or mislaid, and so on—I don't know whether you were talking about that—I've had various conversations with them about that as well.

13:50

Many thanks. It would be worth perhaps having another conversation, because I've had correspondence with the national library over the past week, and if I can quote in Welsh—and it's in relation to further budgetary cuts, if there are any:

'The risk to our documentary heritage will increase substantially, mainly through the loss of a number of jobs that maintain these collections, and our inability to safeguard the library building. There has never been such a threat to our collections.'

So, the national library are saying that there's never been a greater risk to our collections, and this is something that they have communicated as well. So, we all know, and can remember, I'm sure, the National Museum of Brazil in 2018 when there was that horrific fire, where 20 million items from collections and artefacts were lost, and that was because of a faultily installed air conditioning unit. I'm fully aware that both the national library and Amgueddfa Cymru have told the committee that they are concerned. So, can I ask again: you've said that there's no risk, on what basis do you say that there's no risk when we're told otherwise?

To be absolutely clear, Heledd, what I'm saying: I'm not saying that there is no risk, I'm telling you what the museum and the library have said to me. I met with the library. I'd be interested to see the correspondence that you've had with the library, because I have my regular meetings with the library—the chair and the chief executive—and the most recent of those meetings was last week, and I specifically asked them about their concerns for the security of their collections and they told me quite explicitly that they have no current concerns for their collections. Now, I can only tell you what they tell me. If they're telling you something different, I'd like to know why that is.

Economic Resilience and Reconstruction

3. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's economic resilience and reconstruction mission? OQ60090

Prynhawn da. We are working across Government to deliver upon our economic mission aims of a fairer, greener and more prosperous Wales. I will be making a further statement on 28 November that will outline a renewed set of priority areas to reflect the current economic climate.

Thank you very much, Minister. That's great to hear. And can I just thank you for coming to Clwyd South recently, to Kronospan, where we met with the Wrexham industrial alliance? I think we had an extremely constructive and productive discussion about the economy and about infrastructure matters as well, connected to economic growth. Minister, you've given an outline of the time frame for when you'll be updating the mission, but can you give us a flavour of what we should expect from it?

What I think you should expect from the renewed mission is a refresh that takes account of what's happened in the last few years. Now, we've had a very difficult time, both post pandemic and more than that, with 13 years of austerity and falls in living standards—they're real challenges for businesses—and there's still the long tail of Liz Truss's time in Government. The autumn statement will be delivered about a week before. So, what we're going to try to do is set out the challenges that we have—you know, 13 years of economic vandalism with the Tories, but we still, despite that, will have real opportunities for growth and progress as well. And what I want to be able to do, in refreshing the mission, is to set out what we are looking to do alongside businesses and trade unions to try to grow the economy for Wales, and what we could do if we had a reliable partner in the UK Government to work with, instead of the challenges that we continue to face. So, it'll recognise the honesty of the challenge, but also, I hope, set a renewed path for what we can do in Wales to grow the economy with the good jobs that all of us want to see for people right across the country.

The previous speaker was the previous economy Minister, and he announced an economic resilience mission from the Welsh Government and that put extra money into the Development Bank of Wales, £250 million, pushing the flexible investment fund up to £500 million. I've spoken to businesses that say they are struggling to access this fund, so what I'd like to know from you, Minister, is: can you confirm today how many businesses have accessed this scheme, and what promotion has the Welsh Government done to highlight this to businesses across the country, to make sure we have more economic resilience across our business community here in Wales?

13:55

I think the Development Bank of Wales has been a real success story in terms of filling a gap that existed and I will happily—happily—write to the Member and publish the number of businesses that have been supported by the development bank. In every single region and every single constituency across Wales, there are people who would not have found the support that the development bank has provided. If the Member has businesses who have found it hard to access the development bank, I'd be very interested to hear the individual examples to understand what's happened. There's always a point of learning where something doesn't work, to understand how that happens, but, overall, the development bank is a definite success. You can see that from regions of England and, indeed, the Federation of Small Businesses in England who want something like the development bank in regions of England as well, to fill a gap that exists within the market.

There's always more we could do, of course, but I think we can be proud of what the development bank has done, for example, the green business loan scheme. There's a lot of demand that has gone into it, a product that has come because we have a bank to work with here that is interested in developing, interested in developing Welsh businesses and in dealing with the mission that this Government has set as well. So, I look forward to writing to the Member and setting out in great detail what the development bank has done to support businesses within his own constituency.

Minister, Grŵp Llandrillo Menai will soon be opening up a new building focused on developing engineering skills in Rhyl. The centre will include a section for the RWE wind turbine apprentices, and this fantastic new £30 million development has been funded by the group, supported with a 65 per cent contribution from the Welsh Government's sustainable communities for learning fund. How important is such a development for the economy of Rhyl and the surrounding area? 

I'm really delighted the Member has raised the significant investment that has taken place here. It's an investment in the future, an investment in a part of Wales where I think that you can look at what will happen in the economy of the future, you can look at the opportunities around renewable energy and the power supply we heard about earlier. But this means we're equipping those people with the skills and the facilities to do just that. It will mean working with local, national and international companies as well.

I think there's something about raising a sense of ambition as well, about demonstrating that communities in Rhyl deserve this investment, it's been delivered by this Government, and there should be good jobs for people to have as a result of that partnership we have with both the further education college and, indeed, businesses in the area. I am very optimistic about what that centre will do, and I look forward to visiting, to meet people who are actually now making use of that facility and the businesses they're going to go and work for in the future.

Economic Growth in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

4. What action is the Welsh Government taking to encourage economic growth in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OQ60107

Thank you. Our economic mission sets out clearly the values and priorities that shape decisions that we are taking to help grow our economy across the whole of Wales. An excellent example in south-west Wales is the Swansea bay city deal, a £1.2 billion investment with the aim of creating 9,000 new jobs.

Minister, you'll be well aware of my interest in free ports, namely the Celtic free port in my constituency, an economic policy that could directly improve Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales and Wales as a whole. Their benefits are well versed: an estimated 20,000 jobs and up to £4.9 billion in both public and private investments could be seen across Wales. Again, I'll take the opportunity to congratulate both the Welsh Government and the UK Government for working together to deliver this policy so far, a model that I think could be replicated, as collaboration is always better than conflict. But with reports stating that in the Chancellor's autumn statement there is likely to be an extension of English free ports to 2031, what representations has the Welsh Government made to the UK Treasury to ensure parity between Welsh and English free ports, so that the benefits, especially those benefits around tax relief, can be seen for greater and longer periods? Diolch, Llywydd.

I thank the Member for his question. Of course, we had an opportunity to talk about free ports when I was at the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee last week, and we're getting to the stage where the outline business case should be with us towards the end of next month. I’m looking forward to both those business cases—for the Celtic free port and the Ynys Môn free port as well. I think the point you make around parity is an important one, and it was part of the challenge in the difficult phase of getting to a free port where the two Governments weren’t agreeing, because part of our concern was not having parity on the investment and what would go around the free port. The agreement that we reached—and I’m pleased that we’ve reached it, because I agree with you that collaboration is better than conflict—meant that we had parity on the investment.

I have, though, raised the issue of what might happen if there was a change in reliefs for free ports in England. I had a meeting with the Secretary of State for levelling-up and the Secretary of State for Wales last week, and I raised this during that meeting—that if there were to be a change, we’d want parity for Welsh free ports. There shouldn’t be a differential offer with a less advantageous proposition for free ports in Wales for us to deliver on the potential benefits they could have. I look forward to providing a further update on our assessment of the outline business case once we receive it. That will probably be into the new year. There’ll be a joint assessment again with officials from the UK Government and I’m keen to see the real opportunities for a free port taken up with good and sustainable jobs right across south-west Wales and beyond.

14:00
Supporting Small Businesses

5. Will the Minister provide an update on the support available to small businesses in South Wales Central? OQ60123

Thank you for the question.

Our Business Wales service provides entrepreneurs and businesses with access to a wide range of information, guidance and support, both financial and non-financial, to support small businesses across Wales.

I’m sure you’ll be very, very aware of the huge challenges a number of our small businesses are facing as a result of inflation and also specifically energy costs as well. We know of a number of businesses that are now warning that they just cannot continue, or are closing, which will have a massive impact. Specifically, though, there are some schemes that are being funded by the Welsh Government at the moment that are impacting some small businesses in my region. I'm thinking of Ton Pentre and Treorchy businesses in particular, because of all the Transport for Wales work going on, and some roadworks and so on. It has had a massive impact on these smaller businesses, resulting in lower footfall and so on, people not able to reach appointments—the same is true in Hirwaun, with all of the roadworks currently—people taking their dogs to be groomed elsewhere et cetera, but having a massive impact on the small businesses. I understand there is no compensation scheme available for those businesses, but what support, perhaps, is available from the Welsh Government, given it is, in fact, investment in this area that is creating difficulties for these small businesses?

When you invest in an area, there is often some disruption, and then you will ultimately get a better environment once the investment has been delivered. If there are businesses with specific challenges, then they could and should approach Business Wales, and we may be able to help them, together with the local authority. I actually think that Rhondda Cynon Taf local authority is quite proactive in wanting to help businesses as well. Today, there’s a jobs fair that RCT are taking a lead on, together with Business Wales and the Department for Work and Pensions, looking at opportunities for jobs for people. That’s targeted in particular at those people who have been made redundant at UK Windows & Doors. But I would want to see what we can do together, working with the local authority, to understand how we can help support businesses in a practical way. So, if the Member wants to write to me with businesses that have been in touch with her, I’d be happy to try to make sure there’s a co-ordinated response.

As the Minister will be aware, this week is Business Finance Week, hosted by the British Business Bank, of which Business Wales is a supporting member. I’m pleased to see there are a number of events being hosted in Wales, and a large proportion of these are virtual, which will mean that they’re also available to small businesses and can help them to understand financing and the options accessible to them as well. Whilst these training and financing options are available, unfortunately it doesn’t necessarily follow that Welsh small businesses are predominantly successful in applying for this funding. With this in mind, Minister, what assessment has the Welsh Government made of the success rate of small businesses in accessing funding, and what current trends have you identified as the type and amount of funding that is being accessed by small businesses in South Wales Central and the wider country? Thank you.

I think that's a really broad question, given the whole range of different financial institutions that are engaged, because you can gain that support from a whole range of different people, from high-street banks to challenger banks to angel investors to the British Business Bank, potentially the Development Bank of Wales, and beyond. I think it would be more helpful if there was more focus in the areas in which the Member is asking for that access to finance. We do talk, though, to all of the major financial institutions, and, indeed, to business organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses, around the challenge of access to finance.

One of the big challenges, of course, is that in the last year or so, access to finance has got more expensive. If you were looking to invest in your business more than a year ago, you would have found an interest rate of between 2 and 3-and-a-bit per cent. After the events of a year ago and the budget that was then reversed, the cost of business loans, as well as loans for home owners, has increased significantly and permanently. And the increase to more like 6 per cent plus makes a really big difference for businesses about their willingness to take on loans and debt and what that means and their ability to pay it back. So, when we talk about the permanent damage done by the Truss Government, it's there and it's real, and small businesses know it. 

I should say, though, on the positive front, the Development Bank of Wales and the British Business Bank are undertaking more work together to try to make sure that their own interventions complement each other, rather than contradicting each other. And I was very pleased to see the British Business Bank having a stand at Wales Tech Week, because I think there are many opportunities to carry on investing in that sector of our economy.

14:05
A Net-zero Economy

6. What discussions has the Minister had with the UK Government regarding a just transition to a net-zero economy in Wales? OQ60091

Thank you for the question. The Welsh Government continues to promote a just transition to net zero, including the promotion of the requisite training and infrastructure. Given the importance of the UK Government powers that they hold in the delivery of this, it is essential that they engage fully with the Welsh Government. There is no doubt that not having an inter-ministerial meeting for over 10 months, and the lack of engagement, for example, from the UK Government regarding Tata, is far from ideal. I will, however, be making these views clear when the transition board for Tata meets, which I will be taking part in.  

I thank the Minister for that response and for mentioning Tata as well, but I want to focus on something else, because flip-flopping on a UK level on a clear trajectory to net zero has real implications for green growth and for green jobs as well, and that just transition. So, moving the goalposts on things like electrical vehicles, on heat pump regulations at short notice with no consultation, the frequent changes around energy efficiency—the green deal, the green homes grant, and so on—and the recent failure of the offshore auction with the contracts for difference shows just what this does to investor confidence.

In fact, the Government's own independent review of net zero, which is on their website, gave a firm warning against a stop-start approach to net zero policy. It said that sudden policy changes reduce investor and developer confidence, increase the cost of capital and the overall cost of decarbonisation. There isn't a single friend of the Government on this, Minister. The Institute for Public Policy Research says that it's bad for consumers, bad for the economy, it derails the UK's net zero 2050 ambition, which we play a part in, and it's likely to be unpopular with the public as well, who are actually supportive of decarbonisation. So, Minister, how on earth do we get back to a place where not only Wales, not only the devolved nations and not only the great city metropolises like Manchester and so on, but the UK Government understands that to create green jobs, you give certainty to investors and you create those foundational economy jobs in every single community across the land? Where have they gone wrong?

I think they've gone wrong by not doing what the Member said at the end: providing certainty—a plan for the future and the consistency that that allows other people to plan around it, the skills you need. A consistent target and a consistent ambition is essential to do that, and the certainty for business investors as well. If you think about Rishi Sunak's recent announcement on shifting a whole range of goalposts, it isn't just the Climate Change Committee who said, 'There is no plan to undo the damage that has been done', but actually the auto industry, and there are a range of different voices. You'll have heard very clearly Ford and others saying that, actually, they're going to carry on with their investment and it's undone all of the certainty they had. They've looked to invest in reaching something by 2030, and now they have to consider, 'Is that certain, can we believe you?' And all, of course, with only about a year or so at most for the current Government to run at a UK level. 

The contracts for difference round, I think, is an even bigger problem. This is where you can actually support new renewables, essentially, as well to get into the market with demonstrator products especially. And that isn't what happened on floating offshore wind. Not a single floating offshore wind provider bid in for that round, and they had told the UK Government loud and clear that they would not do so. There are bigger incentives on offer in other parts of Europe, on our doorstep. They don't have to build things here. The danger is that we could lose the advantage we potentially have if there isn't a more grown-up, joined-up and certain approach to that investment. The UK Government do have an opportunity to put this right, actually, within this year, and I would urge them to do so. Otherwise, we risk not seeing the economic benefits that should come to us, in addition to our path to genuine net zero, where a just transition is something we could and should achieve. I fear, though, it will take a change of Government before that is possible.

14:10

Last week, California was awarded up to £1.2 billion from the United States Department of Energy to build and expand projects focused on clean energy, with the ultimate goal of achieving a net-zero-carbon economy by 2045. The seven US hydrogen hubs deliver £7 billion of Government investment, £40 billion of private investment, hundreds of thousands of high-quality jobs, and 25 million tonnes of carbon dioxide savings. During the recent World Hydrogen Week, the experts were clear that the Welsh Government need to speed up and scale up support for hydrogen in Wales. So, will you follow the lead of the USA, working with the Minister for Climate Change, by driving forward a transition to a net-zero economy by working to make Wales one big hydrogen hub?

I'm very keen to see more investment in hydrogen, and actually the north Wales growth deal has indicated its support for the Holyhead hydrogen hub. We want to see that right across north Wales, and indeed in south Wales too. But for this to happen, it will require real UK Government investment. You can't create the hydrogen networks required without UK investment, and that is what is lacking. It's fascinating that the Member has pointed out to what is happening in the United States. That is happening because the US Government has actually introduced a significant and sustained investment in the future. Over $500 billion is being invested in the United States in future technologies. You won't see anything of that scale in the UK. It's the lack of ambition and the lack of awareness, and without that investment we won't deliver the sort of future we could do with all of the natural advantages we have. I want to see us being able to do that. I want a reliable partner within the UK Government for us to work with, and I want the sort of investment and the scale of it required to deliver the future we could have, the Wales we want, and the UK we could have as well, with the sort of green, high-quality jobs that would come from it.

Supporting Businesses in Blaenau Gwent

7. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government support for businesses in Blaenau Gwent? OQ60103

Thank you. There is an extensive range of support available for businesses in Blaenau Gwent through our Business Wales service. We also work with partners to support Blaenau Gwent businesses in a range of ways. The includes our business productivity enhancement programme, which is making a real difference to local companies within Blaenau Gwent.

It's the business productivity enhancement programme that I wanted to ask you about this afternoon, Minister. Yesterday, in a statement on regional economies, I thought you were very clear in terms of how the Welsh Government wanted to invest in the economy of Blaenau Gwent and the Heads of the Valleys, to ensure that we maximise the value of the A465 dualling project. But that also means investing in people and investing in businesses. The £1.6 million that the Welsh Government has invested in 12 businesses in Blaenau Gwent—I believe you've now extended it beyond the borough, because of its success—has meant that we've got new skills, which lead to increased wages. We have new technology and new products, delivering for businesses within the borough. This provides not only the connectivity through the dualling project, but investment in the future of those businesses, and I know those businesses are very grateful to the Welsh Government for that investment. That was delivered through Tech Valleys and through European Union funding. What that was investing in was our future economy. How, now, Minister, will you be able to build on that programme to ensure that we can continue to maximise Welsh Government support for businesses within the borough and ensure that we continue to invest in the economic future of Blaenau Gwent and the rest of the Heads of the Valleys?

It's part of what we want to do, working with corporate joint committees, working with growth deals as well, to make sure we're not simply looking at growth, for example, in the capital region that takes place south of the M4. It's part of the conversation that I signalled yesterday in my written statement as well, to make sure there is significant effort on Valleys economic development, and the business productivity enhancement programme is a good example of that. Targeted investment with 12 different businesses has made a real difference to them, and 83 per cent of them have seen improvements in productivity—something that we've discussed before that is key to the future of economic development and prosperity. In all the difficult choices that we have to make and that I have to make as a Minister in the next budget round, I am keen that we continue to invest in skills and in businesses to make sure that there are good jobs with a real future, and we help those people to gain more from their world of work—not simply the time, not simply longer hours, but greater value, greater productivity. And I think we have an example of how to do that with the programme you've highlighted today.

14:15
The Wales Business Fund

8. Will the Minister make a statement on the operation of the Wales business fund? OQ60102

The Wales business fund, managed by the Development Bank of Wales, provides loans and makes equity investments into businesses. The greater part of the capital being deployed through this fund, £186 million, was from former EU funding from the European regional development fund, which comes to an end in December of this year.

Thank you for that response, Minister.

The Wales business fund, of course, as the Minister mentioned, is coming into its final term, ending at the end of this year, and with those EU funds disappearing as well, it's of course coming to an end. I have noted that, as of September of this year, there was £19 million left in the fund. It's crucial, of course, that we spend the money within this fund. Therefore, what plans are there to spend this in full before the investment end date in December? And has the Minister given any thought to any potential successor fund as well?

Yes, I'm confident that we will be able to use all of the investment that’s been placed into the current fund. We've actually been acting to fill some of the gap, and this has been the really difficult challenge. So, it's a matter of fact, not opinion, that we're over £1 billion worse off because of the way that former EU funds have been managed. The replacements that have been provided do not fully replace what we had. That means we are at risk of not being able to deliver on all of our programmes.

I made a choice, not just to protect some services like Business Wales, like the investment we're trying to make in apprenticeships and skills, but it also meant that we've put extra funds into the Wales flexible investment fund—a different fund, but to make sure that we're able to have support for businesses through the development bank itself. Now, that means I can't spend that money somewhere else, but I'm convinced we'll carry on seeing a real return for those businesses and for the jobs that they will provide for people exactly in the way we're talking about in the previous question with Alun Davies, to make sure we're supporting a business environment and supporting really good jobs for the future. So, I hope it gives the Member some confidence, both about the fund that it's having its investment come to an end because former EU funds will come to an end, but also we're continuing to see what we can do with the development bank to make sure there is real support for jobs and businesses right across the country.

2. Questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services

The next item, therefore, will be the questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services. The first question is from Andrew R.T. Davies.

Kidney Dialysis Services

1. Will the Minister make a statement on the provision of kidney dialysis services for the residents of South Wales Central? OQ60114

Diolch yn fawr. The Welsh Kidney Network commission renal services in Wales, with Cardiff and Vale University Health Board providing renal services in south-east Wales. Treatment and support for people with kidney disease should be provided as close to home as possible, with home dialysis being a first choice if kidney transplant is not possible.

Thank you, Minister, for your answer. I've been approached by some constituents because, in the western part of the Vale, many patients are referred to the Princess of Wales Hospital where kidney dialysis, as I understand it at the moment, does not happen. It is the intention, as I understand it, for the health board to commence dialysis services, either on that site or at a site to be identified within the Bridgend area. Could you update me today so I can update my constituents as progress is being made to commission these services? And do you have a start date when those services will commence in the Bridgend area, because, at the moment, constituents are having to travel to Swansea to receive the dialysis treatment that they require for their kidney complaint?

Thanks very much. What we know is that kidney disease affects about 6 to 8 per cent of the Welsh population. What I can tell you is that there are several examples of increased capacity in South Wales Central recently. Three new dialysis stations opened in Merthyr, in April 2023. Initial pilots in Cardiff South and Pontypool opened last week. And in summer, so summer 2024, two new dialysis units will be opened—one in Bridgend and one in Neath Porth Talbot—and they'll be providing 21 new stations in the one that you're interested in in Bridgend.

Community Health Provision

2. Will the Minister make a statement on community health provision in the Vale of Clwyd? OQ60106

In line with 'A Healthier Wales', I expect people to have access to an increasingly wide range of health services in their communities. Services are integrated with local authority and third sector services designed to support people to stay well, and live independently at home for as long as possible.

14:20

Thank you very much for your response, Minister, but I can't help feeling a sense of profound melancholy when trying to project the need of enhanced community health provision in Denbighshire, particularly with the attitude you've previously displayed in discussions in times gone by on this matter.

As I've previously mentioned to you in this Senedd Chamber, I've been conducting a programme of care home visits in the Vale of Clwyd to look for common themes and issues affecting the most vulnerable people in my constituency, and the common theme that keeps being raised is the chronic understaffing of care homes, particularly in Rhyl and Prestatyn, due to the lack of career scope, training, and low pay, which makes the sector uninviting for prospective candidates to be recruited by respected care home owners. And the bottom line is that we have a health and social care crisis, not only in my constituency, but across Wales. So, can the Minister outline her assessment of the current health and social care crisis affecting the people of the Vale of Clwyd and across Wales, and what steps she and the Welsh Government are taking to address this issue and make careers in health and social care more attractive, to act as a remedy to the chronic waiting times and bedblocking under this Labour Government?

Well, thanks very much. What you know is that, actually, it's one of the priorities of the Labour Government in Wales: we introduced the real living wage, and it was not an insignificant amount of money for us to invest in what we know is a very challenged sector. I'm very pleased that we were able to do that. Of course, since then, we've seen inflation have an impact on lots of people and, actually, the fact that lots of people have left from eastern Europe has also put pressure on the service because, actually, the numbers leaving, for example, from eastern Europe, have left gaps in other sectors, so lots of care workers have gone to work in those alternative sectors in relation to hospitality and other areas. So, we are very aware, and I know my colleague Julie Morgan has worked consistently on this issue. We've got a framework that's being developed, a national framework in relation to care that puts in place the need for registration and ability to progress within the care sector. And what you'll also be aware of is that, actually, we've got a fund, a £144 million fund, to integrate health and care, and that, of course, is something that we provide on an annual basis.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

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

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, I heard the exchange yesterday in First Minister's questions between the First Minister and the leader of the opposition with regard to calls from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine to publish NHS data on emergency department times without the application of breach exemptions. Now, Minister, what I want to understand is—. As I understand it, you stop the clock, as I understand it, for clinical exemptions. So, essentially, we're stopping the clock for those that are waiting in accident and emergency departments, and therefore the number of hours spent in an emergency department is misleading. Now, the royal college claims that you are the only Government in the UK to count in this way. Now, in the past, you've told me in response to questions, 'Of course, in Wales, we count very differently. I think we're more honest with the public in Wales.' So, Minister, do you think that you record data in a transparent way in terms of the length of time that people spend waiting in an A&E department, and why don't you want to know and publish the true picture of how long patients are waiting in A&E departments in Wales?

Well, you can continue to trot out something that is fundamentally wrong, if you'd like, but the fact is that we have made it absolutely clear to health boards that breach exemptions should not be excluded from published emergency department statistics, and we have had assurances from all the relevant health boards, which have assured us that that is indeed the case. Now, you can keep on banging on about this story. The fact is, there is no truth to the allegation that we miscount. It's very important, I think, that people understand that this was something that we have looked at in detail, and we have been reassured by health boards that we count and that those numbers should not be excluded from emergency department statistics. And another thing I think is important for you to note is that, in terms of the Office for National Statistics, they have said that Wales's statistics and the way we count are comparable to all major emergency departments. The way we count is very similar to the way that England counts.

14:25

Minister, I'm sorry, but you are not being transparent. I stand by what I said earlier on my questions to you. The royal college are calling for you, as the last Government in the UK, to change the way that you are counting. You are not counting accurately so the health service can properly plan. You need to have accurate data in terms of how long people are waiting in A&E departments, especially as we plan for the winter, and that is absolutely crucial. Now, this is the question, Minister, in response to what you've said today: can you explain the difference between performance data in responses provided by health boards to the royal college and the emergency department performance data published by the Welsh Government, because they vary greatly? Can you explain that, Minister?

What I can tell you is that the question that was asked by the royal college, in its wording, was flawed. They made an assumption that data did not include patients who had breached the exemptions. The fact is that that is not the case. So, they made an assumption, when they got the response, they added those on top. It was incorrect in the way they did it. I am more than happy for an independent person to come in to analyse our data, because I stand by our data; we have looked at this in detail. You can keep on asking questions about it, but I am more than happy to be transparent about this. And the ONS has stood by us and said that, actually, the way we count our data is very similar to the way that they do so in England.

Well, thank you, Minister, for giving me permission to ask questions during spokespersons' question times. This is a fundamental question. You've not address the specific question I asked, Minister, so I will ask again. I'll ask you again—you can say I can keep asking. I want to know the answer, that's what I want to know. Can you explain the difference—it's not a difficult question—between the performance data in responses provided by health boards to the royal college and the emergency department performance data published by the Welsh Government? The two vary considerably, and it is important that we have that response to it. Now, you've said you've looked at this very accurately, with your officials, so why can you not provide an answer to my question today?

I just have provided you with an answer. I told you that the question that was asked by the royal college was fundamentally flawed. That was the problem. The question they asked was fundamentally flawed. It said—. The question they asked was: the data include the patients that were removed from the published data, due to breach exemptions. They made an assumption that they were excluded. They were not.

Diolch, Llywydd. I'll follow on from Russell George's questions, if I may. And following that response from the Minister, the Minister and the Government have tried to frame the debate around A&E waiting times and breach exemptions as a matter of presentational semantics. This is intentional to distract from the real issue—the breach exemption policy itself is simply not fit for purpose. Wales, as we've been told, is the only constituent part of the UK that continues with this policy, and the policy is leading to suboptimal outcomes for NHS staff and patients. If the clock is stopped when recording the duration of patients' emergency care, for whatever reason listed in the breach exemption guidelines, the policy doesn't alter the fact that they remain in A&E, with the resourcing and capacity implications that this entails. This is compromising the ability of emergency services to plan and manage their resources. But concerns have been expressed for many years about this policy, and the Government has repeatedly refused to listen. So, to change tack a little from what Russell George was asking there: what is the Minister's rationale for continuing with this policy, against the express advice of healthcare professionals working in emergency departments?

So, it was the consultants and the clinicians themselves who asked us to introduce a mechanism through which they would not have to run against the clock. It was they themselves who wanted us to introduce that. So, we were complying with what they asked us to do back in 2011. Now, as you will see in the statement that I put out yesterday, we are actively engaging clinical leaders and service users on how we can improve the quality of care in emergency departments and this includes exploring more meaningful ways of measuring patient experience and outcomes.

14:30

The Minister says that the consultants and clinicians were asking back in 2010-11 for this to be introduced, but, since then, 82 per cent of clinicians have said that they oppose this policy of breach exemptions. The fact that the Welsh Government is sticking with the policy, in contrast with other UK nation, implies that the Government believes that the policy can actually ease A&E waiting times. But, since being introduced in 2011, this simply hasn’t materialised. In August 2011, 8.8 per cent of Welsh patients were waiting more than four hours in A&E. In August 2023, which is the latest month for which we’ve got data, that figure was 31 per cent. In August 2011, 1.7 per cent of Welsh patients were waiting longer than eight hours in A&E. In August 2023, that figure was 17.4 per cent. In April 2013, which is the earliest point for available data on the 12-hour waiting times, 2.7 per cent were waiting longer than 12 hours for emergency care. In August 2023, that figure was 10.9 per cent. On every metric, therefore, A&E waiting times have worsened since the policy was introduced over 10 years ago. So, how much will things have to get worse before you acknowledge that the breach exemption policy is not actually improving A&E waiting times, and will the Minister today agree to scrap that policy?

I've said in the statement yesterday that we are already exploring more meaningful ways of measuring the patient experience and outcomes and we’re happy to continue with that dialogue with the Royal College on that issue. But breach exemptions are there because clinicians quite often want, for example, to keep people in for observation and they don’t want to be pushing them out of the door in order to comply with four-hour targets or 12-hour targets, which are targets that we have set for them. But what I can tell you is that we have a whole range of measures in place to take the pressure off A&E, including the six goals programme, including the fact that we’ve introduced urgent primary care centres across the whole of Wales, and including the fact that we now have same day emergency care centres. And the fact is that the pressure on A&E has increased everywhere. We have an ageing population. We’ve just been through a pandemic. This is not something that is unique to Wales. The fact is that the pressure is intense; it will continue to be intense, which is why we’ve introduced the six goals programme.

Accident and Emergency Departments

3. What is the Government doing to ease pressure on accident and emergency departments in South Wales East? OQ60126

Our six goals for urgent and emergency care programme is supporting people to access the right care, in the right place, first time. We have made £25 million available, including £3 million to each health board, to deliver improvements to 111 online, new mental health pathways, urgent primary care centres and same day emergency care services.

Thank you for that response and I would like to go into a little more detail on that.

We all know that A&E is under incredible pressure throughout the country and we've heard questions about that from the two spokesmen just now. This creates a miserable experience, not just for patients, but also for staff who work there. I'm surprised therefore to see that the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board is proposing to reduce the opening times of two of their minor injuries units, Nevill Hall Hospital in Abergavenny and Ysbyty Ystrad Fawr in Ystrad Mynach. In the case of Ysbyty Ystrad Fawr, it's proposing making permanent what was billed as a temporary reduction of hours during COVID. Given that minor injury units are seen as a key component in a strategy to ease pressure on A&E departments, is it not a retrograde step, and will this make the Grange University Hospital an even longer and more frustrating experience for anyone visiting their A&E department and heap more pressure on the staff working there?

Well, thanks very much and it's obviously something that I know the health board has considered very seriously. But the fact is, in relation in particular to the Abergavenny minor injury unit, on average, there was one patient there overnight. Now, in these financial pressurised situations, it's very difficult to justify that on the basis of value for money. And that is one of the reasons why, certainly, they have moved to close that facility, and to move people to and encourage people to go to the new Grange hospital, where in fact we've put significant investment, and will be making significant additional investment in future years. We've put an extra £3.5 million capital funding to establish a same day emergency care centre, for example, in the Grange.

14:35

Minister, it's no secret, and you know better than anyone, that our health service is already under immense pressure, as was laid bare with the release of the data this week. With winter around the corner, it would appear things are set to get a lot worse. You mentioned the Grange, and I'm going to take the line as well: if we use it as an example, it just cannot cope with the demand of things as it stands, as I unfortunately found out first-hand when I visited the hospital with my mother with a serious health issue just a few weeks ago. Patients were left sitting around in any available space for hours on end, with staff who were doing their absolute best under the stressful circumstances—I must give them 10 out of 10—being pulled from pillar to post without any doctor in sight. Minister, this really isn't acceptable for any hospital, but especially not a hospital that's been hailed as the Government's flagship and has been open for less than three years. I understand that this is something that you did inherit, but, if this is what things are looking like at the moment, I hate to think what's looming as winter's going to be taking hold of all of us. I understand that the key issue for hospitals is the inability to discharge patients who require social care, going forward. So, Minister, I know you mentioned £3.5 million, but what additional moneys have been provided to health boards, particularly the Aneurin Bevan health board, to release the pressure in A&E? And what measures are the Welsh Government going to be taking to hold local authorities to account regarding the delivery of their statutory responsibilities?

Thanks very much. And thanks, first of all, for recognising the incredible work that staff at emergency departments undertake. I know that there's been a recent Public Health Wales survey that has demonstrated that 86 per cent of people agreed that emergency department staff treat them with kindness and respect, and I think we have absolutely got to pay tribute to those people, who are supporting people on the front line. We know that the whole system is under incredible pressure. That's why the health board has had an additional £6 million over the past two years. They have received, as I say, £3.5 million for that additional same day emergency care service in the Grange. And what's happened is about 600 patients a month have, effectively, been diverted from the emergency department, and around 75 per cent of them are avoiding admission. So, I think that's really important that we recognise that. We're expecting a submission from the health board in terms of expansion of the Grange emergency department; we're expecting a business justification case to be submitted by the end of this calendar year.

Post Brexit and post COVID, health-needed demand, as the Minister knows, has rocketed across the UK and Wales. The Aneurin Bevan University Health Board covers the most dense areas of industrial ill health, a former Objective 1 area, and of course the Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation scalic need. So, the health board has stated:

'Like every other Health Board in Wales, we are facing the biggest financial challenge we have ever experienced and are doing everything we can to make efficiency savings without compromising the safety of patients and communities'.

So, Minister, there is no doubt that one factor impacting on pressures on accident and emergency departments is patients using A&E as that first port of call, and the additional £6 million from Welsh Government, as has been stated, is welcomed, as is the multi-million pound new SDEC unit. So, my question is: what dialogue is the Welsh Government having with general practitioners, therefore, and our pharmacies and the health board itself, to ensure that coherent working model that is communicated consistently to patients and my constituents?

Thanks very much, Rhianon. You're quite right to point out the fact that we are in a very difficult situation financially at the moment, so we've got to make absolute best use of the resources that we have, we've got to try and avoid people using the emergency departments as their first port of call. And that's why we've had a comprehensive programme now of Help Us Help You—there'll be a new communications programme that will be going out very soon—so that people are aware of those alternatives. The 111 service—it's quite incredible, I think, the numbers of people using the 111 service: about 71,000 people using that, 399,000 hits on the website. So, that's an example of where, actually, a lot of people might have been going to A&E and now they're not, but only about 15 per cent are diverted from 111 and actually sent to A&E. 

We also have, of course, a very comprehensive community pharmacy system in place now, which is very different and far more advanced than it is England, and, of course, many of those now are able to prescribe. As I say, we've got the same day emergency care service, and we also have the urgent primary care services. So, all of those have come into play in the past two years, and all of that is taking pressure off the service. And I just imagine what the service might have looked like had we not put those measures in place. 

14:40
Regulatory Oversight

4. Will the Minister make a statement on the regulatory oversight of health and social care in north Wales? OQ60127

The NHS (Wales) Act 2006 consolidates a range of regulatory requirements relating to the promotion and provision of the health service in Wales. All NHS bodies must also operate within the wider legislative framework governing all UK organisations. The Regulation and Inspection of Social Care (Wales) Act 2016 governs social care.

Diolch, Weinidog. I want to highlight to you how a family, while grieving the loss of their father, have had a further exhausting battle to understand why he deteriorated so quickly when he was in care. Colin had dementia and he was getting one-to-one care. He was happy, his family were trying to arrange for a care package to have him home, but, instead, he was transferred to another care home and that one-to-one care ceased. Now, within just eight days in the new care home, his condition deteriorated until he was found collapsed. He was given naloxone, a drug administered for opiate overdoses and he made a rapid recovery. However, none of Colin's prescribed medications were actually opiate-based. Now, this begs the question of how he got opiates in his system. And the family have tried to get answers from the health board, social services, from the care home. They've been rebuffed by Care Inspectorate Wales, Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and the ombudsman, as it's not in their remit to investigate an individual case. Every door is closed for a family who just want to challenge what happened to their dad. There is no accountability and no focus on the patient. So, Minister, could you tell me where do families like Colin's go to get full accountability and answers from those involved?

Thanks very much. I think—. Look, I can't comment on an individual case, of course, but, if there is a gap in the system, we obviously need to look at that. Obviously, Social Care Wales is the social care workforce regulator in Wales, but this might not fall within their remit. Audit Wales is another avenue that they could go down, but that's more, perhaps, to do with the public sector. So, if you can write to me about that, and at least we'll make sure that there's an understanding of what system they should be going down. 

Minister, you'll be aware that regulators are only as good as the data and reporting available to them. And you'll also be aware that one of the significant issues identified in health services in north Wales in recent times has been the accuracy and transparency of data and reporting up to the board level, certainly making decision making and certainty very challenging. A recent live example of this showed itself in the £122 million fraud investigation at Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, and we've even heard again today about, at the very least, a level of confusion, perhaps, when it comes to reporting of emergency department data. So, going back to that point that regulators are only as good as the data and reporting available to them, are you confident that regulators here in Wales are receiving and working with data that is accurate?

Thanks very much. Well, look, we've got to depend on the accuracy of the data. We get that data from the health boards; they have to follow guidelines that have been set for them. Obviously, if they don't, then there are consequences. So, what's important is that those consequences are followed through, as they are being at the moment in Betsi. So, there's a huge amount of work being done to make sure that that kind of situation doesn't arise again. 

Look, I'm unhappy about, once again, the Conservatives trying to muddy the waters on the accuracy of our data that we've been given by health boards in relation to emergency departments. We are very clear that the assurances that we've been given by the health boards should be exactly those. And, as I say, independent data analysts can come in and ensure that the accuracy of that data stands up to scrutiny. 

14:45
ADHD Medication

5. What work is the Welsh Government doing to address the ongoing shortage of ADHD medication? OQ60125

The current supply disruption to ADHD medicines is expected to be resolved between October and December 2023. The medicines shortage letter issued on 27 September sets out recommended actions for health professionals to support patient care until the current supply issues are resolved.

Thank you very much, Minister. As you said, the shortage has impacted as well, apparently, the UK particularly hard, especially with Elvanse. Takeda holds a near market monopoly in this sector, with no generic forms of this drug available on the market, hence why this is causing such distress to many people across Wales. And, as we know, attention deficit disorder associations say that untreated ADHD makes focusing, remembering details and controlling impulses harder, and ADHD UK state that one in 10 men or boys with ADHD and one in four women or girls with ADHD will, at some point, try to take their own life. Yet, I am being told that there is not very much support for them at the moment as they're being put onto smaller doses to get them through whilst we have this shortage. But my main question is, Minister, as the patent for Takeda UK to make Elvanse ran out on 24 February of this year, would it be worth the Welsh Government exploring the possibility of finding funding to support Elvanse being produced here in Wales so that we never have to be dependent like this again and so that the people of Wales never have to go short on their ADHD medication again. Diolch.  

Well, thanks very much to Sarah Murphy for drawing the attention of everyone to the impact that this is having on people, and I know that it is an extremely serious situation for them. You will be aware that the supply of medicines is a responsibility of the UK Government, not the Welsh Government, and we won't be stepping into that space. It is their responsibility and we think it's right that it remains there. What I do know is that the Department of Health and Social Care has added all ADHD medications to the list of medicines that can't be exported, and that means that they will be prioritising available supplies for the UK market.

Minister, sadly medicine shortages do happen from time to time. This time it is due to increased global demand as well as manufacturing issues. Supply shortages are expected to be resolved within weeks or months, as you said. However, this is of little comfort to patients, as Sarah has said, particularly those prescribed guanfacine, which cannot be stopped suddenly. That's important in that drug. Minister, as GPs and ADHD services are being told not to start new patients on medication, how will this be managed to ensure ADHD patients receive the proper treatment as soon as possible? 

Thanks very much. Well, I'm sure you will be pleased to hear that I've published a written statement on this matter today. You're absolutely right to say that the issue here is an increase in global demand. That is what's happening here, and the consequence is that the demand exceeds the manufacturer's capacity to produce a particular medicine. Sometimes there's a disruption to the supply of raw materials and problems encountered during the manufacturing process. I think it will be important for clinicians to make decisions in terms of when it's appropriate and how it's appropriate, but they have been given guidance in terms of what they should be prescribing from the pharmacy team in the Welsh Government.    

Supporting Hospices

6. What action is the Welsh Government taking to support hospices in South Wales West? OQ60124

Taking action to support hospices continues to be a priority for this Government and a programme for government commitment. We have delivered on phase 1 of that commitment, providing an additional £2.2 million for hospices on a recurrent basis from April 2022. We are now in the third phase of that commitment.

14:50

Thank you, Minister, for the answer. We know the incredible work that hospices do right across Wales in providing comfort, dignity and genuine quality care, and I want to place on record my thanks to those involved in the hospice sector, and to Mark Isherwood as well for his work chairing the cross-party group. They also take a huge amount of pressure off our NHS, which would otherwise be under even more pressure, allowing doctors and nurses within the health service to devote more time to caring for their patients. However, after meeting with hospice providers last week here in the Senedd, they informed me they don't receive the parity of funding with the NHS that they need to adequately recruit and retain staff within the sector. It's especially concerning as, following the pandemic, fundraising activity amongst volunteers has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, placing even greater strain on hospices to provide the services that so many people rely on. So, looking ahead with an increasing elderly population and a shrinking taxable working-age population, particularly here in Wales, these pressures are only going to get worse, and they will get worse and worse over the decades to come unless serious action is taken. So, Minister, how is the Welsh Government working collaboratively with the hospice care sector to ensure that they have the tools that they need to undertake their vital work?

Thanks very much. Well, you'll be very aware of the financial pressures that you heard all about yesterday, and, obviously, that's caused partly by inflation, partly by the calamity that was inflicted on us all by Liz Truss. I think it's really important that we recognise that there is a lot of pressure on palliative care and end-of-life care. We invest £10.5 million a year in palliative care, and we've provided an additional £2.2 million recently. And, obviously, we're now working towards the third phase of the commitment to review the situation. And, of course, you'll be aware that, during the pandemic, we allocated £13.8 million of emergency funding. Everyone is under pressure as a result of inflation. I spoke to some of those people who were in the Senedd last week, very aware of the pressure they're under. You'll be aware that we're not in a position at the moment to be handing additional money out; we're in a position where we're actually looking at every single penny that we spend. So, that is going to be very, very challenging for us, but I'm very pleased that what is happening is that Dr Idris Baker is leading our assessment of end-of-life care, and we'll wait to hear what he comes up with in terms of proposals. 

Tŷ Olwen Hospice is based in Swansea East about a mile away from where I live. The specialist palliative care team based at Tŷ Olwen provides a service to Singleton, Morriston, Neath Port Talbot and outlying community hospitals. It also provides a community service to the people of Swansea and Neath Port Talbot, for which I and my constituents are very grateful. Will the Minister join with me in congratulating and thanking the volunteers who are an integral part of the work at Tŷ Olwen, and, on her next visit to Morriston Hospital, will she arrange to visit Tŷ Olwen? 

Thanks very much, Mike, and, certainly, I know last week was Hospice Care Week, and I think that was a really opportune time for people to thank the workforce and to celebrate the incredible work and difficult work that is done in hospice care. I know first-hand, from speaking to families and carers, about the importance of receiving the right support from hospice staff and volunteers in Wales. We know that good palliative care can make a huge difference to the quality of life of patients at the end of their days, and helping them to die with dignity is important. So, I'd be happy to consider a visit to Tŷ Olwen, of course, if my diary commitments allow that to happen.

Supporting Stroke Patients

7. How is the Welsh Government supporting stroke patients? OQ60098

A huge amount of work is already being undertaken across Wales to improve both access to stroke services and outcomes for people following a stroke. This is being guided by the expectations set out in our stroke quality statement.

Can I thank the Minister for that answer this afternoon and also the answers to some of my written questions on stroke this week? You'll be aware, Minister, that the first few hours are critical after any patient suffers a stroke, and I recently met with a constituent of mine, Peter Hooper, who, following a stroke, had a thrombectomy within three hours. The speed of this emergency surgery made a huge difference to Peter's life. He's now gone on to run two half marathons. Without the thrombectomy in those three hours he would have been most seriously disabled. So, he's gone on to raise the money through those half marathons, indeed, but there are still so many patients out there who are missing out on this important treatment. They could be walking out of hospital and they are being disabled or, unfortunately and very sadly, they are dead because of the lack of the service and access to this life-saving procedure. Minister, can I thank you for answers in response to my written questions, which set out in detail what the Welsh Government is doing on stroke services, but what more can you do to ensure quick access to this life-saving surgery, thrombectomy? 

14:55

Thanks very much, and it's good to hear about the incredible recovery. I had an incredible presentation last week from our leads on stroke across Wales. There is a really comprehensive programme of work that is being done. It’s not going to be switched on overnight, but there is a plan. Thrombectomy is absolutely central to that plan, and developing regional centres is important to that plan. I think we’ve got to acknowledge this is a highly specialised and skilled area. This is not going to be on every street corner in Wales. You’re going to have to have people who really know how to do this; we have to upskill people. But it is absolutely life changing, not just in terms of their quality of life, but also for the costs to their families, but also the costs to wider society, which are absolutely huge. Last week, I set out some of the projected costs for, I think, something like a 40 per cent increase in the number of people we expect to survive strokes in future. So, getting them to survive well is absolutely fundamental, and I just want to thank you for your real interest in this area.

Waunfawr Surgery

8. Will the Minister make a statement on the future of Waunfawr surgery in Arfon? OQ60097

I am aware of proposals for a new surgery in Waunfawr and of the ongoing discussions between Welsh Government officials, the health board and the regional partnership board to find an integrated solution for Waunfawr.

I had a meeting with doctors and staff at the Waunfawr surgery to discuss the delays in the development of the new surgery. They, like me, are very disappointed that there's been no progress with this plan, which, as you know, has been in the pipeline for years. It was one of the first issues that I dealt with as a Member of the new Senedd back in 2016, but things have been deteriorating rather than improving since then. The current surgery, which has 6,000 patients, is in poor condition and needs to be redeveloped. It is entirely inadequate for providing all of the services available, and often clinics have to be held in the hallway because of a lack of space. There's also a lack of space that is having an impact on the ability of the surgery to take medical students from the Bangor school of medicine for training. So, what can you as a Government do to support the development of a long-term plan, but also to respond to a situation that has deteriorated over a period of time at Waunfawr? I am truly concerned about the future of the practice and patient care across a broad area. 

Thank you. You're aware that we have a commitment in our programme for government to invest in a new generation of health and care buildings, which are integrated buildings. This is supported by the integration and rebalancing capital fund, the IRCF. I know that the health board is working with that partnership to review the proposal that came before them, and they are trying to resubmit that to the panel. The next panel will meet in December, so hopefully, through better co-operation with local partners, it will be easier for the health board and the ICRF to accept what comes before them. But what's important, I think, is to emphasise the integrated elements of the scheme, and I think that we needed to ensure that that was strengthened in what came before the board making the decision.

15:00
Care Costs

9. What discussions has the Minister had with local authorities about ending the practice of charging interest on the care costs of a relative, especially following the relative's death? OQ60095

Local authorities may apply interest on social care charges in limited circumstances, including deferred payment agreements on properties of persons in residential care, and in relation to outstanding repayments of charges after their death. It is right that authorities, covering such payments in a person’s lifetime, may levy appropriate interest.

Diolch, Dirprwy Weinidog. This issue was brought to my attention by a constituent who has been corresponding with me for a few months. Her family were assured that her grandmother's care fees would be paid through her grandmother's pension and then topped up by the local authority. The family were not allowed to care for their grandmother and she was moved from NHS care to a private care home. They're now facing care fees of over £100,000. On top of this, the council is now charging them interest on those fees. It just feels really wrong, Dirprwy Weinidog. Can you justify the reasoning for this practice, which impacts the most vulnerable, impoverished and the most bereaved in our society? Diolch yn fawr.

Well thank you, Rhys ab Owen, for that question. Under legislation local authorities have discretion to apply interest on a social care charge in some limited circumstances. The interest rate must be set in line with legal requirements and can accrue until the debt is repaid, which could be following a person's death. 

Other limited circumstances where a local authority recovers a debt for outstanding care costs, and where interest can also be applied, are also set in legislation. So, it is legal to be able to do this. And the ability of local authorities to recover interest in some situations where, for example, they have covered the full amount of a person's social care charges during their lifetime is an important part of the framework for charging, and I don't have any immediate plans to change this. The code of practice is clear that the levying of interest is to be done in order to allow such things as deferred payment agreements to operate on a cost-neutral basis, including covering such things as the administration of the agreement.

So, I'm very sorry for the situation that your constituent finds herself in, but it's clear that this is a legal thing that is able to be done, and I don't think we have any plans to change it.

Llantrisant Health Park

10. Will the Minister provide an update on the new diagnostics and treatment centre planned for Llantrisant health park? OQ60088

Cwm Taf Morgannwg UHB and its regional partners are developing the business case for the Llantrisant health park. The current forecast date for construction is 2025, with all parties looking at how this can be brought forward. Alongside this, plans are being developed to provide temporary diagnostic capacity on the site by April 2024.

Minister, you'll be please to know that I and several other local and regional MSs had a sneak preview of this development in the last few weeks. I've got to say, it's very exciting because as this rolls into being over the next months and years, they're actually bringing together specialists, consultants and their wider teams in one unit to do diagnostics and treatment that will definitely have an impact on waiting times and waiting lists.

But we don't have to wait for that. I think there are other innovations going on. And could I ask the Minister whether she's seen the results of the orthopaedic surgeon Keshav Singhal and his team in the Princess of Wales Hospital, where they are doing day surgery and then getting people home much more rapidly, without taking up in-patient beds? Well patients going home where they want to be, but also getting earlier then into recuperation and literally on their feet, so avoiding other problems such as deep-vein thrombosis or loss of mobility as well.

We can do some of these things now, these innovations, in our current structure. How do we roll these out more across hospitals throughout Wales?

Thanks very much, Huw. And I know, I've heard that lots of you have had a little sneak preview and I'm looking forward to having a sneak preview myself. So, the great thing about this is that it's very much being led by the clinical teams and this is very much a regional approach to how we're going to deal with diagnostics in future, which is fundamental to so many things, but in particular, cancer. And I'm really worried about cancer, and how we drive forward, because the number of people whom we are referring for cancer diagnostics is increasing significantly. So, the development of the three regional hubs, the first one of which is going to be in Llantrisant, is really important and really significant.

Kesh is doing incredible work, in particular in relation to orthopaedics. We need to see a significant increase in the amount of day surgery we see, in particular in relation to orthopaedics. We know that GIRFT, which is the Getting It Right First Time approach, gives chapter and verse in terms of how we should be and could be improving productivity. There's a long way to go on improving productivity in relation to orthopaedics in particular, and if you look at the number of day cases there are real opportunities for increasing that. I think GIRFT suggests it could be up to 70 per cent; we are a long way from that in Wales at the moment. I know that things are improving. We're really pleased to see, for example, in Abergele, an absolute sea change in the way that things are happening in Abergele. But we need to see that being embedded and rolled out across the whole of Wales.

15:05
3. Topical Questions

The next item will be the topical question. The question today is going to be answered by the Minister for Finance and Local Government and is to be asked by Sam Rowlands.

Denbighshire County Council

1. What discussions is the Minister having with the leader of Denbighshire County Council following his warning that the council is facing bankruptcy unless services and jobs are cut? TQ882

I work closely with local authorities to understand the pressures they face. I meet regularly with leaders, individually and through relevant groups such as the partnership council and the finance sub-group. I'm meeting the leader of Denbighshire council tomorrow and the finance sub-group on 25 October.

Thank you for your initial response, Minister. You will know, Minister, that councils and the services they provide are some of the most important in our communities, from schools and social care right through to emptying bins and filling potholes. So, clearly, it's very worrying for residents, staff and locally elected councillors when their council leader says,

'The main priority for cabinet at this point is to stop the council from going bankrupt,'

because, of course, it's trying to fill a £26 million shortfall.

So, I have a number of questions I'd like you to be able to answer this afternoon, please, Minister. The first one is: is this statement a surprise to you? If not, what have you been doing to ensure that the council is properly supported? If it is a surprise, are you confident that you have the right reporting systems in place to detect these concerns?

The second question is: this position of potential bankruptcy has been revealed through a private letter, which has found itself in the press. Now, opposition members have raised concerns that there's a lack of transparency and openness with Denbighshire's budget. Do you share these same concerns?

A final question, Minister, is that I've raised in this Chamber a number of times the need for an independent review of the funding formula, because whilst we have Denbighshire County Council on the edge of bankruptcy, we know that places like Rhondda Cynon Taf, Cardiff and Carmarthenshire have hundreds of millions of pounds squirreled away in reserves. So, will you accept today, as a result of a Labour leader of a council in north Wales, that this funding formula needs to be independently reviewed to ensure councils are not in this position in the future? 

Well, just to reassure the Member and people living in Denbighshire, and all colleagues in the Chamber, I have been assured by the leader of the council today that Denbighshire will present a balanced budget. What the communication referred to does is, essentially, highlight the severe pressure that local government is under and the difficult decisions that they're going to have to take in order to balance the budget. That's not different in Denbighshire; that's the same pressure that is being experienced across local government.

Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. Difficult decisions, like the ones that we've heard about, do not need to be taken. All of this is avoidable. The UK Government can, on 22 November, at its autumn statement, invest in public services and provide the Welsh Government with the funding that we need to provide to local government. The UK Government is no friend of local government, we know that, whereas we work really hard with local government to understand their pressures.

So, in terms of that question about the reporting mechanisms that we have, we work constantly, and my officials are in constant contact with the treasurers right across local government here in Wales, and we understand the pressures. We have regular reports; we've got the finance sub-group meeting next week, where we'll be taking another paper that goes in detail through the pressures that local government is facing here in Wales. But it is avoidable, the UK Government can take action on 22 November, and I hope that the Member will join us in pressing the UK Government to invest in public services when it has the opportunity to do so.

We have done everything that we can to support local government. You will all be aware that the increase to the local government settlement this year was 7.9 per cent. That was a generous settlement and it was absolutely the furthest that we could go. This Government protected the revenue support grant when we undertook that very painful exercise reprioritising funding across Government—again, recognising the important services that we've heard about: schools, waste collection, social services. So, this Government will do everything that it can to protect public services, but it obviously needs the support of the UK Government to give us the funding to do so.

15:10

Let's be clear what the leader of Denbighshire council has said. He said,

'I just want to clarify: in no way are we saying that Denbighshire is going bankrupt,'

for the avoidance of doubt.

'What I wanted to stress was that what we've seen in England is councils going bust because they can't balance the books. But we are going to avoid that',

he says. So, let's not get ahead of ourselves and think that they're expecting to go bankrupt. But let's neither fool ourselves that it is a very challenging set of financial circumstances that all local authorities find themselves in. And I know for a fact, actually, that there are some local authorities in Wales that are in deeper waters and financial troubles than Denbighshire.

Now, that will require cuts in services and that will require increases in council tax, regrettably, because that is the only way that they can balance the books. And the Wales Governance Centre has illustrated to us the scale of challenge caused by a decade of Westminster austerity. The funding gap in local finance projected by 2027-28 is £0.75 billion. So, that's the scale of the challenge, and Denbighshire and others will have to grapple with that. But as the leader of Denbighshire says, the first priority is to make sure that they don't go bankrupt and that they do balance the books. Unlike, of course, some councils in England that have gone bankrupt.

Now, you've addressed, somewhat, what arrangements you might have in place were it to come to the worst in any local authority in Wales. So, I'll just ask, maybe, if I may, Minister, as council taxes, regrettably, are likely to go up in many councils in Wales, we know that that hits the poorest the hardest, doesn't it, because it is a regressive tax and the regressive nature of council tax means that it's those less well-off who carry a disproportionate burden when those taxes go up. So, would you not agree with me that this, again, underlines the need to reform council tax in Wales to make it fairer, so that it isn't the least well-off in society who are, once again, paying the price for Tory austerity?

I'm very grateful to the Member for the question. I'm very proud of the work that we've been doing in partnership with Plaid Cymru as part of our co-operation agreement on making council tax fairer. And I'd just like to put on record, really, my appreciation for the work that has been done in that space. Now, we're coming to the point when we will be having our phase 2 consultation, so I'll be saying more about that shortly, and that will help us look more closely at what the road ahead looks like. Having done phase 1 consultation and gotten broad views, it's now about narrowing down the horizon in terms of the choices that we will make. But as colleagues recognise, council tax is a regressive tax; we want to make it a fairer council tax and we are very committed to doing so.

I thank Sam Rowlands for tabling this important subject in the Senedd today. As the local Member for the vast majority of Denbighshire, I'm personally horrified to read of this news of trying to avoid bankruptcy in the council. And to me, it sums up the weak, lethargic and febrile Labour leadership of this council since the local elections in 2022, coupled with a Labour Welsh Government who can't see the wood for the trees in working up a solution to this ever-growing problem.

I was a member of Denbighshire council for five years and it's sad to see the current state of this council under this new leadership, which has been failure after failure since day 1. And quite frankly, the leadership are out of their depth and out of ideas on how to manage this council, and some have been using their senior positions to promote their own political ambitions.

For many years, politicians of all persuasions have argued the case for a fair funding formula for north Wales authorities to match that of those in south Wales and we are desperately short-changed in comparison to other areas, leaving difficult decisions to be made on the day-to-day running of services, which have an impact on people's everyday lives. So, will the Minister finally accept that a review of the Welsh Government's funding formula to councils is in need of radical reform to ensure that a fair system is in place for everyone in Wales, no matter where they live?

15:15

I'll begin by saying that the start of the contribution was a very lazy contribution to what is a really, really serious issue. I actually commend the leader of Denbighshire council for the work that he's done in identifying the pressures early on and working to seek a solution. There is no suggestion at all that any part of Wales on a geographic basis is disadvantaged by the funding formula. Of course, four of the six north Wales authorities received increases to their budgets that were in excess of the average across Wales in this financial year. So, we do look at the formula all of the time; we look at the data, we make changes, the distribution sub-group makes a whole range of recommendations on an annual basis. We're not looking at a whole-scale review of the funding formula at the moment; obviously, if the Welsh Local Government Association wanted to come forward with that suggestion, we would be open to that. But let's remember, the last question was in relation to council tax reform. Council tax reform has a potential—depending on which option is taken, of course—to quite drastically change the tax base of local authorities, so there would be significant churn there. That, on top of a review of the funding formula, which could take a number of years, I think would introduce a lot of uncertainty into the system. We are, therefore, concentrating at the moment on making council tax fairer and updating the funding formula to make sure that it uses the latest information.

As a former leader of a north Wales council, my colleague Sam Rowlands knows just as well as I do, as a former deputy leader and cabinet member, the pressures local authorities are under following 13 years of Tory austerity. Councils right across the UK have been pushed to breaking point by a toxic combination of more than a decade of cuts, huge inflationary pressures, a cost-of-living crisis and a total mismanagement of the economy. There will be red lines that they are looking at now; I remember that—year upon year of facing this. You don't want to cut education; I remember that. Some councils did take the decision to cut education funding. These red lines are really difficult to cross, and this is probably why the leader has said they could be facing bankruptcy—this is how serious it is. But I know that Denbighshire will set a balanced budget, as councils always have to do, but they will be forced to make these very difficult decisions. I know I've asked for you to look at the funding formula—the pie is too small coming from here, but coming from the UK Government. And I'm sure that councils right across the UK will be faced with these really tough decisions. So, Minister, have your UK counterparts given you any reassurances that they may truly understand the chaos they have caused and are willing to take mitigation to help our front-line services—not just in Wales, but across the UK? Thank you.

Thank you very much for the question. There's no indication at all from the UK Government that it understands the struggles that local governments are facing—certainly not in England, and I know that they're not interested in the trials of local authorities here in Wales. But that said, we will continue to make the case very strongly to them. I've already written to the Chancellor ahead of the 22 November autumn statement setting out what our asks are for Wales, and right at the top of that is the investment in public services so that we are able to provide local government and the NHS with the funding that they need to be able to deliver the kind of services that we want for everybody in Wales.

Minister, it's very clear that the comments from the leader of Denbighshire council were unwise, unhelpful, alarmist and have stoked some fear amongst the local population about what their council tax might look like next year. In fact, these comments appear to me to be nothing more than paving the way for another huge and inflation-busting council tax increase for local residents. So, can I ask you: will you do the sensible thing, as is the case in England, and set a clear cap on council tax for the forthcoming new financial year—next year—so that excessive increases can be the subject of a local referendum? I think local people deserve a say on these matters, and I think it's wrong that they haven't had one in the past.

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

Just to be clear, setting a cap wouldn't lead to a referendum in any case, but a cap is a tool that Welsh Ministers do have if they feel that, in any case, a local authority is intending to introduce a council tax increase that is palpably excessive. Obviously, every year, we take a look at that afresh, so we have no idea yet what kind of increases local government is expecting to make. That's partly because we haven't yet had the autumn statement, we haven't published our Welsh Government budget, so they don't have the figures to plan on yet. Obviously, they'll be undertaking preliminary work with some assumptions, but until we have actual proposals from local government, it's impossible to take a view on whether or not we would introduce a cap.

15:20
4. 90-second Statements

Thank you so much, Deputy Presiding Officer. This week is Irlen Syndrome Awareness Week, a worldwide effort to make more people aware of the syndrome and its symptoms. Irlen syndrome is a problem with the brain's ability to process visual information and tends to run in families. The most common symptoms include light sensitivity, reading problems, headaches and migraines, attention and concentration issues, as well as fatigue.

I must admit I didn't know much about Irlen syndrome until I was contacted by Jennifer Owen, one of my constituents. I want to pay tribute to Jennifer, who was diagnosed with Irlen syndrome in 2012, for her tireless work in raising awareness about the condition. She has given countless presentations and talks, become an Irlen ambassador, created the Voice for People with Irlen Syndrome group and has held many events. She was also recognised by the high sheriff of Mid Glamorgan for her wonderful work.

Jennifer could not read or write properly without words disappearing or going back and forth, but since getting Irlen spectral filters, her life has been transformed, and now she's helping transform the lives of others. She is truly an inspiration, so I want to say a huge 'thank you' to Jennifer for everything that she's done and continues to do. I'd encourage everyone to visit www.irlen.com to see how they can get involved in Irlen awareness week going forward.

Today is World Menopause Day, observed every year to raise awareness about the impact of the menopause on the lives of women around the world. To mark this occasion, I'm pleased to say that all further education colleges in Wales have signed the menopause workplace pledge. The pledge was created by the Wellbeing of Women charity to encourage employers to take positive action in making sure everyone going through the menopause is supported. Menopause is often not talked about in the workplace, and many people don't understand it until it happens to them or to someone close to them. While some will have no problems, others will struggle with debilitating side effects that impact on all aspects of their lives. Many will feel they have no alternative but to leave a job they love. By signing the pledge, all colleges in Wales are committed to recognise that the menopause can be an issue in the workplace and women need support; to talk openly, positively and respectfully about the menopause; and to actively support and inform employees affected by the menopause. The sector has responded to the need to put in place support and guidance for staff, and I'm pleased to acknowledge our colleges for their continued commitment to making further education a safe and inclusive sector in which to work.

The Pembrokeshire Lottery was set up 30 years ago to provide a fund that Pembrokeshire businesses could access at no cost to invest in their futures, creating and retaining jobs in Pembrokeshire. It was the brainchild of the late Danny Fellows, who joined with Mike Peake and Bob Clarke to launch a local lottery that predated the National Lottery by a year. Danny asked local oil refinery managers to provide seed funding to provide the first few months of prize money and encouraged large employers to offer the option of a small monthly salary deduction of £4.34 to fund ongoing prize money, a purchase option that remains to this day. It's a true example of local people raising money to grow their local communities and economy.

The first draw was made in November 1993, and few back then would ever have believed that in 2023 we would be celebrating the Pembrokeshire Lottery's thirtieth birthday. Having grown up with the Pembrokeshire Lottery, its forces for good can be felt right across the county. Over 500 businesses have been supported with over £8.2 million in interest-free loans, creating and safeguarding over 2,500 jobs. Award-winning hospitality companies such as the Grove hotel and Cafe Môr are just two examples of businesses that have benefited from the lottery in their early years. From humble beginnings in 1993, the loan fund now stands at over £2 million, and that is mainly due to the phenomenal support the Pembrokeshire Lottery has received from local people. The lottery is one of the most successful such schemes in the UK, and one that we all should be extremely proud of. Happy thirtieth birthday to the Pembrokeshire Lottery, and here’s to the next 30 years. Diolch.

15:25
5. Debate on the Local Government and Housing Committee Report, 'Local Authority Library and Leisure Services'

We move on now to item 5, a debate on the Local Government and Housing Committee report, 'Local Authority Library and Leisure Services', and I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion—John Griffiths.

Motion NDM8379 John Griffiths

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the report of the Local Government and Housing Committee, ‘Local Authority Library and Leisure Services’, which was laid in the Table Office on 20 July 2023.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I’m pleased to open this debate on the Local Government and Housing Committee’s report on local authority leisure and library services. I’d like to start by thanking all those who contributed to our inquiry, and to those who facilitated visits to libraries and leisure sites across Wales.

Leisure centres and libraries enrich people’s lives and their communities. They provide a place to meet, to expand knowledge and support health and well-being. But councils have found it increasingly challenging to maintain these services due to budget cuts and global financial and health crises. As a result, many councils have sought to deliver services differently by establishing local authority trading companies, or transferring them to social enterprises or community groups.

We firstly considered whether there is a need to strengthen statutory and policy frameworks to protect these vital services from further cuts and closures. There is already a statutory duty on councils under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service, but we heard that this has not prevented the erosion of funding, or indeed prevented library closures. Stakeholders told us that the Act doesn’t do an awful lot, and that the provisions are too broadly defined. We called on the Welsh Government to explore whether it should strengthen the Act to protect libraries. The Welsh Government hasn’t committed to a full review of the provisions in the Act, but rather emphasised the role of the Welsh public library standards in delivering on the duties within the legislation. The Welsh Government has committed to exploring our recommendation further, however, and I would be grateful if the Deputy Minister could explain how this recommendation will be taken forward.

The Welsh public library standards set out how the Welsh Government’s expectations on local authorities in terms of their library provision will be met. We heard the current standards expired in 2020, and are concerned about the lack of progress on developing new standards to support the library sector. Some stakeholders called for a complete revamp of the standards given recent developments in how services are used and new innovations to deliver them. We recommended that work on the new standards should be progressed as a matter of urgency. We are pleased that this recommendation has been accepted, but note that the new Welsh public library framework will not be implemented until 2025, five years after the standards expired.

We are concerned that library services are often overlooked or undervalued within the wider context of public service provision. We were therefore pleased to hear that the new library standards are being developed in tandem with the new culture strategy. However, there are questions around how that will work in practice, and I would be grateful if the Deputy Minister could provide more detail on how that culture strategy will dovetail with the new standards, and how she is working with the Minister for Finance and Local Government and respective officials on this.

Unlike library services, leisure services are provided on a discretionary basis. While we were not convinced of the need for legislation, we would like to see a policy framework for public leisure provision, which links to health and well-being services. We believe this would support better joined-up policies focused on prevention and positive health outcomes and go with the grain of much current development, where lots of leisure providers are increasingly becoming health and well-being services. We are therefore pleased that the Welsh Government accepted this recommendation.

We explored the various models of service delivery in use and their advantages and disadvantages. There was a clear message that there should not be a one-size-fits-all approach. Different models will suit different local authorities, depending on geography, needs of the community, resources and many other factors. We agree it should be up to local authorities to decide what delivery model suits them. However, we would like to see more sharing of good practice and experiences. So, we called for the Welsh Government to work with local authorities to support this, and I welcome the Welsh Government’s acceptance of this recommendation.

We heard of the significant social value of leisure and library services. Sport Wales told us that for every £1 spent on sport, there was a social return of £2.88. And according to Community Leisure UK Wales, leisure trusts create £101 of social value per person using their facilities and services, which is measured through savings to the NHS, reduced crime levels and improved mental and physical health of communities.

However, we heard that insufficient emphasis is placed on social value when local authorities determine how best to deliver leisure and library services. We want to see Welsh Government working with councils to consider what social value outcomes they want to achieve through public leisure and library services, and design and deliver services accordingly. Having up-to-date, Wales-specific data on social value that is shared with local authorities would help them make informed decisions about service delivery. We are therefore grateful that Welsh Government accepted our calls for collating and analysing social value and return on investment of library and leisure services.

Dirprwy Lywydd, we also looked at the increased use of community hubs, whereby local authorities are co-locating some of their services to save on costs and to improve accessibility. We heard that, to date, evidence suggests that co-location may have increased the use of services, reduced costs and contributed to the resilience of services. However, we also heard of challenges in co-locating services in rural areas due to transport issues. Those issues, including community transport, should be a key consideration in any decision to co-locate. As hubs are a relatively new innovation, we recommend that the Welsh Government continues to monitor and evaluate their success, and that findings are shared with local authorities in order to inform their decision making. We believe that local authorities must adopt an intelligent approach to decision making on co-location, particularly in relation to library services.

And as is so important in the current context, we looked at the financial and operational challenges currently facing local authorities and delivery partners to maintain these vital services. Rising energy costs have had a significant impact on leisure facilities in particular, especially those with swimming pools. Leisure and library services are in need of immediate support to help them navigate the current crisis. We recommended that the Welsh Government allocates the £3.5 million it will receive in consequential funding to swimming pools, especially those that may be unviable without additional support.

We also endorsed the recommendation made by the culture committee in its November 2022 report on increasing costs and the impact on culture and sport. That committee recommended that the Welsh Government should provide additional targeted funding to the sports and cultural sectors to help venues and organisations that face closure, but have a sustainable future beyond the immediate crisis. We are disappointed with the Welsh Government’s response in relation to additional financial support to help leisure and library services deal with the current cost pressures.

We were also concerned to hear that the cost-of-living crisis is having an impact on participation levels in sport. The cost of swimming lessons has doubled since the pandemic, making it unaffordable for some families, particularly those on lower incomes. We were surprised and disappointed to hear that only 50 per cent of primary schools in Wales take part in school swimming, and that some schools with pools may not even deliver those lessons. Given the increased costs, it is more important than ever that children have free lessons in school time, especially as swimming and water safety are life skills. We asked the Welsh Government to update us on how it is addressing these issues and how it is working with leisure providers on strategy. Welsh Government refers to statutory guidance within the curriculum for Wales that schools must consider. And this includes learners engaging in physical activity, including within water. I also note that Welsh Government officials are working with Swim Wales to support schools and local authorities with their swimming offer.

While there are immediate financial hurdles for councils and delivery partners to navigate, there are also longer term challenges, particularly in relation to decarbonisation. A clear need for substantial investment in the decarbonisation and modernisation of leisure and library facilities exists, and current funding simply does not go far enough. We are concerned that decarbonisation appears to be less of a priority compared to other local authority services, such as the Sustainable Communities for Learning programme. And we do believe that all sectors deserve this support. Dirprwy Lywydd, while we were pleased with the Welsh Government accepting our recommendation that it should invest in supporting the decarbonisation and refurbishment of leisure and library services across Wales, there does need to be significant scale and urgency to that programme.

In conclusion, Dirprwy Lywydd, the importance of library and leisure services to our communities, and the wider social benefits they provide, cannot be underestimated and cannot be overstated. They deserve meaningful investment as a matter of urgency.

15:35

Can I begin by thanking my colleague and committee Chair, John Griffiths, for opening this debate, and all those who have been responsible for producing this report on local authority library and leisure services? I'm pleased to see that a large number of recommendations have been accepted, or accepted in principle, by the Minister. In my remarks today, I want to pick up on two that have been rejected.

The first is recommendation 13, that the Welsh Government should provide targeted funding for those venues and organisations that face closure but have a sustainable future. I understand that the Welsh Government will not commit to providing additional funding. However, I would like to raise that there is an element of false economy here. If we let venues and organisations close, not only will it take even more funding later on to reopen them, we will also lose trained staff, who often have valuable and considerable experience. Replacing these would not only be very hard, but would more often than not come at a considerable expense, especially when you take into account retraining costs. Moreover, losing venues such as libraries and leisure centres has an immeasurable impact on the community, both in the short term and long term, on their health and well-being and their sense of identity, and we should be very aware that there's a wider economic fallout when venues close. People are less likely to travel to an area when there are fewer amenities on offer, and the fallout can be directly felt by local businesses, who consequently see a drop in footfall.

The war in Ukraine will eventually come to an end, and market forces will correct the higher energy costs, food prices and fuel prices we are currently experiencing. We have seen inflation fall considerably in recent months, and there's very good reason to believe that we will soon see inflation return to target levels. It therefore seems rather shortsighted to allow venues to close that have a long-term future, simply because short-term financing will not be provided by the Welsh Government. The obvious counter-argument is where does the Welsh Government get this money from, but I would argue that the Welsh Government needs to think creatively about how it can possibly use its position to act as a guarantor for public venues to raise investment by themselves. 

The second recommendation I'm disappointed to see rejected is No. 15. I think the Welsh Government should develop and work with leisure providers on a strategy to encourage primary schools to provide free swimming lessons. It is not enough to say that you agree with the intention but are mindful of the current financial position of schools. I'm sure it is clear to everyone here that if you cannot be bothered even to start thinking about how every primary school could provide swimming lessons, then free swimming lessons are never, ever going to be available to all primary school children. Learning to swim is more that just being able to do a specific physical activity; it has been shown that swimming is a life skill that directly influences people's confidence and self-esteem. The provision for swimming is patchy at best, and whilst I can see that school finances are under pressure, it isn't right to say that you're not even going to start planning a future strategy. Swimming facilities that are owned and operated by the council should have a duty to make available time for schools, at either reduced rates or free, and this doesn't necessarily have to be during the school day. To save on bus travel, schools could ask parents to take their children directly to leisure centres at the beginning of the day, or have lessons after school, whereby parents could collect their children directly from the leisure centres. I honestly believe that there needs to be more creative thinking on how to solve some of these problems, rather than just saying that more money is needed. 

Dirprwy Lywydd, I don't feel the need to expand on the accepted recommendations in this report, because I feel that they speak for themselves. I'm glad that the Welsh Government has accepted such a large number of them, and I look forward to them being actioned. But the Welsh Government can do much, much more. Thank you.

15:40

The importance of libraries and leisure services to communities right across Wales cannot be overstated. They're often used as warm hubs, well-being centres, to access information about services, and links to online information. They've become more vibrant community facilities and hubs of activity over recent years, and librarians are being asked to be multiskilled advisers, delivering a variety of services. We discussed if this is acceptable for a librarian who is highly skilled and that that skill may be lost. 

Leisure centres provide vital services. Learning to swim is a life skill, and it is a concern, according to Swim Wales, that only 52 per cent of children moving to high school have this life-saving skill. Aura Wales explained that one of the main challenges is

'trying to explain to people who have other budgetary demands that we can save you money. So, we do save...the public health service, the police, in terms of anti-social behaviour, and local authorities in terms of some of their social services'.

Access can be an issue. North Wales and rural areas are particularly affected because of lag and the cost of public transport to access services. Schools are struggling to take children for swimming lessons because of the cost of public transport, and Councillor Carwyn Jones of Anglesey council said it would be difficult to set up an alternative delivery model in such areas. And it's often those from disadvantaged backgrounds who are impacted the most regarding affordability, which is a huge concern to both committees I'm a member of. 

I know the Welsh Government set out in its response to recommendations that it will continue to work with community transport partners to improve accessibility. A decade of austerity, with cuts in local authority budgets, and rising energy costs, has caused leisure centres and libraries to be fragile. Many pools, leisure centres and libraries were changed to alternative operating models during this time, as councils restructured and reorganised to try to save money. But many of them are still receiving core funding from councils, as they are not self-sustainable. It's enabled them to apply for grants and receive rebates depending on their status. Councillor Rob Stewart from Swansea noted that the local government settlement, despite being more than was expected, is still well below inflation, and the inflation has caused huge pressures. He said that in most councils education and social care will take the majority of the budget, so you've got to try and cover all of your other services with what's left. Employment can be difficult, as the jobs are not well paid and volunteers are in short supply. Aura Wales in Flintshire also noted that there are costs associated with bringing people into the sector in terms of paying for qualifications, such as national pool lifeguard, and swimming teachers. The cost-of-living crisis has also impacted on people returning to use leisure centres post COVID, and rising energy costs have had a big impact on leisure facilities, as swimming pools are expensive to heat and were left out of the UK Government's energy discount scheme last year.

Among the statutory requirements on councils is a duty under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service for everyone wishing to make use of the facility. It also requires councils to ensure adequate stock and availability of books and encourage full use of the library service. However, the Act does not define what a comprehensive and efficient library is, leaving some scope for interpretation by councils. There were discussions about strengthening the Act, but it also has to be flexible for library services still to be delivered. I am pleased that the Welsh Government has agreed to explore this recommendation further and update the committee in due course. 

The Welsh Government is facing a very challenging financial situation in the context of economic chaos caused by the Conservative UK Government, as well as councils delivering these important services. I would like to see additional support coming through from the UK Government to support these fragile but vital services through this most difficult period. Thank you.

15:45

Can I begin by thanking the committee for its important work on this issue? I don't think we will find any disagreement here about the importance and value of both libraries and community facilities and leisure services, in particular. They are the heart of many of our communities and people value them so, so much. It's become evident in your evidence, and we know that from our own regions and constituencies that we represent and from our personal experiences. I'm sure may of us learnt to swim in leisure centres et cetera, and have so much to thank both libraries and leisure services for for the contribution they make. 

We know that they're not just a luxury or nice to have. They're absolutely essential. That's why we saw miners' institutes and welfare halls become so, so important, and acknowledging that role of both books, but also fun and enjoyment. And what we're talking about here is actually supporting people's health and well-being, mental health, as well as core skills, and we're talking about the prevention agenda in terms of health as well. Leisure services are absolutely essential. And, for many people, whom we know struggle at home with homework for a whole variety of different reasons—it may be that you don't have a quiet space at home or you're not supported—libraries are really valuable for children and young people, and, in terms of tackling poverty, so, so important. So, I don't think there's a debate here about why we need them and how important they are. The issue, I think, comes down to money, simply. But it's an issue we've been aware of with austerity and so on, and it's become increasingly more difficult for local authorities to provide these services. 

One of the things I was reflecting on when reading your report was what consideration was given to the expert review of public libraries that was undertaken nine years ago. And then I revisited 'Scoping a New Future for Welsh Public Libraries' from eight years ago, and many of the recommendations were similar then. Specifically, point 13 mentions

'some of the drawbacks of the 1964 Act'

and, as you rightly saw in the evidence here, there are pluses and minuses in terms of progressing that. But it did recommend then that

'discussion should continue on the perceived benefits of replacing the current Act',

with the acknowledgement that it would take at least three years to resolve. But also the emphasis very much was on ensuring that we provide a future for these community service hubs and so on, and really think about what they are. So, we're going back nine and eight years here, and I think what's perhaps concerning to me is that we haven't perhaps seen that progress. So, I wonder if one of the things that we should be pressing is also what work has happened in the meantime between the publication of these. Are there any plans by Welsh Government to once again commission an expert review of public libraries? Because I just see that we haven't really progressed from that time, and many of the documents relating to public libraries are quite outdated on the Welsh Government's website by now, and there's a lot of work from about a decade ago, rather than now. And I'm glad that you're filling that void through the committee's work, but I do think that we need some specific work here to really understand what's going on. If I may as well, I think that's where I do support the committee, in terms of that 1964 Act, that we need to see really what's going to change and how that's going to be progressed, if it hasn't been to date. 

I would also be grateful if the Minister, in her response, could confirm on the record that the seventh Welsh public library framework will be implemented by April 2025, as was indicated in her response to the committee report. But I think we do need that reassurance. We do have difficult decisions coming up, but I think once we lose these we know that they're lost forever, and I think we need to look at the bigger picture. I was disappointed to see the response in terms of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, because I do think this is absolutely crucial and I think the committee was right in that regard. We know that we need to secure these, because they play such a crucial role in meeting those goals. So, I would ask Welsh Government to perhaps reconsider the response to the committee in terms of the future generations Act, because these are crucial and, if we are serious about tackling child poverty, health inequality and so on, then we must find solutions—not just reiterate how important they are but find a way to safeguard them.

15:50

I just want to start by also thanking those involved in bringing this report together: colleagues on the committee, in particular the Chairman, John Griffiths, for leading us through another committee report process, but of course also those members of staff on the committee who provided us with such useful information. 

There is a risk here, as Heledd Fychan just mentioned, that we could break out into unholy agreement on the broader importance of library and leisure services to our communities. I'm certainly grateful to those libraries and leisure services that opened their doors to us as committee members to understand some of the opportunities and challenges in front of them. And they were certainly keen to reiterate the point that has already been mentioned here today, which is the role that those facilities and those people supporting those facilities play in the preventative agenda, especially in terms of both physical and mental health. It's spaces and services like these that clearly have a huge impact on preventing these issues becoming a bigger problem in our communities.

And this became very clear as we heard and saw evidence from those providers during our committee sessions to support this, and it has again been backed up by further information, as the Chairman, John Griffiths, mentioned, from Swim Wales, Community Leisure UK and the Welsh Sports Association. So, the point is on this, and it has already been made, I do understand, that these services must not be seen in isolation. And that's why I think that recommendation 6 within our report is so important. And, Deputy Minister, I'm really pleased that the Government was able to accept this recommendation, alongside others, which reflects that broader point of the importance of libraries and leisure services in supporting the preventative agenda.

I do want to take a moment just to highlight a couple of specific recommendations that I want to bring our attention to. The first is recommendation 12. That recommendation seeks to support the allocation of £3.5 million in consequential funding from the UK Government to support swimming pools in particular, particularly those ones that could be unviable without this much-needed support. That's exactly the point that my colleague Carolyn Thomas made in her contribution, that UK Government funding being passported over to ensure that these facilities can remain sustainable. And I must say I was disappointed that the Welsh Government rejected this recommendation. So, I'd like to be able to hear, perhaps, from the Deputy Minister today an expansion on her reasoning for that, because, as we've already just discussed and people have already highlighted, it's that physical fitness and mental well-being that is vital for people, and swimming is key to that, not only on an individual level, but on a social level for people of all ages as well. That's the beauty of something like swimming. It's accessible right from the very youngest right through to those who are oldest in our communities. Others have already mentioned the importance of developing those essential survival skills as well. So, the sustainability of swimming pools in particular, I think, is really important, and I'd like to hear the Deputy Minister's reasoning for that £3.5 million not being passported over to them.

This general issue of funding, which Heledd Fychan has already mentioned as well, dovetails with recommendation 14. That recommendation states that the Welsh Government updates the committee on what additional financial support it'll provide leisure and library services to support with the energy challenges that they are facing. I think that clarity on that is going to be hugely welcomed by people who use those services and also work in those centres and I'm pleased the Government was able to accept that recommendation, because we need to see some urgency around those energy costs.

I will end by just saying generally I was disappointed the Welsh Government rejected a number of the recommendations. At one level, it makes me slightly proud that as a committee we were able to put enough challenging recommendations to Government that they felt they couldn't meet them all, but I genuinely thought that the recommendations we put forward were fair-minded and evidence-based recommendations, which, after extensive investigation and evidence being received, I thought were recommendations that Welsh Government could agree to. So, I would strongly urge Welsh Government again today to think on the recommendations we've put forward—those that have been rejected—to understand areas that they could support those, perhaps, in the future. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

15:55

Firstly, I'd like to put on record my thanks to the Chair, the clerking and research team, and my fellow committee members for their work on this important area. We're really grateful to all those who took time to give evidence to us all around Wales.

The earlier young people have the opportunity to visit a leisure provider or provision or a library, the better. With the public health challenges ahead, it's crucial that all communities have access to good-quality affordable leisure facilities. They really do have a major role to play. Newport Live have been doing excellent work in my constituency, constantly innovating and making use of the space in the city, most recently, with the opening of the new affordable tennis courts at Tredegar Park and the introduction of tennis sessions for all ages. However, I'm going to concentrate most of my contribution this afternoon on libraries.

The first library that I went to as a child was Maindee library. I cannot emphasise enough the impact going to those public facilities had when I was growing up. I spent a lot of my childhood at the Maindee Baths swimming pool, and my love of books and reading is very much part of my life today, thanks to Maindee and central libraries. Through the dedication and commitment and perseverance of volunteers, Maindee library was transferred from the local authority to the community, keeping it alive, and it remains very much at the heart of that community in my good friend John Griffiths's constituency. In my constituency of Newport West, we've seen the excellent example of Cwtsh, which again was transferred from the local authority to a community group, who run it as a community space with a fantastic children's library section. Remaining in local authority control in my constituency, we have Malpas, Rogerstone and Bettws libraries. These are really important in making sure these services are close to people—something that's important in terms of being able to access all of those services.

I'm also proud to have Newport Museum and Art Gallery and the central library in my constituency, and this is an example where we have recently seen council services move into the building in order to pool their costs. The challenge here, however, will be how to attract more people up those stairs to visit the library. I think that will be important, and that's why I think recommendation 10 will be useful in terms of monitoring and evaluating the efficiency and effectiveness of co-locations in Wales, and sharing the findings with local authorities. Libraries are a warm, safe space for people of all ages, from reading groups to providing support with curricula vitae, and much, much more. As Unison Cymru said in their evidence, it's access to books that you don't have to pay for, so it provides that equal platform for communities.

I'd also like to put on record my thanks to the librarian workforce, who work tirelessly to share their passion for books with those who visit. Although they're being asked to do more and more, they often know people by name, sometimes see people who are struggling at difficult times in their lives and, of course, enjoy recommending books. As we've heard from the Chair, leisure and library services have often had some of the steepest cuts to budgets. We know that these are really difficult financial times, but there is a need to strengthen statutory and policy frameworks to protect what I believe are vital services. That's why recommendation 8 is so important, recommending that the Welsh Government, in collaboration with local government partners, undertake regular analysis and publication of Wales-specific data on the social-value return on investment and delivery of both leisure and library services.

Nicky Wire from the Manic Street Preachers took inspiration from the former Pill library in my constituency, which still has above its door, 'Knowledge is power'. Libraries certainly do give us power, and long may that continue.

16:00

Thank you very much to the committee for this important report.

The Welsh Government's 'A Healthier Wales' strategy is based on a vision that everyone in Wales should have longer, healthier and happier lives and be able to remain active and independent. This is echoed by one of the goals of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, which aims to build a society in which people's physical and mental well-being is maximised, and in which choices and behaviours that benefit future health are understood.

The health Minister has also spoken recently about the need to encourage people to assume greater responsibility for looking after their own health and well-being, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to square these ambitions against the reality that the provision of leisure services across Wales is being stretched to breaking point, which will naturally have a devastating impact on the health and well-being agenda of this Government. Let's be clear: ensuring that Welsh communities have access to leisure facilities is a public health necessity. My colleague Mabon ap Gwynfor has spoken often in this Chamber about the critical importance of embedding the preventative agenda in every facet of our approach to healthcare policy in Wales. Quite simply, the future of our NHS depends on it. The robust provision of leisure facilities across Wales must be a key plank of this approach, especially given the urgent need to ease the pressure on our beleaguered NHS. For example, Obesity Alliance Cymru has calculated that without urgent action to combat rates of obesity in Wales, it's likely that the NHS will be facing additional costs of £465 million in 2050.

As is the case with the closure of library services, it is the most deprived elements of our society that are disproportionately penalised by shortcomings in the provision of public leisure facilities, a state of affairs that, as noted by a recent report by Public Health Wales, has been exacerbated by the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. The most recent child measurement programme for Wales has shown that children living in the most deprived areas of Wales are almost twice as likely to be obese as those in the least deprived areas.

There is a clear appetite among Welsh adults and children alike to be afforded more opportunities for exercise. For example, the Sport Wales school sports survey in 2022 found that 61 per cent of Welsh primary school children want to swim more, while the national survey for Wales in 2021 found that 234,000 Welsh adults want to swim more. But this aspiration is being stifled by the cutbacks being made by local authorities to their provision of public leisure facilities after over a decade of austerity and underinvestment from Westminster.

The fight to save Pontllanfraith leisure centre from closure at the hand of Labour-controlled Caerphilly County Borough Council is a great example. My Plaid Cymru colleague Councillor Rhys Mills has done a great job of galvanising support throughout the town and surrounding area to save the prized leisure facility and community asset, and that fight goes on, and I want to support him and the committee in that work.

Recent research by the UK Active campaign group has shown that 74 per cent of council areas across the UK are currently classified as insecure, which means there is a risk of closure of leisure centres or reduced services before 31 March 2024. This is underlined by the committee's evidence from Swim Wales that local authorities will have to confront a funding gap of at least £10 million to £12 million over the next 12 months as a result of escalating energy bills for leisure centres.

Without urgent action to address the issue, we risk condemning the people of Wales to a vicious circle of poor health outcomes and a resultant over-reliance on our already overstretched front-line healthcare services. It is for this reason that I concur with the committee that the Welsh Government should seek to allocate the £1.2 million in revenue funding that was received as a consequential from the UK Government's spring budget towards supporting leisure facilities in Wales. Such an investment would show that the Government is indeed serious about living up to its ambition to build a healthier Wales for present and for future generations. Diolch yn fawr.

16:05

Just a brief contribution from me, if I may. There is a consultation that is live at the moment in Denbighshire County Council on reducing the hours of the county's libraries. We discussed earlier this afternoon the financial pressures facing local authorities, and, of course, when you look at it, the likelihood or the possibility is that some of these services will be lost over the next months and years.

There are often only two choices, you would assume: one, closing a few libraries to protect the others, or reducing the hours of all of the libraries across the county. It isn't a choice that anyone would want to make, if truth be told, but I would encourage people to respond to that consultation because, as we've heard, libraries are a far more important resource than just a repository for books.

However, I would like to highlight what's happening in Conwy County Borough Council, where there's an opportunity for the community to play a more prominent role when it comes to running libraries. There are five rural community libraries in Conwy and the local community councils contribute towards employing a member of staff to provide that service. Conwy council, the county council, of course, still provides the books and sorts the HR side of things, but then there's a charity that takes over the building, and they then can access alternative sources of funding to pay the building costs and for the heating, lighting and so on. Now, it's early days, but I was looking at the seventh recommendation in the report when it comes to sharing best practice and different models of service provision, and I do think that there's an opportunity here, perhaps, to look at alternative ways of providing services.

There are also online services, of course; they are a reality now, aren't they, although the numbers using them vary from time to time and from area to area. The long-term trajectory is quite clear: I'm a member of Denbighshire libraries, and through that I have become a member of Libby and BorrowBox, which allows me to borrow e-magazines, e-books and so on, so that online shift is an important part of the debate as well, as we look at the future of services.

But I just wanted to thank the committee for the work that has been done. It's very timely, of course, and I would urge the Deputy Minister and the Government to urgently implement these recommendations, because services are being cut now, and once they're gone, they're gone forever, as was said earlier, and it would be regrettable if we, in a year or two, were taking action on some of these recommendations, when by that time, it may be too late for several of our libraries.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Thanks to Members for an interesting and very wide-ranging debate this afternoon. I'm very grateful to the committee for their time and effort spent in producing this report, and to those who provided evidence.

Now, the wide-ranging nature of the recommendations and the debate itself highlight the continuing importance of local government in delivering these key services and the importance of leisure centres and libraries to local communities. This has been reinforced by the contributions to today's debate, and I agree with all that has been said in support of these important services.

Many areas that have been raised during the debate are the responsibility of other ministerial colleagues, particularly the Minister for Finance and Local Government, because of the funding calls in particular for local government services, so I'm sure that they will all be listening to this and will be interested to hear what has been said this afternoon. So, while I will focus my response on the areas that sit directly within my portfolio, I will, as I did in committee, also attempt to address a few of the points on behalf of my Cabinet colleagues. But if those are not dealt with, I will ensure that further information is provided to you as Chair of the committee, as necessary.

Obviously, there has been concern raised today on funding for our swimming pools and library services, and the fact is that, prior to the specific support scheme for pools announced by the UK Government, as a Welsh Government, despite our own budgetary pressures, we did prioritise front-line public services by providing an improved £5.5 billion settlement for local government this year—a settlement that was welcomed by the Welsh Local Government Association. No authority received less then a 6.5 per cent increase and so, for each authority, it is down to them to determine how they use that funding to respond to local needs and priorities. But I do, of course, recognise the tough choices that remain, due to challenging economic circumstances. We heard that earlier today in the topical question discussion, and which we all recognise has been caused by the inflationary pressures, resulting from Tory mismanagement of the economy of the UK.

But to deal specifically with the UK Government swimming pools support, and the use of consequentials in Wales, as I said in committee, this £3.5 million was split—£1.2 million revenue and £2.3 million capital—and that would amount to no more than approximately £10,000 for each swimming pool in Wales to deal with their immediate energy costs. That is actually less than what is needed for many, for one month's fuel bills. Now, an important principle of devolution is that consequential funding is not necessarily ring-fenced for the same purpose for which it was allocated by the UK Government. So, we took a strategic decision that this would not be effective and our efforts would be better spent on supporting pools and leisure centres to manage energy efficiency in the longer term, through schemes like the Welsh Government energy service, which is a key enabler in providing technical and financial help to the public sector, to deliver on the collective ambition of a net-zero public sector by 2030, and which would supplement anything that the local authorities were doing to support leisure services through their budget settlement.

If I move on to recommendation 3, we are in the process of developing a new culture strategy for Wales. The culture strategy is a co-operation agreement commitment between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru, and I've worked collaboratively with the designated Member from the outset, to provide the direction and steer, so that the strategy reflects Wales in all its diversity. Given the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 goal of a Wales of vibrant culture, and the Act's focus on sustainable approaches to cultural well-being in Wales, this strategy will be one for the whole of Government, but it has a clear focus on our libraries, archives, museums, heritage and arts sector. Our approach to developing the strategy included working with an external partner to engage with sector representatives and community groups earlier this year, and this process included conversations with representatives of the public library sector. We've developed a first draft of the strategy, and it fully acknowledges the importance of the library sector and recognises library services as an integral part of our cultural offer in Wales—and that was set out very powerfully by the contributions from Heledd Fychan and Jayne Bryant.

Now, I carefully considered the committee's recommendation 9 for a libraries task force, but for the moment, I feel that it's more appropriate to concentrate our efforts on strengthening the existing programme of promotional work rather than setting up a new body now, in advance of the culture strategy, which would basically be duplicating existing work. The draft culture strategy and the renewed framework for Welsh public library standards are being developed simultaneously, and I can confirm that culture officials are working together to ensure that they are aligned, and I will give further updates to the committee as this work progresses.

The work on the WPLS also links to recommendation 8 of the report, and the development of framework 7 provides an opportunity to consider how we can collect more robust evidence of the impact and the social value of libraries. And it will also support delivery of recommendation 10 on gathering information on the effectiveness of co-location of libraries with other services.

So, turning to leisure services, and in particular recommendation 5, we have agreed with the chief leisure officers of Wales group that we will undertake a rapid review of the provision of leisure, the state of the leisure estate, and how it interacts with other public services via a small group of representatives across Wales. We will then report that back to the committee.

Regarding recommendations 16 and 17 on decarbonisation, the draft culture strategy stresses the importance of collective responsibility in terms of responding to the climate emergency. The culture division is exploring offering decarbonisation support across all culture sectors, and I referenced some of that earlier in relation to the Welsh Government energy service. Officials have gathered case studies to support this work, which illustrates the excellent work already being undertaken across the cultural sectors. The Welsh Government invests in supporting decarbonisation of libraries and leisure facilities, and the transformation capital grants programme for museums, archives and libraries has sustainable development as one of its priority criteria. Sport Wales is also working with partners to support the sector in reducing its carbon impact, extending the reach of decarbonisation and environmental sustainability. The draft culture strategy also recognises the importance of long-term strategic capital investment to ensure that future funding is allocated in a prioritised manner. But I want to re-emphasise, as I did in the response to the committee's report, that in the context of a very challenging situation, the Welsh Government is unlikely to be able to provide additional funding support in 2023-24. So, I think we need to be clear about that. 

To conclude, Dirprwy Lywydd, I would like to thank the committee again for their hard work in producing this wide-ranging report, and I do look forward to working with them on the recommendations that fall within my portfolio. Diolch yn fawr. 

16:15

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. May I thank all Members who took part in the debate? It's always nice to have Members not on the committee taking part as well, so I particularly welcome those contributions, and also local examples of the challenges we face but also potential ways of overcoming those challenges, protecting services and taking them forward. 

I think there were some strong common themes in contributions, Dirprwy Lywydd, around the importance of leisure for health and making those links, and I'm really pleased that, as a committee, we brought to the fore, I think, some of the issues and made that recommendation about a policy framework that takes both forward effectively. Jayne Bryant mentioned Newport Live, and I know they very much see themselves as a health and well-being service increasingly now. They really want to fulfil that role and do all they can on the preventative health agenda, and making sure that the health service isn't just reactive but forward thinking and preventative as well. I'm sure that's the case right across Wales, whatever model of service provision is in place. So, a policy framework that supports that, encourages that and strengthens that I think would be really, really valuable. 

Also, many Members emphasised the importance of swimming, and I think that's something that all of us would understand. It is a life skill, as was said, and, indeed, it can be a life-saving skill. Jayne Bryant mentioned Maindee library and also Maindee swimming pool. In terms of the swimming pool, I was once a lifeguard there, actually, many moons ago, and I well remember the local programme of primary school swimming lessons that so many children learnt to swim through—children from the more deprived families that possibly wouldn't have learned to swim otherwise. So, I really do think that these services and the primary school involvement are absolutely important in Wales, and deserve all the support we can give them. 

On the power of libraries, knowledge is power, and that is on the keystone of what was the Pill library. I well remember it, having been brought up in Pill in Newport. I'm sorry to give so many mentions to my colleague Jayne Bryant, Dirprwy Lywydd, but there is a lot of overlap, as you would imagine, between both of us in terms of our upbringing and our current representation. But yes, libraries are a really powerful instrument for social advancement. Knowledge really is power, and they do so much more besides. I'm really pleased that this report I think has enabled us to give a little bit more limelight and focus to our libraries, because again, I know every Member here, and Members who aren't here at the moment, would understand the importance of their local libraries and want to support them and enhance the role that they have. 

I can see, Dirprwy Lywydd, that time is pressing. Let me just welcome the way that the Deputy Minister has engaged with the committee, not just today, but during the inquiry. I’m sure that will continue in the future. We welcome the reassurances you’ve given today, Deputy Minister, and we look forward to working with you as these recommendations are taken forward. Diolch yn fawr.

16:20

The proposal is to note the committee's report. Does any Member object? No. Therefore the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36. 

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

6. Debate on Petition P-06-1345, 'Make conservation management plans compulsory for scheduled monuments at risk such as Ruperra Castle'

Item 6 is the debate on petition P-06-1345, 'Make conservation management plans compulsory for scheduled monuments at risk such as Ruperra Castle'. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion—Jack Sargeant.

Motion NDM8380 Jack Sargeant

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the petition P-06-1345 'Make conservation management plans compulsory for scheduled monuments at risk such as Ruperr