Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

22/11/2023

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

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

1. Questions to the Minister for Economy

Good afternoon and welcome to the Senedd Plenary meeting. The first item will be questions to the Minister for Economy, and the first question is from Samuel Kurtz.

Skills Development

1. What action is the Welsh Government taking to support the development of skills in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OQ60278

Thank you for the question. We're working in collaboration with industry, businesses, learning providers and key stakeholders to increase our skills capacity across Wales. This will help us to grow a skilled and diverse workforce to meet our future economy needs, and I look forward to doing so right across Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. 

Thank you, Minister. You may have heard yesterday in my question to the First Minister that I was recently part of a round-table discussion at RWE's power station in Pembroke in my constituency, where industry and stakeholders fed in their wants when it comes to maximising the opportunity in the renewable sector and decarbonising the South Wales Industrial Cluster, which stretches from Gwent to Pembrokeshire. You’ll be aware of SWIC’s vision and the opportunities, nay, the necessity in decarbonising our industries, our major employers in south Wales. However, Minister, what was really pressed home at the round-table was the need for futureproofing skills and, if we’re to maximise the benefits of the projects in the Celtic sea and across south Wales, we really need to work with our colleges and training sectors to prepare for the number of skilled workforce we will need in the future. So, would you agree with me that it’s now time to look at the SWIC not just as an industrial cluster, but as an opportunity for a centre of skills excellence, stretching right across the south Wales corridor, supporting the future skills necessary in these sectors? Diolch, Llywydd.

Yes. We continue to have really constructive conversations with RWE and the wider cluster. It’s why we created Net Zero Industry Wales—to help us to make progress on the journey to decarbonisation in a manner that we think is a just transition. Because there are opportunities for jobs in the future as well as the disruption that the transition will create. I met with RWE when I was in Germany last week and we had a conversation about a range of their plans, obviously focused on what they’re looking to do in Pembrokeshire and its broader impact as well. The challenge will be how we manage to get different arms of Government here, local government and the regions of the Swansea bay city deal area, and not just the individual local authorities, but also to see that we have a supporting environment with the UK Government, to take advantage of all of those opportunities. It’s another area where I think a pragmatic approach can lever in significant opportunities for Wales and what we can do.

And I should point out, as the Member has asked questions about future skills in this area, that not only are we in the right place in terms of our policy and what we want to do, but, of course, Pembrokeshire College is a key part of that. And it’s worth while noting that, on the skills front, in the skills competition that takes place, Wales continues to punch above its weight. There have been five medallists from Pembrokeshire College in the recent UK foundation skills competition. So, it shows that the talent is there; we need to ensure that the pathways are there for those people to go into work that will have a long-term future and will benefit all of us.

Permitted Development Rights and the Tourism Sector

2. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of permitted development rights on the tourism sector? OQ60273

Can I thank Janet Finch-Saunders for that question? I regularly engage with the visitor economy stakeholders in relation to tourism and wider matters, including permitted development rights.

Thank you. As you and I both know, tourism is the backbone of our economy not just in north Wales, but across the whole of Wales, but, in north Wales, it generates £1.8 billion annually. According to the latest tourism barometer, only the attractions sector has seen visitor levels rise. All other sectors report being down, on balance, especially activity providers, where 62 per cent are down, and caravan and campsites, 48 per cent are down. Now, some landowners have been using and exercising their permitted development rights to run those pop-up sites for tents, caravans, camper vans and motor homes for up to 28 days a year, without needing to apply for extra planning. But a large number of those have told me that they want us brought more in line with England, where you can do that exact same initiative for 60 days. So, the UK Government is backing landowners and the tourism sector by extending these permitted development rights from 28 days to 60. Will you do the same here in Wales, please?

Well, thank you for that supplementary question, Janet. And you're quite right, extending the time limit for temporary use of land for campsites was part of the measures around the COVID-19 pandemic. We had restrictions on foreign travel, so we were trying to help both the tourism industry and people that needed to have a holiday, by allowing these permitted developments on campsites. So, we are now considering the long-term impacts of extended development rights for temporary campsites, and, actually, we did run a consultation on this. That consultation has now closed and no decision has yet been made on those proposals. And that consultation was about whether we should extend from the current 28 days, which we reverted to, as you quite rightly say, and England didn't. But, in the meantime, while we are considering that, it is fair to say that landowners can still apply for planning permission. So, if they are on a site and they've got their permitted development up to 28 days, if they want to extend that, they can apply for planning consent in the normal way. And then, of course, the local authority will look at all of the issues around planning, as they would in the normal course of events, about the proximity to residents, and traffic, and so on. But we are aware, and I think it is important to say this, through the consultation process, we identified concerns from local residents, as well as benefits to the tourism industry. You've got to strike that balance—

13:35

You have to strike that balance between what is right for tourism and what is right for local residents. And we did hear concerns from residents living close to pop-up campsites, who've complained about noise and disruption. And, obviously, we've got issues of campsite traffic using narrow lanes, and so on. So, it is a balancing act, but we will listen to all the arguments that have been outlined in the consultation, and we will carefully consider them in light of our planning and tourism policies. I would just say that, obviously, issues related to permitted development are of course the responsibility of the Minister for Climate Change, who I know is taking a close interest in this matter, and I'm sure she'll be interested to hear the views expressed on this today, as well as those from the formal consultation.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Tom Giffard.

Diolch yn fawr. Good afternoon, Deputy Minister. You'll be aware of the Arts Council of Wales's recent decision to controversially de-fund National Theatre Wales, which has caused a great deal of concern for those in the industry. The decision potentially jeopardises the future financial viability of the national theatre, and the future of English-language theatre in Wales more generally. What's also notable is that ACW's impact assessment doesn't include a single number. After undertaking the decision, though, the arts council also indicated they'd undertake a review of English-language theatre in Wales. But do you share my concern, Deputy Minister, that deciding to embark on such a review after a decision to de-fund an organisation has been taken, which reaches tens of thousands of people every year, doing theatre in the English language, puts the cart before the horse?

Can I thank Tom Giffard for that question? As you know, all Welsh Government funding for the arts is channelled through the Arts Council of Wales, and they operate on an arm's-length principle. And under that principle, the investment review, which is what you're talking about, which has led to the decision on the National Theatre for Wales, is a decision for the Arts Council of Wales. Now, what I'm pleased to see is that their first review following the pandemic has now been completed, and I look forward to seeing how the arts council's decisions will support and benefit the communities of Wales. The outcomes of the investment review, as I've said, are a matter for the Arts Council of Wales, and I recognise that they've been through a very robust process, and they've had to make some very difficult decisions, as required, going through that process. There is, of course, an independent appeals process that is currently ongoing, and so it wouldn't be appropriate while an independent appeals process is ongoing for me to comment further. But I do welcome the announcement of the Arts Council of Wales and their commitment to undertake strategic interventions across a number of disciplines, across next year.

Thank you, Minister, for the answer. Obviously, I understand that you refer quite heavily there to the arm's-length principle of the role, which I understand and I respect, but I'm not sure that the Welsh Government can completely wash its hands of that decision. At the end of the day, this is taxpayers' money, and, as the Deputy Minister for arts in the Welsh Government, you have a responsibility to ensure that that money is spent effectively, efficiently, as well as making sure of the wider health of the arts sector in Wales. But, on top of that, the decision to de-fund the national theatre may not be one for the arts council at all, and might actually relate back to the Welsh Government, and, therefore, becomes your responsibility, Deputy Minister. And I refer to the 2007 'One Wales' agreement, which pledged to, and I quote,

'establish a National English-language Theatre',

in order to widen

'access...so that low income should not be a barrier to participation.'

I haven't seen a subsequent announcement from yourself, or any of your predecessors, to suggest that's no longer Government policy. So, can you confirm whether the Welsh Government has given up on its 2007 pledge of establishing an English-language theatre in Wales?

13:40

No, absolutely not, but I can't pick and choose as the arts Minister. I can't pick and choose where the Arts Council of Wales carries out its responsibilities as an arm's-length body. The very nature of an arm's-length body means that that is exactly what they do. They make their own decisions, and they distribute their funding based on the principles that we set out in our remit letter to them, so that they're not acting completely out of kilter with what we expect as a Welsh Government. But the way in which their funding is distributed, and the way in which they've undertaken their investment review, is absolutely a matter for the Arts Council of Wales, because that is what the arm's-length principle means. 

Thank you. The Welsh Labour Government were very keen to take the credit in 2007 when this was set up—as I say, it was in the 'One Wales' agreement to establish it. But now it's been de-funded, the Minister washes her hands of it. The national theatre here has been completely de-funded. If, as you say, everything is their responsibility and public bodies are nothing to do with you, people will wonder exactly what the point of having a Deputy Minister in the Welsh Government responsible for the arts is. It's no surprise, therefore, that, this past week, even your own co-operation partners have turned on you, with Heledd Fychan remarkably saying that there's no champion for the arts in the Welsh Government. Indeed, in a rare intervention this week on the Politics Wales programme, the artistic director for the Wales Millennium Centre, Graeme Farrow, said that the arts sector in Wales was 'in a crisis', but, on the same show, they said that the Deputy Minister was unavailable for comment. Doesn't it say it all about the priorities of the Deputy Minister, one who we know enjoys foreign trips, clocking up a total of 175 domestic journeys in a ministerial car in a year—the most of any Deputy Minister—whilst jetting off across the world following sports teams, including a £30,000 trip to New Zealand, but yet, when the arts is in a crisis in Wales, the Deputy Minister is unavailable for comment and nowhere to be seen. Your role is about far more than just photo opps and ribbon cutting; it's about being a champion for the industry. So, when will you get a grip on the situation, step up and get on with the job?

I'm not even sure that that tirade warrants a response, Llywydd. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Ahead of the Welsh Government's most recent budget, the further education sector was briefed by the Government to expect a 3 per cent reduction in apprenticeship funding next year. However, many in the sector contacted me to express their shock to find that the reduction was actually 24.5 per cent. Now, one of the justifications for a reduction was made on the basis that the apprenticeship funding was demand led, and that the demand wasn't there. Again, colleagues in the FE sector have contacted me to say that that isn't the case. So, for the sake of clarity, who's right, and who's wrong?

Choices around the Welsh Government budget have not been finalised. We continue to have trusted conversations across all sectors about the extraordinarily difficult budgetary position that we face—a combination of low growth, high inflation and the reality that our budgets are worth significantly less than at the time of the spending review. And there is no hiding from the fact that all Ministers will have to make incredibly difficult choices. 

This also, of course, has been exacerbated by the loss of former EU funds. And there is only so much that the Welsh Government can do to cover over all of the holes that have been created. I look forward to having further constructive conversations with colleagues across Government, and the wider sectors, about the reality of all our choices. I recognise there'll be concern in every sector when we have to make choices. And it's fair enough for Members to wish to scrutinise and ask questions around that, of course. If people want to put forward alternatives, then that will require moving money from one part of the Government to another, with the additional difficulty that that would cause.

13:45

I accept, of course, the budget isn't finalised, but I think there are multiple things here that are quite alarming. In the first instance, given the scale of the challenge we face when it comes to the skills gap, why wasn't take-up within the fund far greater in the first instance? On its justification, the Government said in the budget process that take-up and, therefore, demand was low, but its own figures seem to suggest that take-up is increasing. And figures for the second quarter of 2022 and 2023 saw a 25 per cent increase for apprenticeship level 3 starts. Now, if an increase is seen in the next release of data tomorrow, where does that leave the Government and colleges?

And, secondly, it is clear that, despite the Welsh Government's briefing to the sector, the Government has failed to communicate with the sector about what was coming in this budget. Modelling was done on the figures that the Government provided. This has done nothing but cause anxiety within the further education sector. Now, of course, we hear time and time again from colleges that they are unsure as to exactly what the Government expects of them in delivering courses that will address the skills gap and contribute to a transition to a green economy. So, is this just another example of Government unsuccessfully communicating with the sector and being clear on its strategy? 

I need to be clear: I'm not going to get drawn into commenting on partial leaks. I haven't seen what the Member refers to. But it is important that we're able to have trusted conversations with stakeholders as we go through a budget process. The alternative is that the Welsh Government makes all the choices without any engagement, and then it's a surprise at the point at which the budget is announced, and we need to understand and work through the real terms impact of any choices that we make as well as our unavoidable responsibility to lay a budget that balances. The Government must do that and will do that when the finance Minister lays that budget on behalf of the entire Government.

So, there are really difficult choices. I've indicated previously, when we've gone through the in-year budget choices we had to make, that we didn't have uptake at that point. And I indicated both here and, I think, in scrutiny committee that were we not in the budget position we find ourselves in, then I would be making more efforts to actually want more people to take up those opportunities for skills and apprenticeships. I am doing what is responsible, as an individual Minister and as part of the whole Government, in making sure that we both balance the budget but still maintain the priorities we have.

And so, actually, the choices that we make with the resources we still have will matter even more. And so, my commitment is to carry on investing in the future, even if we're not able to do everything we would have wanted to have done at the start of this Senedd term when, let's remind ourselves, some people said the Welsh Labour offer was modest and not ambitious enough in spending terms, and yet, actually, we find ourselves in a position where those spending choices are even more challenging. So, the supposedly more generous offers made by other parties are simply not achievable.

We will carry on having conversations with the sector. We will talk about how and why this is on the floor today. But, more importantly, we'll talk about how and why we need to be able to have a budget, and we'll carry on investing in parts of our economy and the skills for the future that really can drive the Wales that we want and a modern, fairer, greener, stronger Wales that we all want to see. 

Support for Jobseekers

3. What support is the Welsh Government providing to jobseekers who are unable to access the UK Government's Restart Scheme because they have not been unemployed for nine months or more? OQ60290

Thank you for the question.

Together with Jobcentre Plus, the Welsh Government has a range of measures in place to support unemployed people into work. For example, the Welsh Government funds both ReAct+ and Communities for Work+ that is delivered by colleagues in local government. Both of these programmes can support people who have been unemployed for less than nine months.

Thank you very much for that response. Obviously, when you launched the new plan for employability and skills last year, a key part of that plan was the commitment to introduce ReAct+. And one of the things that has been quite striking then is that £5.3 million has been cut from the budget in this year for ReAct+. So, can I ask, therefore, what assessment have you made of the impact that might have in terms of young people's ability to access ReAct+, so that they're not reliant on the UK Government's flawed Restart scheme? Because I'm sure you'd agree with me that the reason that you have put forward ReAct+ is that it does seem nonsensical that people have to be unemployed for nine months before they can access help. 

So, ReAct+ covers a range of areas. It's designed to support jobseekers, unemployed people and people who are either at risk of redundancy or have recently been made redundant. For jobseekers and unemployed people, the target is for people aged 16 to 24, so it helps people by trying to deliver more tailored solutions. We’ve had a conversation with the Member for the Rhondda about the work that ReAct+ has been able to do following the closure of UK Windows & Doors.

ReAct+ is, though, a demand-led budget, and part of the reason why there’s been extra room in that budget to help meet the in-year pressures is that we haven’t had the call on the demand budget in terms of the number of people we expected to have to help at the start of the year. Now, that in itself is good news. The danger and the risk is, of course, that if we have significant unemployment events through the rest of this financial year, then that demand-led budget, some of that money has gone into making sure that we can balance our books within this year, and planning ahead for next year. I still think that we’re in a position where, if people are at risk of losing their job, or if they require additional support through ReAct+, we can still help those people, wherever they may be in Wales, within this year.

The challenge comes about the state of the economy as we move forward, and in today’s autumn statement, which I haven’t heard all of, but the Office for Budget Responsibility have downgraded growth assessments across the UK, so that will both mean the economy is likely to still stay flat, and some businesses will grow and others will not succeed. So, we’re still in a very difficult and challenging period and, again, going back to the questions being asked by Luke Fletcher, we still have to live within our means and balance the budget, but the priorities we do then choose will be even more important because there are some things the Government isn’t going to be able to do moving forward. We’ll continue to focus our support in line with our employability plan to help people where there are gaps in Department for Work and Pensions' provision.

13:50

Sadly, Minister, ageism within employment is still very much prevalent, with employers often bypassing those with considerable experience in favour of much younger people. This situation is worsened by the fact that people over the age of 50 are more likely to have caring responsibilities, with 12 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women aged 55 to 64 providing informal care that further limits their ability to work. In response to this, the UK Government has announced a £22 million investment in new measures to tackle unemployment amongst the over-50s, and I was delighted to see that this increased support will also see the creation of new 50-plus champions who will work directly with employers to encourage and promote the benefits of employing older workers. All this will dovetail with the midlife MOTs the UK Government has also announced. With this in mind, how is the Welsh Government making the best use of this opportunity and working with business to make sure those jobseekers over the age of 50 are fully aware of the range of positions and opportunities that are available to them? Thank you. 

I recognise that in different parts of the labour market it can be more challenging if you’re a young person seeking work, and in other parts of the labour market people can find the alternative, that if you’re an older worker seeking work, it can be more difficult. I should say I’m not quite in the over-50s category, but that is not far in the distance.

When it comes to the design of support from the UK Government, on the one hand it is positive that there is a recognition of the need to focus support for people who are over 50, but still have a lot of their working life ahead of them, and that’s a positive. Actually, between our officials and the way that Jobcentre Plus is managed locally, there are really good relationships. I know Peter Fox isn’t in the Chamber, but when we talked about issues in his constituency or in Blaenau Gwent or indeed in the Rhondda or Ynys Môn recently, we’ve found, actually, a really constructive local relationship.

We still continue to have disagreements with the Government on the design of how some of that support works, because some of the support is mandatory. For example, if someone is referred to the Restart scheme, it is mandatory that they participate and they’ll be sanctioned if they don't. And whilst I understand the politics of why people talk about conditionality and requiring people to do things, there’s very little evidence that it has a net benefit in getting people into real work opportunities that are suitable for them and their skills. We continue to believe that it is better to recognise that people who are out of work, the great majority of them are very keen to return to the world of work, to understand how we can address the barriers that they have, whether that’s skills, whether it’s travel, whether it’s childcare, to help them into work in a more supportive rather than a more punitive environment. Where we can work with the UK Government we’ll continue to do so.

Supporting Small Businesses

4. What are the Welsh Government's priorities for supporting small businesses over the next twelve months? OQ60267

Thank you. I welcome the Member to the Chamber. Small businesses are an essential part of the Welsh economy, and we are committed to supporting them to start, grow and prosper with dedicated support available through our Business Wales service, Social Business Wales, and the Development Bank of Wales. I look forward to highlighting the role of small businesses in Wales with Members from all parties, I trust, on Small Business Saturday on 2 December. 

13:55

Just in case you haven't noticed, Minister, I do turn up to this Chamber on a very regular basis.

Now, this morning, Minister, I had the privilege of sponsoring the Federation of Small Businesses Wales’s small business breakfast briefing and there were several issues that were highlighted to Members about the challenges facing small businesses.

One of the issues that was raised was skills, and you'll be aware of the FSB’s new report, which shows that small employers are less likely to seek advice on skills or recruitment challenges, and that many businesses have limited and often informal links with educational institutions, which results in small businesses developing the skills they need on an ad hoc and fragmented basis. Now, the report calls for better alignment between businesses and skills providers. So, can you tell us what the Welsh Government is doing to build better links between education providers and small businesses in order to create more opportunities for small businesses and indeed their employees?

Thank you for the additional question and I recognise the Member’s regular contributions in the Chamber. I do, though. On the point he raises, we have recently looked at investing in employment bureaus—they’re called different things in different colleges—where there are deliberate links drawn between local businesses and those college students. So, we're then looking at making sure the right skills are there and that they're relevant to the world of work. That also follows on the work that we do with Careers Wales as well.

Part of our challenge is where small businesses have the headspace to be able to look up and think of what they can do in investing in the skills of their own workforce, and looking at where that skills advice is housed and provided. Any business that is looking for where to get advice can go to Business Wales as a one-stop shop to help them navigate through the system. Rather than saying, 'There are a 100 choices, choose the right one', the Business Wales service and Business Wales advice can help people to get to the right point.

We all recognise that investing in the future of your workforce is one of the reasons why other more productive economies or sectors are more successful. So, it's a cultural change, as well as an understanding of how practical support and advice can be provided. So, if any small business is looking at this, then I hope they'll take up the offer of support that is there through Business Wales, including links they can have with local, further education providers and others. And I look forward to talking more about small businesses over the next week, when I launch our reshaping of the economic mission, which will, of course, address matters around skills and indeed small businesses.

As the Minister knows, reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete has been found in the roof of Bridgend indoor market, which then had to close immediately, and has hugely impacted many of the small businesses there. Bridgend County Borough Council has been working with the traders and the National Market Traders Federation to support the market traders and help them get up and running again as soon as possible.

I'm pleased to say that Bakestones bakery—the best Welsh cakes in Bridgend—[Interruption.] They are. It has gone into a new unit and is very happy. Financial settlements have been offered to all the traders now and 90 per cent have now been accepted. And the council has also rented a unit in the adjacent Rhiw shopping centre and is setting up for about nine traders to operate from there, and be fully operational by the end of the week.

The council has also appointed WSP to provide the next level of surveys and next steps, and I'm sorry to say that it is likely that a full roof replacement programme will be recommended. So, what help can the Welsh Government give to BCBC with this unexpected and unwelcome burden, particularly at a time when council budgets are stretched and service demand is increasing? Diolch.

I had a very constructive meeting on 23 October with the leader of Bridgend council and his officials. And it was a joint meeting with your office, as you'd both requested a meeting at the same time, so we were able to set out what we're doing then. And I'm happy to confirm publicly that we're looking to carry on working with the council. I think they've been really proactive in wanting to make sure that businesses can survive, and the additional relief they provided. Having somewhere that is nearby, so you're not interrupting shoppers’ patterns, but then understanding the future of the building. And so, if a full roof replacement is recommended, there are real questions about what the freeholder of the building is prepared to do, what the council is prepared to do, and then with a practical plan of how the Welsh Government can carry on supporting.

Because I recognise this is part of the balance of what makes a successful town centre. How do you have enough footfall with retail operating as part of that, with residential operating as part of that, to make sure that you have life in the town centre that keeps on attracting people to it? And that will be especially important for the market traders. I can see one of the Members for Newport in front of you, and actually a successful market redevelopment can really add to the life of a town and city centre. So, there are opportunities with what market traders provide. And I look forward to carrying on that constructive and hopefully positive conversation with the leadership of Bridgend council, and, indeed, with your own engagement as the constituency Member.

14:00
Cardiff Capital Region City Deal

5. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's involvement in the Cardiff city deal? OQ60270

Yes, and I welcome the Member to the Chamber this afternoon. The Welsh Government investment—

I just need to point out that it's for me to welcome Members to the Chamber. Many Members here are frequent visitors and do not need to be welcomed every time they're in the—.

Indeed, it's great to see the Member in the Chamber this afternoon. Welsh Government investment underpins the Cardiff capital region city deal and our shared priorities with local government in the region; one example is our investment in the south Wales metro. We will carry on actively exploring opportunities to co-invest in our economic future.

I genuinely don't have a vote in the Labour leadership bid that's coming up, Minister—[Laughter.]—but it is nice to see you here today, because I didn't see you yesterday. Minister, I recently visited the Aberthaw power station, or the former power station at Aberthaw, which has, obviously, just been recently acquired by Cardiff city deal. This wasn't part of the business case that was put forward by the bid team to secure the city deal that, obviously, the Welsh Government and UK Government, along with local authorities, sponsor. The ambition for the site is great, and it was good to see that, but there is a need to bring that ambition forward and make it jump off the screens and the slides that are shown in the presentation to become a reality. What assessment have you, along with your officials, made, given the considerable investment that's going to be required to bring that site back into beneficial use, that the ambition that the city deal has for that site will become a reality?

I think part of the point about the reason why the region invested in purchasing Aberthaw was a bet not just on the immediate term but on the future, because of the significance of the power connections that exist there and the opportunities for energy deployment on and around the site. So, there's a significant development opportunity. What we need to see is the amount of investment that will come in. Some of that will involve UK Government choices, of whatever colour the current or future UK Government is. It will also involve engagement with the private sector about how to develop around there, and the ongoing choices about not just energy generation but then transmission as well.

I do think it's understandable why leaders of different shades have agreed that this is the right choice to make. Of course, when the region were talking about this, your group colleague Peter Fox was still part of the region, when they started talking about whether they wanted to do this. So, I and, indeed, the UK Government, because we co-fund the city deal, are looking at what they're likely to do, as well as the other projects within the city deal, and making sure that those other investments that are now starting to be made at an increasing pace deliver against the objectives of generating additional return to the economy with additional jobs on a long-term basis. So, we will carry on assessing not just the purchase but then the plans around it, about what could be a significant investment in the future of our economy.

Jenny Rathbone. Don't feel obliged, just because I've called your name—you don't have to take the opportunity.

Grass-roots Sports Clubs

6. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on grass-roots sports clubs? OQ60289

I thank Jayne Bryant for that question. The impact of the cost-of-living crisis continues to be felt in the sport sector. The Welsh Government is providing additional financial support through Sport Wales to our national governing bodies to assist with their bespoke interventions.

Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. Last week, I was contacted by a local rugby club in my constituency, who have just been hit with a huge increase in their energy bills. They've told me that their energy bills will rise from £900 a month to £1,750 a month. For comparison, this club have said that the energy bills will have increased from £5,000 in 2022 to just over £19,000 in 2024. This is absolutely eye-watering, and this is an incredible difference. As a smaller grass-roots sports club, they just don't have the resources to find the difference, and they've told me that this price increase could see the club cease to exist by August 2024, which would be an incredible shame, because this club really does hold a bright future.

Deputy Minister, we all know the positive benefits local clubs have within our communities. What conversations have the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding energy price tariffs, and what more can the Welsh Government do to help support clubs through these really difficult times to ensure their continued presence?

Can I thank Jayne Bryant for that supplementary and, actually, put on record my acknowledgement of the severe difficulties that increased energy costs continue to inflict across sport sectors and across our economy as a whole? It's of particular concern for our grass-roots sporting clubs that don't have access to the kinds of funds that they need, which you've very clearly set out in your question. Again, I don't want this to be a glib answer, but I think we need to be very clear about where the responsibility for these things lies. As we know and has been said many times, the main policy levers around energy pricing lie with the UK Government when it comes to responding to issues like that. And they really do need to use those levers that are at their disposal to take further urgent steps to target gaps in support, particularly for boosting organisations and businesses such as grass-roots sports clubs, for all the reasons that you've set out.

Welsh Ministers, including the Minister for Economy, and officials have made repeated representations to UK Government Ministers regarding the impact of high energy costs on businesses, on the public and on the third sector. I haven't had the chance to catch up with the budget yet, but I hope that the Chancellor will be using his autumn statement today to help alleviate many of those pressures on households and businesses. Whilst we're unable to support with energy costs, we do have support available to help with energy-saving measures. The Welsh Government's energy service provides technical support and guidance for public sector and community organisations to help them become more energy efficient, and that's all part of our decarbonisation programme as well. We provide interest-free loans to public sector organisations throughout Wales through the funding programme to help with those energy efficiency measures. We've also advocated for greater incentives for business to invest in energy-efficient measures, and to that end, we're supporting the Development Bank of Wales's green business loan scheme.

I think, just going back to sport, it's probably important, again, to put on the record that Sport Wales this year made the unusual move to support energy costs via their energy savings grant in recognition of the difficulties that grass-roots sports clubs are experiencing, and that has allowed clubs to access up to £25,000 for energy efficiency upgrades such as solar panel installations, and so on. That funding for this year has ended, but I'm hopeful that it will reopen again in the next financial year. Of course, there is also the Welsh Government-funded Be Active fund, which is there to support grass-roots sport. So, I'm hoping that we will get some good news from the Chancellor today, and once we have a better perspective on our own financial position in response to all of that, then we will be in a better position to talk more longer term about the kind of support that we can get, within our devolved competence, to more grass-roots organisations.

14:05
Closure of UK Windows & Doors Group Factories

7. How is the Welsh Government supporting workers following the closure of UK Windows & Doors Group factories in Rhondda? OQ60262

Thank you for the question.

Since I heard the devastating news about UK Windows & Doors, I and my officials have been working closely with key partners to achieve the best possible outcome for all those concerned. This includes the local authority, the Department for Work and Pension, Jobcentre Plus, Business Wales and others, and, indeed, the engagement we've had with both of the constituency Members. This includes ensuring that the workers can access the full range of support that is available to them to try to secure alternative work.

Thank you, Minister. Job losses are always met with fear and anxiety, especially on this occasion, with the sheer number of employees affected and with such little notice provided. Luckily, the Welsh Government's ReAct+ scheme and the advice day hosted by partners in the Welsh Government, the UK Government, Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council and local employers shortened that window of fear and anxiety, with over 250 live job vacancies filled. From conversations with workers and Teneo, it's my understanding that redundancies are being received with no hiccups or delays. I'd like to ask the Minister if he's received any further information regarding the welfare fund promised to workers and if there is any further update regarding the future of the sites across Rhondda.

Thank you for those two questions. On the legacy fund, as you know, it's something that we've discussed with administrators. There's been an ask, and my understanding is that the shareholders have asked the administrators to consider distributing a legacy fund. We're not, as yet, in a position to understand whether administrators will do that, or their willingness to do that, because they need to complete the process of the administration to understand whether there are assets to be able to distribute.

That does come back to your second point about the sites. Unfortunately, the administrators have not received a bid to purchase one or more of the sites as a going concern. That means they're therefore looking to sell off plant and machinery, and it also means they're looking at the future of the sites. We think that these are sites that should have employment use in the future. They're marked in the development plan for that purpose, and we think there are opportunities for new businesses to come into those sites. So, we remain interested in working with the council and, indeed, those that have now got responsibility for working to sell those sites to understand what the possible future might mean. That then would come back to whether there are assets to distribute in a legacy fund as well.

We're also continuing to work with the council, because the jobs fair that was undertaken was led by the council, and over 300 former UK Windows & Doors people attended. There were more than 250 vacancies from a range of employers. So, we're looking again to see if there is another opportunity to either have a significant individual event to try to draw people together who have not secured alternative work, or whether, actually, more distributive means of information in the community are a better way forward. But we'll continue to maintain an interest in those sites and what it means for current and potential future employees in the Rhondda.

14:10
Bridgend Indoor Market

9. What discussions has the Minister had with Bridgend County Borough Council regarding the support being provided to stall holders at Bridgend indoor market? OQ60301

Thank you. I met, at their request, with the leader of Bridgend County Borough Council and the constituency Member for Bridgend and Porthcawl on 23 October to understand what more the Welsh Government can do to support the council on this matter. My officials have also been engaging with the council and traders since the closure to offer further advice and support.

Diolch am yr ateb, Gweinidog. I've been speaking with stall holders now since the initial announcement of the closure two months ago, and the response to the level of support from BCBC and the Welsh Government has been very mixed. Some, of course, are very grateful; others are feeling left to find their own way. We've heard mention of Bakestones today; well, Anne, the owner of Bakestones, said that she was practically left to it. Another stall holder, who wished to remain anonymous, said, 'I feel let down and pushed aside. They don't care about us. This was our livelihood, our business—gone in minutes'. So, in response to stall holders, and, of course, taking note of your response to Sarah Murphy, what exactly is the Government's intervention in this? Because that wasn't clear from the Minister's response, past conversations with BCBC, who, ultimately, will need financial support to deal with this. 

Part of the issue here, in all honesty, is that because the council get advice that means they need to close the building, that produces an immediate event for businesses. They won't all have insurance to cover them adequately for their losses. So you're left in a position where the council can either say, 'We don't have a responsibility, we're only a landlord in this endeavour', and then you know that businesses and jobs will go. The council have chosen not to do that, and they've been proactive in looking for alternative premises and, indeed, in providing rates relief and the hiring of commercial fridges and freezers, for example. What we then need to do, and as we have done, is to make sure that business advice is available for each of those individual businesses in their circumstances to understand that there is additional support, and those are, understandably, bespoke conversations. As the council come forward to look at the current position with the current venue for the market that is closed, we will understand more about what it would cost to resolve that building, or whether that is, in fact, an option, and we could then have a longer term conversation about what additional support we may or may not be able to provide.

We're working, though, in an environment where the reliefs that we have available are being deployed by the council. We're working in an environment where business support and advice is being provided, including advice on potential grant or skills investment support, as well. We'll then need to understand: is there more that we can do with the council, when, as you indicated in your earlier question, the Welsh Government budget is not in a position where there is additional money that is free and looking for a home? We have real pressure on our budgets. I'm committed to working with the council to understand what we can do together in a way that makes it easy for those business owners and the jobs that are attached to them to try to make sure we provide as unified an answer where it is as simple as possible to access any support, and recognising, as I said earlier, that a thriving market stall environment can be a really positive aspect of what a thriving town centre could and should look like. So, we'll carry on having a conversation with the council and we'll then make decisions on the back of that.

14:15
Japanese Companies

10. What assessment has the Minister made of the contribution of Japanese companies to the Welsh economy over the last 50 years? OQ60266

Thank you for the question.

Wales enjoys a strong relationship with Japan, with many significant economic and cultural ties. The relationship is important for Wales on all levels—economic, social and cultural. Japan is our second-highest investing market—thousands of Welsh jobs that are reliant on Japanese-headquartered companies located in Wales, including, of course, in the Member's constituency.

Indeed. And if I can take the Minister back to a recent visit that he made there, where there were Japanese companies from all over Wales—every part of Wales: mid, west, north and south—who were gathered together to not only see the work that is going on in Sony, but actually to network together as well, and the importance of relationship building for connections between Japan and Wales is crucial.

So, what I want to ask you is: how do we build on that for the next 50 years? Because good inward investment of that type, that bases its manufacturing and design and production and its research and its innovation here in Wales, is part of the key to our economic future, alongside growing indigenous businesses, because these investors also have a supply chain that works with them as well. So, how can Welsh Government help us build on those relationships and make it even stronger over the next decade and the next 50 years?

Thank you for the question and I well remember the recent event, with 14 different Japanese companies and the Japanese ambassador was here for the event as well, and so it is a really positive milestone, recognising the difference the Japanese investment has made, and it does show that inward investment is part of our economic past and our future as well, and you do not have to choose between either the foundation and everyday economy or searching for inward investment. And the point the Member makes is right, thinking about the significance of the supply chain. So, we will carry on investing real-time energy and effort in the relationship with Japanese companies that are here today and those that may be here in the future. We’ll carry on in our engagement with the Government of Japan and indeed some of the links we have in Oita, for example, within a specific area where there are real cultural and educational links as well.

And it’s worth pointing out the continued investment that some of those companies make: Sony, we talked about in the Member's constituency; Panasonic recently announced significant investment in how they're decarbonising their production in their facilities as well. So, there are lots of areas where Japanese investment is part of the story we want to tell. It’s very much a part of the future, and I look forward to playing my part in making sure that it's a successful one.

I'm grateful to Huw Irranca-Davies for raising that question here this afternoon. Minister, you mentioned north Wales, where Japanese companies have a level of investment there, and you'll be fully aware of the significance of advanced manufacturing, particularly in my region in north Wales. And I'm sure you were pleased to hear today the Chancellor's announcement of an investment zone for north-east Wales in Wrexham and Flintshire, and I'm grateful for your support on that as well.

With that particular zone in mind, I'm keen to understand if there are any early conversations being held with perhaps Japanese companies, or any other companies from around the world to invest in that part of the world, so we can see those jobs that we're so desperate to see.

Well, I did hear part of the autumn statement and I did hear the Chancellor refer to a second investment zone centred on Wrexham and Flintshire. I believe there's also been agreement, following a conversation with the levelling-up Minister, to the south-east investment zone as well, following the announcement I made to the Chamber last week. So, I think that is positive news.

When we look at advanced manufacturing in north-east Wales, there are a range of players, including Japanese-owned businesses—Toyota being a very obvious example. And we've got a good relationship with Toyota, and Unite as the recognised union on that site. We've helped with investment on that site to secure further jobs and indeed decarbonise their production. We look forward to doing more with them, because Toyota don't just have an interest in, of course, car manufacturing; they're looking at alternative fuels, they're looking at electric, they're looking at the potential for fuel cells as well from hydrogen. There's a lot more for us to do with them and other companies as well. And indeed Toyota—maybe referring back to the first question—may be a future host for a networking event for Japanese companies in the future, so I look forward to carrying on a really constructive and positive relationship with them and indeed wider businesses in the north-east of Wales.

2. Questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services

The next item will be questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services and the first question is from Peter Fox.

14:20
Dental Services

1. What assessment has the Minister made of the adequacy of dental services? OQ60298

I have acknowledged that access to dentistry is not where we would like it to be. The changes we are making mean NHS dentistry is becoming more accessible to those who have historically struggled to gain access. Over 250,000 new patients have received treatment since April 2022.

Thank you, Minister, for that answer. Time and time again, Members raise concerns about dental services, and you often repeat that your new contracts are increasing the number of first-time NHS patients. However, this is to the detriment of both dental services and the Welsh public, and distorts the reality of a service that is on its knees. A practice in my constituency has recently reached out to highlight that, as a result of the new contract, they are forced into a position where thousands of existing patients are unable to even be considered for recall appointments. Because of this, the practice is now faced with a clawback of £155,000. This is not an exception to the rule, this is the rule, due to the lack of long-term thinking. Further, dentists now pay for their lab fees personally, but for complex lab work, like dentures, the NHS remuneration does not cover this cost, leaving the dentist out of pocket. It is no wonder, then, that practices are having to increase private work in order to carry on providing what NHS work they can. Minister, what measures are you taking to specifically address recall appointment wait times?

Thanks very much. Well, I won't comment specifically on that particular case, but what I can tell you is that we have very deliberately developed contracts in terms of dental services where we are focusing attention on the most urgent, but also on the preventative aspects of dentistry, and on focusing attention on people who have had difficulty in accessing NHS dentistry in the past. Now, what that does mean is that there is likely to be an impact on those who are waiting for recall. But as I've said in this Chamber before, in that sense, I think it is important that there's recognition that we're following the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance on this, and the NICE guidance suggests that, if you have healthy teeth, you don't need a recall every six months. In fact, you can go up to two years without having a recall. That is what NICE is saying, and you ask us to follow NICE most of the time, so I think it's really important that we are led by clinicians in this area. We recognise that there is only a certain amount of money and we do have to target that, and that's why we are following that particular approach.

I think it is probably worth saying, in relation to clawback just generally, it's a very different situation and agreement that we have with dentists compared to GPs, for example. The situation is that we pay dentists in terms of this contract in advance. That doesn't happen anywhere else. So, obviously, if they can't reach the contract that they agreed to, then I think you in particular, who want us to be responsible stewards of the public funds, would want us to understand that, if they are not actually providing the service that they signed up to, then it's a responsibility on us as a Government to make sure that we go and get that money back. 

Last month, Hayden Dental in Carmarthen said that they would bring their NHS service to an end at the end of the year. That follows very similar developments to the west in Whitland, to the east in Llandeilo and to the south in Cross Hands and so on and so forth. So, does the Minister accept that the fact that all of these dental surgeries have ceased their NHS service means that it'll make it even more difficult to attract people to tender for a new contract because of the shortage of provision? Do you have the data now? You mentioned that you hoped to have a central register at a national level—do you have that data, which can focus on what is happening on the ground? And if it does confirm what dentists and service users are saying locally, that there is a crisis, would you be willing to meet the elected members and the health board in the area to find a solution?

14:25

Well, I do accept that certain areas of Wales have handed back more contracts than others—Hywel Dda is one of those areas, where seven contracts have been handed back. And what happens then is that we go back out to re-contract, and what I'm pleased to announce is that four contracts have already been issued and that there is interest for Cross Hands, Llandeilo, south Ceredigion and north Pembrokeshire too. So, that process of finding new contractors is already under way and there is interest. And what has happened is that there are three contracts that have now been handed back—Carmarthen, Whitland and Haverfordwest—and they will cease providing the service by the end of the year. But what we have said is that that central register must be in place by the end of the year. We haven't reached the end of the year as of yet, so I do very much hope that we will be able to look at those details by the end of the year. And, of course, you will be aware that we also provided an additional £5,000 to encourage people to train in rural areas.

Minister, in terms of the Bridges dental practice in Caldicot, I met with the partners there this week and they do feel very strongly that their long-standing commitment as a practice to NHS provision is being put at risk by the new NHS dental services contract, and that they do not feel that they're able to provide what they consider to be a proper standard of care for existing NHS patients while meeting the requirements for new patients and what they're required to do for those new patients. They believe that this view is very widespread among NHS dentists, not just in their area, but across Wales, and they believe that that new NHS dental services contract isn't working as it was expected to and we will see a reducing level of NHS provision as a result. So, there does seem to be a groundswell of opinion from across Wales, Minister, that's very, very concerned about the sort of level of NHS provision that we're likely to see going forward, if that new contract isn't carefully assessed and perhaps adjusted.

Thanks very much, John. And as I say, I don't want to talk about any specific surgery, but what I can say is that, obviously, we're now in further negotiations about the next iteration of the contract. You know, I don't think we're going to apologise for the fact that we want to focus on urgent cases and on cases where people have had it really difficult to access dentistry for a long time, but what I can tell you is, actually, although there does seem quite a lot of noise around this, 80 per cent of dental contract values are operating under a variation arrangement that includes that requirement to see new patients for routine and urgent care. So, people are signing up to these contracts. There is a bit of noise in the system, of course, because it does mean change, and when you prioritise one group, then, obviously, a different group is going to be deprioritised. But, you know, we went into this with our eyes open, we are following NICE guidance on this, and what we're doing is changing a model that's been there for a long time. So, I understand the frustrations, but, as I say, we're continuing those discussions with people, but I think it is important to understand that, actually, perhaps people were being recalled very, very frequently when there wasn't a need for it.

Long COVID

2. How is the Welsh Government supporting people living with long COVID? OQ60286

Support for people living with long COVID remains a priority. To date, we have invested £18.3 million to develop and expand Adferiad-funded services in every health board in Wales.

Thank you for that response, Minister.

I believed that—. Well, it is believed that long COVID is caused by blood clotting becoming hyperactive and creating micro clots in the small blood vessels resulting in a lack of oxygen reaching organs in the body. One way of treating patients is by using a treatment known as heparin-induced extracorporeal lipoprotein apheresis, thankfully known by the far snappier acronym of HELP, which, like dialysis, removes substances from the blood. Clinics in both Cyprus and Germany are using such machines to treat long COVID and a HELP machine exists in Llandough Hospital, used to treat patients with inherited high cholesterol in the lipid department set up by my constituent, Dr Stephanie Matthews, some 30 years ago. So, will you commit to investigating the feasibility of expanding access to such a machine and support calls for larger control studies into this treatment, which could support patients with long COVID across Wales? Diolch, Llywydd.

14:30

Well, thanks very much. The fact is that we're still learning about long COVID and what causes it. So, there are lots and lots of different reasons and the way people suffer is very, very different. So, what is important is that we adapt according to the needs of the individual patient and that’s why we’ve gone down a different route here in Wales, where we are having multi-professional, multi-skills clinics where people can be sent to the most appropriate support for them. And I’m sure that would include examples like the one you gave in Llandough. The fact is that we have increased the amount of money we have given to long COVID support to £8 million. Anything that will have to be done will have to be done within the context of that £8 million, and, obviously, we’ll let clinicians determine how that should be balanced.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservatives' spokesperson, Russell George.

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, in November last year, ITV Wales reported evidence of a number of significant care failings within Swansea Bay University Health Board’s maternity services. Prior to the ITV documentary, the Welsh Government told Robert and Sian Channon, who first blew the whistle on serious failings, based on their own experiences, that a review of serious incidents and complaints had taken place last year. The family then received two freedom of information responses from the NHS Wales Delivery Unit, which confirmed that a review had not taken place. And the family now, as well as myself, are viewing internal e-mails between Welsh Government officials that confirm that no review was ever carried out; merely, Welsh Government sought advice from officials. Mr Channon is in the gallery today as well. So, why, Minister, did the Welsh Government mislead families involved? Why was this review never commissioned or carried out and why did Welsh Government say it had been completed when no review had been undertaken in the first place?

Well, what I can tell you is that we take any issues relating to maternity failings very, very seriously. That’s why we have looked in particular at what we could learn from some of the challenges that we saw in Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board. We’ve looked at that learning, we’ve had groups of experts go in to try and help us with how do we tighten up systems. There are challenges around maternity, some of them to do with the staffing areas, and we’re looking at, for example, including and introducing mechanisms whereby people are taken in and supported in two intakes during the year at universities, not just one. Because what happens is, towards the end of the year, we don’t have enough people on the wards, because some people retire and whatever. So, we need people to come out twice a year for those maternity wards. So, my understanding is that some of the issues in relation to Swansea in particular were around staff cover, but, obviously, this is an issue for the health board.

Well, Minister, I appreciate your answer, and there was a lot in that answer that was helpful, but you didn't, of course, answer any of the questions that I put to you. And the issue here is that this is not just about the health board, because Welsh Government officials were involved in this process. That is what the results of the FOI responses demonstrate. And the concern here is that Welsh Government officials had told the Channon family, and other families and ITV Wales reporters, that a review had taken place and had been completed, when that actually was not the case at all. And that is the issue that is being raised today, which I hope that you will answer following my next question.

But what the evidence shows is that, despite serious concerns—. Senior Welsh Government officials had concerns in November of last year, but no appropriate action followed. And further to this, I have read the result of an FOI from Audit Wales, in which they, through an audit risk assessment in February of this year, identified serious problems with maternity services in Swansea. The same FOI release shows Healthcare Inspectorate Wales—shows that staff feedback from their unannounced inspection in September was some of the worst they had ever seen, which of course does, I appreciate, relate to the points that you made in your first answer to me. Both of these raise serious concerns, I would suggest, over how the Welsh Government and other bodies in Wales have dealt with the maternity services issues in Swansea Bay. In fact, the Welsh Government have previously stated that there are no concerns, based on a report, a report that was never actually carried out. So, the question is Minister: do you think that Swansea Bay maternity services are currently safe? And why, to date, has the Welsh Government done nothing to escalate intervention in this service?

14:35

Well, I can assure you that my officials are keeping a very close eye on the situation in Swansea. We are very aware of the situation of what's gone on in this particular circumstance as well. That's why we are paying a lot of attention to what we need to do to improve in particular the staffing issue in Swansea, as we are with other maternity departments across Wales. So, my officials are in touch with the health board in particular on this issue of how we improve maternity outcomes in Swansea. We know that, if you get anything in relation to maternity issues wrong, the consequences can be devastating, and that's why it makes absolute sense for us to focus the way that we have done in Cwm Taf Morgannwg, take that learning and spread it across Wales. And I can assure you that we've actually put significant additional funding in to try and raise the standards, not just in Cwm Taf Morgannwg but also in Swansea and across the rest of Wales.

There are around 300 incidents—300 incidents—under investigation in Swansea Bay alone at the current time. There are obviously some serious safety concerns. It is clear that the Welsh Government's response to these repeated failings coming out of the health board has been totally inadequate. It looks like to me that there has been delay, there's been dither and there's been failure to properly investigate. And I appreciate you mentioned about working with the health board, but I would suggest also that you need to investigate your own department to find out why—we still have no answers to my original questions—misinformation was presented to the families and to media in this regard. And I would say, most importantly of all, that this issue here is about getting it right now. There have been those past mistakes, they need to be investigated, but we need to make sure that these kinds of issues don't happen again. So, Minister, with all the evidence being presented, and with the heartache that has been brought upon the families affected, will you commit today to a full independent inquiry into maternity services in the Swansea Bay health board, and will you of course apologise to the Channon family and other families who have been affected and misled?

We delegate responsibility in relation to health to health boards, so it is their responsibility to carry out and to make sure that those services are safe. And the fact is that, obviously, we have a responsibility then as the Welsh Government to make sure that they—[Interruption.]—that they meet the standards that are expected of them. And that's why we have things like the NHS Wales Executive, to make sure that they adhere to the kinds of standards and commitments that we want them to adhere to.

Diolch, Llywydd. One of the projects that the Children, Young People and Education Committee inquiry into services for care-experienced children looked at was the Baby and Me project, developed in partnership by Barnardo's Cymru and Newport City Council. This innovative project provides intense pre and postnatal support for families where there's a risk that the baby could be taken into care at birth, bringing together health, social services and parenting support into one holistic model that has delivered excellent results.

One of the recommendations within the committee's report was that Welsh Government should ensure universal nationwide access to successful early intervention edge of care preventative services, such as Barnardo's Baby and Me. You accepted this recommendation in part, Deputy Minister, accepting and acknowledging the positive work being undertaken by edge of care services, such as Barnardo's Baby and Me, and the benefit these programmes have for new parents, including care-experienced young people. You said you'd review the evaluation of projects like Baby and Me when deciding on next steps and future roll-out.

So, as Baby and Me has already been through a full evaluation, and you've committed to reduce the number of babies and young children entering the care system, could you outline what review has been done by the Welsh Government of Baby and Me and when a decision will be made in regard to committing to roll-out?

14:40

Thank you, Sioned Williams, for that question. And I want to put on record my acknowledgement of what a hugely important contribution Baby and Me does give in keeping young children and babies out of care. I'm hugely supportive of it, and I visited it in Newport and saw it actually operating. So, I know that it is very, very effective. And I think it's really important that third sector organisations and local government come together—and the health boards—to give a holistic and effective intervention. I'm totally in favour of partnerships working like that, and I think the model is great. 

We are continuing to engage with the third sector and local authorities to support new and innovative projects and pilot ways of working together. And in respect of edge of care services, since 2017-18, the Welsh Government has provided an additional £9 million recurrent funding to local authorities, which is now in the revenue support grant. Five million pounds of this was specifically to establish or extend existing edge of care services in all local authorities across Wales. So, that provision is already in the RSG. But, in terms of a review, and how we can move forward, obviously, we are in a very difficult financial situation, as you are aware, so that is really colouring all our thinking, really, at this particular stage. But this is certainly an issue, and a very important issue, and these are the sorts of projects that we want to develop. 

Diolch, Dirprwy Weinidog. It is worrying to hear that, because, obviously, preventative services and programmes like this that work are the epitome of invest-to-save, aren't they, especially when we're thinking about the cost, in both human and financial terms, of children entering the care system. 

Another issue that same committee inquiry raised was concerns around when looked-after children are placed out of their home local authority area. When placing a child in care, every effort, of course, should be made to ensure the placement is in the child's home area to ensure continuity of education, services and social networks et cetera. But, of course, in some instances, it's in the child's best interests to be placed outside of their home local authority area. In their submission to the committee's inquiry, the Children's Society highlighted the fact that regulations for placing children in another local authority area are not being followed consistently across Wales, and that information-sharing practices, specifically, between local authorities are varied and inconsistent. These are the types of protocols and information that need to be shared to make sure that important information about those children is shared, so they can be properly supported. And, of course, without that happening, it can increase the risk of both unsuccessful placements and children not receiving the right support if they face risks. This was also raised seven years ago in the children's commissioner's report 'The Right Care', and the ministerial advisory group for looked-after children legacy report of 2021 states the development of practice guidance on out-of-area and cross-border placements was a priority, although this practice guidance has still not been published to date. 

So, as part of its plans to reform children's social care, how will Welsh Government ensure that important information is shared more consistently between local authorities and other key partners when looked-after children need to be placed in different local authority areas? Do you envisage work on this issue resulting in practice guidance, as stated by the ministerial advisory group, or will it take shape in some other form?

14:45

We very strongly support children being placed as near to their home as possible, and part of the plan of the Government's transformation of children's services is, first of all, to have fewer children coming into care. That is our primary aim, except, of course, when it's absolutely essential for them to come in for safety reasons. But we do feel that children should be placed near their home for all the reasons that you've said—being close to parents, being close to education and keeping their friends—and that's what children have said to us; this is what they want. So, we hope we're going to move towards a situation where this will happen much less, but it is inevitable it will happen sometimes. And, in terms of the practice guidance, I will certainly look at that. 

Winter Pressures in the NHS

3. Will the Minister make a statement on winter pressures within the Welsh NHS? OQ60271

We are anticipating a very challenging winter for key health and social care services. Health boards and partners have developed integrated plans to enable resilient services, as far as possible, and to mitigate the concurrent risks presented by changing demand as a consequence of the winter period.

Thank you, Minister. Two weeks ago, you gave a statement in response to a topical question around the pressures at the University Hospital of Wales's A&E department, where a 'black incident', I think it was called, which is the major escalation policy that health boards bring into play when A&E departments are under pressure— . Are you in a position to update us as to what improvements, what additional resources have been put into place so that any such further changes in the status at the A&E department, as we go further into the winter months, are able to accommodate an uptake in numbers of patients presenting at that department? It is the largest A&E department in the whole of Wales, but that doesn't make it immune from these winter pressures, and obviously it is a source of great concern to both staff and patients that the conditions that they faced two weeks ago don't end up being a common theme through the winter months.

Thanks very much. Well, we know that the main cause there was the problem of delayed transfers of care and the build-up over the weekend, and that's part of the reason why people couldn't move through the system. It's not a new problem, but it is a problem that, obviously, will perhaps become more acute as more people, in particular, are facing respiratory issues going into winter. So, that's something that we're very, very concerned about—the increase always, when it gets colder, in respiratory issues. So, a lot of work is being done on delayed transfers of care. One of the key areas is the delay in assessments. So, one of the things that Cardiff is doing, alongside other health boards across Wales, is introducing a trusted assessor system, so that, rather than just waiting for somebody from the council to come and assess, they have a system whereby people from the health board can actually make that assessment as well, instead of the council, and that has improved the situation over the course of the past few months. But we've got more to do in that space, I think, to make sure that we see people moving through the system quicker, so that when they go into hospital we can get them out as fast as we can and give them that support in the community.

The other thing that Cardiff will be taking advantage of is the fact that we've now put this Further Faster money into the system. That is about £8.5 million extra this winter to increase the support in the community around community nursing. And what that means is that it will be easier to send people home and know that that support will be there. But, even more importantly, we want to put that support in before they come into hospital, so they're not coming into hospital in the first place. That's where people want to be.

Well, we all remember the huge pressures on our health services last year. Recently, we heard Judith Paget, the chief executive of NHS Wales, saying that she expects the winter pressures this year to be similar to those experienced last year. We, therefore, need to show a clear willingness to learn lessons. But, in failing to publish breach exemption figures in your waiting times statistics, the Government's shown a complete inability to listen and to learn from what the RCN and workers in the health service have been saying for a very long time. Indeed, earlier today, you said in your response to Peter Fox that it was important that we—. What did you say?

—'important that we are led by clinicians'—

—and that we listen to those clinicians. Those were your very words. The same is true in this case. Do you therefore acknowledge that the lack of transparency here is having an impact on the ability of health services to plan effectively for the winter, and that it's now time for us to scrap these breach exemptions?

14:50

Diolch yn fawr. We do have a programme called 'Six Goals for Urgent and Emergency Care', and that is led by clinicians. We're asking them what are the priorities. They've been helping us build that programme over the past couple of years. We've put considerable funding into that, following what the clinicians are advising us—so, £25 million this year and £25 million last year. What that means is that we have more same-day emergency care centres this year compared to last year. We've got 24 now across Wales. None of those existed two years ago. We have urgent primary care centres. Again, we have 30 per cent more activity happening this year compared to last year. When it comes to the situation in terms of how we count people in emergency departments, we are in dialogue with the royal college about how that should happen and what should happen. As I said before, we'd already started a discussion on what a quality statement for emergency departments should look like, and part of that is going to be looking at how we should be counting. But, let's be absolutely clear, if we count in a different way, we won't be able to compare with other parts of the United Kingdom.

Minister, one of the ways that we can reduce winter pressures on our NHS is to ensure that the people who are most susceptible to respiratory illnesses are vaccinated. It's a remarkable feat that more than 1.2 million vaccinations have been delivered so far this season in Wales, and I want to pay tribute to all involved in delivering this. But I am concerned that younger adults in clinical risk groups have been slower to come forward to be vaccinated. Minister, what interventions are being made to encourage eligible people to receive their vaccinations, to protect their health and to prevent pressure on other NHS services this winter?

Thanks very much, Vikki, and you're quite right—part of our preparation for this winter is making sure that people have that opportunity to be vaccinated. I'm really delighted to see that over 80 per cent of people in our care homes have been vaccinated. We've had a really good response from the over-75s, but, as you've pointed out, we've had quite a disappointing response from those people who are in a clinical risk area. That is very worrying, because obviously they're the ones who are most likely to be using the services of the NHS over winter if they do have respiratory issues. So, I would encourage them to come forward. We are doing significant amounts of work with our health boards to try and get to those people. The other group of people who are not really taking up the opportunities, and we'd like them to, is NHS workers and care staff. They are not nearly where they should be, and we would appeal for them to take up that opportunity, because this is one of the best ways that we can protect ourselves this winter. We will put support in place. We are making these vaccines available. You all know about the financial pressures we're under. But people have got to come with us on this journey, and people have also got to help themselves on this journey. We can offer it up, but really people need to step through the door and help us out.

Minister, last Friday I was invited to meet with the pharmacy team at Princess of Wales Hospital in Cwm Taf Morgannwg health board by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Wales, and I just want to say a huge 'thank you' to the whole of the team. They're absolutely incredible, dedicated, expert, skilled. There are around 70 members of staff working constantly to get the medication out to all the wards and all of the patients, and also get them ready for discharge. So, in every hospital, they're just such a vital part of making sure that winter pressures don't overwhelm all the services. The team are always innovating, looking at ways to improve their service. One of the issues that they raised with me was that, at the moment, if somebody is prescribed 40mg of a drug but they don't have 40mg tablets and they only have 20mg, they can't just give them two packs of 20mg. They have to go back to, usually, their GP and go through the whole prescribing process again, which obviously takes time and just seems daft, honestly. So, I was just wondering if there has been any communication with UK Government to encourage them to amend the Human Medicines Regulations so pharmacists can make those minor amendments that don't require a therapeutic substitution, so that prescriptions can be dispensed without the requirement to recontact the prescriber. Diolch.

14:55

Thanks very much. Well, as you know, most of the medicines that we procure is via the UK Government, but what we do have is a digital medicines transformation programme that we're undertaking, and that's not just for primary care, which we'll be talking about later on this afternoon, but also in secondary care. I was really pleased to see the incredible work that's being done in secondary care in relation to making sure that there is a central repository, partly, for all prescriptions, so everybody will be able to know who's had what. So, there's real progress in that area. If there is anything specific, if you could write to me on that, I'll just see if we can follow that up because it sounds like a little tweak, but any little tweak from central Government takes usually quite a long time. But, let's give it a go, if you can write to me on that.

Question 4 [OQ60267] has been withdrawn. Question 5, Alun Davies.

Healthcare Closer to People's Homes

5. How is the Welsh Government implementing the delivery of healthcare services closer to people's homes? OQ60292

'A Healthier Wales' remains our strategy for rebalancing the health and care system and moving away from hospital-based care and treatment towards prevention and community-based services. The national programmes for urgent and emergency care, planned care and primary care and the regional integration fund continue to support arrangements for local planning and delivery.

I'm grateful to the Minister for that. Aneurin Bevan, of course, said that the impact of any policy is the impact it has on the person in the street. Throughout my time here, the Welsh Government has fully supported the Aneurin Bevan health board in its development of the Clinical Futures plan, and a fundamental part of that, of course, was the delivery of additional services closer to home.

Two of my constituents, both elderly people, require regular drip infusions to manage their conditions. This treatment was delivered at Nevill Hall Hospital, which was a short bus ride or drive to Abergavenny from the constituency. It has now been transferred to the Royal Gwent. The Welsh Government does not put in place the public transport systems necessary for constituents in Blaenau Gwent to access these services, and, as a result, elderly constituents are put under a great deal of stress and anxiety in accessing treatment to which they have a fundamental right. It is important, if we are delivering and changing the configuration of services, that we put in place the means by which people can access those services. Successive Welsh Governments and successive health Ministers have come here and supported Clinical Futures; I support it myself. But, part of that was delivering services closer to home, not taking services further away and making them more difficult to access. How will this Welsh Government ensure that those services will be delivered closer to home, as Welsh Governments have already promised my constituents?

Well, I'll tell you how: by increasing the number of hours that community nurses can provide. So, there is no reason why some infusions can't be delivered in somebody's home, and wouldn't that be the ideal situation? I do think that it's important that, where we can, we provide that support in somebody's home. I absolutely recognise that if people need to go to a centralised service, that we do have to think very seriously about transport, and I can assure you, as a rural representative, that it's something I'm very, very aware of. If we are going to centralise services for that more specialised support, which is going to happen, people may have to, because they'll get better clinical outcomes, travel further, because we will be able to get more staff in those places and it'll be concentrated. When there's sickness of those staff, there will be other people to cover. It makes sense for us to concentrate, if we can, in certain areas when we need specialised services. But, I think it's a combination of thinking through how we're going to do transport better. There are lots of provisions of services. I know that there are lots of voluntary systems up and running that help people to go to local hospitals. My auntie used it two weeks ago to go from St David's to Swansea. So, it is possible, but the voluntary system of transport also exists in Blaenau Gwent and exists in Aneurin Bevan, and I'd suggest that perhaps we can find out some information for you on how your constituents can access that volunteer transport system.

15:00
Modulator Therapies for Cystic Fibrosis Patients

6. Will the Minister make a statement on the future availability of modulator therapies for cystic fibrosis patients in Wales? OQ60276

The cystic fibrosis treatments Kaftrio, Symkevi, Orkambi and Kalydeco are all routinely available in Wales, for all their licensed indications. This is in accordance with the commercial access agreements reached between the Welsh Government and the manufacturer, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, in 2020.

I'm grateful for that response, and I know there was an exchange on this matter yesterday in First Minister's questions. But, obviously, this is a matter of interest for the hundreds of cystic fibrosis patients who are here in Wales, and their loved ones, many of whom are paying keen attention to the ongoing consultation by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence on whether these drugs will be available in the future.

Now, I appreciate that those patients who are already in receipt of these medications will continue to be in receipt of them in the future, and they're enjoying the clinically proven efficacy of these drugs in, hopefully, what will be much longer life spans. But, clearly, there are people who are concerned. They want some assurances that, should there be a negative decision by NICE, and there'd be no agreement between the manufacturer, Vertex, and the NHS in order to make sure that these products are available in the future, that there are opportunities for those who could benefit from them still to access them here in Wales.

So, can you tell us the one thing that the First Minister didn't yesterday during First Minister's question time, and that is whether these medications will still potentially be available via the individual patient funding request route to accessing medications here in Wales, as has been the case for others not approved by NICE in the past?

Well, thanks very much, and there was quite a comprehensive exchange on this yesterday, obviously, in First Minister's questions. I hope that the intervention that the First Minister made yesterday gave a certain amount of reassurance to those people who are already in receipt of these medicines. So, if you're on these medicines at the moment, they're not going to be taken away from you.

Obviously, I understand the concern of those people who perhaps haven't quite got there yet or have younger children. As the First Minister indicated yesterday, it's not unusual for a negative assessment by NICE to happen at the start of a medicines appraisal, so some of this is about a negotiating process. But just in terms of what will happen if NICE says 'no', well, in general, the All Wales Medicines Strategy Group doesn't appraise medicines where they are already scheduled for appraisal by NICE. So, the AWMSG's role is primarily to appraise medicines that would otherwise not be considered by NICE. So, we'll probably go with whatever NICE's recommendation is.

Question 7 [OQ60282] is withdrawn. Question 8, Huw Irranca-Davies.

Breast Cancer Support Organisations

8. What assessment has the Minister made of the importance of volunteer-run breast cancer support organisations in south Wales? OQ60263

Third sector and volunteer-run breast cancer support groups play an important role in supporting women undergoing treatment or recovering from treatment for breast cancer. I expect cancer services to signpost people affected by breast cancer to these local support groups.

Thank you, Minister, for that answer. Recently, a host of people, including many Members in this Chamber, joined the official opening of the Snowdrop Breast Centre. Alex Davies-Jones MP cut the tape, but there were a host of people there. It's a £2 million investment that brings together a state-of-the-art one-stop shop not only for treatment and diagnosis, but care as well, through all stages of the cancer treatment journey, and complementary therapies. But, as well as the £2 million investment from Welsh Government and the health board there, there was also, of course, a moment there where there was a commemoration of Clare Smart, the founder of the Giving to Pink charity, and the £300,000 that they had raised in charitable fundraising for the centre. Also there as well were representatives from Pontyclun Bosom Pals, a group that I've known for a long, long time, who do so much in a network of people to bring together those who are also on the cancer journey.

So, would she agree with me that, actually, as well as the investment that we do and the improvements in treatment, diagnosis, care, and so on, these support groups are integral to actually having a satisfactory journey through cancer treatment, and to providing that network of people who've been through it themselves, who can discuss this together and help each other through this?

15:05

Thanks very much, Huw, and thanks for all your work on this issue. I know you're a champion of this cause, and thank you for bringing our attention to it once again. I'm look forward to visiting the Snowdrop Breast Centre, so I'm pleased to hear that it sounds like it's a very efficient and excellent service and already has received very glowing reports. So, it's good to have that in the heart of that community.

I agree with you. I think it's absolutely crucial to have that support around you if you're going through something quite as traumatic as this. There are people who don't want that, but there are a lot of people who are frightened. If you can speak to somebody else who's gone through it, who's going through it, I think it gives a huge amount of confidence to somebody that it is possible to get through what is probably one of the most traumatic events in your life. So, I would absolutely concur with you and give thanks to Giving to Pink—and what an amazing legacy Clare has left—and also to Bosom Pals in Pontyclun. And I know that there are many, many other similar organisations dotted around the whole of Wales. We know how many women suffer from breast cancer. It is a huge, huge number, and there's a community of people who have that in common who can share that experience, and I think those third sector networks are an excellent platform for people to be able to share those experiences.

Ambulance Response Times

9. What steps is the Minister taking to reduce ambulance response times in South Wales West? OQ60291

We've taken a range of actions, including allocating an additional £3 million for extra staff, investing in new technology and establishing joint health board and Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust improvement plans. We have been clear with health boards in South Wales West of our expectation for improved ambulance handover performance to free up ambulance capacity.

Thank you, Minister, for the answer. Around 18 months ago, I raised the issue of the first responder unit based at Reynoldston on the Gower peninsula, you might recall. The community raised £65,000 for a first responder vehicle that could respond to emergency calls and get trained volunteers to a scene before an ambulance might arrive from further away. But I mentioned at that time that local people were getting very frustrated that they weren't receiving those 999 calls to that first response unit. Sometimes, there would be incidents where ambulances would take hours from miles away to an incident that happened two minutes down the road from Reynoldston.

I appreciate that a first response unit manned by volunteers is not appropriate for every call, but I also understand that some of these calls really could have used that emergency first response care on the front line to get there much quicker than an ambulance perhaps would have been able to from somewhere further afield. So, this was an issue 18 months ago when I raised it; it's still an issue today. So, can I implore you, Minister, to take this issue away and understand why this first response unit in Reynoldston isn't receiving those 999 calls in the first instance?

Thanks very much. I know that this is not an issue that is just pertinent to Reynoldston. So, I met with some people in the fire service, actually, who were a little bit frustrated that they weren't being used either. So, I have raised this issue with the Welsh ambulance service. They have a certain amount of money that they have to use. They have a certain amount of resources that they have to use, and so obviously it makes sense, where possible, to use alternatives. The fire situation is slightly different, in the sense that I think they are actually paid. If you're talking about volunteers, it's a very different proposition. So, if you allow me, I'll take that away and see if there's any reason why that is not being used more, because I recognise it's actually quite a long way away from an emergency department.

A Fair Care System

10. What work has the Welsh Government done to develop a fair care system for Wales? OQ60294

15:10

An expert group provided us with recommended steps towards a national care service, building on creating a national framework for commissioning care and establishing a national office for care and support. We have established a fair work forum and implemented the real living wage for the social care workforce.

Diolch, Weinidog. People who are carers are often put under tremendous strain, which is why respite is so important. But in my area, day services for adults with severe learning difficulties and caring needs haven’t returned to what was available before the pandemic, certainly not in Caerphilly. And this means those adults aren’t getting the support they used to have, but it also means their carers aren’t getting respite, and these carers are often parents in advanced years, sometimes elderly, and they’re really struggling. You’ll be aware of the charter for unpaid carers, which sets out the legal rights of unpaid carers in Wales. I’ve been contacted by constituents who fear that their local authority isn’t giving due regard to individuals’ needs in how they interpret that charter. Could you tell me, please, whether the Welsh Government would consider issuing stronger guidance to councils to ensure that unpaid carers and their children get the support that they all need?

Thank you very much, Delyth Jewell, for that question, and I know that you’ve been very concerned about your constituents, who I believe we have discussed before, and I do appreciate how difficult it is for them with the difficulties they have in caring for their loved one. And I do accept that carers have been under strain, and certainly the pandemic was a very difficult time for carers, and she is right to say that services, day services, have not returned in every area to the way that they should be. We have commissioned the Association of Directors of Social Services to look at this, and they have prepared a report that we will be acting on when we have studied it, because we think it is very important that we do all that we can possibly do for carers. Of course you mentioned the importance of breaks, and how difficult it is to take a break for people who have got caring responsibilities of that type.

And it is of course Carers Week, and Carers Rights Day is tomorrow, so it’s a really important time to highlight the rights of unpaid carers, and I’ve been meeting unpaid carers all week, and having a break is actually one of the main things that they’ve said to me. So, I’m pleased we have been able to initiate schemes in order for unpaid carers to have breaks, but certainly we will have to look at what the ADSS report says, and see how we act after that. 

Support for Cancer Patients in Preseli Pembrokeshire

11. What is the Welsh Government doing to support cancer patients in Preseli Pembrokeshire? OQ60268

The Welsh Government is committed to working with health boards to meet the needs of people affected by cancer. Hywel Dda University Health Board is using key workers to develop person-centred cancer care. New support kits and books were launched last month to support families affected by cancer across west Wales.

Thank you for that response, Minister. Now, I recently visited Adam's Bucketful of Hope in Haverfordwest, a centre dedicated to supporting cancer patients along their journey. They offer a range of different therapeutic services, like massage and reflexology, as well as traditional counselling support to patients. I'm sure you'll appreciate that centres like Adam's Bucketful of Hope have such an enormous positive impact on people living with cancer, and I know from my own personal experience how important it is to have that right support. So, it's vital that they can continue to provide these much-needed services for many years. Therefore, can you tell us what support the Welsh Government offers to centres like this, so that they can continue to support cancer patients in Preseli Pembrokeshire?

Thanks very much. The key concern of the Welsh Government, of course, is to make sure that we provide the actual treatment of cancer. That's our prime responsibility here, and I'm very pleased to see that, actually, we have announced £86 million for new cancer diagnostic and treatment facilities. So, that has got to be our key focus, particularly in these times of very tight finances. So, it is more difficult for us then to help support those organisations. There are, of course, many organisations like Adam's Bucketful of Hope, and obviously we recognise that they play an invaluable part in people's cancer journey, but there are lots of other organisations in that space, and generally this is something where people raise funds locally and they raise funds as a charitable organisation, rather than something that is supported by Government.

Thank you, Minister. The next item would be the topical question, but the only one that has been accepted today is going to be taken as the item before voting time. 

15:15
3. 90-second Statements

The next item will be the 90-second statements and the first one today is from Jayne Bryant. 

Diolch, Llywydd. November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, and 16 November was World Pancreatic Cancer Day, giving us the opportunity to reflect upon all those whose lives have been affected by this devastating disease. Pancreatic cancer can affect young and old alike, with more than 10,500 people diagnosed in the UK. And a staggering half of those diagnosed do not survive beyond three months.

The one-year survival rate is just 26 per cent, with a five-year survival rate of just under 6 per cent in Wales, while all other common cancers have a 10-times improvement on survival. These are stark statistics, and although technology and treatments have improved radically in the last 45 years, these statistics have remained very much the same for pancreatic cancer, with only a slight improvement within the same period. And behind every statistic is a person and their loved ones.

Dawn Clayton from Newport is a former nurse and a nine-year pancreatic cancer survivor. Dawn was fortunate to be diagnosed early and has used her experience to influence and campaign for fairer and faster treatment. Dawn's work with Pancreatic Cancer UK is phenomenal. She decided to raise awareness by hiking from Germany to Italy across the Alps to show that people with pancreatic cancer, if treated promptly, can live a full and meaningful life despite a brutal diagnosis. I hope that today in the Senedd we can all listen to and, particularly, learn from Dawn's experience, her drive and her motivation by bringing a united approach to transform the future for all those affected by pancreatic cancer.

On 13 November 1923, Alfred Thomas Sherwood was born in North View Terrace, Aberaman. Alf, as he was known, displayed a passion and skill at sport from an early age. He represented Wales at youth level at both football and cricket, before signing at the age of 16 with his local side, Aberaman Athletic, whose grounds are just a short distance from his birthplace.

Alf was a Bevin boy during world war two and signed with Cardiff City in 1942. He stayed with the team for 14 years, making over 350 appearances and being captain when the club reclaimed their first-division status. He also made over 40 appearances playing for Wales, and was captain during the famous 2-1 victory over England in 1955.

In 1956, Alf joined Newport County, making over 200 appearances playing for that team. In 1961, he became the player-manager of Barry Town. And 1963 saw Alf retiring from football, working as a security officer for the National Coal Board. Alf passed away in 1990 and was inducted into the Welsh sports hall of fame in 2006. He is arguably remembered today as Aberaman’s favourite son, as a skilled footballer who gained the moniker ‘king of the sliding tacklers’ and as the sportsman Stanley Matthews described as the most difficult opponent he'd ever played against. Happy one-hundredth birthday, Alf.

I think it’s right and proper that this Parliament spends a moment remembering the life of David Rowe-Beddoe, who passed away last week. Many of us will have met David Rowe-Beddoe a number of times over the years. He had a career in business, which culminated in him being appointed chairman of the Welsh Development Agency in July 1993. He is well known for the contribution he made to the Welsh economy and to developing economic policy in Wales.

In his tribute to him, Geraint Talfan Davies described David Rowe-Beddoe as a force. And he certainly was. He was a force in business, he was a force in the arts, and he was a force in our national life. There are very few people who can actually claim to have shaped the Wales that we see today. But David Rowe-Beddoe is certainly one of them.

He is synonymous, perhaps, with the early history of the Wales Millennium Centre, and served with distinction as chair from March 2001 through to May 2010. He was also the president of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. His mother, of course, was a well-known opera singer. And that sort of sense of the theatre stayed with him throughout his life. It drove him into what he wanted to achieve.

He was, for many of us who had the pleasure of enjoying his company, somebody who was an inspiring figure. He inspired change in Wales; he inspired ambition in Wales; he had a vision for Wales, and it is something that he was able to realise for us all. The loss of David Rowe-Beddoe is a loss to our national life. I hope that we will all take a moment to remember his contribution to Wales and his vision for the future of Wales.

15:20
4. Debate on petition P-06-1356, 'Introduce comprehensive safety measures at the A477 "Fingerpost" junction'

The next item will be a debate on a petition to introduce comprehensive safety measures at the A477 Fingerpost junction, and I call on the committee Chair to move the motion—Jack Sargeant.

Motion NDM8408 Jack Sargeant

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the petition P-06-1356 'Introduce comprehensive safety measures at the A477 "Fingerpost" junction’ which received 10,310 signatures.

Motion moved.

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. On behalf of the Senedd Petitions Committee, can I thank you for the opportunity to introduce this debate today, during what is Road Safety Week? Those of us who attend this Chamber are no stranger to the Nash Fingerpost junction. The junction has been the subject of numerous questions from Samuel Kurtz and his predecessor, Angela Burns, in this very Chamber. Presiding Officer, local Member of Parliament Simon Hart has also campaigned on the issue for a number of years, alongside local town and community councillors and concerned residents. 

But, for the benefit of those not familiar, it’s a junction where the A4075, running east from Pembroke, meets the A477, the east-west trunk road running from Pembroke Dock to St Clears. The petition was created by Elliot Morrison. It collected over 10,300 signatures. Over 80 per cent of those signatures are from the two Pembrokeshire constituencies; it really does show the strength of feeling in that county. 

Llywydd, the petition reads:   

'Introduce comprehensive safety measures at the A477 "Fingerpost" junction. On Saturday 13 May 2023, Ashley Thomas Rogers tragically lost his life at the A477 "Fingerpost" junction travelling towards Pembroke. His death marked the third fatality on that stretch of road within the space of 12 years. Further, there have been innumerable near misses on what is known locally as a "black spot" for road traffic accidents. Enough is enough. This petition calls upon the Welsh Government to do the right thing and prioritise human life over trivial budgeting pressure.'

Llywydd, I should place on record that the thoughts and prayers of this Senedd are with the family and friends of Ashley Rogers and all of those who have, tragically, lost their lives on this stretch of road. At the start of the half-term recess, I travelled to the area to see the situation for myself. During that very visit, I witnessed several near misses at the junction and I saw at first hand the danger of the current situation. Having seen it with my own eyes, the surprise is not that there have been fatal incidents at this junction—it’s that they don’t happen all of the time. 

Since this petition was launched, the Deputy Minister with responsibility for transport in the Welsh Government has announced that the junction is to have traffic lights. This is, of course, welcome news. Campaigners have welcomed this announcement; now they are keen to understand when the traffic lights will be installed, and I hope the Minister, responding to today's debate, will be able to provide an update in her contribution in responding. 

While the installation of traffic lights will be a major road-safety improvement, campaigners would have preferred, and still would prefer, to see a roundabout. Indeed, a new petition calling for a roundabout at the junction has already received over 300 signatures since it was opened last month. The Petitions Committee will, of course, consider this petition in due course at a future meeting. 

Now, I understand that traffic lights would be a faster solution—a short-term solution to improve road safety. But I would be grateful to the Minister, again, if she would use her response to this debate to commit to reviewing the effectiveness of the traffic lights proposed and the need for further improvements in the future, including the option of a roundabout. Presiding Officer, I look forward to hearing the contributions from Members in the Chamber this afternoon, and, of course, the Minister's response. 

15:25

I'm grateful for the opportunity to contribute to today's debate on the petition calling for the introduction of comprehensive safety measures at the A477 Fingerpost junction in my Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire constituency—timely, given that we mark Road Safety Week this week. As the local Member, this is not the first time I have spoken about this dangerous junction in this Chamber. However, I am hopeful that this could be the last time that the necessity of safety improvements at the Nash Fingerpost junction is discussed in this Chamber, and I am pleased that the Welsh Government have realised that the calls for improvements could no longer be ignored.

On Saturday 13 May this year, Ashley Thomas Rogers was involved in a road traffic collision at the Nash Fingerpost junction. The 29-year-old from Kilgetty sadly died at the scene, leaving behind a devastated fiancée, son and family. His death shook our community and our thoughts continue to be with Ashley's friends and family. Yet, sadly, this was not the first fatality at this junction. In memory of Ashley and to ensure that a tragedy such as this never happens again at this junction, his friend Elliott Morrison set up the petition stating, 'Enough is enough'. My predecessor, Angela Burns, raised the issue of Nash Fingerpost on many occasions in this Chamber and was a strong advocate for improvements to be made. Simon Hart MP too has campaigned for changes to this junction for over a decade. Thanks must also be given to the local county councillor, Tessa Hodgson, for her support for much-needed improvements; to Yvette Weblin-Grimsley, who tirelessly campaigned, helping the petition reach 10,000 signatures; and to the wider countless other county, town and community councillors and the wider constituents, who lobbied, campaigned and petitioned on the matter and who have written to me to share their concerns. Thank you to everyone who has campaigned for improvements.

Can I also extend my thanks to Petitions Committee Chair, Jack Sargeant, for visiting the site, meeting concerned residents and seeing for himself the numerous near misses that take place at this junction on a daily basis? Jack's willingness to listen and his chairmanship of the committee are to be commended, and I thank him once again. I joined Jack on his visit to the junction—just one of the countless visits I've made to Nash Fingerpost. On each and every occasion, I have seen vehicles take risks to enter the A477 trunk road from the A4075 from Pembroke, westbound lorries slamming on their brakes as they come through the dip in the road to the east of the junction, or cars not paying attention to indicating vehicles exiting the main road. The A477 is a busy, busy road, with ferry traffic and freight, refinery and heavy industry traffic, tank transporters from Castlemartin firing range and the usual commuters too. This is one of the main arterial routes in and out of the county. It has been clear for a number of years that something—anything—needed to be done at the junction to improve its safety and usability.

I must express my thanks to the Deputy Minister for his confirmation, on 11 October, that traffic signals will be installed by the end of this financial year. This is welcomed. However, I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm what, exactly, these traffic signals entail. There is confusion locally. Are they traffic lights? Are they flashing speed reduction signs? Some confirmation of what the traffic signals will be will be extremely helpful. Also, in his response to me on 11 October, the Deputy Minister made reference to a request for a roundabout and that this remains—I quote—'a long-term option'. Given that roundabouts exist along the A477 at Carew Cheriton, at Kilgetty and elsewhere, this seems to be a natural choice. I'd be grateful if, in her reply, the Minister could confirm that, following the installation of traffic lights, investigative work will continue into the possible construction of a roundabout at the junction.

The petition has shown the strength of public feeling in the area—over two thirds of those who signed it are residents of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. The debate locally has been one of frustration that calls for safety improvements have, for a decade, fallen on deaf ears. That debate has now turned to either traffic lights or a roundabout. I'm much happier that we're debating what is the solution rather than begging for any solution, because the original petition title calls for the introduction of comprehensive safety measures.

From its very inception, this junction has been dangerous. Too many lives have been lost, too many lives have been changed forever, too many near misses have left people nervous, even avoiding this junction altogether. I will close by thanking, once more, everyone who took the time to sign this petition, to all those who have campaigned relentlessly for safety improvements. I hope that today the Welsh Government have heard our calls. Diolch, Llywydd.

15:30

I am very grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate, and I'd like to thank the Petitions Committee as well as the local community, of course, for promoting this petition. The significant number who have signed the petition is a testament to the great concern in the area about this dangerous junction, and, of course, we take the opportunity to remember all the lives that have been lost in that location and the lives that have been transformed as well, because of these very serious accidents. A number of constituents have contacted me over the last couple of years noting their concerns. And a number of people, including elderly people, are refusing to use the junction at all because of the danger.

I have raised the issue with the Deputy Minister already and I welcome the attention that the Welsh Government has already given to these concerns and as we've heard already, there is an intention to install traffic lights in that area, which is a step in the right direction.

I welcome the petition's calls in particular to introduce safety measures at this particular junction at Nash. And, as I mentioned, traffic lights are a step in the right direction, but I believe that we should support the community's calls for a consideration to building a roundabout at that point, as is already the case in many locations along the A477 and A40. I'd also like to urge the Government to consider more appropriate steps to raise awareness of motorcyclists, who also travel on this busy section of the trunk road.

As many have mentioned already, it is Road Safety Week, and I'd like to stress the need for the Welsh Government to look at the Nash junction as part of a wider package of measures to tackle road safety on trunk roads and junctions across south-west Wales.

Some facts: in Pembrokeshire and neighbouring Carmarthenshire, the number of lives that are sadly lost or transformed as a result of road accidents remains alarmingly high. Last year alone, across Pembrokeshire, Dyfed-Powys Police recorded 231 accidents, with 99 people either killed or seriously injured. As Sam Kurtz mentioned earlier on, the A477 and the nearby A40 are vital transport arteries for passengers and freight to and from Ireland, the Milford Haven energy cluster, military machinery, as well as the huge surge in visitor numbers during the holiday period. So, with this increased activity, accidents inevitably follow, and only about half-an-hour away from Nash, on the A40 between Carmarthen and St Clears, 359 accidents occurred between 2010 and 2019, again resulting in deaths and life-changing injuries.

Now, I know the roads review, carried out by the Welsh Government recently, considered changing the speed limit as one option for tackling the problem, but, surely, we need to look at more far-reaching solutions, given the danger posed by these junctions.

The efficiency and safety of these trunk roads is of major importance to the communities and the economy of the south-west, and with consultation continuing on a new hospital possibly in the west of Carmarthenshire, as well as the recent announcement of a free port for Pembrokeshire, it is essential that the local community and businesses have confidence that this infrastructure will be as safe as possible.

I therefore welcome this petition, and I fully support its demands. And on behalf of Plaid Cymru, I would like to encourage the Government to consider these demands, as well as the ongoing problems on the trunk roads of south-west Wales generally. Thank you.

15:35

I want to actually thank all the petitioners that have worked so hard here, and my colleagues, who have also worked hard, to try and exact some change on what is a notoriously, sadly notoriously, recognised black spot. Like those who have said before me, lives have been lost, and lives have been tragically changed. We do need some clarity on a few things, really. What are the traffic signals? Are they traffic lights, as Sam Kurtz has said, or are they beacons? And we need, then, of course, as has been promised, to review the effectiveness of that solution. But a solution must come, and it must come pretty quickly.

Of course, tourism adds to the danger; like others here, I live in Pembrokeshire. And all too often, people change direction at the last minute—I see it all the time. And as a local, I allow for it, because I virtually know where people might change their minds. If they don't know the roads, tourists, and this is quite a fast road, the fact, then, that they make a different decision, sometimes at the last minute, only adds to the danger of these sorts of junctions. And of course we all know that, in the summer, the population of Pembrokeshire doubles, so it also increases the likelihood of things going wrong.

As has been mentioned, it is a road that leads to the ports. And with a port development very much high on the agenda at the moment, which will produce more heavy goods wagons, more potential ferry traffic as well, there is a real, real need to get this right. And I support all those calls to do just that. I also agree that we must listen to the community, in terms of what it is they want. And what they need, what everybody wants to see initially, is something being done—something to slow traffic down, to stop traffic, but to make this safer, and then to move pretty quickly into reviewing the effectiveness of perhaps a roundabout. There are, as you say, several roundabouts servicing very many holiday destinations along that road; I know because I've been to many of them on a regular basis.

So, I commend the people who've worked hard to get to this point, and I support them in what they've done.

I'm pleased to be able to take part in this debate this afternoon. I just want to add my voice to those who have campaigned tirelessly for comprehensive safety measures at the A477 Fingerpost junction, and I thank the Petitions Committee for their work on this important issue, and indeed to the organiser of the petition, and to everyone who have actually signed this petition.

Now, previous speakers have already referred to the very sad circumstances surrounding the origin of this petition, and I know all Members share a genuine ambition to see this stretch of road made safer for everyone. Some of you will have also seen the Motorcycle Action Group's video, which also shows just how dangerous the junction is. The video shows vehicles pulling out of the junction and waiting across the actual carriageway, which then forces the oncoming traffic to slow down or stop, and it also showed long queues of traffic waiting on the A4075 approach and cars in the central waiting area. Therefore, it's vital that a permanent solution is found to make the junction as safe as possible. 

Now, the issue has generated a huge amount of support from people across Pembrokeshire. As the committee Chair said, many of the people who signed this petition are from my constituency, as well as my colleague Sam Kurtz's, which just goes to show the importance of this issue to people living right across the county. And the wording of the petition itself is very clear—'Enough is enough.' The junction continues to remain a danger to motorists until permanent safety measures are put in place, and I cannot stress that enough. It's only by installing more permanent, long-term safety measures at the Fingerpost junction that we can attempt to stop these fatalities happening in the future. 

Now, I don't doubt that the Welsh Government shares the same goal as the petitioners in making this road as safe as possible, and I know in the correspondence that the Deputy Minister has sent to the Petitions Committee that he's explained some of the actions that the Government is taking. As has already been said, signing, road markings and possible minor junction layout changes for enhanced visibility have been implemented in the short term, as well as the introduction of u-turn prohibitions at the junction. Indeed, the restriction of u-turns on the road, in particular, will undoubtedly help to reduce the likelihood of collisions and traffic disruptions. 

Whilst all of these are very welcome improvements that will hopefully go some way to improving the situation, I do share the petitioner's view, and the view of everyone who has taken part in this debate this afternoon, that a roundabout would be a much more effective solution that would certainly make the road permanently safer for motorists. At the very least, the Welsh Government must liaise with the local community to find a solution that works for the communities that actually use this stretch of road. Therefore, I do hope the Welsh Government will continue to engage with the local community and deliver a more permanent safety measure in the future.

The Deputy Minister has indicated that the Welsh Government and the South Wales Trunk Road Agent will assess the suitability and enforcement requirements of a speed restriction on this section, and provide a business case for the introduction of traffic signals. Therefore, perhaps the Minister, in responding to this debate this afternoon, will provide us with some timescales as to when this work will now take place. 

So, in closing, Llywydd, can I thank the petitioners for their hard work in raising awareness of this important matter and for bringing this matter to the Senedd's attention? And can I also thank the committee for their consideration of this petition, and the efforts that they have gone to to better understand the situation and help find ways to make this junction safer for motorists in the future? Diolch. 

15:40

The Minister for Climate Change to contribute to the debate—Julie James. 

Diolch, Llywydd. I just want to start by passing on my own sincere sympathies to Ashley Rogers's family, and indeed to the families of everyone else who have been affected by fatalities and traffic accidents on this junction. I know from personal experience how dreadful it is to lose somebody in that way, and I want to pass on my sincere and heartfelt sympathies to them. 

I've listened very carefully to Members' concerns today, and I've listened very carefully to the Chair of the Petitions Committee's expression of the concerns of members of the public as well. I want to just say, during Road Safety Week particularly, that, at all times, the Welsh Government takes road safety very seriously across our whole network. 

Llywydd, the Members have said today a number of things that are already taking place, but I will just reiterate them. At this junction, we've already laid new road markings, which highlight 'Araf' or 'Slow'. We've erected police road safety campaign signs, and we've begun improvements to junction signage. We have informed local stakeholders that we're implementing a temporary new 40 mph speed limit, and a no u-turn order at this junction, in advance of the permanent order process. 

In terms of the timescale for the installation of the traffic signals, which a number of Members have mentioned, we intend to start this financial year. It requires the laying of cabling induction in advance of the main civil works. This is dependent on some third party engagement with National Grid and some land ownership issues, but we absolutely intend to get them in this financial year. We're undertaking detailed design options for the traffic signals control arrangements, to ensure that we consider safety, of course, but also seek to reduce congestion and minimise carbon with the introduction of the traffic signals. We're also considering some futureproofing options for active travel at the junction.

We put some CCTV in place there, as I know Members know, and we observed a number of things ourselves. During the time the CCTV was there, for example, we saw instances of large vehicles blocking visibility, vehicles using the junction for u-turns, vehicles overshooting the junction, and then trying to turn right from the A4075 but stopping within the A477 westbound lane, as Joyce pointed out; she's seen that happening, I know, herself. We're going to be progressing the permanent traffic orders at the same time, but Members should be aware that permanent traffic orders take around nine to 12 months. So, we're putting the temporary traffic orders in immediately in order to make sure that the junction is made as safe as possible straight away.

We will, of course, consider a roundabout, but that will be subject to the outcome and review of the measures that have already been put in place. A roundabout would take a considerable amount of time to put in place—at least three years—even if the land was all within our highway boundary, which, unfortunately, I understand it is not for this particular junction, and that can take a bit longer. We want to have, therefore, some smaller, quicker solutions, rather than large-scale engineering options, for a whole range of reasons that I've already outlined and Members will be aware of. But I'm not ruling out a roundabout. We will want to, of course, monitor what happens with the new improvements that go in. A roundabout remains a long-term option. But I can't stress enough that that is not an instant solution. We will have to do quite a lot of work in terms of ownership and so on as well. So, we will monitor that. I'm sure Members will help us do that as well.

And I very much hope that this will make the junction safer, and we don't have any other families put into the position that poor Ashley Rogers' family have been put into. I know that the Chair of the Petitions Committee in particular will want very much to ensure that no family goes through this again. So, I hope that what I've outlined today, Llywydd, will put Members' minds at rest and we will be able to take this forward together. Diolch. 

15:45

Diolch yn fawr, Presiding Officer. I'm grateful to Members and the Minister for their contributions, and the Minister's response this afternoon. We heard from the local Member, Sam Kurtz, his constituency neighbour, Paul Davies, and the two regional Members who took part in the debate today, and I know others were listening and wanted to take part as well, but we heard from Joyce Watson and Cefin Campbell this afternoon. And I think that message from Members who contributed was support for the petition, but also support for the wider community in finding a community solution, and listening to the community and what their requirements were.  

We heard, didn't we, Presiding Officer, that some members of the local community are afraid to use the junction in its current state, because of the dangers that we've seen. The Minister, in her response, said the CCTV that the Welsh Government put into place—you could see large vehicles blocking roads, you could see u-turns taking place. Joyce Watson mentioned her own experiences of witnessing that, particularly in summer months, when tourism increases. I can certainly say that was the situation when I visited the area with Sam Kurtz just last month. We saw that on numerous occasions—the daily dangers. In the short period I was there—I think I was there for less than an hour, Presiding Officer—there were numerous occasions that we could recall of various situations happening. 

The Minister, in her response, set out the measures that have been taking place. I was pleased to hear from the Minister that the Welsh Government haven't ruled out the longer term option of a roundabout, but, of course, she stated some of the issues in front of the community and the Government with that situation. The importance of monitoring the improvements that have been announced from Welsh Government will, of course, be crucial. And I urge the Minister to do two things: keep members of the local community updated—. I am sure the committee will, of course, want to try and be involved with that as well. But I also urge Welsh Government to do what they can to make sure those safety measures announced and the commitment of in this financial year—where there are some issues with the third parties, to do what they can with the levers they have to make sure they are introduced with urgency, so we all get to that place where the situation is reviewed, we don't end up with another fatality on that stretch of road, and get all the anticipated outcomes from the Members and the Minister today, where there are safer journeys for everyone coming both into and from Pembroke and Pembroke Dock.

Presiding Officer, I will close there by thanking Elliot Morrison, in particular, for petitioning the Senedd with this particular petition. I want to thank the local Members and campaigners who helped. Sam Kurtz mentioned two in particular, local councillor Tessa and Yvette who I met on the day, who worked tirelessly to get the 10,000 signatures and above. But, more importantly, Presiding Officer, in Road Safety Week, I would like to close, as I said in opening, and as Members and the Minister have repeated, with that the thoughts and prayers of this Senedd are very much with those who have lost loved ones on this stretch of road and other stretches of roads in Wales and across the United Kingdom. 

15:50

I thank the Chair. The proposal, therefore, is to note the petition. Does any Member object? No, there is no objection. The motion is therefore agreed.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

5. Welsh Conservatives Debate: Digital and AI technology in the NHS

The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Lesley Griffiths.

Item 5 is the next item, the Welsh Conservatives debate on digital and AI technology in the NHS. Russell George will move the motion. Russell George.

Motion NDM8410 Darren Millar

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Celebrates the advancement and use of innovative technologies by health services across the UK.

2. Welcomes the AI Safety Summit, the first ever global summit on AI, which took place on 1 and 2 November 2023.

3. Regrets that:

a) not all GP surgeries are using the Welsh NHS app;

b) e-prescribing has not been fully rolled out in the Welsh NHS; and

c) the technological infrastructure underpinning the Welsh NHS is creating barriers to clinical practice.

4. Calls on the Welsh Government to:

a) urgently roll-out the NHS app and e-prescribing across the whole of the Welsh NHS;

b) accelerate the integration of digital and AI technologies for the Welsh NHS; and

c) begin the phasing out of outdated NHS technologies.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Presiding Officer. I move the motion today in the name of my colleague Darren Millar. Technology is revolutionising the delivery of healthcare around the globe. Innovative technological solutions, from artificial intelligence, virtual reality, 3D printers, robotics and precision medicine and bioengineering are being developed and deployed within health settings to bring about advancements in treatment, aid clinical decision making, empower patients and make healthcare both more accessible and efficient. Across the UK, our health systems are adopting pioneering technological approaches to detect and identify cancers, train students and clinicians to manage a range of clinical situations, monitor patients at home instead of in hospital, and automate administrative tasks to improve efficiency, track locations of mobile equipment around the hospital—that was new to me, as well; I thought that staggering as well—to stop some equipment going missing around a hospital, of course, and it aids better advancement in hospital efficiency.

Now, Joe Harrison, who is the NHS England digital lead, has recently stated that every £1 spent on technology generates between £3.50 and £4 in savings. But it's equally important that we don't get too carried away and that safety is a priority, which the second point of our motion alludes to. Of course, I do very much welcome the AI summit, the world's first global AI summit, which was hosted in the UK by the Prime Minister at Bletchley Park earlier this month. During that summit, the Government reached a shared ambition to invest in public sector capacity for AI testing and conduct research into AI safety, which was welcome.

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

So, here in Wales, we do have some progress, but progress is slow; it's not as fast as I certainly would like it to be, which brings me on to points 3 and 4 of our motion today. It was really good, it was great to see, the first e-prescriptions in Wales taking place the other week in Rhyl. That really was a good-news story, and that will start being rolled out across Wales, I understand, from January next year. We should celebrate that achievement, but also recognise it was far too slow. It's something that I and my colleagues have been calling for for some time, and I think it should have been done much, much sooner.

NHS England issued its first e-prescription in 2005, and had rolled out e-prescribing to over 90 per cent of pharmacies and GP practices by 2018. So, e-prescribing removes the need, of course, for clinicians to physically sign prescriptions, and replaces them with an electronic signature. So far, during 2023, so far this year, 90 per cent of prescriptions in NHS England have been issued electronically—90 per cent. That's not the case, of course, in Wales.

E-prescribing has been estimated to save 2.7 million hours of GP practice time in England, as it removes the need for clinicians to sign prescriptions and automates repeat prescriptions. That's staggering, isn't it? Two point seven million hours of GP practice time in England saved. And if you think—. If we had had the same advancement in Wales as in England, think of the time that GPs could have spent on seeing patients rather than conducting unnecessary administrative processes.

So, our point about the NHS app—. And I recognise that GP surgeries are now using it across Wales, about 50 per cent of GP practices are signed up to the service, I think, so far, but we do need to have some urgency in this regard also, because the NHS app will allow patients, of course, to access a range of NHS services at a time that is convenient to them, including ordering repeat prescriptions, managing appointments with specialist services and viewing their GP records, which is also important as well. This will help reduce paperwork and waiting in phone queues that many people have to do so often in the morning to speak to their GP, and the amount of time that will free up will be significant.

And finally, our point 4 calls on the Welsh Government to have some urgency. Yes, there is progress, and I accept there is progress, but we need to see greater urgency in the roll out of the NHS app and e-prescribing across the whole of Wales for the reasons I've already pointed out.

I'd also like to see the acceleration of the integration of digital and AI technologies for the Welsh NHS. The Royal College of Radiologists has said that, at a time when diagnostic and cancer services are under strain, with a 30 per cent shortfall in radiologists and 18 per cent shortfall in clinical oncologists, it is critical that we embrace innovation that could boost capacity. They also surveyed their members and the results were pretty staggering: 90 per cent of their members think AI will increase their efficiency. Well, if an incredibly high number of people, health professionals, highly skilled health professionals, are saying that this will increase their efficiency, then we need to make some progress.

AI and new technology in the NHS bring great opportunity for improvement, but we must also think about phasing out outdated NHS technologies as well. You may well remember the Welsh NHS 111 system was the victim of a cyber attack last year, which caused software outages that prevented NHS 111 making referrals to out-of-hours GP services, and, in January this year, the Minister who is responding to the debate today stated she would be getting rid of fax machines 'soon'. I know that many young people—. If any young people are listening to this, they'll be googling, 'What is a fax machine?' [Laughter.] But we really do need to see, of course, the end of fax machines. And in fact, in Wales, a new fax machine was even purchased for the newly opened Grange hospital, and this hospital was opened in November 2020.

So, I hope, in closing my contribution to this opening of the debate, the Minister will agree with me and the Welsh Conservative position, which recognises that the adoption of new digital technologies is dependent upon the underlying technological infrastructure being up to date, and I hope the Minister, like myself and the Welsh Conservatives, is committed to investment in Welsh NHS technological and digital infrastructure and the phasing out of iconic—. Not iconic. What's the word I'm looking for? Aconic—in the past?

15:55

Prehistoric. [Laughter.] Thank you, Andrew.

—prehistoric technologies and the adoption of cutting-edge technologies to create a resourced, renowned and reliable Welsh NHS. And resourced: we do need a Welsh NHS that is fully resourced. I want to see an NHS that is renowned, renowned around the UK and renowned around the world, and I want to see—and I'm sure we all agree in this Chamber—a reliable NHS, because that's what the people of Wales deserve. I look forward to Members' contributions this afternoon.

I have selected the amendment to the motion. And I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services to formally move remove amendment 1, tabled in the name of Lesley Griffiths.

Amendment 1—Lesley Griffiths

Delete all after point 2 and replace with:

Notes the importance of ensuring cross-UK working following the UK Government’s recent AI safety summit to ensure the views of Wales are reflected in future decisions and actions.

Notes the importance of continuous development of Health and Social Care digital and technology services to ensure high quality care.

Welcomes:

a) that over 200 GP practices are now using the NHS Wales App;

b) the planned onboarding of all practices by the end of March 2024;

c) the start of the rollout of a country-wide integrated prescription service, with the launch of the new Primary Care Electronic Prescription Service; and

d) the health and social care sector’s coordination on new and emerging technologies such as AI to help ensure their responsible, ethical, fair, and safe adoption.

Amendment 1 moved.

Newport East is a very diverse community, especially in places like Liswerry and Maindee, where there is a high percentage of ethnic minority households. And we had an interesting experience with those communities around trying to improve vaccine take-up and general access to healthcare during the pandemic, and that has had a continuing legacy afterwards.

During the pandemic, we had the emergence of Muslim Doctors Cymru, which was a very useful development in tackling that relatively poor take-up of vaccinations—the all-important vaccinations—during that awful pandemic. And many of the initiatives that Muslim Doctors Cymru took forward were based around the use of new technology. They were very good at using webinars and social media to connect with individuals and groups where English is not a first language, to explain what was happening in terms of health provision during the pandemic, to support and assist, to deal with some misconceptions, and generally address the health need at that crucial time. They were mindful of the fact that some elders particularly in some of the ethnic minority communities were not literate either in English or in their own languages, as it were, and so anything written was of limited value. And that's where the production of videos and the use of social media videos were very useful in reaching those who wouldn't have been reached in the more accepted and usual ways.

Thankfully as well, we were able to organise what I think was a very useful virtual public meeting with the ethnic minority community in Newport East, with the then health Minister, with the health board, with mosque leaders, obviously Muslim Doctors Cymru, and a number of others to get these key messages across. Not only was that meeting a great success in those terms, but it has also resulted in various groups maintaining links, groups that met during that virtual meeting, and since then there have been lots of webinars and campaign initiatives on a variety of health issues, including cancer, mental health and organ donation. So, as with the pandemic in general, it was such an awful time but at least some interesting and useful initiatives have come from it and have continued and developed. 

I'm wondering, really, how Welsh Government can continue to work with groups like Muslim Doctors Cymru who are embracing some of these modern technologies to help improve health outcomes in Wales. What funding is available, for example, that might enable these groups to further develop and strengthen their work? And for those communities where English or Welsh isn't a first language, what measures have been put in place by Welsh Government, working with NHS Wales, for those individuals who want to use the NHS app? These modern developments, these new developments are very useful and potentially could be more useful than they are at the moment, if we deal with some of the ways in which we can make them more widely accessed and more widely beneficial. And there are some important issues in those terms with regard to our more diverse communities in Wales, and I'd be interested in what the Minister would have to say on those matters. Diolch yn fawr.

16:00

I'm very pleased to be able to take part in this important debate here today. And it's clear that there are major inefficiencies within the NHS in Wales, and there is an opportunity for the better use of technology to help tackle some of those inefficiencies. And sadly, we're 25 years now into a Labour Government here in Wales, and we're well behind the curve when it comes to the use of cutting-edge technology, compared to the rest of the United Kingdom, or certainly the rest of the developed world.

There are some real basics that aren't happening here in Wales. We've already heard about not having e-prescribing fully rolled out. It's a bit embarrassing, quite frankly, that we're in that position at the moment. It is good to hear of some of the things starting to happen now, but we are in 2023 and it was interesting hearing John Griffiths's contribution there, talking about some of the modern technology and the modern options that are available. You know, apps aren't that modern. I don't know how many years, probably two decades down the road now, and we're talking about the use of things like apps. But improved technology in the health service is certainly a win-win, both for those working in health services and people who are using those services day to day; and, of course, modernising these systems will lead to better accountability, better performance and better outcomes for everybody.

So, we've already heard from colleagues so far this afternoon, we've covered a variety of these areas that are in our motion today, but I'd like to build on that and talk about data management—I know the Minister will be interested in this. It is an area that is fraught with difficulties and sometimes it's hard to understand how that can be best handled. It's important to protect data, but to stimulate innovation, there need to be sensible discussions around data sharing and information governance, which is used to help organisations improve their offer and thus improve outcomes for the people that they serve.

I'd encourage all Members, if you get chance, to read an excellent report that has a snappy title; it's called 'Information governance as a socio-technical process in the development of trustworthy healthcare AI'. This report focused on work with the Welsh ambulance service, and the project team who wrote that report had concerns about the ability of stakeholders in Wales to make best use of AI in delivering for patients. One of the conclusions the authors drew was that participating organisations, including the ambulance service, and I quote this now, 

'would benefit from greater organizational readiness for dealing with the specifics of IG processes for healthcare AI',

and that there are big issues with who they describe as stakeholders not wanting to commit to binding decisions about data sharing arrangements due to a lack of formal advice.

Now, it all sounds a bit complicated and it all sounds a bit geekish, but if we can't get the data sharing right, then we can't actually do the things that we want to do, so I'll be interested to hear from the Minister and Welsh Government on what they're doing to develop this information governance structure in a clear, systematic and fair way that will ultimately benefit patients across Wales for the long term.

All of this speaks to point 3(c) of our motion today, which is highlighting the importance of getting the infrastructure right. We often think of the physical infrastructure or perhaps software infrastructure, but getting governance infrastructure, particularly around data and information sharing, is just as important, so that we can actually make the most of technological advances in the first place.

There's also more—and I'd like to speak to this point—that can be done with innovation by individuals, and to this end I'd advocate for consideration by the Minister of the adoption of a scheme such as the Topol digital fellowships. I'm sure the Minister's heard of this. This is explicitly designed to give health and social care professionals the time, support and training to lead digital health transformations and innovations in their organisations. At the moment, the fellowship is only open to certain clinical staff in NHS England, but how it works is that each fellow's employer receives a ring-fenced sum of money to support the successful delivery of a project that spurs digital change in the national health service. And, as contributions in this debate so far have shown, we seem to be lacking in innovation from the top-down structure that is in place at the moment, and in my experience, often some of the best ideas work best through a bottom-up approach. So, schemes such as Topol would enable the delivery of innovation from those who know best; those on the wards, in the surgeries, out in our communities. So, I would ask the Minister what consideration has been undertaken to introduce something similar here in Wales, and in working with counterparts in Westminster to make sure we can learn from each other across the United Kingdom.

I'm going to wrap up now, Deputy Presiding Officer. So, let's just reflect on, first of all, we have a lot of catching up to do here in Wales, especially around technological innovation, but I think we can get there if we grasp the nettle on this and decide to move quickly, get the governance right around information sharing, and put in place a system that enables a bottom-up approach in terms of idea generation. I would call on all Senedd Members to support our motion and support our national health service. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

16:05

One of the most remarkable aspects of our NHS has been its ability to evolve with the times without compromising its founding principle as a public institution that is free at the point of use. But this hasn't happened through chance. It's been the consequence of careful planning and effective collaboration. Maintaining this balance between ensuring the fundamental continuity of the NHS's character and embracing positive change and methods of delivery will therefore be crucial as we enter this new age of increased digitalisation and the emergence of AI technologies.

Plaid Cymru has been clear for some time that improving the digital infrastructure of the NHS should be a key priority for the Welsh Government. Indeed, this was one of the key recommendations of our NHS action plan, following engagement with healthcare professionals, which revealed an over-reliance on outdated technologies such as fax machines, as we heard earlier, and a lack of consistent data on workforce vacancies.

A particular area of concern is the performance and accessibility of Welsh-specific data systems, which has become a recurring theme in many aspects of governance in Wales. Anyone currently working on public policy in Wales will be well acquainted with the frustrations of being unable to access reliable and up-to-date data from sources such as Stats Wales, and the lack of transparency in this area can have incredibly detrimental implications for the delivery of public services.

For example, we've recently heard the Royal College of Emergency Medicine urging the Welsh Government to include breach exemption figures within the published data for A&E waiting times, the absence of which is giving a misleading impression of the true extent of demand for front-line services, and therefore hindering the ability of staff to plan effectively. This isn't a new call. It's been highlighted as a problem for well over a year. One of the six missions of the Welsh Government's new digital and data strategy for health and social care in Wales is to deliver high-quality digital services designed around the needs of the citizen, professionals and services. So, instead of implying that the RCEM are willfully misunderstanding the breach exemption policy, the Welsh Government would do well to live up to the words of their own data strategy and commit to including breach exemption figures in published A&E data as a bare minimum.

The effective roll-out of new technologies is not simply a matter of quantity. It should also be qualitatively tailored to the particular needs of healthcare providers in Wales. For example, in the case of e-prescriptions, Community Pharmacy Wales have stressed that while a shift to this model is desirable in principle, its practical implementation must be alert to the unintended consequence of prescriptions moving across the border to England. The English community pharmacy contract enables distance-selling pharmacies to be established, which account for around 6 per cent of prescriptions in England. If a similar proportion of prescriptions in Wales moved across the border, the viability of many community pharmacies would be in serious jeopardy. Though Community Pharmacy Wales have acknowledged the value of cross-border distance selling in certain situations, especially for some patients living on the border and Welsh holidaymakers in England, it must not come at the expense of established community-based services that are already struggling with the threat of closure after years of underinvestment. This comes back to the point I made at the start of the debate, about marrying continuity with change, and it would be useful if the Minister could provide an update on how this particular risk is being addressed in the Welsh Government's strategy for e-prescriptions.

Finally, we must not overlook the importance of robust regulation and governance in this area. My colleague Luke Fletcher recently inquired about the Welsh Government's approach to this matter in a written question, and while we absolutely agree that the adoption of AI by public institutions needs to be responsible, ethical and fair, we are disappointed that the Government doesn't appear to have a specific strategy for managing AI usage in Welsh society.

We also need to ensure that the search for technological solutions prioritises the resources we already have here in Wales, rather than resorting to outsourcing arrangements that bypass Welsh businesses and do not stimulate activity in our own economy. For example, the recently launched cyber innovation hub in Cardiff could be a key delivery partner for Digital Health and Care Wales, and I'd hope that the Welsh Government has been facilitating collaborative networks to this end. The ambition to create a tech-centric investment zone in north-east Wales should also be viewed in the same light.

An NHS that is well equipped to deal with the technological challenges of the modern world, but continues to function as it has done for three quarters of a century, as a public institution that is free at the point of use, that is our overarching vision for the future of healthcare in Wales. We hope that all parties in the Senedd share it.

16:15

I'm thankful to the Welsh Conservatives and Russell George for tabling this important debate today on enhancing and improving technology in our Welsh NHS—tech that is, of course, revolutionising our services. Our support for the NHS is unwavering. We all want to see the best possible services for our constituents and a future where we'll be utilising these new technologies in the safest way possible. By embracing new technologies, AI and innovation in Wales, we can seek to tackle Labour's appalling waiting lists. What investment can we see that will speed up the process of bringing our Welsh NHS into the twenty-first century? It's something I'm looking forward to hearing from the Minister in her response. 

There are a lot of exciting technological innovations happening in health right now, so it's only right that Wales gets its piece of the pie. Not only that, like our shadow health Minister, I hope to see us leading the way in these innovations. We should be proudly beating the drum for Welsh companies who are excelling in the field of health technology. Companies like Afon Technology in my region have recently unveiled new glucose sensors, assisting in the management of diabetes, which is a good-news story from south-east Wales. Residents across my region are struggling to access services, though, via the NHS app. The Welsh Government must ensure that our GPs are registered with the NHS app, as this can lead to efficiencies.

Electronic prescriptions only launched in Wales last week, and this is presently only available in Denbighshire. This is something of paramount importance when I'm speaking to pharmacies in my region; they stress that we must get this sorted. This would really help speed up the process, of course, of prescriptions, and save time and resources in the process, as has already been outlined. I'd like the Minister to answer in her response on just how long my constituents will have to wait for this vital improvement. It pains me to see us so far behind England, as has already been mentioned.

This month, we saw the UK Government bring forward the AI safety summit, the first ever global summit on AI. I truly believe that the potentials of AI can outweigh the negatives, if we ensure, of course, that it's safe. We should all be championing the role of technology and what it does, and the role it can play in delivering NHS services in Wales, and aim, as I said, to lead in this field, as we've seen that investment in this can lead to real savings in not only money, but time. Yet in Labour-run Wales, sadly this isn't the case, and we're just seeing weaknesses across the field.

The UK Government have highlighted the rapid expansion of the use of technology, including remote monitoring. Virtual wards drive efficiency, freeing up hospital space, clinician time, and busting those COVID backlogs. This Government must prioritise a one-stop digital platform to ensure that services are connected, appointments can be made, and records can be viewed. Even in Scotland, we're seeing that fast-growing companies will be able to trial new health products in clinical settings following a link-up between the Techscaler programme and the NHS. Participants in this programme, which provides expertise and support to fledgling businesses with high growth potential, are being offered access to the NHS regional test beds.

It's clear that Wales is lagging behind, and we in the Welsh Conservatives are committed to bringing forward positive solutions in this field. We want to see patients and NHS staff benefit from our latest technologies, so I urge everyone to support this motion today.