Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd

Plenary - Fifth Senedd

09/03/2021

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 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 need to set out a few points. A meeting held by video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and these are noted on your agenda. I would also remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting. 

13:30
1. Questions to the First Minister

The first item is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Janet Finch-Saunders. 

A Recovery Plan for Businesses

1. Will the First Minister make a statement on delivering a COVID-19 recovery plan for businesses? OQ56423

Llywydd, to assist business recovery from COVID-19, the Welsh Government has provided the most generous package of support anywhere in the United Kingdom. On Wednesday last, the finance Minister announced that our 100 per cent business rate relief scheme, which supports over 70,000 businesses, will continue for the whole of the next financial year.

Thank you. Our strong Prime Minister has provided much certainty and support for our businesses. Only last week, our UK Government extended the coronavirus job retention scheme size and the VAT reduced rate of 5 per cent to the tourism and hospitality sectors. I am sure you will be enthusiastic to join with me and acknowledge that our UK Government's action has saved jobs and businesses in Wales, protecting nearly 400,000 livelihoods, supporting more than 100,000 self-employed people and backing over 50,000 businesses with loans. In fact, our Prime Minister has gone a step further than you, because whilst he's provided a road map out of lockdown for England, you continue to fail to deliver for Wales. Despite the concerns I raised with you in committee on 11 February about the need for clarity as to when hospitality might be opening, we have been left to focus on your tier system, which has completely collapsed, because it is noted that to be in level 3, there should be a confirmed case rate of more than 150 cases per 100,000. Last week, Wales recorded a rolling seven-day average of 57, and is already down now to 44. Do you agree with me that it is really, really awful what you are doing to businesses in Wales by refusing to provide a clear road map out of lockdown and not adhering to your own tier system? Thank you. 

Llywydd, I welcome all the support that the UK Government has provided to businesses in Wales, and have done so since the earliest days of the pandemic. Of course, here in Wales we have provided hundreds of millions of pounds over and above the help that has come to Wales as a result of those UK efforts. 

I welcome the Member's recognition of the success of the measures that this Welsh Government has taken to bring coronavirus under control, measures which she will remember she and her party vehemently opposed at the time that they were taken. Had we followed her advice then, we certainly wouldn't be in the relatively benign position that we are in Wales today. We will build from that position, mindful all the time of the continuing precariousness of the recovery from coronavirus, and with the circulation here in Wales of the Kent variant of coronavirus particularly to be borne in mind as we reopen our economy. 

On Friday of this week, Llywydd, I will set out further details of how freedoms can be restored in the world of business, in our personal lives, providing priority as ever for our children and young people, and that will give people the clarity they need, with the realism that is required as well.  

First Minister, whatever your plans for helping Welsh businesses, will you ensure that they are fair and equitable? I've previously raised the plight of high-street arcades, which your Government refuses to help. These businesses have suffered the same losses as other leisure businesses, and yet you are denying them any recourse to business support. Welsh Government will gladly collect their business rates, yet do not want to help these businesses stay afloat. Like other businesses in the leisure sector, their costs have continued to spiral, but, as they remain closed, they have no income. Without support, these businesses could close permanently, with the loss of many jobs, and these jobs are for their employees who will eventually bear the brunt of all of this. Their plight is now desperate, so will you please reconsider your position? Diolch. 

13:35

Well, Llywydd, it has been the aim of the Welsh Government throughout the pandemic to use the funding that we have to fill the gaps in the help that comes from the UK Government. It simply isn't possible with the funding we have to fill every single gap that exists. Nevertheless, £1.9 billion has left the coffers of the Welsh Government and is already in the hands of businesses here in Wales—tens of thousands of businesses, in every part of our country, benefiting from the schemes that the Welsh Government has put in place and the speed at which that help has left us and arrived with businesses themselves. The Welsh Government has set aside £200 million in our budget for the next financial year to be able to continue the support that we provide to Welsh businesses. And as we do that, we always review the schemes that we have, to see whether it is possible to do more to help more businesses in the future. But ,as I say, our funding has been used always to fill the gaps in the schemes that the UK Government has responsibility for, and it simply isn't possible to extend that to every eventuality.

The 'for Wales, see England' approach that the Conservatives seem to be adopting will actually lead to a reduction in business support, as we've seen over the last year or so. First Minister, in taking forward Wales out of the lockdown—we're able to do this because of the success, of course, of the approach taken by the Welsh Government—I'm particularly concerned about the support that you will be able to provide to small businesses. There are many businesses in my constituency in Blaenau Gwent who are very grateful for the support that's been provided by the Welsh Government over the last year or so. They're now looking towards beginning to trade again and looking at how they can rebuild their businesses. Is it possible to outline how those smaller businesses will be supported as we move forward over the coming months?

Llywydd, I thank Alun Davies for that. He's absolutely right, of course, as the Welsh Governance Centre report demonstrated only a few weeks ago, that, had we simply followed the schemes that are in place across our border, Welsh businesses would be millions and millions of pounds worse off than they are by being located in Wales, because of the help that we have been able to mobilise for them. And I know the Welsh Conservative Party doesn't like to acknowledge that; it does indeed, as Alun Davies said, have only one prescription for Wales, and that is that we should copy exactly what is done by people across the border—£300 million less would have been available to businesses in Wales. Almost all the help that the Welsh Government provides, of course, goes to small and medium-sized enterprises. We took a very conscious decision not to extend rate relief to businesses with a rateable value of over £500,000, and that released tens and tens of millions of pounds that we have put into the hands of small businesses here in Wales. I know that Alun Davies welcomed the extra £30 million that we announced for the sector-specific fund in leisure, tourism and hospitality only a couple of weeks ago. And the £200 million that we have in reserve, which we will use next year, will be targeted at those businesses that exist in every high street here in Wales. And they would, absolutely, as my colleague Alun Davies says, much rather be trading and they'd much rather be earning a living than waiting for the next cheque from the Welsh Government. But while the current pandemic persists, we will make sure that, where they cannot trade, the Welsh Government will step in to assist them.

Access to Further and Higher Education

2. What is the Welsh Government doing to improve access to further and higher education for workers in Wales who might be looking to retrain? OQ56422

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. The Welsh Government has invested £40 million in jobs and skills this year, supporting individuals seeking new or alternative employment or training. Our personal learning account programme helps employed people improve their skills or reskill in priority sectors, delivering learning flexibly around each individual’s existing work and other commitments, and doing so through colleges right across Wales.

13:40

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. I was very pleased to see in your Government's budget the commitment to expand the personal learning account programme. Now, this programme, as you say, provides vital support to employed workers, but also those furloughed workers and individuals at risk of redundancy. We know one of the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic has been the loss of jobs and the greater hesitancy of businesses to invest, which would have created new jobs and offered greater opportunities for those seeking employment. The Welsh Government scheme to support people getting higher level skills and qualifications in priority sectors now prepares our workforce for a range of opportunities as we see the economy recover. Could you, therefore, provide an update on this fund and how it will be delivered to those individuals? 

Llywydd, I thank David Rees for that important question. I know that my colleague Rebecca Evans, as finance Minister, was very keen to find additional funding for the personal learning account programme—£5.4 million additional funding there—because of the outstanding success it has already been. And, as David Rees said, Llywydd, for workers it provides courses and qualifications that are fully funded by the Welsh Government, organised to be manageable around those individuals' existing commitments. They're available regardless of previous qualifications, and 3,000 people have already started personal learning account courses and we have 6,000 and more applications for the scheme.

And for employers, Llywydd, it offers a flexible and responsive scheme designed to overcome current and future skill shortages, sector specific, aimed at new and high growth areas in the green economy, engineering, construction, the digital economy and in advanced manufacturing. And in that way, as David Rees says, we will develop a pool of skilled and committed workers ready to take advantage of those new opportunities and attracting those new opportunities into parts of Wales, creating the jobs of the future. 

Even before the pandemic, First Minister, I'm sure you would agree that the shape of the global economy was changing, which is why, in recognition of this, the Welsh Conservatives, in addition to ReAct, will introduce a second chance fund to help anyone of any age to pursue level 3 qualifications in college to help them move from the low pay, low skills trap up the career ladder no matter where they started. And that's the thinking behind our plans for scaling up of degree apprenticeships as well. Do you not agree, though, that routes to excellence have narrowed under this Welsh Government and, instead of funnelling everyone through Master's degrees, we should be looking at aptitudes and attitudes to ensure more people in Wales get the skills they need to succeed personally and to believe that they play a valuable role in helping our country to prosper?

Well, I agree with what the Member says about the changing nature of the global economy and the need for Government to go on investing in the skills that our workforce will need to face that future. I don't, of course, agree at all with what the Member said about narrowing opportunities. Opportunities over the last five years have extended enormously because of the changes that we have made in higher education. Following the Diamond review, we have record numbers of students in higher education in Wales, particularly opening up opportunities for people wanting to undertake part-time study on a level that is not replicated anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

I'm glad to have the support of the Welsh Conservatives for the Welsh Government's degree apprenticeship programme: £20 million invested in this innovative programme during recent years, 200 employers involved in it and 600 students. It's just another example of innovative ways in which this Welsh Government has expanded opportunities, alongside the personal learning accounts that David Rees referred to—a whole range of ways in which people in Wales now have access to opportunities for reskilling and upskilling that will make sure that, when those opportunities become available, we have a workforce here in Wales ready to take advantage of them. 

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from the party leaders. The leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies. 

Thank you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, what is your view of the situation involving Liberty Steel and its associated companies, and its likely impact on jobs here in Wales?

13:45

I'm not going to speculate on the future of Liberty Steel—a very important company here in Wales, and one that the Welsh Government has supported in the past. I have a letter in front of me from Mr Gupta, the executive chair of GFG Alliance, which is the parent company of Liberty Steel, written to my colleague Ken Skates on 4 March, so at the end of last week, in which Mr Gupta sets out the trading position of Liberty Steel and reinforces the commitment that GFG has to Wales. We as a Government will continue to work with the company and with the steel sector more generally to secure the future that we are confident, in the right conditions and in the right way, the steel industry has here in Wales.

I agree with you, First Minister; Liberty Steel is an important player here in Wales, and that's the reason for the question. It's important to understand what financial support has been made available to Liberty Steel in the past and whether any additional support, given that you've alluded to a letter being delivered from the company to the economy Minister, has been requested by the company to secure its operations in Wales. Can you inform us whether there's an offer on the table at the moment from the Welsh Government to support Liberty Steel's operations or associated companies here in Wales?

The letter from Liberty Steel did not request additional funding from the Welsh Government; that wasn't the purpose of the correspondence. The purpose of the correspondence was to set out the difficulties that Greensill, the financial provider to GFG Alliance, has experienced, but to put on the table as well the strong current trading position of Liberty Steel Group. Steel prices in Europe are currently trading at a 13-year high and the aluminium market is more buoyant than it has been for some time past. In his letter, Mr Gupta makes it plain that factories that the alliance owns in these fields are operating at full capacity to meet high demand and generating positive cash flows. What the letter demonstrates, I think, is the close relationship that has existed between the company and the Welsh Government, and the confidence that the company wishes to continue to create in its future. We will work alongside the company in order to secure the jobs that it provides here in Wales and in order to secure the future of the sector more generally. 

Talking of support, First Minister, Friday is a notable day, with the latest review of lockdown restrictions here in Wales. Your Minister for mental health and well-being has said that, with lockdown and people in Wales, if you give an inch, they'll take a mile. Can I first check whether this is your assessment? Do you agree with her? Or do you take my assessment that it's the hard work of the people of Wales over this lockdown period that will allow you, now, to lift some of these restrictions? Can you confirm what type of announcements we might be looking at on Friday, in particular around non-essential retail? Will you be opening up gyms like the Minister for well-being has previously suggested? And will you, as you alluded to in the press over the last few days, be lifting the stay-at-home rule and introducing a five-mile rule, like we saw last summer?

I'm afraid the leader of the opposition will have to wait until Friday. That is when the three-week cycle ends. The Cabinet will continue to discuss the package of measures that we will be able to propose then during the remainder of this week. But he's right to say that at the end of the last three-week review, I said that I hoped that this will be the last three weeks in which we have to ask people in Wales to stay at home and that we would be able to move beyond that. I said then as well that we would continue to make the return to education as quickly and as safely as possible for our children our top priority, and that, alongside that, we would look to find ways of allowing people to do more in their personal lives and to begin the reopening of new aspects of the Welsh economy. That continues to be the list of issues that we discuss as a Cabinet and I'm looking forward to being able to make announcements on that on Friday.

The fact that numbers in Wales of people suffering from coronavirus continue to go down, the fact that the stress and strain on our health service is reducing in the way that it is—that is undoubtedly the achievement that belongs to people here in Wales, for everything that they have done to abide by the difficult ask that we have made of them during recent weeks, in order to bring this latest wave of the pandemic under control. As we lift restrictions, I will once again be appealing to people in Wales not to approach this by asking themselves, 'How far can the rules be stretched, what is the most that I can get away with as restrictions are lifted?' We continue to face a public health emergency. Nobody knows how the Kent variant will react as we begin to restore aspects of our daily lives. I will be appealing once again to people in Wales to ask themselves the question not, 'What can I do?' but, 'What should I do in order to go on making my contribution to keeping myself, others and the whole of Wales safe?'

13:50

First Minister, upon winning your party's leadership election in December 2018, you said that, in a fractured world, Members of the Senedd should strive for 'a kinder sort of politics'. Last week, your Labour colleague and leader of Neath Port Talbot council, Rob Jones, was forced to step aside after a recording emerged of him making despicable comments about our fellow Senedd Member Bethan Sayed. Yesterday marked International Women's Day, with this year's theme, 'choose to challenge', encouraging people to challenge stereotypes and bias wherever they arise in order to effect change. With that in mind, will you place on record your condemnation of Councillor Jones's remarks, and choose to challenge his appalling misogyny? And, should his temporary resignation, in your view, be permanent?

I was concerned to read accounts of what Councillor Jones had said, and I'm sure that he has done the right thing in stepping aside from the leadership of Neath Port Talbot council while those remarks are properly investigated by the monitoring officer and by the ombudsman here in Wales. That's why he has been suspended from his membership of the Labour Party while those inquiries can be completed. I think that it would be sensible for anyone to await the outcome of those inquiries before drawing conclusions about what should happen next. But I'm sure that Councillor Jones was right to step down from the leadership of the council and to refer himself to the monitoring officer and to the public services ombudsman. We will now await the outcome of those inquiries.

But surely, First Minister, even now you can issue an outright condemnation of his remarks. The recording also reveals a sinister way of going about politics, doesn't it? He, astonishingly, alludes to favouring projects supported by Labour councillors for public funding. Citing the example of Alltygrug cemetery in Ystalyfera, he talks about telling officers to go and search down behind the back of the sofa to pay for a project that, he boasts, resulted in people turning to the Labour Party. I have written to the auditor general, First Minister, requesting that he not only investigates the remarks made by Councillor Jones in the recording, but also ensures that robust checks and balances are in place to safeguard against the potential misuse of public funds for party political purposes in Welsh public authorities. Would you support such an investigation?  

It is important that investigations are carried out, and it's important that those investigations are allowed to come to their own conclusions, rather than politicians on the floor of the Senedd anticipating those conclusions and asking others to agree with the conclusions at which they have apparently already arrived. There's no place for misogyny in any part of Welsh life or in any political party. I remember that Mr Price himself launched an inquiry into misogyny in Plaid Cymru in June or July of 2019. I have looked to see if I can find the result of that inquiry, but I have not been able to locate it myself, and that may simply be because I've not looked in the right place. But just as he was right, I'm sure, to have that inquiry carried out in his party, so it is right that the allegations that have been made against Councillor Jones should be investigated, and certainly the results of those inquiries will be made public.

13:55

I just ask him finally: could you admit that the words used by Councillor Jones to describe Bethan Sayed are absolutely appalling? You have all the information, surely, that anyone needs to make that statement now.

In last week's budget, the UK Government faced fierce criticism for the way in which its so-called levelling-up fund favoured Conservative constituencies. In the first tranche of funding, 39 of the 45 areas due to receive support are represented by Conservative Members of Parliament. As my colleague Liz Saville Roberts put it,

'our public money is being snatched for the budget of Tory bungs.'

The revelations that have come to light as part of the Neath Port Talbot saga have worrying echoes of this, First Minister. Are you confident that the case of Neath Port Talbot is not just the tip of the iceberg, and that Wales doesn't have its own problem of cash for colleagues on Labour's watch?

I condemn misogyny wherever it is to be found. I think it is right that there should be inquiries into those matters, and I think that it is right that those inquiries should then be made public. That will happen in the case of Councillor Jones, and I think that that applies as much to his party as it does to mine.

Trying to deduce a generalised smear from one incident to what happens right across Wales does not seem to me to be a sensible or proportionate way of responding to that. I took the precaution, thinking that this might be raised this afternoon, to look at the record of the Welsh Government in the way that we use funds right across Wales. Let me just give him a few results of that. In fact, I'll focus for a time just on one, the twenty-first century schools programme—a major Government programme, providing schools and colleges fit for the twenty-first century. There are 25 schools in Plaid Cymru-controlled Carmarthenshire, 11 schools in independent-controlled Pembrokeshire, nine schools in Plaid Cymru-controlled Ceredigion, 18 in Plaid Cymru-controlled Gwynedd, 14 in Plaid Cymru-controlled Ynys Môn and 14 in Conservative-controlled Conwy. The record of the Welsh Government stands up to examination in every scheme that we have, and there is no possible implication that could be drawn, for the way in which funds are used by this Welsh Government, on party political lines. We do so always on open, transparent and needs-based criteria. That is the right and proper way.

The levelling-up fund, to which Adam Price referred, is the opposite of that. That will now be in the hands of the Secretary of State in the communities, local government and housing department of the UK Government, a department that knows very little of Wales, and there's no-one here to assist them to find out more. I remember what the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons said about out the Secretary of State when he awarded towns fund funding to 60 out of 61 constituencies in England that were either Conservative marginals or on the list of seats that the Conservative party hoped to win at an election. That is a very worrying precedent, and one very different to the way in which this Welsh Labour Government goes about using public funds in Wales.

The Economic Potential of Newport

3. What further steps will the Welsh Government take to fully realise the economic potential of Newport? OQ56414

I thank John Griffiths for that question. The Welsh Government continues to work closely with the local authority and others in Newport to support initiatives that promote economic potential in the city, from the Market Arcade development to the Chartist Tower refurbishment and the visitor facilities at Newport's landmark transporter bridge.

Diolch yn fawr, First Minister. The steel industry remains a very important part of Newport's economy, with Tata Steel at Llanwern, for example, and also, of course, Liberty Steel at Uskmouth. We know, First Minister, that if the UK as a whole is going to have the sort of industrial future it deserves, steel must play an important part in that as a strategic sector. And we also know that organisations like Liberty Steel are taking forward green and sustainable steel policies that will enable that strong future for the steel industry. As was mentioned earlier in these questions, First Minister, there is a current financing difficulty for Liberty Steel. Greensill Capital has gone into administration, and they were Liberty Steel's main financial backers, so there's a need now for refinancing, which the company is taking forward, and there was a meeting with the unions to discuss matters this morning. First Minister, as far as Welsh Government is concerned, are you able to assure me that Welsh Government will stay in very close communication with the company, with the trade unions and, indeed, with UK Government, to make sure that this plant in Newport has a strong future? It is performing strongly, it is sustainable, and it's part of that strong steel sector that we want to see continuing in Wales.

14:00

Well, Llywydd, I completely agree with John Griffiths on the importance of the steel sector—a strategic sector, a sector that has needed greater help from the UK Government than it has received during the pandemic. I was glad that there was a meeting of the Steel Council on Friday of last week; there's been far too long a gap between the last meeting of the council and this one. But it was well attended—attended by Ken Skates on behalf of the Welsh Government, and representatives from the Scottish Government and Northern Ireland, as well as the UK Government, the trade unions and others. So, it's good that the Steel Council is meeting again. The Welsh Government will play a full part in the council. We will make the case for steel making here in Wales, including the developments, as John Griffiths said, that have been very important in Newport. The innovative work that Liberty Steel has undertaken, the plans that Tata Steel, I know, are very keen to continue to discuss with the UK Government in order to secure a long-term and green future for that industry, as well, and the Welsh Government will do everything we can, as we always have, to support the steel industry, and call on other partners with other parts to play, to make sure that they are equally engaged.

Can I concur completely with the sentiments just expressed in terms of the need of providing a sustainable steel industry across Wales?

Can I widen this out into the fortunes of the wider Newport economy and south-east Wales economy—the Monmouthshire economy, I should say—both of which are dependent on a modern sustainable transport infrastructure? I wonder if you could update us on the development of the south Wales metro, where we are with that, and, specifically, whether the potential for a metro hub at the Celtic Manor, which I have raised before with the economy Minister—the economy and transport Minister—has been discussed with relevant stakeholders. A hub at that point within the metro system would provide the missing link between Newport railway station and towns in my constituency, such as Monmouth, which, after 6 o'clock, are very much cut off from the Newport transport infrastructure. So, I wonder if you could update us on the development of the metro.

Llywydd, I thank Nick Ramsay for that question, and despite the challenges that the pandemic period have thrown up, the Welsh Government's plans for the south Wales metro remain there, remain funded and remain as ambitious as they have always been. I will ask my colleague Ken Skates to update the Member on the specific issue of the Celtic Manor connection to the metro.FootnoteLink

Alongside that, Llywydd, we're looking forward to the publication of the Peter Hendry UK connectivity review, to which the Welsh Government provided evidence, and to which Lord Burns, as chair of the Burns commission, provided evidence as well, because alongside the metro for the economy of south-east Wales and Monmouthshire, we need the UK Government to commit to the upgrading of that second line that already exists, with plans for the Burns commission set out in detail—six new stations potentially along it—making a great deal of difference to connectivity in that part of Wales, and with a real opportunity in the connectivity review for the UK Government to demonstrate its commitment to connectivity between south-east Wales and our trading partners across the border, and to do it according to a plan that has already been drawn up, and very convincingly articulated. 

14:05
Cadw

4. What assessment has the First Minister made of the performance of Cadw across North Wales? OQ56393

Llywydd, Cadw continues to discharge its statutory responsibilities, and to sustain its custodianship of sites across Wales, in ways which observe the restrictions made necessary by the coronavirus emergency.

Thank you. First Minister, Kinmel Hall was in the headlines again recently. It's been dubbed the Welsh Versailles, but has fallen into dangerous disrepair, and this piece of Welsh heritage is at very serious risk of being lost forever, despite being a grade I listed building. I see that one of Cadw's first priorities is caring for the historic environment. First Minister, what is the point of the listing system and what is the point of Cadw if neither serve to protect Wales's heritage? Thank you.

Llywydd, I thank Mandy Jones for that, and I share her concerns about Kinmel Hall and the reports of the deterioration in the state of the building that I and she will have read in reports. The position though is this, isn't it: Kinmel Hall is a privately owned facility; it's not in public ownership. Cadw has discharged its responsibility, which is to list the building. After that, it is for the local authority—it's the local authority that has the responsibility to make sure that the building is maintained in a state that matches the listing that Cadw has awarded to it. And the local authority has the power to issue statutory repairs and urgent works notices. Now, I understand that, while the current owners in the past have been reluctant to recognise the need for action to address the state of the building, in more recent times, there has been a greater appetite on their part to take the steps that are necessary, and that Conwy County Borough Council is in discussions with them to make sure that those steps are undertaken. Cadw remains involved, but in a supporting role to the local planning authority, providing them with options that are available in protecting the business—the building, I beg your pardon. But it is not Cadw's responsibility, once the listing has been carried out, to make sure that the building is kept in a proper state of repair. That is the responsibility of the owners, and where the owners are in default of that responsibility, it's for the local authority to step up and make sure that the actions that ought to be taken are taken.

First Minister, I've listened very carefully to your answer in respect of Kimnel Hall, which, as you will be aware, is in my constituency. It is a very precious building, it's a very important part of our national heritage as a nation, and, of course, the Welsh Government does have the ability to be able to step in, acquire this building, and to make sure that it is protected for future generations. As you will know, Cadw do not only work with local authorities and list buildings, they actually do act as custodian for many important historical buildings across Wales. So, my constituents would like to see the Welsh Government and Cadw working with both the local authority and the current owners, but where those current owners do not have the appetite or the resources to protect this building for future generations, can I ask: will the Welsh Government consider stepping in and acquiring this building as part of our national heritage? It is Wales's largest country home, it is known as the Versailles of Wales, and it does deserve that extra level of protection that other buildings that might be in a similar dilapidated state don't require. So, can you step in if the need arises?

14:10

Llywydd, I thank Darren Millar for that contribution, and I share a lot of what he has said about the significance of Kinmel Hall, its importance to Wales as a whole. Where Cadw has responsibility for the upkeep of monuments, buildings and sites, it is because those sites are in public ownership, and Kinmel Hall is not in public ownership, it has private owners, and as far as I am aware, those owners have never shown an appetite for the building to be taken out of their ownership and acquired by the Government on behalf of the Welsh population more generally. It would be a very big step, wouldn't it, for the Government to compulsorily remove a building from private ownership, and that would not be my preferred course of action. If there is an appetite on the part of the owners for a different ownership model in future, then, of course, the Welsh Government would be part of that conversation. We're not the only possibility there, of course. I know Darren Millar will be very well aware of the National Trust's operation here in Wales, and there are a number of ways in which privately-owned buildings can make their way into wider forms of ownership with different levels of custodianship for the future.

Unallocated Funding

5. Will the First Minister make a statement on the use of unallocated funding included in last year’s annual budget? OQ56385

Can I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for that, Llywydd? The third supplementary budget of this financial year, to be debated in the Senedd later this afternoon, completes our fiscal spending plans. From a total available resource of £23.3 billion, 99.6 per cent of that funding has been committed by the Welsh Government as set out in the third supplementary budget. 

First Minister, I thank you for clarifying that, and I asked you this question because Welsh Government, despite allocating what you've just told us was 99.6 per cent of its resource, has continually come under fire from the Tories here in Wales, whilst at the same time their Chancellor in Westminster holds a COVID reserve that currently stands at £19 billion. So, First Minister, it is clear now that if the Welsh Government had run down all its available COVID guarantee by October 2020, as suggested by the Welsh Conservatives in Wales, then you would not have been able to match the firebreak and the Christmas restrictions with the far-reaching business support that was rapidly put into place. Now, if there's one consistency, First Minister, with the Conservative party currently in Wales, it's to feign fury when our Government in Wales makes the right decisions to keep Wales safe, only to fall silent when their party in Westminster follows suit. So, do you agree with me that the Welsh Conservatives are now so far off Rishi Sunak's radar that they feel confident that he won't even notice when they inadvertently attack him and his policies?

Well, Llywydd, I agree with Huw Irranca-Davies. It is surely one thing not to be able to be wise before the event, and that is certainly the record of the Welsh Conservative party, but it's a party that doesn't even manage to be wise after the event, either. Had we taken that party's advice back in October, then, of course, Huw Irranca-Davies is right, we would not have been in a position at all to support Welsh businesses in the way that we have during the remainder of the current financial year. Back in October, we had spent two thirds of our budget at the two-thirds point of this financial year. We had spent three quarters of our budget when we were three quarters of the way through the financial year, and as I said in my original answer, at the end of the financial year, we will have spent 99.6 per cent of all the funding available to the Welsh Government, and that, Llywydd, is a pattern repeated year after year during the whole of the devolution era. Every year, this Welsh Government uses to the maximum the funding that we have available to support businesses and public services here in Wales. And our record compares extraordinarily favourably with UK Government departments, who never manage anything like the same match between funds available and the ability to put it to good use. The record of the Welsh Government here stands up to examination by anybody, and the advice of the Welsh Conservative Party and the nonsense, the absolutely nonsense, that they offered people back in October has been exposed very badly since then by the events that have since unfolded. 

14:15

The Welsh Government's reserve can hold up to £350 million; on 1 April 2020, the balance was at £335.9 million. Three weeks ago, the Welsh Government and UK Government agreed additional flexibility, beyond the Wales reserve, going into 2021-22, enabling the Welsh Government to carry over any unallocated element of the extra £650 million provided by the UK Government into the 2021-22 financial year, on top of the existing provision to transfer funding between years. This financial year, the Welsh Government is carrying forward around £660.2 million of extra 2020-21 funding to 2021-22. The Finance Committee has recommended the Welsh Government publish an outturn report for 2020-21, with a similar level of detail to that for 2019-20. So, how does the Welsh Government respond to this, and how will you ensure additional transparency regarding Welsh Government budgets where, for example, the Welsh Government has failed to allocate any of the extra UK Government funding, unlike Scotland, meaning that you have failed to allocate £1.3 billion in the budget your Government is announcing today?

Well, Llywydd, I don't think this Government will need any lessons from the Member on additional transparency. This is the third supplementary budget that we have laid during this financial year. It sets out in absolute detail all the way in which the funding that is available to the Welsh Government has been used. His Government, his Government in Westminster, did not publish a single supplementary budget, and it was only when, very late in the year, many weeks later than they promised, when the estimates were produced, that the additional funding was provided and, sensibly at last, the Treasury agreed that it was too late in the financial year for that money to be sensibly used and that it could be carried forward into the next financial year. That is exactly, therefore, what my colleague Rebecca Evans proposes to do. 

We have reported faithfully and regularly on every spending decision that we have made to the Senedd, quite unlike the performance of his party at the UK level. Of course we will publish an outturn report. That happens every year, as a matter of course. We have to report on the final outcome of our budget, and we will do exactly that. It's a great disappointment to me that the Chancellor refused, and continues to refuse, to allow us any additional flexibility with our own money, Llywydd. That is what we have asked for when it comes to the Welsh reserve. We haven't asked for a single extra penny from the Chancellor; we have simply asked that the money that we have as a Government can be managed by us in a way that would maximise the value of that public money at the end of the financial year. Instead, we continue to be treated by the UK Government as though we were simply another Government department, rather than a Government and a Senedd in our own right. And I think that is just another example of the way the UK Government continues to refuse to recognise the realities of the United Kingdom 20 years into devolution. 

Question 6, Lynne Neagle.

I can't hear you at this point, Lynne Neagle. I can see that you're unmuted, but are you hard muted on your—?

The Wellbeing of Children and Young People

6. What steps will the First Minister take to ensure that the wellbeing of children and young people is prioritised when considering the easing of lockdown restrictions? OQ56425

Llywydd, can I thank Lynne Neagle for that question and for her persistent interest and support for this whole area? Our priority when easing restrictions is to get as many children and young people back as possible as safely as possible back into face-to-face education. As conditions improve, we will explore how supervised outdoor activities can also resume for children in Wales.

14:20

Thank you, First Minister. As you know, COVID rarely causes serious illness in children and young people, but we do know the pandemic has had a huge impact on their learning, on their mental health and on other aspects of their physical health. I very much support the cautious approach to easing lockdown restrictions, and an approach where we continue to follow scientific evidence and advice. I am however very concerned that decisions in the coming days to ease other restrictions will remove the vital headroom necessary to return children to school fully. What assurances can the First Minister give that ensuring that all children can return to school on 15 April after Easter will remain his top priority, and what assurances can he give that future decisions on lockdown easing will have at their very heart the need to to maintain the headroom necessary for children to return to school? And can I also ask whether the First Minister is planning to publish an updated child rights impact assessment in order to align with the latest review of restrictions? Thank you.

Llywydd, I thank Lynne Neagle for that question, and for all the work that she has done in chairing the children and young persons committee at the Senedd, which has made such a contribution to the way in which we have been able to approach these challenging issues. The top priority for the Welsh Government remains to get our children and young people back into face-to-face education, doing it as quickly but as safely as we can, and that is why we have developed the step-by-step approach, because that is what the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, our own technical advisory cell group and the chief medical officer have always said to us. So, we already have around 30 per cent of children back in school as a result of the return of the foundation phase. On Monday of next week, we will return all primary age children to face-to-face education, examination students in secondary school, and she will have seen and welcomed, I know, the additional flexibilities that the education Minister has proposed for local education authorities and headteachers to bring more children back into school before the Easter holidays. We will look to use the headroom we have to restore some other aspects of Welsh life, but we always do that with a close attention to not doing anything that would impede our ability to return the whole of our children and young people to school immediately after the Easter holidays, and I can give her that assurance that that is always the lens through which we regard the other aspects that we do hope to be able to make some preliminary progress on after this Friday's review is concluded. In the meantime, we will publish all the impact assessments and supporting documents that we have developed over the last 12 months, as we complete this three-week review.

Investment in Capital Projects

7. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to protect its investment in capital projects? OQ56426

Llywydd, the Welsh Government makes every effort to maximise the value of its capital investments, in line with best practice for the stewardship of public money.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. If Welsh Government hadn't just given Cardiff Airport a £42.6 million grant, it could have recruited 1,000 new NHS nurses and paid them for two years. Recently, the transport Minister blamed the COVID pandemic for the need to write off £40 million of debt that the airport owes to the Welsh taxpayer and award them this further eye-wateringly large grant, but it isn't COVID that is responsible for this, is it? Cardiff Airport has never made a profit under Government ownership, and in the year up to last March—when, according to Mr Skates, it had the highest passenger numbers ever going through the airport—it made its biggest loss ever, even when you take into account the one-off expenditure for that year. It's true that COVID has tipped all our airports into making a loss, but Cardiff was already making big losses before, losing the taxpayer £20 million a year. Passenger numbers aren't expected to recover to pre-COVID levels for more than three years, so, for the foreseeable future, you will have to grant Cardiff Airport at least £20 million a year, the same amount of money as a further year's salary for those 1,000 extra nurses you could have recruited instead. This isn't just a bad deal for north Wales, it's a bad deal for the entire country. Isn't it the case, First Minister, that you're keeping Cardiff Airport in public ownership for political reasons, because you're too embarrassed to admit that it's never going to be viable and you should never have invested a single penny of Welsh people's money into it in the first place? The latest bail-out for Cardiff Airport is so unsound commercially that even the Development Bank of Wales, which deliberately takes greater risk than the market, wouldn't have lent it any money. So, First Minister, is the sky the limit for the amount of good money after bad you're prepared to throw at Cardiff Airport, or will you now protect Welsh public money, stop funding the airport, and spend it on improving the Welsh NHS instead?

14:25

Llywydd, I don't share the Member's hostility to Cardiff Airport. Her account was as mistaken as it was lengthy. In fact, from top to bottom she misrepresents both the case for investment in Cardiff Airport, the success of that investment, and she is just—. It is just so basically mistaken to assert that the money that has been provided for Cardiff Airport could be used in the Welsh NHS. It's simply not available in that way, and the simplest—the simplest—understanding of how funding operates would have prevented her from making that mistake. Because it's not a mistake, is it? It's just a political assertion that she tries to make. She's wrong about the airport, she's wrong about the funding, and I don't think anybody who has the interests of Wales at heart would be prepared to follow her in the argument she's made. 

Cardiff Airport

8. Will the First Minister make a statement on the future of Cardiff Airport? OQ56388

Ah, well, I thank Carwyn Jones for that question on Cardiff Airport. The global aviation industry has been catastrophically affected by the global pandemic. Here we have acted decisively to help secure Cardiff Airport's future, to ensure that it has a sustainable future and to protect the value of the public investment in the airport.

I thank the First Minister for his answer. I listened to the long question from Michelle Brown. The truth is, of course, that more than 5,000 jobs are dependent on Cardiff Airport, and Anglesey Airport's existence is dependent on Cardiff Airport, but, for Michelle Brown, these jobs are in the wrong part of Wales to be important, and that is the impression that I got. Cardiff Airport was doing very well indeed until the COVID outbreak.

But help me with this, if you would, First Minister. The Welsh Conservatives, through their Government in London, have provided help to airports in England, but they condemn our Welsh Government because it has provided help to our airports in Wales. Can you help me as to why they hold those double standards? Or is it because, deep within the psyche of the Conservative Party, woven into their DNA, together with their fellow travellers like Michelle Brown, there is a strong desire to see Wales fail?

Well, Llywydd, the Scottish Government has provided help for Scottish airports, the Northern Ireland Executive has provided support to Belfast airport; the UK Government declined to provide support for Cardiff Airport. It provided support for Bristol Airport, which it had always told us was a direct competitor to Cardiff, the reason why it wasn't possible to devolve air passenger duty to Wales. The Welsh Government has stepped in to protect the national asset that is Cardiff Airport. As Carwyn Jones has said, Llywydd, the airport had been on a strongly improving trajectory as a result of the actions that he took when he was First Minister in making sure that the asset that Cardiff Airport has to be to the Welsh economy was preserved for Welsh people. The 5,000 jobs that depend upon the airport more generally, the 2,400 jobs that depend upon it directly—this Welsh Government will not turn our back on the impact that the pandemic has had upon the airport. We will support it, even when others don't. 

The Rhondda Skyline Project

9. Will the First Minister provide an update on support for the Rhondda Skyline project? OQ56421

I thank the Member for that question. Llywydd, the foundational economy challenge fund has supported the Rhondda Skyline project to build on its feasibility study and explore establishing Wales's first landscape-scale, long-term, community land stewardship project around the town of Treherbert.

14:30

First Minister, when the Skyline project was first unveiled, it promised so much. As First Minister, you responded to a question I asked about creating jobs and opportunities in the Rhondda, arguing that the Skyline project was evidence that the Labour Party hadn't forgotten about the Rhondda. In October 2019, you said that you would be prepared to, and I quote: 

'do whatever we can to help that very exciting project to come to fruition.'

Well, the project has been diluted from the community having control over a mooted 650 hectares, to now just 80 hectares, by your Government body, Natural Resources Wales, and as if this isn't disappointing enough, even this watered down, modest project has now been rejected out of hand due to NRW/Welsh Government technical internal issues. Similar schemes are run successfully in many countries around the world. There are more than 200 land-owning communities in Scotland doing exactly what the Skyline project wants to do, yet it seems that a model of community economic control of public forestry land cannot get off the ground properly here in Wales. 

Why is the Labour-run Welsh Government unable to do this? Can you tell us what's gone wrong with this project?

Well, Llywydd, I'm disappointed to find the Member so keen to pronounce the end of the project. I met with senior officials on all of this yesterday morning. I can assure her that the discussions are not at an end. Discussions are taking place between NRW and the project. Those discussions do have to take into account the advice that NRW has had from the Wales Audit Office; she wouldn't expect them to do anything less. There is a further meeting planned today between NRW and the project. I think she's premature, Llywydd, and I think it doesn't help to rush to a conclusion in the way that she has.

I visited the Skyline project and was very impressed by the people I met and the plans that they had. I'm very glad that the Welsh Government has provided £95,000 through the foundational economy challenge fund to support the project, and I am optimistic that the discussions that continue between the project and NRW will find a way of realising the economic and social benefits that the project offers to people in that part of the Rhondda. 

The Minister responsible, Lesley Griffiths, wrote to NRW in December, telling them that she wanted a future for the project that did exactly that, that allowed the full economic and social benefits that it offers to be realised, and I want those discussions to continue on that basis.

Questions to the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip

The next item is questions to the Deputy Minister, and the first question is from Mike Hedges.

The Human Rights of Disabled People

1. What action is the Welsh Government taking to protect the human rights of disabled people? OQ56381

Thank you very much for that question, Mike Hedges. The Welsh Government is committed to leading the way in eliminating discrimination towards disabled people. Our disability equality forum has led the way in highlighting the impact of COVID-19 on disabled people during the pandemic.

I thank the Minister for that response. People with a disability, especially those with hidden disabilities like arthritis, multiple sclerosis, myalgic encephalomyelitis and deafness, often feel overlooked. What is the Welsh Government doing to ensure that more support can be given to people who have these types of disabilities to ensure they are not disadvantaged?

I recognise the significant challenges, as the Member said, that people living with conditions like MS, ME, arthritis and deafness face. And, also, the additional impact, of course, that COVID has had on carers, friends and families. I know the Member recognises the social model of disability, which the Welsh Government is committed to using, and it makes that important distinction between impairment and disability, recognising that people with impairments are disabled by barriers that commonly exist in society. And we also recognise that not all impairments, as you say, Mike Hedges, are visible, and that hidden impairments must be given the same weighting. And the social model does support those with a hidden disability.

I think it's important to recognise that, in our disability equality forum, we do have a broad membership, including the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, the Wales Council for Deaf People, the MS Society, as well as many other disabled organisations. And we've just employed a network of six disabled people as employment champions, who are going to be working with employers and recognising these hidden impairments, in terms of the barriers and the opportunities we have to overcome them.

14:35
Modern Slavery

2. Will the Deputy Minister make a statement on efforts to prevent modern slavery in north Wales? OQ56405

I thank Rhun ap Iorwerth for that question. We are determined to make all parts of Wales hostile to modern slavery. We are continuing to work with police and crime commissioners and our multi-agency partners in Wales, and across the UK, to protect vulnerable people, and to prevent and put an end to this heinous crime.

Thank you for that response. I had a meeting recently with Soroptimist International on Anglesey, an organisation doing very valuable work in the area of modern slavery and county lines, and raising awareness and so on. They are concerned that the pandemic has made it more difficult to identify modern slavery, with those suffering being more isolated and more hidden from sight during lockdown periods. There's also a risk that economic hardship, as a result of the pandemic, could place more people in a vulnerable position, where they could be open to exploitation. And there's also a concern that the fact that schools are closed makes it more difficult to identify children who've been drawn into county lines. So, can I ask what study the Welsh Government has made of the impact of the pandemic on modern slavery, and what measures are being put in place in order to help victims on the one hand, and to prevent criminals on the other?

I thank the Member for that important question. The fact that organisations like Soroptimist International are coming forward and taking this as an issue for which they're concerned and seeking evidence, and making representations to tackle modern slavery—. Of course, there is a cross-party group on human trafficking, chaired by Joyce Watson, who actually was also responsible for ensuring that we had the appointment of the Welsh Government anti-slavery co-ordinator. We're the first and only country in the UK to appoint an anti-slavery co-ordinator, even though, of course, not all of the consequences of slavery fall to the devolved Government.

But your points about identifying the impact of COVID, not just in terms of people not coming forward, but identifying victims and awareness raising are crucially important, and we do work closely with key agencies across north Wales. And I think you make also an important point in terms of the issues around county lines. So, we're working with our partners to tackle slavery in county-lines-related crime, to safeguard vulnerable people from becoming victims of exploitation. So, our Welsh Government anti-slavery co-ordinator is working very closely with key agencies in Wales to determine scale, types and location of slavery, and also improving intelligence and recording of incidents in Wales, using the national referral mechanism, NRM, to increase cases within the criminal justice system.

Question 3 [OQ56396] is withdrawn. Question 4, Nick Ramsay. Question 4, Nick Ramsay.

Question 4, Nick Ramsay. Am I being heard? Yes, I'm being heard. Nick Ramsay has just disappeared from my screen. No, Nick Ramsay is on my screen. Right, I'm going to move on.

Question 5, Helen Mary Jones.

Support for the Third Sector in Mid and West Wales

5. Will the Deputy Minister make a statement on Welsh Government support for the third sector in Mid and West Wales? OQ56413

14:40

Thank you, Helen Mary Jones, for that question. The Welsh Government provides core funding for the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and county voluntary councils to enable them to support local voluntary organisations and volunteering groups across Wales, and we've provided £4 million via our third sector COVID response fund to the third sector in Mid and West Wales.

I'm grateful to the Deputy Minister for her answer. The Deputy Minister will be aware that in recent years many third sector organisations, and Connecting Youth, Children and Adults in Llanelli, in my region, being one, have been diversifying and trying to make their operations more commercial. For example, in CYCA, they've been trying to let out office space for hot desking, that kind of thing. Now, with the impact of the COVID crisis, these attempts to become more commercial are under threat, they've become more difficult, they may have to be refocused. Can the Deputy Minister tell us this afternoon what support the Welsh Government is able to provide to those kinds of third sector organisations whose incomes have been impacted in the medium term? 

That's a very important question in terms of the pressures on the voluntary sector during the pandemic and the fact they've had to diversify, and many have diversified in order to respond to the pandemic in different ways. I do remember, of course, visiting the CYCA project myself in past times and seeing the good work that they've undertaken.

Of course, back in April of last year, while responding to the pandemic, I did issue this £24 million package of support for Wales's third sector, and the important point about the package was that it was about emergency response, but it was also about resilience, responding to the pandemic and recognising the need to support those that were diversifying. So, I think the coronavirus recovery grant for volunteering was crucially important in terms of meeting those new needs, but also to recognise it was a recovery for the voluntary services funding, which is now £7.5 million, focusing on reducing inequalities across society and resources for change and development, including also infrastructure support, as well as the Welsh Revitalising Trusts, rebuilding after coronavirus. And this is where we can also ensure that third sector organisations can access other sources of support. So, it's resilience, it's emergency funding and it's recovery to support these organisations. 

Question 6, Janet Finch-Saunders. Question 6, Janet Finch-Saunders. 

Calling Llandudno bay. Janet Finch-Saunders, can you hear me? I can see you, Janet Finch-Saunders. Are you listening? No.

Nick Ramsay, question 4. 

Good. I'm not sure what is going on. [Laughter.] Gremlins in the system. Okay.

The Voluntary Sector

4. Will the Deputy Minister outline the contribution of the voluntary sector and volunteering during the pandemic? OQ56401

Thank you very much, Nick Ramsay. Of course, the voluntary sector in Wales has played, as I said, a significant and crucial role in our efforts to fight the pandemic. It's about delivering key services, co-ordinating local support and helping to support our dedicated and compassionate volunteers. I'm sure you would join me, and all of us today, in saying a huge 'thank you' to all our volunteers and voluntary sector organisations.

Diolch, Deputy Minister, I would agree with that. Throughout Wales we've seen acts of true heroism, with people getting involved in their local communities, supporting those who have been lonely and isolated. According to Age Cymru, loneliness and isolation are a daily reality for many older people: 75,000 older people in Wales have reported always or often feeling lonely. I've raised the issue of rural loneliness before, Deputy Minister. I wonder what discussions you might have had or could have with the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs to discuss how that particular aspect of loneliness in rural areas can be dealt with, and how the volunteering sector can assist in providing support.

Well, Nick Ramsay raises a very important issue in relation to the services that are provided by the voluntary sector, but the new needs, if you like, that have arisen. There have always been needs in terms of particular pressures and issues in rural areas, but you're also focusing on loneliness and isolation. I think that's where the third sector and voluntary sector have really risen to the occasion, because we do have our county voluntary councils across the whole of Wales in every county, and they are, particularly in the rural areas—the Gwent Association of Voluntary Organisations, of course, covering Monmouthshire—looking at those particular needs. Many also have their older people's forums looking at these issues relating to isolation and loneliness. 

I would say this is a cross-Government issue, and so, yes, in terms of the rural issues, it is a matter to share and work on with the Minister for Environment and Rural Affairs, but it's also very much the responsibility of the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services, Julie Morgan, who obviously has taken a key role in working with the Older People's Commissioner for Wales, older people's organisations, particularly as a result of the pandemic, to look at ways in which we can reach out and relieve that loneliness and isolation. But it is about how we can ensure that the third sector has the resource and the support, particularly, in terms of volunteering, Age Cymru, Age Connect Wales, to make those befriending organisational links that are so important to older people. 

14:45
The Human Rights of Older People

6. Will the Deputy Minister make a statement on protecting the human rights of older people in Wales? OQ56424

Thank you, Janet Finch-Saunders. The Welsh Government is committed to upholding and protecting the rights of older people in Wales. Throughout the pandemic, we've worked with the older people’s commissioner, Equality and Human Rights Commission Cymru and Age Cymru to monitor its impact on older people’s rights and take appropriate action.

Yes, and I would implore you as the Welsh Government to listen to Helena Herklots, our outstanding older people's commissioner. In her manifesto for 2021, she has set out the action that's needed immediately and in the longer term to ensure that older people are not left behind. This includes putting the right legal framework in place to protect and promote older people's rights, so it should come as no surprise to you that I was delighted to read the commissioner's calls for an older people's rights (Wales) Act, which would enshrine the United Nations principles for older persons in domestic law to protect and promote older people's rights in the delivery of all public services. Last year, we called for legislation to protect and promote the rights of older people in Wales, so I'm really supportive of the commissioner's legislative calls. Will you support those calls? Diolch. 

Diolch, Janet Finch-Saunders. Of course, as you know, we've got a long and proud history of supporting older people's rights. We were the first UK nation to establish an older people's commissioner, and those older people's commissioners over the years—including, of course, Helena now—have played such an important role in advocating and championing older people. We invest £1.5 million a year to support the role of the older people's commissioner. But, throughout the pandemic in particular, we've worked with the older people's commissioner, the Equality and Human Rights Commission Cymru and Age Cymru to monitor the impact on older people’s rights. The older people's commissioner does hold weekly meetings with the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services, and the dialogue, of course, is about how we can protect the rights of older people, and you will be very much aware of the recent publication of 'Protecting our Health', the chief medical officer's special report on the pandemic. That has also drawn attention to all intergenerational needs, and we have our public consultation on a new strategy for older people. The UN principles for older persons have informed the development of this strategy, and that's very much based on our commitment to ensuring that we reject ageism and age discrimination. 

But I think, finally, Janet Finch-Saunders, you will be pleased to hear that we're awaiting the outcome of the final report on our research into advancing equality and strengthening human rights, which is looking at ways in which we should consider whether we should have legislation to incorporate UN conventions into Welsh legislation. That research, which has been undertaken by Swansea and Bangor universities with Diverse Cymru, is due to be published before the end of this Senedd and, I know, will inform us in terms of taking this forward.

14:50
2. Business Statement and Announcement

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

Diolch, Llywydd. There is one change to this week's business. The debate on the four sets of climate change regulations has been postponed until next week. Draft business for the remaining two weeks of term is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically. 

I call for a single Welsh Government statement on support for Llangollen railway. The directors of this wonderful Welsh standard-gauge heritage railway announced last week that they've taken the reluctant step of inviting their bank to appoint a receiver. The trust board stated it will,

'need to take steps to negotiate with the receiver to try to secure the line and preserve rolling stock and infrastructure to the extent possible. It is intended to recommence operations in due course but this is dependent upon legal and regulatory approvals, including licensing, all of which will clearly take time.'

The impact this will have on their staff, volunteers, customers, suppliers, locomotive owners and their organisations, and anyone else with connections to the railway, is potentially serious, as is the potential wider impact on the visitor economy in Llangollen and throughout the Dee valley. I have therefore been asked to raise this in the Welsh Parliament and alert the First Minister and request a Welsh Government statement accordingly.

I'm grateful to Mark Isherwood for raising the Llangollen railway in the Chamber this afternoon, and it is absolutely, as he describes, a concerning situation. I will invite him to write to the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism in the first instance, who I know will discuss this matter with the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales, to provide a written update on the situation to Mark Isherwood, bearing in mind that we now only have the two weeks of business in the Chamber that remain to us.

I'd like to ask for two statements today, Trefnydd, if I may. May I request a written statement from the education Minister on whether she would consider a Wales-wide extension on school consultations that have been taking place under pandemic circumstances? I know this is an issue for many communities in my region, in Powys particularly, and in Carmarthenshire. Following recent revision of Welsh Government guidelines to local authorities, Carmarthenshire County Council's executive board decided last week to extend consultations on four different proposals, including the proposals with regard to Ysgol Mynyddygarreg, until 16 July. I would appreciate an update from the Minister as to whether she feels that, given how difficult it has been for communities to organise and respond to consultations during the pandemic, it would be appropriate to have a national extension on these consultations.

I would further like to ask the Trefnydd for a statement on the situation at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea. The Trefnydd will be very aware, I'm sure, that workers are considering strike action because of working conditions there. They do not feel safe. Now, obviously, the DVLA itself is not devolved, but the Welsh Government does have responsibility for enforcing safe working practices. Could I ask the Trefnydd for a statement from the appropriate Welsh Minister to outline what further the Welsh Government can do to help those workers, many of whom, of course, live in Llanelli, in my region? And would she be prepared to join me today in sending a message of solidarity to those workers as they consider whether or not they must take industrial action, as I, as a Plaid Cymru Member of the Senedd, am happy to do?

Again, I'm grateful to Helen Mary Jones for raising two important issues this afternoon. I know that the Minister for Education will have listened carefully to the request for a Wales-wide extension in respect of consultations and the examples that you've given about the extensions of three such consultations in Carmarthenshire. She'll give due consideration to that request, I'm very sure.

On the matter of the DVLA, clearly it is a matter of huge concern to us that people don't feel safe in the workplace, and you'll be aware of the representations that the Welsh Government has made in support of the workforce there at the DVLA in the period leading up to now, and of course we continue to support those workers. Welsh Government has put into law measures to keep people safe in the workplace, but, clearly, those measures do need to be implemented, then, by the employers. So, I'd be very happy to provide that update to the Senedd via my colleague the Minister for the economy, in terms of the support that we've been able to offer DVLA workers so far and the representations that we've been making on their behalf to ensure that they are safe in the workplace.FootnoteLink

14:55

I just wondered if we could have some clarity over the relevance of the consultation by the Food Standards Agency on revising food inspection regulations, which they launched just before we knew about the thin EU transition deal. It does rather pose a question mark as to whether it is seeking to undermine the standard we have come to expect, rather than simply an adjustment of the code. And this, indeed, was flagged up as a concern by Professor Terry Marsden when he was giving evidence to the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee last week. So, I wondered if we could have a statement from Lesley Griffiths to give us the Government's view as to what this could mean for undermining the very high standards of Welsh food that we currently enjoy.

Well, Welsh Government absolutely shares the concerns that Jenny Rathbone has been raising for a long period of time about the impact of a thin deal on the standards that we have in respect of food, and also wider standards in respect of the environment and workers' rights, and so forth. I will ask Lesley Griffiths to provide that update to Jenny Rathbone on what the implications are of the particular consultation that the FSA is currently undertaking.

Trefnydd, as you know, yesterday was International Women's Day and, along with other Members, I was happy to show my support and commitment to developing a more equal Wales. I supported the Welsh Cakes for Welsh Women's Aid campaign by hosting a virtual coffee morning with my staff to discuss the work of Welsh Women's Aid, and to remind ourselves of the support services they offer and how to access them. In light of that, could I request an up-to-date statement from the Welsh Government in relation to its efforts to tackle domestic abuse? You may be aware that, in August last year, Dyfed Powys Police received 900 reports of domestic abuse, compared with 350 incidents a month in 2017, and that shows the need to urgently tackle domestic abuse in communities right across Wales.

Secondly, could I ask for a statement from the Welsh Government in relation to the resumption of elective surgery across Wales? I've received representations from people in Pembrokeshire who are waiting for treatment in considerable discomfort and pain, and they're calling for support and assurances that they will receive treatment. The health Minister has made it clear that it could take the Welsh NHS five years to tackle the backlog in treatments, and I appreciate that there will be a debate on this issue tomorrow, but I believe that it is critical that we have a statement from the Minister on his specific plans to resume all NHS treatments and surgeries across Wales, and how he plans to expedite those services so that people waiting for treatment across Wales can be assured that the Welsh Government has a plan in place to ensure that non-COVID treatments can be delivered sooner rather than later.

I'd be very pleased to ask my colleague the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip to provide that update to colleagues on Welsh Government efforts to tackle domestic abuse in Wales. It's been a continuing concern for us throughout lockdown and the fact that, for many people, home isn't a safe place. And I'm sure that the Deputy Minister will be very pleased to provide the latest on Welsh Government action in this respect.

And, as you say, there is a debate tomorrow afternoon on the resumption of elective surgery, but I do know that my colleague the health Minister is working on a plan for the next steps for the NHS and that he does intend to publish something by the end of this month that will encapsulate, I hope, the kind of vision that Paul Davies is seeking this afternoon.

Concerns have been raised by charities working with people with cancer that many people throughout this country may have missed a cancer diagnosis. Now, people leaving it too late to get concerning and persistent symptoms checked out was a problem in the Rhondda before the COVID crisis. Too many people were getting a cancer diagnosis at a late stage, often when they turned up for treatment at the accident and emergency department. As we move beyond COVID, the Rhondda needs to see a concerted effort to tackle this cancer diagnosis backlog. Can we have a statement from the Government so that we can understand how the Government is planning specifically to do that, especially in an area like ours with greater health inequalities? Could you include in that statement support for a specialist, accessible cancer diagnosis centre in the Rhondda?

Will you also agree to light up all Welsh Government public buildings to remember all of those that we have lost to COVID on the memory day of 23 March?

15:00

Thank you for raising two really important issues. On the first, I just want to reinforce what Leanne Wood has said this afternoon about how important it is to go to your GP should you have any concerns about symptoms that might be related to cancer. The message really is that your NHS is still there for you in these difficult times. Our cancer recovery guidance has been part of the NHS framework planning system since quarter 2 of last year. Health boards are already planning their treatment capacity for cancer care on a quarterly basis, and also responding on a day-to-day basis to deliver as much cancer treatment as they possibly can in the context of the pressures on their services. As we start to emerge now from this second wave, we are looking specifically at how we can move permanently to recover cancer services, and feeding that into our border recovery plans for the NHS, which I have just referred to in an answer to Paul Davies. I can also add that, in February, my colleague the Minister for health held a national meeting with NHS Wales to discuss the recovery of cancer services specifically. Proposals are currently being developed to support that recovery, again as part of that broader recovery approach that I described. So, there will be further information coming forth in due course—as I say, by the end of the month—in respect of the recovery of the NHS.

On the matter of the memory day, I can confirm that we are currently giving very good thought to how best we can mark what will be very sober moment, I think, in terms of the journey that we have all been through in respect of coronavirus. I'm sure that we will be able to say more on that very shortly.

Trefnydd, I know that one of the Ministers who assiduously watches this is our tourism Minister. So, I wonder if, through you, I could ask for a statement or for some clarification on the latest move by Tripadvisor, which has worried many of the small to medium-sized tourism operators in my constituency. Tripadvisor already takes 15 per cent commission on any sales that come through its site. For a small operator, that's quite a significant chunk. But, interestingly, in the last couple of months, they've sent out an e-mail to all operators to say that, under their new terms and conditions, they're bringing in rights, in perpetuity, for them to have complete access to any pictures and other materials on the websites. Now, this could be completely normal practice. Who knows? But, they are worried that if they decline this kind offer from Tripadvisor to have in-perpetuity rights to all content from their websites—and some of the content on their websites, by the way, Trefnydd, includes Visit Wales content as well—then they will be kicked off Tripadvisor. No matter what you say about Tripadvisor, good or bad, they are a powerful generator of interest in small and medium-sized operators. I will write to the Minister on this as well, Trefnydd, but I wonder if, though your offices, I could seek a statement or some clarification on what guidance can be given to small and medium-sized operators on this assertive new move from Tripadvisor.

Thank you to Huw Irranca-Davies for raising this. I can see on the corner of the screen my colleague the Deputy Minister for tourism, and he's been listening intently to the situation that you have described this afternoon. I know that he will be keen to explore what support we can offer to the small businesses that are affected within the tourism sector and will look forward to your correspondence with further detail.

15:05

Trefnydd, can I call for two statements? The first is from the Minister with responsibility for mental health on the mental health and well-being benefits of angling in Wales. I've been contacted by many people who like to go fishing, often alone, in solitary places, who have found it really difficult to cope with life during the latest lockdown, because they've been unable to drive to local fishing spots. I do think that this is something that the Welsh Government does need to carefully consider in the forthcoming review of the coronavirus restrictions. Whether the review considers fishing or not, I do think that this important pastime for many thousands of people across Wales does merit some consideration by the Minister responsible for mental health in the future.

Can I also, Trefnydd, call for a statement from you with your finance Minister hat on to provide an update to the Senedd on the development of a procurement advice note on the public contract regulations for discretionary grounds for consideration of excluding businesses from public tenders? You'll be aware that we had some correspondence on this issue last year following your response to a written question that gave rise to concerns that the Welsh Government was planning on publishing a procurement advice note that would primarily impact the nation of Israel. I would be grateful if you could give us an update on this particular matter, because you did suggest in your last correspondence that you'd be making some final decisions on this in December. It's now March, and I think that people do deserve an update. Thank you.

On the first issue, which was the request for a statement on the mental health and well-being benefits of angling, I know that the Minister with responsibility for mental health will have listened very carefully to that request. Of course, when we're deliberating all matters relating to restrictions that we are putting on people's lives, we do understand how difficult things are for people. All of the things that normally support our well-being, whether it's angling or the gym or seeing family and friends—having those things removed from us clearly does have a strong and difficult impact on people's lives. We're very aware of that when taking those decisions. But as I say, the Minister will have heard that specific request.

As I said when we last discussed the procurement advice note, I have agreed to take further advice. We have had that advice now, which I'm still considering. But I will write to you shortly in terms of the way forward. Thank you.

Two issues, if I may, Trefnydd. Firstly, can I add my voice—including Darren Millar, actually, last week—to those calling for the reopening of garden centres across Wales? Now that COVID-19 cases appear to be below the number that originally triggered the lockdown, if we are going to look for businesses to reopen first in the shorter term, then garden centres, I think, should be at the top of that list. They are large areas, mainly open air, with plenty of opportunities for social distancing. So, I wonder if we can have an update from the Minister on any discussions with the garden centre sector on reopening them as swiftly as possible.

Secondly, the BBC documentary The Story of Welsh Art aired recently. I'm not sure how many Members saw it. That featured Abergavenny's world-renowned Jesse tree, a fifteenth-century sculpture at St Mary's priory church depicting the lineage of Christ from the Bible. Other Welsh treasures from across Wales were part of that programme. Wales is blessed with cultural treasures that have attracted tourists to Wales for many years and can do so again in the future. So, I wonder if we could have a framework or an update from the Minister, as we come out of lockdown, as to how Wales's cultural heritage can be used to kick start the tourism economy again across Wales, so that as we build back better and grow back greener, we also grow back culturally stronger and we put the treasures of Wales at the centre of that growing-back process.

Nick Ramsay will have heard the First Minister outlining the steps that we're taking as we move towards that three-weekly review on 12 March. He'll be considering all the representations that colleagues have made over the recent weeks, but then also, of course, taking the advice that we receive from our scientific and medical advisers in terms of determining where we are able to make those easements. I don't want to pre-empt anything that the First Minister might say on Friday. Discussions are still going on within Cabinet and advice is still being taken as we move towards that review point.

I completely agree that our cultural treasures have huge potential for us in terms of helping us with the recovery, both in terms of the kind of tourism that we would want to see from elsewhere within the UK, but also our own staycations and our own tourism that we will probably want to undertake within our own country over the course of the summer. Because I think if the coronavirus has taught us anything, it's about valuing those things that we have here on our doorstep. I think that those cultural treasures such as the Jesse tree at St Mary's, which Nick Ramsay has described, serve to be very good examples of that. I can see that the Minister is listening again carefully to the suggestion about the role that these treasures can play in our recovery.

15:10

As we approach the end of this Senedd term, Trefnydd, and as we mark National Intergenerational Week, I'd like a statement, please, from the Government on the importance of intergenerational solidarity. I'd like the statement to acknowledge the real loneliness that's been suffered by both younger and older members of our society, as well as the ageism that's been too present in our national discourse throughout the pandemic. Often, the young and old were pitted against one another in the context of lockdowns in the press, with some commentary focusing on young people's apparent selfishness and others insinuating that protecting older and more vulnerable people was in some ways too high a price to pay. Both of those narratives have been deeply damaging. Both young and older groups have been marginalised and both need support and a stronger voice in decision making to be central in our communities.

At the end of last year, Trefnydd, a number of us set up a cross-party group on intergenerational solidarity, and this week we'll publish our recommendations to mark intergenerational week. It's in response to these that I'd like to see a Government statement, please. Our group feels, with one voice, that plans for recovery from COVID should promote solidarity between generations, that a Minister should be tasked with overseeing this, that more funding should be given to community groups to promote intergenerational solidarity, and that it should be embedded in the curriculum. As we mark our way coming out of the pandemic, decisions over vaccine prioritisation, protecting the public and reopening society are current, they are layered and they are complicated. Reasserting intergenerational solidarity is vital in the context of each of those decisions, because relationships between generations enrich our society, they matter, and they should be strengthened.

I am really grateful for the way that Delyth Jewell has just framed the work that the cross-party group has undertaken. If a copy hasn't yet found its way to the Welsh Government, I'd be really keen for us to have a copy, so that we can consider and explore those recommendations that you've just described. Because I completely agree that the framing of some of the debate that we've had throughout the pandemic has sought to pit groups against each other. But, actually, we're all in this together, and some of the people who have been most damaged by the pandemic have been our oldest citizens and also our youngest citizens; both of those groups are paying the highest price in different ways. So, I'm very keen to see the piece of work and explore the ideas that Delyth and her colleagues will be bringing forward.

3. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Update on COVID-19 Vaccinations

The next item is a statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services, an update on COVID-19 vaccinations. The Minister, Vaughan Gething.

I'm proud to announce that we have had another week of real progress and highlights for our vaccination programme here in Wales. One million people have now had their first dose of this potentially life-saving vaccine. This is fantastic news—another significant milestone for this truly remarkable programme. Once again, we've reached this marker ahead of the indicator date set out in our recently published strategy update. This is thanks to the sheer hard work and determination of the many hundreds of people working both behind the scenes and in vaccine delivery clinics right across the country.

I am sincerely and genuinely grateful to each and every person who has taken up their offer of the vaccine. They have played their part, done their bit, in this national effort to keep Wales safe, and they should be proud of the contribution they have made in this national effort. Every single dose really does count. Every vaccine administered is a step closer to a brighter future for us all. The vaccines are safe and effective, and I urge everyone to take up their offer when it is their turn. I look forward to having my own first vaccine in the coming days.

We're making significant progress towards achieving milestone two, as set out in our vaccine strategy update. More than 85 per cent of people between the ages of 65 and 69 have already received their first dose of the vaccine, and people in the 50 to 64 years old age groups are already being called for their appointments. With four in 10 of the adult population now vaccinated with at least one dose, we are making excellent progress.

I want to end by thanking everyone who has played their part, not just in the success to date, but more so, to recognise that this has come with support from all sides within this place and outside it, and I look forward to more support for our vaccination programme in the days and weeks ahead. We still have a significant task ahead of us, but I'm confident that we'll achieve it on time and in a really successful way, as we have done to date. Thank you, Llywydd.

15:15

Thank you, Minister, for your statement, and once again, it is good news that we are vaccinating as many people as we are at present in Wales. I do have a couple of questions to ask you, though, in general about the vaccine programme. 

The first is that 15 per cent of care home staff have yet to be vaccinated, compared to less than 5 per cent of residents, and it's a much lower take-up than the healthcare staff—87.5 per cent of them have been vaccinated. Are you satisfied that all is being done to convince the more sceptical members of staff to get vaccinated, and what can we do to encourage them, because, as we know, our care home residents are among the most vulnerable in our communities?

My second question is about hospital outbreaks of coronavirus. What review is going on into the causes of hospital outbreaks? They're still occurring in pockets, and they're very detrimental to the starting up of services. Excuse me. I have read your framework for COVID-19 testing for hospital patients in Wales, but, of course, it doesn't really cover prevention within hospitals, and I wondered if you felt that we should do more to try and move that agenda along. I know, for example, in Hywel Dda University Health Board, we have quite a significant hospital outbreak at present in Withybush, and it is stopping the resumption of services.

While we're on the subject of health boards, would you consider what advice might be able to be given to health boards on cancelling and rearranging vaccine appointments? Many people have contacted me to say that they've received texts, they're desperate to go for their vaccine, they can't get there for one reason or another, but they haven't been able to get hold of anyone to rearrange it. And there's a feeling of guilt—I have to confess, I'm one of those—where I couldn't get back to anybody to rearrange my vaccine appointment, so I missed the first one, couldn't tell anyone, and they're now trying to make the second one. But I'm just one voice; I have been contacted by loads of people. They either get text messages where there's no phone number to go back to or no e-mail that they can drop it. And, of course, we can't all just suddenly appear to a particular date or a particular time. Can we do something about it? Because I think it's holding up some people being able to access vaccines, especially some of the more hard-to-reach groups that we've talked about many times before.

Andrew Evans, the chief pharmaceutical officer, has said that we have the capacity in Wales to deliver more than 30,000 vaccines a day. Now, we've not hit 30,000 vaccines a day since 4 March. I do understand some of it's to do with the supply, but reading your COVID update, dated 9 March, you're expecting that to increase with supply of vaccine, starting from this week and going forward, that there should be no problems. Do you think we'll be able to achieve that 30,000?

Finally, I just wanted to ask you about future plans. Mass vaccination centres—a number of them are in buildings and facilities that are used for other things, like leisure centres, and eventually they will kick back into play, and, therefore, we will not be able to use them as mass vaccination centres. Staff and volunteers are helping us at present, but at some point, they will have to go back to their other lives or to their day job. What plans are being put in place or looked at now to ensure that we still have the facilities and the human resource to be able to carry on vaccinating at pace, especially if we do anticipate a third wave? Of course, we're beginning to think that we may need to have a regular annual vaccination in order to protect us from coronavirus and the different mutations that pop up, therefore, we need to be able to build this into our system, and I wonder if you could update the Senedd on that. Thank you very much indeed. Apologies for the coughing fit.

15:20

I wish I could have brought you more water, Angela. [Laughter.]

Thank you for the questions. There's no need to apologise for needing to take a break with a cough. On care home staff and the vaccination rate, you're right to point out there was a lower rate of take-up amongst staff compared to residents. That's partly a feature of the vaccine hesitancy we see from a range of age groups. Of course, care home staff are made up of people of a range of different ages, including the younger age group, where we recognise that for people under 40, there's a larger hesitancy about the need or the reason to take up the vaccine. Some of the vaccine myths that are being spread by anti-vaxxers, the works of fiction, affect people who have or may want to have children again in the future. So, there is a concern that it may affect male or female fertility; there is absolutely no basis to that, but it is a persistent myth that is reappearing in every part of the UK and further afield as well. It's one of those areas where, actually, I think that one of the best things we can do, again, is to work right across the UK, regardless of our differing political stripes in each of the Governments, and even in this place too, to be really clear there is absolutely no truth to that, and it's about how we have a trusted and a unified message to persuade people to take up the vaccine, to reconsider the evidence about it. As I say, the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine doesn't come because I say that it's safe and effective, but I have a responsibility to be clear about it. It comes on the most trusted conversations people have and people they believe: our health service staff, scientists and often family and friends, people that you're close to, and that, unfortunately is both where people get trusted information, but it's also how misinformation can spread as well. So, there's a constant job of persuasion to do. Despite that, we are seeing very high levels of vaccination take-up within care homes, but certainly more for us to do, and you'll see that again when we move into the vaccination stage after groups 1 to 9 have been completed.

On hospital outbreaks, and the work we do on the nosocomial transmission, that's transmission between health and care staff and others, it's part of the reason why we think that there's been a stubborn continuance in north-west Wales. There's been an outbreak in Ysbyty Gwynedd, and we think that's led to higher figures there than would otherwise have been the case. We're about to publish an update on the advice and guidance on testing in hospitals. A significant part of that is about our work on nosocomial transmission, and we set out there how we're using both lateral flow devices, as well as polymerase chain reaction tests. Of course, that work is led by the deputy chief medical officer and the chief nursing officer here in Wales, so it's led by people who've got real professional leadership and respect, and it's also supported by the consistent advice that Public Health Wales have provided on how to minimise the prospects for nosocomial transmission, because those outbreaks can cause real harm. It's a positive feature of the reducing rates of coronavirus that those outbreaks will be less frequent than they would otherwise have been, and that's thanks to the hard work of everyone right across the country in helping to drive transmission rates down.

On your concern about health boards cancelling or rearranging appointments, I recognise that this happens from time to time, and it's about those people who may or may not be able to reset their appointments. I had to rearrange my own mother's appointment to take place as well, and it took some time to get through on the booking line, but I eventually did, and there was no trouble at all in rearranging the appointment. It is about the real encouragement of people to make the effort to rebook and to be really clear that the NHS won't leave people behind. So, if people do have difficulty attending their appointments, and they haven't been able to get through, they can still rebook and they should do so and take up the offer that is available, including if people have just changed their minds and now want to opt in to taking the vaccine.

I think you're right to point out the future challenges we'll have about multivaccination centres returning to their former purpose at some point in the future. It's a good problem to have, about our success in driving down the transmission and the need to have current facilities available in a different way. The positive aspect, though, is we have 546 different venues where the vaccine is already being delivered. So, as we get through more and more stages and successfully vaccinate the current groups of the population, the challenge will reduce. But your point about the longer term future is a fair one, too. We'll learn lots from this phase of vaccination about what we are likely to need to do in terms of redelivering a COVID vaccine in the future. What we don't know yet is when that would be and the sort of programme we'd have, because the current flu vaccination programme, for example, is largely delivered in general practice and community pharmacies. We still don't yet know if that normalisation is going to be possible in, if you like, the next stage of the vaccine, after we've protected the adult population in Wales. But we do think that we've already got the flexibility for future delivery to cover all adults within the country. 

Finally, on Andrew Evans's point about our need to deliver and our ability to deliver more than 30,000 doses a day, yes we do think we're going to be able to do that. We haven't done so in the recent past. That is simply a factor of supply. But, we do think that, through the rest of this week, you're going to start to see those figures return to about 30,000 doses in a day, and you'll see that carry on for a brief period of time, then a lull and then a steady rate of vaccine delivery as supply normalises out. And, on that basis, we're still in the fortunate position of having the best vaccination rate of any UK nation, with a greater portion of people in Wales having had both doses of the vaccine. That's good news for us, but it also shows that we're at the head of a very successful group of nations right across the UK at present, and I look forward to having more success to report in the coming days and weeks. 

15:25

May I once again congratulate everyone who has ensured that we've reached these incredible milestones—over 1 million people having their first dose; almost 1.2 million will have had either their first or second doses. It bodes very well for reaching targets in the coming months.

I'll make a few points, as I do every week. You don't need to respond to these, Minister, because we know that we disagree. I think we're in such a good place that we could be running a parallel programme with this in order to ensure that those workers who are most likely to be exposed to the virus could be vaccinated earlier, but we disagree on that, I know. I'll also ask once again, as I've done so many times, please can we have the full data on how much of each vaccine is provided to each nation? The past few days have been a good example of why that would be useful. Many have been contacting me over the past few days drawing attention to the fact that there is relatively more of the second dose being provided in Wales—people seeing that we are falling behind in their eyes in terms of the first dose. Now, it would be useful to have clarity from you on the record as to what is happening. Why has this strategy shifted towards the second dose and does that have anything to do with the fact that there are deficiencies in the supplies of one of the two vaccines coming to Wales? So, explain to us what's happening there, because people are looking very carefully at the data and they can see patterns emerging, and they can see that there has been change over the past few days. 

Two brief questions: unpaid carers—I'm certainly pleased that they've now been included in priority group six for vaccination. I know that the online form is available so that they can fill it in. I think it's available from most of the health boards, I think all bar one. Could I just ask what publicity work is being undertaken to ensure that unpaid carers are aware of that form and where to access it?

And the second question is on asthma. Now, research shows that people with asthma are at a slightly higher risk of being admitted to hospital if they catch this virus. They're also far more likely to suffer long COVID. But I've had one example of a constituent failing to find out whether she qualified for the vaccine. Ultimately, she got the vaccine. I was in touch with the health board on her behalf. But I understand some information has been provided to surgeries as to who with asthma should qualify. So, could you make that information publicly available? 

Thank you for the points and the questions. I welcome your congratulations to the NHS-led team for the significant achievement already achieved to date, and the confidence in the future delivery of this NHS-led vaccination programme in Wales. And, again, you're right, we do disagree on the JCVI advice, how we should follow it, and whether we should prioritise one group and deprioritise others. So, that's a point of fact that we disagree on that.

On second-dose delivery, we've made a choice on managing our stock of the Pfizer vaccine so that we can run the second doses effectively. It's about how efficient our programme is in making sure people receive their second dose in time, and that we don't end up with a problem later in this month where we potentially won't have enough second-dose stock available. And that would be a really big problem, I think. There are many people concerned about having to mix vaccines. Well, we're not doing that in Wales: a very clear approach to this. We're being efficient, and we have a different risk appetite, I think, to other countries about how they're going to run these doses deliberately, because you're right that there is some difference in the figures. The overall total of first doses delivered—the UK average is 33.5 per cent of first doses for the whole population; it's just short of that here in Wales. On the second dose, it's 1.7 per cent, but it's 5.8 per cent on second doses in Wales. And on the total doses delivered, the UK average is 35.2 per cent; in Wales, it's 37.5 per cent. So, we're delivering more vaccines per head than any other UK nation. And that information is available in the public domain, and I'm looking to make sure we publish not just the tables on the figures, but also some of those figures on UK comparison points as well. So, you don't have to wait for my statement; they'll be a regular part of how we publish information. And each country is already publishing their figures on how they use their vaccine stocks. So, rather than me trying to give a commentary on a run on how other countries are doing, I can talk about what we're doing and how we're effectively managing the stocks we have in a way that I think is highly successful.

On unpaid carers, it's possible that I'll be talking with the chair of one of the health boards who doesn't have the online form available later this week to understand why they haven't got that online form available. It is available online, and awareness of it is being spread not just through primary care, but, actually, crucially, through carers' organisations, who—. We went through a programme of co-designing the form—the Government, the NHS and those carers' organisations—and so we settled on something that we all think will work. And that takes you through a series of questions to make sure that you get your entitlement. That information is then entered into the Welsh immunisation system, and that should then generate the appointment. So, we want to see as much use of that online form as possible to give people a consistent experience across the country. 

On asthma, you're right, there has been a letter that's gone from one of the senior clinical leads in the Government, and there's a letter that's gone out to primary care, and, given that it will have gone out to a whole range of primary care providers, I think that's essentially public. I'll just make sure that arrangements are made to publish that advice, so everyone can see how that advice has been provided for primary care to then manage their lists of people in a way that, again, should be as consistent as possible across the country. I don't think there's any difficulty in doing it, and I'm sure we can issue a simple written statement in the coming days to do so. 

15:30

The people of Islwyn who I represent congratulate you and the Welsh Labour Government on hitting the historic milestone of the millionth vaccination. In my constituency of Islwyn, the mass vaccination in Newbridge leisure centre is effectively, and with skill, vaccinating large numbers of people. Minister, with four out of 10 of the Welsh adult population having had at least one dose, what is your message to the communities of Islwyn in regard to the progress being made to vaccinate every adult by 31 July?

I think people can have a high level of confidence about where we're going to get to, both in the middle of April, and, indeed, by the end of July, depending on supply. And it's supply that is the only issue that potentially holds us back. I think, to be fair, you'd have the same if you spoke to any of the NHS-led programmes in the UK. We could have delivered more by now if more supply was available. That's not a criticism; it's a statement of where we are, and I think that goes back to Angela Burns's questions as well. So, if you're waiting for your vaccine, and you're in groups 1 to 9, you can be confident that you will have had it, or should have been offered it, by the middle of April. I think that means we're in good shape to be offering the rest of the adult population in Wales their vaccine, if supplies hold up, from the middle of April onwards. And, again, the longer-term forecast on the stability of vaccine supply should mean we can do that by the end of July. It gets more uncertain the further into the future we are, but, in the conversations I've had not just with the UK Minister on vaccine supply, but other health Ministers in the UK, and, indeed, the two vaccine suppliers at present, both Pfizer and AstraZeneca,I think we will get a level of supply that allows us to do that. And that, again, will give us different choices about how the public can go about their business and return to more normality, all the while we're managing the risk of what is still an unfinished pandemic. But I'm grateful to hear that the constituency you represent are proud of what we're doing in this NHS-led programme.

15:35
4. The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021

The next item is the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021. And I call on the Minister once again—Vaughan Gething.

Motion NDM7614 Rebecca Evans

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 27.5:

1. Approves The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021 laid in the Table Office on 26 February 2021.

Motion moved.

Thank you, Llywydd. I move the motion before us. Members will be aware the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 5) (Wales) Regulations 2020 were reviewed on 18 February, and concluded that the whole of Wales should remain at alert level 4. This means that everyone must continue to stay at home for now. All non-essential retail, hospitality venues, licensed premises and leisure facilities must remain closed. This also means that people are generally unable to form extended households, otherwise known as 'bubbles'. Until the most recent amendments to the regulations, the only exception has been for single responsible adult households, adults living alone, or living alone with children, who could form a support bubble with one other household. Since Wales moved to alert level 4, households needing contact on compassionate grounds, or to assist with childcare, have been able to do so.

The regulations have, however, been amended so that households with any children under the age of one can form a support bubble—again, with one other household. This seeks to ensure that new parents or carers of children under one can receive support from friends or family during the crucial first year of a baby's life. This will also help with the baby's development. The amended restriction regulations also allow 16 and 17-year-olds living alone, or with people of the same age, without any adults, to similarly form a support bubble. And finally, the regulations have been amended to allow all venues approved for the solemnisation of weddings, formation of a civil partnership, or alternative wedding ceremonies, to open for this limited purpose. To be clear, wedding receptions, at present, are still not permitted.

We've clearly set out that our first priority is to get as many children and students back to face-to-face learning as soon as possible. With this in mind, our approach to easing restrictions will be in gradual steps. We will continue to listen to the medical and scientific advice, then assess the impact of the changes that we make. Despite the huge progress in rolling out vaccines that we've just discussed and the improving public health situation, we have seen how quickly the situation can deteriorate. Faced with new variants of coronavirus, especially the much faster spreading Kent variant, we cannot provide as much certainty and predictability as we would otherwise like. We will give as much notice to people and businesses as we can do ahead of any change. When we believe it is safe to ease restrictions, we will do so. I ask Members to support these regulations, which continue to play an important part in adapting the coronavirus rules here in Wales to ensure that they remain both effective and proportionate. Thank you.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.

Thank you. Can I now call the Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, Mick Antoniw?

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. I've just a few short comments to make. We considered these regulations at our meeting yesterday morning, and our report contains three merits points that will be familiar to Members. Our first merits point notes the Welsh Government's justification for any potential interference with human rights. We've drawn particular attention to a number of key paragraphs in the explanatory memorandum that make direct reference to articles 2, 5, 8, 9, and 11 of the European charter of fundamental rights and article 1 of the first protocol. And our second and third merits points note that there has been no formal consultation on the regulations, and that a regulatory impact assessment has not been carried out by the Welsh Government. Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd.

Two changes here that we agree with, the first relating to venues for weddings and civil partnerships, and the second allowing households with one child under the age of one to form an extended household. I'm very pleased to see this happening in terms of well-being, and I make specific reference to the work that Bethan Sayed has done in this particular area, where she's been raising awareness as a young parent herself, of course. So, as I say, we will be supporting this. 

I will refer, if I may, just briefly, to the next review. I do hope, in terms of well-being, that we will be able to move to a 'stay local' instruction, rather than a 'stay at home', which I think would make a great difference in terms of people's well-being, and I look forward to having more of a road map on the way forward. But Ynys Môn is my constituency. We know that Ynys Môn is one of the areas where the number of cases is highest, and we know of the impact that the new coronavirus variant has, how quickly it spreads, and we see the latest figures this afternoon and the number of cases in Ysbyty Gwynedd and so on. Therefore, we must move on very cautiously. So, just a brief question: how will the Government communicate as clearly as possible the message that people can't use the fact that the door is being pushed ajar as a reason to push that door open, because we're not ready for that?

15:40

Thank you. Could I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services to reply to the debate? Vaughan Gething.  

Thank you, once again, to the legislation and justice committee for their scrutiny of the regulations. Once again, the regular reviews they undertake do help us to make sure that the legislation fulfils its purpose and is appropriately drafted, and they have, from time to time, picked up what I think are small, but important, differences in the regulations, which we have then corrected, once they have reviewed them. That is always helpful. 

On Rhun ap Iorwerth's point, I'm grateful for the support for these regulations. On your broader point about possible future regulations, you will have heard both myself and the First Minister refer to the possibility of a 'stay local' period before there is a wider move in travel. And there is nothing perfect about that, but we recognise that, in moving from one stage to another, an intermediate 'stay local' stage may well be useful. And this is about people being sensible with any rules or guidance. And if we're going to provide guidance on it, it is just that, not a hard and fast rule, and we ask people to be sensible about how they exercise that. And I recognise that, if I lived in the middle of Powys, what 'stay local' might mean could be very different to living here in Penarth or in the Cardiff part of my constituency. And so we ask people to exercise the level of common sense and support that has seen us to this point now. What I would not want to see is for people to take an approach to any potential easing that takes us well beyond where we need to be, because I want to see a safe and phased progress out of our current restrictions that does not mean we need to put the brakes on again. 

People need to be cognisant of, if they are going to travel, to make sure they're still observing the other restrictions that will still be there and in place, and in particular the challenges for all of us about making sure we keep our distance from people, good hand hygiene and not mixing indoors in particular. That's still the most dangerous and risky form of contact and, as I've said, the Kent variant does mean that this is a much more transmissible variant than the one that we have currently dealt with, and so that's why the extra caution is needed. It's for all of us, though, to play our part so we can have different choices to make in the future, and different choices that I certainly hope we can all agree we would not want to have to reverse back from.

So, thank you for your general comments and support, and I look forward to hoping that Members will now agree the regulations before us. 

Thank you. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No, I don't see objections. Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36. 

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

5., 6., 7. & 8. The Environment (Wales) Act 2016 (Amendment of 2050 Emissions Target) Regulations 2021, The Climate Change (Interim Emissions Targets) (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, The Climate Change (Carbon Budgets) (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 and The Climate Change (Net Welsh Emissions Account Credit Limit) (Wales) Regulations 2021
9. The Equality Act 2010 (Authorities subject to a duty regarding Socio-economic Inequalities) (Wales) Regulations 2021

Therefore, item 9 is the Equality Act 2010 (Authorities subject to a duty regarding Socio-economic Inequalities) (Wales) Regulations 2021, and I call on the Deputy Minister and the Chief Whip to move the motion, Jane Hutt. 

Motion NDM7616 Rebecca Evans

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 27.5:

1. Approves that the draft The Equality Act 2010 (Authorities subject to a duty regarding Socio-economic Inequalities) (Wales) Regulations 2021 is made in accordance with the draft laid in the Table Office on 9 February 2021.

Motion moved.

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. Members will be aware that on 15 July 2020 the First Minister, in his legislative programme statement, announced that the socioeconomic duty was one of five areas for delivery before the end of this Senedd term. This is one of our levers to reduce inequality, and I'm pleased that today we're able to debate the regulations laid before Members of the Senedd, which are a key part of delivering this commitment. If passed, the regulations will place a duty on certain public bodies, requiring them when making strategic decisions, such as deciding priorities and setting objectives, to consider how their decisions might help to reduce inequalities associated with socioeconomic disadvantage. The regulations before you simply list the Welsh public bodies who are captured by the duty, so the definition of a relevant authority means I'm restricted as to which public bodies the duty can apply. However, I have captured every public body that falls inside this definition, ensuring maximum benefit to the people of Wales. The duty also links to plans for the draft social partnership and public procurement (Wales) Bill, which is out for consultation. Both pieces of legislation seek to strengthen our social partnership arrangements and fair work agenda, as both help to address inequality from different perspectives. 

15:45

Thank you. I call on the Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, Mick Antoniw.

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. We considered these regulations on 1 March and our report contains two merits points, which I'll briefly summarise for Members this afternoon.

Our first merits point noted that there is no equality impact assessment for the regulations and we asked the Welsh Government to explain what arrangements it has made to publish a report of such an assessment, in accordance with the Equality Act 2010 (Statutory Duties) (Wales) Regulations 2011. In response to our first merits point, the Welsh Government confirmed that a full integrated impact assessment on the regulations has been completed. Furthermore, the Government's response also confirmed that sections 1, 3, and 7 of the integrated impact assessment were published on the Welsh Government website on 23 February, and a summary of the equality impact assessment can be found in section 7.2. The Welsh Government also told us that the remaining sections of the integrated impact assessment are routinely made available on request.

Our second merits point related to the post-implementation review of regulations, and we highlighted that the regulatory impact assessment accompanying the regulations states that given the multiple outcomes anticipated as a result of the socioeconomic duty, a programme of monitoring and evaluation will be developed to correspond with key activities. Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd.

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer, and thank you very much to the Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee for the report on the merits. He was able to answer the points that were made in terms of your questions relating to the integrated impact assessment, and what the impact of that work would be in terms of guidance, in terms of publishing those sections that summarised what action the Welsh Government is considering. And I'd also say that we will continue to support public bodies after the duty comes into force.

So, commencing the duty of course will take us forward in terms of the non-statutory guidance that we published last year. A substantial package of support has been prepared for public bodies for the duty and some are already working in the way intended, so I'm therefore asking Members to support this motion.

Thank you. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I do see objections, therefore, we vote on this item in voting time.

Voting deferred until voting time.

10. The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 (Consequential Amendments) Regulations 2021

Item 10 on the agenda is the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 (Consequential Amendments) Regulations 2021. I call on the Minister for Housing and Local Government to move the motion, Julie James.

Motion NDM7615 Rebecca Evans

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 27.5:

1. Approves that the draft The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 (Consequential Amendments) Regulations 2021 are made in accordance with the draft laid in the Table Office on 9 February 2021.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I move the motion. Following the consideration and passing of Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 by the Senedd last year, I am now seeking to make the necessary provisions so as to implement some of the reforms provided by the Act. The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 has strengthening and empowering local government at its core. The new performance and governance regime set out in Part 6 of the Act is a fundamental component of this, firmly defining principal councils as self-improving organisations through a system based on self-assessment and panel performance assessment. This new performance and governance regime is intended to build on and support a culture in which councils continuously challenge the status quo, ask questions about how they are operating and consider best practice in Wales and from elsewhere. It's my intention that the new regime applies in part from 1 April this year, with the remaining provisions coming into force at the 2022 local government elections. The consequential amendments regulations before you today will ensure that existing primary and secondary legislation accurately reflects the legislative changes resulting from the new regime, and I ask Members to approve these regulations today. Diolch.

15:50

Thank you. I call on the Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, Mick Antoniw.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Like the previous regulations debated this afternoon, we also considered these regulations on 1 March and our report contains two merits points.

The regulations amend the Local Government Act 1999 to, amongst other things, permit grants to be made by the Welsh Ministers to the Wales Audit Office in respect of expenditure incurred or to be incurred by the Auditor General for Wales under chapter 3 of Part 6 of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021. Our first merits point highlighted that chapter 3 of Part 6 of the 2021 Act is not yet in force. As such, our report asked the Welsh Government to confirm when and how the provisions in this chapter of the 2021 Act would be brought into force.

Moving on to our second merits point, the explanatory memorandum to the regulations refers to the 2021 Order, which is to bring into force chapter 1 of Part 6 of the 2021 Act and section 169 of the 2021 Act. Our second reporting point noted that, at the time of writing the report, the 2021 Order had not yet been made, and we invited the Welsh Government to confirm when this is expected to occur.

At our meeting yesterday we considered a Government response, together with a letter from the Minister, which provides an overview of the steps the Welsh Government intends to take to support the implementation of the 2021 Act. In response to our two reporting points, the Welsh Government states that chapter 3 of Part 6 of the 2021 Act is intended to be commenced at the same time as chapter 1, on 1 April 2021. It has also confirmed that the commencement Order bringing these provisions into force is intended to be made in March at the same time as these regulations before us today, subject to the Senedd approving the regulations. Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. 

Thank you. I call on the Minister for Housing and Local Government to reply. 

No response is necessary. The Chair of the committee has already set out the answer to his own questions, and I'm very happy with that, so I call on Members to approve the regulations today. Diolch.

Thank you. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? I don't see any objections, therefore the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

11. Debate: The Third Supplementary Budget 2020-21

Item 11 on our agenda this afternoon is a debate on the third supplementary budget of 2020-21, and I call on the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd to move the motion, Rebecca Evans. 

Motion NDM7622 Rebecca Evans

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 20.30:

1. Approves the Third Supplementary Budget for the financial year 2020-21 laid in the Table Office on Tuesday, 2 March 2021.

2. Notes that the category of accruing resources for the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales under Part 2 of Schedule 4 of the Supplementary Budget Motion on page 22 is revised to include ‘repayment of pension surplus’ as reflected in the Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Public Services Ombudsman Wales to the Finance Committee for consideration at its meeting on 15 January 2021.

3. Further notes the corresponding adjustments to Schedule 6 on pages 27 and 28 to correctly reconcile the resources requested by decreasing the Public Services Ombudsman Wales’ Resource DEL by £974,000, increasing Resource AME by £974,000 and increasing the Resource DEL Unallocated Reserve by £974,000.

Motion moved.

Thank you. This supplementary budget presents the Welsh Government's final spending plans for the current financial year. It revises the financing and expenditure plans approved by the Senedd in the second supplementary budget in November. It increases the overall Welsh resources by £2 billion. This is a further 8 per cent increase on the position set out in the second supplementary budget and reflects a total increase of more than 32 per cent on spending plans set at the beginning of the year. 

In this supplementary budget, Welsh Government fiscal spending plans have increased by £2.13 billion. This includes £318 million for the reconstruction package announced in October, along with key allocations that continue to support the Government's response to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. A total of £660 million has been provided for business support through to the end of March. This includes £134.5 million of additional funding for the firebreak lockdown in October, an additional £5 million for the discretionary support fund, and £220 million targeted support for the ERF business restrictions fund, and sector-specific support. So, £12.2 million has been allocated for the cultural recovery fund to provide essential support to theatres, music venues, heritage sites, libraries, museums, galleries and independent cinemas, and includes the first freelancer fund in the UK. 

We have allocated £32 million to provide a £500 payment to support people who have been asked to self-isolate, or parents and carers of children who have been asked to self-isolate by test, trace and protect services, and £16.7 million to top up statutory sick pay for social care workers. Alongside our efforts on contact tracing and self-isolation support, we are delivering the biggest vaccination programme Wales has ever seen. To ensure the success of the programme, we have allocated £27 million for the deployment of vaccines, the majority of which will be provided to health boards. Sixty-nine million pounds has been provided for hardship support for higher and further education to support the many students who have faced upheaval due to the pandemic, and we continue to support local authorities with an additional £30.7 million for the council tax reduction scheme and loss of council tax.

In addition to these measures in response to the pandemic, some £825 million has been allocated in this supplementary budget to support other areas, such as £62 million for city and growth deals, providing £36 million to the Swansea bay city region deal, £16 million to the north Wales growth deal and £10 million for the Cardiff city deal. Thirty million pounds has been added to address the cost incurred in dealing with the recovery from the impact of flooding in February 2020, and for coal tip safety. A £270 million extension of the Wales flexible investment fund has been added, and £50 million to support local authority capital maintenance costs for schools.

I would like to thank the Finance Committee for their scrutiny of this third supplementary budget, and I will fully consider and respond to its six recommendations for the Welsh Government in due course, but I can say now that I am minded to accept them. I welcome the committee's recognition of the challenges faced this year regarding engagement and communication with the UK Government, both in respect of the need for clear, systematic changes to the funding process, and on specific issues such as infrastructure for Welsh ports and the lack of detail on the UK shared prosperity fund. I also acknowledge the committee's recommendation for continued transparency of Welsh Government spending in its annual outturn report, and my commitment to our agreed protocol that established this important element of our reporting framework.

I ask Members to support the motion. 

15:55

Thank you. Can I now call the Chair of the Finance Committee, Llyr Gruffydd? 

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer, and it's a pleasure to speak in this debate today on behalf of the Finance Committee. The committee met on 24 February to consider the Welsh Government’s third supplementary budget for 2020-21. As the Chamber will know, having a third supplementary budget is very unusual, but it does reflect perhaps the continued impact of COVID-19. So, we're grateful to the Minister for bringing this supplementary budget forward and the transparency afforded to the Senedd.

This budget consolidates adjustments arising from the UK Government’s supplementary estimates, and we heard that this regularises allocations to and from reserves, and transfers between and within portfolios. It also includes adjustments to the budgets of the Senedd Commission, the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales and Audit Wales.

During the second supplementary budget, many of the committee’s recommendations related to the issue of transparency. This situation hasn’t changed, and although we recognise that the pandemic continues to put a strain on the fiscal framework, it has been difficult for the committee and this Senedd to have a clear picture of the funding being made available to the Welsh Government. Our first recommendation is that the Welsh Government continues to press the UK Government for clear, systematic changes to the funding process in relation to the structure of UK fiscal events.

There's been an increase of £244.5 million to the health and social services main expenditure group compared with the second supplementary budget, and we believe that this is prudent given the continued uncertainty up until the end of this financial year. The pandemic has had a significant impact on local authority incomes and this will continue into the next financial year. Of course, throughout the pandemic the Welsh Government has provided emergency funding to local authorities, with the majority of that through the local authority hardship fund. We would like reassurances from the Welsh Government that the funding provided to local authorities is taking full account of the differential impact of COVID-19 on local authority incomes.

The situation has also had an impact on the ability of the third sector to raise revenue. It plays a key role in providing support and services to support health, social and local services. Whilst we welcome the additional funding provided within the third supplementary budget for the discretionary assistance fund and the third sector response fund, the level of additional funding is modest in comparison to the support given to health services, for example. The Welsh Government should therefore confirm that the additional funding provided fully reflects the impact on different areas and organisations within the third sector. 

This supplementary budget is the first since the EU trade deal was agreed. The Minister told us that discussions with the UK Government were ongoing regarding funding of the infrastructure costs to update ports. We recommend that the Welsh Government provides an update on these discussions when that is possible.

The UK shared prosperity fund has remained of interest to the committee since 2017, when the UK Government first announced that it would replace EU structural funds. At that time, very little detail was known, and the situation hasn’t improved much despite efforts made by the committee and the Welsh Government to access information on how this fund will be allocated or administered. Tomorrow, the Finance Committee, along with members of the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee, will take evidence from the Secretary of State and we will be pursuing these funding changes. We recommend that the Welsh Government continues to put pressure on the UK Government to ensure a fair funding settlement for Wales and that Wales does not miss out on one single penny.

As mentioned at the outset, this budget motion also includes adjustments to the budgets of the Senedd Commission, the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales and Audit Wales, and the committee is content with the variation in these budgets.

Finally, we are pleased that the UK Treasury has agreed that the Welsh Government can carry forward £650 million funding that was provided late in the financial year, in addition to the current limits to the Wales reserve. I would like to reiterate that the committee supports end-of-year flexibility. Having flexibility over borrowing limits, too, and reserves, would help the Welsh Government in its planning, particularly in the current circumstances. Thank you.

16:00

This month's Finance Committee report, as you've heard, on the Welsh Government's third supplementary budget for 2020-21 reports that this allocates almost £1.3 billion additional fiscal resource and almost £837 million in capital, with the main increases in economy and transport, housing and local government, and education. The backdrop is the £5.2 billion provided by the UK Government to the Welsh Government to combat the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The additional £650 million this financial year brings this to £5.85 billion, on top of £1.4 billion increased Welsh Government funding for 2020-21 following increased spending on public services in England. The UK Chancellor of the Exchequer has already confirmed that the Welsh Government will have at least an additional £1.3 billion to spend in next year's budget, and his budget last week added a further £740 million of funding to the Welsh Government. The Finance Committee recommends that the Welsh Government continues to press the UK Government for clear, systematic changes to the funding process in relation to the structure of UK fiscal events.

Further, the Minister told us that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury did allow a degree of flexibility in terms of carrying forward any consequentials generated through the operation of the Barnett formula over and above the £5.2 billion guaranteed funding previously confirmed on 23 December. So, the supplementary budget details the £660 million that will be carrying over into next year, and that is because of the very late notification. However, she fails to acknowledge that the excuse constantly given by the Welsh Government for its slow responses to just about everything, the COVID-19 pandemic, also applies to other Governments, and that, despite this, the UK Treasury worked closely with all three devolved Governments this financial year. As the Chief Secretary to the Treasury stated in his 23 February letter to the Finance Committee, officials have had even more frequent engagement; a full breakdown of 2021-22 funding was provided at the spending review 2020 last November, and they will also publish the next iteration of block grant transparency later this year, which will, again, include a full and detailed breakdown of funding. In reality, therefore, the Minister doth protest too much to justify carrying forward so much funding to spend at a later date.

As our report also states, reassurance is required from the Welsh Government that the funding provided to local authorities is taking full account of the differential impact of COVID-19 on local authority incomes. And the committee recognises that the role that the third sector plays in providing services that support health, social and local services has also been impacted in terms of ability to raise revenue. The level of additional funding that this sector is receiving is modest in comparison, as the Chair said, to the support given to the health service, and that will cost the health service dear.

16:05

You only need to read the explanatory notes with this third supplementary budget and you will see what an unprecedented year this has been. I'm sure we can all agree to that. Huge allocations like this within financial years isn't something that we've traditionally seen as part of the usual budgetary processes over the years.

May I praise the comments made by Llyr Gruffydd as Chair of the Finance Committee and make some further comments of my own? I understand the temptation for the Conservatives to say, as soon as any funding becomes available, 'Well, spend it immediately', but I do believe, generally speaking, that caution and holding some funds in reserve has been important, particularly when, on the one hand, you consider that the landscape has been evolving from month to month over the past year, but also that there is a symptom here of the fact that the Welsh fiscal system isn't one that works for us, particularly at such a challenging time.

I'll refer to two issues. First of all, the Barnett formula has proved to be a very ineffective tool—far too simplistic in how it distributes funding from Whitehall to the devolved Governments. I can take you back to one of the earliest papers written by Wales Fiscal Analysis at Cardiff University at the beginning of the pandemic, which suggested that allocating funds on a population basis wouldn't reflect the specific challenges posed by COVID for public services in Wales. And they were quite right; Wales has a higher proportion of older people and people with health complaints than is the case in England, something that isn't taken into account by what's described as the 'needs-based factor'. The paper also suggested that although the Welsh Government made a commitment to provide the same support for businesses through business rate relief and so on as is provided in England, the cost of providing that support wouldn't necessarily be provided for sufficiently by Barnett consequentials. I'll quote from the paper:

'For instance, Wales has a higher share of retail, leisure and hospitality properties (43%) compared to England (38%)—though this is likely to be offset by their lower average rateable values. Their lower rateable values meant that a relatively larger share of Welsh premises (75%) qualify for the £10,000 grant compared to England (70%). This is despite the fact that the grant is only made available to businesses with a rateable value of less than £12,000 in Wales, whereas businesses with a rateable value of between £12,000 and £15,000 are also eligible for this support in England.'

I think that the paper was right. On the publication of that report, Plaid Cymru argued that there should have been, at the very least, temporary reforms made to the formula, for example including a specific coronavirus needs-based factor. But ultimately, I think the pandemic has shown that we need that sort of longer term reform of Barnett, and we need it urgently.

The second issue is the inflexibilities placed on the Welsh Government in terms of the ability to borrow and draw down from the Wales reserve. I certainly—as did the Finance Committee—welcome the fact that there has been some budging by the Treasury on this, in reference to their agreement to allow £650 million to be carried over to the 2021-22 budget. But, we are still in no better position in terms of the Government's actual fiscal powers than we were at the beginning of the pandemic. The Minister has repeatedly said that the Welsh Government are in talks with the UK Government on addressing these inflexibilities. We are none the wiser really as to how those talks have gone, or are going, which suggests to me that things aren't going well; little surprise, given the fact that Government hasn't been willing to do things that it has been able to do—for example, borrow. I will quote Gerry Holtham here:

'Failing to borrow in two successive financial years'—

that's 2019-20 and 2020-21—

'seems unambitious.' I agree with him. So, Dirprwy Lywydd, these are unprecedented times. There's a lot in this supplementary budget—the third one, remarkably—to welcome here. But, what this financial year has shown is that the Government cannot afford to bury collective heads in the sand on the need to move forward on Wales's fiscal autonomy.

16:10