Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd24/06/2020
The Senedd met by video-conference at 11:00 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Welcome, all, to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I need to set out a few points. A Plenary meeting held by video-conference in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and these are noted on your agenda. I would also remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, as do the time limits on questions that will be applied to this meeting also.
So, the first item on our agenda this morning is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Caroline Jones.
1. How is the Welsh Government supporting the dental profession in Wales during the coronavirus pandemic? OQ55332
Llywydd, I thank Caroline Jones for that question. We support the profession through implementation of a safe, phased, risk-based re-establishment of dental services. All the actions we take to reduce the risk of community transmission also help protect dental teams and patients from coronavirus in Wales.
Thank you, First Minister. The dental profession, like all sectors of the Welsh economy, is suffering deeply as a result of lockdown. While the move out of the red alert level will bring some small relief, it will not be enough to support many practices, and we cannot afford to lose a single dental practice in Wales. I've been contacted by many practices, often sole proprietors, who are worried that the loss of business will result in them going out of business and even losing their homes. First Minister, what financial support, beyond the payment of 90 per cent of annual contract value, are you offering dentists in Wales to ensure that we don't lose any practices? Diolch.
Llywydd, we support dental practices in Wales in a whole range of different ways. I think it's important to mention the word 'patience' when we're talking about dental practices, because it is the safety of patients and staff that has to remain at the top of our agenda. There are a number of dental practices that are inherently risky where coronavirus is concerned, because the use of aerosol techniques, which are inevitable and necessary in dentistry, create particular risks.
We are supporting NHS dentists by making sure that 80 per cent of NHS contracts were paid between April and June. We'll be paying 90 per cent of those contracts from July. We're supporting those contracts and those contractors with PPE. So, in a whole range of ways, we are supporting the profession. The main way we can support them is by making sure that we have a staged approach that resumes dental activity as fast as we can as safely as we can, and that is the path we will continue, alongside the profession, to pursue in Wales.
Good morning, First Minister. You mentioned the aerosol-generating procedures. My understanding is that, going forward, Welsh Government are promoting a one-hour gap between those procedures to allow air exchange in surgeries, but the science behind this is negligible. Europe looked at 15 minutes between aerosol-generating procedures, but they've since dropped that because the science is so non-existent on that particular process. On a day like today, when it's very still, hot and muggy, how do you—? First of all, where is the science for that, First Minister? Where can I go and reference that? And secondly, how do you actually propose that dentists are able to implement that change of air, that air exchange, for an hour? Because just opening the windows on a day like today simply wouldn't do it.
Well, Llywydd, neither I nor the Member are experts in the science that lies behind safe dental practice. For that, we have to rely on the people who are the experts, and that's why we have a chief dental officer in Wales. I spoke yesterday with Dr Colette Bridgman about the advice she is providing to the profession and how that advice is derived from discussions with leading members of the profession. We have to rely on the people who are employed as the most senior people in their field to give us advice. They keep that advice under regular review. If they feel it is safe to extend the range of activity, they will bring it forward. Dr Bridgman acted on Friday of last week, alongside the other changes that we announced. She lifted the red alert categorisation of dentistry in Wales to allow more procedures to be undertaken more quickly. But we can't proceed other than by relying upon the advice that those people, who are much better placed than me, and, with respect, much better placed than the Member, to understand the science and to give that advice, and that is what we will continue to do.
First Minister, Wales's chief dental officer Dr Colette Bridgman has stated that there will be a phased and careful approach to the reopening of full routine dental services in Wales and stated that she is absolutely alive to the concerns of a prolonged period of inactivity of services for people's oral hygiene. Indeed, Wales's chief dental officer is on record as saying that the Welsh Government would keep timelines under constant review. So, First Minister, with Wales's success across the UK nations at keeping the reproduction number and growth rate of the spread of COVID-19 low, what measures can Welsh Government take to ensure that dental practices across Wales are equipped with the requisite hand sanitisers, masks, gloves, personal protective equipment and infection and prevention control resources so that they can continue to reopen when circumstances safely permit?
And will, also, the First Minister commit to my constituents in Islwyn that dentistry care will be seen as a priority area of focus for the Welsh Government as a vital part of the Welsh national health service, offering, as it was, to Wales's Labour Aneurin Bevan?
Llywydd, I thank Rhianon Passmore for that, and I thank her for drawing attention to the way that things have been done in Wales. Unlike England or Scotland, dental practices in Wales have been able to remain open throughout the pandemic for urgent face-to-face care, and that's in addition to the urgent dental centres we have had open. And, of course, we work very closely with those colleagues who are contractors in the national health service. Those dentists who choose to work within the national health service have all the benefits of that, and that includes provision of the sorts of resources that Rhianon Passmore identified in her question.
There are many dental practices that choose not to be part of the public service here in Wales and they cannot expect to be able to choose not to be part of the service and then to have all the benefits of being in the service. If you are a private practitioner in a private business, then you have responsibilities to secure your own supplies of many of the things you need in order to be able to meet the regulatory standards that you will still have to observe.
And I'm very happy to provide a commitment to the Member's constituents in Islwyn and across Wales that dentistry is a priority service for us. NHS dentistry is a priority for us. The health Minister issued a written statement yesterday explaining how we will reopen dentistry in a way that is safe for staff and safe for patients, and that is the path that we will sustain in Wales.
2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the support provided to local media by the Welsh Government in order to keep residents informed during the Covid-19 pandemic? OQ55303
I thank Mike Hedges for that question. Llywydd, the Welsh Government has supported both local print and broadcast media during the pandemic. Paid advertising has been placed as part of our 'Keep Wales Safe' campaign. Direct grant assistance has been provided through the independent community journalism fund, and we have worked with Ofcom to ensure that Welsh outlets have benefited from the community radio fund.
Mike Hedges? Mike Hedges, your microphone.
I'll unmute myself again—sorry. Thank you, First Minister. The media has been crucial for coverage of both the good and bad news in these challenging times, and, sadly, the coverage of lives lost has not been limited to coronavirus, but also we have seen the shocking killing of George Floyd in America and the horrific knife attack in Reading over the weekend.
During the floods earlier this year, and during the coronavirus lockdown, local radio stations such as Swansea Sound, and newspapers such as the South Wales Evening Post have kept residents informed of what's going on. As the First Minister is aware, the Sunday morning breakfast show on Swansea Sound allows local people to question politicians and also express their points of view. Will the First Minister join me and politicians across the Chamber in calling on the owners of Swansea Sound to keep local programmes and local presenters for the benefit of the people of south-west Wales?
Well, Llywydd, I thank Mike Hedges for that. He makes a very important point about the significance of local media in making sure that local residents are properly informed, not just of COVID-19, but of that wider range of things. Indeed, in Wales, people will have been thinking of the family and friends of people who were killed in that outrage in Reading at the weekend, and local media will have played a very important part in explaining to that local community the nature of that event.
Llywydd, I've a very warm memory of joining Mike Hedges early one September morning to go and take listeners' questions at Swansea Sound. I remember being very impressed by the relaxed professionalism of the presenter there, Kev Johns, and, indeed, the alertness of Swansea Sound listeners early on in the morning, in phoning in to put questions to us. So, I'm aware, of course, that Swansea Sound has been part of Bauer's purchase of 56 different radio stations across the United Kingdom. My understanding is that no format change request has been received by Ofcom from that company for Swansea Sound, and that means that the station, in whatever future name or arrangement it has, will continue to be required to fulfil the original format, and that includes commitments relating to the Welsh language and local news and information.
Llywydd, I have participated in quite a large number of the 80 press conferences that the Welsh Government has participated in during the coronavirus crisis. About half of the participants have been local media, including Swansea Sound, and they have provided an essential service during the crisis, just in the way that Mike Hedges described.
First Minister, I think this is a very important question. Now, I understand that nine community news organisations have directly received a grant from Welsh Government, and you've mentioned the role of procurement in advertising and public information. I also think that local authorities could do a lot in this area. It is really a vital service, as you, indeed, said, and we have to be aware that some of the traditional news providers are now under considerable strain and we risk losing capacity and some very valuable and important local jobs if we don't, at this time of crisis, give fuller support to the local media sector.
I agree with what David Melding has said. We've been glad to have been able to re-purpose funding that remained in the community journalism fund. It's been over £76,000, and a range of outlets in Wales have benefited from that. The community radio fund is a UK fund, and we've supported stations in Wales in making successful applications to it. There is a public interest in making sure, of course, that there is a vibrant local media in Wales. It has to be done carefully, because it must be entirely free of any suggestion that there is interference in any editorial decisions that the reporting of news would rely upon, but I think we've managed to strike that balance and want to go on supporting both by the access we offer to those publications and broadcast outlets, and directly, where we are able to do that.
My question is on the Welsh-medium print sector. I've been asking your Government how much use is made, in sharing information about the crisis, of the Welsh-medium print media. I've asked for expenditure figures, but I am still awaiting those official figures, unfortunately. If you could provide those, I would be very grateful.
But, from my own research, the situation is very disappointing indeed. For example, only one advertisement, worth around £800, has appeared in our only Welsh-medium weekly since the beginning of the pandemic. First Minister, will you ensure that your Government makes full use of the print media in order to convey important messages to the people of Wales, and will you ensure that the Welsh-medium print media is included fully in your publicity campaigns from here on in?
Of course, Llywydd, those people who receive their news through the medium of the Welsh language are important to us, and the services available to them are also important. We do seek to support them, and we seek to support them in the print sector also. We are spending in order to assist the sector to continue with the important work that they do. I'm sure that people here will be working hard on the questions that Siân Gwenllian has tabled, along with a number of other questions that we're dealing with, and when those figures are available, we will make them available and share them. But generally speaking, of course we want to support the sector, and support it in an appropriate manner, and work with everything else that we're doing to promote the Welsh language.
Questions now from the party leaders. The first set of questions is from the leader of the Conservatives, Paul Davies.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, last week your Government took the decision to resume non-essential retail activity in Wales but kept its 5-mile travel rule, meaning that many families across Wales are still unable to reunite with their loved ones. As more and more people return to work and interact safely with colleagues and members of the public, last week's announcement was a prime opportunity to consider scrapping the Welsh Government's 5-mile travel rule. Non-essential businesses have been allowed to resume trading, and as people are able to travel more than 5 miles to visit a garden centre, it still begs the question why they cannot see their loved ones. Therefore, can you tell us, First Minister, what specific scientific evidence do you have as a Government to keep the 5-mile rule in place?
Llywydd, every time I answer a question I have to correct Members. To begin with, I think it's just a mistake, but when I have to correct it time after time, I begin to think that it's done deliberately. The Member knows perfectly well that there is no rule of the sort that he describes. If it was a rule, there would be a regulation. There is no regulation. The regulation says stay local. Five miles is advice to people as to what 'stay local' might mean, and it would be very helpful if the leader of the opposition were to be clearer in his questioning so that people don't get the wrong impression. People must stay local; they must interpret that in their own localities.
We have retained the 5-mile rule for another two weeks. If everything is as we hope it will be by the start of July, we will be able to confirm that that will no longer apply in Wales. It has been a very important part of our armoury to prevent the spread of the virus from one community to another. Mr Davies represents a constituency in the far south-west of Wales where people have been very anxious about visitors from beyond that part of Wales, from places where the virus has had a more virulent spread, coming and bringing that virus with them. Because we have had a 'stay local' rule in Wales, places like Pembrokeshire have been very much shielded from the impact of coronavirus. There's the success of our policy, and it's felt directly by the Member's own constituents.
First Minister, you can dress this up as much as you want, and you've just said there isn't a 5-mile rule—if that is the case, why on earth include 5 miles in the guidance in the first place? It's quite clear your 5-mile rule continues to cause immeasurable anguish to so many families across Wales. You had an opportunity last week to give families some hope that they could start to see their loved ones safely, and complying with social distancing regulations.
Now, yesterday we saw further restrictions lifted in other parts of the UK, where the decision has been made to relax the social distancing guidance in England from 2m to 1m. Our social distancing regulations were rightly introduced here in Wales at the start of this pandemic in order to help limit the spread of the virus. However, as the R rate continues to have fallen to this level, it's right to reassess these regulations. Your colleague the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, said he welcomed the statement overall, adding that he believes the UK Government is trying to do the right thing and in that he supports them. Given that the World Health Organization already recommends a distance of at least 1m, can you confirm what assessment the Welsh Government has made of the impact of relaxing the social distancing regulations, and what discussions are you having with professionals and, indeed, colleagues regarding this matter?
Llywydd, to return to the Member's first point, I do hope that he is advising his constituents that it is perfectly possible in Wales today for people who have a compassionate reason for doing so to travel more than a local distance in order to see people who need that visit. It would be a great shame if—[Inaudible.]—about that, because the people in the circumstances that he described ought to be able to act in accordance with that ability to make a compassionate visit where that is necessary. That's available to people in Wales today, as it has been since the changes were made.
In relation to changes made across our border, I look forward to seeing the evidence on which those changes were made. I spoke yesterday morning to Michael Gove, the Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, and he promised that the devolved administrations would see all the evidence that the UK Government has used in coming to its conclusions. That evidence had not arrived by the end of yesterday, but we certainly hope to see it today.
In Wales the message remains: stay 2m apart. That is the safe way to behave. The science we have seen is the science from SAGE that says that if you halve the distance, the risk increases somewhere between two and five times greater than if you stay at a 2m distance. That is the science; the Member was interested in the science when it concerned him. That's the science in relation to the 2m rule. If because the transmission of the disease is falling in Wales we are able to make some exceptions in some sectors, provided it is safe to do so, and put mitigating measures in place, then of course we will consider that very carefully.
I know that sectors in England are waiting today to see the guidance as to how they will be able to use the advice that they were given yesterday in a practical way. We, too, will look forward to seeing that. If it is possible, always using public health as our primary test to reduce the 2m rule by exception, then we will see what we are able to do in Wales. But we will do it by looking at the evidence first and making the decision second, not making the decision and then looking for the evidence.
Well, First Minister, one sector that certainly needs some relaxation in its regulations is the tourism and hospitality sector. Now, last week's statement was, of course, welcomed, but it has resulted in more questions than answers, given the correspondence I've received from people with tourism businesses. The tourism and hospitality industry needs clarity, in my view in the form of a detailed strategy both for the short term and, indeed, the longer term—a strategy that clearly marks the Welsh Government's intentions against timescales, funding allocations and support to ensure businesses can remain viable, and a strategy that answers the questions the sector has, not one that results in operators feeling more confused than ever.
First Minister, will you therefore commit to providing a specific strategy for Welsh tourism that outlines exactly how the Welsh Government will support the sector in the short term and provides clarity for the longer term, so that businesses can be confident about the viability of the industry going forward? And given the vulnerability of the hospitality sector in Wales, what immediate action is the Welsh Government taking to support hospitality businesses across the country?
Well, Llywydd, the announcement that we made on Friday does give hope to the tourism industry in Wales. It came as a result of very detailed discussions with the sector itself. The sector must now prepare to demonstrate that it is able to reopen safely in self-contained accommodation, and that it is able to take its local communities with it, because community consent remains a fundamentally important part of the plan for that industry.
When the industry has demonstrated, as I certainly hope it can, that it is able safely to reopen on the terms we have announced so far, then our aim will be to add to the repertoire of things that can be done by that industry. But it is important we do it step by step, that we provide confidence to local communities, by demonstrating that the reopening of the industry can be done in a way that protects the health of staff, visitors and people who live in those localities. And I think the industry understands that very well.
Llywydd, the siren call for clarity in a set of circumstances that are so intrinsically unclear seems to me to miss the point by a very wide mark indeed. If the Member is able to tell me what the state of the virus in Wales will be six weeks, let alone six months, away from where we are today, then we would be able to provide clarity of the sort that he requires, but it's just not possible. And I'm sure he does understand that—that none of us know how this disease will progress as we move through the summer and into the autumn. We do our best to provide forward guidance to sectors in Wales, but to ask us to provide clarity where none is possible would be to provide a false prospectus to those industries, not something helpful of the sort that we wish to provide.
Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price.
First Minister, some residents had only returned to their homes following the February flooding when torrential rain fell in the village of Pentre last week, causing further damage to properties. In 2017 Welsh Ministers were expected to appoint a chair and members to the flood and coastal erosion committee before the end of that year. In reality, members of that committee, which was established under the terms of the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, weren't actually announced until March 2019, and their first meeting wasn't held until June 2019. That's two years without adequate focus on your Government's strategy on flooding. First Minister, why did it take so long?
Well, I don't agree with the Member at all that the appointments of that sort have meant that we have not had a very significant focus on flooding, both inland and coastal flooding, in Wales. We have used this Assembly term to bring together the most ambitious funding package for flood and coastal erosion in Wales that we have ever seen, and that, working with our local authorities, we have amended the share of funding between Welsh Government and local authorities—we now fund all of the preparation works for those schemes. And our contribution to grant support to local authorities is to be increased to 85 per cent of the total of those schemes. I think that demonstrates in a good deal more concrete way than some appointments the extent to which we have invested in this field.
I have enormous sympathies, Llywydd, for those individuals that Adam Price mentioned, who have spent the time over the last couple of months getting their homes back in order, only to find them flooded again. But I don't think that, when they are dealing with that, they are worrying about appointments to Government committees.
We're in the middle of two immediate crises—health related and economic. But there is a third—the ecological crisis, which we can't afford to ignore. It will have long-term consequences, but there will also be some immediate ones, including an increased risk of flooding. Now, research by the universities of Birmingham and Southampton shows that planting trees around rivers could reduce the height of flooding in towns by up to 20 per cent. Almost a decade ago, the Welsh Government adopted the ambitious and widely lauded target of planting 5,000 hectares of new woodland every year until 2030. This target was dropped to 2,000 hectares. In the last five years, the Welsh Government has achieved an average of just 300 hectares a year, and in the 12 months up until March this year, it achieved just 80 hectares—4 per cent of the target. First Minister, where's the urgency in the climate emergency?
Llywydd, I agree with the Member that the extent of woodland creation in Wales last year was not good enough. It's important to say that, as well as new woodland creation, an enormous effort goes into the restocking of woodland. And, in fact, we planted more trees in restocking woodland last year than we did the year before. But new woodland creation was not where we would want it to be last year. It is, to some extent, a factor of timings within the rural development programme as to when money is released to the sector. But we have quadrupled the amount of money that we are putting into the Glastir scheme, which has been—. The Glastir woodland creation rounds have been the most successful means we have found to date to stimulate the planting of new trees in Wales. Its budget will now be £8 million, up from £2 million, and I am confident that we will see a significant and necessary increase in new woodland creation in Wales, alongside our ambitions for a national forest.
Since 2015, Natural Resources Wales has been suffering a steady decline in funding, while being tasked with more and more responsibilities. NRW is now facing a further cut of £7.5 million. So, the Welsh Government is cutting back on funding, cutting back on tree planting, and seemingly cutting back on its commitment to tackling the climate emergency. Now, what many people in the Rhondda and adjacent communities want now is an immediate and expert-led inquiry to discover why they are enduring persistent flooding and, crucially, what needs to be done to stop this. First Minister, will you commit to such an inquiry today?
Well, Llywydd, we are not cutting back on tree planting; we are quadrupling our investment in tree planting. And while NRW has inevitably had to bear its share of a decade of austerity—so, it isn't NRW's budget that is being cut year on year; it is the Welsh Government's budget that has been cut year on year since 2010, and I'm afraid no part of the public service can be regarded as wholly immune from that. There will be inquiries. There are legal responsibilities that fall on the local authority and NRW when flooding takes place. And I know that those local players are working very hard already to make sure that we understand why flooding took place again in those parts of the Rhondda very recently, to add that to what our understanding has been of the flooding back in February, and then, when we've had those local investigations concluded, we will use the outcome to make sure that we put further mitigation measures in place.
Leader of the Brexit Party, Mark Reckless.
First Minister, yesterday, the Prime Minister announced the reopening of restaurants, pubs and entertainment venues and a switch from regulation to guidance, saying he would trust in the British people's common sense. Can you confirm that emphasis on British common sense does not apply to Wales and you intend to keep Wales lagging several weeks behind England?
The leader of the opposition here cited the leader of the opposition in Westminster and his general support for the UK Government approach. Similarly, aside from my group, isn't it the case that there has been cross-party support here for the different approach enabled by devolution in Wales? Unlike the much discussed five-mile guidance, the 2m rule is enshrined in law, with all business in Wales having to nominate someone to be liable for prosecution. It was endorsed and entrenched by this Senedd with the support not just of Labour and Plaid Members, but also the votes of Welsh Conservatives. If Members want to follow a UK approach and reopen our economy, don't they need to vote for it?
Llywydd, the Prime Minister's announcements yesterday were announcements for England. This Senedd must accept its responsibilities, in the way the Member says, for making regulations for Wales. We will continue to do so in a way that puts the health of our population at the forefront of the way that we bring proposals to the floor of the Senedd and seek to secure support for them. There is a minority—it's represented by the Member—who wish that they lived somewhere else and that decisions were made differently. We are confident that we have the support not just of the breadth of the Senedd behind the approach we are taking, but that we have the support of Welsh people for it as well.
First Minister, the fact that some people may be in a minority or disagree with your approach does not mean they want to live elsewhere. Today, we vote on the supplementary budget, with vast appropriations and reallocations of funds. But, in your Government amendment to a later debate today, you suggest it's not enough and the UK Government must urgently remove fiscal restrictions that prevent Welsh Government responding effectively to the pandemic.
But isn't it your Government's use of exorbitant powers you already have in the field of health that is causing a decline in Welsh revenues relative to England? What is the impact of harsher, longer lockdown in Wales on Welsh revenues and those rates of income tax? What further decline in land transaction tax receipts will we now see, given the English housing market reopened six weeks ago, yet you continue to ban house viewings here, except for empty properties? Given the consequent fiscal hole, how long will it be, First Minister, before you use the powers that the Conservatives granted to raise income tax by an unlimited amount?
Llywydd, the Member always manages to turn a sensible question into a piece of nonsense, as he did right at the end. So, you can be quite sure that there is no such proposal anywhere, other than in his own mind.
The points that we are making to the Treasury are just a series of sensible points. We want to have the ability to convert capital into revenue, at a time when the pressure on our revenue budgets is like it has never been before. We want greater flexibility to be able to use the Welsh reserve in a way that would allow us to respond to the conditions of a global pandemic. These are sensible measures that would allow us to manage the pressures we are under in a way that responds to them within our own resources. It's time that the rules at the Treasury caught up with the nature of devolution, and let's hope that we are able to use this opportunity to accelerate some of the thinking that has, I think, remained stuck in previous ways of doing things for too long.
Before I call the next question, and in line with my role to ensure the proper conduct of Senedd business, and to remind us all that we are meeting today remotely and virtually, I am aware that one Member is in the Chamber and filming himself and broadcasting to that point on social media. I will ask for that Member to be removed now from the virtual Parliament, and we will be closing the Chamber in due course. My advice to Mr McEvoy is not to play games with your Parliament.
Question 3—David Rowlands.
3. What assessment has the First Minister made of the effectiveness of the actions taken by the Welsh Government during the COVID-19 pandemic? OQ55329
I thank the Member for the question. The effectiveness of all our actions is assessed through the lens of public health, keeping people and communities safe in Wales during the pandemic. The three-week review cycle means that everything we do is assessed in the light of the most recent available evidence.
I thank the First Minister for that answer. I do understand that there can be no real definitive answers until an inquiry has been convened and the report produced, and that will, of course, take time. But I would at this time ask the First Minister to put together an interim report, one that would allow corrective actions to be put in place quickly, based on the knowledge gained over the last few months.
Well, let me begin, Llywydd, by agreeing with David Rowlands—it's very important to learn from the experience that we are having, and we are doing our very best to do that every single day as we think over the events of recent weeks and plan for the challenges that lie ahead. But I do want to explain to him—and I know that he is likely to understand—that the Welsh Government is absolutely flat out still in dealing with the crisis that is in front of us, just this week dealing with outbreaks of coronavirus in north Wales, looking at the impact on the meat processing sector more generally, continuing to make sure that we provide testing in our care home sector, that we look at further opportunities we may be able to offer people in Wales to resume freedoms that they've been denied during the crisis. All the people we have—and the huge majority of Welsh Government employees are not working in the normal way; they are still working from home—are being deployed still to focus on the immediate challenges we face to prepare for the coming autumn and winter. The moment will come, as David Rowlands said, where there will be an opportunity to stand back and do a formal review of these things. Informally, we learn all the time and apply that learning, but until we are in calmer waters, where we are not every day having to deal with the impact of this crisis in the lives of Welsh people and Welsh communities, that moment has not yet come.
Thank you, First Minister, for that response. One measure I welcome in recent weeks over the COVID regulations is obviously the opening of schools next week. I declare an interest as a member of a local authority, and, in particular, our local authority has issued guidance to say that they are unable to take the opportunity to open schools on the fourth week, because the contractual negotiations haven't been concluded with the unions by the Welsh Government. Do you think that is a fair reason to have schools closed across Wales— because Welsh Government have failed to conclude contractual negotiations with the unions?
Well, Llywydd, my colleague Kirsty Williams will answer a topical question on this matter later this afternoon. Let me just repeat that the advice that the Welsh Government provided was that, if it were possible to create four weeks of resumed education in Wales, the case for doing that was strong. We always recognised from the beginning that there was a contractual issue in the fourth week, which is why we proposed that, for teachers who worked in the fourth week, there would be an extra week of holiday restored to them at the October half term. But, as the Welsh Local Government Association said in welcoming our proposals, it was for them to take the proposals and put them into operation in the different circumstances that each local authority in Wales faces. And that's the way it has to be, because they are the employers, not the Welsh Government.
There will be children in Wales who will be in places where four weeks of school opening is possible, and I'm very glad that those local education authorities able to do so have been able to reach that agreement. Other local authorities will face different challenges, different circumstances, and come to different conclusions. That's inevitable in the way that things are done.
4. Will the First Minister make a statement on support for the hospitality sector in Wales in light of COVID-19? OQ55342
I thank the Member for that question. The package of support for the hospitality sector in Wales is the most generous in the United Kingdom. Thousands of businesses have benefited from 100 per cent small business rate relief and the Welsh Government's economic resilience fund. In total, over £330 million has been provided to assist the sector during the pandemic.
Thank you. North Wales tourism businesses and organisations have said that, if tourism was allowed to open today, 10,500 tourism sector jobs could be lost in north Wales, and they cite your Government and you to be destroying this vital industry. To refute those claims, what support will you make available to businesses that cannot open on 13 July? Self-contained accommodation businesses and ensuite hotels desperately need a vision, with guidance on how to safely prepare. Will you provide this? Will you clarify exactly what you mean by self-contained accommodation, working with their local communities? Will you clearly state whether campsites with shared facilities can prepare to open if they close these? First Minister, your leadership on this issue has never been under any such scrutiny, and, I have to say, with much criticism. Diolch.
Well, I thank the Member for those questions. Of course the actions of Government are under scrutiny—so they should be. That's why we have answered questions on the floor of the Senedd every single week during this pandemic and will continue to do so.
As far as the self-contained sector within the tourism industry is concerned, of course we work with the sector to provide guidance and to answer their questions. It's guidance that is provided with the sector itself. We've been working with UKHospitality Cymru and the Wales Tourism Alliance to make sure that their best practice guidance for working safely in the visitor economy is there for everybody in preparation for the lifting of restrictions. Visit Wales has hosted three consultation events with over 100 representatives from the four tourism forums across Wales, as well as with industry representative bodies. The purpose of giving people notice that they should prepare is to make sure that, when questions arise, there is time to resolve those questions with the sector. And I know the sector is very much looking forward to being able to reopen and to do it in a way that is safe, in a way that safeguards the reputation of the sector, and when the sector can demonstrate that it has been able to do that successfully, then we will want to allow it to do more.
But there's a real reputational issue here for the sector, and to rush at it in the way that the Member suggests, without any proper preparation to open campsites with shared facilities, that will not be happening—let me assure her of that—in the first wave, because we know that coronavirus thrives in shared facilities. Why would we put the reputation of this really important industry in Wales at risk by allowing unsafe practices to take place? We won't do that. We will proceed in the way that we have set out: carefully, step-by-step, demonstrating success, allowing more to happen when that success has been demonstrated, in a way that will safeguard the long-term reputation of this vitally important industry in Wales.
The First Minister will be aware of the announcement this week by Castell Howell, a very important food business in my region, that they are consulting about redundancies. This is of course partly because they have depended on the hospitality sector as their customers. Will the First Minister commit today to ensuring that his Government and his officials work closely with the company to see if there's any way in which the redundancies can be avoided, and will he commit in future to reviewing Welsh Government procurement policies, so that companies like Castell Howell may be able to benefit further from them in future?
I'm very happy to do both of those things, Llywydd. Our officials will certainly work carefully with that very important company and we have an ambition to spend more of the Welsh pound on Welsh businesses. Some very important things have been achieved in sir Gâr in particular in recent times, in getting local food supplies into local communities.
The UK Government has a part to play here too, Llywydd. Its furlough scheme must not be a blunt instrument. Where there are parts of the economy that cannot reopen because of the longer term impacts of coronavirus, then it's important to those sectors that the furlough scheme—which I understand will have to be adapted; I understand it must be withdrawn from parts of the economy that are able to resume, but where that is not the case, and hospitality is certainly part of that, with the knock-on effects into other industries—then the furlough scheme needs to remain an important part in the armoury of the UK Government, supplemented by what we are able to do through our economic resilience fund, to go on supporting sectors and really important businesses like Castell Howell, so they are able still to have a successful future.
5. Will the First Minister make a statement on the economy of the Heads of the Valleys? OQ55336
The appointment on Friday of a preferred bidder for the construction of the £500 million sections 5 and 6 of the Heads of the Valleys road is an important milestone in the future of the economy in that part of Wales. It will deliver economic and community benefits in a post-coronavirus recovery period. And of that £500 million, £170 million is expected within the local supply chain alone.
First Minister, I'm grateful for that, and of course we're also still waiting to finish the section from Gilwern to Brynmawr, and I think that will be welcome when that is completed. But we all recognise the human impact of the coronavirus and we know that there's already broad and deep support for the approach the Welsh Government is taking. But we need to continue to provide this support for people for the post-COVID era, and what's going to happen to employment particularly at that time. In Blaenau Gwent, we all know of people who are fearful of losing their jobs; we see the uncertainty around the future of the festival park in Ebbw Vale, and we know that there remains an urgent need to invest in strategic sites, such as on the Rassau or Rhyd-y-Blew. I would therefore ask you to work alongside me and other Members who represent these constituencies, to deliver a jobs plan for the Heads of the Valleys that will secure employment immediately and in the long term.
Llywydd, thanks to Alun Davies for that important set of questions. He will be pleased to know, and I know his constituents will be, that the Gilwern to Brynmawr section of the Heads of the Valleys road is now 85 per cent completed, despite the real challenges, the geological challenges that there have been in that part of Wales. I'm concerned as he is, I know, about the festival park site in Ebbw Vale, and we're working closely with the local authority there to see what can be done to address the announcements of last week. We continue to progress our plan for the high-tech cluster on the nearby work site and to prepare other sites so that they are in a good position to attract jobs into the Blaenau Gwent area.
But to just respond for a moment, Llywydd, to the general point that Alun Davies made: we should—all of us—be concerned at the jobs impact of coronavirus. I'm thinking of the 30-year experience of some communities in Wales to recover from the 1980s and the deliberate loss of jobs in those communities then; coronavirus isn't a deliberate action of course, but its impact can be profound. And I want to give Alun Davies, and others, an assurance that the Welsh Government will be relentlessly focused during the rest of this Senedd term on doing everything we can to support employment in those areas, so the scarring effect on young people in particular, in particular parts of Wales, is avoided as much as we can possibly do, by harnessing our actions with those of others to support those local economies and those local jobs.
Leanne Wood. Your microphone, Leanne Wood.
Thank you. First Minister, with news this week that there are 15 people chasing every single job in the Rhondda, and that comes on the back of the news that there are two towns in the top-20 most vulnerable to economic problems following COVID, then it's clear that there needs to be a specific jobs plan for the Rhondda. We've already heard how we need a new, sustainable drainage system, how we need a mass tree planting strategy, and we also need things like renewable energy. Can you please tell us what investment you plan to make in the infrastructure of the Rhondda, and how you intend to reverse the situation whereby people in the Rhondda have been ignored by successive Welsh and UK Governments since the 1980s?
Well, Llywydd, it's nonsense to suggest that the people of the Rhondda have been ignored; they certainly haven't. And if they have, then she'll be asking herself what she herself has done as the representative of that area to put it right. It wouldn't be a very proud record for me as a representative to stand up and say that my area had been ignored, and it hasn't been—she knows it hasn't been.
But, I want to reply to the substantive and sensible point that she made that, of course, our concerns have to be for those parts of Wales that are particularly vulnerable to an economic downturn. We are working very hard inside the Welsh Government to bring capital money together, and capital projects together, so that if, as we hope, the UK Government responds in the Chancellor's statement in July by putting a new set of investments into infrastructure to create jobs, but to create the conditions of the future, that we are as well placed as we can be to have projects ready to use that money and to use it for the advantage of communities across Wales, with a particular emphasis on those places where the coronavirus impact will be felt the greatest. And that certainly does include the Rhondda, and it certainly does include a number of the measures that Leanne Wood mentioned in the opening part of her question. She can be assured that those things are very much part of our thinking and will continue to be so.
6. Will the First Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government’s re-opening of the Welsh tourism sector? OQ55318
I thank the Member for that, Llywydd. On 19 June, I indicated that, provided public health considerations allowed, the Welsh Government would lift the 'stay local' requirement on 6 July. At the same time, I signalled to owners of self-contained accommodation to prepare to reopen from 13 July.
Thank you, obviously, for your announcement on Friday, although I have to say that the concept of community consent and the use of the word 'bookings' in the narrative haven't really helped the static caravan park owners, or van owners themselves, understand what they can do.
Last week, I asked the economy Minister why non-VAT-registered tourism companies are being treated differently from non-VAT-registered firms or sole traders when it comes to accessing the economic resilience fund. These are microbusinesses unable to access the self-employed support, and not the larger operations to which he made reference in his reply. Some of them are very exciting, novel, green tourism microbusinesses or small bed and breakfasts, and, anecdotally, quite a high proportion of them are run by women. So, could you please revisit this? As, in my view, there is no justification at all for treating two businesses differently on the basis of a registration at Companies House, with one version having a right to support and the other having to go begging to a hardship fund.
Well, Llywydd, first of all, let me make it clear that static caravans, where they are self-contained, will be able to reopen from 13 July. I’m not absolutely certain that I understand what the problem with 'bookings' is, because people are able to take bookings from 13 July. They need to be aware that that date remains subject to the circulation of the virus at the time. That's inevitable, and that’s exactly the same way that her Government in the United Kingdom has always proceeded. They make announcements, and they make it clear that those things have to be confirmed closer to the time because none of us knows what the state of coronavirus will be in the weeks ahead.
On her point about VAT registration, look, I just have to explain: our aim is to try to get money out to people as fast as possible, and to do so with the least bureaucracy as possible. But, this is public money, and the public have a right to know that there is a level of probity in the way that it is being spent on their behalf. We have used VAT registration as a short cut through a whole series of other checks that we would have had to have made to make sure that people who make applications to us are bona fide. If they have VAT registration, they will already have had to have gone through a number of checks, and we rely on those as part of our probity requirements in handing out public money for proper purposes.
Now, I understand that that has meant that people who are not VAT registered haven’t been able to benefit in the same way, and we’ve worked hard within the second phase of the ERF to try to be able to address that. But, it's there for a proper purpose. It's there for a purpose that Suzy Davies, I think, in other circumstances, would recognise very well: that if you're spending public money, there’s an obligation on you to make sure that you've put at least a minimum amount of checks into the system to make sure that the schemes that we are putting up, very rapidly, aren't taken advantage of by people who just think that, you know, this may be a quick way to get money out of a Government when you are not a proper business at all.
7. Will the First Minister make a statement on the support provided to foster parents during the coronavirus emergency? OQ55341
Llywydd, foster carers make a vital, positive contribution to the lives of looked-after children. I am extremely thankful for their continued dedication during these exceptional times. Foster carers across Wales have risen to some really challenging moments and continue to provide crucial support to some of our most vulnerable young people.
First Minister, thank you for that answer. I'd be grateful if you'd join with me in thanking foster parents the length and breadth of Wales for the contribution that they make every day, especially during the emergency. The lockdown has increased pressures on vulnerable families, with job losses and worsening mental health contributing to the potential for family breakdown. So, does the First Minister share my concern at the report from Barnardo's that the number of children in Wales needing foster care has risen by 45 per cent, whilst the number of people coming forward as prospective foster parents has halved? Will he indicate how the Welsh Government can help to bridge the gap and recognise the really valuable contribution that foster parents make and support them in the valuable work that they do?
Well, Llywydd, I definitely want to join Mick Antoniw in paying tribute to the work that foster carers do in Wales and have done during the pandemic crisis. Both he and I have been foster parents in the past and know something of both the challenges but also the enormous joys that it can bring.
I read the Barnardo's report. I think it's just important to be clear that the landscape of foster caring in Wales is different to the UK position. In other parts of the United Kingdom, Barnardo's and third sector organisations play a much larger part in the provision of fostering services than they do in Wales. The use of charitable provision providers in Wales, including Barnardo's, is 3 per cent of the total foster care workforce, and that proportion has been falling. Local authorities in Wales continue to provide nearly three quarters of all foster care.
Care Inspectorate Wales has provided a report on foster care activity over April and May of this year. They report very few breakdowns in foster care, a general stability, and a good level of placement availability. So, the report makes very interesting reading. It's important we think about the issues that it raises. I don't think it tells us what is happening in the bulk of foster care across Wales.
Local authorities, I think, have worked hard to support those foster carers. It's interesting to learn from them that the sort of help that foster carers have asked for has not been funding, per se; it has been help with making sure that they have the equipment that children need to learn remotely, it's for socialisation, it's to keep up contact with families of origin where that is part of a plan for that child. Local authorities have worked hard to assist their foster carers in that.
Once again, I just agree with the point that Mick Antoniw has made about the amazing efforts that those families make on behalf of vulnerable children in Wales.
Question 8—John Griffiths.
Your microphone, John—can you just wait until the microphone's on? Carry on.
8. What further action will the Welsh Government take to ensure that the provision of education from September onwards is of a high standard? OQ55330
Llywydd, the Welsh Government is working with partners to ensure that the best practice of the past three months is adopted more widely in future. Estyn inspectors will visit schools in Wales from September onwards, as part of this system-wide effort.
First Minister, there is great concern regarding our children's life chances, particularly those in our most impoverished families. Too few pupils considered vulnerable have returned to school, and working at home has been very variable. It seems the return to school at the end of this month will typically be for a few hours once a week and may not include the extra fourth week. And of course, when the return to school in the autumn term begins, blended learning really must be of a high standard in all our schools—every one of our schools. So, First Minister, what action will Welsh Government take to ensure a Wales-wide response, with schools, unions and local education authorities stepping up to the plate within clear national requirements?
Llywydd, I thank John Griffiths for that. He is right that too few vulnerable children have come forward during the pandemic period, but we have gone from around 300 children in the very early weeks to over 1,500 in the latest week. So, we've had a steady increase in the number of children coming forward. Reopening all schools on 29 June will be another important step, because we know that vulnerable children are less likely to attend a school that is not their own. There are many reasons for that, and when their own school reopens, with familiar teachers and familiar faces, we are confident we will see more of those children back in education.
But I agree with John Griffiths that September needs to bring with it a very different school experience, and that learning from the success of the last weeks will be very important to that. Because, while variability has been a feature, it has also been a feature that there are many, many schools that have risen very powerfully to the challenge of providing remote learning blended with contact from the school remotely, as well, for children. What we want to do is to make sure that there is a national expectation that all schools learn from the experience of the best and put that to work for the benefit of children and young people from September. And as I said in my original answer, we'll be deploying Estyn as part of that effort to make sure that the fantastic things—and they are fantastic things—that so many heads and teachers have invented to assist children and young people in Wales are understood by the rest of the system, that they are adopted by the rest of the system, and that the education from September onwards is of as high a standard as we can make it in the circumstances that we will face at the time.
9. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's policies for supporting the economy during the current pandemic? OQ55325
Llywydd, we're doing all that we can to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on our economy. Our £1.7 billion package of support means Welsh businesses have access to the most generous help for business anywhere in the United Kingdom.
Thank you, First Minister. These are clearly challenging times. You said earlier, in response to question 4—I think it was to Janet Finch-Saunders—that where certain areas of the economy, such as hospitality and tourism, cannot reopen, the UK Government furloughing scheme should continue. Of course, it strikes me that if those areas of the economy are reopening in England, then there will be no furloughing and therefore no consequential money for furloughing in Wales. So, is it not the case, First Minister, that, for the good of the Welsh economy, it's important that you do review the situation and look to reopen as much of the hospitality industry as possible in Wales as swiftly and as safely as possible? And if that isn't possible, then surely your Government will have to look at ways of funding support schemes, such as furloughing, yourselves, and that surely must involve some sort of extra borrowing or tax rises at some point in time.
Well, Llywydd, both the words 'swift' and 'safe' have to mean something in all of this. It can't be swift at the expense of safe, and if it were to be, then it wouldn't be very swift at all because we'd just be plunged back into the crisis from which we are now emerging.
Nobody should believe that the announcements made yesterday by the UK Government mean that the hospitality industry in England will resume as it was before the crisis began. I thought the Prime Minister was very clear himself about that yesterday. There will be a need to support that industry at a UK level, and that's what we look to the UK Government to do.
Finally, Russell George.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, the further job losses at Laura Ashley, an iconic and major employer in Newtown, would have been headline news if it wasn't for this current pandemic. It's absolutely devastating, of course, that the retail and manufacturing operations will cease. This couldn't have come at a worse time, I'm sure you'll agree. Just a few months ago, approximately 550 workers were employed by Laura Ashley in Newtown. Hundreds have been made redundant and, clearly, those who are remaining in work are anxious as their jobs hang in the balance. There was a loyal workforce in Newtown, many working for the company for decades.
Can I implore the Welsh Government to leave no stone unturned when it comes to this final opportunity to save this internationally renowned company, which has a long history of employing whole families in my constituency? What advice can you give to those who have been made redundant? And finally, what more can the Welsh Government do to support the highly skilled and loyal staff, or former staff, of Laura Ashley and all those in the wider supply chain who have been adversely affected by this very, very sad news?
Llywydd, can I agree with the Member about the seriousness of the news? Employment has been, as Russell George said, over many, many years within that industry, and whole families have been part of that experience. It is very sad, and we would, at other times, have been concentrating on it in a different way. But the Welsh Government will mobilise the help that we have used successfully in other examples of this sort, working with UK operations—the Department for Work and Pensions, and so on—as well as the things that we are able to put together to do everything we can to see that anything further that might still be possible in terms of the industry itself, and where that isn't possible, to invest in the skills of that local population to discover other opportunities, and to make sure that all the help that we can provide, alongside others, is mobilised for the benefit of the Member's constituents in the very difficult circumstances that they must face.
Thank you, First Minister.
The next item is questions to the Deputy Minister, Jane Hutt, and the first question is from David Melding.
1. What support is the Welsh Government providing to the voluntary sector in light of the coronavirus pandemic? OQ55337
On 6 April, I announced £24 million in Welsh Government funding for the voluntary sector in Wales, providing three elements of support: direct support for the sector's response to the crisis, support for organisations struggling to survive due to loss of fundraising income, and additional support for the Welsh voluntary sector infrastructure.
Presiding Officer, can I point out that I'm an officer of the Order of St John? Minister, you will know that St John Cymru has, for 100 years, provided essential services in the field of health and social care and first aid. It's a very familiar sight at our national events, and, like many other very significant voluntary organisations, it has shown remarkable strength over those years, but has now lost one of its major pillars of income, and a business model is under threat as a result—in its case, its training income, which has more or less dried up overnight from its highly successful level. Do you agree with me that the considerable and welcome support given by the Welsh Government to date will likely need to continue if we're to see our main voluntary sector providers of strength and well-being for the people of Wales be a part of that recovery and remain as active as possible in the recovery phase?
Well, I would like to thank David Melding for that question, and also it gives me the opportunity to thank and congratulate St John Ambulance—the Order of St John, of which you are an officer. St John Ambulance, of course, provides such fantastic volunteer support, and also the work with its young people. You've exposed and you've revealed today, of course, the pressures on St John Ambulance Cymru in terms of their current situation, but I can tell you that this is part of our discussions with the third sector partnership council in terms of how we can support the third sector in Wales out of the immediate impact of the coronavirus pandemic into recovery. They have such an important part to play, and we will seek to find the resources to support them through that journey.
Minister, to add to what David was saying, I think we all know the response of volunteers during the crisis has been incredible, right across the whole of Ogmore, but across the whole of Wales, as well, supporting communities with food and prescriptions, dog walking, deliveries and just social contact and a friendly face to see, albeit socially distanced. It's been amazing. But, Minister, can I ask you what discussions you are having with the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, which has been considering what the lessons are from this crisis for the voluntary sector, for retaining the voluntary effort and enthusiasm, for financial sustainability and for the profile and the vulnerability, I have to say, of a volunteer profile in response to pandemics like this, but also the longer term place of the third sector in being an integral part of local planning not just for emergencies, but for general community resilience? What sort of discussions are you having with the WCVA on this?
Well, thank you very much, Huw Irranca-Davies. And again, can we pay tribute to the volunteers? We did a few weeks ago in volunteering week, but as of 19 June, Volunteering Wales had 31,714 registered volunteers—over 18,000 registered since the lockdown, and in Bridgend and Ogmore and all those volunteers who have come forward, providing support. It's reflected across the whole of Wales.
So, we are now looking, with the third sector partnership council, because obviously the WCVA plays a key role in this, at ways in which we can sustain that level of volunteering and commitment. Some of those are young volunteers who've come forward, and some are going to be going back into the workplace but want to continue to volunteer, so we're looking at that very carefully. But they are meeting some of the needs for some of the most disadvantaged people in Wales as well. I also think that this is where the other voluntary sector key working with local authorities has been clear. So, the Welsh Local Government Association is meeting with all of the councils of voluntary action in every county of Wales. We have actually a very robust infrastructure in Wales, and that working relationship—local government, health boards, strategically with the voluntary sector—that's got to continue, and we can learn from it.
2. Will the Deputy Minister make a statement on how the Welsh Government is monitoring levels of domestic abuse during the emergency period? OQ55340
I monitor weekly figures on contacts to our Live Fear Free helpline and the number of refuge spaces across Wales. To address the impact of COVID-19, a weekly meeting is held for all of our violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence stakeholders with Welsh Government to assess the situation, and a campaign, 'Home shouldn't be a place of fear', launched on 7 May.
Thank you for that, Minister. I think we're all aware that there's been an increase in domestic abuse over the last few months. I'm very concerned that we do hear warm words from Government, but we see little investment in the services to help and support women and children, who are sometimes in quite desperate need. We have some fantastic organisations and some brilliant people in Blaenau Gwent, but they need more support and greater support. They need the resources and the investment to reach out and help women who are fleeing from abuse and violence at home.
I want the Welsh Government to provide us active support, Minister. We don't need warm words, we don't need meetings, we don't need assessments. We need action, and I hope, Minister, that you will be able to provide that action and that impetus to meet the needs of these women who are running away from violence at home and who are in a terrible situation in too many cases.
I thank Alun Davies for his question, and for raising this today. It's a key priority for me, and, indeed, it is important that we meet with those specialist providers, such as the services provided in Blaenau Gwent, to find out from the front line in terms of the impact of domestic abuse in the lockdown and how that has actually prevented people from coming forward. I know that you have raised this issue, particularly in terms of constituents who've been affected, but we have provided funding—£1.2 million of new money—to buy dispersed community-based accommodation. We've provided an additional £250,000 of new money to support the delivery of VAWDASV services.
Also, those services are benefiting from the £10 million homelessness package provided for emergency accommodation, and of course, as you know, there is regional work in terms of specialist needs and providers, and close working with the police, which has been particularly important. Can I say that we've just also allocated over £100,000 to Welsh Women's Aid to provide strategic support to those at the front line? It is very important that we recognise that, as we come out of the lockdown, the needs will indeed possibly be even greater as victims come forward. But it is during the lockdown that we've had to work very closely and ensure that our funding gets out to those services.
Minister, I was listening to your answer to the Member for Blaenau Gwent, and what's really important is that this level of support is understood, that it's making a difference on the ground. Very often, people who are affected greatly by domestic violence are the children in households where domestic violence has been undertaken. What confidence can you give me as a Member and my constituents that the help that you are putting in place is being targeted to support the children, who very often end up in the crossfire of this horrendous crime against individuals?
Well, I'm grateful to Andrew R.T. Davies for that question, specifically focusing on the needs of those children. We have to recognise that there have been households who have been victims of domestic violence who haven't been able to communicate. In the early days, our Live Fear Free helpline wasn't receiving those calls. In fact, we were encouraging people to use the 999 plus 55. The police have been crucially important, because that was a way in which they could get out to seek support. But also recognising that many of those victims would have come forward if their children were at school. Hub schools have been very important, but we've also got pharmacies and supermarkets to be our link places where victims might be able to go and get support and advice.
I think the 'Home shouldn't be a place of fear' campaign has actually stimulated and brought out calls for support and calls for help, and that's where all our specialist providers have to step in. We obviously need to look particularly at those needs of children and I think, as the schools reopen, that will be another important place where both victims and those children can benefit from going back into school and back into the sort of support that they will need.
3. What assessment has the Deputy Minister made of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on equality for women in the workplace? OQ55316
I've been working closely with those most affected by COVID-19 in Wales. The Women's Equality Network Wales, for example, has highlighted how women have been disproportionately affected as carers, as mothers and in the workplace. Equality is central to the First Minister's framework for recovery from the pandemic.
Thank you, Minister. It's good to know that that work is ongoing. As the economy starts to open up, I'm being contacted by increasing numbers of women who are under pressure to return to work although they have responsibilities for caring for children. Of course, that is very challenging, as we are not likely to see children back in schools on a normal basis for quite some time.
What can the Government do to send a very clear message to employers in Wales that they need to be compassionate with working parents during this period in order to support them to maintain their employment? What more can the Government do in terms of looking at things like grandparent bubbles to ensure that working parents do have access to the childcare that they need to maintain their jobs?
Thank you, Lynne Neagle. These are key questions that I'm sure we're all being asked. It's important that also our social partners are engaged with this. I know that the Wales TUC is very much sending out the message up until schools reopen next week that employers should keep staff on furlough and not be expecting them to return to work until they reopen, and that will be on a gradual basis. So, of course, there is also a return to work for more people coming forward, and the gradual reopening of childcare facilities that were announced, from 22 June, and they're operating under new guidelines.
I think it is important that all of our key workers have had free childcare over this period of time, in those hub schools, with vulnerable children as well. So, if people want to know about their local childcare facilities, of course you can find it from your local family information service. But I think also you raise a very important point about the sort of childcare that already goes on, with grandparents particularly. This is something that we are looking at in terms of the need, because clearly, at the moment, it's a question of you being unable to be in the house—you can meet with households, but not inside. It's been looked at as part of the 21-day review process, about mixing households and being drawn together to inform thinking, enabling that important childcare that so often takes place with grandparents engaged as a key consideration. So, it's certainly being considered, but the reopening of childcare facilities is important as well as the strong message to employers not to force a parent, particularly women, back to work without that childcare.
4. Will the Deputy Minister outline the Welsh Government's priorities during the remainder of this Senedd term for creating a more equal Wales? OQ55334
As we come out of the COVID lockdown period, the Welsh Government will continue to keep equality at the heart of its actions. Equality forms one of the three pillars of the First Minister’s framework for recovery, and this will be supported by legislative, research and engagement activities.
Thank you, Deputy Minister. It's been really positive to see the peaceful demonstrations of solidarity for Black Lives Matter, and I've been very, very impressed by the numbers of younger people in particular contacting me about this issue. One question they all ask is around the role of education in tackling racism and promoting equality. I know that work is ongoing with Race Council Cymru, for example, on the history part of the new curriculum, but what discussions have you had with the Minister for Education about these issues more generally within the new curriculum and, in particular, the promotion of a diverse range of authors within the literacy element?
The events that I'm sure we've all been aware of and taken part in virtually—events that I've been engaged in organised by Race Council Cymru and also the report that's been published this week, a report on the socioeconomic factors in terms of disproportionate impact on BAME people and communities—are fundamental to taking us forward to address these issues.
As the First Minister mentioned when that report was published on Monday, Welsh Government's working with Estyn to ensure that their review of Welsh history takes full account of Welsh and wider BAME history, identity and culture. And the education Minister is going to shortly announce a working group to oversee the development of those learning resources. Of course, that includes those black authors and I do thank the Member's constituents for raising this as well, at this important time of Black Lives Matter and addressing these issues.
I thank the Deputy Minister.
The next item is the business statement, and I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement.
Diolch, Llywydd. There are no changes to today's agenda. The draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.
Leader of the house, is it possible to understand—and I appreciate that because of the COVID crisis, Government has had its whole focus on dealing with the issues around COVID—but is it possible to understand how the Government will get back to being prompt in answering Members' questions and also coming back with constituency queries? Because at the moment, I have an inbox that is showing outstanding questions from April, and certainly, I'm getting replies from Ministers that date back to the end of March, beginning of April. Some understanding of how Government proposes to work through this backlog so that we can respond to constituency queries would be greatly appreciated.
I thank Andrew R.T. Davies for beginning his contribution by recognising the extreme pressure that Welsh Government is under in terms of responding to the coronavirus crisis.
Clearly, the volume of correspondence and the volume of written questions has grown exponentially; so, we've had over 850 in the same time period as we would have had 250 last year. So, clearly, it is putting a huge strain on resources in order to provide those answers, but we are attempting to respond as quickly as possible. But I would remind Andrew R.T. Davies and other colleagues respectfully that a great deal of information is available in the public domain, and I think that the Welsh Government website does hold a lot of that information. But, as I say, we are doing our best to respond as quickly as possible to the multitude of written questions that we are receiving.
Leanne Wood. Just pause a second, Leanne, whilst your microphone is turned on. Yes, carry on.
Diolch. Last week in the Rhondda, many properties were flooded, some for a second, some for even a third time. Now, the causes and the effects of the floods in June may well have been very different to the floods in February, but the effects are exactly the same, and for good reason, people are not confident that the issues have been resolved. And that's why we need an independent, expert-led inquiry—not just about the causes, but to put forward proposals to mitigate future flooding as well and to consider what investment needs to take place. We also need to know more. Why, for example, weren't people able to get sandbags when they were needing them, not just now, but in February as well? Where was the emergency planning? The yellow weather warning had been forecast for days. What has been Natural Resources Wales's role? It's been particularly unedifying to watch various authorities squabbling with each other as to who is responsible while no-one accepts responsibility, and all the while, people's insurance premiums are spiralling out of control. So, none of this is good enough.
Now, there are numerous options for independent, expert-led inquiries, and, of course, I can understand why the Labour-led Welsh Government might agree with the local MP and not want an inquiry. A bit rich, I must say, when he voted to support one in England. And what is good enough for England should be good enough for Wales, and good enough for the Rhondda. The more the Government resists an inquiry into this, I'm afraid the more people will believe that you have something to hide. It could be swift and inexpensive if the Government wanted it to be. So, can we have a statement, as a matter of urgency, outlining how the First Minister intends to find out what has happened in the Rhondda and put it right?
I think the First Minister did respond to the leader of Plaid Cymru on this point earlier on during First Minister's questions, but, clearly, once again, our thoughts are with the people of Rhondda Cynon Taf who have faced terrible flooding once more. I do know that Natural Resources Wales is currently investigating, and we're in close contact with their officers to understand the cause of the flooding and the related impacts. And, also, of course, local authorities do have that statutory duty to investigate flooding under section 19 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, and their flood investigations report will establish the causes of the floodings and then make recommendations as to how those risks can be reduced in future. But, clearly, the point has been made by both yourself and the leader of Plaid Cymru this afternoon, and we'll consider how best we can keep colleagues informed with statements on flooding and the response.
And, finally, Delyth Jewell.
I'd like to request a statement explaining three distinct but related matters about care homes. The first is the rationale behind the initial decision by the Welsh Government to refuse COVID-19 tests for asymptomatic residents leaving hospital before going back to care homes. Given the number of deaths and grieving families that resulted from the policy, there's clear public interest in explaining the reasons for this decision. Saying, 'That's just what we were advised' isn't good enough.
Now, the second is an explanation of why this policy was changed from 23 April onwards. When I originally asked the First Minister during First Minister's questions on 29 April about this, he told me the policy was changed, and I quote,
'not because the clinical advice had changed, but because we recognised the need to give confidence to people in the sector'.
But in a press conference on Monday, he said in relation to this matter, and, again, I quote:
'When the advice changed, we changed the practice.'
I think the First Minister has a duty to explain why he's given contradictory answers to this question.
Then, the final matter is an explanation, please, for the health Minister's claim that the original policy led to no deaths when there's clear evidence to the contrary. I spoke to a care home owner this morning who described that claim as
'breathtakingly stupid. All the evidence points to the fact that not testing people leaving hospital led to these deaths.'
Now, trying to get information from the Welsh Government about this matter is like trying to get blood from a stone, and the continued obfuscation gives the impression they're trying to hide something. So, I would request that a statement be provided, setting out all the facts in relation to this matter as soon as possible.
I thank Delyth Jewell for raising this important issue, because COVID-19 in care homes is clearly an issue of paramount concern during this ongoing pandemic.
Delyth raises a series of quite detailed questions that would require, I think, a more detailed answer than I'm able to provide today, because I don't have the evidence and so forth, and the advice at my fingertips. Although we have tried to be as transparent as possible by providing summaries of the advice that Welsh Government receives on the Welsh Government website. But if I could invite Delyth Jewell to write to the First Minister, or, probably more appropriately, the health Minister, on those specific questions, then they'll clearly seek to respond in due course.
I thank the Trefnydd.
The next item is questions to the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs. And the first question is from Janet Finch-Saunders.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the welfare of animals in Welsh zoos? OQ55307
Thank you. Officials wrote out to all zoos and animal attractions in Wales. For those who responded, we've been offering advice and support throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of those that have liaised with us have received funding from Welsh Government and/or other organisations. Officials continue to monitor the situation.
Thank you, Minister. The saying goes, 'You can't furlough fish'. Zoos across Wales have a duty to maintain animal welfare. This costs thousands of pounds, such as £118,000 a month for the Welsh Mountain Zoo, the national zoo of Wales. During lockdown, zoos have been pushed towards the jaws of death. There has been talk of euthanasia at places like Borth Wild Animal Kingdom and Anglesey Sea Zoo. As the sector has said, there should have been special funds recognising that they have to stay functioning, even when closed. Bearing in mind animal welfare, and that the Welsh Government has had a significant Barnett consequential from the UK Government's zoo fund, why have you not established a zoo support fund for Wales to provide this much-needed support? Diolch.
If I can just correct Janet Finch-Saunders: the Welsh Government has not had significant funds in a Barnett consequential. The UK Government have indicated we will get some later this year, but, clearly, if we'd waited for that, there would have been animal welfare issues, which there haven't been.
We didn't feel we needed a specific zoo fund, as you referred to it, because, from the outset, we provided all the licensed zoos and animal attractions with details of the existing schemes that you had. I know the Welsh Mountain Zoo has publicly stated they have received funds from the economic resilience fund, and also that they've had a loan from the Development Bank of Wales, both of which, obviously—one was from the Welsh Government, non-repayable, and the other was from the Development Bank of Wales, which was set up by the Welsh Government. I understand also there is an application in from the third sector resilience fund, and I think that is the area that the consequential will come from the UK Government. But I want to be very clear that we haven't had that funding. A questionnaire went out to all zoos and animal attractions, as I said, at the—probably not right at the start of the pandemic, but certainly in April. And we've been able to show that that funding is available without setting up a specific scheme for the zoos and animal attractions.
Mandy Jones. Carry on.
Diolch, Llywydd. I know there was a lot of noise around the UK Government's specific provision for zoos and aquariums, allowing each concern to access grant funding of up to £100,000. I wrote to Ken Skates some weeks ago, on the Welsh Mountain Zoo in particular, and he gave assurances that Welsh zoos had not missed out. As lockdown hopefully continues to relax, will you join me in asking the Welsh public to get out in the fresh air, and visit our local zoos and attractions, so that we can remind ourselves of their contribution to education and conservation, as well as recreation? Diolch.
Thank you, Mandy Jones. And certainly, as the lockdown measures are eased, that will be the message from Welsh Government.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Dairy Support Scheme which has recently opened for applications? OQ55320
Diolch. The dairy support scheme opened on 18 June to support farmers hardest hit by the exceptional market conditions caused by COVID-19. Eligible farmers will be entitled to up to £10,000 to help them continue to meet fixed costs and sustain production capacity, without impacts on animal welfare and the environment.
Thank you for your answer. I have been contacted, I have to say, by a number of farmers who are literally just a few pounds short of meeting the 25 per cent threshold of a fall in their income, which would then make them, of course, eligible to qualify for the support scheme. But these are farmers who have incurred significant losses, but, of course, subsequently, they get nothing, no support whatsoever, because, of course, they continue to be ineligible for all other support schemes, particularly, of course, the economic resilience fund.
Now, the European Commission has currently included a COVID-19 measure within the European agricultural fund for rural development, and Members of the European Parliament have now voted to allow for a one-off lump sum to be made to farmers of €7,000, with up to 2 per cent of the rural development plan budget, plus co-financing of EU funds, allowed for this measure. So, will you consider the implementation of this measure so that we can help ease the cash flow problems on so many Welsh farms?
Diolch, Llyr, and you're quite right, the EU Commission have done that. And certainly, that would be for us to decide if we can do that and it's something that I've asked officials to look at.
Good afternoon, Minister. The dairy support fund is very welcome for farmers in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, but they have asked me a number of questions on it. One of which was: why did you decide to calculate it on the price of the milk unit rather than 25 per cent of the overall loss of income? Because some of them pointed out that, although the price that they may get per litre of milk remains the same, or isn't quite 25 per cent less, they've actually lost massive amounts of volume. That leads me on to a second point, which is: I wonder if you could give us an outline of what you might be able to do to help increase the take-up of milk and dairy products by, not just the general public, but by helping farmers to diversify more, because, as we know, the hospitality industry has really crashed and that's where a lot of my farmers have lost their marketplace.
Thank you, Angela. You raise a similar point to Llyr, and I suppose I should say that there are always winners and losers when you have these schemes. Unfortunately, there has to be a cut-off point. It's a finite budget; we haven't got huge amounts of funding to play around with. So, the scheme was introduced to support those farmers hardest hit by the exceptional market conditions that, obviously, the diary sector suffered due to COVID-19. It does require farmers to meet the eligibility criteria of a milk price reduction of 25 per cent or more, as you said. That was based on the analysis of the milk buyers who face the highest impact as a result of the crisis. It was also designed in response to decisions that were outside of the control of the dairy farmers, so primarily as a consequence of the actions of the milk buyer.
I think you make a very important point about encouraging more people, in relation to eating and drinking more milk and cheese and dairy products et cetera. You may be aware of the new Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board consumer campaign. That was part-funded by Welsh Government, UK Government and Scottish Government. So, that is primarily aimed at increasing consumer demand for milk by 3 per cent. I'll be able to update Members on the success of that scheme over the next few weeks.
I'm disappointed the Welsh Government hasn't managed to find the capital needed to increase Welsh horticulture production—
Can you just move closer to your microphone, Jenny? You're not being heard completely. Yes, can you put your headset on, Jenny?
Yes, sorry—apologies. Apologies to all.
I just wanted to say that, whilst I'm disappointed that the Welsh Government hasn't found the money to increase horticulture production at this important growing season, given that food security in fruit and veg in Wales is dangerously low at 1 per cent, and we don't know what's going to happen in the future as a result of coronavirus in terms of imports, nevertheless, I do welcome the scheme to provide the compensation to small dairy farmers who've lost 25 per cent or more of their income because of the closure of cafes and restaurants.
I wonder if you could tell us what progress has been made on increasing capacity to convert the surplus milk into cheese and butter, and to use the EU public intervention scheme to store milk, butter and cheese in order to prevent milk being poured down the drain in future. Also, I wonder if you can just tell us what the total amount set aside for the dairy rescue scheme is.
Thank you, Jenny. We're all getting used to new ways of working, aren't we? Just about your comments about horticulture, as you say, it does make up only 1 per cent of the Welsh agricultural sector, so there's massive potential there to increase. And you'll know, from answers I gave you during committee scrutiny, that this is an area we are looking at and how we do enable, if farmers want to, to go into the horticultural part of the sector.
In relation to your questions around the dairy sector, I think, at the moment, it's around £0.5 million, but I will have to check that out. And we're certainly looking at the applications now. I think we've had about 91 applications in, and I know about 11 have been processed already and the money will be reaching farmers, I hope, by the end of this week. The private storage aid schemes for skimmed milk powder, butter and cheese were announced by the European Commission and opened on 7 May. I know the cheese quota particularly was very well received, and that allocation has now been filled, but applications do continue to be received for butter. The non-collection of milk amounted to a very small number of cases, and non-collection has been included as part of the dairy support scheme, as this obviously was outside the control of the dairy farmer. But I absolutely recognise how upsetting that was. Even for a small number of farmers, it was incredibly upsetting and it's something we would want to avoid.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, you will know, I'm sure, that a criminal investigation is now under way into the fire at the Hafod landfill site—
I'm sorry, Presiding Officer; I can't hear.
Oh, right. I can hear. Llyr, can you just—
I can hear now. Sorry, Llyr.
Okay, we're all fine. We can go. Go, Llyr.
I was just asking, Minister, that I'm sure you will be aware of the criminal investigation that's under way into the fire at the Hafod landfill site, near Wrexham, earlier this month. And both Natural Resources Wales and the company that runs the site have told me that they don't actually know what started the fire. Now, in that case, do you not think it wise to not allow the company to continue dumping there, prior to the criminal investigation being concluded?
So, I was assured by NRW that it was completely safe to carry on. I have a meeting with NRW tomorrow. I only found out about the event that you've just referred to recently. So, I will certainly be raising it with NRW tomorrow, and get some more assurance and then I'm very happy to write to the Member following my meeting tomorrow to update him.
Well, I'm sure a number of people will be bemused that they're allowed to carry on without knowing exactly what caused the fire. So, I would urge you, Minister—and I have raised this with you before—to make sure that action is taken sooner rather than later. Because obviously the local community didn't want it in the first place, and now we see some of the consequences of that development.
Now, you referred to Natural Resources Wales in your response to me, of course, and they are key in protecting our environment, responding to pollution incidents such as this, but also the flooding response that we're seeing in different parts of Wales over recent months and, more broadly, the climate emergency and nature emergency that we're facing. And I've previously raised concerns with you regarding the funding of Natural Resources Wales over recent years, and the fact that they really are on an unsustainable trajectory of dwindling resources driven by funding cuts on the one hand, and then, on the other, increased duties and responsibilities. So, effectively, this Government is asking NRW to do more with less.
They already saw a real-terms cut in their budget for this year and now they're facing, of course, as you know, a £7.5 million further cut to their in-year budget. Now, if you add in the multi-million pound losses projected for the timber operations that they have, then this is really becoming critical. So, in light of their key role in protecting the environment, in responding to flooding and in leading the charge against the climate emergency, will you now reconsider the proposed budget cut for Natural Resources Wales?
So, I think, again, I referred to this in my answers during committee, and we are working very hard with NRW. We don't want to be in this position, where we had to reset and repurpose our budget so soon in the financial year, but I'm sure all Members will appreciate, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was absolutely essential that we did that. When I met with NRW about two or three weeks ago, I asked them for their assessment around non grant-in-aid funding, and I think it's really important that we do look at the—if indeed they have a reduction of that. I know they're waiting for the June timber figures before they give us some firmer information around that.
What I do think is really important is that we work with them to make sure they have the flexibility around their budgets. So, this is the top agenda item tomorrow. But, at the moment, with the way we've had to, obviously, put money into the COVID-19 pandemic response, I'm afraid I'm not able to look at that budget cut in the way that you would want me to. But, as I say, we've all had to do this, and everyone has to appreciate, with the COVID-19 pandemic, there isn't going to be the same level of funding that would have been available.
I understand the point you're making, but, of course, we are facing more than one crisis at the moment, and I think that needs to be remembered as well.
There is one other issue that I would like to raise with you, if I may, Minister, and that, of course, is the cluster of cases of COVID-19 that we've seen in meat processing plants in Wales, and that reflects what we've seen in other nations such as the USA and Germany and so on. And what I want to know is what you as Minister and what the Welsh Government are doing in responding proactively to these situations. Rather then waiting for cases to arise, shouldn't we now be developing a testing programme specifically targeted at processing plants such as these so that we can catch these cases at an early stage and reduce risks that that would spread into the community?
Thank you. I asked my officials to do a rapid piece of work. We've called this an initial density and environment risk assessment of not just meat processing plants and abattoirs, but also all our food businesses. That piece of work is well under way—I'm expecting an initial report by close of play today—because I think it is important that we look at what's happened internationally. You mentioned America and Germany, which have seen similar outbreaks and clusters. It's really important that we learn lessons. It's also important that we learn lessons from our own meat processing plants. So, if you think about—well, probably all of them, they've got sister companies in other countries. I know that they themselves—so, Kepak, 2 Sisters, Dunbia—are all looking within their own organisations and are feeding in to my officials with this. So, this is a very rapid piece of work, as I say, and I will be getting the report today, because I think it's very important that we continue to work very closely together.
So, obviously, I've been having discussions with the health Minister. Public Health Wales are, obviously, very involved as well, and the local authorities and the health boards, and our test, trace, protect I think has really been tested and has come through. But we obviously need to keep a very close eye on this.
Conservative spokesperson, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, if I could just take you up on the point you raised in response to Llyr's last question, will you be making that report available for Members to see? Because I think there's a lot of public interest in this at the moment, and it'd be important to understand what conclusions have come out from the report that you've commissioned. And, secondly, within that report, will it identify are there problem areas within the plant? Because, as someone who is familiar with plants that process food in this way, very often, the conditions that we find in the winter of the chill and the cold are very much found in the processing side, rather than in the lairage or in the slaughter hall. So, is that level of work that you're undertaking, or indeed the health Minister's undertaking, specific to trying to locate an area of the plant that is susceptible to the COVID-19 virus? But, more importantly, will the overall report be made available for Members to see?
So, this assessment that I asked—this is my food division, that I asked—officials to have a look at, and we're doing it very closely with Food Innovation Wales—. Professor David Lloyd and Martin Jardine—you'll be very aware of both of them—are leading on this piece of work. And because I wanted it done very quickly, it's really important that we asked for assistance.
Will I be making it public? It's there to help us as Ministers and the Welsh Government to provide guidance for these companies. I don't know what there—. You know, if there were anything to say that I can't make it public—but, as you know, I'm a very transparent Minister, and, if I can make it public, then I'll be very happy to do so. I think it's really important that—the points that you raise. So, we know the virus can live much longer on cold stainless steel, for instance, than it does outside. So, clearly, for those of us who have been in those sorts of organisations and places, we know that they are very cold. Last week, we were told that noise can have an impact. So, again, some of these places are very noisy, so that could be having an impact too.
Clearly, the 2m distancing, in some areas—we've seen production lines—it is very difficult and I know companies have been very thorough in trying to maintain that, but clearly there are a lot of issues and the idea of having this rapid review was to see what was there and what we could help with, and I mentioned in my answer to Llyr that there is a lot of best practice, and, of course, companies and organisations are competitive, but I know everybody is really keen to share that best practice.
Well, I appreciate your transparency, Minister, and I would implore you to make that report available if there are no constraints on you making it available. There might be some legal constraints that I'm unaware of, but, if that could be made available, I think it would be appreciated.
Last week, the Northern Ireland Executive announced a £25 million support package for agriculture in relation to the COVID-19 crisis. The Republic of Ireland Government has put a £45 million support package in place for the agricultural industry. Have you had discussions with the finance Minister, given the consequentials that have come down and the additional economic resilience measures that have been made available to other sectors in the Welsh economy—have you had a conversation with the finance Minister to see whether a similar level of support could be put in place to support the agricultural industry, which in certain circumstances has seen price decreases of 15 to 20 per cent in the price margin that they can sell their product into, and into a sector that has very often closed down, such as the service sector?
I'm sorry. My computer froze for a little while, but I think I got the main gist of your question, Andrew. I have lots of conversations with the finance Minister, as I'm sure you will appreciate, around various aspects of my portfolio. I made it very clear at the beginning that we would look on a case-by-case basis if any parts of the agricultural sector came to me for funding, and that was obviously—. The dairy sector came first. So, that was due to many conversations with the finance Minister and with other ministerial colleagues that we had the funding to have the dairy sector scheme, and that was obviously because of the specific market circumstances in relation to dairy, which I don't think are in other parts of the agricultural sector at the current time.
So, I haven't got the funding available to do what you just referred to that the Northern Ireland Executive have done, but, obviously, on a case-by-case basis, we would have a look at it. I meet fortnightly now with the farming unions and I know that they will be the first to tell me if they feel that there is an area of agriculture that we need to be looking at.
I think I understood from your reply, Minister, that you haven't made such an application to the finance Minister. I'd merely point out that, with such moneys going into our competitors in Northern Ireland and the Republic, in the medium to long term, this will place the agricultural sector at a severe disadvantage.
Last week, you announced a consultation on third-party puppy sales and obviously the campaign around Lucy's law has galvanised many Members across the Chamber from all political parties. As I understand it, that consultation is due to close in the middle of August. If you get a fair wind in the legislative time frame, when do you expect this to be entered into the Assembly so that we can discuss how this can be taken forward? Because, with dissolution now on 31 March, there's a huge pressure to try and get this on the statute book before, obviously, we go into dissolution. Can you give us confidence that, as a Minister, you will get this on the statute book by dissolution on 31 March?
That's certainly my intention and I was grateful to the Member and all members of the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee for their commitment to help me do that. I've had the shortest consultation that I could have. We have done consultations before, but obviously there is a process we have to go through. But I certainly hope in early 2021 to be in the position to get that on the statute book.
Question 3—Dawn Bowden.
Yes, I think we can hear you now.
Okay. Thank you, Llywydd. I was having trouble unmuting then. I do apologise.
3. Will the Minister provide an update on flood recovery work in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney? OQ55315
In response to flooding caused by storm Dennis, local authorities have undertaken extensive works across Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney to assess the damage caused and to conduct repairs to flood alleviation assets. Increased inspections and maintenance of flood alleviation assets have also been undertaken to reduce the risk of future flooding.
Thank you for that response, Minister. Firstly, can I add my sympathy to others' for those people who have been yet again affected by flooding in recent days? In parts of my constituency, the problem is not just about rivers flooding, but it's also the adequacy of largely Victorian local drainage and culvert systems, which frankly seem unable to cope with the extreme weather conditions that now seem to be quite commonplace. I am, however, picking up on the point you've just made, and very pleased to see some of the evidence in my constituency of the recovery work after the storm damage earlier in the year. But it does seem to me that there is a significant need for retro-adaptation of some of these old systems, and fresh investment in sustainable drainage infrastructure. So, what further scope is there for targeted local action as a complement to the larger schemes that are currently being funded?
Thank you, Dawn Bowden, and there's certainly lots of scope, and I know Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council are procuring consultants to develop five schemes, identified as highest risk flood defences, but they've also completed the refurbishment of a collapsed culvert known to have flooded 10 properties in the Merthyr Vale area. So, it's really good to see that sort of proactive work from the council and they've also engaged with consultants to commence development work for capital works where 170 properties were flooded during storm Dennis. But I absolutely agree with you, the flooding we saw last week was absolutely heartbreaking, and particularly in an area like Pentre, which I know is not in your constituency, but it suffered flooding, and I know there are houses in your constituency that have had multiple flooding as well. So, it's really important that we continue to get the schemes, because we have the capital available for those schemes, and I'm now funding the sort of preparatory work 100 per cent, because I think local authorities told us that could be a barrier, so we're funding all that preparatory work 100 per cent now, so please do encourage the local authority to come forward. I don't think we had any bids from Merthyr in relation to the financial assistance we offered from the flood risk management programme, but I'm still open to consider such bids.
4. What discussions has the Minister had with the UK Government regarding the Agriculture Bill? OQ55321
Diolch. I have had regular discussions with the UK Government throughout the development of the Agriculture Bill. Powers for Welsh Ministers are included at my request and draft provisions are carefully scrutinised by officials.
Thank you very much. It was very, very disappointing that Conservative MPs representing rural constituencies in Wales, including Ynys Môn, voted recently against an amendment to the Agriculture Bill that sought to safeguard the interests of Welsh farmers. The purpose of the amendment was to ensure that imported agricultural produce under post-Brexit trade deals would have to adhere to the same animal welfare standards and environmental standards as farmers here, and certainly, without that assurance, farmers and customers are being undermined. Can I ask once again for the Minister to push again for some assurances from the UK Government that every agricultural product sold here will have to adhere to the same standards adhered to by our farmers? It's clear that Boris Johnson and his Members in Wales are willing to sacrifice the rural economy, but we in Wales, the farming sector, the unions and the politicians must do everything to withstand that.
I absolutely agree with Rhun ap Iorwerth and he has my assurance that I continue to push that. I know my colleague Eluned Morgan, who leads on the trade policy for Welsh Government, is doing the same, because obviously this fits into the trade policy area as well. I have my next DEFRA quadrilateral next week and I will continue—. And I've also written to George Eustace; I think it was about 12 June. I've not had a response to that letter yet, but I will continue to push and I will raise it at the meeting next week.
Minister, the UK Agriculture Bill, going through the UK Parliament, will of course have implications for farmers across the UK, and I understand that you intend to publish a White Paper towards the end of the year, which will set out the context for the future of Welsh farming and pave the way for an agriculture Wales Bill. Can you therefore update us on the progress of that White Paper, and when we're likely to see it published? And could you provide an update also on the discussions that you've had to date with the Welsh farming community in relation to that specific White Paper?
Thank you. So, as you say, I have committed to publishing a White Paper by the end of this year. Work was paused, probably for a couple of months at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when officials obviously had to work in that area, but we're now back up to full capacity on that piece of work. So, you'll be aware we've had two thorough consultations, which have obviously helped us bring this paper together. Again, as part of the White Paper, we were looking at the design of our schemes. We've not been able to have those face-to-face visits that we would have wanted to see, but we're certainly able to do it online. So, that paper will be published by the end of this year. The work is now back up to the level we wanted it; obviously there's been a hiatus whilst officials have been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. It is always, I think it's safe to say, a topic of conversation when I meet with the farming unions, and I mentioned in an earlier answer, I am meeting with the farming unions far more frequently during the pandemic. A few times we've sort of met weekly, but we're now in a rhythm of meeting fortnightly, but it's something that's always discussed. It's also something that's discussed at the EU transition round-table that I hold with stakeholders, and, again, thoroughly discussed, not just by the farming unions but by other interested parties, so including the environmental non-governmental organisations.
I agree with everybody—with Rhun particularly—that the Agriculture Bill must include legal guarantees that animal welfare environmental standards won't be cut in post-Brexit trade deals with the USA, or anybody else for that matter.
We've all seen the headlines about chlorinated chicken, but we've got issues with chicken farms in Wales, specifically in Powys, with the council just granting permission for four more farms and saying that there won't be a moratorium on planning applications. I find it particularly concerning that, in January, all planning applications that require an environmental impact assessment in Powys will be determined by just one planning officer, not the council's planning committee. National Resources Wales has previously expressed concerns about the accumulative environmental impact of chicken farms on ancient woodlands and ground water, and I've raised this issue many times myself. So, can I ask you, Minister, if you would look at the situation in Powys and assess the need for planning applications to take account of existing farms and the burden on the local environment and the community?
Thank you, Joyce Watson. If I can just say about chlorinated chicken, because this is something that many people have written to me about. It is currently banned in the EU and the Welsh Government does not accept that that position should change. So it's an opportunity for me to say that as we do move to develop trading relationships with other countries outside the European Union.
In response to your question around poultry farms, where planning permission is required for new poultry sheds they do have to consider the economic benefits and the environmental impacts of the proposals, and it does include the cumulative effect of increasing the number of developments. We are looking at how local planning authorities plan for new poultry development, and we've convened the town and country planning intensive agricultural working group to advise on how development plan policies should be prepared and the material considerations involved in determining planning applications. The planning system doesn't operate in isolation and other regulatory regimes, such as environmental permitting and statutory nuisance, will control the impact of these developments on the localities also.
5. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's policies for supporting farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic? OQ55326
Thank you. Our policies include the Welsh dairy support scheme, which opened last week and will support those farmers hardest hit by COVID-19 due to the closure of the food service and hospitality sectors. Our unique Farming Connect support and advice service has continued via weekly webinars, vlogs, podcasts and video-conferencing, as well as e-mails, phone calls and texts.
Thank you, Minister, and you've anticipated my supplementary question, which is on the topic of the dairy rescue scheme and the effect on dairy farmers at the moment—a very live issue in my corner of Wales, and a number of Members have asked you about it.
You said—in answer to Angela Burns, I think it was, and, indeed, to Andrew R.T. Davies—that there are always going to be winners and losers in a scheme and that resources are tight at the moment, which I fully understand. Would you agree with me that the problem with the effect on the dairy industry is that it's almost delivering a double-whammy, if you like, to rural areas? Because of course you've got, first of all, the effect on the hospitality industry of the lockdown, which is a key sector of the economy in rural Wales, and the knock-on effect of farmers, who don't have so much milk to sell, then affects the rural economy in a second wave.
So, in terms of your dairy rescue scheme, what are you doing to look at the overall effect on rural communities of the effect on dairy farmers, and how are you assisting dairy farmers in their diversification at this time, so that we can mitigate the whole consequential effect on our rural ares?
Thank you, and I think that I've given thorough answers around the dairy support scheme. I am very pleased that we are getting the first moneys out this week, because I think that's very important too. You are quite right about the rural areas. As is often the case, it's the rural area that suffers and, obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on tourism, as well as on the agricultural sector. So, I think that it is really important that, when we look at recovery—as, of course, we are doing as a Welsh Government—we look at the impact on the rural areas and what might be needed to support them. I'm thinking of drawing together—. These are very early thoughts, and I haven't even discussed them with officials yet, but I think it might be that we will need a specific group to look at recovery in relation to our rural areas.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's flood recovery and prevention action in Rhondda Cynon Taf? OQ55309
Thank you. The Welsh Government provided £3 million emergency funding to our flood risk management authorities by the start of April. This includes £549,500 to Rhondda Cynon Taf, which is the full amount they applied for. They also received £1.7 million through the emergency financial assistance scheme to fund their initial response.
Thank you for that answer, Minister, and your earlier comments on the flooding issue. The further flooding that was recently experienced in parts of Rhondda Cynon Taf just weeks ago is a warning to us all. If it were not for the proactive response from Rhondda Cynon Taf and from Welsh Water, things could have been, in fact, a great deal worse and even more extensive. Most of the flooding this time in my constituency was around the Nantgarw and Rhydyfelin areas and was related to issues such as blocked and silted drains, but it’s clear that urgent investment is needed in our flood local defence infrastructure.
Now, the Minister will be aware that I have written to her asking for an overall review of flood alleviation measures in Taff Ely. But, will you confirm that the necessary flood prevention work identified to date will proceed and without delay? Can you also outline the steps that the Welsh Government is taking, in conjunction with other bodies, to ensure that, this winter, we will have done everything that we can to ensure that there is no repeat of the disastrous flooding that hit Pontypridd and Taff Ely and other parts of south Wales earlier this year?
Thank you, Mick. I think that you were the first person to alert me to the flooding last week. As I said, my sympathy goes out to everybody who was affected. You are quite right: the agencies did come together. So, the local authority, Dŵr Cymru and NRW were out there straight away. I was very grateful that everybody reacted very quickly. I know that RCT asked for pumps straight away; they got there straight away. But, it is really important that we look at the lessons learned from the February flooding. We had had some initial views. I've fed them into the new flood and coastal erosion strategy that we've launched. But I think we do need to have a look—. I am aware of your correspondence, which I've not responded to yet. I think it is really important that we look at the current assets and what more might be needed. As I mentioned in an earlier answer, we have the capital funding available. I'm ensuring that the preparatory work is fully met by Welsh Government—that the cost of it is fully met—and I'm very happy to work with every local authority and consider all the applications that come in.
I think Llyr mentioned before that we're faced with several crises at the moment, and, clearly, the climate emergency, if that tells us anything, we know that we are absolutely in the middle of that climate emergency now.
After the floods in February, people in the Rhondda received £500 from the local council, £500 from the Welsh Government, and more if they were uninsured, more if they were a business, and even more again from local fundraising efforts. What they didn't get was defences to stop this happening again. So, will you commit to providing floodgates for every home that needs one? And will you outline what financial support might be available to people who were flooded this time? And finally, Minister, do you support an independent, expert-led inquiry into what's happened and to give us some recommendations for future mitigation?
There were three questions there. Again, we need to look at what the assessment is, what's needed in our flood defences. So, floodgates for every property—that hasn't crossed my desk yet, but if that came forward it's something that we could assess.
You referred to the £500 from Welsh Government that was given to residents back in February, and that's certainly something that we're looking at at the current time, following the flooding last week.
I think it's important that we let all the investigations come forward. They can be done much quicker than an independent inquiry, and that's what I'm waiting for.
Finally, David Melding.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Minister, the topography of the Glamorgan and Gwent valleys has always made them highly susceptible to flooding, often flash flooding, and the planning system, therefore, is very, very important in building up resilience. Some of the traditional methods used in other parts of the country, like bunding, are not practical. We've really got to think about how we manage these very fast moving water courses. To date, we're hearing again very, very old stories about culverts blocking and debris in river courses. This has to be constantly looked at and repaired and maintained.
Thank you. I probably should have said at some point, around last week's flooding, that the initial reports I got weren't that culverts were blocked; it was the sheer intensity of the rainfall. It was a huge amount of rainfall in a very, very short time—I think 21mm within about 20 minutes. So, I think the initial reports—. But, obviously, we need to see if there were culverts blocked on this occasion also.
I think we do need to look at natural flood management schemes, because that could help reduce the rapid run-off in urban areas. So, again, we're providing 100 per cent funding for that preparatory work. But this is an area that Welsh Government have had a huge focus on, and there's been a significant amount of funding come forward for flood alleviation schemes over the term of this Government.
Thank you, Minister. We will now break for lunch.
We will reconvene at 2 o'clock—a shorter lunch break than envisaged due to my generosity in calling as many of you, as Members, as possible. So, we'll reconvene at 2 p.m.
Plenary was suspended at 13:19.
The Senedd reconvened at 14:00, with the Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) in the Chair.
Welcome back to the Plenary.
We continue our agenda with item 4, which is questions to the Minister for Housing and Local Government. Question 1 is Helen Mary Jones.
1. What discussions has the Minister had with local authorities about the role they can play in tackling child poverty after the COVID-19 crisis? OQ55324
Thank you for the question, Helen Mary. I have worked very closely with local authorities throughout the crisis. They have played a central role in meeting the essential needs of children, young people and their families. We will continue our collaboration over the coming months to ensure addressing child poverty is an integral part of the Wales-wide recovery planning.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. I'm sure that you'd agree with me that there are many factors in this crisis that actually risk exacerbating what is already a very serious child poverty crisis here in Wales, and was before COVID, and those include things like issues with access to childcare when women may not be able to go back to work if schools are not full time—everything from that to children who are digitally excluded from remote education. Can I ask you today, Minister, to continue to work with local authorities and to re-emphasise to them that they should put tackling child poverty and raising children out of poverty right at the heart of their agendas as they begin to plan for building back better after the COVID crisis?
Yes, thank you, Helen Mary. I'm very happy to confirm that we are doing it; I'm happy to do it again. Very much as part of the Government's central planning, we are looking for a values-based recovery that makes sure that those who are hardest hit by austerity and previous crises are not double whammied, if you like, by this one. So, we're very aware of that. We've been doing a number of things to make sure that people are protected, in as much as we can do so. So, we've increased the amount of funding for the discretionary assistance fund by £11 million, so it can support calls for financial help from people across Wales during the pandemic. We've supported third sector organisations affected by the crisis with a £24 million fund to enable voluntary organisations to continue and expand their work during the crisis—very important in view of some of the things that I know you've been working with throughout this period.
Last month, I met with the Welsh Local Government Association and the children's commissioner to discuss improving outcomes for children in poverty, looking at what more could be learned about what is working well and exploring opportunities to share good practice across local authorities.
I will say, one of the small upsides of the crisis has been the ability to work on various digital platforms with leaders across local government. That has pulled us together in a way that perhaps wasn't the case before. So, we've had a much better and more comprehensive contact. I very much hope that we will be able to spread good practice in that way, working together closely as a team in the future. So, I'm very pleased with local authorities, in the way that we've worked together. It feels, I think, to them and me, more like a team than it did before.
We've obviously got a £40 million commitment to ensure pupils receive free school meals and that they're fed not just through term time, but throughout the summer holidays. I'm very pleased that we had done that; we did not need to be told to do that by a footballer, although I'm very pleased that he's managed to secure that for children across England as well. It's a very important point about tackling child poverty.
I also just want to mention that we are continuing to tackle period poverty, and we're working with the WLGA to ensure local authorities can manage distribution of products alongside free school meals. So, that's very important and, I think, a sometimes overlooked part of what experiencing poverty can mean, especially if you're a young woman in school.
Thank you. Rhianon Passmore.