Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd

Plenary - Fifth Senedd

24/11/2020

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

The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:29 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

Statement by the Llywydd

Welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in hybrid format, with some Members in the Senedd Chamber,and others joining by video-conference. All Members participating in proceedings of the Senedd, wherever they are, will be treated equally. A Plenary meeting held using 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 meeting, and these are noted on your agenda. I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, and apply equally to Members in the Chamber as to those joining virtually. 

13:30
1. Questions to the First Minister

The first item this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from John Griffiths. 

COVID-19 in Newport East

1. What is the Welsh Government’s latest analysis of COVID-19 incidence in Newport East? OQ55943

Llywydd, I thank John Griffiths for that question. The Newport East constituency, as many areas of Wales, has seen a high incidence of coronavirus infection. A national firebreak was introduced to bring rates of incidence down across Wales. Some of the gains achieved are already being reversed in the post-firebreak period. 

First Minister, I think there is concern at the latest statistics, and, obviously, we'll need to have a look at that—Welsh Government will need to have a close look at that. One aspect that's very concerning to my constituents is lost school time. In secondary schools. for example, whole year groups continue to self-isolate when one of the group has COVID-19, and learning at home does not make up for that lost time, and it is the most vulnerable who suffer the most. Practice seems to be different from one school and one local authority to another. So, First Minister, will Welsh Government work with local authorities, schools and unions to seek to reduce that lost school time, for example by looking at safety in schools, limiting contact between pupils so that fewer have to isolate when one has the virus, and enhanced testing at schools, to limit the damage to our children's education and the nation's future?

Well, Llywydd, let me thank John Griffiths for that. And, of course, I agree with him—the fact that we are seeing a reversal of some of the gains that we achieved through the firebreak is concerning, and it is particularly concerning because we know that the higher the incidence of coronavirus in the community, the greater the impact that has on schools, because the more coronavirus there is about, the more likely it is that adults will find themselves infected, and children as well. Now, it is right that local authorities and, indeed, headteachers and governing bodies have some flexibility to be able to respond to local circumstances, but nevertheless it is also a concern that there appears to be a disparity between the way in which some schools organise themselves to prevent the need for whole year groups to be isolated and different levels of risk are acceptable in different schools in Wales. Now, the Welsh Government has done a great deal already to make sure that front-line staff and people who are in charge of schools have access to advice through their local incidence management teams, through Public Health Wales, to try to get a more common understanding of the way in which these risks can be mitigated.

It is possible, Llywydd, that the new lateral flow tests, with their more immediate results, can be deployed in schools in future in another effort to prevent children from having to self-isolate when things could be done to prevent that from happening, for all the reasons that John Griffiths set out, which are the same set of reasons, Llywydd, why the Welsh Government has placed a priority on making sure that our children's education is protected even at this most challenging time. 

First Minister, following on from John Griffiths's question, I'd like to say that I've also been contacted by a number of worried parents in the Newport constituency area, because, currently, as it stands, there are 1,000 pupils isolating from Caerleon Comprehensive School, my old school. Years 7, 8, 9, 12 and 13 are all off at the moment, which is beyond comprehension really. Obviously, year groups have to stay off if there are enough cases and there's a reason to stay off, but there are schools in other counties with just one case, as is the case in these year groups being off, where they just do the track and trace, like in Monmouthshire County Council, and just keep 15 pupils off rather than whole year groups. Parents are obviously very concerned at this, because obviously it affects their jobs, it affects the children's well-being, mental health, and their education, obviously. So, I'd be really appreciative if you could do all you can and maybe firm up the Government guidelines to schools because at the moment, as you said, there is a massive postcode lottery in education right now happening in Wales. And also, whilst you're at it, if you could also—. You've said to schools recently, about wearing masks, 'That you can wear them if you want to.' Maybe Government guidelines should be stronger so that, in everything, there's consistency right across the board in Wales in our schools; it's very confusing for them. Thank you.

13:35

Well, Llywydd, I think the guidance on mask wearing in schools has been strengthened just in the last week, and the Minister for Education provided more direction to schools, particularly secondary schools, as to how masks can be worn in corridors and in other crowded settings. But I share a lot of the concerns of the Member's question—that different decisions are being made in different parts of Wales, despite the strengthened assistance that the Welsh Government has mobilised so that headteachers and others can have advice directly from public health expertise in reaching the very difficult and challenging decisions that they make; I don't minimise the challenge that schools face.

There is a correlation between the extent to which coronavirus is in circulation in any community and the impact on schools, and that helps to explain some of the difference, but it doesn't, in my mind, explain it all. I am very keen that schools make every effort both in the way they organise themselves internally and in the decisions that they make to put a priority on keeping as many young people in schools as it is safe to do. Because otherwise, as John Griffiths said in his question, their education suffers, and those who need that assistance the most, miss it the most when it's not available to them.

Amateur Team Sports

2. Will the First Minister produce a road map for the return of amateur team sports in Wales? OQ55907

Llywydd, the Welsh Government has published guidance for a phased return of sporting activities. National governing bodies in Wales, such as the Football Association of Wales and the Welsh Rugby Union, provide specific guidance and action plans for their sports and have oversight of those organised activities.

I'm speaking as someone who spends a lot of his Saturdays, normally, watching football and rugby—mainly local teams. Can I just talk about the two most popular winter team sports—football and rugby? When do the Welsh Government believe they can realistically expect to be able to commence competitive fixtures? And I realise that football will be able to start before rugby, because rugby has much more physical contact.

Llywydd, I know that we all look forward—and I know Mike Hedges does, in all the things that he does locally to support teams in the Swansea area—to the day when those teams will be able to resume. We have established a national sports group, through Sports Wales, bringing the Welsh Government, the governing bodies and others together, to consider requests from the national governing bodies to allow competitive leagues to resume. The group will meet again tomorrow to consider the first batch of applications. The FAW has asked the tier 2 of the Cymru leagues—that's north and south—should return to competition first. So, we do have a mechanism now in Wales to unlock sports, when it is safe to do so. And that final clause is the most important one of all, Llywydd—that it is the state of coronavirus, it is the state of a public health emergency, that has to be the lens through which we view all the applications that there are for the reopening of amateur sport. But we have a mechanism now to make sure that those requests are properly and roundly considered.

First Minister, I was pleased to hear you just say that you're looking at ways to—I think this was the expression you used—'unlock sports' during this time of the pandemic. As we know, during lockdowns and firebreaks, physical activity and sport are all important. So, in response to Mike Hedges's initial question, and if I could follow up in two ways, first of all, what are you doing to make sure that younger people, in particular, are able to engage in sports at this time? They've been particularly hard hit, and we know that younger people are affected by mental health issues in the same way that older people are too. And secondly, I had at a recent meeting at Chepstow racecourse, in my constituency, and they were very concerned about when racecourses are going to be allowed to operate, at least in some limited fashion, in the future. So, I wonder if you could answer those two strands. Thank you. 

13:40

Well, thank you, Llywydd, and I thank Nick Ramsay for that. Sport for children under the age of 18 has a more liberal set of rules and it's more possible for that to happen, and we've done our best to try and maximise the opportunity for youth sport to be continued, even in the most difficult periods of coronavirus.

As to racecourse reopening, there were earlier in the year, as I know Nick Ramsay will know, a small number of pilot reopenings of racecourses in England, and we will work with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, at the UK Government level, in any programme of pilots that may now resume in England. We looked carefully to see whether there was any virtue in having a Welsh pilot in the horse-racing field, but the conclusion was we probably wouldn't learn anything very different that we could not learn from the pilots that were being conducted elsewhere. So, we will continue to work closely with DCMS. There are some new pilots that are proposed and, if they find a pathway to the safe reopening of more parts of sporting life to crowds turning up who enjoy horse-racing and other sports, then we will want to be part of that, where it is safe for us to do so. 

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from the party leaders. The Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price. 

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, in what has been the toughest year in living memory for so many of us, I'm sure we all look forward to a happier new year and, before then, to spending time with friends and family over Christmas. A compassionate but responsible approach to a limited relaxation of restrictions over the holiday period seems sensible. However, it's also crucial that we don't lose the hard-gotten gains of the last few months for the sake of four or five days, and people must, therefore, know that any relaxation also comes with risks, especially in the context of the reversal, potentially, that you were referring to earlier. Can you say what scientific modelling is being used to inform the discussions on a four-nation approach to the Christmas period, and what's your understanding of the likely impact of any easing of restrictions? Given that individual behaviour will be a crucial factor in determining what follows the Christmas break, will the Welsh Government launch a public information campaign, such as the powerful campaigns we see each year on drink-driving over the festive period, encouraging people to follow the guidelines so that we can all enjoy a better 2021? 

Well, Llywydd, I thank Adam Price for that, and I think he put it very well, that, while, for many people, having an opportunity to meet with family and friends over the festive period is very important, we have to balance so many things in allowing that to happen. Now, there will be a COBRA meeting later this afternoon, which will be the latest coming together of the four nations of the United Kingdom, to fashion a common approach to Christmas, and I'm very hopeful that we will be able to make further progress on that this afternoon. The modelling that we have available to us there comes through SAGE. 

When we met on Saturday, we specifically asked the four chief medical officers to meet between the Saturday meeting and the meeting later today to give us further advice on a number of aspects of potential easing over Christmas that we rehearsed in the Saturday meeting, and that will be available to us this afternoon. But, I agree with the point that Adam Price made that, whatever additional freedom we are able to offer over the Christmas period will have to be used responsibly by people. The fact that a relaxation is possible is not an instruction to go and spend the whole of that period doing risky things, and the leader of Plaid Cymru asked what the impact of any relaxation over Christmas would be, and while I don't have a quantifiable answer to that at the moment, the general answer is very clear: it will lead to more spreading of coronavirus, because coronavirus thrives when people get together, and the more people get together, the more coronavirus there will be. It's why, Llywydd, I have been arguing in the meetings we have had for a focus not just on a small number of days at Christmas itself, but on decisions we need to take in the lead-up to Christmas, and how we will deal with the aftermath, and to try to do that on a broadly common basis as well. 

On the information campaign—the final question—the Welsh Government has an information campaign planned. It will do many of the things that Adam Price mentioned in trying to drive home to people the consequences of people's behaviour, and the ways in which, by doing the right things, we can all make a contribution to having a Christmas that we can enjoy without running those undue risks.

13:45

On Saturday, Merthyr Tydfil became the first county in Wales to pilot mass testing, but on the same day, COVID cases per 100,000 of the population in a seven-day period were higher in Blaenau Gwent and Neath Port Talbot. This highlights an inconsistency currently in the way we're dealing with areas of high COVID transmission. When we supported the firebreak, it was on the condition that the test and trace system would be upgraded, accelerated and expanded to include the testing of asymptomatic individuals.

Small independent nations, as we've referred earlier, like Slovakia, have successfully rolled out a nationwide mass testing programme. China has been conducting mass testing of three cities over the weekend. We'd like to see it rolled out in more target areas, supported by an increased £800 isolation payment. When, First Minister, will we be able to turn the Merthyr pilot into a wider programme of mass rapid testing in Wales?

Well, Llywydd, I think it's just important to remind Members that when Merthyr was identified as the first place where we would carry out a mass testing experiment in Wales, it was—as it was for a number of days—by far the largest area of incidence of coronavirus. Others have overtaken it in the meantime but, in the planning, you've got to start with the figures that are in front of you at that time.

I know there will be a question later this afternoon, Llywydd, but just to say that the early days of mass testing in Merthyr have gone very well and are a tribute to the actions of local organisations, but also citizens, in that area. We will learn a lot from doing it; we can be sure of that. We are already learning things from these very early days. There are already proposals for expanding mass testing into other areas. There will be choices to be made, Llywydd, and they won't be easy choices either.

I referred in my answer to the first question to the fact that we might be able to use lateral flow tests to assist in preventing children from being asked to self-isolate in the school setting. We talked, I think, last week on the floor of the Senedd about using lateral flow devices to allow visits to care homes, and we could use lateral flow devices to have a greater scope of mass testing in Wales.

But there is a finite number of them. We expect to have around 90,000 of them a day available to us here in Wales, but they would very soon be used up from a number of the purposes that I have just outlined. So, it will be a balancing act. It'll be trying to prioritise where we use them. There will be some more opportunities for further mass testing, but there will be other important purposes for which that finite supply of such tests can also be deployed in Wales.

Turning to matters vaccine-related, where we've had some further good news recently, just 10 days after we heard the first bit of encouraging news in relation to the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine proving to be 90 per cent effective in trials, the Scottish Government's health Secretary presented a comprehensive roll-out plan to the Holyrood Parliament. In that statement, they confirmed the first vaccinations would be available to health and social care staff, older care home residents, and those over 80 years old who live in the community. The next phase then would be for those over 65 and those under 65 who are at additional clinical risk, followed by the wider population over the age of 18.

They hope to have 320,000 doses of that vaccine to deploy in the first two weeks of December, subject to regulatory approval, with an ambition to vaccinate 1 million citizens by the end of the January. The health Secretary there said Scotland is ready for December. December is only a week away. Can the First Minister confirm that Wales, too, is ready, and if so, when can we expect to see details of the Welsh Government's vaccination roll-out programme, including a timeline of who will be vaccinated when?

13:50

Llywydd, on the who will be vaccinated and when, we have already said that we will follow the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advice in relation to prioritisation. That advice is still being refined on the basis of the emerging evidence of which of the vaccines that are being reported are most suitable for different groups within the population. We have a very active planning group that began work back in May of this year and has met regularly throughout the crisis to make sure that we are well equipped for deploying the vaccines as they become available to us in Wales. We have tried, during the whole crisis, Llywydd, to follow this basic premise in Wales, that we plan first and when we have a plan that we think is useable and workable, then we publish it for people to see, rather than a series of ambitions that then turn out not to be deliverable because the ambitions are inevitably founded on information that is not as reliable as you need for a purposeful plan that you can deliver in practice.

When it comes to it, I doubt very much that the JCVI prioritisation list will be very different to the one that Mr Price recounted from the Scottish Government, but we will wait for a short while—it will only be a short while—until we have that further and reliable information about the numbers of vaccines that we will have available to us, the nature of those vaccines, the priority groups to which they will be deployed, and then, of course, we will make sure that that is made public as soon as we're able to so that people in Wales have, as I say, not a series of ambitions but a practical plan that they can rely on.

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, yesterday the health Minister confirmed that the Welsh Government is considering tighter COVID restrictions in the run-up to Christmas. Can you confirm what restrictions you are now considering, given that you have already introduced local authority based restrictions, hyperlocal lockdown restrictions, and now national restrictions?

Well, Llywydd, the basis for what the health Minister said yesterday is to be found in the figures, and I'm sure that the leader of the opposition has been following them, as I do every day. Following two weeks and more of figures falling on a Wales-wide basis, we've now had three days in a row where the Wales-wide figure has risen, and in today's figures, 17 of the 22 local authorities are reporting rises in the under 25-year-old age range. Now, numbers continue to fall in the over 60 age range, and that's good news, because in terms of impact on the health service we know that that is where people are most likely to be most badly affected by the virus. But we also know, from earlier in the autumn, that the rapid rise we saw in the month of September and into October started with a rise in the younger population. So, it's that background that was there when the health Minister said what he said yesterday, and it's part of what I said to Adam Price, that I have been making the case in the meetings we've had with the other nations of the United Kingdom for a broadly aligned approach not just for the narrow period of Christmas but in the run-up to Christmas and in the post-Christmas period.

So, we have followed carefully what the UK Government has said so far this week about a return to a recalibrated tier system in England. We will wait to have further information on that, possibly this afternoon, and again on Thursday, and then, this week, the Cabinet will meet pretty regularly. We met yesterday. We met this morning. We'll meet again before the end of the week to see whether there are further measures that we need to introduce in Wales, to focus on the nature of the rise we are seeing and which would provide us with that broad alignment with the approach being taken by other parts of the United Kingdom as part of creating that headroom we all need to allow a relaxation over the Christmas period.

13:55

I take it from that answer, then, First Minister, that you are perhaps looking at the possibility of introducing some sort of tiered system here in Wales. Of course, the tiered approaches in Scotland and England do have a few differences and it's important that the Welsh Government therefore looks at the impact of both sets of tier based restrictions before confirming its approach for Wales. 

Now, this year has been so difficult for so many, as has just been said earlier, and that's why it's important that the Welsh Government makes it clear to the people of Wales exactly what a new approach will look like and how those restrictions will impact people's day-to-day lives. So, perhaps you can give us an indication, First Minister, when you will be bringing forward these new measures. Can you also tell us what additional resources you'll be making available to actually support these new measures and new restrictions? 

Well, Llywydd, I think I've given some indication, as best I can, to the leader of the opposition already of the decision-making path that we see in front of us. There is a COBRA meeting this afternoon. I agree with the point that Paul Davies made about taking account of the different approaches in Scotland as well as in England. I spoke with the First Minister of Scotland again yesterday. After today's meeting, there are further announcements that we will expect in the English context on Thursday of this week, we are told, which will give us a further insight into the operation of their tiered approach. I wouldn't move immediately, as the leader of the opposition did, to a conclusion that, because we are interested in the measures that are being taken elsewhere that that necessarily means that we will be adopting a tiered approach here in Wales. It is the content of the measures, not simply the organisation of them, that we will be interested in.

The Cabinet will meet again before the end of this week to see whether there are lessons for us to draw from what is happening elsewhere and a common approach across the United Kingdom in the lead up to the Christmas period, and importantly as well, in the way in which we will all have to deal with the inevitable consequences of a relaxation, which will drive the rise of coronavirus. That is inevitable, and we need to prepare together to cope with the consequences.  

Of course, it's not just individuals and families who are keen to know whether there will be any changes in restrictions in Wales. Businesses across Wales will also undoubtedly be anxious at the prospect of further restrictions. The run-up to Christmas is a busy time, of course, for businesses in all sectors, and in the wake of a very difficult year, it's understandable that many will be concerned, perhaps, to hear of further restrictions.

It's therefore absolutely critical that resources and support are put in place in advance of any changes so that businesses are able to plan and adjust their operations accordingly. Will you therefore confirm, First Minister, that the Welsh Government will, of course, notify businesses across Wales in advance of any new restrictions in Wales so that they have time to plan for any changes? And, can you also update us on the discussions that you've had with local authorities in Wales about introducing new restrictions and what feedback you've received from local authorities so far with any potential restrictions?

Well, Llywydd, I'm very conscious of the impact of the decisions that we make on businesses in Wales and on people's livelihoods. The Welsh Government has put together a very considerable sum of money that we have invested in trying to protect businesses in Wales from the impact of coronavirus—that is over and above any help that has come from the UK Government. And the UK Government, with the comprehensive spending review tomorrow, needs to make sure that it is doing everything it can to make sure that businesses in Wales and across the United Kingdom are in a position to withstand the ongoing impact of coronavirus, and it needs to do it in a more wholehearted way. The repeated re-announcements by the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the package of assistance that comes from the UK Government has not been helpful, I think. We are doing the most we can in Wales to help businesses; I think the Chancellor's approach is to do the least he can get away with, and that is the real contrast between us.

Discussions with local authorities, of course, go on all the time. There'll be meetings today involving the health Minister, the local government Minister, the education Minister, the Welsh Local Government Association and other leaders of local authorities in Wales, and that partnership approach is the one that we think has managed to sustain us through the crisis to date, and we will be certain that, in Wales, we will go on being committed to it.

14:00
The Economic Impact of COVID-19

3. Will the First Minister make a statement on the impact of COVID-19 on the economy in Pontypridd and Taff-Ely? OQ55944

Llywydd, I thank Mick Antoniw for that. The latest employment and growth forecasts clearly show the damaging impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on the Welsh economy and beyond. To date, our lockdown business fund has provided over £7 million in support to 2,379 businesses, spanning over 22,000 jobs in Rhondda Cynon Taf alone.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. In my constituency of Pontypridd, we have battled with flooding, which hit our economy and our infrastructure hard, and, of course, we battle with COVID, with some of the highest infection rates in Wales. And, like many thousands of others, I've stood outside my home and clapped and applauded our public sector workers as a community, and we've recognised the vital contribution that they've made during the pandemic. Many of them have suffered from COVID; some have died. Our thoughts are with the family of Mark Simons, a healthcare assistant at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital and a Unite health and safety representative. He died on 10 November after contracting coronavirus. First Minister, all our public sector workers have gone the extra distance to keep us safe and to protect us and our families. Now, on Wednesday, whilst the Tory Government's mates make millions of pounds of profit out of dodgy personal protective equipment contracts, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is planning to tell our public sector workers that their reward for their sacrifice will be three years of pay freeze for tens of thousands of Welsh workers—a return to Tory austerity.

First Minister, it is not too late to ask the UK Government to do a u-turn. So, will you make contact with the Prime Minister as a matter of urgency and do all you can to urge him to honour and recognise the contribution of all—and I emphasise 'all'—our public sector workers during this pandemic?

Well, I thank Mick Antoniw for that, Llywydd. I thank him for reminding us—I know Members here don't forget at all, but just for reminding us—that behind everything that we talk about here are actual people's lives. Over 3,300 deaths reported in Wales by the Office for National Statistics today, and many of those people have been front-line workers in our health and social care services and elsewhere. So, of course it is not too late to urge the Chancellor of the Exchequer to rule out a public sector pay freeze and to deliver the funding, across the United Kingdom, that we need to protect our health, jobs, and to support a fair recovery. Workers across our public services have continued to play their crucial roles in the midst of a global pandemic, helping to save lives and to keep services running. They should be recognised for this effort and not forced to pick up the bill.

The Chancellor says that there is no return to austerity. Well, I certainly hope that that is true of public sector workers who've been at the forefront of this crisis and who deserve to be recognised for that. Unfortunately, Llywydd, I'm told that the Prime Minister will once again not attend the COBRA meeting this afternoon. You might think that, given the significance of the decisions that we are having to take there, the Prime Minister might think that that was a conversation in which he would choose to be engaged. But, if an opportunity arises—there will be other Ministers of the UK Government there, and, if that opportunity arises, I will certainly make the points that the Member has made here this afternoon.

First Minister, I'm particularly concerned about young people in South Wales Central, including Pontypridd, who are entering or attempting to enter the labour market during this period, and I think we have very harsh past experience of young people entering the labour market during a period of economic distress. And I would urge you to look at the training packages and also the funds available for postgraduate study, for instance, in the next few years, because I think these sorts of programmes, which are largely under the control of the Welsh Government, will need to be used to a greater extent than perhaps we had planned, but this will also help our further education colleges and the university sector. But young people really need to be supported as much as we can during this period.

14:05

Well, Llywydd, I agree with the point that David Melding is making. We have very difficult experience in Wales of generations of young people without a future mapped out in front of them, and we absolutely do not want to go back to that in this crisis. I agree with what the Member said—that there will be young people who will choose to use this period to invest further in developing their own skills and education, so that, when an upturn comes, they are better equipped to take advantage of it, and we will want to help them to make sure that that happens.

I know that the Member will have seen the announcement on 11 November, where we provided further detail of the help that businesses can have—and further education colleges, of course, as a result—to promote apprenticeships here in Wales. Businesses are now able to claim £3,000 for each new apprentice under the age of 25 when employed for at least 30 hours, and I know that David Melding will particularly welcome the fact that there is an additional £1,500 for any business who is able to take on a new disabled young person as an apprentice. On 18 November, we announced the business start-up barriers fund, a sum of £1.2 million, particularly aimed at those young people who left college and university in 2019 and 2020 who may have ideas of their own about businesses they would wish to try and get off the ground, but need that extra help and support from Government in order to be able to do so, and that business start-up barrier fund will particularly be aimed at the sort of young people to whom David Melding has drawn attention this afternoon.

COVID-19 Mass Testing

4. Will the First Minister provide an update on the COVID-19 mass testing pilot in Merthyr Tydfil county borough? OQ55945

I thank the Member for that, Llywydd. The pilot started on Saturday 21 November. It involves everyone living, working or studying in the area and that they are all to be offered a COVID-19 test as part of the first mass testing of a whole area in Wales.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister, and I'm sure you'd want to join with me in thanking everyone involved in the logistics, delivery and the analysis of this mass testing programme. I went myself, thankfully for a negative test, on Saturday, and I can say that everybody involved in it has been absolutely outstanding in working to ensure that the pilot is a success, and that includes quickly updating frequently asked questions, making sure that shielding people and people with non-shielding disabilities, the elderly, frail and so on have been specially catered for throughout this process, although we probably do still need to give a bit of thought to managing testing for those with learning disabilities. I'd also urge you to consider probably testing in the larger workplaces as well. But, in these first few days, we've seen thousands of tests taken by people who are keen to help the process, and those people with good reason to attend. About 1 per cent, so far, have been positive results from people who are asymptomatic. Over the course of that pilot, that will be several hundred people who would otherwise be unknowingly spreading the virus in the community. Now, you've already answered earlier questions about what happens after this pilot and beyond, so I won't go into those points again, but, as you know, First Minister, my constituency has significant areas of poverty and deprivation, often linked to insecure work and zero-hours contracts, which, as we know, have been a deterrent to many in coming forward for testing. So, can I seek your assurance that the Welsh Government will be working with local partners to ensure that mass testing is also delivered amongst these harder-to-reach communities, as this will be a critical factor in ensuring the success of the pilot?

Llywydd, I thank Dawn Bowden for that. I heard a very informative interview that she gave at the weekend, reporting from the front line of testing in Merthyr, and I absolutely agree with her about the huge team effort there has been from the local authority, from the local health board and public health services, the assistance we've had through the armed forces. It really has been a remarkable effort, and, in these early days, it has met with a remarkable response from residents in Merthyr Tydfil as well. Llywydd, Dawn Bowden raised a number of points, first of all about workplaces and the importance of making sure that employers are aligned with all of this. There is an offer of a test for anybody who works in the county borough—whether they live elsewhere but work in Merthyr, a test is available for them. I'll be discussing this at the social partnership council, which is next due to meet on Thursday of this week.

Dawn Bowden made an important point, Llywydd, about those people who are frail or vulnerable, shielding or with learning disabilities, and how we make sure that they are included in the programme. I'm pleased to say that I believe that the local authority has written out to everybody on the shielding list today offering them a home test, which means they don't need to leave home and go to a mass testing centre. So, I think that's another very strong sign of the progressive way that the testing regime is being delivered in the area, and of course, Llywydd, Dawn Bowden makes the very important point about reaching those communities where, conventionally, services struggle the most to have the impact that we want them to make. We're going to be using waste water surveillance methods in Merthyr, as they did in Liverpool—waste water surveillance, Members will recall, led by Bangor University during its creation. We will have seven different testing points in the Merthyr county borough area, and that will allow us to see that we are getting a response in different parts of the borough, and make additional efforts in places if we're not getting the response that's needed. As I know the local Member will know, it is part of the way in which the mass testing is being provided that, if someone does have a positive test, then they are being actively advised about the help that is available to them either through the self-isolation payment or through the discretionary assistance fund, where we've put £5 million more in to help in this way so that people are able to do the right thing, as they want to do, and don't find themselves with barriers in their way that we can help them to solve.

14:10

Thank you, First Minister, for the answers so far in the leaders' questions and also on this particular question around the trial in Merthyr. Are you in a position to confirm when the analysis can be made that, if this trial is successful—and initial indications are that it has been successful—this will rolled out across the rest of Wales, and, in particular, in Rhondda Cynon Taf, an area I represent here that I think would benefit greatly from this testing regime?

I know Andrew R.T. Davies will be interested to know that RCT council has already made a proposal for the expansion of the Merthyr testing regime into the Cynon Valley area of that local authority, and that there are meetings, I think, scheduled for tomorrow to explore that proposition and to see how it might be delivered. This is a huge logistical exercise, as I know that he will recognise, and it's why we are so very grateful to have the support of the armed forces in it, because local services have to try and manage to keep everything else they do all the time going, and releasing people to be part of a mass testing effort requires quite a lot of thinking through. So, if we are to be able to expand the Merthyr scheme into the RCT area, that will require some careful preparation, releasing local staff from local services. We have further assistance from the armed forces joining us in Merthyr over the next couple of days, and we may need to see whether there is any further help that could be forthcoming in order to assist with the sheer practicalities that go with mounting a mass testing exercise of this sort.

Vaccine Misinformation

5. Will the First Minister provide an update on what the Welsh Government is doing to tackle vaccine misinformation? OQ55947

Llywydd, can I thank Joyce Watson for that important question? The Welsh Government will continue to support health boards and Public Health Wales to ensure that immunisation information is accurate and accessible and that all those delivering vaccinations are well trained and confident when providing immunisation information.

I thank you for that, First Minister. Last week, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that they had developed a vaccine for COVID-19 and that it was showing promising results, but almost immediately there were messages circulating on social media channels suggesting that the vaccine would be harmful, without any substantiated evidence. I understand that it's natural that people will have concerns and questions about the safety of new and existing vaccines, but I do believe that the misinformation that we've seen on social media platforms has the potential to do a significant amount of harm. First Minister, what discussions has the Welsh Government had with social media channels regarding vaccine misinformation and how we can tackle that? And what steps are being taken to encourage people to access information in a reliable format? 

14:15

Well, Llywydd, I thank Joyce Watson for those follow-up questions. She's right to point to the danger of vaccine misinformation—deliberate, malicious misinformation. It's part of a group of attitudes that, unfortunately, have been given credence in other parts of the world. These attitudes emanate from the same group of people who are coronavirus deniers, who try to persuade people to distrust election results, and, as a result, they have a reach into places through social media that could, if things went wrong, do what Joyce Watson said and discourage people who would benefit from vaccination from coming forward. We work with the Cabinet Office in London. They have a rapid response unit, which is expressly there to respond to coronavirus misinformation. And, working with social media platforms, there has been some success, which I'm keen to recognise, in persuading those social media platforms to remove misinformation where it can clearly be identified as such.

I think we have to take some comfort, though, Llywydd, from the actual evidence of what has happened in vaccination programmes over the last period. We have actually gained ground in childhood immunisation programmes during the period of the pandemic. The uptake of the first dose of MMR increased in the first quarter of this year, despite all the difficulties that parents would have experienced in trying to present the child for vaccination. The third scheduled dose of meningococcal group B vaccination is at the highest ever level in Wales. And, of course, we are reaching more people with flu vaccination than ever before, and 70 per cent of people in the over-60 age group have now been vaccinated. It was under 60 per cent this time last year. Thirty seven per cent of under-65s at risk have been vaccinated, and it was 27 per cent this time last year. Seventy three per cent of children aged between four and 10 have been vaccinated. So, while I share the Member's anxieties, the actual behaviour of people in Wales suggests that, when a vaccine is available to them and they have confidence in it, they are coming forward in large numbers, and that's what we will want to encourage when there are vaccines available for coronavirus as well.

First Minister, I do agree with you that there have been improvements in vaccine uptake, but I'd also like to point out that, according to the most recent seasonal influenza Wales 2019-20 annual report, the uptake of the flu vaccine amongst NHS staff was only 56 per cent this year, and you'd think that NHS staff, more than almost anybody else, would surely really understand the value of a vaccine and what benefits we can all get from it. We've also got our very hard-to-reach people, the people who speak neither Welsh nor English, people who are new to our country, people in very, very marginalised areas, or people in very rural areas, where, again, that whole notion of coming out and getting vaccinated—. Plus the vaccine for COVID needs to be a two-vaccine stop, where you might have a situation where someone has one and just thinks, 'Oh well, that's it, I'm done', when in fact they need that second one to make sure that they are really taken care of. So I wonder what plans the Government will be putting together, either as Wales itself or as a UK entity, in trying to really get a strong message out that, actually, there is nothing to be fearful of.

And may I just very quickly also say that we must be very careful how we do that messaging? I speak as a parent whose first child had all the MMRs individually because Andrew Wakefield was at the height of his scare fest, and my second child had just the MMR, because just normal, ordinary people can take fright very easily when all the wrong messages go out. So, I think it's incredibly important that we put together a really cohesive and coherent communication policy, and I would be very interested to know what your Government is doing to put that together and, indeed, how all of us might be able to help to spread that message.

14:20

I thank the Member for that. Llywydd, I agree with Angela Burns that the percentage of NHS staff taking up a flu vaccination last year was not good enough. It was better than previous years, and I remember many discussions with Darren Millar here in this Chamber, when I was the health Minister and he was the health spokesperson, about the extent to which we could insist and require that staff take up vaccination.

The good news is that the numbers are well above where they were last year at this point, so the improvements that we've seen in the general population are reflected in healthcare staff as well. But I believe they have a professional obligation to protect themselves from the risks that they otherwise pose to those people who use their service. So, for those staff, it is not just a matter of protecting yourself; it is a professional obligation, I always argued, to make sure that you avoid a risk that otherwise you may pose to others, and we need to do more. We need to do it with the royal collages and with the trade unions in that field to drive that figure up even further.

I was reminded in Angela Burns's supplementary, Llywydd, that when we saw the measles outbreak in Swansea some years ago, the families we failed to reach were not families, in fact, who were avoiding vaccination. They were the families that Angela Burns referred to—people whose first language is neither Welsh nor English, who are mobile and whose addresses change rapidly, and where conventional ways of reaching them don't work. But I do think Public Health Wales learned a lot from that experience, and we're better equipped now to make sure that we can respond to those difficulties.

And finally, can I just agree with the final point that Angela Burns made, Llywydd, that we need the effort that can be made by all of us? Every Member of this Senedd has some standing in their local communities. We all speak with some authority to groups within our own areas, and it's adding our own voices, as well as those of public services, to that global effort we will need when a vaccine becomes available to persuade people of its safety, of its efficacy, and of the very many good reasons there will be why people should come forward to receive it.

I'm grateful to Joyce for tabling this very important question. First Minister, it's not only online that misinformation about COVID is being shared. It was drawn to my attention last week, a particularly pernicious leaflet being put through people's doors. It was in Pembrokeshire, but I was also made aware that it was happening in Caerphilly. It had an official look about it—you could have mistaken it for an official Government communication. Misinformation, I think, First Minister, online is bad enough, but at least people have got some sort of choice about what Facebook groups they join and what Twitter feeds they follow. This leaflet was coming through everybody's doors without them having any right to reject it. I think that we all in this Chamber support freedom of speech, but freedom of speech needs to be exercised responsibly. Is there anything further the Welsh Government can do, working with the police service in the areas that have been affected by this leaflet and with local authorities, to try and counteract this message? And is there any legal redress against people who are deliberately sharing information that could be very frightening to people and very, very damaging, as we've already touched on around areas like persuading people to take up the vaccination?

Llywydd, I think Helen Mary Jones is right: there's something particularly insidious about something being put through your own door and that deliberate and, as I would say, malicious attempt to mislead people with inaccurate information. I know that local people who've received that leaflet in Pembrokeshire have informed the police and looked to see whether there is any redress. It's the same leaflet, as I understand it, that has been in circulation in many parts, not just of Wales, but more widely. Amongst the things we can do are the things that Angela Burns referred to, which is to mobilise voices that will carry some weight in local communities. And I know that tomorrow evening, Steve Moore, as the chief executive of Hywel Dda health board, and the police and crime commissioner for the area are jointly holding a Facebook live session, partly in response to the circulation of that leaflet, so that they can be together in providing authoritative information to the local population and to do it directly in that way.

14:25
Rough-sleepers

6. Will the First Minister make a statement on the estimated number of rough sleepers in Wales? OQ55919

Latest estimates suggest that during the month of August, 974 people presenting as homeless were found immediate accommodation; 476 homeless people were provided with suitable long-term accommodation; and 101 homeless people were rough-sleeping. Monthly data of that sort will be published for the remainder of this Senedd term.

Can I thank the First Minister for his answer? And he would have also heard the exchange in the Chamber last week with the housing Minister, and the number of 100 or 101 rough-sleepers who are now on the streets of the towns and cities of Wales is very distressing. I know that over 3,000 or 3,500, I think, people have been helped during COVID into emergency accommodation of one kind or another, and that is a real achievement, but part of the problem is that, for many years, we've not had a very reliable estimate of the number of rough-sleepers, and this has been a problem across the United Kingdom, but we do need to know the level of the problem, so that we can take appropriate action to meet the scale of it. But can you give us the assurance immediately that the assertive outreach to help those 101 people who are rough-sleeping at the moment is being effective?

Llywydd, I think we can give that assurance. It's two things together, it seems to me. It is assertive outreach and then it's a proper level of support for those people after they have been reached and after they have been placed in accommodation. We know that amongst the 101 people who were sleeping rough in August, there will be some people whose level of addiction to alcohol or to drugs has taken them back onto the streets again. We will know that in some settings, where people who were previously homeless have been temporarily housed, there is a level of anti-social behaviour that has an impact on staff and on other tenants alike and which some people find they're just not able to deal with. So, as well as reaching people through assertive outreach services, we also have to make sure that we have the help that is then necessary to sustain people in temporary accommodation to begin with, and then into permanent accommodation in the way that we wish to see. I know that David Melding will be aware of the fact that in the £50 million next phase of our homelessness response, nearly £10 million of that is for that wraparound support in mental health and substance misuse, to try and make sure that people do not feel that the answer that's right for them is a return to rough-sleeping from which they otherwise would have been relieved.

Jobs and Training Opportunities

7. What action is the Welsh Government taking to ensure that it can create jobs and training opportunities for people of all ages in Ogmore in the context of an economic downturn? OQ55900

In July, we announced a £40 million package to help employers across Wales to take on and train new workers. Earlier this month, as part of that package, we launched specific assistance to encourage the recruitment of apprentices, as well as a barriers fund to help individuals who are considering self-employment.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. And, First Minister, you'll know that Centrica began talks with the GMB union earlier this year about terms and conditions changes to jobs, but they kicked off those talks in the middle of the pandemic with the threat to fire and rehire its 20,000 strong UK workforce, and the biggest proportion of these jobs per head of population is right here in Wales, and many indeed are in my constituency. This is a company, First Minister, that has benefited from a £200 million contract to run the Nest energy efficiency programme in Wales. So, do you agree with me that this is not what we should expect from an organisation with which we do business here in Wales and that it's not the way we expect them to treat their workers? Will he, therefore, call on them to take their threats off the table, come back from the brink, and work for a sensible, negotiated deal that is in the shared interests of the reputation of Centrica plc and their shareholders, and, most importantly, in the interests of their highly skilled and loyal workforce and their families?

14:30

I certainly am aware of the Centrica issue, having had discussions directly with leaders of the GMB about it. My colleague Ken Skates wrote to Centrica back in August when we were last discussing this with the union. Let me be clear, Llywydd: there is no excuse for any organisation or company using the coronavirus crisis to erode the rights and the entitlements of its workforce. And I echo very much the final point that Huw Irranca-Davies made; I think the company would be very well advised to take the threat off the table, to get back around the table, and to work with the GMB to a negotiated deal. 

Dental Services

8. Will the First Minister make a statement on dental services in Arfon? OQ55946

Thank you very much, Siân Gwenllian, for that question. The health board is working to improve access to dental services. This includes plans to urgently replace lost provision.

I understand that there will be a training centre for dentistry opening in north Wales, and that's very good news, but it is two or three years away, and in the meantime, there is a very real crisis developing in my constituency. Part of the problem arises from the way in which the contracts work between dentists and the health board, and there has been a pledge for some time that this Government would look in detail at what needs to be done in order to improve that situation. Can you make progress with that work now please? At the moment, people in my constituency are being let down. There is another dental surgery to close next year, and we truly require urgent action in this area. 

Can I thank Siân Gwenllian very much? I've seen the figures in terms of what has been occurring in her area. We haven't mentioned Brexit yet today, but Brexit has had a negative impact on dental services. Seventeen per cent of dentists employed by the major companies—and the major companies are the ones that are withdrawing from areas such as the north-west—are recruited from the European Union, and Brexit undermines that. As Siân Gwenllian was saying, the new dentistry unit in Bangor will assist, and the health board's efforts to increase access to emergency dental services will help. Professor Paul Brocklehurst, the deputy chief dental officer, is based in north Wales, and he will be offering special support in responding to the challenge that is being faced in the Member's constituency. 

2. Questions to the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition (in respect of his 'law officer' responsibilities)

The next item is questions to the Counsel General on his law officer responsibilities. The first question is from Helen Mary Jones. 

Women Against State Pension Injustice

1. Will the Counsel General provide an update on correspondence between the Welsh Government and the UK Government regarding the case of the Women Against State Pension Injustice campaign for 1950s-born women denied their pensions? OQ55902

We have, as a Government, repeatedly expressed concerns to the UK Government about women who have had their state pension age raised without effective or sufficient notification. The Deputy Minister and Chief Whip recently wrote again to the UK Government to press for a just and fair solution for the women.

I'm grateful to the Counsel General for his reply. Does he agree with me that in the COVID context there are particular reasons why the UK Government should address this injustice as a matter of urgency? Official advice to the over-60s suggests that people should minimise their contact with others, and yet, many of the 1950s women are working in public-facing roles such as social care, NHS and retail. They tell me that they're frightened to go to work, but they can't afford not to do so. And there are potentially 1.5 million jobs that could be released if those women were allowed access to their pensions now and given some compensation for what they have lost. There are over 5,000 women affected in Llanelli in my region alone. The UK Government has found itself able to find resources when it's needed to, to respond to the COVID crisis, and I'm sure we all appreciate that. But does the Counsel General agree with me that they should look again in this context where women are being asked to work in situations where they may not be safe, and where we have young people, as we've heard in response to earlier questions, desperately looking for work—is it not time that the UK Government should act? And can the Counsel General consider further correspondence with the UK Government in this post-COVID context on the women's behalf?

14:35

I thank the Member for that important supplementary. I think it casts a very significant light on the situation. I think she's right to say, of course, that women are over-represented, if you like, in sectors that have been particularly badly hit during the COVID crisis, which I think illustrates very starkly the challenge that many of these women face. Many of them have been working in roles that may have not been well paid for many, many years before facing the financial pressure that they face anew as a consequence of the actions of the UK Government. I know that she will share with me the dismay that the litigation strategy that the campaign groups were pursuing hasn't been able to bear fruit. But that does now, I think, impose on the UK Government a particular and special responsibility to engage with the groups that have been advocating on behalf of women affected. I, and I imagine many other Members in the Chamber, have received correspondence with women affected putting forward very sensible and pragmatic proposals for how this challenge and injustice could be addressed. And it's in that light that my colleague Jane Hutt has written to the UK Government, to encourage them to engage with these groups and negotiate a solution.

Clause 49 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill

2. What assessment has the Counsel General made of clause 49 of the UK Internal Market Bill? OQ55917

Clause 49 of the Bill as introduced would make the entire UK Internal Market Act a protected enactment. Protected enactment status should only be used where it can be justified. We have proposed that this provision is omitted; it is for the UK Government now to make the case for its inclusion.

Diolch, Counsel General. The Welsh public voted in favour of devolution in 1997. After that initial mandate, we've had 12 further democratic events that have allowed the Welsh people to confirm that view—in the form of a further referendum in 2011, five Senedd elections, and six general elections. The referenda and all the elections returned clear pro-devolution majorities. Now, you'll know that clause 46 of the internal market Bill will enable the UK Government to spend money in devolved areas in Wales. That would allow them, for example, to spend money on transport plans that could have a detrimental effect on areas that are devolved, such as public health, the environment and conservation. As you've been setting out, Counsel General, clause 49 of the Bill prevents the Senedd from being able to bring forward a legal challenge to such plans, even though they affect devolved areas. We've known from the beginning that Boris Johnson was hostile to devolution, which has since been confirmed through the horse's mouth. This power grab is a substantiation of that hostility. So, do you agree with me that the Tory UK Government has zero democratic mandate to pass such provisions, especially given that a majority of Welsh MPs voted against them and that this Senedd is opposed?

I think the Member is right to point to the effect of the protected enactment designation on the Bill, in that it does prevent the effects of the Act from being modified by this Senedd. But she points as well to a much broader provision in the Bill, which is equally iniquitous—if I can put it in those terms—which is the provisions that give UK Government Ministers powers from devolved areas to spend in Wales. Now, we heard the contributions in the House of Commons during the debates on the Bill earlier in the year and it was evident from those contributions that I think what motivates some of these judgements is the UK Government not being content with the priorities that the Welsh Government, elected by the people of Wales, have set for themselves as part of a democratic mandate. I think what's important at this point is for the UK Government to recognise it isn't too late for it to change its mind in relation to this provision. We would certainly invite it to do that. When we've discussed it with the UK Government, obviously, it's described as an opportunity to work in partnership. Well, if that is the case, it seems to me to be an opportunity to work around the Welsh Government, rather than work with the Welsh Government. But, as I say, it's not too late for the UK Government to change its position in relation to that and recognise the democratic devolution settlement. 

14:40

I'm particularly concerned about this, because, having been told that leaving the EU is about taking back control, I don't think many of us realised that that meant the UK Government clawing back both control and the money that goes with it for the centre to be able to target seats for their own political purposes. And just leaving aside the incompetence of the UK Government over test, trace and protect and their appetite for giving money to their mates, the whole point of devolved government is that the Welsh Government understands the difference between Cardiff, Caernarfon and Caersws, as well as the granular detail of communities like mine, like Adamsdown and parts of Pentwyn, which are super-output areas of deprivation, and whose needs are completely different from those of, say, Cyncoed or Penylan, even though they're only a few miles apart. So, what can be done do stop the Tory UK Government from hijacking this money for their own ends, rather than tackling poverty and deprivation in our communities?

The Member is, of course, right to say that the purpose behind the Bill—the intent of the Bill, certainly—is to limit the capacity of the Senedd and Welsh Ministers to act in accordance with the devolution settlement. It didn't have to be this way, and it still doesn't have to be this way. We've proposed an alternative to the Bill that respects the devolution settlement, but also delivers the high standards across a range of areas, which I know that she feels very passionately about and is a very ardent campaigner for. As I say, we've pursued a strategy of putting forward constructive alternatives, and have had significant support in the House of Lords, as I know that she is aware, for many of those positions, from a range of political voices and non-political voices, and from a range of different walks of life. And there has been a very, very strong theme that the devolution settlement needs to be respected and that if the UK Government is proceeding on the basis that this Bill is intended to strengthen the union, it will find that it is mistaken, because the best way of doing that is by defending and extending devolution, rather than trying to ride roughshod over it. 

A 'No Deal' Brexit

3. What discussions has the Counsel General had with other law officers regarding the legal implications of a 'no deal' Brexit? OQ55903

The Welsh Government has made clear to the UK Government that an EU trade deal is of vital importance for Welsh citizens and businesses. However, as a responsible Government we are planning for the possibility. This includes making all necessary Welsh legislation to deliver a 'no trade deal' outcome by 31 December.

I'm grateful to the Counsel General for his reply. Can I ask how confident he is that we will have a functioning, workable legal framework in important fields, like the environment and agriculture, that were previously derived from European law? He speaks, in his response to Delyth Jewell, about a constructive alternative to the internal market Bill, and, of course, that's the right approach to take, but what considerations are being given by the Welsh Government as to what steps might be taken to protect the devolution settlement if this legislation is passed unamended? Does he share my concern, and a concern that was expressed recently by Professor Emyr Lewis at Swansea University, that we may, if this Bill is passed unamended, be faced with a UK Government that is developing a taste for legislating in a way that puts itself beyond the usual reach of law? Has the Counsel General had any discussions with law officers in the other devolved administrations about what legal steps, if any, might be taken should this Bill be passed unamended? I hope that he would agree with me that it would be very dangerous indeed for the UK Government to get a taste for passing legislation that puts itself beyond the reach of the law.

It would be not only dangerous, but it would be profoundly wrong in the context of the devolution settlement. So, I endorse the comment the Member makes in her question in relation to that. I think the point that Delyth Jewell was making in her question around the protected enactment is an extension of the usual principle. So, we have accepted that there may be occasions when enactments become protected, but in relation to this Bill, there is effectively a blanket prohibition on modification, which you would expect to see in very significant constitutional legislation, not one that, on the face of it, deals with matters to do with the economy and trade. So, I think that gives you the clue that you need about the extent of the trespass on the devolution settlement that this Bill represents. And I agree with her that it would be very dangerous to see that becoming a pattern and, indeed, it would be completely unacceptable, even in this Bill.

In relation to the question of a functioning statute book at the end of the transition period, I will say that a huge amount of work has been under way in relation to aligning the Welsh statute book, through secondary legislation, to take account of the changes that will need to happen after the end of the transition period. It's been really rather a mammoth task, and there are further statutory instruments coming forward to the Senedd over the coming weeks. We don't yet know what the outcome will be of the negotiations between the UK Government and the European Commission, obviously, but if that concludes in a deal, there will probably be the need for implementing legislation, and that will quite possibly—probably, I would suggest—require the Senedd's consent if it deals with matters that are otherwise devolved. We don't yet know what that legislation will look like. We don't yet know the scale of the task of grappling with it. We don't yet know the volume of implementing secondary legislation that that will entail. It will probably all need to be done by the end of this year. So, the challenge, I think, is obvious when I lay it out in that way. Whilst there has been good progress and, I would say, very good levels of joint working with the UK Government and other devolved Governments in relation to the programme of work so far, it's obvious when I say it that there's a significant challenge that lies very immediately ahead of us. And I think that that tells you a little about the scale of the challenge that we all face in the coming months. 

14:45
Road Adoption

4. What assessment has the Counsel General made of the legislation underpinning road adoption within new housing developments in Wales? OQ55915

Welsh Ministers established a taskforce evaluating potential solutions regarding unadopted roads. It concluded that legislative changes were not required, but a good-practice guide was published, reducing the risk of further unadopted roads being created. We will shortly publish findings from our call for evidence on estate charges on new developments.

Following the Member debate, which I proposed in Plenary on 14 February 2018, I was pleased to see the report from the unadopted roads taskforce. However, one element disappoints me, and that relates to the lack of legal weight behind some of the recommendations. In particular, the taskforce's road adoption model guide states that if five or more properties are served by a road in a new housing development, highways authorities should serve an advanced payment code notice on developers, which essentially ensures a financial bond is in place to meet any future costs of bringing the road up to adoptable standard, as you will be aware. However, guidance and recommendation, I would suggest, is not strong enough, in my opinion, in this case. Will you, therefore, commit to holding further discussions with the Minister for transport to explore whether legislation should be introduced in this area so as to place a duty on local authorities to serve a notice on developers in such circumstances? 

I thank Dai Lloyd for his further question in relation to that. I think the Minister for the economy, who commissioned the work of the taskforce, last made a statement on this topic only a few weeks ago at the end of October. The recommendations from the taskforce, which is, obviously, constituted in order to give advice, took the view that the better route at this stage certainly relates to the use of the Highways Act 1980, and the powers under section 38 in particular, and that the rest of its recommendations could be achieved, indeed, without primary legislation. As I say, there is a further call for evidence in relation to matters related to estate charges. The point he makes about the payment obligations are, obviously, particularly concerning. Whether or not there'll be any legislative considerations that arise in the context of estate charges will have to remain to be seen when we have the recommendations and the output of the call for evidence. 

Welsh Fisheries

5. What discussions has the Counsel General had with other law officers in the United Kingdom about supporting Welsh fisheries after the end of the EU transition period? OQ55911

The Welsh Government has worked closely with UK Government and the other devolved Governments on the UK Fisheries Bill and on EU exit secondary legislation to secure a suite of powers that will enable us to support Welsh fisheries after the end of the EU transition period.

Thank you. Whilst I'm certainly hopefully for a deal, especially in light of Ursula von der Leyen's talk of progress last Saturday, it is, however, incumbent on the Welsh Government to prepare for a worst-case scenario. We have just 37 days of transition left, so it is essential that everyone in Wales prepares to the best of their ability, including all Welsh fisheries. Undoubtedly, there has been some excellent news, as the agreement with Canada will mean that fish can be exported tariff free. But, of course, we cannot forget the importance of the EU market. For example, over 60 per cent of Welsh seafood exports are destined for Spain. Whilst fisheries support is a Welsh Government responsibility, I do welcome the fact that you are striving for a UK-wide intervention scheme. According to the end of transition action plan, the latest position was that you were in communication with the UK Government. Can you update the Senedd and its Members today as to when you hope to have this support in place in case it should ever be needed?

14:50

I almost had to check to see which benches that submission was coming from for a moment. I will always welcome growing recognition from benches on all parts of this Chamber about the impact of the challenge that lies ahead. I will say that it is a very significant set of challenges that this Government has been trying to wrestle with, and I'm glad that there's a recognition of the risks that lie in the period ahead as a consequence of leaving the European Union potentially without a deal.

What I will say from a policy point of view—. I'm sure that my colleague, the Minister who is responsible for fisheries, will bring forward further information in due course. I will refer Janet Finch-Saunders to Lesley Griffiths's statement of only a few weeks ago in relation to future plans for supporting fisheries in relation to the 'Brexit and our Seas' consultation, which outlined some of our proposals. But, I will just say to her that there has been very close working with other parts of the UK in relation to this, so that we have the tools available in order to be able to look after the interests of fishers in Wales, both in terms of legislation, preparation for future financial support from the beginning of next year, and plans in due course for a Welsh fisheries Bill.  

Thank you, Llywydd, and just for clarity, I wasn't being a doom-monger there—

No, you don't get a second chance at question 5. You, in fact, get a chance at question 6 now. Janet Finch-Saunders.

The Red Meat Sector

6. What discussions has the Counsel General had with other law officers in the United Kingdom with regard to the provision of support for the red meat sector after the end of the EU transition period? OQ55912

The Welsh Government continues to work closely with the UK Government and devolved Governments to make the case for funding from Her Majesty's Treasury to support the red meat sector in the event of a 'no trade deal' exit.

Thank you. You'll be aware, of course, that the end of transition action plan does acknowledge that, in the best scenario, we would have a deal, and I want to see a trade deal. But, we have to prepare, and, let's be honest, as a Welsh Government you have had a long time since that vote to make these preparations. You have been working with the UK Government, I hope, to develop a UK-wide contingency plan in response to the potential impacts on the sheep sector. According to the end of transition plan, the operational design was yet to be completed as of 11 November 2020. Has there now been this agreement and, if so, will you outline to us as Members how the crisis intervention scheme is going to work?

NFU Cymru has raised concerns about the Welsh milk sector being vulnerable as a consequence of its size and its ability to process milk, and a dependence on a dairy commodity market that does not pay too well, as we all know. What steps are you taking as the Counsel General to safeguard our dairy industry ahead of next year also?  

Well, I'm sorry to disappoint Janet Finch-Saunders, but I think that those questions are largely focused on the policy response of the Government in relation to supporting the red meat sector, and I do think that those questions are probably more appropriately put to Lesley Griffiths as the Minister responsible. But, from a legal perspective, she will be aware that, in the Agriculture Act 2020, for example, Welsh Ministers took powers specifically to deal with exceptional market conditions, which these conditions obviously would represent, and provide powers for us to support the sector in those circumstances.

As she herself makes clear, it is vitally important for the red meat sector that an agreement should be reached. Thirty-five per cent of our lamb crop is exported, and 90 per cent of that is exported to the EU market. So, if we do not secure a deal that protects the interests of Welsh farmers in that respect, there will certainly be the need for UK-wide intervention, and we will look to the Treasury to fund that intervention. But, as I say, we have the legal framework in place to enable that to happen.

14:55
3. Business Statement and Announcement

The next item is the business statement and announcement. I call on the Trefnydd to make the statement—Rebecca Evans.

Diolch, Llywydd. I have three changes to this week's business. The Minister for Health and Social Services will make a statement today on the update on special measures arrangements at Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board. Consequently, the statement on the Valleys taskforce has been postponed until 8 December. Finally, the debate on the Legislation (Wales) Act 2019 (Amendment of Schedule 1) Regulations 2020 has been moved to the last item on today's agenda. 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.

Trefnydd, can I call for a statement from an appropriate Government Minister regarding restrictions on singing in Welsh churches and other places of worship? Obviously, we've got the Christmas season that is about to be upon us. Many people enjoy going to carol services and participating in worship services at this particular time of the year, and the UK Government has recently made an announcement on principles for safer singing, including in places of worship, which will enable people to get together, provided they are cognisant of social distancing and take other precautions, in order to gather for such worship. I would really like the opportunity for people in Wales to enjoy the same privileges, and I wonder whether we could have a statement on this as soon as possible. Thank you.

Thank you to Darren Millar for raising this issue this afternoon, and of course we keep all aspects of our regulations and our guidance under constant review. I do understand the challenges that the restrictions on singing in places of worship does place on churches and other places of faith within our communities, and I understand the disappointment that many people feel in not being able to sing at the moment. I will ask the Minister for Mental Health, Well-being and Welsh Language—as is her new title—to consider the points that you've made, and obviously, as we continue to keep these things under review, your points will be taken into due account.

I'd like to highlight the frustrations of Rhondda businesses that have been left without any financial help since the beginning of the pandemic. We know businesses across Wales that have lost out after applying for the economic resilience fund. A new business in the Rhondda tell me that they've not received any support, despite losing a majority of their takings. They applied for a lockdown discretionary grant administered through the local authority and received a response saying that their application to another fund, which they hadn't applied to, had been unsuccessful. Taxi drivers are another group that haven't been catered for, and there was a Unite trade union organised demonstration today in Cardiff city centre, calling for support, and I back this campaign. Now, I acknowledge that we live in unprecedented times and that schemes have been drawn up quickly, but unless lessons are learned from what has gone wrong so far, then mistakes will be repeated and targeted support will continue not to reach the businesses that need it. So, can we have a Government statement outlining how you can review the grant system so that those cases that I've raised today can be helped and that we can ensure that businesses and people don't miss out on a financial lifeline when they really, really need it now?

I'm grateful, again, to Leanne Wood for raising this issue this afternoon, and I know that she'll be taking up that first specific case with the council in RCT in order to establish what has happened with that particular grant application. It is the case, of course, that Wales does continue to have the most generous package of support for businesses anywhere in the UK, and the third phase of the ERF has already seen over 35,000 businesses offered over £106 million to date, and, in addition, more than £20 million has reached tourism, hospitality and retail businesses with a retail value of between £12,000 and £50,000, in the form of that emergency funding. So, that funding is absolutely getting to businesses, although inevitably we're not going to be able to support every single business in Wales. But we are absolutely keen to learn from the experiences of the third phase of the economic resilience fund as we develop our future support for business.

And I absolutely share the concerns about taxi drivers in particular. I think that there is a social justice element here. I had a good discussion with Professor Ogbonna, who has been doing some work for Welsh Government on how the black, Asian and minority ethnic community in particular has been badly affected by the coronavirus. And taxi drivers are eligible to apply for that discretionary element of the ERF, and I'm really keen that we get that message out to taxi drivers. But I know that Ken Skates has also been having some discussion on specific issues affecting taxi drivers and others, with Unite and others who are affected.

15:00

If I could, I would like to ask the Government for a statement on the availability of crisis services, including financial assistance programmes, throughout Christmas and the new year period.

Presiding Officer, we're all, on all sides of the Chamber, aware of how people have suffered over this year, and we also know that there are many families facing a real crisis at this time of year. We have a debate about Christmas and the need for people to come together and enjoy the festive period, but sometimes, I think, we forget that, for many families, they will fear Christmas and they will not be looking forward to the holiday period because of the financial pressures that they're facing as a family. And we know that there are groups of people, or volunteers and communities coming together to support and sustain families in this period, as there have been throughout the last year in my own constituency. But it is important that the Welsh Government, I feel, make a real statement on how they will be seeking to support crisis services through this period.

I would also like to ask for a debate on the shared prosperity fund. We understand from the Sunday papers that the UK Government will be making a statement on this tomorrow. There has been, to my knowledge, no consultation on this, and it appears—again through reading reports in newspapers—that the UK Government intends to not learn the lessons of European funding, but to repeat some of the mistakes that were made. As European funding programmes Minister, I led a review of how we did allocate funding and funding streams nearly a decade ago, and we learnt a lot of lessons at that time, all of which are being undone now by a Government that is intent on playing politics with our country's future. I hope that we will be able to have an urgent debate on this matter before the Christmas recess to ensure that this place is able to discuss these matters and to put its own views on the table.

Thank you to Alun Davies for giving me the opportunity to put on record the Welsh Government's thanks for those individuals and volunteers who have worked so hard throughout the coronavirus pandemic to offer that kind of crisis support to families and individuals who really are on the sharp end of things as a result of the crisis and as a result of 10 years of austerity.

Welsh Government has put significant funding into the single advice fund, and that fund has had a specific and impressive record, I think, in terms of ensuring that families and individuals are claiming the benefits to which they're entitled—millions of pounds back into the pockets of people who quite rightly deserve that in Wales. So, I think that's been very successful. And, as part of the response to the pandemic, we've also increased our support for the discretionary assistance fund by over £10 million, and again, that's a really important opportunity for people who are really struggling and find themselves in a desperate situation, to access some very quick funding. So, we're very pleased with the way in which that fund is being operated, and of course, I would encourage Members to signpost any constituents who need that support to that fund.

I share Alun Davies's real concerns about the shared prosperity fund. Engagement from the UK Government has been absolutely woeful—non-existent, in fact—on this particular issue. To what extent we will know anything of use tomorrow in the spending review is as yet unknown, but it is my intention, early after the spending review announcement, to be able to provide an early statement—in the first instance, a written statement—to colleagues with our initial reactions, and then, obviously, we'll find the right opportunity to provide more information on any news that may or may not be forthcoming on the shared prosperity fund.

I call for an urgent statement on support for small bed-and-breakfast businesses. When I asked you for a statement on this six weeks ago, I said the Welsh Government again excluded them from financial support to help them survive the pandemic, this time barred from a third round of the economic resilience fund. They were also deemed ineligible in previous rounds and have been denied small business grants, unlike their counterparts in England and Scotland. In reply, you said they should speak to Business Wales advisers to explore whether they can point them in the direction of other forms of support. Having tried this, they told me that only loans were available, and these would push them into unmanageable debt.

They've since told me that they are also ineligible for your lockdown discretionary grant and ask if the Welsh Government were going to help them before we go into this winter, stating, 'Our sector cannot possibly survive without additional help'. They therefore need a statement from you, detailing the support you will now give them, or explaining why on earth you've abandoned this key sector and its support for our local economies.

15:05

Well, I'd be really grateful if Mark Isherwood could send me some more details of the reasons as to why the B&B owners to whom he refers were not eligible for the discretionary fund. He says that he has, but it hasn't arrived with me yet. So, I'd be keen to understand the reasons behind that, because we are, as I've mentioned in response to Leanne Wood, we are looking to explore what we can learn from this current ERF phase 3 in terms of our package of support as we move forward for business. So, I'd be keen to understand why they were unable to access funding through the discretionary fund, which is deliberately very wide and broad in order to meet the needs of those businesses that have not yet been able to access support.

I would like to know with whom exactly within Welsh Government the theatre sector should be having discussions about reopening in a safe manner. With bingo halls, cinemas and casinos and so on being able to reopen, those working in theatres, and some of us who enjoy attending theatres, do need to know when they will be able to reopen safely. The problem is that they don't know with whom within Welsh Government they should be discussing the issue. It seems that they are in discussions held by the major events unit, but that isn't the appropriate place for this discussion because you could be talking about very small-scale events within theatres. So, can you give us some clarity: with whom exactly should they be having these discussions?

Well, in the light of the wider public health context, theatres and concert halls, as Siân Gwenllian says, are required to remain closed to the general public. And, of course, they are however integral to our approach to testing events, which, unfortunately, won't now be able to resume until February at the earliest. So, it will be, at the earliest, February in terms of when we look at those tests. We have started to reopen in a limited way. So, we've been exploring opening up to rehearsals and to online performances, for example, and our £63 million cultural recovery fund is there to support theatres and concert halls in the meantime.

In terms of who they should explore further conversations with, it would be Eluned Morgan or Dafydd Elis-Thomas who would be the appropriate person to have those discussions.

I have two brief requests, Trefnydd: first, could we have time in the Chamber to discuss the annual report of the national advisers on domestic violence and abuse, please? Tomorrow is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Children, and last year, there were the deaths of 1,300 women, and five of those in Wales. Normally, I would be requesting Members to support the White Ribbon fund. So, can I take this opportunity to ask colleagues to consider support to their local projects in their constituencies? Because they are potential life savers, especially now when, for many women, staying at home does not mean staying safe.

And secondly, I would be pleased to have an update from the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales on the Global Centre of Rail Excellence in Wales. The GCRE is a fantastic opportunity for Powys and the upper Swansea valley that's been brought forward by the Welsh Government. It would be really good to have some clarity on where things stand, particularly because the Conservative Member of Parliament for Brecon and Radnorshire has muddied the waters by incorrectly claiming that it is the Welsh Government that needs to give it the green light, whereas my understanding is that the hold-up is because the UK Government has not made a decision between the Powys site and the rival Siemens site in Scunthorpe. 

15:10

Llywydd, can I take this opportunity to thank Joyce Watson for the incredible work that she does, year after year, in terms of the White Ribbon campaign and in terms of being a voice for women and girls who are experiencing or are in danger of experiencing violence? I think that she's an inspiration to all of us, and I'm really grateful to Joyce for the vigil that she organised yesterday. It was an online vigil, but no less powerful for it, and also the event that I attended in the morning, which was specifically focused on women and girls facing domestic violence in rural communities, whose voices aren't always heard and who often find it more difficult to reach out for the help that they need. So, I thought that was an incredibly powerful event.

The Deputy Minister and Chief Whip will be issuing a statement tomorrow that announces the publication of the national advisers' plan, and their priorities over the next year include embedding a public health approach to violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence and also working with the honour-based abuse leadership group as two of the things that they'll be focusing on over the next 12 months.

In terms of the Global Centre of Rail Excellence, it was, of course, the Welsh Government that developed the innovative proposals for the Global Centre of Rail Excellence after identifying the need for such a facility, and we've shown the leadership that was required to bring it to this point. It's very much a made-in-Wales initiative, creating the new facility for the entire UK rail industry, and we intend it to be an attraction for jobs, skills and growth in the area. It is the case that in early July we submitted a business case to the UK Government outlining the next steps to make that centre a reality, and we do await formal endorsement by the UK Government of the business case, and, clearly, we hope for a positive announcement on that in the comprehensive spending review tomorrow.

Business Minister, could I please ask for a statement from the education Minister clarifying the Welsh Government's position on keeping children in schools as much as possible right up until the end of this term? It was encouraging to hear the First Minister share my concerns over year groups in some schools in some authorities being arguably off unnecessarily because of not using the track and trace system properly. I'm just wondering how—within that statement, if it could be incorporated—this Government intends to work with our schools and local authorities to ensure that there is consistency across Wales in our schools' approach to the coronavirus.

Also, the First Minister mentioned lateral flow tests, if that could be also incorporated within the statement, timescales, amounts, that sort of thing. And lastly, Llywydd, also, I've been hearing that some schools in south-east Wales may now be closing a week early this Christmas term, so I'm just wondering if the Government can provide some clarity on that, because, from the understanding I have, schools were wanting to close a week early because that would mean a two-week isolation period for Christmas Eve, obviously. So, I was just wondering if it could provide some clarity on that and what the actual Government position is, considering that it is the Government's priority to keep our children in school as much as possible. Thank you.

Thank you to Laura Anne Jones for raising that important issue. The Minister for Education does have questions in the Chamber tomorrow, so that might be an opportunity to explore some of this in more detail, but, alongside that, I will ask her to write to you with some further information about the plan for testing children in school, and also the advice that is being provided to schools specifically in terms of sending children home for self-isolation and so forth, and also the kind of thinking that's going on in terms of the approach to Christmas and ensuring that we keep children and their families as safe as we possibly can.

Minister, I'm asking for a debate to be held urgently on the end of the Brexit transition period and what it means specifically for Welsh ports. We're now at the eleventh hour, and warnings raised by myself and others around the lack of preparation in Holyhead are sounding with ever louder urgency. Now, with the need for customs declarations and checks on outbound freight from 1 January, there still hasn't been, I understand, a trial run of the new electronic customs system that's to be used. The Minister will have read about concerns expressed today by Irish hauliers about mayhem at the port. I've spoken to Nick Bosanquet, professor of health policy at Imperial College, who's worried that ports delays could even increase the COVID risk.

Now, yesterday the Irish Taoiseach visited the pretty impressive infrastructure that's been developed at Dublin port. There's nothing in Holyhead for when those checks are needed in July next year on inbound freight. A site in Warrington has been identified for Holyhead's imported goods checkpoint, at least temporarily. You couldn't make it up. That site clearly has to be in or near Holyhead. Now, UK Government has messed up royally here, but we also need to hear exactly what else Welsh Government has tried, and is trying to do, to salvage things, given that Welsh Government is responsible for developing a border point in the south-west of Wales, and UK Government for the one relating to Holyhead. Now, my fear, as I've warned time and time again, is that anything that affects the free flow of trade through Holyhead will undermine the ports and undermine jobs related to the ports, so can we please bring all these issues before the Senedd again, at this late hour even, so we can hammer home just what's at stake?

15:15

Thank you to Rhun ap Iorwerth for raising what are serious and significant concerns. I will make a point of speaking to the Minister for Economy and Transport about your request for that urgent statement. If that's not able to be accommodated in the very near future, I will certainly ask him to write to you on those issues in the meantime.

I wish to request a statement from the Welsh Government on the planning process, timescales and approach towards a limited and phased restart strategy for performance and arts venues across Wales, but to note that scientific research and critical safe operating mitigating frameworks are now in place across the UK and internationally, that we in Wales have opened and are operating cinemas and bingo halls, that safe rehearsal of orchestra and opera is operating across Wales, and that English venues' restart has been now announced and that some smaller venues, theatres and arts centres are now ready to volunteer as pilots to be able to open safely now with similar appropriate strict mitigations in place. So, Minister, these smaller venues are not only critical to well-being for our communities in terms of engagement and participation, but, if they don't open soon, they may have to close, and many cannot claim now from the COVID-19 economic resilience fund. So, can this Welsh Government statement set out a clear pathway forward for the sector and outline the measures to support our arts and performance venues so they can open in a planned, limited and safe manner, as clearly advised by the live music report to the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee for Welsh Government response? Thank you.

Again, thank you to Rhianon Passmore for raising this issue this afternoon. I know that she's had the opportunity to make those strong representations on behalf of smaller venues in particular directly to the Minister for Welsh Language, Well-being and Mental Health earlier on today. It is the case, certainly in terms of the test events—and I appreciate that these are probably larger events than those that Rhianon Passmore is thinking about—that they wouldn't be resuming until February at the earliest, but I do appreciate that we're probably talking in this case about smaller venues. I'll be sure again to make sure that the Minister does consider that and updates you appropriately.

I thank the Trefnydd. There will now be a break to allow changeovers in the Siambr. So, a short break.

Plenary was suspended at 15:19.

15:25

The Senedd reconvened at 15:26, with the Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) in the Chair.

4. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Update on special measures arrangements at Besti Cadwaladr University Health Board

So, we reconvene on item 4 on the agenda, which is a statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: update on special measures arrangements at Besti Cadwaladr University Health Board. And I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Members will be aware that health boards and trusts in Wales have their escalation and intervention status considered as part of our joint escalation and intervention arrangements. This involves Welsh Government officials meeting with Audit Wales and Healthcare Inspectorate Wales twice a year to discuss the overall position of NHS Wales organisations in respect of quality, service performance and financial management. A wide range of information and intelligence is considered to identify any issues to inform their assessment and advice to me as the health Minister. There is also an opportunity to hold additional meetings, if the group deem it necessary.

At the last full tripartite meeting held in September, it was agreed to hold a further meeting before the end of the calendar year, specifically on Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board. I am pleased to say that a special tripartite meeting took place earlier this month. The clear advice and recommendation to me was that the escalation status of the health board should change. I have accepted that advice. I have decided that Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board will come out of special measures with immediate effect. The escalation status of the health board has now moved to targeted intervention.

The tripartite group reviewed further evidence submitted by the health board that demonstrated progress over recent years, including on the areas that had originally been designated as special measures concerns. The group noted that the health board has demonstrated improved engagement with partners, particularly during the current pandemic. It also recognised the level of insight shown by the health board into the challenges that it still faces, together with the determination demonstrated by the board and the incoming chief executive to make further progress.

The tripartite group noted the detrimental impact the special measures designation was having on the health board’s ability to recruit and retain staff, particularly at senior level. This has led to a number of the executive director roles currently being filled on an interim basis. This is, obviously, not helpful for the health board in moving forward. Special measures was also having an impact on the health board’s ability to make the necessary further progress.

There continue to be concerns on some aspects of performance, particularly in mental health services and the ability of the health board to prepare an approvable medium-term plan. Going forward, to provide the clarity and assurance of the necessary focus, a maturity matrix approach will be used, similar to the processes that have been in place in Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board.

On 3 November, I announced a package of support for the health board. This support amounts to a further £82 million per year over three and a half years to support the health board as it enters a new phase under targeted intervention, and continues its ongoing work to improve. The chair of the health board has already responded outlining how this support will be utilised to improve unscheduled care, to build sustainable planned care, including orthopaedics, to deliver improvements in mental health services and, of course, to benefit the health of the population of north Wales.

It should be remembered that targeted intervention is still a heightened level of escalation. This requires significant action on the part of the organisation, and will be accompanied by a level of continued oversight from my officials. However, the move out of special measures marks an undeniably positive step forward for the staff of the health board who have made and sustained the progress to end special measures. This is also of course a positive step forward for every community in north Wales that is served by the health board.

I hope that Members across the Senedd will join me in congratulating staff at the health board as they move into the next phase of their improvement journey.

15:30

Can I take the opportunity to put on record the thanks of everybody on the Welsh Conservative benches to those front-line members of NHS staff in north Wales who've been working so hard, particularly during this pandemic?

It's a great shame, Minister, that you didn't have the courtesy to brief any Members on opposition benches today about your decision, and in fact, you even gave the great discourtesy of not even sharing your statement until a moment before it was actually read from your lips. The reality is that today's announcement appears to have more to do with the prospects of the Labour Party in north Wales at next year's Senedd elections than it does with any evidence of real improvement on the ground in north Wales. Your decision to remove special measures cannot be justified and you cannot fool or hoodwink the people of north Wales into thinking that everything is hunky-dory. Your description of improvement bears absolutely no resemblance to the reality of patient experiences across the region.

Let's look at the facts. The Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board was in its sixth year of special measures. In that time, it's had a revolving door in terms of its senior leadership team, with a number of chief executives, a number of finance directors, and a number of directors of mental health. In fact, the current director of mental health departs his role at the end of this month, another notch on Betsi's bedpost.

Since 2015, A&E performance has gotten worse, waiting lists and waiting times have deteriorated and gotten longer, and the financial position of the health board has also deteriorated. The recent figures show that Betsi still has the worst emergency department performance in the whole of Wales, with one in 10 people waiting more than 12 hours before they're able to be discharged after arriving in A&E, and over half, almost half the population who turn up not being able to be released within four hours.

We know that GP services are still fragile in the region, with more managed practices than any other health board area in Wales. And, of course, we now know that dentistry services are fragile across north Wales as well, with 20,000 patients being given notice that their NHS services are going to stop early next year. This is not a health board that is fit to come out of the special measures arrangements. 

You referred to a number of reasons when this health board was put into special measures, and governance, leadership and oversight was one. We know that there are still weaknesses there because there's been a recent outbreak of coronavirus in two of the hospitals in north Wales, none of which came to light because of the situation in the health board, but because local Members of the Senedd had written raising concerns.

Mental health services are still not out of the woods. In spite of the promises of new, shiny buildings, the culture in those departments is still the same. We've got 1,600 patients who, earlier this year, were discharged from services without their knowledge, or being made aware. Bed capacity is still a huge problem. Child and adolescent and mental health services are still not adequate, with patients still being sent hundreds of miles for in-patient treatment. And a quarter—a quarter—of all mental health safety incidents in the Welsh NHS are incidents in the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board. This is not a health board that is fit to come out of special measures.

Just a few weeks ago, last month, you said that there were still big challenges in north Wales. Just a few weeks ago, you said, and I quote,

'Specifically, the group wanted some further assurance from the health board in respect of progress in mental health services.'

This is just a few weeks ago. Now, either this really is the most miraculous recovery since Lazarus was raised from the dead or you're trying to hoodwink the people of north Wales into thinking that services are better, when the reality is that they're not.

So I ask you, Minister, how can you justify your position given that many of the issues on that original list—and I quote one, for example: reconnecting with the public and regaining the public confidence. That's one of the reasons it was put into special measures. I can tell you what, the public in north Wales have no confidence whatsoever in your ability to improve their services. They've only seen them deteriorate, as I've just pointed out to you, in terms of some of those facts on the ground. So how can you say that that item has been dealt with?

How can you say, when there are so many GP services that are fragile, and so many health board intervened and managed services, that the concerns about GP and primary care services have been dealt with, especially with the looming crisis now in dentistry care as well? And how on earth can you say that governance has been addressed when the health board itself didn't know the rate of hospital-acquired infections in relation to COVID until I pointed it out to them? And how on earth can you say that mental health services are better when, frankly, they're just as bad now as they were back in 2015?

15:35

Well, it's disappointing, but perhaps not unusual, to have a predictably unreasonable response from Mr Millar. The refusal to give any credit to staff for progress made over the last few years that has led to special measures being lifted is unfortunate. In particular, I remind Members, both in this Chamber but also externally, of not just the progress that has been assured by the tripartite process, which I'll come back to, but in particular the response to the pandemic, a once-in-a-century healthcare crisis. I think that Betsi Cadwaladr and its staff deserve huge credit for the response. It would be unusual to say that there has been a first-class response to the pandemic and yet the organisation must remain in special measures, because that would suit the perspective of Mr Millar.

When it simply comes to the basis for this organisation to come out of special measures, I referred to it very plainly and clearly in the statement, just as we have done on previous occasions when referring to special measures updates about the advice from the objective tripartite advisory process. The chief executive of NHS Wales, together with Welsh Government officials, Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and Audit Wales, provide advice to me as the Minister. Their clear advice was that this is no longer a special measures organisation. And I should say that the NHS Wales chief executive, Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and Audit Wales do not make choices on their advice to me on the basis of party politics. The suggestion from Mr Millar to the contrary is a slur on their integrity and a matter that he should withdraw and reconsider.

The tripartite advice is the advice; it is my decision. Targeted intervention is not a free pass; more progress is required, as I have made plain. I think reasonable people will recognise that, but they will also recognise that this is a positive day for healthcare in north Wales, a real credit to the staff of the health board, and I look forward to further progress being made.

Diolch, Weinidog. Thank you for a statement that confirms that Betsi Cadwaladr is staying at a level of intervention for another period at the hands of Welsh Government, which has failed in five and a half years to turn around the problems that put it in special measures.

I always praise the front-line staff in the NHS, in the north of Wales, as I do in the rest of Wales. Their response to this pandemic has been second to none. I'm proud to know many of them, and I'm proud of the work that each one of them has done, tirelessly. Your invitation for us to praise them specifically for bringing the board out of special measures, are you saying that they didn't do their bit to bring the board out of special measures over the past five and a half years? What I've seen is the Welsh Government failing to take the adequate steps, and steps that you could have taken previously. The statement, to me, basically says, 'You know what? We can't make progress, it seems, whilst we are in special measures.' Has it really taken you five and a half years to get to that point?

And how did you reach this point in a matter of weeks? We're now—where are we? 24 November. You told us on 7 October that there were big problems that needed to be faced still, in mental health in particular. But it's not today that you're deciding; apparently earlier this month, by that point, the tripartite meeting had told you, 'All is good'. So, in a matter of three or four weeks things had been turned around. And that, to me, seems very, very odd.

You say that special measures were having an impact on the health board's ability to recruit and retain staff. Again, are you only just realising that now, after an extended period of jobs being unable to be filled, both on the clinical side as well as on the management side? Are you only now realising that special measures are affecting negatively the ability that we have to attract the best people to work in health in the north of Wales?

Of course, on one level, I'm pleased to see a moving forward from special measures to another level of intervention. But I'm still of the opinion, as are many patients and staff members within Betsi Cadwaladr, that the north of Wales needs a fresh start. It has taken too long to get to this point and there is very little faith in how we are going to get to the next point, where we can really say that we have, in the north of Wales, a health service that works and that is designed in a way that staff and patients deserve. We need new health boards for the north of Wales, a fresh start, and today does not convince me that the Welsh Government has a handle on the real problems, not least in mental health, which was at the root of putting the board into special measures in the first place, to the extent that I can say that the problem is anywhere near resolved.

15:40

Thank you for the questions and the comments. I particularly welcome the recognition from the Member that the pandemic response from staff and organisations in north Wales has been second to none. It has been a very positive and impressive response. And, again, that underpins an organisation where others would have been concerned about the ability of the organisation to work effectively in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic, and yet, actually, they have risen to the challenge significantly, with not just the creation of the rainbow hospitals, but the way they've worked across their whole healthcare system. And I think it should give more people more confidence for the rest of the unfinished pandemic that we are all still facing. 

And, again, to go back to the point about the advice that is given and the assurance from the previous update I gave from the regular tripartite meeting, at that meeting, in the discussion around north Wales, they recognised that further progress had been made and they asked for a further meeting because they sought further assurance on areas of progress. They've considered the extra information that has been provided, and that group of people—the chief exec of NHS Wales, Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and Audit Wales—have given clear advice that Betsi Cadwaladr should move out of special measures, and that is the basis for my decision.

I don't think it's difficult or complicated to understand, and, of course, other people are entitled to say that they reject the advice of Healthcare Inspectorate Wales, Audit Wales and the chief executive of NHS Wales. They're entitled to say that, and I think people are entitled to judge whether they think that is the right thing to do, for me to base my choice on, as a Minister, or for rather more partisan reasons not to change the status of the organisation, but to keep it in special measures when the clear objective advice is that it is no longer the right thing to do for the organisation and the people it serves.

I recognise that—. The Member has a clear view that he has set out on more than one occasion, that he believes a reorganisation with more than one health board in north Wales will provide a better future. That is not a view I share. I think the loss of focus, the money you'd spend, the upheaval, would have a real cost within it and you'd then have to remake all those partner arrangements that have definitely moved forward over the last few months and the last few years. So, I don't share his view, but I recognise he's perfectly entitled to put it to people. Members will decide, but as I say, this is an undeniably positive step forward for all the staff of the health board and indeed for every community in north Wales that is served by Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board.

15:45

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I massively welcome the significant investment and the news today that the health board is now out of special measures. I do still, however, have some concerns that I'd like to raise today, and I'd be grateful for your comments on those. I am still concerned particularly about mental health services and I'd welcome your thoughts on how the service is improving. Secondly, can you also outline how you feel the health board is performing with regard to elective surgery? And finally, parts of Alyn and Deeside in particular do need better GP provision; particularly places like Saltney are underserved. So how confident are you, Minister, that the health board will properly address this? And if I may, in closing, Deputy Llywydd, can I put on record my thanks to all the staff across north Wales in the NHS, and across the whole of Wales, not for just what they're doing now and continue to do, but for what they always have done in supporting us through the healthcare system in Wales? Thank you.

I'd like to thank the Member for the three specific areas of questions. I'll deal with them in reverse order. On general practice, and Saltney that he mentioned in particular, there's good news in that every scheme in north Wales for GP training has recruited or over-recruited to its capacity, so we're attracting people to work right across the whole country. It's good news for the whole of Wales, including north Wales. We did have some particular challenges at the start of our work on ‘Train. Work. Live.’ to get people to take up the training places in north Wales. We're now in a position where we've got this surplus, which is a really good position to be in in terms of our normal places, but we want to keep all of those people that do their training in north Wales, because we do want to see people seeing north Wales as an attractive place to train, work and live. And if the Member wants a specific conversation on Saltney or other areas in his constituency, then I can happily arrange that both with the health board and/or myself, and I'll look forward to hearing from his office further to see how he wants to take that forward.

On elective capacity, as with the whole of Wales, there has been a particular challenge. North Wales has a bigger challenge than other parts of Wales on elective and planned care, partly because of the way in which normal healthcare takes place, and he will know this, having a border constituency. A number of people are used to, as part of their healthcare, travelling over the border. In the future, we can be confident that the English system will have a huge catch-up in terms of its elective capacity as well. We're unlikely to see lots of planned care capacity within the English system. That's why the orthopaedic challenge that I set out and the funding we're providing is even more important, to have a more sustained position for planned surgery—orthopaedic and others—within north Wales as far as possible, as well as the conversation we need to have about regular healthcare across the border.

And on mental health, there is a particular concern that I've highlighted in my statement—again, because there has been progress on mental health, but there's definitely more to go. And so the 'Together for Mental Health in North Wales' strategy that has been designed with service users in north Wales—it's really important to see that transformation continue, and that will be a particular concern that we'll be looking for further reassurance and progress on in the targeted intervention arrangements that are in place. So, I want to reassure the Member and everyone else watching that mental health is very much in our minds—again, about the unfinished improvement journey that is still required. But undeniably, mental health services in north Wales are in a better place now than when the organisation was placed into special measures five years ago.

Betsi Cadwaladr, according to you, is now out of special measures. Okay. I agree exactly with what Rhun and Darren have said, but we will see going down the line how it works out, and my contribution today will still stand. I've had a look, Minister, at my previous statement when it was in special measures, and my responses, and they're all along the same lines. So, I could, if I wanted to, basically present exactly the same speech I gave in June 2019. However, considering the year that we've all had, where the NHS and associated services are very much on the front line, I feel it more appropriate to be as constructive as possible.

Firstly, I'd like to place on record my thanks to all of those in the NHS who have contributed to keeping services going in the face of fear, pressure, illness and death. It does appear that we are winning the COVID battle. As world case numbers have risen over the last couple of months, deaths have not risen relative to those numbers. Minister, I can only imagine how massive the weight is on your shoulders. The fact that you are still standing is testimony to your own tenacity. While any party in opposition can differ as to the approach taken, I doubt anybody in this Chamber would actually swap places with you—at least during 2020. We know that Betsi Cadwaladr has been in special measures for a record amount of time and, as I said, fingers crossed that your approach now works. And the increased funding from last month was very, very welcome.

In your estimation, Minister, what difference does being in special measures make to the level of service afforded to our constituents, and how will it change now? What I'm trying to tease out is whether special measures meant longer waiting times, more difficulty in getting a GP appointment and harder-to-access dental services? Because it seems to me that, in our COVID-recovery world, every citizen in Wales will have difficulty in all of these areas due to the impact of the pandemic. Having asked that question, I must put on record that I, for one, am sick of the health service being used as a political football, as it continues to be. I think we've all realised that health is more important than anything else. We know that the health service takes up over 50 per cent of the budget allocation for all of the devolved services, and the COVID response across the UK has been driven by the NHS—its capacity, its funding—at the expense, it seems, of every other area of civil society.

I mentioned in my remarks to your statement on strategic support for Betsi Cadwaladr that a fundamentally different approach might be needed to solve what I see as a structural problem with the north Wales health board. It is the largest in Wales, so perhaps that needs to be looked at—the structure. Perhaps it's time for the health service to stop being that political football. It is now time to consider what sort of cross-party commission can take responsibility for the health of the nation and the Welsh NHS. There is, after all, no monopoly on good ideas and collective political responsibility, and an element of consensus has got to be better than the type of debate that we have had, or that we will have today. Thank you, Minister.

15:50

Thank you for the comments and questions. I should say, in terms of your final point, that of course we did start this Assembly term, as it was then, now a Senedd term, with a parliamentary review. The UKIP group at the time supported the creation of that group and, indeed, the membership of it as well. So, we had an independent group of experts who came up with a report on the significant challenges we faced and ideas about the future for health and social care, and that has led to 'A Healthier Wales', which is our long-term plan for health and social care.

So, we're trying to undertake the transformation that we were plainly and clearly advised would need to happen, and that involves both some concentration of specialist services within hospitals, as well as a further move to more services being provided in the community. And that move around and reform for a purpose in healthcare is really important, together with the deliberate steps that we know we need to take to create a more integrated health and social care system. That's why we've provided updates on the transformation fund and building that new service. And actually the pandemic has reinforced the need to do that. It's also reinforced the progress we have already made in improving relationships between health and social care.

Again, I recognise the point the Member makes about the potential to reorganise healthcare in north Wales. I don't think that achieving the vision in 'A Healthier Wales' requires a reorganisation of the health board in north Wales, but it's a view that Members are entitled to have. It's not one that I share, but I'm looking for the results and the progress that we are looking to make. I hope the Member will see that in the action, because she started off by welcoming the move and recognising that she'll want to see the results on the ground, and as someone who lives in north Wales, that's an entirely reasonable place to be.

When it comes to special measures, the reason for going into special measures was—. Our assessment on the delivery, the quality and the sustained status of special measures was about our assessment on the progress that the organisation had made against those challenges, but also the confidence for the future about sustaining improvement. Because I have regularly reported that some improvement has been made, but it's the confidence about that being sustained and continued in the future. We are now at a point today where, with the tripartite advice, they themselves have confidence that this is no longer the right place for the organisation. That's why I've moved it out of special measures, based upon that clear and objective advice.

There will continue to be an extra focus and scrutiny of the health board in targeted intervention. I have already announced the financial support that will go with that as well to help them in their improvement journey. I think that it's a good thing for everybody who lives in north Wales that the health board is now in this position to move out of special measures, and I hope that people see it in those terms. Finally, I'd like to thank the Member for her kind words about the reality of dealing with the pandemic. There are many more difficult days ahead for all of us.  

15:55

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. Ordinarily, of course, I would have been extremely delighted to learn that you were bringing the Betsi Cadwaladr health board out of special measures. Indeed, in a north Wales meeting recently with MSs and MPs, the chairman himself was looking forward to being taken out of special measures because, as has been rightly pointed out here today, recruitment—you know, it's almost like a toxic brand now, isn't it, the Betsi board, which is really sad. But, I would like to put on record and endorse the comments by my colleague Darren Millar, who expressively said of his thanks, his gratitude, his appreciation to everybody working in the NHS in the Betsi Cadwaladr health board across all levels, not only for their work under the tensions of special measures, but also their heroic efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, again, for you to dismiss that, Minister, was pretty low.

Now, this health board has been in special measures longer than any other health board in Britain. Since June 2015, nearly £100 million has been spent by the Welsh Government under your directorship on intervention and improvement support, which simply hasn't materialised. Now, £1.7 million was spent on securing sustainable musculoskeletal and orthopaedic services last year. Yet, earlier this month, you announced £30 million to improve unscheduled care and to build a sustainable planned care programme, including for orthopaedics. Now, while I fully understand and appreciate that the crisis in orthopaedics has worsened as a result of COVID-19, how is it that we still do not have a sustainable plan after the £1.7 million investment?

Only a few weeks ago, you mentioned some of the challenges facing us. Well, I can tell you that, on 3 November of this year, which is actually 15 working days, you stated that a number of actions were required on the need to further improve leadership and governance: that you needed to develop a long-term integrated clinical services strategy, that we needed further strengthening in leadership capacity within mental health to enhance stability and resilience, that the development of a robust three-year financial plan was needed to meet financial duties as part of the integrated medium-term plan, that there was a need to finalise and implement a revised accountability and performance framework, and that there was a need to deliver improvements in performance, particularly in the acute sector. That was—   

—on 3 November, Deputy Llywydd. So, how have you, in 15 days, managed to overcome all of those things that needed improving? Now, given that you are pulling the health board out of special measures—

Okay, I am doing that. Can you confirm that the health board has addressed all of those areas? And will you promise this Chamber that this move today isn't politically motivated, is in the general interests of the patients of north Wales, and not in the interests—

No. I'm sorry. Thank you. The Minister to respond. Before you do, can I just remind subsequent Members of parties that they have one minute, and that your business managers should enforce that for you for the safe running of this Chamber? Minister.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I will deal with the specific points, and then I will come back to the accusation at the end. It's worth pointing out for—. I think that there's an element of misunderstanding in terms of the comments about the musculoskeletal service and its link with orthopaedics. This was actually north Wales that took a lead in the 'physio first' approach and looked at having an approach that rolled out and actually lessened the demand within the orthopaedic service. Where planned, elective operations were then required, it's been good news, and actually, north Wales have led on some of that work and the rest of Wales has benefited from that experience. So, in investing around that service, we have avoided the need for some operations that were unnecessary, and it's also about helping people to manage if they do still nevertheless need to have an operation in the future.

However, the orthopaedic plan that I've referenced, that is about investment for the continuing need for a range of people to nevertheless have surgery. So, this is about how we have a plan that all the centres in north Wales buy into, because at the start of this year I received comments from Members in different parties who had talked to clinicians in different parts of north Wales, who all had a competing plan that they wanted to promote. We're now in a position where we have got some unity in the clinical group. They're prepared to sign up to a common plan, and this is about getting behind that plan. It will not just be about how we make the service more efficient; it will require some capital investment, too, along the way, I think. So, I'm looking forward to a finalised, unified business case that allows us to help north Wales to move on with an orthopaedic plan to deal with the real nature of the need and demand. The musculoskeletal service that's been invested in is a really good example of north Wales taking a lead and looking at how it positively reforms its service.

And then the broader accusations that have been made. I know the Member started by saying that she would 'ordinarily' be 'extremely delighted' with progress out of special measures, and I think there is an issue here that I don't think won't just be recognised within this Chamber, but outside as well, about the refusal to acknowledge good news and progress here. The direct accusation made by the first Conservative speaker was that this was somehow an exercise in straight party politics. That is not the way that the chief exec of NHS Wales gives advice. That is not the way that Healthcare Inspectorate Wales or Audit Wales provide their advice—through the tripartite escalation and intervention arrangements. And Members in this Chamber know that very well. The suggestion otherwise, that this is really nothing more than an exercise in party politics, does not reflect well on any of the Conservative Members who have tried to do so. This is my decision on the basis of clear advice. I'm very pleased to have made this choice, and welcome the progress being made in north Wales.

16:00

I have nothing but praise for the heroic, hard-working medical staff working in our north Wales hospitals. Concerns lie elsewhere. In January, the north Wales community health council wrote to you, attaching the independent review of psychological therapies in north Wales, which described the service failing in many areas, and stating that after nearly five years in special measures, much of it related to mental health issues, these findings are deeply disappointing. North Wales community health council does not recognise the picture painted in the special measures improvement framework report. This is not reflected in our complaints and advocacy caseload or the reports of the community health council visiting teams. Last Friday, they announced that they will be hosting a series of events on Zoom, inviting NHS staff, patients, carers and families to talk about mental health services. As they said,

'It is vital that we present the experiences and suggestions of all those who use mental health services to those who make decisions and policies.'

Today, Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board stated that they will consider arrangements for the leadership of mental health and learning disabilities with their incoming chief executive Jo Whitehead when she takes up her post in the new year. Why aren't you waiting for these things to happen, putting patients before politics, rather than leaping into the dark?

This decision today puts patients before politics in making what is always a difficult choice, but a choice that is driven by the very clear advice we have had in the tripartite process. I recognise that Conservative speakers are predetermined not to accept or recognise this good faith decision. That is a matter for them, and people watching will make their own judgments about whether they should trust the views of north Wales Conservative politicians, or the clear, objective advice from the chief exec of NHS Wales, Audit Wales and Healthcare Inspectorate Wales that underpins my decision to lift Betsi out of special measures.

5. Statement by the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales: Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle Reform

Item 5 on the agenda is the statement by the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales on taxi and private hire vehicle reform. I call on the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales—Ken Skates.

Dirprwy Llywydd, I would first of all like to recognise the vitally important role that the taxi and private hire vehicle industry is playing during the COVID pandemic. Many have continued to work throughout and have provided transportation for key workers, as well as obviously providing services that have enabled the delivery of vital goods, food and medical supplies. We acknowledge that this is a financially difficult time for the industry, with restrictions meaning usual customer demand is extraordinarily low.

Last week, I met with trade unions who updated me on the current challenges faced by the taxi and private hire vehicle industry due to the pandemic. We've endeavoured to provide assistance throughout this period where possible. In addition to the UK Government's financial support schemes, I've made available funding through phase 3 of our £200 million economic resilience fund, which includes a £25 million lockdown discretionary grant scheme administered by local authorities.

A number of the taxi and private higher vehicle industries have already benefited from the lockdown business fund and also the discretionary assistance fund. In addition, I can say that officials are urgently exploring options to provide high-quality PPE to assist the industry in protecting themselves and their passengers from COVID-19. We've also set up a dedicated page on our website to provide advice to the industry on ways to reduce the transmission of coronavirus and the available financial support.

Officials, Dirprwy Llywydd, are currently developing a number of pilot schemes with local authorities that will allow drivers to try zero-emission vehicles before they buy, so that they can better understand the potential financial and environmental benefits. And they're also exploring options for incentive schemes to assist those drivers interested in using these vehicles in the longer term.

Taxi and private hire vehicles are undoubtedly a vital form of public transport. They deliver a practical, direct transport solution and they provide an essential service to people living in rural communities where other forms of public transport may be insufficient or indeed absent; to the night-time economy, supporting many of our hospitality businesses; and, of course, to passengers with disabilities, as well as playing an important role in facilitating social inclusion. It is for these reasons that our Llwybr Newydd, the new Wales transport strategy, which was launched just last week, includes a supporting plan for taxis and private hire vehicles.

The current taxi and private hire vehicle legislation, though, is outdated, with the main framework dating back to 1847 and 1976. This framework has resulted in inconsistent policies, standards and licence conditions across local authorities in England and Wales. Taxi and private hire vehicle regulation, of course, is now a devolved matter under the Wales Act 2017. We currently have accountability, but until such time that we legislate, we are unable to mandate any change. Now, there are a number of problems associated with the current licensing legislation, which include safety concerns for both drivers and passengers, inconsistent licensing standards, which contribute to problems of cross-border hire, poor customer service and public confusion around vehicle types and fare structures. And the existing problems, I'm afraid, are going to continue to increase as the industry continues to evolve.

The UK Government first identified that reform was required back in 2011 when the Law Commission undertook a review of the current regime. And then, in addition, in 2018, a task and finish group reported recommendations for improving the taxi and private hire vehicle licensing regime. These reviews have created, I think it's fair to say, very high expectations with both regulators and the taxi and private hire vehicle industry that change will happen. However, apart from a few small amendments and the recent publication of the Department for Transport's statutory taxi and private hire vehicle standards, the UK Government has not actually reformed taxi legislation.

Since taxi and private hire vehicle regulation was devolved to Welsh Government, we have undertaken two major consultations. In response to the 'Improving public transport' White Paper, we recognised that there was general support for the proposals relating to national standards, to improved enforcement powers and information sharing. But, we also accepted, as a result of the consultation, that there was a strong feeling that the proposals did not go far enough to effectively address the current challenges faced by the industry and regulators.

So, in light of this, I made a commitment that the taxi and private hire vehicle proposals would be further developed and work has already begun on drafting policy proposals that build on the work undertaken in the White Paper. We focused these proposals around improving four areas: first of all, safety, secondly, equality, thirdly, environmental standards and then, fourthly, customer service. And we aim to introduce primary legislation that supports passengers as well as supporting the industry itself. New legislation is required to make taxis and private hire vehicles safe and part of an integrated transport system right across Wales and to professionalise the industry and ensure that drivers can make a decent, fair living. We seek to achieve this through developing and consulting upon new legislative proposals and will replace the confusing two-tier hackney carriage and private hire vehicle regimes with a single taxi regime.

We'll continue to work with local government to explore the merits of changes to licensing authorities where vehicles can operate nationally, except in restricted zones where there's evidence of oversupply, for example, here in Cardiff, and we'll create national licensing standards for drivers, vehicles and operators, with an emphasis on maximising public safety and professionalising the industry. In addition, enforcement powers will be increased and assisted by a national database and register.

As a starting point, ahead of legislative change, officials have undertaken work with the Welsh Local Government Association and representatives of local authorities right across Wales to identify areas of licensing policy that can be improved and made more consistent. This has resulted in agreement on a set of recommendations for taxi policy alignment. There are limitations to this work, as licensing policies vary greatly across Wales, and officials were mindful to ensure that adoption of the recommendations would not incur any significant cost to local authorities or, indeed, the industry ahead of broader legislative change. Nonetheless, these recommendations will be a stepping stone towards national licensing standards and the professionalisation of the industry, and I will keep Members updated on progress.

16:10

Minister, can I thank you for your statement today? I'm broadly in favour of the reforms and your approach, if they prove to be, of course, successful in terms of simplifying and modifying the taxi and private hire regulation systems. Generally, I'm not supportive of Welsh Government centralising powers away from local authorities, but in this regard, I think that there is a case for this, for a number of reasons, but many of which you pointed out in your statement yourself.

I wonder what feedback, both positive and negative, you did receive from local authorities, drivers, operators and passengers in terms of your proposals to centralise licensing in Wales. It would be useful to hear those views that you received. While the creation of the joint transport authority is preferred, you've gone further than the recommendation of the Law Commission and the task and finish group in consulting on introducing national standards. So, why have you chosen to go beyond the recommendations of the Law Commission and the task and finish group in this regard?

The Welsh Government's consultation paper proposed abolishing this distinction between hackney carriages and private hire vehicles, but this proposal appears to have been dropped. I'm given to understand that 45 per cent of respondents expressed a view that agreed with the Law Commission recommendations, saying that the distinction between hackney and private hire vehicles should be retained. The Law Commission also did not support the introduction of record-keeping requirements for taxi drivers, except in respect of taxis picking up passengers outside their licensing area. However, in principle, the Welsh Government supports the maintenance of accurate record keeping for taxi drivers, and I wonder why you have diverged from the Law Commission's view, and what practical difficulties you envisage in recording this data.

There's also the issue of taxi and private hire vehicles working along the border with England; you and I will be familiar with that, representing border constituencies. And the issues there are the same as why you want to take a centralised approach across Wales, which I also agree with, but then there is that border issue. So, I wonder if you could expand, in that regard, in terms of what discussions you've had with the UK Government and the Department for Transport.

And finally, I understand that you have proposed the setting of private hire licensing fees nationally but that taxi licensing fees will continue to be set locally. This was an unpopular proposal during the consultation process and there was a preference for local licensing authorities to be able to set fees for licensing taxis and private hire vehicles locally, but, in exercising the function, having due regard to guidance issued by the Welsh Government. I wonder what your response is in regards to this particular feedback.

16:15

Can I thank Russell George for his comments, his questions and say that I think his contribution points to the fact that there is general agreement across the Chamber that reform is required, that modernisation is required and that legislation is required? The framework currently is more than 150 years old; it was updated 44 years ago. It's high time that new legislation was introduced that recognises the age that we now live in, the new technologies that are being embraced and the different ways that people operate.

With regard to the proposals, they have generally been welcomed, and specifically with regard to national standards. I think they make sense and they address concerns that have been raised through the consultation process on the White Paper. Eliminating the two-tier system I think is necessary for Wales. Obviously, the situation might be different elsewhere. In London, there is a very different environment for hackney cabs to operate in, but, here in Wales, I think most people that we serve would struggle to identify the differences between hackney carriages and private hire vehicles, and having a one-tier system makes perfect sense for the passenger. It also makes perfect sense for the industry itself. We'd be able to then apply consistent sets of regimes across all forms of vehicles and services.

Of course, we'll need to address border issues between England and Wales. We're working very closely with the Department for Transport regarding this matter, and I'd agree with Russell George that there are many people who work on the English side of the border that bring people into Wales and vice versa. There are people who live in Wales who are registered as taxi drivers, private hire vehicle drivers, across the border in England, and, therefore, as part of the work on the legislation, we'll be liaising with the Department for Transport, and, indeed, local stakeholders across the border in England, to ensure that the introduction of legislation here in Wales is compatible with the operation of taxi and private hire vehicle services across the border.

And then in terms of the question of fees, I think it's essential that the fees regime is transparent, it's as consistent as possible, and that it is fair—that it doesn't lead to skewing of applications away from one particular area in favour of another area because the fees are lower, or, indeed, because the standards are lower. Many of the current problems that we see with the system as it operates right now concern those local authority discrepancies, those differences. The licensing requirements across Wales differ for various reasons, including the maximum age that a licensed vehicle can be, the frequency of vehicle testing, the vehicle testing standards, the driver knowledge tests and the driver medical standards, to name but a few different inconsistent approaches across Wales. Therefore, having consistency as much as possible across Wales makes perfect sense, especially for those areas where there is a significant amount of market activity, such as in Cardiff and Newport, also Swansea and in and around Wrexham as well.

I'd like to thank the Minister for his statement, and, as always, for the advanced copy, and to give him Plaid Cymru's overall support for the direction of travel of the statement. To make my opening remarks, I just would like to associate myself with what the Minister has said about the importance of taxis and private vehicles. There are some communities where they're the only form of public transport, actually, and people couldn't manage without them, and I know that many taxi and private hire vehicle providers have done extra work during the lockdown. I know the Drive taxi co-operative in Cardiff was picking up prescriptions and delivering food for people, and I know that was reflected across Wales.

I hope the Minister would agree with me that it's very important that he has the co-operation and support of the sector in order to be able to deliver the ambitions set out in his statement. He will, of course, be aware of the demonstation today, the trade union demonstration today—one of the signs referring to themselves, the taxi industry, as sometimes a forgotten trade, particularly through the pandemic. Now, the Minister has mentioned that there was financial support available through the economic resilience fund, lockdown business discretionary assistance fund, but I wonder if he can say a bit more about his perception of how much of that has actually reached people working in the taxi and private hire industry. There may be issues, for example, in terms of access to information. A lot of the people who work in the industry, for example, in Cardiff and Newport, are people from other countries who may not have English or Welsh as their first language; they may not know where to go to look for this kind of support. I welcome what the Minister said today about PPE for taxi drivers, but of course we know, for a lot of people who work in that sector, it is literally too late. This has been a sector where very many people who work in the sector have become ill, so can he please give us a timescale on that work around protective equipment? Because I think that's absolutely crucial for, as he said himself, those people to be able to work safely and for the safety, of course, of their passengers.

I firmly agree that legislation is needed, and, as the Minister has said, the current framework is very outdated. In my discussions with representatives of the sector, I think they do, overall, appreciate the need for reform, but there are some concerns. I'm not quite sure if I'd agree with the Minister when he says that people don't know the distinction between taxis and private hire vehicles. I know, for example, many women who will always use a taxi rather than a private hire vehicle because the perception, whether it's true or not, is that the standards of vetting mean that a taxi is a safer place for a woman to be if she's travelling alone. I have to say that it's something that I always recommend that my daughter does. So, there is a concern that, by removing the distinction between taxis and private hire vehicles—. Can the Minister assure me today that that's not going to lead to a reduction in standards, and that we're actually going to see the private hire vehicles raised up to the same standards as are required now of what we think of as proper taxis—that's probably not the right way to describe it—because we would certainly not want to see standards going down? So, I hope the Minister can say a bit more today about the justification for the single-tier changes. I think simplicity is clearly one of them, but can he be sure that standards will not be reduced?

Now, the idea of a national database and register is something that we would welcome in Plaid Cymru, and the strengthening of enforcement powers in the interests of public safety and standards is important. There are a minority of people working in this field who don't keep their vehicles clean, who don't meet the standards that we would expect, and that of course is bad for everybody who works in the industry. But I have had concerns put to me about the removal altogether of any local element. Local authorities surely need to know how many vehicles are on the road in their area, and if taxis and private hire vehicles are to form part of our overall public transport planning, we need to know where they are at a local level as well. In his response to Russell George, I think the Minister mentioned the risk of oversupply in certain areas, but I would also suggest to the Minister that there's also a risk of undersupply—that, if taxis are registered nationally, they will go to work where the work is, and that may mean that there are some communities that are left without a service. So, I wonder if the Minister can say a little bit more about how he intends to ensure that a service continues to be available nationwide. One advantage of registering county by county is that that's the county in which you have to work.

So, finally, to come to the zero-carbon issues, in the transport strategy last week you mentioned the need for a transition to zero-emission taxis, and I welcomed what you had to say about enabling people to try that out, but can you tell us a little bit more, Minister? I'd be grateful if you can say a bit more about the incentives scheme that's under consideration. Would it, for example, potentially provide support to enable drivers to be able to purchase zero-emissions vehicles, which are of course more expensive at present? Thank you.

16:20

Can I thank Helen Mary Jones for her contribution, which, as always, was extremely constructive? I'm very pleased to answer the questions that she raised.

I'll begin with that final question about the support that may be available for green taxis in the future. Of course, this is a pilot, first and foremost, that will enable taxi drivers, operators, to test green vehicles before they buy them. Ultra-low emission vehicle funding is going to be provided for a number of green taxi pilot schemes in this financial year. We are proposing that the pilots will take place in the Cardiff capital region, in Denbighshire, in Pembrokeshire and in Ceredigion, and then incorporate many of the priority areas that are included in the transforming towns initiative as well. So, we're trying to align quite a few policy areas in this regard.

Longer term schemes for incentivising the uptake of zero-emission taxis and vehicles are going to be investigated, such as options for grants, options for improving the terms of leasing schemes, but it's going to depend very much on the evaluation of the pilots, and, of course, I have to say that the degree to which we're able to offer support will depend on the availability of financial resource. But I am excited by this particular area of work, and I think that those pilot schemes can offer some valuable information and intelligence that will then shape the scale of the intervention that's required.

I'd agree entirely with Helen Mary Jones that many people rely incredibly heavily on taxis and private hire vehicles, particularly people who either don't have access to other forms of public transport in, for example, rural areas, and also, crucially, people who face disabling barriers in society. And yet also, alongside this, we know that, in some local authority areas, there are as few as 5 per cent of taxis and private hire vehicles that can accommodate wheelchair users. And often, we know from the reports back that have been commissioned by Welsh Government, people who face disabling barriers in society often face additional challenges in terms of being overcharged, and the customer service experience can sometimes not be what we would certainly expect. And so there are many barriers that we have to either bring down or overcome in order to make sure that the taxi and private hire vehicle industry is meeting the needs of disabled people. 

In terms of the sector itself and our engagement, as I said a little earlier, I met with the Wales TUC, with Unite, with the GMB last week to discuss the challenges that taxi drivers are facing right now during the pandemic. And, as a result of that meeting, I asked for a number of pieces of urgent work to be undertaken—one to gather the data concerning the third phase of the economic resilience fund, because the third phase was developed very much with taxi drivers in mind. That's why we developed that £25 million discretionary grant element. And so I've asked for feedback from local authorities as to how many grants have been applied for by taxi drivers, and for the unions themselves to ensure that their members are getting information about the various support schemes that are on offer—those discretionary schemes, the discretionary assistance fund scheme, for example, the self-employment support scheme, which is still not being accessed by thousands and thousands of self-employed people in Wales. So that data is going to be gathered. I've also asked for various other pieces of work to be undertaken, including of course how we may be able to supply valuable PPE to taxi drivers. The big challenge in regard to PPE is not so much how we go about securing sufficient PPE for the industry and drivers, but actually how we make sure we get it to the drivers—how they're receiving that PPE, that it's being utilised by taxi operators.

And it's an interesting point that Helen Mary Jones makes about the difference and the distinction between private hire vehicles and taxis. I think Helen Mary Jones makes an important point—that some people will obviously know what the distinctions are and that standards for taxis are considered higher than for private hire vehicles, and in particular around public safety. There are serious concerns that flow from some of the reports that were commissioned regarding the way that certain people have been treated. For example, both the Jay and the Casey reports on child sex exploitation in Rotherham highlighted that there were examples of taxi drivers being directly linked with children that were being abused, including instances where children were picked up from schools, children's homes or from family homes and abused or sexually exploited in exchange for free taxi rides. And so I can assure Helen Mary Jones and every Member today that the standards are only going to go one way—they will be improved. And that is absolutely essential in the interests of public safety, especially for the most vulnerable people in our society. 

Helen Mary Jones also raised the question about the national database and national standards. I think it's absolutely vital that standards are maintained at the highest possible level on a national basis so that we don't get the sort of cross-border issues that we experience now. And I think there will be a very strong local element to the operation of the regime as we propose it, particularly at a local authority but also at a corporate joint committee level. And local authorities are fully engaged in our consultations and in shaping the legislation, and of course they've been fully involved. They've been co-writing the recommendations, those quick wins that I outlined. And I think that, in terms of maintaining taxi and private hire operations in rural areas, well there is of course already, right now, some market failure in many parts of rural Wales, and that's why community transport schemes have proven to be so important in those areas. And we will go on with our commitment to community transport in rural areas as a vital means of enabling people to access work and access vital services.

16:30

I very much welcome the statement from the Minister this afternoon and welcome very much the proposals that he's discussing for reform of the sector. I think many people are looking forward to this, and I know that many taxi drivers want to see that sort of certainty as well—they want the framework within which they can plan their businesses over the coming years.

This has been an enormously difficult year for taxi drivers. It's been an enormously difficult year for the whole industry, and we’ve seen many people walk away from it because they simply cannot afford to carry on through this pandemic. I very much welcome what you said, Minister, about the discretionary fund and the economic resilience fund, and I hope that as much of that funding as possible can reach taxi drivers who are having, probably, the worst year of their professional careers.

In terms of taking this forward, I think there are two things we need to do in order to ensure that taxis form a part of the transport picture in the future. First of all, I think Government needs to do more to recognise taxis as a part of the overall public transport networks around different communities. You've spoken about rural areas and rural communities in the previous answer, but this is also true in urban Wales as well. For example, we've had the opening of the Grange hospital in Cwmbran over the last week, and it would be useful if taxis, for example, were a part of the recognised public transport network connecting our communities and patients with that hospital, and I'd like to see some more about how the Government will make that happen. 

And secondly, and perhaps more importantly in terms of the long term, I would like to see a taxi development fund established by the Welsh Government to enable local taxi drivers to compete with the technologically driven giants that are becoming dominant in the industry. It's going to be impossible for local taxi drivers to compete with Uber in the future unless they have help and support, and that means a development fund that enables taxi drivers to invest in their vehicles, but also to invest in the sort of technology that will connect them to their customers of the future as well.

So, I hope that we can take both these things forward and ensure that we have the regulatory environment, the funding available to ensure that taxi drivers are able to survive the pandemic, and then also the development that will enable them to form a part of the public transport networks of the future. Thank you.