Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

20/10/2021

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 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

Statement by the Llywydd

Good afternoon and 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 Senedd proceedings, 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 set out on your agenda. 

1. Questions to the Minister for Social Justice

The first item this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Social Justice, and the first question is from Ken Skates.

Universal Credit

1. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact that the £20-a-week cut to universal credit will have on Welsh communities? OQ57034

Analysis by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that the brutal cut to universal credit is impacting on all communities in Wales. In every Welsh constituency, over a quarter of families with children have seen their income fall. To be taking money from our poorest families when bills are rising is shameful.

Well, thank you, Minister, and I agree. Clearly, irrespective of the arguments for and against making the cut, making the cut will clearly have a very, very significant impact on many people in Wales. And, Minister, as you are aware, my north Wales colleague Jack Sargeant has spoken publicly and regularly in support of a trial to explore the feasibility of a universal basic income here in Wales. Are you able to provide an update on what progress the Welsh Government has made with regard to the launching of a trial and what consideration has been given to trialling UBI here in north Wales?

Well, can I thank Ken Skates for his questions? You will all have heard yesterday that the First Minister provided an update on the basic income pilot in response to his First Minister’s questions. He said, and I will repeat again to clarify,

'Subject to the resolution of remaining practical matters, including the interface of our basic income payments with the benefits system, we plan to introduce the pilot in the financial year...1 April 2022.'

And I will be issuing a ministerial update soon to provide more detail. But in response to your first question, of course, this is about alleviating poverty—basic income is about alleviating poverty. But it’s also about giving people more control over their lives, having a positive effect on mental health and well-being.

Diolch, Weinidog. I'm sure everyone here has been contacted by somebody who has been impacted by the cuts in universal credit. I wanted to give one example: a Mrs D who contacted me recently. She said this, 'Last March, I was diagnosed with a rare type of blood cancer. Overnight, I went from an independent, self-sufficient woman, counting the years to retirement, to a house-bound unemployable sixty-something reliant on benefits and the generosity of others. Universal credit was my safety net and I’m grateful that it was there when I needed it. However, this month, it feels like Boris Johnson has slashed a gaping hole in the bottom of it and I’m struggling to hold on.'

I appreciate that the Welsh Government has stepped up on many occasions to fill in the gaping hole left by the Tories' swingeing cuts, and the First Minister in particular received great credit and much praise throughout the pandemic for taking a different stance to the Westminster Government. This needs to happen again, Minister. Will the Welsh Government consider extending the discretionary assistance fund, which closed on 30 September, to help people like Mrs D and individuals who have been devastated by this cut. Diolch yn fawr.

Diolch yn fawr, Rhys ab Owen, and you gave a very clear example—a human example—of great concern of the adverse impact already experienced by your constituent in terms of that cut of the £20 universal credit. And it is quite clear that we have to play our part to ensure that we can support those families. The UK Government may have abandoned these families, but the Welsh Government will not. So, it is the support that we give through our discretionary assistance fund, which is one route to helping these families that will face, as we know—and as we discussed in the Equality and Social Justice Committee this morning—a harsh winter to get the financial help they need to heat their homes and feed their children. And so, it is important that I am able to, as I have announced and as we discussed this morning, extend the flexibilities and extend the discretionary assistance fund through until March and then consider—as we move through this, and indeed the pandemic, as well as the cuts from UK Government—what impact that has in terms of taking the discretionary assistance fund forward.

13:35
Diversity in the Public Sector

2. What action is the Welsh Government taking to encourage diversity in employment in the public sector? OQ57042

This Government is committed to advancing equality, diversity and inclusion across the Welsh public sector. We're using all levers at our disposal and are committed to taking a social partnership approach to encourage and influence employers to take action to ensure a more diverse workforce.

Thanks, Minister. During a recent meeting of the Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee, it was revealed that only 4.2 per cent of staff employed in the Senedd identify as BAME. Now, of those—and pardon me for saying this, but I prefer the term 'ethnic minorities', so that's what I want to continue with in my question—ethnic minority members of staff, 81 per cent are in the lowest two pay bands. Given the Welsh Government's wish to ensure the public sector is inclusive and reflects the ethnic diversity of Wales, do you agree that the Senedd should lead by example, and what discussions have you had about increasing the number of ethnic minority individuals in senior roles here within the Senedd itself?

I thank the Member for her question. And I think the fact that you're here now—. And we've all talked before about how visibility in public life is really important too, in terms of actually setting an example and not wanting to be the only one but the first of many, and to actually encourage people to put themselves forward as well, and to have a more representative Senedd not just in terms of the people in the Chamber, but the people who support us and work across the Senedd estate. So, the Welsh Government is very much committed to doing that, and I'm sure it's something—I was looking at the Llywydd as you were asking the question, too—for the Senedd Commission, but also I'm sure it's something that we can work on together, collectively, in a common aim and common ambition. And I'm sure the Member would be welcome to be part of that work as well.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.

Diolch, Llywydd. As chair of the cross-party group on fuel poverty and energy efficiency in previous terms, I'm working with National Energy Action, NEA Cymru, and the Fuel Poverty Coalition Cymru, to re-establish the cross-party group in the sixth Senedd. Our first meeting will take place via Zoom at 11 a.m. on Monday, 8 November—diary note for everybody, please—and I thank you for confirming your attendance as Minister for Social Justice. We recognise that tackling fuel poverty is a social justice issue, but we recognise that improving the energy efficiency of the homes of fuel-poor households in Wales will also contribute to climate change objectives in Wales. Given that fuel poverty sits within your portfolio, but energy efficiency sits within the portfolio of the Minister for Climate Change, how specifically are you co-ordinating action with her to ensure that the wider social justice goals in tackling fuel poverty are not lost in pursuit of climate change objectives?

I thank Mark Isherwood for that question, and I do look forward to attending the cross-party group on fuel poverty. Clearly, this has to be addressed in a cross-Government way, so working very closely with the Minister for Climate Change, Julie James, and appreciating it from her perspective as being responsible for housing and tackling climate change. So, working together, particularly in relation to tackling fuel poverty, we did publish the plan to tackle fuel poverty in March of this year. We had a public consultation and, of course, many responses from those who will, I'm sure, be attending the cross-party group. But I think it's important just to outline—and this, obviously, alongside my colleague Julie James—our targets. And they are targets that, over the next 15 years, no household is estimated to be living in severe or persistent fuel poverty; no more than 5 per cent of households are estimated to be living in fuel poverty at any one time; and that we should look to the number of households that are at risk of falling into fuel poverty, and they should be halved, by more than 50 per cent, based on the 2018 assessment. What's crucial is that we need to make sure that 155,000 homes—that's 12 per cent of homes in Wales—have safe and comfortable home environments, and that's where our close working is so critically important.

Thank you. The connection between fuel poverty and health is very real. Speaking here in November 2018, I noted that the annual cost to the Welsh NHS of treating people made ill by living in a cold, damp home was approximately £67 million, with health impacts caused by cold homes predominantly relating to cardiovascular and respiratory problems. Low temperatures also diminish resistance to infection and encourage damp and mould growth in the home. And cold indoor conditions have also been linked to poor mental health, resulting from anxiety and stress, and cold homes also exacerbate social isolation and reduce educational attainment, therefore crossing into social justice issues. Speaking at National Energy Action Cymru's fuel poverty conference in February 2019, I stated that your predecessor had told the cross-party group that the Welsh Government would be developing a cold weather plan in conjunction with Public Health Wales, and that a crisis fund and adoption in Wales of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guideline and quality standard on cold-related ill health and excess winter deaths would also be key to this. However, yesterday's statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services on the Welsh Government's health and social care winter plan made no reference to fuel poverty. Given that winter is almost upon us again, what specific year-round cold weather resilience planning is the Welsh Government therefore taking to address this, as it relates to the cross-cutting issues in your social justice portfolio?

13:40

Thank you, again, for that follow-up question. I've mentioned the plan to tackle fuel poverty, published earlier on this year. What's crucial about that is that we also have a fuel poverty advisory panel, which, of course, is attended by many of those who you are working with in terms of the cross-party group, and it is actually helping us to co-ordinate action to tackle fuel poverty in Wales. What's important, and linked to your first question, is the Warm Homes programme, and it's clear that there's a link between good health and well-being and also tackling fuel poverty. So, the Warm Homes programme, as you're aware, I know, includes the demand-led Nest scheme, which ends in March 2023, and the Arbed scheme, ending later on this year, and that's providing support for people most in need in terms of the Warm Homes programme. 

But I think it's important to show that, for example, this is where schemes under the Warm Homes programme are subject to a maximum level of investment for each dwelling to maximise the impact of the scheme, and improvements not only for warmer homes, but also saving households on their annual energy bills, because that's what's so important about the free home energy efficiency measures that are now being implemented through the Nest scheme. 

Thank you, and whilst I welcome your comments about the Warm Homes plan, the question was specific to the cold weather plan, which NEA Cymru's annual fuel poverty monitor have called for for a long time, and which the Minister in the last Welsh Government accepted in 2019 and said the Welsh Government would be developing. 

But, moving on, on 1 October, the energy price cap set by energy regulator Ofgem increased, driven by a rise in energy costs, with gas prices hitting a record high as the world emerged from lockdown. Although the price cap ensures that suppliers only pass on legitimate costs to customers, NEA Cymru warned that this rise would plunge 22,500 more households in Wales into fuel poverty this winter, and called for deeper protection and more direct financial support for low-income households this winter. How do you therefore respond to their subsequent statement that the Welsh Government has a vital role to play to support fuel-poor households across tenure to retrofit and upgrade the energy efficiency of their homes, and how will you respond to their call on the Welsh Government to expand the financial support available to assist those struggling to meet growing energy bills, as well as longer term investment in home energy efficiency, prioritising the poorest households in the least efficient homes?

Well, of course, in response to your specific question, which I will respond to, about the cold weather plan, we will have a cold weather plan in place. I talked about our plan to tackle fuel poverty, and ,of course, all of these are interacting strategies and plans to tackle fuel poverty. But we'll be able to respond to that in terms of updating by the end of November. 

This is where the Minister for Climate Change and I are working very closely together, and we are making our representations to the UK Government, which I hope you are as well. You're making representations to me, but representations need to be made to the UK Government in terms of tackling these issues. And, very clearly, we need to ensure that there is the funding available to enable us to play our part. And we'll look to see what happens in the comprehensive spending review announcements shortly. 

But, also, on Ofgem itself, meetings held with the Minister for Climate Change, and representations that we're making, recognising that there will be an increase in the number of households facing fuel poverty, in fact, this was discussed fully in our Equality and Social Justice Committee this morning in terms of debt advice, and the fact that we are ensuring that not only are we reaching out with £20.1 million in the Nest scheme—100 per cent of installations completed by Wales-based installers, including apprenticeships—but we are looking to benefit entitlement checks, which, in themselves, through our income maximisation programme, are actually resulting in benefit take-up to support households who will be vulnerable; who will be vulnerable, because of those cuts that we've just been talking about from universal credit and the end of furlough, rising fuel prices and rising food prices too.

13:45

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, following on from the previous question, you may remember that I wrote to you earlier this summer when the news first emerged of the rises in fuel tariffs. I warned then of the impacts this would have on household budgets, especially in light of the Tory Government's decision to plough ahead with the removal of the universal credit uplift, despite knowing the harm that it would cause. The reason we are in this position is partly down to the incompetency of the Tory Government in Westminster in failing to invest in gas storage capacity, making the UK especially vulnerable to external shocks. For me, this underlines Plaid Cymru's plans to establish a home-grown energy company that would increase our resilience and reduce our reliance on external forces. The last few months have surely told us that we cannot rely on Westminster when it comes to energy supply. Is increasing our energy independence under active consideration in order to tackle fuel poverty and exorbitant prices? And, if not, why not?

Well, thank you very much. And it's absolutely right and timely that these questions are coming about what role and power we have got, as a Welsh Government, in terms of tackling fuel poverty. We talked this morning about the perfect storm that is going to be hitting and affecting vulnerable families. So, we need to ensure that we can have as much of a grip and a hold and responsibilities in terms of taking this forward, in terms of energy supply and resources. Clearly, this is not entirely in my portfolio, although in the cross-Government way in which we work in the Welsh Government, I'm very clearly working with my colleagues the Minister and Deputy Minister for climate change on these issues.

Diolch yn fawr. Moving on to something that I've got an interest in: in recent months, Wales has welcomed refugees, following the sudden fall of the Afghanistan Government. It's hard to imagine the terror that they felt when fleeing their homes, and it's only right that Wales has played its part in proving to be a safe haven for some of these families. Over the last 20 years, WARD or the Wales Asylum Seeking and Refugee Doctors scheme has been a big success in supporting people to restart their professional lives here in Wales. They have done this by removing the barriers to gaining General Medical Council registration that is required to practice in the UK. The scheme has also saved a lot of money, since training new doctors costs around £230,000, whereas the WARD process costs around £30,000 for each doctor completing the scheme. Can this Welsh Government commit to helping more refugees and asylum seeking professionals to restart their careers by looking to expand the remit of the original WARD scheme to include other professionals, and help our NHS?

Diolch yn fawr, Peredur, for that question. I was very proud to be health Minister when we started along that route, with the refugee doctors scheme, as we called it then, 20 years ago. And I always recall Aled Edwards reporting on how many of those refugee doctors we were supporting through language skills, through the scheme that developed, and which has now been replicated and followed, not in Wales, but across the UK and further afield, and how so many of those doctors who then got GMC recognition were working in the NHS across Wales and the UK. So, it is very important that we look to the opportunities and the scope of that scheme. It will be very much for the Minister for Health and Social Services—. In fact, I've raised that question with her, in terms of not just doctors, but other health professionals as well. But I would like to say that we do have the opportunities, again, with our Afghan refugees who come to join us here in Wales, many of whom have skills—their whole families; the husbands and wives have skills—as we've seen with the Syrian refugees, who are now playing their part, particularly in the NHS, and I certainly will be raising that point again about the scheme and how we can enhance it.

13:50

Thank you, and thank you for taking that forward. Recently, I brought forward a debate on substance misuse. During that debate, the Deputy Minister for Mental Health and Well-being noted that the Government approach to substance misuse problems is firmly rooted in a health and harm reduction approach. Given this, how does the Welsh Government work with and engage with the police and crime commissioners to ensure this approach is translated into action with police on the ground? Specifically, how do the Government and the PCCs guide officers to identify substance misuse or addiction problems and to respond appropriately in line with the health and harm reduction approach?

Well, thank you for that question. It's very timely again, because tomorrow I'm meeting with the lead PCC, police and crime commissioner, Dafydd Llywelyn, and I will be, and he will, I'm sure, be aware of questions asked to me this afternoon with my lead role in terms of policing. I co-chair with the First Minister the policing partnership board, and I have to say that, over the last 18 months, although we have been focusing on the impact of the pandemic and the support that the police forces have been giving to respond to the pandemic and to the very welcome expansion of our community police support officers, we also have had substance misuse clearly on the agenda. It is something where, particularly, the police forces, led often by the police and crime commissioners, are looking at prevention in terms of the role of our police services in Wales. And you know, we do focus on what are Welsh needs and Welsh circumstances, and I will be raising this again with Dafydd Llywelyn, the lead police and crime commissioner, when I meet him tomorrow.

Question 3 [OQ57061] is withdrawn. Question 4, Mabon ap Gwynfor.

Sexual Assault Referral Centres

4. Will the Minister make a statement on the provision of sexual assault referral centres? OQ57059

We continue to work in partnership with the NHS, the police and the third sector to provide access to sexual assault referral centres in Wales. This joint working ensures access to trained and experienced professionals for help and support, and to provide advice for victims of sexual assault.

Thank you very much, and I'm particularly grateful that you answered through the medium of Welsh. These sexual assault referral centres provide a very important service to vulnerable people who clearly have gone through appalling experiences. Now, when one looks at sexual assault statistics, there isn't much difference between the number of sexual assaults for every 1,000 of the population in our rural communities as compared to urban communities. However, the level of provision available in our rural areas is appalling, particularly in north Wales. There is only one sexual health referral centre in the whole of north Wales, and that's in Colwyn Bay. It's a four-hour journey on public transport for somebody from Tudweiliog, for example, or from Harlech to Colwyn Bay. Minister, don't you agree that it's time that we saw investment in a sexual assault referral centre, a second in north Wales, in a place that is more convenient to the residents of Gwynedd and Anglesey?

Diolch yn fawr, Mabon ap Gwynfor, and thank you for putting that focus on our SARC programme. It is so important that we do have that access to sexual assault referral centres across the whole of Wales, and focusing particularly on rural Wales and north Wales, where you, obviously, are the representative. We do have robust collaborative working arrangements to ensure that there is that multi-agency response, which I know you recognise is crucial. We have a programme board, which oversees this in terms of the SARC provision across Wales. It's hosted in the NHS collaborative and, of course, it's all aiming to improve health outcomes for victims and survivors of sexual assault. The programme is actually based on a regional approach, so I will take this back in terms of the representations you're making today. We do have an integrated service already available in north Wales, but I think it's your points about distance and access to accredited facilities, for example, that are crucially important. I'll just, perhaps, also mention that this is something where we have a new regional hub being developed here in Cardiff, but that can be a model for the rest of Wales.

13:55

Thank you, Mabon, for asking this really important question. In our region, ahead of this year's White Ribbon events, I've been working with sexual violence charity, New Pathways, and it operates six of Wales's eight SARCs. They do an amazing job of supporting victims, overwhelmingly women and girls, and I'm pleased to say that they recently received new funding to support more people in more ways. But far too many victims are let down by the criminal justice system. Police and prosecutors need far more resources and training to expedite sexual assault and rape investigations in Wales. This is critical, not least because we know that lengthy court processes, combined with persistently and pitifully low conviction rates, put off victims from reporting those crimes. So, what discussions have you had, Minister, with Ministry of Justice officials about prioritising victims over perpetrators and improving swift access to justice?

Well, I thank Joyce Watson for that question, and also in recognition of her diligent and long-standing commitment to addressing the needs of victims in terms of improving the sexual assault referral centres' provision. And also focusing particularly in terms of the need for justice for those victims and the importance, as I said in response to the first question from Mabon, of this multi-agency response. This is about how we prioritise our SARC services, and we need to ensure that the police and the Home Office play their parts as far as this is concerned, so we were also very pleased to support New Pathways in terms of additional funding and support.

But we have actually got to instil confidence in victims that, if they report, those who abuse will be held to account, and that's why, of course, in terms of the importance of us having influence and furthering that influence to more responsibility in the criminal justice system, it is so important that you raised this issue this afternoon.

Can I just say that it's also very linked to our violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence strategy, which we are developing the next phase of for the next five years? It's interesting that we are actually enhancing remote court hearing facilities, for example, across Wales, which I think we are helping to fund, or are funding, because we know how important it is for victims to present secure evidence safely by video link.

Community Banking Services

5. How is the Welsh Government supporting community banking services? OQ57038

The Welsh Government supports credit unions that provide an alternative community banking service. We also work with LINK, which runs a financial inclusion programme to protect access to free cash for all, but especially for those in more deprived communities where there is a greater reliance on cash.

Many thanks, Minister, for your response there. Members across this Chamber, of course, will have supported their communities in attempting to keep banks in their own constituencies, and as we all know in this Chamber, the banks will perhaps receive those petitions and then go ahead and ignore, and banks will close. But, of course, I've been a long-time advocate myself, Minister, of a community banking model; I believe that there does need to be Government intervention, so I certainly support the Welsh Government's aims via Banc Cambria. This is an absolutely crucial project. I know, in a Government statement just before the election, Minister, the Government Minister, then Ken Skates, said that he hoped to be in a position to make further announcements in regard to Banc Cambria before the end of 2021. So, I wonder if you could provide any information today in terms of when that announcement will be brought forward, but particularly how Members can lobby for locations to be in their own constituencies. I've been a long-time advocate that those banks should be in place in my own constituency in towns like Llanidloes, Machynlleth and Welshpool, so I'll continue to lobby for those areas. But, Minister, can you provide an update—because I understand you will be the Minister responsible once Banc Cambria has been developed—in terms of supporting Members to ensure that Banc Cambria's locations are in areas across Wales that are most appropriate, and particularly those, of course, in rural constituencies like mine?

14:00

Thank you, Russell George. It is always good and important to drive things forward when we get that cross-party support for a proposal. It has been clearly supported by the Welsh Government, taking on the pioneering work of Ken Skates, and I also would say Jack Sargeant as well, who raised many questions on this point. But, I have to say that it is across this Welsh Parliament that Banc Cambria is seen to be a goal that we should be aiming for. Because the serious point is that we've got bank closures in all our consistencies on the high street. It's a continuing decline, and we have to ensure people have access to banking services. I've mentioned the credit union movement, and we're putting more and more funding and support into the credit unions.

Just a quick update: you know that we have direct discussions, as I think I've reported, between the regulator and the private sector financial institution, because the banking sector is tightly regulated, it is a reserved matter, and the establishment of the community bank is contingent on private sector delivery. But we're completely committed to the support and the creation of the community bank for Wales. I think it's important that we can acknowledge and keep raising the questions, recognising that we're working with the private sector. They're developing their commercial proposals in line with the regulatory approval process, and we are delivering operational plans in parallel with these regulatory assessments. 

It is a concern in several parts of Wales and for many organisations that the banking sector appears to be turning their backs on community organisations. We know that HSBC is going to start charging a fee for community accounts. It is something that several people have contacted me about—Merched y Wawr, for example, and local eisteddfodau. I encourage everyone to sign a petition by the Member of the Senedd and the Member of Parliament for Dwyfor Meirionnydd calling on the banks to change their minds on this.

If the banks are going to turn their backs on the communities that provide them with their profits, let us invest more in alternative banking methods. Credit unions are one model. I too know that Banc Cambria is very eager to offer this kind of package to community organisations. Has the Welsh Government discussed with those behind Banc Cambria the possibility of providing this package that would be of so much assistance to organisations? I'm also awaiting a response from the Financial Conduct Authority to correspondence from me calling on them to look into this issue. Has the Welsh Government also discussed that with them or are you considering doing that on behalf of the community organisations of Wales?

I thank the Member. Rhun, thank you for raising that again, because this has been raised with me by many Senedd Members, that voluntary organisations are experiencing difficulties with regard to access to banking services. There are difficulties in terms of identifying an account that's free and suitable for the needs of a voluntary organisation, as well as even being able to open one in the first place. You've acknowledged the role of the credit unions, who can provide accounts and banking facilities to charitable organisations. I don't think everybody, perhaps, is aware of that. But also, many of you will know of the work of Purple Shoots, which is a pioneering microloans charity that's developed in Wales. They're now working very closely with credit unions to help them facilitate this.

We can't let the banks off the hook, as far as I'm concerned, on this, and we are meeting with them to, yet again, not just talk about the extent of the closures—we're all getting them daily, almost, aren't we—but the fact that this is excluding people and charitable organisations. We do, though, have an opportunity as well, with the third sector support that we've got from our county voluntary councils, along with the WCVA. They are establishing a community asset loan fund, and they are going to have funding that we are helping them with—a pot of £2 million in financial transaction capital. They can offer loans, for example, for organisations seeking to take on community assets. Also, they can get loans to help build up credit history for voluntary organisations. But I'm certainly going to be taking this back to the banking sector with my colleague Vaughan Gething as well. This is crucial. It's much reserved, but Banc Cambria is on its way. 

14:05

Further to Russell's and Rhun's points, community banking is about high-street presence, which we are increasingly seeing banks walk away from over the last few years, if not decades. It's also about that free access to banking for community groups and charities. We are seeing HSBC as the latest one to take the money and run, and it is not good enough. So, I ask the Minister to make the strongest representations. Because I have had the response from HSBC to my letter to them; they have explained to me the commercial reasons why it's imperative that they don't provide free banking for these charitable and community organisations anymore. That is not good enough, and they are not the only ones. So, would the Minister join with me in making those strong representations back to HSBC? They may listen or not. But, if not, direct constituents of mine and others, people who believe in ethical, free banking for charities and community groups—it could be the credit unions, like Bridgend Lifesavers or Maesteg credit union; there are other banks and building societies out there who will do it—if they take the money and run, let's vote with our feet and leave them high and dry as well.

I would say to Huw Irranca-Davies that I think we all join that expression of almost despair about the way that the commercial banks have left our communities. We will be making those representations. I think that we could all repeat examples of the same kind that you describe, and the fact that there is no commitment to the community. What about corporate social responsibility, which there's supposed to be in terms of the private sector and the banking world? 

I just wanted to assure colleagues and Members here today that Banc Cambria estimates that, subject to regulatory approval and investment, the community bank could be established in 2022—this won't be fast enough for us and for our communities, I know—with a customer launch in 2023. It's crucial that we get this right. But, we know that it will be about roll-out and the location of branches, and you'll all be wanting one, won't you, in your towns and communities. You have just got to stick with us and back us in progressing this in getting that ethical mutual banking arrangement with Banc Cambria.

The Discretionary Assistance Fund

6. Will the Minister provide an update on the discretionary assistance fund? OQ57056

The discretionary assistance fund continues to provide vital support to the most financially vulnerable people in Wales. Since March 2020, over 300,000 emergency payments have been made, totalling more than £20 million. I recently announced that the additional flexibilities provided throughout the pandemic will be extended until March 2022.

Thank you, Minister. With furlough ending, the devastating £20-a-week universal credit uplift cut and the national insurance increase, it seems that the UK Government cares little for the most vulnerable in our communities, heading into what will already be a tough winter. Thousands of families in Rhondda and across Wales will struggle. Thousands of families will be forced to make impossible decisions, like eating or heating.

I'm grateful to the Welsh Government for providing support through the discretionary assistance fund, and I'm grateful to the thousands of charities and community groups across Wales supporting families and children in poverty. Over the summer, the Welsh Government set aside funding for the successful Summer of Fun. Will the Minister explore the possibility of a similar scheme through the winter months for those hit hardest by the decisions of the UK Government, so that we see a winter of warmth not a winter of worry?  

Thank very much indeed, Buffy Williams, representing the Rhondda and the communities where you know the hardship that is already being experienced because of that cruel and senseless cut to universal credit. And let's remember, that £20 was going to be spent in the local economy as well as meeting the needs of those families. We discussed this this morning—I mentioned the Equality and Social Justice Committee because of the impact that these cuts will have on families and how vulnerable they will be. We’ve discussed fuel poverty today and we will, I know, recognise this in terms of the importance of the discretionary assistance fund.

We did put more money into the discretionary assistance fund because of the unprecedented need we had during the pandemic, but also those flexibilities for people who will have to—and surely they will need to—come back for more payments. I want to also just comment in terms of responding to your question about the impact. In terms of fuel poverty, we have agreed the reintroduction of fuel support for off-grid households from 1 October until 31 March 2022, which will allow many households who rely on costly oil and liquefied petroleum gas purchases to be supported this winter.

The Summer of Fun was a great opportunity, and across all our constituencies we know how children and young people and families really benefited from that. It wasn’t within my portfolio; I shall be sharing this question with the Minister for Health and Social Services. Because I think we do need to look, as the Deputy Minister for Social Services is doing—we are looking at our older generation and the impact on their health and well-being, as well as the impacts of senseless cuts that are coming from the UK Government.  

14:10

Minister, according to evidence submitted to the Equality and Social Justice Committee, there are some challenges to be addressed. Karen Davies from Purple Shoots, a Responsible Finance provider, said that awareness of the fund is low and is not well promoted, and Shelter Cymru note that it has seen a significant number of applications to the discretionary assistance fund rejected, many due to a cap on the number of applications people can make. Does the Minister accept that these matters need to be addressed if people are to benefit from the scheme? Thank you.  

Thank you, Altaf Hussain. In my response to the question from Buffy Williams I did say, and I think this is important to acknowledge, that since March 2020 last year, over 300,000 emergency payments have been made—300,000—totalling more than £20 million. But I did say, in response to questions this morning at the Equality and Social Justice Committee, that we are looking at accessibility to the discretionary assistance fund. Clearly, as Members will know, it works very closely with Citizens Advice through the single advice fund. It does refer people who are most financially vulnerable for extra, additional advice to improve their circumstances. Local authorities have a key role to play as well. I think the evidence that people are accessing that funding is all-important. Actually, we have got this discretionary assistance fund here in Wales. Nothing like this exists in England. We have got it here, and we’ve actually made awards of over £91 million since the discretionary assistance fund opened. But we are looking at the evidence that’s coming through about how we can improve access to the discretionary assistance fund, and that, I think, will be helpful in terms of answering those questions and responding to evidence where we know people are at the sharp end and need to access these funds, particularly as we move into what will be, I’m sure, a very tough winter.

Support for Vulnerable Households

7. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding the support fund announced for vulnerable households over the winter? OQ57060

Wales will receive £25 million consequential funding related to the household support fund, and I've been working with ministerial colleagues to identify priorities for this funding, which will provide immediate support to vulnerable households over the winter. This includes help with rising domestic fuel prices. I will announce further details shortly.

Thank you for that answer. According to the UK Government's recent household support fund announcements, as the Minister alluded to, the Barnett formula will apply in the usual way, meaning that devolved administrations will receive up to £79 million of that £500 million. And, for Wales, that means we will receive just £25 million, as you've said. This, of course, when the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's analysis of the UK Government's stats shows that Wales consistently has the highest poverty percentages in the UK. Can the Minister outline how the Welsh Government will look to prioritise that funding from UK Government to the best of its ability? And can the Minister update us on when the Government is pushing for the devolution of welfare? We have yet another example here of why we can't leave the welfare state in the hands of the UK Government.

14:15

Diolch yn fawr, Luke Fletcher, for that important question. I've said this more than once standing here, I think, over the last week or so since we heard we'd got a measly, derisory £25 million. Twenty-five million. You know, this is £20 off in terms of the universal credit, £6 billion that has been wiped out, and a measly £500 million for the whole of the UK—£25 million for Wales. And one of the points that hasn't been made enough: it's a one-off. And everyone knows how difficult it is with one-off funding—£25 million—because you know that you can't sustain it into a long-term access to funding for people at the sharp end. So, that's why we're looking very carefully at how we can target this money, but also looking at ways in which we can continue, as I've said, flexibilities that we've got in terms of the discretionary assistance fund and also winter fuel systems for off-grid homes.

But your point about responsibility and powers in relation to devolution of welfare, clearly, I have said, and, indeed, responded to questions in recent times—and from yourself, I'm sure, Luke Fletcher—that we are committed not just to consider all the evidence and the reports that have been done in terms of the impact of devolution of the administration of welfare, which is, of course, alongside what's happened in Scotland. And we are now committed to taking that forward in terms of exploring the options, the opportunities, and, indeed, crucially—. And this always comes down to this issue about how we can be assured that we get finance with responsibility, because that's one of the key issues with the UK Government.

Hate Crime

8. What action is the Welsh Government taking to tackle hate crime in south-east Wales? OQ57070

There can be no place for hate and crimes of this nature in the Wales we all want to see. A statement issued last week set out the range of preventative work, support for victims, and awareness-raising that the Welsh Government is delivering. We work closely with partners through our hate and community tensions board, community cohesion programme, and the national hate crime report and support centre.

Thank you very much, Deputy Minister. I was concerned to see that recent figures show homophobic hate crimes have tripled across the UK in the last six years. Indeed, up until 31 August this year, there were over 150 LGBTQ+ hate crimes reported to Gwent Police. How is the Welsh Government working to ensure that those who are victims of hate crime have the confidence to both come forward and report their experiences? And what is Welsh Government doing to engage with partners, such as Gwent Police, to eradicate the scourge of hate crime?

Well, I thank the Member for this important question, and I share with her the concern about the increase in numbers of recorded hate crimes. And this undoubtedly includes additional crimes taking place, but also it reflects better awareness of hate crime and increased confidence to report it, and better recording of such hate by police forces across Wales. And we very much, as you say, do take a partnership approach in Wales with our hate crime and community tensions board Cymru that engages all Welsh police forces, and that includes Gwent Police. And I know during National Hate Crime Awareness Week last week, Gwent Police and Victim Support's training and engagement officer for Gwent collaborated on an open training session to raise awareness of hate crime in the region.

But I think the raising-awareness aspect is really important, not just in terms of the forms that hate crime can take—so, whilst those physical attacks we've seen all too often reported these days are abhorrent, it also takes different forms: it can be verbal abuse, intimidation, threats, harassment and bullying, and it can take place offline and online. And I think, really, it is important to talk about it to encourage more people to realise the different forms, but also to come forward.

Actually, this year, both myself and my wife were on the receiving end of a hate crime. In August, just after we launched the Welsh Government's draft LGBTQ action plan consultation, one morning, I woke up to correspondence, and the next day she got something very similar, urging us for the deliverance of the spirit from homosexuality. It told us it was time to abandon a homosexual lifestyle and leave one another, and then went on to reference things around conversion therapy. I'm sharing it today because I want to encourage more people to come forward. I'm grateful for the support that we had, both in terms of when we reported that, but also from my colleagues, in particular my colleague here—my ministerial colleague—and just to encourage others to come forward, to stand up to hate crime and to stamp it out in Wales.

14:20
2. Questions to the Counsel General and the Minister for the Constitution

We'll move on to our next item, questions to the Counsel General and the Minister for the Constitution, and the first question is from Joyce Watson.

Humanist Marriages

1. What discussions has the Counsel General had with other law officers regarding the campaign to grant humanist marriages legal recognition? OQ57051

I thank the Member for an important question. The Welsh Government supports the Law Commission's proposals for a framework that would allow non-religious belief organisations to conduct legally binding weddings. The Minister for Social Justice has written to the UK Government expressing support of these proposals and seeking this work being taken forward in a timely fashion.

Thank you for that answer. You will be aware, of course, Minister, that there is legal recognition for humanist weddings in many other countries, but that is not the case for England and Wales. So, my question, then, to you is: are you pressing the UK Government to end the anomaly that currently exists with that legal recognition elsewhere, but not being afforded here in Wales and also in England?

Thank you for that supplementary question. I should mention I am a member of Humanists UK. This is an issue that has been raised from time to time in this Chamber. We know that humanist marriages gained legal recognition in Scotland in 2005, in the Republic of Ireland in 2012 and in Northern Ireland in 2018, after a Court of Appeal decision. In Jersey 2019, in Guernsey 2021, and in the England and Wales jurisdiction it has been under review by the UK Government since 2013.

It is an irony, isn't it, that you can have a humanist funeral in Wales, but you can't have a humanist wedding? And I can confirm that—. If it's helpful, I can perhaps write, in conjunction with the Minister for Social Justice—well, if I confirm that I will write in the same terms that she has written, really, to give further support to the need for law reform in this area, and for, I believe, the devolution of this particular area to this Parliament. I think I can also mention that the Minister for Social Justice has met with Humanists UK yesterday. She's already confirmed that she will be writing again, and I'm more than happy to lend my support, if she thinks that's helpful, to that, and perhaps write jointly to the UK Government in respect of those two aspects: one, that reform needs to take place, but secondly, if the UK Government is unwilling to consider reform or to delay reform, despite the Law Commission work and the Court of Appeal judgment, that's a matter that could be devolved to us to take responsibility for.

The Establishment of the Law Council of Wales

2. Will the Counsel General outline how the Welsh Government has been working with the legal sector to establish a Law Council of Wales? OQ57055

Thank you for that question on the law council of Wales. Since the beginning of 2020, we have been working closely with the legal sector to establish the law council for Wales, through discussions with the Law Society, commercial law firms and high-street practices, the bar, law schools, the judiciary and other leading representatives of the sector in Wales.

14:25

Thank you for your answer, Counsel General. I believe it is vital that legal education in Wales is firmly placed within the Welsh context and focuses on building an awareness of Welsh law. Ahead of the forthcoming meeting of the proposed members of its executive committee, can you outline your priorities for the remit of the law council?

Thank you for that question, and as has been indicated, the establishment of a law council for Wales is one of the recommendations of the Thomas commission, and the recommendation also built on a call by Lord Lloyd-Jones for an institute for Welsh law to be established to promote the study of Welsh law and proposed a law council, but one with a wider remit than just legal education so that it would include a voice for the legal community in Wales by promoting awareness of the growing body of Welsh law, ensuring the provision of legal resources through the medium of Welsh and helping Welsh law schools to equip students with education and training to thrive in practice, but, in addition, that it would be an umbrella body to share resources, support training on Welsh law for the judiciary and professions and ensure collaboration and co-operative working to contribute to the development and sustainability of the legal sector. So, it is a vital sector, it's an important sector in terms of the Welsh economy, but it's also an important sector in respect of the growth and the development of Welsh law, and to that extent, the role of Welsh Government in this has been to work with and to facilitate the development of the law council for Wales, to give it support, but, of course, it will be a body that is independent of Government. But I have certainly given my commitment to giving any support I can to ensure that it is a success, because it is such an important development for Wales.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Darren Millar.

Diolch, Llywydd. Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution, will you make a statement on your Government's position on further devolution to Welsh regions and local authorities?

Well, our position on further devolution to local authorities is basically that we have a commission that is set up that will look at governance within Wales, the well-being of that governance, how it might move forward, how we might work to empower and support—I think the empowerment of communities and individuals within Wales, and I look forward, in due course, to the recommendations of the commission that has been established, which is going to be co-chaired by those I announced yesterday.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. In your statement yesterday, both your written statement and oral statement, there was no reference to the further devolution of powers from Cardiff Bay to Colwyn Bay and other places across the nation. Isn't it a fact that your Government, over the years, has been a Government that has centralised powers down here in Cardiff Bay, rather than actually distributing them to the local communities who ought to have been able to make decisions for themselves? The fact of the matter is that people in the part of the country where I live in north Wales feel as though they have a Government that is remote and out of touch with them. We have the worst waiting times in our hospitals, we have poorer local authority settlements, we have road projects that are in the deep freeze. These are not the devolution dividends that people were promised. When can we expect to see the Welsh Government take devolution to the regions of Wales and to local authorities seriously?

I think it has always been the case that, within this Senedd, we have worked fairly in respect of across Wales and with a view to encompass all the views of the people of Wales. I do wonder whether you actually listened to the speech that I made yesterday, because in that speech and earlier statements, I'd always talked about how the ethos behind the commission is about the empowerment of people, it is about the empowerment of communities, and it seems to me you've totally disregarded what was said in order to, I think, make some cheap statement that is obviously one that has become part of the Conservative Party in Wales's mantra.

I can assure you I listened very carefully to what you had yesterday, and I didn't hear the words, 'devolution to regions and local authorities' at all. You talk about the empowerment of people and communities, but isn't it the truth that you’re simply after a power grab from local authorities and a power grab from the UK Government and that really is what the independent commission on the constitutional future of Wales is all about?

Can I ask you to ensure that, as an important part of the work stream of the independent commission, because it is not in the remit that you published yesterday—the very broad remit, if I might say so—? Can I ask that you specifically ask them and task them with looking at where appropriate powers should lie, including whether there should be that further devolution to Welsh local authorities, which are much closer to the people on the ground that they serve than this remote Welsh Labour Government, which has been centralising powers since 1999?

14:30

Well, I think it's probably true that you did listen to my statement yesterday, but you certainly didn’t hear what I said. And I certainly wonder what your understanding is of the concept of empowerment of people and communities. And I wonder what your understanding is of the broad objectives that were set, which are really about the future of Wales and the enhancement of Welsh democracy and to consider those issues that would lead to the improvement and benefit of the people of Wales.

Now, if you think it’s appropriate in a commission to actually start telling the commission what its conclusions should be from day one—well, that’s not my concept of what a commission is. I believe it is vitally important that the commission has the flexibility and discretion to address those broad objectives. And if you’re saying to a commission to go out and to engage with the people of Wales, well, you have to listen to the people of Wales and what they actually say, rather than tell them that this is what you’ve already determined is important for them. Now, that may be the Conservative way of approaching this, but I don’t think it is the way that many others of us in this Senedd actually think is appropriate for a commission.

Thank you, Llywydd. Counsel General, many of us here are very concerned about the significant increase in the number of Bills that the UK Government is trying to pass in devolved areas. Many on those benches will be familiar with the verse,

'He that hath ears, let him hear.'

Well, listen to this on the Conservative benches: in the fourth Senedd, there were eight legislative consent memoranda; in the sixth Senedd already, there are 14 LCMs. Some of the Bills, such as the Professional Qualifications Bill, give powers to Ministers to change primary legislation made in this place and to change the Government of Wales Act 2006. I'm sure you would agree with me, Counsel General, that the devolution settlement of our nation shouldn't be subject to the whim of a Tory Minister in Westminster. So what are you doing therefore to safeguard the Senedd from the Tory Government in Westminster, which is seeking to undermine our devolution? Thank you.

Well, I think the Member has made his points very, very well, and they’re ones that, certainly, I’m very focused on. And perhaps to add to some of the examples that he gave, I would also express concern that some of those pieces of legislation that we will need to consider, because of their implications for devolution, actually go to the heart of our democracy and the democracy of the United Kingdom—the proposals in respect of judicial review, the worst of which were actually removed by the previous Lord Chancellor. And I have this great fear that, from indications of things that are being said by the new Lord Chancellor, there is an intention to reintroduce that; the issue of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Sentencing Bill, which would be a significant restriction on the right of civic protest. And we see now even the intention to introduce legislation to actually significantly restrict the issue of human rights within our legal system. These are all things that I think we regard as very, very significant and very important, whether it be democracy within Wales, or whether it be democracy within the United Kingdom.

What I can tell the Member is that, in terms of the legislative consent system, of course there are areas where—pieces of legislation—there will be potential overlaps and so on, and so the process is one that is important, in considering where there may be mutual benefits or not, or where there may be intrusions into devolved responsibilities. But the fact of the matter is that what is happening at the moment, I believe, is an onslaught on devolved responsibilities, it is an attempt to undermine devolved responsibilities, and I believe it actually undermines the democratic mandate that we have.

So, in considering all legislative consent memoranda, and to get an understanding of the global impact of them collectively, as well as those other processes, such as memoranda of understanding, the sort of despatch box agreements, is to evaluate the impact that they have in every respect in terms of the devolution settlement, with a view that legislation on Welsh matters should be pursued within Wales itself. Where there are areas of common interest, it's on the proviso, except in exceptional circumstances, that it does not undermine devolution or result in a transfer of powers from this place. It is a very, very difficult environment. I am hopeful that maybe the inter-governmental review, and the outcome of that, may improve the situation. But, as I said yesterday in discussing these matters, they do not provide the fundamental constitutional floor that I think is one that we actually need, and one that the commission we were referring to just earlier I think will no doubt consider.

14:35

Diolch yn fawr. I want to stay with the legislative consent motions. I want to quote some wise words to you, Counsel General. They were written in March 2021, by the then chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, in a letter to the environment Minister. These are the words:

'The arguments you have put forward to support the UK Parliament and UK Government legislating in devolved areas have often centred around issues of clarity and accessibility of the law or ensuring compatibility with policy in England. These are arguments in favour of not holding powers in this area at all and, in our view, they have no merit.

'We are concerned about the substantial and damaging cumulative impact of a succession of decisions that have been made which have resulted in the UK Parliament and UK Government legislating heavily on devolved matters within your portfolio.'

Well, I agree with those words, Counsel General, and of course they are your words. Now, do you still stand by those words, Counsel General, and, if so, why did you support giving consent to the Environment Bill last month, and what are your criteria for granting consent for future LCMs? Diolch yn fawr.

Well, firstly, I do stand by those words—they remain. I have always caveated, of course, when I've attended evidence sessions and so on, that there are, from time to time, areas where there may be benefits to Wales in pursuing a particular course of action, where there are either overlapping responsibilities—. Environment, of course, is one of those areas where there are major decisions that are taken at UK level that have direct impacts on Wales. And in all those approaches, we, I think, adopt the view of what is in the best interest of Wales, what is the best way of actually working to protect the environment, to develop where possible responsibilities within Wales that enable us to tackle the environment.

I understand the point that the Member is making, because sometimes these are very fine and difficult decisions, and there are, from time to time, circumstances where it is necessary, or where we give consent and perhaps it is not the most desirable circumstances in which we give consent, but, on weighing up all the circumstances, it is in the best interests of Wales to go down a particular road. They arise from time to time. But it does not move me away from those fundamental positions that you read out in that letter—ones that I still hold now—that one of our prime objectives is to preserve the integrity of devolution, and also to progress the integrity of devolution.

Diolch yn fawr. And finally, you've touched on my last question already—those comments by Dominic Raab to change the Human Rights Act 1998 to allow some sort of a mechanism so that Ministers can correct court judgments. Now, Counsel General, do you agree with me that Dominic Raab must have forgotten one of his first constitutional lectures at university, because this goes to the very heart of our parliamentary democracy? The Senedd and the Westminster Parliament have powers already to amend law. It is not for Ministers to overrule court judgment simply because they don't like it, or simply because it's inconvenient to them. Does the Counsel General agree with me that it's not their role to do it, that it's not the role of any Minister to correct court judgment, and, if this does go ahead, it's a clear breach of the principle of separation of power and the rule of law? What conversation have you had with law officers to address this? Diolch yn fawr.

14:40

Can I thank the Member for those particular points? They are absolutely valid points and they've been made by a number of organisations within the legal profession, and we can put it this way: Parliament without the framework of the rule of law is effectively a dictatorship that is elected every five years. The rule of law is what sets the framework in which the exercise of power takes place. Now, that has always been my understanding of the way in which Parliament works and the importance of the rule of law. What has been proposed with regard to judicial review is basically a building on what was being proposed in legislation a year or two back, which was to allow Governments to act unlawfully, to allow Governments to actually breach their international obligations.

So, it is an issue that I had intended to discuss with Robert Buckland when he was Lord Chancellor. Unfortunately, my meeting was the day after he was sacked—not that it had any connection, the two. [Laughter.] But it is very concerning now that the new Lord Chancellor is making comments that indicate a reversal, I think, of the decision that had been taken by Robert Buckland after consultation. I will, in due course, be meeting with the Lord Chancellor, and I will make these points, but I have to express that these proposals, in conjunction with all those other pieces of legislation, in my view, collectively, are a significant undermining of civil liberties and democracy. 

Coal Tips

3. What legal advice has the Counsel General given to the Welsh Ministers regarding responsibility for higher risk coal tips? OQ57039

I thank the Member for the question, again on a very important subject. The safety of our communities is paramount and we continue to work at pace to address coal tip safety. The Coal Authority and local authorities undertake regular inspections on the higher-risk tips and ensure any other maintenance works are identified.

Thank you. Now, last week, you'll be aware that more disused coal tips in Wales were classified as now being at higher risk. Numbers are up from 295 to 327. Now, whilst I welcome the fact that inspections on higher-risk tips have commenced, the Welsh Government are still arguing over where the extra £500 million to £600 million needed over the next 10 to 15 years is going to come from. The Minister for finance, in passing the buck, is using the line that, as a pre-devolution issue, we need the UK Government to share responsibility and prevent another landslip from happening. However, the Law Commission's 'Regulating Coal Tip Safety in Wales' consultation paper states:

'In our provisional view coal tip safety falls within devolved competence.... Matters relating to the environment, flood risk management and land drainage are not reserved.'

So, do you agree with the view of the Law Commission that coal tip safety does fall within this devolved administration, and when will you be advising Ministers that they really do need to start looking at the funds to make these coal tips safe? Thank you.

Can I thank you for that interesting supplementary question and statement? You've very selectively chosen from the Law Commission report, because there is far more detail about the issues of complexity, about the complexity of law and the confusion of law since the privatisation of the coal industry and all the consequences since then, from the National Coal Board to British Coal, through the 1994 Act and then through to the Coal Authority now. 

Perhaps in answer to that, I should take you back to your actual question, which was a question about the advice that's given with regard to responsibility for higher-risk coal tips. And, of course, the term 'responsibility' has a very broad understanding. There are various forms of responsibility, and I believe the UK Government has a responsibility—an ethical responsibility. I think it has a moral responsibility, and I believe it has a political and potentially a legal responsibility in the coal tips that exist. And I live in a constituency that has quite a number of these particular coal tips.

Can I say, I think it is an absolute disgrace that the UK Government continues not to accept that this issue of coal tip legacy is a pre-devolution issue aggravated by climate change? And I hear the sort of weasel words from the UK Government about this, and that you are repeating today, and I have to say to you, what message do you think you are giving to the people of the Valleys of south Wales, the people where these coal tips exist in those communities, with the total abrogation of any liability—ethical, moral or political—in respect of that? Now, the First Minister mentioned yesterday that this was one of key two issues that he raised with the Prime Minister. And I have to say, instead of this highly sensitive matter being a subject of contention, it ought to be a defining example of how the UK Government can work with us to develop effective benefits from inter-governmental working, particularly so in the context of the UK hosting COP26.

If the UK Government does not agree to a funding programme, we are going to have to find £600 million from budgets over the next 10 to 15 years—money that has come to us to build hospitals, to build roads, to build schools, and to do many other things. And I have to say to you, if there was ever an opportunity for a UK Government to be able to demonstrate to the people of Wales the dividend that comes with being in the United Kingdom, joint working with us on coal tips would surely be it. That is the test, I think, you should be taking back to your Government in Westminster, and, I think, the people of south Wales, the people who live in the communities where these coal tips are, will be listening very, very carefully to the response that comes from the UK Government on this moral, ethical and political issue. 

14:45

Tomorrow will mark 55 years since the coal tip above Aberfan collapsed and killed a school full of children and teachers, and, in the 55 years since, the task of removing other coal tips from our mountainsides is still unfinished. I note that some have asked the Welsh Government to carry the burden of making these tips safe, a burden that should have been carried by Westminster decades ago. Counsel General, I'd instead ask you whether you will renew your calls on the UK Government to foot this bill of betrayal, since, after all, coal used to be known as black gold. The almost unimaginable wealth was taken from Wales, and we were left with the dust, the filth and catastrophe. Why should Wales have to pay to clear up the mess and the horror left behind? 

Can I thank the Member for that further supplementary comment? I agree, and I believe that if the UK Government does not honour its obligations to the people in the mining communities who live with these coal tips, and accept the responsibility that is there, it will be an indication of yet another betrayal by the UK Conservative Government.  

Is there any reason for withdrawing it at this late stage?

It's a very sensitive topic—something's arisen since. So, I won't be asking it, if that's okay.

Okay. You've intrigued us with that reason. I must say that it's not good practice to be withdrawing a question at such a late stage, especially when you're in the Chamber at that point. 

Question 4 [OQ57049] not asked.

The Law Council of Wales's Independence

5. What steps has the Counsel General taken to ensure the law council of Wales's independence from Government? OQ57036

Thank you for the question on the law council of Wales. We have been clear from the outset that it is essential the law council is fully independent of Government. While we have facilitated its inception, the Welsh Government will not be a member of the council, and it will be for the council to determine its constitution and its working arrangements.

I welcome the establishment of the law council of Wales. I think there's great potential there. As you mentioned earlier, a strong and sustainable legal sector in Wales is very important for several different reasons. It's been shown during the COVID pandemic how important technology is. And, in the legal sector, we haven't always been very good with technology, as you know, Counsel General. When I started in practice, several lawyers had never touched a computer, and the fax machine was used until very, very recently. Does the Counsel General agree with me that the law council should prioritise digital innovation and technical needs assessment as part of its work programme? Diolch yn fawr.  

14:50

Thank you for the supplementary question. I think, by my understanding, there are still quite a few lawyers around who have never touched a computer, but I'm sure that changes with time.

I think you're absolutely right—we're already beginning to have the experience of the digital developments in terms of giving evidence, in terms of the transmission of evidence, digital use in the way in which documents are made available and accessible within courts and so on. My big concern—and it's an issue that I discussed when I visited the Cardiff Civil Justice Centre recently, and it's an issue I've discussed with others and will have in other discussions in due course with members of the judiciary—is the issue of accessibility and equality that emerges from it, because it's one thing for the lawyers to have their systems well digitised, but it's also, though, a question of ensuring that people have access to the courts, and that they also have the right, I think, to face-to-face court hearings, rather than digital ones, et cetera.

There may be circumstances in terms of how that is actually managed. But what is very clear at the moment is that, with the number of courts that have been closed, against the wishes of this Senedd, and I believe without any proper and adequate consultation processes, we now have large sections of many communities in south Wales that have very limited access. And they're being told that, of course, the way forward is digital access. Well, certainly in my constituency, and I know it's the same in other similar constituencies in south Wales and, I'm sure, many other areas, when you've got between 20 and 30 per cent of the population not actually having access, or regular access, to a computer, there are some serious equality issues that have to be raised. 

There is no doubt, though, that there are opportunities in that. Just as we see opportunities arise within the provision of health services, it's the same with legal services. I remember the absolute horror when we were told we could have telephone hearings with district judges, and the shock and awe that that statement had. And, of course, within a matter of weeks, it had actually become something totally normal. Well, of course, we go much further than that, but of course it does require investment. Now, there are proposals and there is money that's been made available for that investment, but I think we have to ensure that it's tied in with the modernisation of the courts and on a very clear equality agenda. And that is an agenda that I intend to raise at every opportunity that I have. 

The UK Government's Legislative Programme

6. What assessment has the Welsh Government has the made of the extent to which the UK Government's legislative programme touches on devolved areas? OQ57065

Thank you for the question. The cumulative impact of current UK Government Bills on the devolution settlement is very concerning. The Welsh Government is working with the UK Government to seek changes to those Bills that do not respect devolution.

Thank you for that response. As you know, there's been a substantial increase in the number of LCMs this term. These laws won't be made bilingually, they won't be accessible and, even worse, they won't be fully scrutinised by this Senedd. So, what discussions have you had with the UK Government and your fellow Ministers here to ensure that this increase in LCMs doesn't continue?

Well, wherever UK Government legislation arises that has an impact on devolution or has a connection with devolved responsibilities, the issue of laying legislative consent memoranda arises. And, of course, these are an obligation; they're not a choice. I think the question that the Member rightly I think is getting at, though, is of course the nature of that legislation and the extent to which it intrudes or undermines the devolved responsibilities. And, of course, it also raises, doesn't it, the issue of the impact of the Sewel convention, which has been under much strain.

I will perhaps reiterate some of the points that have already been made, and one is that we have laid LCMs in relation to 14 bills. For seven of those bills, we have indicated that we are not able to recommend consent. We do carry on working with the UK Government in respect of making changes that might enable consent to be given. Those discussions occur between me and my counterpart in the UK Government. They also occur in connection with individual Ministers and legislation in their particular portfolios, and, of course, there is regular ongoing engagement between the officials of the Governments of the four nations of the United Kingdom.

Perhaps to repeat, the approach we have, which is our general principle, is that primary legislation within the Senedd's competence should be made and amended by the Senedd. We do, from time to time, have to take a pragmatic approach to using UK Government legislation to achieve our policy objectives where the opportunity to do so arises, and where it is sensible and advantageous to do so and it is in the interest of the people of Wales to do so.

14:55

But it's no accident, is it, Counsel General—I'm very grateful to Mabon ap Gwynfor for raising this absolutely important subject this afternoon—that we've seen a succession of LCMs that have no need for legislative consent, except that the UK Government want to erode the powers of this place, want to erode the competence of Welsh democracy, and want to ensure that our freedom to legislate is constrained as much as they're able to do so without simply legislating this place out of existence? And does this again ensure that there is more justification than ever for the statement you made yesterday on a constitutional convention to ensure that we have a constitution that we can be sure of? We've already seen changes to the settlement since we were elected six months ago. It's an intolerable intrusion on our democracy, and what we need to be able to do is to have a settlement that strengthens Welsh democracy and does not undermine Welsh democracy. 

I thank the Member for those comments and I think he's absolutely right; it is no accident, in my view. When you look at the cumulative effect and the combination of legislation in particular areas, it seems to me there is a concerted strategy. I think it's a strategy that arises from the fact that we have a Government that basically dislikes devolution and thinks devolution was a mistake. What message does—[Interruption.] What message—[Interruption.] What message—? Well, to whoever says, 'What rubbish, we would only have to quote back to him the comments of the Prime Minister that were made and have been well published, and that he is well aware of. I think the difficulty comes from not only believing that devolution was a mistake—

Allow the Minister to carry on with his response, please, in some quiet.

—not only that devolution was a mistake, but, actually, where you have a Government that fails to recognise the actual strength that comes from the decentralisation of power and the empowerment of people and communities, and how devolution is good for democracy, and it is a pity that we currently have a Prime Minister who has not only made those comments, but has never properly retracted those comments either. I take that to mean that he stands by those comments, and those are the comments that are guidance that go out to the remaining members of the Cabinet.

The Commission on Justice in Wales

7. Will the Counsel General make a statement on the Government's response to the recommendations made by the Commission on Justice in Wales? OQ57046

I thank the Member for his question. I published a written statement on justice on 30 September, and, just over 10 days ago, I had the privilege of addressing delegates at the Legal Wales conference, during which I reaffirmed our commitment to pursue the case for the devolution of justice and policing.

I thank the Counsel General for that answer, and I'm sure Members will agree with me right across the benches in this Chamber that cuts to legal aid by the UK Government mean it is harder for ordinary people to access justice. I'm sure Members from right across the Chamber agree with me that access to justice should not just be for the wealthy. The Welsh Government does fund organisations to provide legal advice, and this really is a lifeline to many, and it is vital that that money spent is done so efficiently. Now, Counsel General, the 'Justice in Wales for the People of Wales' report recommended that, and I quote:

'The funding for legal aid and for the third sector providing advice and assistance should be brought together in Wales to form a single fund under the strategic direction of an independent body'.

Counsel General, do you agree with that recommendation and, if so, how quickly can we implement this recommendation?

15:00

Well, thank you for that and, yes, I do agree with the recommendation. Of course, the recommendation was made within the context of the further devolution of justice. I'd also perhaps reaffirm the comments that you made with regard to the impact of cuts to legal aid. This is something I've raised nearly every time I've had meetings with relevant judiciary and law officers. It's a matter that is regularly raised in this particular Chamber, because we have, effectively, I believe, a two-tier justice system now: a justice system for those who can afford it and very little justice for those who can't.

We as a Welsh Government have stepped in with resources that were not intended for this in terms of the single advice fund that the Minister for Social Justice was referring to earlier, how important that is, but it is not a substitute for a properly funded justice system and a properly funded legal aid system. I hope, though, that the single advice fund and the investment that we are making into that support provides the base for the establishment eventually of a Welsh legal aid fund.

I think it is also worth referring to the comments that have been made recently by the previous Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland, who basically talked about the way in which justice has been underinvested for decades, and I agree with that and I think the cuts in respect of legal aid were almost the worst example of that. But there is no doubt that there has been a long-term failure to evaluate the importance of the justice system and that the justice system is ultimately about the empowerment of people in our communities. So, I think it is another matter that comes back to a point that was made earlier in terms of the commission and the need for the review that is likely to be taking place.

Voter Identification

8. What are the Welsh Government's plans in relation to the use of voter identification in Wales? OQ57067

I thank Jane Dodds for her question. The Welsh Government is committed to inclusive and accessible voting in Senedd and local government elections, and wants to encourage participation rather than to restrict it. We will therefore not be introducing voter ID measures in Wales for devolved elections.

Thank you so much, Counsel General, I'm very pleased to hear that because I, like you, am incredibly concerned at the Conservative Government's proposals in Westminster to pursue voter identification for reserved elections. Whilst I'm not going to rehearse the arguments for and against today, I remain totally opposed to these discriminatory measures. What I am concerned about, though, is that in a Welsh context these measures may create confusion about the need to carry photo ID to the polling stations for all elections in the United Kingdom, despite devolved and local elections in Wales retaining the much fairer system. So, could I ask you what plans the Welsh Government intends to put in place to mitigate the potential public confusion on this issue? Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Thank you. I've already indicated, I think, in the past the need for and my desire for and belief that we will have an electoral reform Bill within the term of this Senedd, the purpose of which will be to modernise our electoral system to improve accessibility, to learn from the lessons that exist internationally that can provide access to people, whether it be people with disability or in general, that reflects the modern society we live in.

I have to say that I have not seen any substantive evidential basis that would justify the introduction of ID cards. I believe it is an idea that has come from America. It is part of an agenda that is about restricting accessibility of voting for some of the poorer and most vulnerable within our communities. Now, when I say there's no evidential base, I'll give you an example from the data from the Electoral Commission: in 2019, across the UK, with the millions and millions of votes that were cast, there were a total of 595 cases of alleged electoral fraud investigated by the police. Only 142 of those were categorised under a voting category. One individual was convicted for using someone else's vote at a polling station, one individual received a caution for the same reason, and in Wales, there were 14 cases of alleged electoral fraud investigated by Welsh police forces in 2019, with only six of them relating to voting.

The Welsh Government's position is that we want to make elections as open and as accessible as possible. We want to find new ways to engage with voters to make sure they have every opportunity to participate in the democratic process, and as I've said, we intend to bring forward our own proposals for how to achieve this later in the sixth Senedd.

15:05
3. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change: Update on the Metro

The next item, therefore, is the statement by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change on the metro, and I call on the Deputy Minister to make his statement. 

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. The climate emergency demands we change the way we travel. Seventeen per cent of Welsh carbon emissions are generated by transport, and as the UK Climate Change Committee makes clear, simply switching to electric cars will not meet the 2050 net zero target. We need to cut the number of journeys and get people to switch to more sustainable forms of transport too.

We fully recognise that this is not going to be easy. For some 70 years transport policy in the UK has favoured car travel over public transport, and as a result it is now easier for most people to hop in the car than it is to plan a journey using more sustainable forms of transport. That has to change. But for that to happen, we have to make the right thing to do the easiest thing to do.

Our Wales transport strategy sets out the steps we need to make to meet our target of 45 per cent of journeys by public transport or active travel by 2040. We are aiming to publish a new bus strategy around the end of this year, and a White Paper to follow, and a bus reform Bill this Senedd term.

Our active travel investment for short local trips is now the highest per head in the UK, and we are working with councils to identify safe local networks that will encourage people to leave the car at home and walk and cycle instead. Ten per cent of car journeys are under 1 mile in length, and many of those trips could be made on foot or by bike.

For medium and long-term journeys, rail has an important part to play. We need to see the £5 billion shortfall in rail investment from the UK Government made up in order to modernise our network. For our part, we have taken the Wales and borders franchise under public control and are working hard to stabilise it after the collapse in passenger numbers during COVID. As we plan the rail recovery, we must do it in tandem with the other sustainable modes, so that people can make their whole journey, door to door, by sustainable transport.

The Burns commission in south-east Wales has set a blueprint for how that can be done, and we want to scale that approach to other parts of Wales. In particular, I want to emulate the model where the Welsh Government and Transport for Wales have formed a single joint delivery unit with the local authorities, and an independent delivery board set up to drive performance and ensure progress. I’m pleased that Simon Gibson and Dr Lynn Sloman, both noted for their delivery focus, are serving as chair and vice-chair of the delivery board in south-east Wales.

Llywydd, I can announce that I have tasked my officials with creating a similar collaborative approach in north Wales too. We will create a north Wales metro delivery board, and I will be advertising for an independent chair and vice-chair to make sure we are being as ambitious as possible and to hold delivery partners to account, ourselves included. I would also like to see this model of partnership, co-design and shared leadership adopted by the four corporate joint committees across Wales as they take up their responsibility for regional transport planning over the course of this Senedd term.

The evidence from around the world suggests that if you want people to use public transport, it needs to be easy to use. In the parlance, it needs to 'turn up and go', and that's the design principle at the heart of our metro programme: frequent, seamless services connecting people with key destinations, and we've committed over £1 billion to our three metro programmes. Each is in different stages of development and we are today publishing updated maps showing the current ambition.

In the south-east, significant construction work is already under way, and in the next few years we'll increasingly see physical evidence of one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects to have taken place in Wales in modern times. A new bus station right next to the main train station is going up in Cardiff. Work has been going on over the summer on the core Valleys line to prepare it for the introduction of new tram trains. By 2024, there will be new tram trains offering fast turn-up-and-go services at around 50 stations on the Welsh Government's network, as well as new services being planned to double the frequency on the Ebbw Vale line through the Vale of Glamorgan, and to Maesteg.

In north Wales, we've put in place the foundations for a significantly improved rail and bus service and active travel through our £50 million of Welsh Government funding announcement. I recently saw for myself the plans at Wrexham General station to make it easier to change between rail and bus, helping connections between the north Wales coast and the more frequent Borderlands line services from next year at Shotton, alongside a new station at Deeside industrial park.

We've asked Transport for Wales to take on the development of the Swansea bay and west Wales metro to assist the local authorities in that area. This is at the earliest stage of development of the three metro key schemes, and I'm keen to increase the pace and the ambition for public transport in this part of Wales. Around £8 million has been allocated this year to deliver active travel and public transport schemes to support the Swansea bay metro programme. Preliminary work is being carried out to develop a potential hydrogen bus pilot in Swansea bay and Pembrokeshire, and new interchanges, including a new station at St Clears delivered by Transport for Wales, which will be in place by 2024, will offer real improvements to public transport in the area.

I've also recently commissioned work to develop a new programme for mid Wales to examine how our approach to the metros can be applied in this region and our more rural areas across the whole of Wales. We must learn from Germany and Switzerland that it's perfectly possible to have an effective public transport system in rural areas. It'll require a different approach to urban Wales, but it's absolutely doable with commitment. Car clubs and electric bikes will have a major role to play, as will demand-responsive transport, and in pilots across Wales, our Fflecsi service is offering access to public transport where previously there was none, opening up new opportunities for more people. We are now trialling Fflecsi in 11 areas, where we are seeing significant passenger growth and it has now been used for over 100,000 journeys. And we're committed to learn from it and to scale it.

Llywydd, delivering our metros is one of the most ambitious and complex programmes ever undertaken by the Welsh Government. The maps published today illustrate our emerging programmes. We have the capability, the expertise, the experience and the desire in Wales to progress at pace. In fact, we will not achieve our net zero ambitions if we don't. Diolch.

15:10

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

I have a large number of people who wish to speak, and I therefore ask everyone to keep within their time allocation so that we can get as many in as possible, please. And I'm sure the Deputy Minister will also be succinct in his answers to the questions.

Conservative spokesperson, Natasha Asghar. 

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. Firstly, I thank the Deputy Minister for his statement today. I wish to put on record that the Welsh Conservatives do fully support the metro projects across Wales, but I do want to also just put in there that we don't think it's going to be a fully fledged solution to the environmental crisis. We do share your hope that it'll make it easier for people to use their cars less and use public transport more. However, we do have concerns that your Government is relying too much on the metro as an immediate transport solution for south Wales. I know you mentioned £750 million was being spent on south Wales and, as someone from south Wales, that's great, but just in comparison, £50 million for north Wales is a bit of a kick in the teeth for those people who live in north Wales. 

Deputy Minister, I just want to give you an example. If I fall and trip right now and break my hand, a plaster will literally only help me to a certain point, but if I actually need a cast to resolve the issue that I have at hand, that's what we need here in Wales. We need a cast, something that's actually going to solve the problem of transport. Therefore, it's my belief that the economic benefits derived from the metro will be offset by the damage done by your failure to invest in improving our roads. As the planning inspector of the proposed M4 relief road said in 2019, if the south Wales metro were created overnight, it would only alleviate traffic by 5.9 per cent. So, I'd like to know: have your figures changed since then?

Your decision to freeze all new road building has been met with widespread dismay by businesses in Wales. The Road Haulage Association has criticised the move and said that Wales needs a fit-for-purpose road network to boost trade. You mentioned previously in a statement that one out of five people do not have access to a car. This is not me being difficult, but I'd very much like to know where you got the figure from, because my main concern is those four out of five that we haven't discussed and mentioned. So, Deputy Minister, do you feel that the south Wales metro may not actually solve all the transport problems of south Wales, and that we need an efficient, modern road infrastructure as well, side by side?

Your comments on new and improved bus services are welcomed by myself and many of my colleagues, but merely highlight the neglect and decline in bus services that has taken place under the Welsh Labour Government. Under your Government, the number of local bus journeys has fallen from 100 million in 2016-17 to 89 million in 2019-20. So, how will you deliver this promised increase in bus services? Six years ago, Wales replaced the bus service operators grant with the bus services support grant, with funding set at £25 million. It is shocking, therefore, that this fixed pot of £25 million has not changed since the BSSG inception. So, how will you deliver this promised increase in bus services when funding per passenger is inadequate and compares poorly with that provided for rail passengers?

I sincerely, from every ounce of my soul, welcome your comments on a new integrated ticketing system and flexible fare options, but can you advise what is the present position regarding my call for an all-Wales travel card, which received a positive response from the First Minister? Having spoken to those behind the Oyster card in London, we already have the system in place here in Wales and have the infrastructure to provide that all-important all-Wales travel card. I love the idea of having a debit card system here. The tap-and-go system would be fantastic for so many people across the board, but it would cost a lot of money and time. Do we have that time, Deputy Minister?

Finally, Minister, I agree that Wales needs new and improved train stations, and have supported calls for one at Magor and Undy. I'd like to know what discussions have you had specifically, or intend to have, with the UK Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps, to make this a reality and deliver these vital links in the Welsh network chain right now. Thank you very much.

15:15

There was a series of questions there, and I'm mindful of the Deputy Llywydd's plea to keep the answers short, so I will do my best.

I'm getting a little tired of sharing platforms with Conservative spokespeople who call for us to take bold action on climate change and then the next day stand up in the Senedd and demand we spend billions of pounds on roads programmes. Those two things are not compatible, so how you explain that disconnect, I don't understand, because it's complete hypocrisy. That's what it is. It's hypocrisy. You cannot do both things at the same time. Now, you want us to spend £2 billion on a motorway through Newport, which, as we know, would increase traffic and car use, not decrease it as the UK Climate Change Committee tells us we need to do. Your figures on the metro are out of date, because the approach of the Burns commission has shown that an integrated approach of bus, rail and active travel, focused around the city of Newport, can achieve modal shift. It can achieve the same impact as the road for half the price.

You ask where we get the figures of 20 per cent of people not having a car. The answer is quite simple: the census. These aren't contested figures. These are well-established figures. In fact, additional figures from TfW show that 80 per cent of bus users don't have an alternative. So, investing in public transport is as much a social justice case as it is a climate change case.

The suggestion of the all-Wales travel card is an attractive one, but it simply can't be achieved with the fragmented, privatised system that her party has left us as a legacy, and that's why we're taking through the bus modernisation Bill. She may curse and say it's inconvenient that I point out the Conservative record on public transport, but we are living with the legacy of it 40 years on. The privatisation of the bus service was a disaster, and it makes it nigh on impossible to introduce the sort of changes we've seen in London, because in London the bus service was kept regulated in public ownership. That was not—[Interruption.]

Can the Deputy Minister hold on a second? Members should listen to the answer. You've raised questions; please listen to the answer. And Government backbenchers, also listen to the answer, please. Deputy Minister.

In terms of the different levels of investment in different parts of Wales, as I made clear, we are in different stages of development. The south Wales metro has been in gestation for a very long time. We now need to make sure that it's matched across the rest of Wales. I hope she would have welcomed the announcement we made today of a delivery board for north Wales, with an independent chair, to challenge us all—local authorities, Welsh Government and Transport for Wales—to increase our ambition and increase our pace. Because, if, unlike her, I am sincere in delivering our net-zero commitments, we do need to shift resources from road building to public transport, and that's why we announced the roads review.

15:20

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you, Minister, for your statement. I wanted to ask you in the first instance about public confidence in using public transport as a result of COVID. Research by Transport Focus shows that there's a clear difference between those who have been using public transport during the pandemic or recently and those who have not. The latter group are much more concerned about using transport again and they want to make sure that they feel confident that the transport provision is clean, is safe and is ready for use. It's clear from what you've been saying, and what we all know, that there needs to be a modal shift in the sector to achieve net zero, but still large numbers of people continue to be concerned about their safety. So, what steps will you and the Welsh Government take to inspire and increase travellers' confidence to boost the use of public transport, especially for the metro?

I also wanted to ask about accessibility, Minister, because obviously, we need to make it easier for people to actually use public transport. I note that you said that we need to make the right thing to do the easy thing to do. I welcome that, and I'd add to it as well: the safe thing to do. So, as well as making sure that we learn from what Sustrans say in terms of making sure that the first mile and the last mile are connected, what steps are you and the Government looking at and planning for in terms of making sure that walkways are well lit, that it is accessible and feels safe for women walking on their own, and older people who might feel nervous about falling as well if walkways aren't well lit—that kind of thing? How are you taking into consideration those areas?

Dirprwy Lywydd, I'm very aware of time, so I'll just ask one final question. Turning to decarbonisation and connectivity, you said, Minister, in your response to the Conservatives just now that we have a fragmented and privatised system, which is the legacy of how Westminster has left us in terms of public transport. There isn't a comprehensive rail network connecting the different parts of Wales, and north-south journeys have to be made through England. One of the major reasons for this is that not all responsibility for rail is devolved. So, could I ask you how you aim to address barriers to connectivity in terms of, yes, electrification, the grid limitations, capacity, things that were raised in our debate last week, but as well as that, the limited powers over rail infrastructure that we currently have, so that a fully decarbonised, connected transport network can become a reality?

Thank you. There were number of questions. Passenger demand is starting to return to the rail service. It's now at 66 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, which, clearly, is significantly lower, but it's increasing all the time and we are maintaining deep cleaning at stations and on trains. We've seen this trend right across the world, where post-pandemic confidence using mass transit is reduced, and that's not unexpected. It's one of the reasons why we're keeping support for the rail and bus industry at the levels we have done. But obviously, we want to taper that down as demand increases. So, we, frankly, have to feel our way. We're in an unprecedented public health crisis and we don't know what the future holds.

We are currently at alert level 0 and that allows public transport use, but we are encouraging social distancing. I do get very concerning reports of services where there is overcrowding and people aren't wearing masks and that is clearly shaking public confidence. But the law is clear: we want people to wear masks. We do have enforcement measures in place and we, each of us, have a responsibility to follow the law and follow public health advice. But clearly, we're in an incredibly difficult and unprecedented situation and we are monitoring it on a weekly basis.

In terms of the point about rail powers and barriers to connectivity, this is clearly a really important point. We want rail powers to be devolved. The UK Government are not engaging in that conversation. In fact, they're barely engaging in any conversation at all. Natasha Asghar asked me when I met Grant Shapps; I've failed to get an audience with Mr Shapps, he won't meet with us. So, there is definitely a disconnect here, which is very concerning for us achieving the ambitions we want. And as I said in the statement, we remain £5 billion short in the investment we need for rail infrastructure. So, it is an impediment on us achieving our net-zero ambitions, for sure, and I raised this with Sir Peter Hendy, the chair of Network Rail, recently. Clearly, these are political decisions by the UK Westminster Government; they talk of levelling up, but they don't deliver levelling up, and until they do, we will have these barriers that Delyth Jewell outlined. In the meantime, we have to try and address them with other things that we do have in our control, namely bus, in particular. That's why we are developing our bus strategy at the end of this year.

15:25

On the alignment, Minister, between the metro and the delivery board for the Burns commission, I wonder if you could say a little bit more about how that is going to be ensured and achieved. We do have quite a few players involved, as you said. There's the Welsh Government, Transport for Wales, the local authorities, and then the delivery board, to deliver on the Burns commission strategy on behalf of the partners and with the partners.

There's the metro work, and there are the corporate joint committees. It's quite a task, I think, to make sure that there is good communication and joint ownership and vision that translates into actual measures on the ground. So, I wonder if you could say a little bit more about the process that's going to ensure that we do see effective delivery in that sort of scenario with that sort of set-up.

In terms of active travel, Minister, I think that it's fair to say that, sometimes, local authorities have struggled in terms of their own internal capacity to make sure that we get— 

Certainly—that we get the right quality and effectiveness. So, I wonder if you could say a little bit about how the Welsh Government, with partners, will ensure that that's achieved. 

Absolutely. I think that those are both strands of the same argument. Capacity and capability within local authorities is a real delivery constraint. That's why it's essential that local authorities work through the corporate joint committees to pool their resources. Then, we'll work alongside them, through Transport for Wales. James Price has said, as chief executive, that he wants TfW to be the servant of local authorities—to be the technical brain for them; that the accountability in decision making is local, but that we pool the delivery capability. I think that that is a sensible model.

As I say, I'm really encouraged by the Newport example. Through that Burns delivery plan, we are, I think, sketching out what can be applied to the rest of Wales. The Welsh Government has got a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes, which you won't have seen the result of yet. That is one of the problems that we have with the whole metro development. The lag between the planning and the technical work and the delivery is long, and people are tired of hearing the promises because they don't see anything for it.

But, we are definitely going to see a change with that for the south Wales metro in the coming year or so, and I think that we will see that in Newport too. The Welsh Government and the council and TfW are working very closely as one unit to design schemes, put them in for funding and then work on the delivery. So, I'm confident that the model is working, and we hope to scale it.

The people of Cardiff are certainly delighted that they are going to get their bus station back, because it has been a long road. So, that is going to be very exciting. Thank you for releasing these maps, because it is really useful to see what your priorities are up until 2029.

The Burns report is framed around using two of the four train tracks between Newport and Cardiff and beyond as the spine of the south-east Wales metro, yet I can't see anything around that on your map. I am particularly concerned about this because the bi-mode trains have been revealed as being seriously polluting by the Rail Safety and Standards Board. Passengers are imbibing air that is worse than on a busy urban roadside location. So, that's really bad news for Cardiff and for all the passengers who are going west.

So, is it that you have almost had to give up on the UK Government? Four years after cancelling—

—the electrification of the line to Swansea, they still haven't come up with their initial assessment of how they are going to improve the Wales rail infrastructure. Is there anything that you can say to tell us that that is not going to be a hole in the plans from the Burns report?

[Inaudible.]—capture everything that's going on, that's for sure. We do have bids in to the Department for Transport for work to deliver on the Burns report. We've been given encouraging noises when I've met with Ministers, but have yet to have any confirmation that we are going to get the funding. Without the funding, it's not going to be possible to deliver on the Burns report and address the congestion. So, on the one hand, they say they want to build a road, and Boris Johnson chastises us for not having built the road. We've come up with an alternative, come up with a former Treasury Permanent Secretary, endorsed by the chair of Network Rail, and the UK Government is failing to fund it. So, we are still hopeful that that will come forward, but I have nothing to report yet. But the Member is absolutely right that, without it, we're not going to be able to take polluting traffic off the roads.

15:30

Thank you, Deputy Minister, for bringing forward this statement today. It is of course a very timely statement. Just a couple of weeks ago, I raised a question with you regarding the north Wales metro, in the Chamber, and I was really pleased to hear you agree with me that there should be urgency around the delivery of the metro in north Wales. And in light of this, I certainly welcome some further focus in my region, with the creation of a north Wales metro delivery board, which you've announced here today. I am disappointed, though, to not hear anything about an expanded proposal for north Wales. The current metro proposal for the region stops at Rhyl. Now, whilst Rhyl is a wonderful destination, the rest of north Wales needs a clearly supported strategy to mitigate current pressures for those living in the region, alongside our 26 million annual visitors, whilst also delivering a solution that contributes to the climate change challenge. So, Deputy Minister, how will you task this north Wales metro delivery board to deliver a north Wales metro that truly serves the region? Thank you.

Well I know that, as a former leader of a local authority in north Wales, Sam Rowlands will fully value the importance of local leadership, and the role that local authorities have in shaping these proposals. And that's why I think it's important to create this joint delivery mechanism, both for operational and for strategic means, so we can together increase the ambition. I met with the cabinet members from the north Wales economic ambition board recently, and put this challenge to them. I think there's still a focus with some on road-based schemes, but the message needs to get through that we need to shift our focus here. Again, there is a disconnect between, on the one hand, calling for us to meet net zero, and on the other hand being wedded to a way of thinking that is out of line with that vision. So, I'm very keen that we start looking seriously at the role that public transport can play as the workhorse of the transport system, and that we work closely with north Wales local authorities to design what's going to be right for their communities, so we can give people realistic alternatives to the car.

Minister, you'll know where I'll be coming to at my concluding point on this, but can I just first of all say, I think this map, the document, the statement today shows that Welsh Government is serious about changing the whole conversation about shifting towards active travel, public transport—as you just described it: the workhorse of the way we travel about our communities, get to work, get to social events, and so on? And it does require us to put our political goodwill behind this as well, and to be consistent in arguing the case for this, so that people can have accessible, affordable, regular, frequent, universal ticketing, that they can hop from bus to bike and on to train, and get to the places they need to go, and design the communities around it.

But, Minister, you know where I'm coming. Maesteg is mentioned in the document, Maesteg is on the maps as well, in the emerging proposals up to 2029. I've been campaigning on this now for nearly a decade—not just since the time I was in the Senedd. Minister, will you meet with me, and local authority representatives, to discuss in further detail the proposals for Maesteg, so we can give our constituents timelines about when we'll deliver this? Diolch yn fawr iawn, Dirprwy Lywydd.

Naturally, I'm delighted to meet with the Member, and his local authority colleagues, to discuss the five options that we are currently looking at to increase the frequency of services on the Maesteg line as part of the phase 2 WelTAG process, which will be completed this financial year. All of the options being assessed include integrated transport hubs at Bridgend and Ewenny Road, and will consider the appropriate type of rolling stock for providing increased frequency of services. And I look forward to working with him to go through the detail of that.

Minister, like others, I very much welcome both the statement and the scale of the ambition from the Welsh Government today. The last question took you to Maesteg; I'm going to take you to Ebbw Vale and Abertillery, and that will be no surprise to you at all. Could you ensure that the Ebbw Valley line is treated with equality in terms of the services and investment? We have not seen the devolution of the Ebbw Valley line, and we've seen the UK Government starve the Ebbw Valley line of investment, and I'm grateful to the Welsh Government for stepping in and filling the responsibility that is held by the UK Government on that. But we need equality of services and a timeline for development of new services. We also need links to the Grange. We've debated and discussed many times in this place over the years. If the Welsh Government is serious about this ambition, it cannot be making investments as large as the Grange, and then not ensuring there are public transport links to the Grange from across the area served by it, including Blaenau Gwent. 

And my final point is in terms of the bus strategy and the Bill. I understood that this Bill would be brought forward in the first year of this Senedd, and so, it would be useful, I think, for Members to understand why there appears to be something of a delay because we need bus services re-regulated today. We are seeing the impact of that misguided Thatcherite policy today in Blaenau Gwent. The people of Blaenau Gwent want control of their buses back. Thank you. 

15:35

Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, there is not a Bill that is in the offing of the legislative programme that different campaigners don't want done in the first year of this Senedd term, and clearly we can't do them all in the first year of this Senedd term. So, the First Minister and the Counsel General are currently looking at the best way to manage that logjam. I would say that the pause does allow us a chance to be more ambitious, and we are now working with the local authorities and operators to see if we can design a bus Bill that is going to be more radical and more effective than the one that we previously had conceived. So, I think this is an exciting opportunity for us to up our ambition, and that is something we are definitely committed to do. 

In terms of the Grange, I think the Grange is a case study of something we need to learn really and not allow this to happen again, and that's why I said in the statement why it's so important for the CJCs and the local authorities to come together and take their responsibilities seriously so they can plan transport alongside other services, so we're not creating out-of-town developments that aren't served by public transport. And, of course, in this instance, it's the Welsh Government itself—it's the NHS planning that is to blame for creating a large trip-generating site away from public transport networks. And never again I think we should say that this be allowed to happen.

And, so, I'm frustrated that we haven't been able to make greater progress in getting a bus service to the Grange as we have discussed previously. The latest update I have for the Member is that there is an hourly bus service, No. 29, operated by Newport Bus, that links the hospital to Cwmbran and Newport via Caerleon every hour, seven days a week. In terms of his specific point about the valleys he represents, then there will be a new direct bus service to the hospital from key centres in Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, Caerphilly and Rhondda Cynon Taf in the next six months subject to funding being identified, and then we will be looking to see how we can bake that into the metro enhancements that we are planning. And I realise that is not as good as it should have been, and I apologise for that, but that is something we are still progressing.

And in terms of his final point about the rail links, as he knows, from this December, there will be an hourly service between Cross Keys and Newport, and we have given a £70 million loan to Blaenau Gwent to upgrade the infrastructure so that we can have a new service extending all the way from Ebbw Vale to Newport, which he's been campaigning for consistently, and it will now be delivered. And in terms of the Abertillery link, this is something that is the responsibility of the UK Government and it's not part of the devolved settlement. But our £70 million investment does create a spur to Abertillery which allows that investment to take place when the UK Government is finally willing to step up and support the network as it should. 

I do welcome the refreshing comments from the Deputy Minister on the inadequate public transport options to the Grange Hospital. There is a growing consensus on the need for urgent action to address the climate challenge emergency that our planet faces, although the Conservatives opposite remain confused despite Boris's change from orange to green. 

The ambitious Wales transport strategy is ambitious, and the metro offers us real potential to make a difference alongside the other planned sustainable modes of door-to-door sustainable transport. We know that people are aware of the need to lessen car usage but, rightly, they ask for improved public transport alternatives, and I do welcome the progress on bus policy for Wales and that modal shift to follow. Deputy Minister, you note that the Welsh Government have committed a third more rail services to improve connectivity, despite totally non-existent UK infrastructural spend here in Wales—no electrification or other spend in that department from the UK Government. And, in Islwyn, we have seen—

15:40

—how welcome the Ebbw Vale line to Cardiff is. Deputy Minister, what actions, then, can you and the Welsh Government take in order to meet with the UK Conservative Government to ensure that Wales receives that badly needed funding required to transform Wales's public sector infrastructure? 

Well, we genuinely do want to work with them, and we do our very best to have constructive dialogue with them, but it's a bit of a one-way street at the moment, I've got to say. I did have a good meeting with, as I said, the chair of Network Rail recently, and I've met with some of the junior transport Ministers, but not with Grant Shapps himself. And their view is that we should be doing piecemeal bids to the UK Government to compete with all other parts of the UK for rail schemes. Our counter argument is: we have a share of the rail network, and we have a significantly smaller share of the investment that that share of the network requires. And, so, we think, we should, as of right, as from the population share and the track share as well, be getting a larger slice of the pie. They simply don't agree, and they simply will not act. So, I think that makes the levelling-up rhetoric hollow when it comes to Wales, and, in fact, they're making things worse by developing the high speed 2 line without giving us our population share; we do not get a Barnett share for that. So, not only, according to their own business plan, is that going to suck money out of Wales, high speed 2—let's be clear—is going to damage the Welsh economy. So, we get a negative effect to our economy; we don't get the population share that normally rail spend on an England basis would mean that we do get, so we're being short-changed, and they're not addressing their historic under investment in the Welsh rail network. So, I think it's a shameful story, and I would hope the Welsh Conservatives in this Senedd, instead of singing the old songs, would focus on being constructive and trying to get their own Government to stand up for Wales.

As a previous cabinet member for Flintshire, I'd like to say that the Welsh Government has made huge investment in the north Wales metro, providing £17 million of funding to local authorities over the last year alone, and I've seen investment in cycle lanes, park and ride, electric buses, right across the region of north Wales. We've also put—. I know Flintshire's also put in a bid for the parkway station as well—for planning for that—and a bid to UK Government to build it. We also need investment in the north Wales railway line as well, which, again, leads back to the UK Government. We've had £17 million of investment from Welsh Government, but nothing, so far, from the UK Government under level-up funding, and they're still waiting to hear regarding this vital investment. So, we really need to push that and make it happen.

Last week, I also raised public awareness of all this funding that's taken place under the metro initiative. So, that's investment in Fflecsi transport— 

Yes, this is it: so, I'm asking can we have metro signage so people will understand the investment made in park and ride, the cycle links—how they all link together—investment in stations as well. I think that's really important. And, also, post COVID—

Post COVID, we need to encourage people to come back to using public transport as well. So, would you, Deputy Minister, make funding available for local authorities to be able to invest in properly advertising the metro, advertising timetables for buses and what's available for people, so they can gain confidence in using public transport again? Thank you.  

I think the Member makes a really important point about providing people with information. The research shows that there are two barriers to people taking up public transport: one, is a lack of services, but the other is a lack of information and knowledge about the services that do exist. So, giving people targeted information is essential, and that is one of the things we’re looking at as part of the Wales transport strategy. As well as the infrastructure, how do we improve on what are called softer measures, encouraging measures? Signage and information are a key part of that. So, that is definitely something that we are developing further.  

There is money already available to local authorities for active travel signage and route information if they want to apply for it. I must say, the picture across north Wales in local authorities applying for the funding is very patchy. Some local authorities haven’t put a bid in. So, there’s definitely funding available, and funding that we’re making available to all local authorities.

In terms of the point about signage for the metro development in particular, I will take that back and consider it. It’s a point that’s been made about other metro developments. As I said, this is a significant infrastructure programme—£1 billion of investment—and we do need to let people know that it's coming and it’s exciting, and it should help them think about changing their travel plans.

15:45

Minister, you made reference earlier on to the need for Wales to have its population share. What about the population share of investment within Wales? You’ve referred to £1 billion having been invested or earmarked to date for these three metro projects, yet, of that £1,000 million, only £50 million has been allocated to north Wales. That’s a gross disparity in investment by your Welsh Labour Government. What are you going to do to make sure that there’s a fair share of investment coming to north Wales, rather than the insulting and paltry amount that you’ve suggested is going there today?

Well, Darren Millar never misses an opportunity to sow division and try and create a sense of grievance—

It’s the first time I’ve heard him make a case for rail investment in north Wales. As I say, he’s normally obsessed with putting money into road-building schemes, despite then going on to plead for the plight of the red squirrel, which—by the way, if we don’t tackle change, biodiversity will be threatened. So, there’s a disconnect in his argument and his thinking too.

As I said, the state of the metros in different parts of Wales are different. We have to raise ambition and delivery right across Wales. That’s what our Wales transport strategy is about, which he hasn’t supported. That’s what our investment in the metro is about, which he hasn’t supported. And that’s what the announcement today about the delivery board for north Wales is about. I’d be grateful if he’d support that.

Thank you, Minister. I welcome the announcement of the delivery board, but it has to deliver. Now, it is clear to me that the UK Government are selling north Wales short by not electrifying the main line, so I would be interested to know what discussions you’ve had, Minister, about improving signals and signal crossings as a way of improving that line. I’d also like to understand what plans you and Transport for Wales have got to introduce bi-modal and tri-modal rolling stock in north Wales to help with the increase in frequency within the region.

Now, it was my understanding, Minister, that part of the metro was always rapid bus transit. Now, to me, without the red route, we will not have dedicated bus lanes to allow this to happen. Now, you have made some exemptions for roads in your review. Have you considered exempting the red route and its bus lanes?

And finally, Minister, do you support the efforts by the Mersey Dee Alliance to build a comprehensive active travel network? And with the glare of the Presiding Officer, I will end there. [Laughter.]

Well, I've got to say there’s nothing stopping the local authorities in north Wales from developing an ambitious active travel network now, nor indeed putting in bus lanes. That power has been there all along, and there’s money available to do it. So, that’s why I want to set up this delivery unit, so that we are acting far better together in pushing in the same direction.

The red route, as Jack Sargeant knows full well, is part of the roads review, and one of the purposes of the roads review is to look at how we can prioritise investment on maintaining existing infrastructure, but also creating the investment we need to create things like rapid transit bus routes and improvements in public transport more generally. So, I’m not going to guess what the roads review is going to come up with about the red route, but it’s in the pot with almost everything else to try to shift our direction of travel.

In terms of infrastructure, in terms of rail—trains, rather—on the north Wales network, we are currently progressing the class 230 trains for the Wrexham and Bidston line later this year, and we’ve introduced refurbished InterCity trains on services between north and south Wales, with increased capacity and better customer services. We’re trailing the testing of new trains around north Wales at the moment, and I’d be happy to write the Member with further details of what plans we have.

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer, and I appreciate the fact that you've allowed this question. Thank you very much to the Deputy Minister for the statement. It's only now that I see the maps, but what's striking is the lack of investment and the absence of anything in our rural areas once again. Now, I understand that the maps are looking at trains, but people in rural areas are more dependent on private transport than public transport because of the absence of public transport provision in those rural areas. So, what plans do you have to expand the provision of trains in our rural communities, especially looking at the west, from Anglesey down through Meirionnydd, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire? Thank you very much.

15:50

Well, I think we should be more diagnostic, really, when it comes to public transport in rural areas. I know there is a fixation on heavy rail trains, but, in carbon terms, we've got very tough targets to have to meet. We have to increase emission cuts in the next 10 years more than we've managed in the whole of the last 30 years, and we have a finite amount of money to do that with. So, I think we need to make very hard-headed judgments about where the money we have can make best effect when it comes to carbon savings. And it's my view that spending over £1 billion on heavy rail in rural areas is not the best way to do that.

Now, I think we can achieve significant modal shift in rural areas using different modes. So, as I mentioned in my statement, if we look at the example of rural Germany or rural Switzerland, where they have flexi buses, as we're developing in Wales, they have electric bikes, they have car clubs—there's a whole range of other things that can be done quickly, far quicker than building a heavy rail route, to give people practical alternatives to the car that wouldn't cost as much and would enable us to hit our climate change targets in a way that diverting resources into schemes like these would not.

Diolch. Three very short questions. You refer to the North Wales Economic Ambition Board. Given that the growth deal offer was originally a UK Government offer that the Welsh Government signed heads of terms in November 2019 with the UK Government, which is primarily focused on infrastructure and will be co-funded by the two Governments, the UK Government must already be involved in the north Wales metro, particularly on the infrastructure and cross-border connectivity. Can you confirm what that engagement is? Because I know it's sincere and ongoing from the other Government.

Do you recognise that many of the proposals in the north Wales metro actually predated the north Wales metro, coming, for example, from the economic ambition board's Growth Track 360 proposals, the proposals regarding Crewe station, which have now borne fruit, thankfully, and my connectivity with Welsh Government on behalf of rail user groups calling for the service improvements in Shotton and the new station at Deeside Parkway, which predated the announcements on the metro by many, many years?

And finally, will you join me in welcoming the announcement, at a devolved level, by Manchester in England, that the rail link from north Wales to Manchester Airport is now going to be the chosen option to be maintained as we go forward?

Well, clearly, the UK Government has a role to play in public transport in north Wales, and rail is not devolved. And, as has already been mentioned, the electrification of the north Wales line has yet to materialise. We have pushed for union connectivity funding for the delivery unit to push forward electrification of the north Wales line, and I'd appreciate Mark Isherwood's help in persuading his colleagues in Westminster to support his constituents, because they've not done that yet. We've also supported the bid by Flintshire County Council into the levelling-up fund, and we are still waiting to hear from that. So, there is absolutely a role, and we want to work constructively with the UK Government to make this happen.

The UK Government have published plans for a 'Great British Railways', as they're calling it, and properly done—and if it's not just flag waving, it is actually about improving delivery matters—properly done, that could improve partnership working. We supported the recommendation of the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee for a joint delivery board between England and Wales to take these things forward, and we'd very much like to work in partnership with them on that. But partnership is a two-way thing, and responsibility for rail infrastructure is not devolved, and the UK Government is not delivering.

I thank the Deputy Minister, and thank you, everyone. We will now suspend proceedings to allow changeovers in the Siambr. If you are leaving the Siambr, please do so promptly. The bell will be rung two minutes before proceedings restart. Any Members who arrive after a changeover should wait until then before entering the Siambr.

15:55

Plenary was suspended at 15:55.

16:05

The Senedd reconvened at 16:06, with the Deputy Presiding Officer in the Chair.

4. Questions to the Senedd Commission

Welcome back. Our next item is questions to the Senedd Commission. The first three questions will be answered by the Llywydd. Question 1, Carolyn Thomas.

Engagement with Schools in North Wales

1. What is the Commission doing to engage with schools in North Wales? OQ57053

The Senedd's education and youth engagement team engages with schools from across Wales to increase understanding of the Senedd's work. Since April 2021, over 5,000 young people and education professionals have engaged in our education sessions, which, due to the pandemic, have taken place predominantly online. Over the past year, our engagement work with young people has focused on raising awareness of the Senedd election in May and encouraging young people to stand in the upcoming Welsh Youth Parliament election in November this year. Fifty-six young people from the North Wales region have nominated themselves for the Welsh Youth Parliament election.         

Thank you for that answer. I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting schools across north Wales virtually and hearing the issues that are important to them. I have been contacted by the parent of a child in Ysgol Bryn Coch in Mold, who is disappointed that the child will be unable to visit the Senedd for an education visit in person during a school trip to Cardiff. I believe they fit it in with visits to other establishments as well in south Wales around here, so it's a really good trip to come from north Wales to south Wales. So, I think it's a real shame, and we should encourage children to be involved in our democracy from a young age, so it would be great if they could come and visit in person for that education visit. So, can I ask whether the Commission has plans to reopen the Senedd estate for education visits in person? Thank you.

Thank you very much for the question. I'm sorry, of course, that this experience isn't currently available to young people and those in school because of the pandemic and the risk assessments that we've undertaken. But we certainly want to see young people returning to this estate, so that they can have that experience of coming here to their national Senedd, their Parliament, as well as learning about democracy. So, we are looking to see when the risk assessment will allow us to be able to reopen the centre for learning for young people. We're sorry for that particular school if it's not going to be ready to do so according to the current pandemic restrictions for this trip that they're undertaking, but if it's not this time, then hopefully soon the experience will be available to young people again.

Members of the Senedd's Pension Scheme

2. Will the Commission make a statement on its relationship with the Members of the Senedd pension scheme's pensions board? OQ57041

The Commission’s relationship with the Members of the Senedd's pension scheme board is limited to that of nominating two of the five trustees who sit on the Members' pension scheme board. Two other trustees are nominated by Members of the Senedd and another independent trustee is appointed by the remuneration board. The Commission pays contributions to the pension scheme at a rate set by the scheme's actuary, and the Commission also employs the staff who administer the pension scheme on behalf of the trustees.

Thank you for that.

I raise this question due to an inquiry I've received from a constituent of mine regarding the Members' pension scheme, which is partially governed, as you say, by the Senedd pensions board. Politics and ethics are completely intertwined, and it's therefore crucial that the Senedd as an institution does not involve itself, even indirectly, in anything that is ethically questionable, for example, the nuclear weapons industry or manufacturers of other weapons banned by United Nations' treaties. Can the Commission advise how I might seek clarity on this, so that I can hopefully reassure my constituent that the Members' pension scheme does not invest in nuclear weapons companies or any other manufacturers of banned weapons? Diolch.

16:10

Thank you very much for that supplementary question. As a point of information, the pensions board has a statement on its investment strategy, and this takes into account environmental, social and corporate governance principles. And, because of the nature of the quasi-independent relationship between the Commission and the pensions board, I would suggest that you raise these specific issues that you have in terms of investments with the chair of the pensions board. That is the place to go to get the information you're seeking. And, of course, the pensions board publishes a report and newsletter for Members on their work, and that's also a source of information on their investments and delivery against their objectives, and they do share that with Members, and I think the last was published in August.

Can I thank Sioned Williams for the question and Elin Jones as Presiding Officer for her answer, part of which was going to be my question: do you agree with the following? What I will say, though, are two things: will the Commission, if they have any requests for informal discussions, refer them to either Nick Ramsay or me, who are the representatives of Members in here, so that we can have the informal discussion before the Member can have the more formal discussion with the board as a whole? I'm very happy to talk to any Members across the Chamber on this, and I'm sure Nick Ramsay would be as well. We're there to represent the views of Members and, as such, if Members have an issue, discuss it with us and then you or I, or Nick Ramsay, can raise it formally.

I almost feel as if I don't need to respond to that, because Mike Hedges has done his own publicity for himself and Nick Ramsay, who are the direct representatives of us as elected Members here on the pensions board. So, I thank Mike for making himself available for discussion informally with Members on the nature of the investments, but also, as I said, in addition to that informal raising of these issues with our representatives, any issue can be raised formally directly with the board in writing to the chair and the members.

Engagement with 16 and 17-year-olds

3. What work is the Commission undertaking to engage with 16 and 17-year-olds about the work of the Senedd, given their recent enfranchisement? OQ57068

Thank you for the question. Engaging with young people continues to be a priority for us in the sixth Senedd. Following on from our efforts to encourage young people aged 16 and 17 year