Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

08/06/2021

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

Statement by the Llywydd

Welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in hybrid format, with some Members in the Senedd Chamber and others joining by video-conference. All Members participating in proceedings of the Senedd, wherever they may be, will be treated equally. A Plenary meeting held using video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's 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, and apply equally to Members in the Chamber as to those joining virtually.

13:30
1. Questions to the First Minister

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

Flood Prevention

1. Will the First Minister make a statement on the action taken to prevent flooding in South Wales Central following the 2020 floods? OQ56563

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Since February 2020, the Welsh Government has invested over £12 million in flood risk management across South Wales Central. This includes over £3 million for emergency repairs. The creation of a Minister for Climate Change illustrates our determination to play Wales's part in the long-term risks of flooding.

Thank you, First Minister, for outlining that support. In terms of those affected, be that in terms of their homes or businesses, although they're grateful for the funding and support, they still haven't had the answers that they need in terms of what happened and why, and whether there was anything that could have been done differently to prevent this destructive flooding. If we truly want to learn the necessary lessons of these flooding events and provide support to those affected, isn't it now time for us to commission an independent inquiry as a matter of urgency into all recent flooding events throughout Wales so that Government investment is rightly targeted rather than being reactive as it is at the moment?

Well, the previous Senedd had the opportunity to hear the case for an independent inquiry, and the previous Senedd didn't agree with that and I don't agree with that now either. The local authorities have been focusing on the practical things that they can do to respond to everything that has happened since the floods. Local authority reports are still being prepared. Julie James has a meeting tomorrow with the leader of Rhondda Cynon Taf council to discuss the report on Pentre.

The Law Commission will tomorrow publish a document—we asked them to put together that document—which talks about future law and how we can do more to safeguard communities that have suffered as a result of floods and the impact of floods too. So, as a Government, we are focusing on investment, the practical steps that we can take to improve the situation for people, and we don't agree that we should allocate funding and time and take people out of that work to do things to respond to an independent report that we don't think would be of great assistance to local people.

First Minister, Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council has not met its joint housing land availability study targets for a number of years, and, as a result, this has seen a glut of speculative applications being submitted for the council to consider, with many of these previously being rejected for inclusion within its local development plan. Among these applications have been several for residential developments either on or near floodplains, with Ystrad Barwig Farm proposals in Llantwit Fardre being a particular stand-out application, as it's proposed for development on a C2 floodplain, which is one of the worst classifications for a floodplain. Despite it being contrary to 'Planning Policy Wales' and technical advice note 15, Rhondda Cynon Taf council approved this application twice, only for the Welsh Government to intervene and refuse permission on each occasion. With this in mind, what steps will the Welsh Government take to reinforce the message that vulnerable developments should not be built on or near floodplains? Thank you.

Llywydd, I thank the Member for that supplementary question, and he's right that the Welsh Government has strengthened the actions that we have taken and the advice that we provide to prevent developments on vulnerable land and land that could be vulnerable to flooding in the future. We know that the nature of climate change is such that incidents of extreme weather on the topography of south Wales does make us more vulnerable to flooding today than we were in the past. And it is right, therefore, that the standards that we expect when planning permission is being given for residential development take that fully into account. Of course we communicate that directly in the many meetings we have with our local authorities, and I imagine that there is no more powerful way of communicating that message than when Welsh Ministers do call in planning applications and take a different view to that which the local authority had originally concluded.

13:35

First Minister, we are seeing flooding events more often now throughout the south Wales Valleys, where the intensity of rainfall and the storms and the narrow valleys overwhelm rivers and erode roadsides and bridges and also affect homes. However, we can do more by planting more trees on the valley sides, by building attenuation ponds to slow down the flow of water, and to ensure that every area has a water catchment management plan that is effective. First Minister, how do we bring residents and landowners together in order to prepare water catchment management plans, and what percentage of the south Wales Valleys is captured under such plans at the moment?

Llywydd, thank you very much to Huw Irranca-Davies for that question. I agree with what he said at the beginning, and what I said—when the Law Commission publishes its report tomorrow, people will be able to see the figures in that report, which draw attention to the impact that flooding has had in the Valleys during the past two decades. And the report draws upon information about the latest situation, to help us to plan for the future. Llywydd, I have seen the plans that are available in the Brecon area to plant more in order to be of assistance, and, as Huw Irranca-Davies said, to install attenuation ponds.

I don't have the actual figure for the final question the Member asked me about—the proportion of south Wales Valleys covered by a water catchment management plan, Llywydd. I do know that the local flood risk management strategies, which are a requirement of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, mean that every local community has a chance to be involved in the drafting of those strategies and a greater say in local risk management decisions. That's how we think we can get an effective approach to water catchment management, enabling communities, businesses and the public sector to work together, much in the way that Huw Irranca-Davies was suggesting.

Fire-and-rehire Practices

2. What assessment has the First Minister made of the use of fire-and-rehire practices by employers in Wales? OQ56530

I thank Mike Hedges for that question, Llywydd. Fire-and-rehire practices have been deployed by some employers in Wales. However few these instances may be, I share the view of the Prime Minister that they are unacceptable. The UK Government now needs to act to put these practices beyond the law.

Can I agree with what the First Minister has just said and thank him for his response? But the question is: what can the Welsh Government do to discourage fire and rehire? Can they use their procurement policy, can they use their financial support for businesses, to discourage this practice, which unfortunately has grown in recent years?

Well, Llywydd, Mike Hedges is right that the practice has grown in recent years. Evidence published by the TUC in January of this year said that nearly one in 10 workers had been told to reapply for their jobs on worse terms or face the sack. And further research, published in April of this year, found that 70 per cent of companies deploying these tactics were profit-making companies. They weren't companies driven to it as a last resort because of the pandemic; they were making profits, and healthy profits too—the supermarket Tesco, to mention just one company, who have done very well during the last 12 months and still deploying these tactics. Fifty per cent of those companies had claimed support from the UK Government during the pandemic. Now, we can use our economic contract, as Mike Hedges suggested, we can use our social partnership arrangements, we can work through the trade unions and those in Parliament to put pressure on the UK Government to take the legislative action they have promised.

In 2019, Llywydd, in the Queen's Speech, the UK Government promised an employment Bill. The Prime Minister described it as the largest upgrade to workers' rights in a generation, and yet that Bill has never been published. Now, if the Prime Minister is serious that fire-and-rehire practices are unacceptable, if, as Jacob Rees-Mogg says, companies should know better, if, as the Secretary of State Kwasi Kwarteng says,

'we have been very clear that this practice is unacceptable'

and the Minister responsible

'has condemned the practice in the strongest terms on many occasions in this House',

then we need the UK Government to act on that basis. Now, I'm told that, this afternoon in the House of Commons, the Minister will make a statement and will publish the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service's review of fire-and-rehire practices that the UK Government commissioned. It is good news that we will be able to see the product of that work. I hope that it will then lead to legislative action, which only the UK Government can take forward, to make sure that this practice, as I said, is put beyond the law. 

13:40

First Minister, these fire-and-rehire practices used by some employers, as you have said, have been condemned by Governments across the UK, and I understand that the UK Government has confirmed that there will be an employment Bill brought forward in due course to tackle this issue. I very much hope that this legislation will be introduced in the near future, because it could have a substantial impact on workers throughout Wales, as well as in other parts of the UK. So, it's crucial that the Welsh Government also works with the UK Government on any legislative proposals. So, can you tell us what inter-governmental discussions have taken place with the UK Government on this issue? What work has the Welsh Government done to assess the scale of the problem here in Wales, and will you publish any information gathered by the Welsh Government on this issue?

Well, Llywydd, thank you very much to Paul Davies. We have had opportunities to discuss this issue with Ministers in Westminster and, as I said in response to Mike Hedges, the UK Ministers are on the record stating that they don't think that this is acceptable. The issue is that we haven't yet seen anything to give us confidence that the words will turn into actions that we can achieve. Of course, we are more than happy to collaborate with the United Kingdom Government if they have something to put before us and that we have discussed in the social partnership council that we have. There aren't many examples that I'm aware of in Wales, but there are some—Centrica, as one example. I've received many letters back and forth with Centrica on behalf of people who work for them here in Wales. And I would also be willing, if something were to come from the UK Government, if there was a Bill for us to consider, of course, I would be willing to share information with Members here in the Senedd. 

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

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

Thank you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, the last 14, 15 months have been traumatic for many people in all parts of Wales. One of the things that Governments in other parts of the United Kingdom are undertaking at the moment is commissioning public inquiries, so that we can understand what decisions were taken, and what decisions were good and what decisions were bad, and how we need to prepare for future pandemics. Now that you have a new mandate, First Minister, will you be commissioning a specific Wales public inquiry to look back on the pandemic and look forward to what we need to prepare for a future pandemic? 

13:45

No, Llywydd, I won't be doing that, because I've agreed with his Government in Westminster that we will be part of the public inquiry that the Prime Minister has announced. As far as I am aware, that is the only public inquiry that is proposed in the United Kingdom. I've had the opportunity to discuss that with senior members of the Government in Westminster. I have put the point to them that I believe there must be specific chapters in that inquiry that deal with the experience here in Wales, and deal with it exclusively, but I've agreed with the Prime Minister and with Michael Gove, the Minister in charge of the Cabinet Office, that a single UK-wide inquiry, with the force that it will have, with the capacity that it will have to see the interconnected nature of many of the decisions that have been made across the United Kingdom, is the best way to shine a light on the way in which those many distressing experiences that people have had in Wales in this extraordinary time can be properly understood and an account of them given.

I think that's regrettable, First Minister, because, as very often you've said—and rightly said—the decisions made in Wales affect people in Wales and you've called for more powers in various areas to obviously strengthen the hand of the Government here in Wales on many matters. Regrettably, we know 7,860 people have died here in Wales because of the pandemic. Many people, obviously, are dealing with long COVID, and as we speak people are being admitted, albeit in far smaller numbers, thankfully, due to the success of the vaccine programme, into hospitals because of COVID and its continuing variants across the length and breadth of Wales. But it is a fact that unique decisions were taken specifically for Wales, whether they be around hospitals, care homes or the restrictions, and the differences those restrictions have had on Welsh commerce and business, because, obviously, your Government is responsible in those areas. So, I'd encourage you, First Minister, to look again at the possibility of a Wales-wide specific inquiry, because ultimately those decisions were made here in Wales, and those decisions need to be tested here in Wales by an independent public inquiry. I'm sure many of the people who have been affected by the outfall of COVID would expect an independent inquiry to be held here in Wales.

Well, Llywydd, let me deal with the first part of the Member's question first, because I think there are some important things just to make sure are understood and in the public domain, because not all Members may have seen the figures published just an hour or two ago by Public Health Wales—the latest figures setting out the number of delta variant cases in Wales today. The number has gone up since Friday by a further 81 new cases, to stand now at 178. It was 51 when we met here—. Well, we didn't meet here, did we? A week ago today, when the figures were published, it was 51, and it went up to 97 on Friday, and it's 178 today. When the leader of the opposition points to the significance of the pandemic in Wales and the fact that there are still things that are troubling and need to be watched very carefully, those figures, I think, give us all real pause for thought.

I don't disagree with what he said about unique decisions being made here in Wales. I don't disagree with what he said about the need for a proper inquiry, an independent inquiry, to be made into the way in which the responsibilities that are held here should be discharged. But as I've said, I have agreed not only with the Prime Minister, but with the First Ministers of Scotland and of Northern Ireland, that a UK-wide independent inquiry, encompassing the unique experiences and decisions made in different parts of the United Kingdom, but capable, therefore, of looking as well at the wider context within which those decisions were made, the interconnected nature of many of them—. Many times, he has made points here in the Chamber, and again, they've been fair points when he's made them, that the ways in which we make decisions in Wales are inevitably interconnected with decisions that are made across our border. The inquiry that the Prime Minister has proposed, and the undertakings that his Government have given that we will be involved in setting the terms of reference for that inquiry, and the points that I will go on making about the need for the inquiry to have sections in it that are specific to Wales, and make sure that people in Wales have the answers to the questions they may have, I continue to believe that that is the best way to give people the most insightful account of the way in which the events of the last 15 months have worked themselves out in Wales and the way in which decisions have been made here.

13:50

As I said in my response to your first question, I do regret the fact that there will not be—in your view, anyway—an independent public inquiry specifically here in Wales, commissioned by yourself as First Minister. Some people might say that that's running away from scrutiny and accountability for the decisions that you were taking as a Government, because that's what's required here is the sunlight of a public inquiry into those decisions, and above all, to put the preparations in place for any future pandemic we might face, First Minister. I would be grateful if, at your earliest convenience, you could make a statement available to explain exactly how the UK-wide inquiry will look at the Wales-specific decisions, which I appreciate that you've given some information on in your response to me this afternoon, but it is vitally important that Senedd Members understand exactly how Wales's experience will be reflected in that inquiry.

And I, again, put on the record from the Welsh Conservatives' point of view that we believe that there should be a Wales-wide public inquiry to look into the very specific issues that Wales had to deal with and, importantly, the decisions that Welsh Government Ministers took.

Well, Llywydd, of course, as more details of how the inquiry will be conducted become available—and we'll be part of the discussions about that—I will certainly make sure that statements are provided to Members here too, so that they are as up-to-date on all of that as possible. There's nothing that the Member has said about the need for an inquiry, the nature or the purpose of the inquiry that I disagree with.

I do just have to say to him, though, it's not just my view that there should be a UK-wide inquiry; it is the view of the Conservative Government of the United Kingdom. So, I think, in that case, if he feels strongly that a different decision should be made, then I think that he should be taking that up with the Prime Minister as well. He's a member of that party, he's the leader of that party in the Senedd, and when he says to me that it is my view, as though it is some idiosyncratic view of the First Minister in Wales, let me just tell him again: I have agreed with the Prime Minister; I have agreed with the First Ministers of other parts of the United Kingdom that the best way to provide the information that the people in Wales need is by being part of that UK inquiry.

Thank you very much, Llywydd. A fortnight ago, I was wishing the First Minister well on his re-election and today I'm wishing the leader of Plaid Cymru well as he begins his period of paternity leave, and I'm sure that everyone would wish to send their best wishes to Adam and family.

In March, the Royal College of Nursing said that three quarters of their members had reported an increase in work pressures, over half said that staff morale had declined, and one in three stated that they were thinking about leaving the profession, with over half stating that wage levels were the reason for that. We expect the NHS pay review body to make its recommendations later this month, and I fully expect you to say that you will await those recommendations, but do please give us an idea of what you think is fair, and you can refer, if you wish, to the 1 per cent increase suggested in Westminster and the 4 per cent that has been agreed in Scotland.

Llywydd, of course I would join Rhun ap Iorwerth in sending our best wishes to Adam and his family too.

We have provided information to the body that makes recommendations on salaries in the health service and it is now up to them to come to conclusions. That is why we have an independent panel in place to do that work. There is one thing that's clear, and I need to get this on the record for Members now: on the possibility of us paying more than the funding provided to us through the Barnett formula, well, there is no scope for us to do that. The funding provided to us in Wales is reliant on decisions taken by Ministers in Westminster on wages and salaries, and we are then provided with a Barnett consequential.

I have been in this position as Minister for health, where the only thing that we could discuss and negotiate with the royal college and the unions was how we could use the funds. We don't have the scope to raise more funding, but we can use that funding differently when we know what we'll be provided with.

13:55

It's your prerogative, of course, to prioritise expenditure. I believe that health and care staff are a priority, and I think that the past year has shown that. What the RCN has said is that the last year has underlined problems that already existed: work pressures, low morale and the lack of staff, of course. 

The Welsh Government doesn't publish figures on empty posts in terms of nursing. Estimates suggest that it could be around 1,600. A salary increase would certainly help with the recruitment and retention of staff. The health Minister, in an interview on Sunday, wasn't willing to confirm whether the Government would be implementing the recommendations of the independent group. She was asked whether it would be implemented if the recommendation was significantly above 1 per cent. Her response was:

'I guess we will go beyond 1 per cent.' This shouldn't be a guessing game when it comes to band 5 registered nurses on less than £25,000 a year. But, if we use again Scotland's agreed 4 per cent increase as a reference point, are you happy to say here now that nurses here won't receive a lower settlement than that?

Well, what I'll say, Llywydd, is what I've said already. We've provided our evidence to the independent review body. We'll wait to see what they have to say. There's no point in setting up bodies and going through the process if you want me to second guess, before they've reported, what the Welsh Government might do. We will wait and we will see what they conclude.

Of course the Welsh Government wants to make sure that front-line workers are properly paid for the work that they do. I agree with what many have said, that the 1 per cent offer that the UK Government appeared to put on the table for healthcare staff, after everything that they have done for us in the last 12 months, simply wasn't adequate to reflect that contribution. But, there is a process that is in play and the Member will have to wait, just as we do, to see where that process takes us, how much money it brings to us here in Wales, and what we are then able to do with it. We will do that in the way that we always have, in partnership with the trade union movement—those who represent those staff—looking always to do the very best that we can for them.

You'll know that, in the recent election, I outlined Plaid Cymru's plans to ensure that care workers would also be recognised with a fair pay settlement. To us, that was part of creating a national health and care service, moving care workers onto NHS pay scales. You promised to pay care workers the real living wage. So, at the very least, let's see that implemented without delay.

In that same interview, actually, on Sunday, the health and care Minister said that your Government will do that as soon as you can. But, I think that we need to do better than that in terms of giving a timescale. So, let me give you this opportunity during Carers Week to give that promise that there will be no delay. 'As soon as we can', I think, is no consolation to front-line staff who have put their own safety at risk during the past extraordinary year.

Well, Llywydd, I thank Rhun ap Iorwerth for drawing attention to Carers Week, which is a very important week here in Wales. We have a higher proportion of our population that provide informal care than any other part of the United Kingdom, and I was very pleased on Monday that my colleague Julie Morgan was able to make specific announcements, using money that we have set aside. It was in my own party's manifesto to make sure that respite care for carers can be improved here in Wales.

In the social partnership arrangements that we have agreed during the last 12 months, we have established a new social care forum. It's part of the social partnership forum, and it brings together the employers, the local authorities and the trade unions. They are giving us advice on how we can make sure that the money that we will invest as a Government, to make sure that people in the sector are paid the real living wage, reaches those workers rather than ending up in the profit margins of private companies. That is the only delay that there will be in the system.

It is just making sure that, with over 1,000 different employers in the sector—. It's not the same as in the health service. When I was the health Minister, we were able to agree the real living wage for health service employers, and it's very simple. There are a small number of employers, a national system, the money goes in at one end and you know where it’s going at the other. It genuinely is not like that in the social care sector, given the number of employers there are, the different scale and the different way that they operate. The social care forum is going to help us make sure that we have the mechanism in place so that the money that the Welsh Government will invest for the purposes that we share with the Member and share with Plaid Cymru, both of us in our manifestos having made this a priority—we just need to make sure, in a practical way, that that money ends up where we want it to end up. As soon we’re confident that the mechanism is there, we’ll be able to get on with that job.  

14:00
Underpayment of Pensions to Women

3. What discussions has the First Minister had with the UK Government regarding the underpayment of pensions to women by the Department for Work and Pensions? OQ56575

Can I thank Joyce Watson for that very important question? We have repeatedly and clearly relayed our concerns to the UK Government on state pension issues relating to women. I once again urge the DWP to resolve the historical underpayment of state pension to women as quickly as possible. 

We know that the underpayment of the state pension to an estimated 200,000 married women has spanned more than 20 years, and it has particularly impacted women who had a poor state pension in their own right. They were entitled to claim 60 per cent state pension based on their husband’s pension contributions. What is particularly scandalous about this error is that many of those women may not be able to claim the full amount that was underpaid to them. Women whose husbands retired before 2008 and hadn’t applied to the DWP for an increase in their pensions will only be entitled to claim a 12-month backpayment. The UK Government, of course, is saying that they wrote to those women informing them of that rule change. However, like in the Women Against State Pension Inequality scandal, many women have said they did not receive that letter. And as a WASPI woman myself, I can tell you I didn’t receive those claim letters either. First Minister, what assessment has the Welsh Government made about the impact of this significant underpayment on those women in Wales and, of course, that lost income to Wales?

Thanks very much to Joyce Watson. She set out the position, I thought, very clearly indeed. The DWP claim that women whose husbands turned 65 before 17 March 2008 were written to, and it was their responsibility to make a claim for the uplift. And yet, as more is known about all of this, it becomes clearer and clearer that that was not the case many, many times. There is evidence that the DWP, for example, wrote to the husbands of people rather than to women themselves, and those letters may never, ever have got to the people who were required to make the claim. It would be, I think, a gesture of good faith on behalf of the DWP that they would be willing to backdate those claims further than the standard 12 months. Of course, where the DWP itself was at fault—and it was at fault, we now know, in many thousands of cases—then the payments will be backdated to the time at which the claim first would have been effective.

Here in Wales, we don’t yet have the detailed information, through the DWP, of the number of women who’ve been directly affected. What we do know, Llywydd, is that the group in our population least likely to take up the benefits to which they are entitled is single women aged over 75, and that’s been the case for many years, and across many different types of benefits. We know for sure that the people who are most likely to have been adversely affected by all of this are the people who were least likely to have been in a position to put that right. So, we start from a very difficult place. We have, as Baroness Altmann, the Conservative former pensions Minister, said, an underclass of often elderly female pensioners emerging who are living on far less than they should be. Jane Hutt, in the previous Senedd, wrote to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman urging that office to prioritise the complaints received from women in this position, to try to expedite a resolution of this matter, and Welsh Ministers will continue to take up the cases of Welsh individuals who find themselves in this awful position.

14:05

First Minister, I understand that the UK Government is fully committed and has ploughed a lot of money recently into making sure that women across the country who have been affected by these areas receive the money that they are rightly owed. Can the Minister provide an update on what steps the Welsh Government are taking to make sure that women across Wales are aware, particularly that vulnerable group of over-75s that you just mentioned? How are you reaching out to them to make sure that they know that this process is ongoing and that it isn't a scam? Are you as a Government working constructively with the UK Government to rectify the situation, using some of the things that you just suggested?

Well, Llywydd, of course the Welsh Government acts to make sure that women in Wales are aware of the rights that they have. Her party, of course, went into the last election saying that it would withdraw all the money that the Welsh Government spends on non-devolved responsibilities. And what she's just asked me to do is quite certainly not a responsibility that rests with this Senedd or with the Welsh Government. Fortunately, we didn't take her party's advice. So, the single advice fund that we have put together last year helped 127,000 people dealing with nearly 300,000 welfare benefit issues, and as a result of the investment that we made, an additional £43 million has come into Wales in unclaimed benefits. In March this year, Llywydd, we had the first national take-up campaign, focused most directly on those who were affected by the pandemic. From the information we have already, an additional £650,000 was claimed in Wales as a result of that one month's campaign. So, I'm of course happy to give the Member an assurance that the Welsh Government will go on playing our part in making sure that the rights that women in this position have are publicised and known to them, and we're very pleased to work with the UK Government on it as well. What we need to see is an urgency about making sure that women, many of whom now are very elderly and who will maybe not be able to take advantage of the money that will be owing to them—we need an urgency about making sure that those women are compensated in the way that is their right.

Ending Violence against Women and Girls

Thank you very much, Llywydd, and may I first of all extend my congratulations to you once again, First Minister, on your election, and also to everyone in this Senedd? As the only Member of the Liberal Democrats, I look forward to working with you all. I'll ask the question in English. 

4. What action will the Welsh Government take to end violence against women and girls, particularly within black, Asian and minority ethnic communities? OQ56568

Thank you very much to Jane Dodds for what she said at the beginning, and huge congratulations to you, of course, as well, for asking your first question here at the Senedd this afternoon.

Llywydd, this year, the violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence revenue budget has received an uplift of more than 8 per cent compared to the year before the pandemic. Over £0.5 million of this funding is directed towards strategic planning and direct delivery of activity for black, Asian and minority ethnic victims and survivors.

Thank you very much for that answer.

Can I just follow that through with a focus on what's been happening in this COVID time? We all know that there's been a significant increase in the need for refuge places, in the need for services, and better, more focused responses to those women and children who are coming forward after these lockdown periods. I'm particularly interested to hear what issues and services will be targeted into rural areas, where we know that there are particular shortages of those effective responses and services. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Diolch yn fawr. In terms of the particular issues that have come to the surface during the pandemic period and that affect black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in the way that Jane Dodds has asked, they're the ones that will be sadly familiar on the floor of the Senedd and that my colleague Joyce Watson has often taken a lead in drawing to our attention: forced marriage, female genital mutilation, honour-based violence and abuse. All of those are matters that have been discussed at the all-Wales leadership group that the Welsh Government jointly chairs, set up to respond to all three forms of abuse, and a forum shared amongst others by BAWSO and the Crown Prosecution Service. What we have focused on in recent times is on the training of front-line staff, to make sure that they are able to recognise and to respond to these sorts of circumstances. Over 650 people were trained in the first quarter of this year, Llywydd, in the voluntary and the statutory sectors—specialist training to understand, identify and respond to instances of honour-based violence. And then because—and this is particularly true in the way that Jane Dodds said in rural areas—we have to rely on a wider range of individuals who may come into contact with people who suffer from these forms of abuse, the VAWDASV national training programme has been focusing on that wider range of workers: delivery drivers, postal workers, community pharmacists, contact tracers—people who are there in communities right across Wales and who are alerted to the risks that some of our fellow citizens find themselves running. Then they are able to spot that, report it and get action to be taken. That wider range of workers and volunteers is especially important in making sure that there is a proper safety net of services in every part of Wales.

14:10

First Minister, as you just briefly mentioned, female genital mutilation, or FGM, is a crime and is undoubtedly abuse. This practice can cause extreme and lifelong physical and psychological suffering to women and girls, and it simply cannot be tolerated. Studies have shown two of the barriers to reporting new cases of FGM. First of all, there are fears of retribution from the wider community and concerns about interference in private family life. Secondly, secrecy concerning the practice means that traditional celebrations of FGM as a right of passage for girls are no longer held in the UK, and therefore wider family and community members may be unaware of FGM having taken place, or lack concrete evidence. What is your Government doing to heighten awareness that FGM is illegal, by working with those community leaders and groups most affected, to stamp out this practice once and for all here in Wales?

I thank the Member very much for that important question. The Welsh Government works at a variety of different levels to try and make sure that there's awareness of FGM, and that information about it can be communicated in a way that people are able to understand, that has some cultural sensitivity about it, but is nevertheless absolutely clear about the unacceptability of that practice here in Wales. At one end of the spectrum, that means that doctors are under an obligation to report instances of FGM if they think that they are coming across it, and at the other end of the spectrum we have community health workers, working directly in communities, making sure that information is available in languages, in ways that are genuinely available to those communities and the people who live in them. I share the Member's concern about the issue and I want to give an assurance that the Welsh Government works across the spectrum to try to pursue the issues in the way that she suggested.

Investment in the Railway Network

5. Will the First Minister make a statement on investment in the railway network in south-west Wales? OQ56557

I thank the Member. We continue to make significant investment in the rail network in south-west Wales, including a new station at St Clears, brand new rolling stock and improvements to stations across the region. Our consultation on improving rail services in south-west Wales closes today.

I'm grateful to the First Minister for his written answer to my question relating to the Pencoed level crossing on 26 May. It's encouraging to hear that the final designs and costs of the project will be finalised this year. I fully appreciate that projects of this complexity and scale can take a significant amount of time, however I would say that whispers of this project have been around since before I was doing my GCSEs, which I was shocked to realise was actually a decade ago. But that's the length of time we are talking about here—[Interruption.] That's the length of time we are talking about, First Minister. We aren't talking about a decade between the project's start and completion; the project hasn't even started yet. The third stage of what is known as the Welsh transport appraisal guidance is set to take place this financial year, and that's the third stage out of five. Given the length of time we've been considering this project, I'd be grateful to the First Minister if he could set out a projected timeline for this project's completion. I appreciate he may not be able to give an answer now, but I would certainly welcome a more detailed written response if he feels it's more appropriate. I'm sure he's aware that this project is going to cause significant disruption to the local community, and I'm sure that they would welcome a projected timeline so that they can prepare for it.

14:15

Well, Llywydd, I thank the Member for the question. As it happens, I'm very familiar with the level crossing issues at Pencoed, because they've been raised with me very regularly by the local Member Huw Irranca-Davies, and I've even been to visit it myself to make sure that I fully understand the layout of the area and the issues that are at stake there.

There's no doubt at all that the scheme will alleviate road and rail congestion, improve journey times, mitigate flooding—thinking of an earlier question—and improve safety. The Welsh Government has provided nearly £0.5 million to complete the third stage of the WelTAG process, the final design and costing stage. It's being overseen by a steering group that meets quarterly, that includes the local constituency Member, the constituency Member of Parliament, the leader of Bridgend County Borough Council, Pencoed Town Council, Transport for Wales and, crucially, Network Rail, because, in the end, Llywydd, while we can put our money in and do our very best to get the best possible design and the most effective costings for the scheme, rail infrastructure is the responsibility of the UK Government, and Network Rail will have to take these things forward. The fact that they are at the table in the steering group is encouraging, and we will certainly work with them to make sure that this very important scheme for that area is brought to fruition. I heard what the Member said about it being 10 years—[Laughter.]—since he sat his GCSEs. When I read the briefing for this question, Llywydd, I learned that the new St Clears station will replace the one closed in 1964, and I can remember using it. [Laughter.]

Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. I congratulate you on your re-election, and I wish you all the best. First Minister, I wish you also all the best in your re-election as the First Minister. First Minister, in March, the Welsh Government consulted on the proposals for a Swansea bay and west Wales metro. One of the proposed benefits of the Swansea bay metro is to maximise the potential for stations to accelerate urban regeneration and major development site delivery. The economic value of investing in our transport network is critical. What economic impact assessment has been carried out to ensure that those benefits are maximised? Thank you.

Llywydd, I thank Altaf Hussain for the question. It's good to hear from him again on the floor of the Senedd. I said in answer to Mr Fletcher that the consultation to which Mr Hussain drew attention closed today. So far, we have around 250 responses to it, and many, many of them focus on the Swansea bay metro idea. So, of course, the Welsh Government is carrying out the necessary economic assessments of proposals to improve metro provision in the Swansea bay area, and the proposals that form the basis of the consultation look for a high-quality, integrated transport system making it easier for citizens in that part of Wales to travel, whether that's by train, by bus, by bike, or, indeed, on foot. We will now analyse the responses to the consultation, and the Minister responsible will return to the floor of the Senedd to make a statement on where the consultation will take us next.

The Future of the North Wales Economy

6. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's plans for the future of the north Wales economy? OQ56535

The Government is focused on ensuring north Wales has a stronger, greener and fairer future. We will continue our excellent working relationship with our partners across the region, anchoring the future of the economy in the north Wales growth deal. 

14:20

Thank you for that response, First Minister. One of the things that could seriously undermine the future of the north Wales economy are the proposals that your party has put forward in relation to taxation. You've already referred in your clean air Act White Paper to the prospect of a dedicated charging scheme for Wales's trunk roads. This, of course, would add cost significantly, not only for local residents but also for visitors to north Wales. And, as you will know, tourism is an extremely important player in the economy in the region. 

In addition to that, you've raised the prospect in the past of tourism taxes potentially being charged for people staying overnight in Wales. This is something that, of course, could also seriously undermine and damage the tourism industry and the wider economy in north Wales, because visitor spending, of course, would be down in shops as it's taken out of people's pockets. It would also, of course, make us less competitive with other parts of the UK that don't have such taxes. What assurances can you give to people in north Wales that you will not be introducing more taxes on roads and on tourism in the future, and that you will do everything that you can to support the economy to make it thrive, rather than undermine it?

Llywydd, I look forward to working with the Member's party on the clean air agenda. Yes, the White Paper of course includes ideas about how we can discourage use of transport forms that cause pollution to the air. That is just a very sensible additional possibility in the policy armoury. We see it being used in other parts of the United Kingdom, and there's no reason why we should define it out of the debate here in Wales. 

We will work with all those interests in north Wales, particularly through the north Wales growth deal—the £120 million that we will invest in it as a Welsh Government. I was very pleased myself to visit tourism venues in north Wales with the Minister for north Wales only a week ago. We were in Llandudno together; and I was in Llangollen with the local Member, Ken Skates. We will work with those partners to make sure that the plans that local people and local organisations are developing to create a successful future for that economy are taken forward in partnership. 

The Outdoor Pilot Scheme for Mass Gatherings

Thank you very much, Llywydd. This is the first time I've spoken, and I congratulate you on your appointment to your role as Llywydd and also congratulate the First Minister on his election. 

7. Will the First Minister make a statement on the outdoor pilot scheme for mass gatherings in Wales? OQ56554

Llywydd, congratulations to Mr Giffard for his first question here at the Senedd this afternoon. 

Llywydd, we worked closely with event organisers to establish a programme of test events, which take in a range of different locations and event types. The initial feedback from those events has helped inform the resumption of large outdoor activities in Wales, which I was able to confirm on Friday.   

Thank you, First Minister. I'd like to welcome the decision by Welsh Government to resume outdoor sporting events. As he will know, it's a vital source of income for many sports clubs in my region and across Wales, which have struggled throughout the pandemic. Will he comment on what further action he will take to ensure that more fans will be allowed to be present at these events in the future and what further support he will give these clubs?

Thank you very much to Mr Giffard for that question. Well, as he knows, as a result of Friday's announcement, standing events outdoors of up to 4,000 people, 10,000 people in a seated arena, will now be possible in Wales, subject always to a risk assessment in any individual venue. What we will do beyond that is to have a further pilot set of events in which venues where a risk assessment would have a ceiling below those figures can go beyond that ceiling where they can demonstrate that additional mitigation measures are possible and are being piloted in that venue.

So, there's lots of work still to do with the sector to make sure that we can continue to allow it to reopen, that they can welcome more people back to those venues, but always that it is done in a way that protects the health and well-being of people who turn up to watch those events or to participate in them. That does mean that further help will be necessary for the sector beyond the help that has already been announced, and the Member will be aware that in the last financial year, the cultural recovery fund was a fund of over £63 million. Ten million pounds of that went directly to the events sector. On 22 March, we announced a second phase of the cultural recovery fund; an initial £20 million set aside, a further £10 million potentially available as necessary. Six hundred applications have been received to date for that next phase, and 50 per cent of them come from the events sector. So, I can assure him that we will be working with that sector using that money, because even though Friday's announcement was good news from the sector, and I hope we'll have further good news if circumstances allow in another 10 days' time, there still will be a period in which the sector isn't able to operate at full strength and we will want to go on supporting it on that journey.

14:25
The Welsh Language in Cardiff

8. Will the First Minister make a statement on the role that the Welsh language has played in the development of Cardiff as Wales's capital city? OQ56567

Llywydd, thank you very much. Cardiff is today the home of a thriving and multicultural Welsh language community and this is part of what makes the city distinctive, and underpins its status as capital.

Thank you, First Minister. In 1936, Vale of Glamorgan farmer Lewis Williams left Tŷ'r Cymry to the Welsh speakers of Cardiff and over the years it has not only become a beacon of support for the language, but also a cultural hub as well. Sadly, as recent news reports have shown, this building is on borrowed time and no longer features in the future plans of the trustees who have recently tried to sell the property. With this in mind, what steps can the Welsh Government take to ensure that Tŷ'r Cymry remains for the benefit of the Welsh-speaking community in Cardiff?

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. I'm not familiar enough with the detail of it to be able to give him the sort of answer that the question deserves this afternoon, but I'm very happy to say that we can look at it and then I'll write to him with a follow-up reply.

2. Business Statement and Announcement

The next item is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement. Lesley Griffiths.

Member
Lesley Griffiths MS 14:28:14
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch, Llywydd. I've added three statements to today's agenda. The Minister for Health and Social Services will deliver a statement update on coronavirus, the Minister for Social Justice will deliver a statement on EU settled status, and finally, the Deputy Minister for Social Services will deliver a statement on the respite and short breaks fund for unpaid carers. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.

Business Minister, I'd like to ask for a statement from the Deputy Minister for sport. I'm not sure if you're aware of the seismic change that's happening in women's football in Wales at present, but it is clear from cross-party discussions that I've had with other Members across the Senedd that everybody here has the main sole aim of improving women's football here in Wales and making sure it's both competitive and that it succeeds. I praise the Football Association of Wales for recognising the need for investment and reforming our women's game here in Wales as there is a dire need for investment in our clubs, and we do need to be more competitive in the UK and on a global stage. However, my praise there ends, business Minister, as the administrative relegation process that has been used to try and achieve this aim is both questionable and unfair.

Teams across my region have been left disheartened and baffled by recent FAW announcements of which Welsh clubs are to be relegated. There seems to be not only a lack of transparency in the process itself on how the FAW reached the conclusions of who is to be relegated, which raises many questions in itself, but also an equally bewildering lack of weight given to the sporting merit, the performance on the pitch. The prime example has to be Abergavenny Women, who in my region of South Wales East have achieved fourth in the league, are highly competitive, and are doing very well against bigger clubs in the area. Yet they have now been relegated, not because of their abilities on the pitch, because they've achieved fourth in the league, but perhaps a lack of support from the FAW in just filling out forms. Restructure and investment are needed in the women's game here in Wales, but not in this way. As the FAW, through the sports council for Wales, receives significant moneys from the Welsh Government, it is therefore right that the Deputy Minister now intervenes, and I, alongside many people across this Chamber, will now ask that she asks for clarity from the FAW and that they relook at this process, particularly in this transitional year. 

All credit to Dawn Bowden, the new Deputy Minister for sport, she has already asked for a briefing on this, but it is now right, Business Minister, that she now makes a statement on the process and future of this seismic change in women's sport here in Wales, and how the process, agreed cross-party, has fallen short, falling far short of the standards required of a Government body. Thank you.

14:30

My answer will be a lot shorter than the question, I can assure you, Llywydd. 

I do understand that the FAW's restructure of the women's domestic game has resulted in a number of changes, including a smaller league for the next season. It is a matter for the FAW, as the national governing body for football here in Wales, but you are quite right—Dawn Bowden, the Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport, has asked her officials to meet with the FAW and to provide her with further information, and I will ask her to make a statement to the Chamber following that further information. 

Good afternoon. If you came through Dwyfor Meirionnydd, you would have seen, unfortunately, a number of public buildings that have closed and are sitting empty, be they chapels or pubs and so on. Can we have a statement about what additional support you can provide to ensure that communities can take ownership of those public resources to develop community plans and schemes that will strengthen the circular economy and ensure that events such as happened in Pistyll, as that community lost Bethania, will not happen again in future?

Diolch, Mabon ap Gwynfor, for that question. You will be aware that we do have the community facilities programme available. That has been our main scheme for many years now, and it's been very good to see the number of public buildings coming back into ownership, communities taking over the running of those buildings. I understand the next round of funding will be available in the very near future. 

Minister, while we await the long-awaited devolution of policing to Wales, could I ask for one statement? And it's on the current approach that we have in Wales to engagement with the public, neighbourhood organisations and elected representatives on the matter of police and community safety. I have some worries that the original framework of PACT meetings—Police and Communities Together—which, even though not perfect and highly variable from place to place, did allow for regular, systematic, outward-facing engagement with the public and setting of policing and community safety priorities—. I'm worried that it's been gradually eroded over time. It may, in fact, need a full reboot, and I've written today to the police commissioner and chief constable in my own area, and my two local authority leaders, for their response on this matter as well. 

So, could we have a Welsh Government statement on this, which could include an assessment of the state of public engagement on policing and community safety, and that very important community priority setting in Wales on neighbourhood and community safety? It could also deal with the matters of whether we have underreporting of crimes and anti-social behaviour at present, as well as the effective deployment of police and community support officers and reporting of local crime and nuisance statistics too. So, that's my one request, and I think it's a reasonable one, because our devolved powers definitely stretch to this area even though we don't have policing devolved yet.

Thank you. And, as you say, tackling crime and anti-social behaviour are not directly devolved matters, but, of course, many of the drivers that do impact on community safety are, and we do everything we can to make the people of Wales feel safe. We've protected the investment in additional Welsh Government-funded PCSOs for the 2021-22 financial year; we've got a budget of £18.5 million. And of course, as Huw's aware, we committed in our manifesto to funding a further 100 PCSOs in this next term of Government. We have a very strong relationship with the four Welsh police forces, and we've got regular engagement with the lead police and crime commissioner on matters that do affect policing and community safety. You'll also be aware we have the policing and partnerships in Wales board. That's chaired by either the First Minister or the Minister for Social Justice, and that does provide an opportunity to develop shared strategic priorities to ensure that Welsh communities are safe, strong and resilient.

14:35

First Minister—. I do apologise. Residents in Chepstow continue to be concerned about the unacceptable levels of traffic congestion and pollution. This problem has been made worse by householding in the neighbouring Forest of Dean, which has exacerbated rush-hour traffic. An initial engineering report into constructing a bypass has taken place, and for this to progress a second report is required, detailing all options, estimating costs, and consulting with the public. The cost of construction will need to be shared between the Welsh Government, UK Government, Monmouthshire and Gloucestershire county councils. Will you commit to working with the other stakeholders to deliver the bypass that Chepstow so badly needs?

Thank you. I'm sure the Minister for Climate Change, who will have responsibility for this policy area, will continue to have discussions with the UK Government, local authorities, and any other partners.

As we enter a summer of football, I'd ask for a statement on the importance of the game at a grass-roots level. And I would add my voice in asking for the Government's stance on the recent restructuring of women's football in Wales. Two teams in my region—Abergavenny WFC and Cascade Ladies—have been relegated from the Welsh premier women's league. The knock-on effect of the restructuring will also see Coed Duon Women drop to the third tier. Now, these are proud and successful teams—they're part of the community—and the decision has been heartbreaking for players, coaches and supporters. I realise that the reason for the restructuring is meant to be about strengthening the domestic game in Wales, but I've had constituents contact me to question the process, to ask why sporting merit, as has been raised, played such a small part in the scoring system, because surely how teams perform on the pitch should be crucial to a decision like this. And questions have also been raised about whether clubs' finances and whether they happen to have access to good infrastructure counted for more than what they've achieved. Moreover, each club's scores haven't been published, which raises questions about transparency. Now, Trefnydd, I realise that these are questions for the FAW, but this decision will have a significant impact on women's participation in football in these areas. This is something that the Government has to have a stance on. So, could we please have a statement recognising the important role of women's football and grass-roots sports? And can the Government also say whether they would support an independent review of the restructuring process?

Thank you. I hope you heard my answer to Laura Jones at the start of my questions today. And I have committed the Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport to bring forward a statement after she has received further information from her officials. You're quite right—you only have to look on social media to see how much upset and distress this has caused.

Can you guess what I'm going to ask about? [Laughter.] I think the FAW's ineptitude has actually done the service in this Chamber of bringing together the Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party, because we are absolutely united on this. And Delyth Jewell, Laura Jones, Peter Fox and myself and others—and Dave Rees also, for Briton Ferry—have had these conversations. We are deeply concerned. Cascade Ladies YC—it's my hometown, it was where I was born, where I was brought up. We've got grave concerns about the effect that this will have on grass-roots football in South Wales East, which will have no representation in the women's premier league. At the very least, given the investment the Welsh Government has put into grass-roots sport, we deserve transparency, and that is what we are jointly calling for—Delyth, Laura, myself and others are calling for that transparency. And I think the Welsh Government is entirely entitled to ask for the Welsh FA to explain their thinking and reconsider.

Thank you. I don't think I can really add anything further, but I absolutely understand why so many Members have been keen to raise this and to seek a statement from Welsh Government. I also—. Perhaps I could add that I would encourage clubs themselves to ensure that their concerns are raised with the FAW, because I think it's really important the FAW understand the way people feel about this, and, as you say, it has brought a consensus across the Chamber. 

14:40

I call for a Welsh Government statement on support for wedding venues in Wales. When I questioned the First Minister about wedding receptions two weeks ago, contrasting the UK Government provision in England with ongoing Welsh Government restrictions, the First Minister replied, 

'I have huge sympathy for those many families who have arranged and rearranged wedding receptions.... But I make no apologies at all'.

However, the struggling owner of one wedding venue in Flintshire e-mailed that 'new grants are so low they're offering me approximately £7,000 top line to cover the end of March to date. I understand the risks with COVID, but we either need a realistic grant offer or to open up fully, as, at this rate, it's only a matter of time before we'll have to close.' And the general manager of a wedding venue near Llangollen e-mailed yesterday, 'Last week, Mr Drakeford's comments during the update have had a catastrophic result on weddings due to take place this summer. They—Welsh Government—have told us that we won't receive any further news until the next review on 21 June. Wedding venues, suppliers and couples just cannot wait that long. Welsh businesses will suffer. We've all experienced bookings cancelling and moving their bookings to England for weddings in late July and August. It's just another devastating blow. Is there anything you could do, or anyone you can speak to to help us?' Well, that's what I'm doing, and I call for an urgent statement from the Welsh Government accordingly. 

Thank you. Obviously, the First Minister made an announcement last Friday on the latest review of COVID regulations, and the next review will be on 25 June, as Mark Isherwood referred to. The First Minister has said that, as we obviously open up more sectors and more parts of society, we will need to look at what other parts of the sectors are closed and whether we need to do specific funding for them, because we still have some funding available, and obviously wedding venues is an area that we can certainly look at. Obviously, there was an announcement on Friday about the number of people who can go to a wedding inside and outside, and that has to be risk assessed. So, if you have an organisation that's organising the wedding for you then obviously they can undertake that risk assessment. But this is something that the Cabinet is keeping under review. 

Trefnydd, you'll be aware that, as we've heard today, the plans for the Swansea bay and west Wales metro have recently been out for consultation, and today being the deadline for the receipt of comments. Plaid Cymru has long argued for a metro in South Wales West, of course, but we believe that the metro must include rail and light rail services to our Valleys communities and cannot just be centred on Swansea and other major towns. I believe that we must give serious consideration to the potential reintroduction of passenger rail or light rail services into the whole of the Swansea and Amman valleys. There are also gaps in terms of transport options into other valleys, such as the Dulais, Neath and Afan valleys. Can you ensure that the relevant Minister updates the Senedd on its policy and plans to ensure the linking of these Valleys communities to towns and cities in south-west Wales? And what commitment can you give that this will form part of the Welsh Government's agenda over the next five years? Diolch. 

Diolch. You may have heard the First Minister say that the Minister for Climate Change, who will be the Minister with responsibility for this area, will obviously make a statement following the consultation. Usually the first process, after a consultation of this kind, is to publish the responses, and I am sure the Minister for Climate Change will do that. 

Can I call on the economy Minister to make a statement on the financial support that the Welsh Government is making available to organisers of music festivals, agricultural shows and other outdoor events due to the impact that the 2m social distancing rule has on capacity? Many events are facing a second summer of disruption, and some have already made the difficult decision, once again, to cancel this year. The Pembrokeshire Agricultural Society, who run the second largest agricultural show in Wales, have taken the tough decision last year to make their staff redundant to safeguard the future of their show, and are currently running their operations through volunteers. Events such as this are key to the local rural economies and we must ensure that they have the support needed to restart when the pandemic allows. 

14:45

Thank you. Again, you will have heard the announcement the First Minister made last Friday in relation to outdoor events, and this is certainly one of the sectors that we have supported over the last 15 months. In relation to agricultural shows, obviously that sits within my portfolio, and so I'm very well aware of the decisions taken by the Pembrokeshire society. Again, I commissioned a piece of work to look at how we do fund the agricultural shows—this was ahead of the pandemic, but clearly that has had an impact. But we hope, certainly next year, that those shows will be able to be held. 

Thank you, Trefnydd. 

We will now suspend proceedings briefly to allow some changeovers in the Siambr. 

Plenary was suspended at 14:45.

14:55

The Senedd reconvened at 14:56, with the Llywydd in the Chair.

3. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Update on Coronavirus

Welcome back. The next item is a statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services—an update on coronavirus. I call on the Minister to make that statement—Eluned Morgan.

Thank you very much, Llywydd. I am sure that Members will be pleased to note that Wales continues to have the lowest rate of coronavirus cases in the United Kingdom. The number of confirmed cases here in Wales is currently 10.4 per 100,000 people. The number of people in hospital with coronavirus is at the lowest level since the start of the pandemic. We have recently seen a period of 10 days where no new deaths from the virus were recorded. Sadly, though, Public Health Wales reported one death yesterday. These achievements reflect the hard work of people throughout Wales to keep themselves and their families safe.

Over recent weeks, we have however seen developments in relation to the so-called India variant of concern, or the delta variant, as the World Health Organization has named it. These developments are cause for concern. They are testament that the coronavirus has not gone away. We have been carefully monitoring this new variant. It appears to be spreading in many parts of England. Here in Wales, we have identified a growing number of cases. Today, it has reached 178 people, including a cluster of cases in Conwy, which is under close investigation at the moment.

The delta variant has the potential to become the next dominant strain of the virus in the United Kingdom, but we hope we can contain cases and prevent this variant from spreading further. But I think we have to be realistic, and we do expect to see the number of cases in Wales continuing to increase.

Whilst the public health situation therefore remains good in Wales, the delta variant brings a new level of uncertainty. It was in this context that the most recent review of the coronavirus restrictions took place, on 3 June. Whilst Wales is moving to alert level 1, as previously signalled, we will now do this in a phased way. Changes to the regulations from 7 June therefore focused on easing restriction on outdoor events and activities. The risk of transmission is much lower outdoors, and these changes will allow people to take advantage of, hopefully, the good summer weather.

Up to 30 people can now meet outdoors, including in private gardens, outdoor hospitality and public places. Larger outdoor organised gatherings and events for up to 4,000 people standing and 10,000 people seated can also now take place. This includes concerts, football matches and sporting activities like organised running groups. All organisers must undertake a full risk assessment and put in place measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus, including social distancing.

Finally, provision now allows for extended households to be made up of three households who can meet and have contact indoors. This is an increase from the two households previously allowed. We will consider further changes to the regulations on indoor activity later in the month if public health conditions allow. In line with the coronavirus control plan at alert level 1, this would mean the rule of six would apply for meeting indoors in private homes and in holiday accommodation. We will also consider increasing numbers for indoor organised gatherings and restarting indoor events. This phased approach will provide time for more data on the impact of the delta variant to become available. It will also allow time for more people to be vaccinated, which remains our best route out of the pandemic.

I'm extremely grateful to health board vaccination teams, local partners and the many volunteers across the country for the incredible progress of our vaccination programme. More than 85 per cent of the adult population has now received their first dose of the vaccine and nearly half have completed the two-dose course.

Yesterday, I published an update on our COVID-19 vaccination strategy. It sets out our expectation to have achieved by the end of June—so, a month earlier than expected—milestone 3, and that was to have offered all adults their first dose with at least a 75 per cent uptake. The updated strategy sets out preparations for what might come next, potentially including a booster for our most vulnerable citizens and possibly a vaccine for children, and of course that is subject to Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advice and a decision by the Cabinet. We're also planning to re-offer the vaccine to those who did not take up the original offer. The roll-out of second doses will also continue. To underpin this delivery, an online system will be established in the autumn to allow people to book appointments at a time that is convenient for them.

Wales's successful test, trace and protect service was established a year ago. The Welsh Government has allocated an additional £32 million to health boards and local authorities to extend contact tracing until the end of March 2022. This increases the total Welsh Government investment in contact tracing this financial year to £92 million. On 2 June, we also published a refreshed test, trace and protect strategy setting out how the service will adapt and respond to the pandemic in the months ahead. This includes strengthened and enhanced tracing of variants of concern, as well as the management and quarantine of people returning to Wales from red and amber-list countries.

On 20 May, I set out plans for £100 million of investment to kick start the health and care system's recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. This money will provide for new equipment, staff, technology and embedding the new ways of working to help health boards to increase capacity and cut waiting times. As we begin resuming non-emergency care following the pandemic, we have an opportunity to create a health and care system fit for the future.
I have today described some of the most recent developments in our ongoing efforts to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. And it's vital that we continue to work together to keep each other safe and to keep Wales safe. Diolch, Llywydd.

15:00

Can I thank the Minister for her statement this afternoon, and say that the number of people in hospital with coronavirus is at its lowest level since the start of the pandemic? And as the Minister pointed out as well, we've seen that 10-day period where we've seen no deaths at all recorded from the virus apart from, sadly, that one death yesterday reported by Public Health Wales. I think these are huge achievements. I agree with the Minister that this is down to the hard work of people throughout Wales and the fabulous health professionals as well. And further positive news, I think, also, that we'll potentially see 100 per cent of the adult population in Wales having been offered a vaccination appointment by Monday.

The UK Government's Secretary of State for Health's statement yesterday pointed out that just 2 per cent of people who had been hospitalised in England had received two doses of the COVID vaccination. That's just three people. So, I'll just break that down, that data, to help with the context of my next questions. Data up to 3 June showed that, out of 12,383 cases in England of the delta variant, 126 people were admitted to hospital, and of those 126 people, just three people had received two doses of the vaccine. So, I'm sure that the Minister will agree that this is positive data and that gives us optimism, I think, in that regard. In that context, Minister, have you investigated yourself that same data for Wales, or has Public Health Wales investigated that? How many people have been hospitalised as a result of having the delta variant? Of those people, how many people have had two doses? This is important information in the context of either relaxing restrictions or increasing restrictions, as appropriate. So, I would be grateful for any information on that, Minister.

Perhaps you could expand a bit more on your assessment in regards to whether we will require further restrictions over the summer months or, indeed, whether you can relax further restrictions. To have any further outline of that today would also be helpful. I also note from your comments yesterday, Minister, that the questions on the delta variant would be on how big the third wave will be. I would suggest that, perhaps, the question is surely how severe the next wave will be. So, I would appreciate your thoughts on that.

In Wales, we have seen 123 hospitalisations on 3 and 4 June. That's, of course, the lowest that we've seen since the beginning of the pandemic. Are you more confident that a third wave, while it may be bigger, won't be as severe as the first wave? You talked yesterday in your comments about the flow of the variant from England into Wales. In that context, perhaps you could also talk about whether you are considering any further travel bans from certain local authority areas elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Your statement today referred to your plans for £100 million of investment to kick start the healthcare system. I think that that's very welcome as well. We are at a point where the Welsh NHS is starting to resume its services to tackle the massive backlog in treatment, although it is still staggering to think that one in three patient pathways are waiting over a year for treatment in Wales. That compares to one in 11 in England. So, we've got a challenge to start from.

But, I do welcome that announcement of £100 million for technological advances to help reduce the backlog. I am concerned about the growing anxiety from professionals. They are saying that there simply aren't enough staff to cope. For example, in Wales, we were already facing a severe shortage of cancer specialists before COVID-19, with clinical radiology gaps of above 40 per cent in west and north Wales. We already had fewer numbers of clinical radiologists in the UK per 100,000. The point I am making here is that it's welcome news that we've got that investment, but surely there is a concern if we don't have the staff and health professionals to operate that new technology.

So, as part of your new priorities, what efforts are you making to ensure that the NHS will have a sufficient workforce to cope with the backlogs? What frameworks will you be using as part of the workforce strategy to recruit and retain medical professionals? Also, what measures are you immediately carrying forward from the COVID recovery framework to support NHS and primary care workforces to ensure that they do not face burnout—another significant issue as well? How will you be strengthening existing well-being support available to the workforce, as outlined in the framework, and is support already being targeted in the short term? Diolch yn fawr.

15:05

Thanks very much, Russell, and thank you first of all for recognising the incredible efforts that have been made by everybody who has been involved in the vaccine roll-out. I think that we do need to pay tribute to those people who have really made the right calls at the right time throughout that process. I know it was a little bit hairy for my predecessor in the first couple of weeks, but I think that the fact that we made those correct calls right at the beginning has brought us to this point, and I would also like to pay tribute to the Welsh public for responding so readily. The fact that people are so enthusiastic to come forward and to receive their vaccination is something that I think we should be very pleased about.

You’re absolutely right: one of the things that we need to analyse now is whether that vaccination programme has managed to break the link between the incidence of the virus and hospitalisation. Now, early analysis and that early analysis of the data is looking very positive, but we’re still very much in the early days of just analysing how many people. At the moment, there actually are still very few cases of that delta variant, but it is growing exponentially, and so I think those extra two weeks for us to analyse that data was the right call for the Cabinet to make in phasing these restrictions that we made last week.

Certainly, at the moment, I think there’s only one case of the delta variant in a hospital in Wales. Two were previously in hospital and have been released. We are expecting a third wave and, you’re absolutely right, if this delta variant is as contagious as it has been described—maybe 40 per cent to 50 per cent higher than the alpha variant, which is a significant increase—then we are likely to see a lot more cases. So, that is something that we need to keep an eye on. The question, as you say, is: will that lead to hospitalisation? So, we have to be very, very careful, and we’re not out of the woods on this yet, which is why we will take things cautiously and carefully and try and analyse the data in real time.

You asked about the flow of the variant from England into Wales, and you will be aware of how porous the nature of our border is with England. We did this in the past, but actually what we did find was that there are so many people who live on our borders who have a very valid reason to cross that border that actually trying to close the border is very, very difficult in any meaningful way, so we think there will be very difficult, practical issues in terms of closing that border.

There is a huge challenge—no question about it—when it come to waiting lists in Wales. You will have seen that not only did I announce the £100 million additional funding, but also last week I announced £25 million funding for computerised tomography scanners, for better imaging equipment, and when I visited the hospital in Swansea last week, that was one of the questions that was very important to me: is there any point spending on capital if we don’t have the people who are going to be able to analyse the information? I think we’ve got to be creative. I think there are ways of being able to use people even remotely to analyse the data, to analyse the imaging, and so I’m hoping that that will help things. But also, you may be aware that we have a very specific training system for imaging in Wales, for training those people in Wales, to try and make up for what is a difficult situation in terms of numbers of people who are able to work in that radiology space. It’s not an issue that’s just true for Wales; it’s true certainly across the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of finding those experts.

And when it comes to primary care, we are very aware that there are people on the front line in primary care who have been working flat out throughout the pandemic. It seems to be that the intensity of the work seems to be building now, although they have been working throughout the pandemic. We have put in a lot of support for people within the NHS, particularly to support them in terms of mental health support and well-being support. We’ve produced £1 million specifically for health professional support. So, that is working very well, and the feedback we’re getting from the sector is excellent.

15:10

Thank you for the statement, Minister. Clearly, the growth in the delta variant is a cause of concern, so I have three or four questions specifically in response to that. There is evidence that one dose of the vaccine is less effective in guarding against that variant. So, despite how excellent the process is going, with less than 50 per cent of the population over 16 having received two doses, can we have not only confirmation that the process of vaccination will be hastened in those areas where the delta variant is most prominent, but can we also have clear indicators in place so that we know how much more vaccination we expect to happen, and within what kind of time frame?

To push further on some of the points already raised in terms of the mobility of the population within these islands, in his press conference last Friday, the First Minister said that there wasn't evidence that the delta variant was coming in to Wales from other parts of the UK. We now know that it is. Can the Minister confirm that first, and, crucially, can she tell us what will be done and when? What will the triggers be in order to prevent the spread from one area to another? And this isn't an England-Wales issue, of course; it could be preventing spread from one part of Wales to another part of Wales or between the various nations of the UK.

We know that there are new restrictions, from today onwards, on travel from Portugal because of concerns about the variant, but it's not just international travel that's the problem here. The UK Government has today encouraged people not to travel in and out of areas such as Greater Manchester and Lancashire. So, doesn't the Conwy experience demonstrate that we need to put actions in place? You said the porous border makes it very difficult to close the border, but there are many things that you could be doing that fall a long way short of closing the border. You could ask for test results before someone can go to holiday accommodation, for example. If we are to safeguard public health and limit the impact on the economy and tourism, then we need to know that the Government is willing to act swiftly and in a way that it is as focused as possible, so that we can hopefully get back to normal as soon as possible.

15:15

Thank you very much. You are right to say that one dose appears to be less effective than two doses in terms of protecting us from the delta variant. We are very aware, therefore, particularly in some areas where the variant is coming to the fore, that we need to accelerate the process. I spoke to the chief executive of Betsi Cadwaladr a few hours ago just to ask, in that area, whether it would be possible to do that. Of course, we are coming to the end of the point now where we have offered the first dose regardless. There is an expectation for the first dose to have been offered to everyone in the north by the end of this week, and then, of course, it will be possible for us to focus on that second dose. It also depends,  of course, on the supply that we receive from England. We have said clearly now that we hope to vaccinate everyone over 18 with both doses by the end of September. So, there is a new target that we have put in place, and I'm very hopeful that we'll will be able to meet that target.

In terms of asking people not to move around, I was very pleased to see that the United Kingdom Government had asked those people, in those areas where the delta variant was more prominent—that they had asked them not to travel. We had been calling on the Prime Minister to do that. And we've also asked people, if they do come into Wales, to take a test before they travel. So, we have already made that statement. Now, how do we demonstrate that? It's quite a job to ask people to police that before they come, but we have asked people to do that, so that we can safeguard people, particularly in those areas where there is a great deal of tourism.

Minister for Health and Social Services, may I warmly, firstly, welcome your appointment on behalf of the people of Islwyn? Your statement today is informative on where Wales stands in this pandemic, and Wales is recognised as the world leader amongst countries over 1 million inhabitants for its vaccination programme. One of my pledges to the people of Islwyn in the election was that every Islwyn adult would be offered a dose of the vaccination by 31 July. Minister, your statement confirms that Wales shall hit that target early next week, six weeks in advance of the target date, and you rightly reaffirmed that we must monitor the data to see the impact that the 40 per cent more transmissible delta variant will have in terms of the hospitalisation and deaths. The people of Islwyn are deeply appreciative of how the Welsh Labour Government and our First Minister have kept Wales safe. So, Minister, how can you assure the citizens of Islwyn that the Welsh Labour Government will continue its strategic and careful approach to responding to this deadly virus?

15:20

Diolch yn fawr, Rhianon. Not only will we meet the target, we're going to smash the target, and so we are very proud of that situation. By next week, we will have offered all adults over 18 the opportunity to have the first dose of the vaccine. We will continue in the same vein as we have acted throughout the pandemic, and that is to act on the basis of evidence and data, taking advice from scientists and experts and responding, whilst balancing out and taking into account all of the different harms. We recognise that there is the harm from the virus itself, but there are lots of other harms that we need to take into account as well, including economic harms, well-being harms, mental health harms. All of those things are things that we take into consideration at every point when we are deciding whether to relax restrictions or not. We will continue in that same vein. Diolch.

Thank you, Minister, for your update. We've heard in the Chamber today and seen reported both in local and national media the tragic stories of people of all ages waiting for referrals, diagnostics and treatment due to the delays caused by COVID-19. In many cases, these ailments are easily treated in early stages, but as time progresses, they get harder and harder to treat effectively. Due to COVID-19, the waiting lists for treatments are longer than ever before, and there are individuals out there suffering in pain and living off strong painkillers. People's basic quality of life is deteriorating whilst they wait for treatment, with some illnesses progressing to an untreatable stage. Minister, this cannot be allowed to continue. We cannot let these people, especially the young, who have their whole lives ahead of them, die from diseases and cancers that would be treatable if diagnosed at an early stage. So, Minister, can you tell me, as we're rolling out the vaccine programme, when is this backlog going to be tackled before this becomes the next national emergency and people can start to be treated in our hospitals? Diolch, Llywydd.

Thank you very much, James, and welcome to the Senedd.

Certainly, I am very aware of the fact that we have literally hundreds of thousands of people in Wales who are waiting for treatment on the NHS. We are, unfortunately, in this very, very difficult situation where, I think, people generally are fairly understanding that we had a crisis, and we've had to respond to that crisis, and that crisis continues. We can't still go back to normal practice. We have to understand that if we saw a case of the delta variant getting into a hospital, there could be very tragic consequences. So, we cannot go back to a normal situation yet, but we are trying to see what we can do to speed up the process to try and get things back into a situation where we can start to clear that backlog. We've already committed to the fact that we will be spending £1 billion in the next few years of additional funding to try and do something to tackle this backlog. We've announced an extra £100 million already so we can start on that process; that £25 million for equipment, for diagnosis, is also something that we hope will try and speed up the process. But this is going to take a long time, and I think it is important that we manage the expectations of the Welsh public when it comes to treatment. But I am very concerned about the pain and discomfort that people are suffering across Wales.

I'm pleased to hear that you've said that you recommend that those travelling to Wales should be tested, but I don't know many people in Manchester who look at news provided by BBC Wales, so I'm not sure how they're supposed to learn about those recommendations. But the fact is, unlike what the First Minister said on Friday, namely that the delta variant had come into Wales via the air, and to Llandudno particularly, we know for a fact now that that certainly isn't the case as far as my constituency is concerned. There have been cases discovered in Porthmadog, and this is the response I got from Gwynedd public protection last week: 'I can confirm that the public protection service hasn't identified any direct link between the cluster of COVID cases in the Porthmadog area and foreign travel.' Therefore, it has come in from these islands.

You talked about closing the borders. Nobody else has mentioned closing the borders, but we do need to see this situation managed. So, what steps are you going to take to ensure that the variant doesn't travel further and isn't disseminated further? We know that the Scottish Government is recommending that people don't travel to these areas identified as hotspots. Internal travel within these nations isn't just one-way to north Wales. There are many people from north Wales who travel to work in Stockport, in Bolton and those areas, so we need to manage this. You're done this with Portugal, where the cases are a little under 40 per 100,000 population. In Bolton, it's 355 per 100,000 population; it's 487 in Blackburn. We need to control that, and we need to ensure that people working there will be compensated because they can't go to work, hopefully, and we need to manage the flow of people in order to ensure that this variant doesn't travel further.

15:25

Thank you very much, and welcome to the Senedd to you too, Mabon. Certainly, I think that it is important to understand how impractical it would be for us to close our borders, but having said that, I have already tried to demonstrate what we're doing in practical terms to ask people to take the steps that we want them to take before they come to our nation: to take a test before they travel, but also to comply with the rules that we have here. A great deal of work has been done by our hotels and those people who work in our pubs and so on to ask people—we have something called Addo, and the idea is that we let people know what our expectations are of them if they come to Wales, what we expect them to comply with once they arrive in Wales. So, a great deal of work has gone into that scheme, that marketing has taken place, not just in Wales, but beyond our borders too. Of course, it's difficult for us to reach everyone, but that is what we're trying to do.

Certainly, in terms of Portugal, the Welsh Government was supportive of placing Portugal on the amber list, and one of the reasons for that was because there was a new variant in Portugal that comes from Nepal, and we don't yet know whether that variant will respond to the vaccine. So, it's not just a question of the numbers; we were concerned about that new variant too.

I just wanted to thank the Minister for her statement and ask a question about GP appointments. At the moment, GP appointments are by phone or video unless there's a clinical need for a face-to-face consultation, and figures from BMA Cymru have recently shown that GPs have faced 18 per cent higher rates of appointments than the pre-COVID levels. Some of these remote consultations will take a lot longer than a face-to-face consultation, doctors might need to ask patients many more questions than they would in person, and remote consultations can often be quite difficult for some people to access as well—people without broadband or telephone signal, for example. However, it does work for some people. So, can I ask what the Welsh Government strategy is, going forward, to provide both methods of appointments and to increase the availability of both, going forward?

Thank you, Tom, and welcome to the Senedd.

Certainly, I'm very aware that there are many people who are struggling to get GP appointments at the moment, at least in the traditional way, and part of what we need to do, I think, in response to the pandemic, is to take the good bits that we've learnt from the pandemic. I think that, actually, there's a lot to be said for remote consultation. Certainly, I represent Mid and West Wales; I'm delighted that I will be able to connect with my constituents in a very different way, and frankly see them more often than if I were just in a situation where I had to see people face to face. So, I think there are some real wins for us that we need to embed as a result of the pandemic, and certainly, using technology is something that I think we should embrace. Having said that, of course, there will always be occasions when people need to see a GP face to face. Part of what needs to be done, of course, is to make sure that the triaging that is done within the practice is done effectively, and that people are guided to the appropriate place for them to get some support. 

I think we do have to try and get people to understand that, actually, they can get a lot of support not necessarily just from the GP. And I think, if you're ill, surely the thing that's important is that you get the support and you get it fixed, not necessarily who you see to get it fixed. And I do think that we need to really try and have a discussion around this and to see a culture shift in the way that expectations are managed going forward in terms of the way we access our health services in Wales in future. 

I am particularly taken, for example, with the eConsult system, the fact that you can actually just go through a whole list of questions and get an answer and get a prescription pretty quickly without really spending a lot of time on a face-to-face consultation. So, I think there are positives, but we do need to make sure that there's kind of a minimum service guarantee, which is what I've been looking at and discussing this morning with the director general, about what is the minimum that the public can expect here, because, obviously, there are cases where we need the service that's being given and being offered to be improved. 

15:30

I'd like to offer my congratulations to the Minister in her new role, and I look forward to working with you positively over the next few years. Now, much has been said today about how we find ourselves in a much better place than we did, say 12 months ago, and we've put that down to the work of Welsh Government, the UK Government, our fantastic health staff, and indeed, our Welsh public; well, the majority of them. I still have people within my own constituency e-mailing me quite regularly who just do not see the need for vaccinations, or indeed believe that this pandemic is for real, and that is quite worrying. 

I'm very worried also about the numbers increased of the delta variant in my own constituency. So, I've joined Public Health Wales, Conwy County Borough Council, and Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board to urge people to go for tests, especially in those areas like Llandudno and Llandudno Junction and Penrhyn Bay, to be alert for coronavirus symptoms and to take a test as soon as possible even if they are not showing symptoms. 

But I would be pleased to hear from you today, Minister, an update on the numbers confirmed. I spoke with Public Health Wales a week ago, and I am quite concerned to have a real picture of what's happening in my own constituency. I've been trying to establish whether the variant is spreading via particular settings. That information would be quite useful, because, according to the health board, investigations are ongoing and a number of different settings are being looked at. I'm concerned that the testing strategy of targeting the Llandudno area itself is deeply flawed. Twenty-two thousand-ish people live in Llandudno; however, that can swell to about 60,000 at this time of the year. So, already, we are seeing the area expanding to include Rhos-on-Sea, Colwyn Bay, Old Colwyn and Deganwy. However, Llandudno is a leading seaside resort and it is a main shopping centre that attracts people from the whole of north Wales.

So, will you consider liaising with the health board to look at encouraging all residents in Aberconwy to get tested now even if they're not showing symptoms? I would certainly hope that such decisive action would help us to get a grip on the spread, especially, as has been said here, as the delta variant is 40 per cent more transmissible than the Kent strain. 

And, finally, last night, just as I'd arrived in Cardiff, I was contacted by a local hotelier who had been informed by a guest who had returned home that they had tested positive 24 hours after returning home. So, they were in a right panic; they had guests in their hotel. So, I gave them as many numbers and possible agencies they could contact, only for them to come back and say, 'All we've been told now is someone will contact us at 8 a.m. in the morning.' Whether you could look at better advice going out for those especially in the hospitality industry. There's been an 84 per cent increase of delta cases. So I was just wondering whether you could look at working with Betsi Cadwaladr to make sure that the information required at, sometimes, a very late hour—I think it was about 9 o'clock last night, and I know that I was still in conversation with my constituent, who's a hotelier, at 10.45 last night, and they were very panic-stricken for the sake of the guests there and indeed their own family. Thank you.

15:35

Thanks, Janet. And first of all, can I thank you for everything you're doing, because actually I think it's really important that Senedd Members take a leadership role in asking people to come forward in these instances? So, thanks very much for that, and if you could continue to encourage people in that area, irrespective of whether they're showing symptoms or not, to come forward, that would be extremely useful. We know that about 30 per cent of cases don't show any symptoms at all, so it is important that people get tested, and you will be aware of where they can go to get tested. So, if you could help us with that, that would be useful.

There are about 178 confirmed cases now, across Wales. Certainly on the weekend, there were about 58 cases or so in the Llandudno area, and we were just waiting to get clarification on how many of those were 'definites', because we needed to do the genomic sequencing. So, that will be done very shortly, so there were lots of 'possibles' and 'probables', and that will be locked in in the next few hours, probably.

Certainly, I know that Public Health Wales is working around the clock on this, and so are the test, trace, protect team. If you find that that is not the case, then I'd be very happy if you could write to me, let me know the details, and then we can see. Because you're absolutely right—I can't imagine the trauma that that hotel owner must have been going through, and we need to make sure that at least there's a very clear system to go through, so that they know what to expect and what to do.

4. Statement by the Minister for Social Justice: EU Settled Status

We move on to item 4—statement by the Minister for Social Justice: European Union settled status. And I call on the Minister to make the statement, Jane Hutt.

Thank you very much, Llywydd. As we near the UK Government’s deadline of 30 June for European Union settlement scheme applications, I am pleased to provide an update on the Welsh Government’s position and the support we continue to provide to EU citizens here in Wales.

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

All EU, European Economic Area or Swiss citizens who were resident in the UK by 31 December 2020 are required by the UK Government to apply to the EU settlement scheme by Wednesday 30 June 2021, to secure their status to continue to live and work here. This is not a position I wanted our EU citizens to find themselves in. The Welsh Government has long advocated and called on the UK Government to extend the deadline and to at least consider the ongoing impact of the pandemic, and I have recently written to Kevin Foster MP on this issue.

However, I am thankful that, following repeated calls from Welsh Ministers, on 1 April, the UK Government did update its EUSS caseworker guidance to make provisions for more complex applications and to give caseworkers the discretion to accept late applications on reasonable grounds. However, and as much as I welcome this sign of flexibility, I do not feel the allowances go far enough and I will continue to urge the UK Government to show maximum flexibility post June 2021. Alongside this, it is important that we collectively focus energies on ensuring that EU citizens are aware of the scheme, are aware of the deadline, and have the best support possible to make an application.

Deputy Llywydd, I am pleased to report we are making progress. The most recent quarterly statistics published by the Home Office on 27 May 2021 show that the number of Welsh applications being made to the scheme and the number of individuals subsequently securing settled or pre-settled status continues to increase. To date, a total of 87,960 applications have been made by EU citizens resident in Wales, and, of those applications, 58 per cent of individuals have secured settled status and 40 per cent have secured pre-settled status. But concerns remain for those 40 per cent of applicants who have secured pre-settled status and will still need to apply for settled status when they become eligible.

We know there are people who have not yet applied to the scheme, and there are a number of reasons which we believe are contributing to this: some EU citizens may have come to live in the UK many years ago and do not realise that they need to apply; some may have had children whilst living here and are not aware that applications must be made for each family member. Others face digital barriers and issues to obtain the correct documentation and we are aware that some are simply overwhelmed by the process. In addition to this, I also remain deeply concerned about the number of vulnerable citizens in Wales who may not yet have applied.

Unfortunately, we still don't know the scale of the challenge that remains, as it is not possible to accurately calculate the number of EU citizens in Wales who haven’t applied. This is because the UK Government does not know exactly how many EU citizens are eligible to apply. It was initially anticipated that there were approximately 70,000 EU/EEA eligible citizens living in Wales, but more recent estimates by local authorities in Wales suggest that there may be approximately 95,000 eligible EU citizens. Despite the uncertainty, the Welsh Government continues to provide a wide range of support in the hope that as many EU citizens as possible can gain settled status. 

The Welsh Government has provided support to EU citizens since 2019, and we have committed funding into this financial year to recognise the scale of the challenge that remains. The continued support has enabled the extension of the EU citizens immigration advice services beyond the EUSS deadline, as well as the extension of the specialist advice services being provided by Newfields law firm, Citizens Advice Cymru and third sector organisation Settled. In addition to this direct support, the Welsh Government has a detailed and targeted communication plan for EUSS and we'll continue to work with our partners over coming weeks to communicate key messages and raise awareness via social media, the EUSS Wales coordination group, local radio, news articles and Welsh Government press notices. And we continue to engage with local health boards, local authorities, consulates, privately owned care homes, the older people’s commissioner, the children’s commissioner and a number of specialised third sector organisations to target vulnerable groups and ensure that where an individual may not be able to submit an application their representative or guardian has the support to do so on their behalf. 

But, our focus is not just the EUSS deadline, it’s also how we support our EU citizens post 30 June. We anticipate there will be a need for continued support, as a consequence of late applications made in line with the UK Government’s updated caseworker guidance, and we anticipate there will be appeals, all of which will need our continued support. But looking beyond the process support, the Welsh Government and the Welsh public sector has ongoing statutory as well as a moral obligation to ensure that EU citizens' rights are protected and continue to be upheld. Obligations we must all play our part in, and where the UK immigration rules prevent certain support being made available to those who have not yet secured settled status, we are working with our local authorities to make sure we all operate with compassion and knowledge about what support can be put in place. Over coming months, the Welsh Government will be developing no recourse to public funds guidance for local authorities, which will be published later this year.

We must all work together to ensure that EU citizens are treated fairly and enjoy the same rights as they have previously. Over coming weeks and months, the Welsh Government will be working with partners to raise awareness of EU citizens' rights, and has already trained 350 front-line local authority staff on migrant rights and entitlements to services. In due course, additional information for EU citizens about their rights and entitlements to services in Wales will be available via the Welsh Government’s Sanctuary website.

I hope that all Senedd Members will support the Welsh Government’s efforts to ensure all eligible EU citizens who need to apply for settled status have adequate opportunity to do so, that they continue to be treated fairly and have access to the same entitlements they enjoyed when we remained in the European Union.

15:45

Three years—. Thanks for your statement. Three years ago, in June 2018, the UK Government published its step-by-step guidance on applying to the EU settlement scheme, settled and pre-settled status, for EU, EEA and Swiss citizens and their families to apply to continue living in the UK after the application deadline of 30 June 2021—by coincidence, my mother's birthday. You referred to the total 87,960 applications made by EU citizens resident in Wales, 58 per cent of which have secured settled status and 40 per cent pre-settled status. Across our UK, latest UK Government statistics show 5,423,300 applications and, of these, 5,118,300 have so far been processed. 

You referred to concerns, both for applicants who have secured pre-settled status and will still need to apply for settled status when they become eligible and people who have not yet applied to the scheme, and state that you have written to the UK Minister, Kevin Foster MP, calling for the deadline to be extended. However, how has the Welsh Government been working with the UK Government where, for example, Kevin Foster stated only last weekend

'Every day, thousands of people are being granted status under the hugely successful EU Settlement Scheme, and I would urge people who are eligible to apply as soon as possible to secure the status they deserve in UK law'?

We've already confirmed that someone who has applied to the scheme by the 30 June deadline but has not had the decision by then will have their rights protected until their application is decided. 

You referred to Welsh Government support to EU citizens since 2019, which Welsh Conservatives have been pleased to support from the outset. This included the Welsh Government-funded service to assist EU nationals in Wales with registering for the EU settlement scheme, delivered through Flintshire citizens advice, Cardiff and Vale citizens advice and citizens advice Newport. And I was pleased, for example, to host a joint webinar with citizens advice Flintshire last July for EU, EEA or Swiss citizens to find out more about the help available for both the EU settlement scheme and employment and discrimination. 

The UK Government Minister, Kevin Foster, has said that the UK Government has also given £22 million to 72 organisations to help vulnerable and harder to reach groups to apply, and the Home Office has over 1,500 people working on the scheme. How have you ensured that the schemes supported by the Welsh Government have complemented rather than replicated these UK Government schemes, and what figures can you share or will you be able to share with us evidencing the specific outcomes from Welsh Government support disaggregated from the support schemes funded by the UK Government?

Finally, there's particular concern about the number of older people who have not applied for settled status and about parents who seem unaware that they need to ensure that children, and even babies, apply for settled status this month. Listening to one of my favourite radio channels travelling down yesterday, Absolute Classic Rock, I heard UK Government adverts targeted at these specific groups accordingly. So, what specific action is the Welsh Government therefore taking, either with the UK Government or independently, to reach these groups of people?

Well, thank you very much, Mark Isherwood, and I very much welcome you back into the Senedd, alongside myself, and obviously covering these key issues of social justice. And I thank you for not only your questions and points but also for urging people to apply, obviously across your region and across Wales. And I know that will be, I'm sure, echoed by all Senedd Members today.

Indeed, we also welcome the progress that has been made in Wales, and I would say that that's progress that's been made as a result of partnership—not just partnership with the UK Government but also with our EU citizens support co-ordination group. I think that's a very important group to comment on, because it's about co-ordinating the delivery of EUSS advice and support services in Wales. The EU settlement scheme Wales co-ordination group brings together successful Home Office grant recipients, delivering in Wales with other key delivery partners and agencies, and it does actually co-ordinate successful delivery, which is of course the question you're asking me in terms of the outcomes. It does co-ordinate that delivery of EUSS advice and support, sharing reports on the work of supporting organisations. And you've mentioned Mind, Flintshire Mind, and we obviously welcome—. Sorry, Flintshire citizens advice. Mind is also another organisation that has been very engaged as well, and there may be Mind organisations in your region playing a part, but certainly Citizens Advice has been crucial. We've funded Citizens Advice since 2019; they're providing general and specialist advice covering a range of issues, and that includes settled status applications, social welfare, benefits, and also employment and workplace matters. Now the crucial point for us is that we have extended that funding to these organisations, not just Citizens Advice, but also to Mind, TGP Cymru, Settled, Newport Mind—which actually covers a lot of Mind organisations, as I said—Newfields Law, as well as the Royal Association for Deaf people, which is important in recognising there are vulnerable people, as you've mentioned, older people, particularly in terms of making sure that we reach out to them, but also the older people's commissioner and the children's commissioner extensively engaged as well in our communications strategy. So, working to deliver, but these are crucial days, aren't they, crucial times, crucial days and weeks as we move forward and we need to get that assurance from the UK Government that they will be flexible, they will recognise the needs and the issues around vulnerable people.

Now I have mentioned my letter to Kevin Foster MP, the Minister for Future Borders and Immigration, and I'm very happy to share that letter to Members following my statement today. And I have asked to ensure that the Home Office's caseworker guidance should offer that level of flexibility and reassurance for those who have complex cases—for whatever reason, they are unable to submit an application by the deadline—and I have urged the UK Government to monitor the application of this guidance and ensure it remains fit for purpose. And I also did say—. Again, I restated my position that we feel that the deadline, the EUSS application deadline itself, should be extended to ensure that, come 30 June, we're not left with EU citizens who haven't been able to make that application, and to recognise that they are in very challenging times. So, I hope, Mark Isherwood, you and your colleagues will also pass that message to the UK Government.

15:50

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and thank you to the Minister for her statement.

It's important that people wishing to apply for this scheme are offered as much support as possible, and, as has been mentioned previously, the deadline is fast approaching at the end of this month. In the last Senedd, the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee wrote to the Welsh Government with their recommendations. Their recommendations were for the Welsh Government to reiterate its support for these citizens, that they ensure that the support extends beyond the deadline, that they provide digital accessibility support, and that they provide support to Welsh employers to help them navigate the new immigration system.

It would be useful to hear from the Minister whether these recommendations have been accepted and implemented, and, if not, why not. There were already issues with the scheme; the pandemic has not only made these issues worse, but it has introduced new challenges for EU citizens applying to the scheme. This can be seen in the uptake and the application rate. Despite the high numbers of initial applications to the scheme, the application rate in Wales slowed down during the first pandemic. Could the Minister comment on whether there has been a slowing down in the application rate during the second wave, as was seen in the first, and will this mean that some people will miss out?

Also, according to the EU ambassador to the UK, some EU citizens have reported that travel restrictions mean that they could not access their documentation. This documentation is needed as proof of their residence in the UK. Is the Minister aware of this being a widespread issue, and, if so, has the Welsh Government offered or provided support to those impacted?

One area of particular concern to me is the digital-only nature of the application. The pandemic has intensified the UK's digital divide, and, as the scheme is a digital-only application process, it poses particular challenges for vulnerable groups already affected by the digital gap, such as older people and the homeless. We need to acknowledge these needs of the most vulnerable citizens, particularly those who might be at risk of digital exclusion. Could the Minister outline what particular steps has the Welsh Government taken to try and overcome and bridge this divide to ensure that no-one is left behind?

Further reports have outlined how EU citizens in Wales may struggle to qualify for full settled status as a result of the pandemic. The director of the Migration Observatory warned that people with pre-settled status may not know that they need to convert their status through a second application, and might forget the deadline without reminders. Is the Government confident that they are doing everything they can to ensure that those who need to make a second application are receiving reminders to do so? Additionally, the EU ambassador to the UK also explained that some EU citizens with pre-settled statuses have had to leave the UK during the pandemic. These citizens may be stranded in different countries due to travel restrictions. These citizens may struggle to provide the evidence of five years' continuous residence needed to get settled status. Has the Welsh Government therefore considered alternative strategies to support citizens who missed the application deadline, or missed application criteria, due to the circumstances caused by COVID-19?

Of course, ultimately this is a Home Office and Westminster matter, and I'm sure I'd be right in saying that perhaps this system and the new incoming immigration system from Westminster isn't the system that we or the Welsh Government would like to see. However, for now it is Westminster that controls this matter. Bearing in mind that some people will miss out on this scheme for these reasons, what further support will the Welsh Government give? Finally, will the Minister urge her counterparts in Westminster to put in place a robust appeals process for the people whose applications are yet to be completed due to the impact of the pandemic, to ensure, in the words of the First Minister in his open letter to EU citizens, that they

'are, and always will be, welcome in Wales'?

Diolch yn fawr.

15:55

Diolch yn fawr, Peredur, and thank you very much for those key, important points. I'm very glad you also drew attention to the report of the Welsh Affairs Committee. It has been a matter of great concern as a result of the pandemic. That's why the deadline, we wish to—. We've asked the UK Government repeatedly, pressed the UK Government, to extend the deadline of 30 June 2021, particularly in light of the pandemic, but sadly to no avail. But I actually have mentioned that, as a result of many representations—. In my statement, I drew attention to the fact that the review and updating of caseworker guidance has meant that we've got more flexibility. But obviously we will have to monitor that very carefully with those organisations that we're funding, and extending the funding, of course, to make sure that they can support people.

But just to give you some idea of what that flexibility means, it gives caseworkers the discretion to accept late applications where they believe there are reasonable grounds, and I have urged, and I continue to urge, the UK Government to monitor the guidance and ensure it remains fit for purpose post the end of the month. But of course, as you've said, it's not the end of the process for many. Those receiving pre-settled status will have to reapply for settled status when enough time has elapsed for them to do so, and the support that they will need may need to continue. We need to ensure—although obviously we're working in partnership not just with the UK Government, but with our local authorities and all the specialist organisations that I've mentioned already that we're funding to ensure that we can reach out to those more vulnerable EU citizens. We are concerned about the number who may not secure the settled status, and it may be for different reasons. We must, and the UK Government must, acknowledge and address that situation post June 2021, because we could have thousands of EU citizens left without clear status in the UK through no fault of their own. I have mentioned the EU settled status Wales co-ordination group, and I think it's important to recognise how they've been working since 2019 to promote public awareness and participation in the EUSS in Wales, maximising citizen access through very focused publicity—I've mentioned the communications campaign—but also identifying any gaps in the current supported provision to assist the Welsh Government and Home Office in finding solutions to overcome any issues. Just to give you some idea of who sits on that group: Welsh Government, Newfields Law, Wales civil society forum on Brexit—which, of course, reaches out to every community across Wales—Citizens Advice Cymru, Migrant Help, Newport Mind, Wales Council for Voluntary Action, TGP Cymru, Welsh Local Government Association, Settled, Wales TUC, and so many other specialist organisations. 

I just want to also thank you for mentioning the letter that the First Minister wrote on 6 March of this year. He wrote an open letter to all EU nationals living in Wales, urging them to apply and to do so before the deadline in June, published in 11 languages. And again, you've given me the opportunity to say that the message from the First Minister was to say that you, your families, will always be welcome in Wales. And we want to make sure that your contribution, which you make to our communities, our public services and our businesses, is recognised as invaluable and

'how hard the last few years have been for you, with all the uncertainty that Brexit has brought'.

That's what he said in his letter. He continues:

'and now, an ongoing pandemic which has made a difficult situation much harder to deal with.'

Over the next few days, you will hear more messages of that kind coming forth from the Welsh Government.

16:00

Thank you very much. Sorry, I didn't realise I was unmuted. Thank you very much indeed for the statement, Jane Hutt. I think it's really good to know how much attention is being paid to this important matter, certainly for many, many of my constituents. I thank you for the money you've invested in Newfields Law, the CAB and the voluntary organisation, Settled. I was very interested in your latest estimate of the numbers affected by this measure. So, we can see that of the nearly 88,000 people who've applied, 40 per cent have still only got pre-settled status and you do wonder why people are being given this pre-settled status when we're talking about people who've been here for years and years, in the main. 

And, in addition to that, it enables us to see that there are approximately 7,000 people who have yet to apply, and may not even be aware that they are required to do so. As the Plaid spokesperson earlier pointed out, many people are digitally excluded and I particularly worry for those on limited incomes, either living on savings or a small pension or those on modest wages, who may simply not realise that you don't actually have to pay to apply for settled status, even though there are—

—many hidden charges to gather the required evidence. So, I just want you to say a little bit more about how local authorities and Government are going to deal with people who may not have recourse to public funds. You know, the Conservative spokesperson says they're not going to be treated as people who are no longer able to get public services, but that's been said before in relation to other people. So, I just wondered if you could say a little bit more about what exactly local authorities and the Welsh Government are going to do to people who have their claims rejected, even if they've lived here for years.

Thank you very much to Jenny Rathbone for the recognition of the importance of this statement, and also the recognition of the needs and circumstances of your constituents, particularly those who are the most excluded and on lower incomes and who haven't had access to the information that they require to ensure that they do get their applications in.

Also, many people are not aware, and perhaps just for a moment I can explain the difference between settled status and pre-settled status. You'll usually get settled status if you've lived in the UK for a continuous five-year period, known as 'continuous residence'. Obviously, to meet that criteria, it has to ensure that you've had at least six months in any 12-month period, and there are exceptions. Once you get that settled status you can stay in the UK as long as you like, and you'll also be able to apply for British citizenship if you're eligible. But pre-settled status is about when you haven't got five years continuous residence when you apply; you will usually get pre-settled status. You must have started living in the UK by 31 December 2020, unless you're applying as an existing close member of a family of an EU citizen who had started living here by then. So, there are complexities, aren't there, Jenny, and Members here, about how we can ensure we get this information out. I'm grateful for your question, because it actually shows how much more we need to do in the days ahead to reach out to people.

I want to just finally say that local authorities are engaged in this very fully. There's been a local authority training programme. Over 400 individuals will be trained through a scheme for housing and social services staff to ensure that they understand migrant rights and entitlements to services post Brexit. Indeed, we have given funding to continue EU transition support to local authorities across Wales, so they have a co-ordinator in each authority and a central support programme, delivered by the Welsh Local Government Association.

16:05

Minister, just last week, Kate Smart, chief executive officer of Settled, said:

'many who have lived in the UK for decades...are only just realising they must apply to the scheme.'

Well, my Welsh-Italian family have been through the process and are fine now. The advice provided by Welsh Government was useful, but family members also helped other family members through the process too. But my question is simple. In these final weeks, what can we do as Members of the Senedd to encourage people to get involved in our local areas?

Diolch yn fawr, Huw Irranca-Davies, and thank you for giving that very real and personal example of your Welsh-Italian family and how they have accessed and achieved that settled status, which is what we need to ensure all our citizens who are eligible are able to do.

You asked a specific question about Members of the Senedd. I think, probably, all of you are already thinking, 'What can I do?' They can encourage constituents to apply by sharing information. I would say columns in the local newspaper, and social media is crucial. Look to your local Citizens Advice. Ask your local authority EU co-ordinator what they're doing. Reach out publicly, as you are a trusted Member, a Senedd Member, and we need to ensure that we get to the local radio stations, local newspapers, social media, and give the information that I've identified in my statement.

Thank you, Minister. Before the next item—.

Can I remind Members—those who were not here last time—the spokespeople have five minutes each and individual Members have one minute each? I will keep you to the time, because it's important that we make sure that as many people as possible are able to speak in these statements. I also ask Ministers to also be succinct in their answers, so we continue to allow that time.

5. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Social Services: Respite and short breaks fund for unpaid carers

The next item is a statement by the Deputy Minister for Social Services on the respite and short breaks fund for unpaid carers. I call on the Deputy Minister for Social Services, Julie Morgan.

Diolch. As we mark Carers Week, I want to pay tribute to unpaid carers throughout Wales, whose everyday efforts to look after loved ones, friends and relatives, particularly during this COVID-19 pandemic, should be respected and valued by us all.

This week, we celebrate the many tens of thousands of unpaid carers who are too often the unsung heroes. They are an integral part of Wales's health and care system and we need to support and help them to look after their own health and well-being. Our recent surveys show that a third of adults in Wales provide unpaid care for one or more hours a week. Carers Trust Wales estimates also that Wales has over 21,000 young adult carers aged between 16 and 24, and over 7,000 young carers aged under 16. Wales also has the highest proportion of older carers and of carers providing more than 50 hours' care a week. 

I think it's very likely that many of us here have direct experience of caring for a friend or family member and know how hard it can be juggling caring commitments alongside work or leisure time. I think the pandemic has raised public awareness of the value of the paid care workforce, but we must make sure that unpaid carers are not overlooked.

Over the last 12 months, I have heard from many unpaid carers who have struggled to cope without their usual support networks and I'm aware that unpaid carers of all ages have faced new challenges, pressures and, in some cases, the loss of a loved one. Unpaid carers have spoken of difficulties accessing timely and appropriate respite and breaks to help them manage their own health and well-being. Respite is no longer just an overnight stay in a care home or an overnight sitting service for the person with care needs; it can take many forms, from having time to switch off and enjoy being with family and friends to a short break with or without the person being cared for. To help address these respite needs, we are providing £3 million in 2021-22 to support emergency respite care and the development of a short-breaks fund.

In the first phase, £1.75 million has been provided to Wales's 22 local authorities to address the pressing need for respite amongst carers of all ages as the coronavirus restrictions are relaxed. In phase 2, £1.25 million will develop more flexible and innovative forms of respite that are tailored to individual need. To inform this work, we have commissioned Carers Trust Wales to work with leading academics to draft a road map towards a national model of respite in Wales. We will also explore how we can work with the hospitality sector to provide a range of short breaks. This model, known as 'respitality', is currently operating successfully in Scotland.

Ensuring that all carers are visible and valued is vital to enable them to access their rights under the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014. We launched a new strategy for unpaid carers in March, reaffirming our commitment to work with stakeholders and unpaid carers to ensure that they have access to the right information, advice and support. The strategy sets out our revised national priorities for unpaid carers, including the addition of a new priority on education and employment. We are currently working with members of the ministerial advisory group for unpaid carers to draft a supporting delivery plan that will set out timescales and metrics for monitoring progress. The plan will be published in autumn 2021. The strategy will build on our recent successes in supporting carers, such as the development of a national ID card for young carers; the swift dissemination of a £1.25 million hardship fund to support carers in financial difficulties during the pandemic; and funding for online psychological support services. 

Four carers projects, funded via the sustainable social services third sector grant scheme, have recently completed their first year in operation and are successfully raising awareness and transforming services for carers across Wales. I have been impressed by the project led by Women Connect First to support older black, Asian and minority ethnic women and carers during the pandemic. Like many third sector organisations, Women Connect First swiftly adapted their model to reach out to unpaid carers, many of whom had not previously received care or support.

Throughout the pandemic, we continued to work closely with unpaid carers and their representatives to understand the impact of COVID-19 on their lives and to take appropriate action. I would also like to thank the Senedd Members who have championed unpaid carers in their local areas. The strategy for unpaid carers, and the supporting delivery plan, is intended to guide partnership working towards a society that recognises, values and supports unpaid carers of all ages and backgrounds to live well and achieve their own well-being outcomes. It's likely that every person in Wales will take on a caring role at some point during their lifetime. So, the action that we take today to support unpaid carers can bring lasting benefits for both carers and the people that they care for, and will also support the future success of our health and social care system.

16:15

Thank you very much, and thank you to you for your statement. I'd like to add my thanks to those heroes that we have—those unsung heroes, those unpaid heroes the length and breadth of Wales—who care for others every day.

Research from Carers Wales shows that unpaid carers looking after disabled, ill or elderly family members or friends have saved the Welsh Government £33 million every single day since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Against that backdrop, the provision of £3 million during the whole of 2021-22—split into two phases, with a first phase of £1.75 million further split between 22 local authorities in Wales—leaves us under no illusion that this is more of a sticking plaster rather than an attempt at a long-term solution.

Carers Wales research also shows that the pandemic has severely affected carers' ability to take a break, which has an impact on their health and well-being. Nearly seven out of 10 carers in Wales say that their mental health has got worse because of a lack of breaks while caring during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sixty-eight per cent of carers said that their physical health has deteriorated during the pandemic. The Deputy Minister explained that this funding is for emergency respite care, mainly for those at crisis point, and gives us little confidence that the Government is fully grasping the central point—that carers should have respite as a matter of course, and should be properly recognised in every context, including financially.

Plaid Cymru has long advocated the creation of a seamless national health and social care service, and for rethinking our approach to health and care delivery, and focusing on prevention. One central access point into such a service would be to do away with bureaucracy and let us focus on the needs of citizens. We must also ensure that we have the levers in Wales to properly reward carers and to allow transformative action, as we would be able to do by seeking the powers to replace the carer's allowance with a universal carer's income—non-means-tested and equal to at least the level of the jobseeker's allowance—for all carers providing more than 35 hours of care. Could the Minister confirm the Welsh Government's position on this particular matter? Is it something that the Government is considering?

You refer in your statement to the fund providing extra flexibility, and that it will develop more flexible and innovative forms of respite that are tailored to individual need. Can you elaborate on this point? I've heard from a number of unpaid carers about their experiences and the need to jump through hoops and fill out masses of paperwork to receive respite care. Can you tell us more about the process for how unpaid carers can access respite services from this fund? Additionally, how many carers are you aiming to reach with this fund?

Figures show that three quarters of carers have received no respite at all. It's one thing to praise the work of unpaid carers, but how many people will this relatively small sum of money reach? And my last question: how will consistency be ensured in the delivery of the scheme, and in the distribution of funding, especially in the absence of a consistent, unified national health and social care model, which Plaid Cymru has long advocated for? Diolch yn fawr.

16:20

Diolch. Thank you very much for those questions. I welcome you to your post, and I was very pleased to hear you talk about the unsung heroes who are the unpaid carers. I think we certainly share those views.

Certainly, £3 million is not a huge amount of money, but this is in addition to everything else we’re doing. We’re not starting afresh with £3 million. Of course, the main services that unpaid carers should receive would be via the local authority statutory services, and under the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 unpaid carers have the right to have an assessment in their own right, and the local authority then to take up their needs. So, that is the basis of the service that we’re giving, and the non-hypothecated grants that come from the Welsh Government are meant specifically to address particular issues. I wouldn’t want the Member to think that this was all we were doing for respite care; this is in addition to everything else that we’re doing for respite care.

But I absolutely accept that we haven’t been able to reach everybody and that we do require a huge effort, particularly for unpaid carers to recognise the job themselves that they’re doing, because many people do not think of themselves as unpaid carers. They just think it’s the natural thing to do, that this is their loved person, and so this is what they do as a matter of love, really. It's a big thing, and I think one of the themes of this Carers Week is to recognise the visibility of carers, to try to make carers more visible so that they are then aware of the opportunities that are there—but certainly not enough, and I absolutely accept that we do not reach everybody.  

In terms of the other questions that the Member asked, I know that Plaid Cymru are committed to a health and social care service. We are looking at a national social care framework, which we’ll be looking at in this term. Obviously, carer's allowance is not devolved, so that means that we don’t have any of the levers to influence carer's allowance at the moment.

We do want to have more flexible forms of respite, and I think that means we could help carers who wanted, for example, to go to art classes or something different—something that doesn’t follow the traditional form of respite where somebody, perhaps the person who’s cared for, goes away to stay in a home for a period of days. I do think there’s still a place for that sort of respite, but to look at other ways of doing respite. In order to get consistency, we are looking, with Bangor University and Carers Trust Wales, at a fairer system so that we can actually measure the sorts of projects that we’re developing and see how effective they are. So, we’re certainly addressing that issue.

I think that the research is very important as part of this. I also mentioned in my statement the work that Scotland has done. I went to Scotland to have a look at their respite care provision, and they do a lot with respitality, working with the hospitality industry, and we did work with them. They actually give £3 million a year as well to cover these sorts of extra issues, so I’m hopeful we can learn a bit more from them as well as we move into this.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and thank you very much to the Deputy Minister for her statement this afternoon. I can’t think of a better way to highlight Carers Week than to discuss the support that we give to unpaid carers in Wales. As someone who’s spent their last 11 years working in the NHS and in close partnership with social services, I know first hand that without unpaid carers our health and care system would simply collapse.

While I welcome the additional moneys from the Welsh Government being allocated to fund respite care in Wales, I’m afraid it’s a mere drop in the ocean. Wales has more than a small army of unpaid carers, and they outnumber the British army by 3:1. It is estimated that over a third of a million unpaid carers in Wales save the NHS around £8 billion per year. According to new research by Carers UK, nearly three quarters of Wales's carers have not had a break since the start of the pandemic.

Deputy Minister, do you support my party's pledge that all unpaid carers will receive respite? Does the Welsh Government believe that the £1.75 million allocated to the first phase will be sufficient to meet the needs of Wales's unpaid carers? Will you provide a breakdown on how the moneys will be allocated to each of the 22 local authorities in Wales? I don't expect you to provide that today, obviously, but perhaps you could provide further details to the Senedd in a written statement in the future.

I'm interested in your comments on respite—respitality. I'll put my teeth back in. What discussions have your officials had with the hospitality sector in Wales? Given the losses experienced by Wales's hospitality businesses over the last 15 months, do you believe that this will have any impact on your ability to get the scheme up and running across the nation? Have you discussed the operation of the Scottish scheme with your counterpart in the Scottish Parliament, and have you discussed with the UK Government the potential for a UK-wide scheme?

Moving on to your Government's wider support for unpaid carers, while I welcome the new strategy for unpaid carers, it's disappointing that the delivery plan won't be ready until the end of this year. Unpaid carers need help and support now, not a series of new reports and strategies. My party wants to see unpaid carers given free access to training and ensure that every single carer in Wales receives the carer assessment to which they are entitled. Deputy Minister, do you agree with me that more must be done to support our unpaid carers? What plans does the Welsh Government have to offer training courses to unpaid carers in Wales? Have you discussed with Social Care Wales and Health Education and Improvement Wales the ways in which unpaid carers can train alongside paid carers?

And finally, Deputy Minister, how are you working with Welsh local authorities to ensure that they are providing carer assessments to every carer in Wales? I look forward to working with you over the coming term to ensure that we can truly support our vast army of unpaid carers. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

16:25

Diolch. I also look forward to working with you in the shared brief, and thank you very much for the questions that you put forward.

Certainly I welcome the Carers Wales report and the issues that it raises, and the figures that were given about the number of people—unpaid carers—who didn't get any break during the pandemic. I think, obviously, that is a matter of great concern. I did, during the pandemic, meet many unpaid carers and communicated with them, and they certainly told me about the strain that they were under during the pandemic. But, obviously, we have to accept, as they did, that, in many cases, it was their own choice; that they were nervous about having carers in to the home, for example, to help them, because they were so concerned about their loved person they were caring for, that they didn't want to open up the risk of infection. I'm very aware that this has been a huge strain on unpaid carers, and it is one of those awful things that has happened as a result of the pandemic. Will this be sufficient? I think I answered that in my earlier question—that this is an addition to what we are already doing for unpaid carers. It would probably never be enough, but we certainly have said, in our manifesto, that we were going to increase provision for unpaid carers, and this is part of what we're doing to do that.

I have been to Scotland; I have discussed this with the Scottish person who was responsible for the scheme, and I think he makes an important point about the respitality scheme—that, certainly, with the hospitality industry having been through such a difficult time, this may not be the best time to concentrate on that. But that is one of the things we want to look at when it's the right time to do it. Certainly, in terms of the carer assessments, under the Act, every carer is entitled to an assessment. Many of them do not actually take up the opportunity for an assessment because they don't think it's actually necessary, but we need to try and make the awareness of these assessments much more widely publicised.

16:30

I very much commend the work that you've done to scope the numbers of young carers, particularly those under 16 years, who obviously are the most likely to be missed unless schools are paying attention. I think your idea of respitality is one that's definitely worth focusing on, particularly outside the normal holiday season. At the moment, obviously, all the hotels and bed and breakfasts are full, but later in the year when others are working and back at school, that might be something that would be really interesting to pursue.

I just wanted to raise the point about older carers, particularly those who were doing over 50 hours a week during the pandemic. There are two groups of constituents who are of great concern: they are older parents looking after an adult with a learning difficulty, and the parent or spouse of someone with dementia. Now, both these groups have just had such a huge burden put upon them by the pandemic when all services have closed, and these people are simply not going to leave their loved ones unless the services are there for them to be able to leave the person who needs care with—who that person is going to be comfortable with. So, I just wondered if you could say a little bit more about how we can accelerate opening up the normal respite and day-care services that previously existed, which have been quite slow to return.

I thank Jenny Rathbone very much for those questions, and I know she has raised with me on many occasions the difficulties that her constituents have experienced, particularly older parents or parents or the spouses of somebody who is suffering from dementia, and I'm very aware of how difficult this situation is.

Obviously, when the pandemic started, the services had to close down for health and safety reasons, and this was a huge blow, I know, to many people who had managed to get a routine going, that, with their loved one being able to go out on a regular basis and come back, they managed to cope, basically, and all this was thrown up in the air when the pandemic struck. So, what we obviously have to do is try to encourage the day services in particular to reopen. So, in order to do that, I have met with the directors of social services to encourage them to reopen the day services. They are beginning to open up all over Wales, but it is patchy, so I am encouraging them and indeed saying that we absolutely must open these services so that people can get a break. I've also discussed it with the Welsh Local Government Association, and I think we're all very aware that this is absolutely crucial that we do offer this provision, so that the parents who have struggled for so long can actually have a break.

Thank you, Deputy Minister, and that brings today's proceedings to a close. Good evening.

The meeting ended at 16:33.