Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

26/01/2022

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

The Senedd met by video-conference at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

Statement by the Llywydd
1. Questions to the Minister for Climate Change
Storm Christoph

The first item this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Climate Change, and the first question is from Gareth Davies.

Good afternoon and welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. A Plenary meeting held by video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting and these are noted on your agenda.

1. What discussions has the Minister had with Denbighshire County Council about repairing infrastructure damaged by storm Christoph? OQ57516

Thank you, Gareth. Denbighshire were successful in their application for £440,000-worth of works for post-storm repairs to flood and drainage assets as a result of storm Christoph at various locations. Post-storm repairs were 100 per cent funded and the grant award of the works were subject to technical appraisal, ensuring flood funding eligibility criteria.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. While I understand that there are processes to be followed, the fact is that, a year after the devastation, my constituents are still without a vital road link between Trefnant and Tremeirchion, and two local communities, essentially, remain isolated from one another and there's no end in sight, which is hugely frustrating. Minister, will you ensure that any funding requests are prioritised and that processes are accelerated and that you do all you can to ensure that the historic Llannerch bridge is restored as quickly as possible?

Yes, thank you, Gareth. I appreciate the difficulties caused to the local road network, but it is the responsibility of the local authority to maintain and ensure that resilience of those assets. We haven't yet had a funding bid from Denbighshire regarding Llannerch bridge. A sum of £18,491,000 was awarded from the resilient roads fund in 2021-22 to local authorities in Wales for works to address disruptions caused by severe weather to the highway network, particularly the public transport network, and that included £5.3 million for schemes in north Wales.

Local authorities have been invited to apply for funding from the resilient roads fund in 2022-23 for schemes to address disruptions caused by severe weather to the highway network. So, basically, the short-form answer is: we haven't had a funding application from the council yet. I'm very happy, of course, to look at that as quickly as we can do once we have that application. We've not yet had it, so I'd encourage you to contact the local authority and understand from them what exactly is happening with that.

Infrastructure across several places in north Wales has been affected by recent storms, including the bridge mentioned before at Tremeirchion in Denbighshire. Newbridge in Wrexham keeps getting mentioned and there's also a landslide in Ffrith, in Flintshire, which is estimated to cost £3.8 million. When such natural events occur, they are often with very short notice and devastating consequences, which can be expensive to repair for one local authority. Would Welsh Government look at setting up an emergency capital fund for such repairs following natural disasters?

Well, Carolyn, the way that that works at the moment is, obviously, we allocate an unhypothecated capital grant to local authorities as part of their overall funding settlement. We try very hard not to hypothecate funding in the way that you suggest, because obviously what would happen is that would be taken off the overall unhypothecated grant and held centrally. We don't think that is the best way to do it. In point of fact, we've assisted, as I just said to Gareth, local authorities with nearly £18.5 million in storm damage repairs over the last winter. Also, from the revenue point of view, we also have the emergency financial assistance scheme, which is the revenue funding that kicks in in particularly severe climatic conditions. So, we have a number of schemes available to assist with both revenue and capital, but local authorities would, I think, be the first to say that they didn't want more hypothecation inside what is a finite capital grants system.

The Impact of Climate Change in Local Communities

2. How is the Welsh Government raising awareness of the impact of climate change in local communities? OQ57498

Diolch, Paul. The Welsh Government is fully committed to addressing the causes and impacts of climate change. We have raised awareness as part of our recent COP Cymru and Wales Climate Week events, and we continue to work closely with local authorities to support communities to understand and to address the climate emergency.

Thank you for that response, Minister. You may be aware of the work of the CHERISH project, which consists of a team of archaeologists, geographers and geologists who study the effects of climate change on coastal and maritime heritage in Wales, and indeed in Ireland. The project is currently running an exhibition at Oriel y Parc in St David's in my constituency, looking at the effects of climate change in the local area, between now and the end of February. I'm sure you'll agree with me that this kind of activity is so important in terms of explaining the impact of climate change on our local areas. And so, can you tell me what the Welsh Government is doing to support and raise awareness of specific projects like this across Wales?

13:35

Diolch, Paul. I am aware of the exhibition you have because I am a proud member of the mailing list for Oriel y Parc there—a place I often visit on my holidays—so I was aware of it. I'm actually hoping to go down and see the exhibition shortly. Yes, of course, we're very keen to assist with all such exhibitions and to publicising them—and very happy to join with you in publicising that one—across Wales, as we work with community groups in a number of ways, both highlighting events from around the world that can be brought back here to Wales, and indeed, actually, in assisting Welsh scientists and community groups to go abroad with theirs, virtually at the moment of course, but to go abroad with their very good ideas. And one of the things that I was particularly pleased with with COP Cymru and Wales Climate Week was the number of contributors we had from around the world as a result of our membership of the Under2 alliance, with what are called sub-national states. So, we had people contributing to that from around the world, and indeed we were able to showcase Wales's community efforts, such as the one you've just mentioned, in that as well. So, very happy to join with you in both commending it and publicising it.

Good afternoon, Minister. I just wanted to talk about heating in domestic homes. We know that homes are responsible for 27 per cent of all energy consumed and 9 per cent of all emissions in Wales. And with just 10 per cent of homes being built in the last 20 years, our housing stock is amongst the oldest and least efficient in Europe. Just focusing on homes in rural areas, and in mid and west Wales, and those that are heated from oil, we know that more than 33 per cent of homes in Ceredigion are reliant on oil to heat their homes. The Office for National Statistics said the county faces the highest increase in fuel bills of any area in mainland United Kingdom in the past year—£863 on average. Without price regulation, as we know, and without a greener alternative, those reliant on oil are facing the sharp end of this cost-of-living energy crisis. I just wondered if you could outline what measures have been considered to support those homes reliant on oil now, and to support those households and businesses to look at transitioning to greener energy in the longer term? Diolch.

Diolch, Jane. We absolutely are aware of the real cost-of-living crisis, particularly for people on off-grid oil, as you say. Just to say, we are currently consulting on the next iteration of the Warm Homes programme—so, to encourage everyone to respond to that. That's in order to support households to transition to both lower carbon heating, but also actually to assist with their domestic household bills as well. We obviously recognise the problem that you've just outlined so ably, and the difficulty the energy price increases have caused for households who are dependent on oil in particular. It is acknowledged in our cold weather resilience plan, which includes actions to better support households and work with oil suppliers to improve cold weather resilience for low-income households.

Just to emphasise, rural households are included within the scope of the assistance fund to support eligible off-grid homes with the cost of fuel and boiler repairs. It's often something that people don't realise—that they're eligible to apply for the discretionary assistance fund grant. We also are working closely with our single advice fund services, so that we are making sure that more vulnerable people get the advice and support they need to apply for the support that is available. And also then, on the longer term point, we're obviously rolling out the optimised retrofit programme, because we absolutely recognise that we've got some of the oldest housing stock in Europe, and that one-size-fits-all retrofit certainly does not work. And the whole purpose, as you've heard me saying before, of the optimised retrofit is to experiment with what will work, to bring those houses up to both the insulation and the domestic heating standards that we expect, to tackle both the climate emergency and the fuel poverty agenda that comes with living in a draughty and inefficient home.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Welsh Conservatives' spokesperson, Janet Finch-Saunders.

Diolch, Llywydd. In June 2021, our Senedd Cymru, Welsh Parliament, declared a climate change and nature emergency. We voted in favour of introducing a legally binding requirement to reverse biodiversity loss through statutory targets. Five months later, however, in November, the best that you, Minister, and Plaid Cymru could do was simply just to reiterate what we've already agreed, and that is that targets do have a role to play in helping to protect and restore biodiversity. Now, Wales Environment Link sent you and the First Minister a letter last week stating that the scale and pace of action needed to address the nature crisis are simply not in place. Now, I and others agree with Wales Environment Link that Wales, as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, needs to lead the way on setting targets that will drive action and prevent another lost decade for nature. In addition to responding to Wales Environment Link, will you clarify to the Senedd today why you have not yet set nature recovery targets in law, and have you actually responded to WEL yet regarding their letter of concern?

13:40

Thank you, Janet. So, at the time we declared the nature emergency, I made it extremely plain that we were looking to see what the outcome of COP15 was before we set the fundamental statutory targets for nature recovery—so, actually, the halt of nature decline and then nature recovery, because we need to achieve both. We've also said we will of course sign up to the 30 per cent by 2030 targets, although we hope to improve those as a result of the outcome of the COP15 discussions. I've made that plain all the way through, so it's not as if we suddenly haven't done anything; we've always made it plain that that's what we were relying on to look at what the targets ought to be. 

I recently met with Wales Environment Link; I meet with them very regularly indeed. We're absolutely on the same page as them. We need to set stretching targets that are achievable. We need to understand it's not just about the targets; it's about putting all the resources in place and the actions necessary to achieve those targets. So, it's not as if you just pluck a target out of mid air and go, 'There we are, then.' So, we've got quite a lot of work to do to make sure we can actually achieve the targets.

Just after February half term, I will be undertaking a deep dive into biodiversity, halting its decline and reversing, so that we have recovery, so that we can understand not only what the targets should be, but what the measures we need to put in place to do just that ought to be, and I will be doing that in conjunction with our statutory, our local authority and our non-governmental organisation partners across Wales. So, we are absolutely working towards that. We are, as I say, engaging in the COP15 process, and there certainly hasn't been any delay in the timetable that I set out when we declared the nature emergency. 

Thank you. Now, one area that would hugely benefit from more ambitious targets is your pledge to restore 800 to 900 hectares of peatlands per annum. Now, during the cross-party group for biodiversity, there was general consensus that we must adequately fund peatland restoration as part of the rural interventions that are actually laid out in your programme for government. Alarmingly, however, the representatives of the wildlife trusts in Wales have made it clear that if we remain on your present trajectory, it would take us over 100 years to restore all our peatland in Wales. So, at climate change committee last week, after I raised concerns that Natural Resources Wales could be spending less than 3 per cent of their flooding budget on natural solutions, NRW responded that they will submit a bid to the Welsh Government to expand this work. Minister, what commitment can you provide us today to fast-track any application for restorative peatland flood management works by NRW? And given the need to encourage and engage scientific citizens, can you also confirm what steps you will take to collaborate with the third sector to promote greater community involvement? Diolch. 

So, again, Janet, we're very keen indeed to work with a group of scientists to understand exactly what is meant by recovery and restoration. So, again, these aren't just about the targets; these are about the processes that we need to put in place in order to be able to do them. We're currently—as you know, because you were in the committee when I was giving evidence as well—undertaking a baseline review with NRW about its funding across the piece, making sure that it's streamlined and fit for purpose by doing end-to-end process reviews with them. I will certainly be working very hard with NRW to make sure that they have the right resources in the right place to do all of this work, and, of course, they will be integral to doing the biodiversity deep dive that I've just spoken about. And, as part of that, of course, we will be looking at recovery of a large number of different types of habitat across Wales, including peatlands.

Thank you. As peat is five times more effective at storing carbon than trees, there really is no excuse now for not increasing the scale and pace of investment to protect and restore our peatlands. We all agree on the need to protect the environment, but it does seem that you've failed, Minister, as yet, to deliver a green Brexit for Wales. The UK Environment Act 2021 and UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Continuity) (Scotland) Act 2021 do include environmental principles and governance arrangements intended to ensure compliance and accountability in England and Scotland. And, again, to quote the Wales Environment Link, Wales has achieved comparatively little. Last week, you informed me that the timing of any work on long-term environment governance structures will just have to wait until after complex discussions with your new coalition partners, Plaid Cymru. So, rather than let another political party in the Senedd delay a green Brexit in this nature crisis, Minister, will you confirm whether the timeline for preparatory works on environmental governance will be fast-tracked, and confirm what stakeholders you hope to be involved in its discussions and that will be undertaken with those bodies established in England and Scotland? 

13:45

Thank you, Janet. Once again, you've conflated about five different things there, so I don't intend to proceed to unpick it. The green Brexit you talk about, of course, had we just stayed inside the European governance arrangements, we wouldn't have needed to do anything in addition, and one of the big issues for us will be maintaining parity with European laws going forward, and not having the current Conservative Government already headlong towards removing many of the protections that we have in a number of areas in England. So, I despair as to the idea that a green Brexit is what we're talking about. It's quite clear, from various of the laws already passed, that that's not what we're talking about. Here in Wales we've got interim arrangements in place for environmental protection. We will be, of course, legislating to put that on a statutory basis. I wish to do that at the same time as putting the targets for biodiversity halt and decline and recovery into place, and so we will be bringing those forward once we have those arrangements in place. In the meantime, we have functioning interim arrangements in place to do just that. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, the Crown Estate in Wales generated £8.7 million in revenue last year, and the valuation of the estate's Welsh marine portfolio has increased from £49.2 million to £549.1 million. These are resources that could enable Wales to develop our Welsh renewable energy industry and retain wealth to fund Welsh public services, instead of selling off precious assets to the highest foreign bidder. This month, Scotland auctioned 17 options of seabed, totalling 25 GW, through Crown Estate Scotland, and that led to an extra £700 million for Scotland's public finances, based on sustainable development. Wales can't do this, because the Crown Estate isn't devolved. So, you've said in the past, Minister, that you support its devolution, but there needs to be movement on this, or we risk hampering our attempts to develop the marine and offshore renewables industry, which, of course, is a key aspect of reaching the net-zero target. Could you set out what steps, please, you're taking to seek the devolution of the Crown Estate to Wales, and also share your view about what process should be in place to ensure that, where there are areas where the Welsh Government and the Senedd agree they should be devolved, those are devolved, so that we keep in line with the democratic wishes of the people of Wales? 

Absolutely, Delyth. I completely agree that the Crown Estate should be devolved to Wales. It's completely outrageous that it's devolved to Scotland and not to us, and that, indeed, the returns from the Crown Estate go straight back to HM Treasury. They don't even go through the Barnett formula arrangement. So, I have absolutely written to say that we want the Crown Estate devolved, and we want them devolved on the same basis as they are devolved in Scotland. However, in the meantime, and in the absence of a Government at UK level who seems likely to do that in the foreseeable future, in the meantime, we have also sought to develop a very good relationship with the Crown Estate. So, both myself and Lee Waters have met with the Crown Estate to discuss the various potential in the Celtic sea and around the Welsh coast, where Crown Estate land is involved, and, also, actually, on land as well. So, the Crown Estate own some land in Wales too. We've also engaged with them to make sure that we have as much of a community ownership, community benefit, strand in the auctions that they are conducting, although the money goes, as you say, back to the Treasury. So far, we've had an engaged and reasonable reception from them, although that's no substitute, I absolutely agree, for having the thing devolved to us. 

Thank you for that, Minister. I look forward to seeing developments on this as that progresses.

I was going to raise a different issue with you this afternoon, but actually this lunchtime a number of Members attended the cross-party group on clean air and we heard a really powerful presentation from someone called Rosamund whose daughter, I believe living in London, died and it was found that air pollution had really contributed towards not just the fact that she died but also why she had asthma in the first place.

We know, gosh, so much more it seems with every year about the really damaging toll that air pollution has on even levels of dementia, but certainly on children's health, on respiratory health. Could you please give us any update that you can on what timetable you are following to be introducing a clean air Act for Wales?

13:50

Llywydd, the Deputy Minister is the Minister responsible for clean air, so I wonder if he could be unmuted.

Thank you very much.

Thank you for putting your hand up there, Deputy Minister.

Yes, as you know, we've been waiting for the publication of the latest World Health Organization guidance on clean air in order to base our Senedd law on that standard, and that has only recently been published. We're now completing that, and there are several stages of consultation and design that it needs to go through to make sure that is robust. But the provision of the law is not the only thing that will drive progress on clean air, clearly, and we are committed to action this year, not just simply waiting for the law to be passed.

So, our active travel fund, for example, has clean air as a key component of its guidance. That's again one of the actions we have under the Wales transport strategy to achieve modal shift, so that's £75 million this year to encourage people to use walking and cycling for short journeys rather than cars. Similarly, our bus strategy, and we're hoping to publish a White Paper in the coming months, is also about achieving modal shift to have fewer polluting cars on the road. And also our electric car action plan is similarly about decarbonising the car fleet so that there are not tailpipe emissions, which again causes those dangerous toxins that are released and kill people. 

So, we are committed to doing a series of actions this year and next year to tackle clean air, whilst in parallel working on as robust as possible clean air Act. Now, I've issued the invitation to the cross-party group, and I'll do it to Members again; we want to work cross-party on this. The challenge I've set the cross-party group is to identify the most robust set of measures that can command cross-party support that we can then bring to the Senedd.

I forgot my own rule there; I was expecting a third question. My apologies. Cwestiwn 3, Samuel Kurtz.

Woodland Creation Project

3. Will the Minister provide an update on the progress of the Welsh Government's woodland creation project? OQ57523

Yes. The trees and timber deep-dive exercise identified the actions we will take to increase woodland creation, including a new funding scheme and changes to the way projects are verified. These are being implemented and overseen by a delivery panel, which I chair.

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Weinidog. Ash dieback is a common fungal based disease that is sadly shared amongst much of Wales's ash tree population, the third most common tree in Wales. Within my own consistency of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, we have seen first hand how damaging this disease can be. On the Stackpole Estate alone—which I had the pleasure of visiting on Monday to plant a tree as part of the National Trust blossom watch campaign—the trust will be felling over 900 ash trees this winter, at a cost of £30,000. Across Wales, 6,500 ash trees have been managed because of ash dieback since 2020, and a further 20,500 trees have been designated as requiring safety works. Therefore, what assurances can you as Deputy Minister give that our current tree planting strategy is exceeding the number of trees being culled due to this disease, and will the Welsh Government's woodland creation tree count figures accurately reflect the total number of trees in Wales, including those removed, not just the number of new trees planted? Diolch yn fawr. 

Well, Sam Kurtz is right that ash dieback is a serious threat to our tree population. Some 97 per cent of the ash population across the UK is estimated to be vulnerable to being infected by ash dieback. Just this week, the Wales strategic ash dieback group met with a range of stakeholders to provide feedback on draft guidance to support landowners in the management of their ash trees, and we'll be publishing that this spring. So, we know we also need to make sure that the trees we plant are resilient to future diseases. It is likely, as a result of climate change, that our trees will be facing a greater range of threats, and that's why it's also important that, when we do plant trees, we don't plant monocultures. So, the UK forestry standard, for example, that all tree planting that we fund has to be compliant with, requires at least five different varieties of tree to be planted to partly guard against this kind of threat. 

As the Member knows, we do have ambitious targets for planting more trees, guided by the advice of the UK Climate Change Committee on the number of trees we need to tackle the climate emergency. And of course, they also tackle the nature emergency. So, the deep-dive exercise, which was designed to unblock barriers, identified that we need to plant more than 80 million trees within the next nine years. And we need to do a variety of trees, both trees for crops, so that we can create a Welsh timber industry, but also trees for biodiversity, and deciduous trees as well, but trees primarily on farmland. We work very closely with farmers, and they are taking the lead in this. If every farmer planted a hectare of their land with trees, then we'd be meeting our target. So, we don't want to see massive plantations as a rule, we want to see every farmer and every landowner, as well as communities, embrace tree planting as both a good for climate change but also a good for health and well-being in their communities. 

13:55

Apologies for my technical problems. Minister, I hear reports that Natural Resources Wales are buying family farms in Wales in order to plant trees, with concerns that this land will be no longer food-producing land and that the value of the land increases. This is not only damaging to agriculture, but also means that less food will be produced here in Wales. Is this part of the Government's forestry plan, and do you believe that it's right that NRW should be buying land for these purposes, if that is the case? Thank you. 

Well, I think we all agree we need to plant more trees, therefore it follows that we need more land to plant those trees on. The UK Climate Change Committee estimates that we need around a 10 per cent shift in land use from food production to tree planting, both, as I say, as a crop for timber production, but also for carbon sequestration. And I also note that, as part of our partnership agreement with Plaid Cymru, we're looking to be more ambitious than the 2050 net-zero target and looking at what it would take to reach net zero by 2035, and I can hazard a guess that that work is going to show we need to be planting even more trees. So, I would hope that Mabon ap Gwynfor is supportive of our efforts to plant more trees, and there will be some change of land use to do that. But, as I said in the answer to Sam Kurtz, if this is done at scale by all landowners and farmers, there only needs to be a modest change of use on the land they currently farm. We are working closely with the Woodland Trust, who have an excellent initiative to encourage farmers to plant hedges and edges. Every farmer has an element of their farm that they would be happy to use for tree planting, and that's the conversation we want to have with each of them as part of the sustainable farming scheme, to identify that land and make it easier for them to plant that land. It's not helpful to continuously be questioning whether or not tree planting is something we need to do and constantly finding reasons for stymieing the progress. It has to be done sensitively, it has to be done with communities. I want it to be led by Welsh farmers, but it is going to involve a small degree of changing land use. 

Trail Hunting

4. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the decision by Natural Resources Wales to ban trail hunting on land it manages? OQ57507

Diolch, Vikki. The Natural Resources Wales decision to ban trail hunting in the Welsh Government woodland estate was taken following the outcome of a court case against a senior leader of the Masters of Foxhounds Association, and in response to it.

Thank you, Minister. I'm following up on my question to the rural affairs Minister before Christmas, and specifically her reply that the Welsh Government would support the consideration of a permanent ban on trail hunting by those responsible for publicly owned land in Wales. We know that trail hunting is used as a smokescreen for the hunting of live animals. Following on from the examples of NRW and the National Trust banning trail hunting, will you look to bring in such a ban as a matter of urgency to ensure that our public land isn't used for this cruel, illegal and archaic practice?

14:00

Yes, Vikki, I absolutely welcome the decision made by NRW. Of course, NRW makes the decision on behalf of the Welsh Government on its public land, so a very large amount of public land is now covered by the decision not to allow trail hunting on that land. We certainly will be working with other public landholders—local authorities, and so on, across Wales—when there is land that is used for trail hunting. We're of the opinion that a very large percentage of that land—because the National Trust has done something very similar—it's now not possible to conduct that practice on that land. But, I'm absolutely on board with what you're saying. We will be exploring what else we can do to protect any other lands that are currently in use, and we're also really interested to see how the Scottish Government address their commitment to banning trail hunting across all public land in Scotland in this parliamentary term as well, because we're very anxious to do that. So, I absolutely agree with the thrust of your question. I think we have largely accomplished that with the combination of the National Trust and NRW land, and I will certainly be working with other public landholding partners to see what can be done. 

The national survey for Wales has shown that almost 10 per cent of people in Wales participate in off-road cycling and mountain biking, and a considerable amount of Natural Resources Wales's land accommodates this activity. Whilst I agree that off-road biking is, on the whole, a good thing, providing an opportunity for eco tourism and helps with health and well-being, we must be aware that it also causes long-term damage to the land.

I have in mind Ty'n-y-coed forest in Creigiau in Cardiff West, which has been extensively damaged by mountain bike users who have, by the unauthorised creation of their trails, not only damaged the topography of the land, but caused permanent damage to trees, habitats and other vegetation. Residents have also expressed concern about the dangers these mountain bikers pose to other users of the forest, such as walkers using the trails and public rights of way, primarily due to the speeds that they travel. From my discussions with NRW, and if I remember rightly, mountain bikers are not allowed in this forest, but clearly NRW are unable to enforce this.

Properly built and maintained trails with a proactive management strategy in place have proven to be extremely sustainable, and best practices have been identified in the mitigation of wildlife and vegetation disturbance. With this in mind, and given the unprecedented need to protect our forests, can the Minister explain what steps NRW and the Welsh Government are taking to ensure proper trail design and management strategies are put into place for all users of forests in Wales? Thank you. 

Whilst the question does refer to forests, this question is primarily around hunting on forestry land, but if the Minister is able to offer some response, that might be useful, but I'd understand if that isn't possible given the nature of the original question. 

So, I'm happy to respond just partly, Llywydd. Indeed, it's not quite on the point of the original question, but, Joel, I'm absolutely aware of the issues about off-road biking, particularly scramblers, and so on, as well as mountain biking. The short answer is that I think it's very important for us to set up special areas where people can indulge in the sport of jump biking, and so on. We actually have some world champions in Wales in my own constituency in that sport, but it's also very important to make sure that the trails in the forest are used for the purposes they're intended, for walking, where that's intended, for cycling, where that's intended, and so on, and not a mixed use in the way that you mention. We are working with NRW to understand what enforcement messages—'measures', sorry; I can't speak with my cold today—what enforcement measures might be possible, and also, actually, with the local police forces to ensure that bye-laws are in place and properly enforced, and so on. I'm more than happy to discuss the issue with you further, as it's a matter of some interest across Wales. 

Question 5, Rhun ap Iorwerth, to be answered by the Deputy Minister.

Roads that Flood Regularly

Wishing the Minister well as she recovers from her cold. 

5. What support does the Welsh Government provide to make roads that flood regularly more resilient? OQ57514

I note that no good wishes were offered to me as I recover from my cold, but I'll put that to one side.

The Welsh Government have measures in place to manage trunk roads that are affected by weather events, including flooding. The local road network is, of course, the responsibility of local authorities who are provided with grant funding by the Welsh Government to maintain and ensure the resilience of their roads.

My best wishes to the Deputy Minister depend on his answer to the next question, of course. When wind, rain, and high tides come together, the road to the east of Beaumaris near the Laird site floods. It's happening more and more often, and although there are no homes at risk directly from the flooding, thousands of homes in the areas of Llangoed and Penmon are isolated, care homes can't be reached, routes for emergency services are interfered with, and there is a real risk. I know there is no easy solution, but it has to be done, and I do know that officials from the council share my concerns, following the conversations I've had with councillors. Now, one problem that local authorities face is a lack of capacity in putting plans together, and I would welcome a commitment to assist local authorities to generate that capacity. But my main question is: crucially, can I ask for a long-term commitment to the resilient roads fund, in order to ensure that there is funding available for ensuing years, in order to find a solution to this specific problem and other problems such as A5 in Pentre Berw too—that is, where homes are not directly at risk, but where the risk to the resilience of transport and to community safety is very real indeed?

14:05

Well, the Member is right. This is very real indeed, and we know it's going to get worse as climate change intensifies and making our roads resilient to the threats of storms and also the impact of extreme heat is one of the things we need to do as we adapt to climate change, which is part of our net-zero strategy. It's one of the reasons why we've set up the roads review, so we shift funding away from continuously building new roads to maintaining the roads that we have better, partly in order to deal with the growing threat of climate change. And it was with that in mind that we created the resilient roads fund and we are spending £18.5 million this year for local authorities to bid in to deal with schemes like the one that Rhun mentions. And, in the next financial year, authorities will be able to continue to apply for funding for schemes they've already begun. We do have difficult budget choices to make—there's no point pretending otherwise—and we're not able to do all that we want to do. We're hoping that the roads review panel's report will come out in the summer, and that will give us some advice on how we can make these choices in the years beyond next year.

I'm sure the Deputy Minister will be aware of the issue of the B5605 in Wrexham, which was raised in First Minister's questions yesterday. However, the First Minister said he wasn't familiar with the issues there. It's also been raised in Prime Minister's questions this afternoon by my colleague Simon Baynes MP. And it's the closure of this road for more than a year now that has had a huge impact on local people, who now have to take longer journeys. This is a significant issue for them, adding 15 miles and up to 30 minutes to their journey, while of course also adding to their carbon footprint. I did write to the Minister on 23 November regarding the damage to the B5605 between Cefn Mawr and Newbridge, caused by storm Christoph. I wrote again last week, but I've yet to receive a response to any letter. The repair works to the road are expected to cost around £1 million, and 12 months after the storm, the only progress that appears to have been made is that Welsh Government approved money to carry out a preliminary assessment. So, Deputy Minister, do you think it's acceptable for this road to stay closed, and if you don't, what urgent action are you taking to ensure it reopens as soon as possible?

Yes. I noticed it was raised both in First Minister's questions and in Prime Minister's questions by Simon Baynes—erroneously, because he's blaming the Welsh Government for something that is the responsibility of the local authority. I understand the temptation to play politics on this, but he ought to do his homework a little better before casting aspersions. We are in discussions with the local authority. We want to help them to solve this problem, but it's for them to put in the right application, to the right fund, in the right way. I think it's unfortunate that Sam Rowlands joins the bandwagon of placing blame at our door when it doesn't properly belong here. That said, we recognise the problem this is causing to the local community and we want to be part of finding a solution. The leadership for this belongs properly—as a former council leader, he will recognise—with the local government, and we hope to work along with them to try and find the solution as quickly as possible.

I also mentioned this earlier, I think, in the questions, as a supplementary to Gareth Davies's one. Our highway infrastructure, including the drainage system of ditches, culverts and gullies, was built many years ago and is struggling to cope with the volume of rain that often falls these days. Many properties sit level with roads and some older ones are below road level. A lot of water drains off land onto the highway, and once the highway gullies cannot take the volume, water then flows off the road into properties. I watched one day as rain fell so heavily, the gullies could not take any more and water started to flow down towards the sandbagged properties, but thankfully, as the volume of rainfall eased, the gullies started to take it and the ebb of water eased and receded. Due to climate change, there are more instances of this monsoon-like rainfall. So, what is being done to capture rainfall using natural solutions to help with the capacity of the drainage systems and mitigate the impact of heavy rainfall on roads that flood regularly? Thank you.

14:10

As I mentioned in the answer to Rhun ap Iorwerth, we recognise that climate change means that these events are going to occur more frequently and they do pose a problem to our critical infrastructure, and we are committed to doing what we can to address that.

The question the Member asks specifically about natural drainage solutions is a really important one, because I think we over-rely sometimes on engineering, when we want to try and use different approaches, because we can achieve results quicker and cheaper as well as enhancing biodiversity as we do so. She'll be aware that, since January 2019, all new significant developments, including roads, have had to implement some kind of sustainable drainage scheme to capture the rainfall and run-off from those projects. That is now something embedded in our approach to capital construction, and of course, we look for opportunities to mitigate where we can.

The Welsh 200 Nautical Mile Zone

6. What action is the Welsh Government taking to conserve nature throughout the Welsh 200 nautical mile zone? OQ57494

Diolch, Janet. I'm committed to a resilient marine environment covering the entire Welsh marine zone. Our programme for government commits us to a marine ecosystem recovery and enhancement programme. Supporting this aim is the designation process for predominantly offshore marine conservation zones and the management actions for our marine protected areas.

Thank you. I have to say that I was disappointed during climate change committee last week when the Deputy Minister refuted the fact that, during his deep dive on nature conservation, he basically ignored the fact when I said that I was concerned about whether there'd been any engagement with any of the non-governmental organisations in terms of nature conservation. If you look at the actual deep dive report, there's no reference to any of them, so that's that something I would like you to take further.

But I've highlighted during climate change committee that there still exists a discrepancy between the section 158 definition and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, which of course provides responsibility for Natural Resources Wales to promote sustainable management of natural resources up to 12 nautical miles, and your Welsh Government's broader legal responsibility for nature conservation throughout the Welsh 200 nautical mile zone. In a recent written question reply, you kindly stated that the Welsh Government will look for an opportunity to amend the legislation in subsequent years, and in a letter to the First Minister, Wales Environment Link urged this administration to make the restoration of marine wildlife a higher priority, including protections for—I can never say it—cetaceans that recognise their ecosystem-regulating functions. Minister, can you clarify what engagement you have undertaken to secure a firm timeline to amend this discrepancy, so that this Siambr Cymru and Senedd Cymru may be in a better position to scrutinise and monitor the actions of NRW with regard to deep-water nature conservation? Thank you.

Thank you, Janet. I am absolutely committed to amending the legislation. The legislation was of course passed before we had the 200 nautical mile zone, so we are absolutely committed to doing that, and I'm sure there will be a suitable opportunity to put it into a relevant Bill at some point in this Senedd term; we absolutely want to do that. In the meantime, we're behaving as if the environment Act says the 200 mile zone, because that's obviously what we'd like it to say, and we're making sure that we take that responsibility seriously.

In undertaking a deep dive on biodiversity, I already mentioned I will of course be including marine biodiversity in that; it's a very important part of our biodiversity, as indeed is the intertidal part of Wales. So, all of the massive biodiversity in the intertidal zone is incredibly important as well. So, just to assure you, we will be looking at marine biodiversity at the same time, and that will, of course, include cetacean protection programmes and others. There's a very large amount of work to do here to ensure good conservation status both inside the marine protected zones and in the marine conservation areas, and to make sure that we have the right network right around the shore. I do absolutely assure you that I take it very seriously indeed. We are very, very aware of both the importance for biodiversity and the climate of healthy oceans, but actually, also, of course, to our tourism industry, which relies very heavily on our beautiful countryside and our beautiful coastline and seas. So, I certainly do take that very seriously. We know that we have, from the recent 'State of Natural Resources Report', some real fundamental challenges for the marine environment, including the threat of climate change, so we will be including that in the programme as we bring it forward.

14:15
Active Travel in Caerphilly

7. Will the Minister provide an update on Welsh Government support for active travel routes in Caerphilly? OQ57528

We support active travel routes in Caerphilly by providing the council with a core allocation from our active travel fund each year, and by offering the opportunity to apply for additional funding through a range of grants. In this financial year, Caerphilly has been allocated over £1.4 million.

That funding is very welcome. I've seen throughout the constituency, and, indeed, the borough, the impact that that has made, most recently in Cwm Calon, where the cycle path has been opened for the first time and is very welcomed by residents. However, I'd like to focus on a specific part of the constituency. The Tynygraig footbridge over the Rhymney valley rail line in Llanbradach has been closed since April 2020 after the bridge was damaged and then was subsequently removed by Transport for Wales for safety reasons. Unfortunately, local elected members have made some mischievous comments suggesting that Transport for Wales have no intention of replacing that bridge. That's not true. I'd like to say I've had a meeting with Transport for Wales and they've made it absolutely clear their intention to replace the bridge—that that will happen. However, the timescale is fairly long. They were going to introduce a temporary bridge, but that would interfere with the work required to introduce a permanent bridge, they've subsequently discovered, which is disappointing. However, that bridge will be replaced. I would ask the Deputy Minister if he would commit to working with Transport for Wales officials to do everything he can to shorten the timescale that is currently in place to get that bridge permanently replaced. Any assistance the Welsh Government can offer Transport for Wales in these circumstances would be very welcome. 

I can confirm what the Member says: the bridge definitely will be replaced and we're hoping it'll be in place a year from now, between late March and April 2023. It has taken longer than expected. As Hefin David said, it was severely damaged by a lorry and then had to be torn down. The process that it's had to go through, with a design bespoke for this particular location, has been complex, and obviously we've had COVID hit us at the same time. I apologise to the residents for the delays that they've had to put up with, but there's every intention by Transport for Wales to replace this bridge.

Railway Services in Islwyn

8. Will the Minister provide an update on railway services in Islwyn? OQ57511

We've provided a £70 million loan to Blaenau Gwent council to work with Network Rail to enable an hourly Newport to Ebbw Vale service from December 2023. Our longer term ambition is the provision of four services per hour on the line.

Diolch. On 12 December last year, following the £1.2 million investment to upgrade the Ebbw Vale line, an hourly direct passenger service between Crosskeys and Newport recommenced after a gap of 60 years. Minister, I along with colleagues met with representatives of Network Rail and Transport for Wales recently to discuss the further expansion plans of the line northwards through Newbridge to Ebbw Vale. With the Department for Transport finally upgrading the relief lines between Newport and Cardiff, what further discussions will the Welsh Government have with our partner agencies on the further possibility of twice-hourly services on the line through Islwyn, both stopping at Newport and Cardiff?

That's certainly our ambition too, but we are still awaiting a decision from the UK Government in respect of the funding submitted under the Restoring Your Railway scheme, which will allow us to progress our plans to take forward the reopening of the Abertillery spur. Rhianon Passmore will know that rail infrastructure is not devolved to Wales, but it was the Welsh Government that reopened the Ebbw Vale line in 2008, it was the Welsh Government that extended the line to Ebbw Vale Town in 2016, and it was the Welsh Government that made possible a brand new additional service on the line between Crosskeys and Newport in December. It is the Welsh Government that has committed £70 million of funding in a long-term loan to the extended service to Ebbw Vale Town in 2023, along with the introduction of brand new rolling stock on the line, which will help futureproof our longer term aspiration for four trains an hour on the line, which will benefit around 59,000 people living in communities alongside the Ebbw Vale branch line. So, I think we've more than done our fair share of making sure that this service in place. It is non-devolved and the UK Government needs to do its part.

14:20
2. Questions to the Minister for Education and Welsh Language

The next item is questions to the Minister for Education and Welsh Language and the first question today is from Paul Davies.

Welsh-medium Education in Pembrokeshire

1. Will the Minister make a statement on the delivery of Welsh-medium education in Pembrokeshire? OQ57499

Pembrokeshire, like all local authorities, has been busy preparing the new Welsh in education strategic plan, setting out how they propose to grow their Welsh-medium provision by 10 to 14 per cent over the next 10 years. I look forward to receiving their draft at the end of this month.

Thank you for that response, Minister. As you know, yesterday, the Urdd celebrated its centenary, and as you also know, the organisation does incredible work in providing opportunities for children and young people to learn and to socialise through the medium of Welsh. I'm sure that you will join me in thanking the volunteers and staff over the years who have contributed so much for the children of Wales.

You will be aware that the demand for Welsh-medium education has increased substantially, so much so that local councillors in my area have noted that it is greater than the number of places available. There are children now who are being turned away, and as a result, parents are very concerned that there is a postcode lottery being created in Pembrokeshire. Given these circumstances, what support can the Welsh Government provide to tackle the substantial lack of Welsh-medium places in Pembrokeshire at the moment, and what discussions have been had with Pembrokeshire County Council in order to develop a long-term strategy for Welsh-medium education in the area?

I thank the Member for the opportunity to echo his congratulations to the Urdd for their incredible work over a century in providing youth services to our young people here in Wales. I'm sure I will share with him some happy memories of how important the Urdd was to me as a boy growing up. So, I'm happy to echo the Member's congratulations.

The local authority in Pembrokeshire shares our view as a Government that the issue of insufficient places available is an important issue, and they have been working on their strategic plan with that in mind. I also know that Rhieni dros Addysg Gymraeg have been working with many families in Pembrokeshire to support them in appeals on decisions in terms of access to specific schools. The range proposed by the council in its draft plan means that there will be an increase of up to 14 per cent, as I stated in my first answer. There are also plans in place by the authority to establish a new school and to look at the categorisation of schools and to change some categorisation to ensure that there is greater provision through the medium of Welsh, as well as the need to invest in the early years too. So, that element of ambition is there in the council's strategic plan in order to enhance provision.

The Member will also be aware that a capital programme was announced last year of some £30 million in order to provide investment in Welsh-medium education infrastructure here in Wales, and many of our local authorities have expressed an interest in that. The process is ongoing at the moment. We are looking at those proposals and comparing them with the level of ambition in the WESPs, and I will be able to say more about that in February.

Safety in and around School Premises

2. Will the Minister make a statement on safety in and around school premises? OQ57506

14:25

All education settings in Wales have a legal duty to ensure that children have access to a safe learning environment. Safeguarding of learners is of paramount importance, and our statutory guidance, 'Keeping learners safe', sets out actions and expectations placed on schools to ensure the safety of children.

Thank you very much for that response, Minister. It's precisely what I would have expected you to say. One thing I am concerned about is the focus that we seem to have in Wales on protecting younger children going in and out of the school premises in terms of safer routes to school and the active travel routes that are being developed. I've seen significant investment in those in recent years in my own constituency, and they've been very successful, including here in the town of Abergele. However, there's not been the same sort of focus on safety around secondary schools, and I wonder to what extent the Minister has considered trying to bring forward schemes that promote safety in terms of particularly younger pupils getting in and out of secondary schools. So, for example, if I can refer to the situation in Abergele, there have been some significant improvements and investments in active travel routes and safer community routes to get children to and from three schools that share the same site. But just across the road, there's a secondary school that has lots of traffic going in and out around school drop-off and pick-up times, and there's not been any attention paid to improving that situation. Can you tell us what work you might be able to do with Cabinet colleagues to look at bringing forward schemes that address these concerns? Thank you.

Darren Millar makes a very important point about this, and it's a topic that I've discussed with the Deputy Minister for Climate Change in this context as well. It is absolutely essential that we make active travel to and from schools as convenient and as safe as possible for as many learners as possible, for reasons that I know he will share. The Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 obviously provides for the underpinning requirements in relation to this, and the design guidance sets out standards that routes are expected to meet. Of course, as part of that, the availability of safe drop-off and pick-up points, for example, as well as other arrangements, are integral to that. But I will discuss further with the Deputy Minister what more perhaps we could do in this area. I'm happy to update the Member in due course.

Minister, last week, my team arranged a very interesting meeting between the residents of Gwaelod-y-garth in north-west Cardiff and Rod King—I'm sure you're familiar with him—an expert on road safety and the founder of 20's Plenty for Us. Now, Mr King was full of praise for the road-safety policies of the Welsh Government, but one point he made was that drivers needed to be more aware of when they are driving into a community that they see an area as a community with people not just homes and buildings. Now, outside the school in Gwaelod-y-Garth, there is a 20 mph zone. Now, the major concern of residents of Gwaelod-y-Garth is that the rest of the village is not a 20 mph zone and that vehicles tend to speed up in those areas. So, what discussions are you having with your colleagues, and, perhaps, the Deputy Minister, who is still on our screens, and Cardiff Council, in order to ensure that a 20 mph zone is introduced for the whole of the village, so that children walking and cycling back and forth to school can do so safely? Thank you.

I thank Rhys ab Owen for that. I myself haven't had any discussions on the specific circumstances he described. As he said, the Deputy Minister for Climate Change is listening to this discussion, and I can have further discussions with him on this. But this is exactly why the plans that the Welsh Government has to provide speed restrictions is so very important, so that we do safeguard as many of our communities as possible, where the schools are protected. But as he said, that needs to be done more broadly too.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson this week, Samuel Kurtz.

Thank you, Llywydd. Minister, I'd like to start by welcoming the news that the Welsh Government is to fund new research into the resilience of NHS Wales's cognitive tests, particularly in terms of dementia care and the use of the Welsh language. Now, I'm sure that the Minister will be aware that first-language Welsh speakers with dementia often forget that they're able to communicate in English, whilst retaining their mother tongue. This allows for a clear line of communication to remain open whilst eliminating the risk of isolating individuals by not providing services in their language of choice.

Given this, I was disappointed to hear that the Welsh Government doesn't have any official data on the percentage of its social care workforce who are Welsh speakers. So, could I ask the Minister to work with the Deputy Minister for Social Services in order to carry out a Welsh language audit of the social care sector here in Wales, and note what plans the Government has to improve social care for first-language Welsh speakers?

14:30

I thank the Member for this important question. He may know that the Minister for health has already commissioned work in order to evaluate the policies that we have in terms of the Welsh language in education and social care. The point that he makes is important in terms of dementia and in broader contexts too. What's truly important is that we ensure that we're able to provide a Welsh language service for those when the language is most important to them. So, the challenges set by the Member are very worthy indeed, but there is work in train already by the health Minister to evaluate policies on the ground at the moment.

Thank you, Minister. In his annual report, the Welsh Language Commissioner has identified a great frustration with the increase in rules around Welsh language standards and the sluggish change in Welsh-medium education. Indeed, the Labour Member for Blaenau Gwent in the committee said:

'One of the disappointments in the Welsh Government's language policies over the past few years is the deficiencies in terms of promoting the Welsh language.'

The Member went on to mention the Government's commitment to the Welsh language through 'Cymraeg 2050' by echoing the concerns of the former First Minister, Carwyn Jones. The comments made by Alun Davies are a cause for concern, particularly when linked to the commissioner's call for substantial intervention and a change of mindset in warning that the 'Cymraeg 2050' strategy will not be delivered. If a Labour MS, a former First Minister and the Welsh Language Commissioner can see the problems with 'Cymraeg 2050', would you agree with them?

No. The Member was in the committee to hear the discussion and he heard my response to the point that was raised—I'm sure of that.

This question in terms of promotion is an interesting one I think. I think it's—. The word 'promotion' can mean a number of different things. Language policy develops over time and we learn to do things differently and to work more effectively. What we have now is a range of policies in areas that we would have generally described as 'promotion' in the past.

So, one of the things we're doing is looking at the grants for promotion to see exactly what they do—they haven't been assessed since we took responsibility for that grant programme, so we're looking at all of those interventions to see whether they're working to their greatest capacity to ensure the prosperity of the Welsh language. And I would encourage Members to think of it as a further opportunity to scrutinise the work of Government, rather than me explaining in general terms the promotional work that we do. There are specific steps in train and you can look at them and assess them. And I think that is a more practical way of making progress in terms of the Welsh language more generally.

In terms of the comments of the commissioner, and anyone else who is encouraging the Government to do as much as we can in terms of Welsh-medium education provision, you will see no greater advocate for that than me. And I agree entirely that we need to do as much as we can as quickly as we can in terms of Welsh-medium education provision, and I want to ensure that there is equal access in all parts of Wales for anyone who wants Welsh-medium education. Fortunately, we already have a commitment to provide legislation in this area, so that, during this Senedd term, we can ensure that there is a stronger statutory basis for the provision of Welsh-medium education. But as you've already heard, the WESPs that the local authorities have been working on are expected to be ambitious. I've only seen them in draft form at the moment, and I do think they provide us with an opportunity to go further over the next decade.

Thank you, Minister.

Ahead of my final question, I'd just like to declare an interest as a member of Pembrokeshire County Council, and it's an issue that I've raised before within the Chamber. It's regarding Cosheston VC School in my own constituency of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, which has faced ongoing difficulties relating to lack of space, which have worsened due to COVID-19. Following an issue I raised in this Chamber, Pembrokeshire County Council have provided additional portakabin toilets for the pupils, and a portakabin office for the headteacher. Discussions continue between the school and the council as to a more permanent improvement for the school, the teachers, and, most importantly, the pupils. However, the headteacher has expressed her frustration over the lack of clarity about what funding is available to either her school directly or to the local authority, to pay for the work that is desperately needed. Therefore, Minister, can you confirm whether your £100 million funding announcement from earlier this year will be open to schools like Cosheston VC School, who, due to COVID, require additional space, in either a new build or portakabin classrooms, and can you please confirm how schools can go about expressing their interest and applying for this funding? Diolch.

14:35

Yes, certainly. I don't know the particular circumstances of Cosheston school, so I won't be able to comment particularly on that, although, if the Member writes to me, I will be able to respond specifically in relation to that. There are a number of ways in which schools can have access to capital funding to make adaptations—local authority budgets are one of them, but also the funding that, from time to time, the Welsh Government declares, including that which was most recently declared by me. So, if the Member cares to write to me about certain schools in particular, I'll be able to give him some specific advice.

Questions now from the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Heledd Fychan.

Thank you, Llywydd. Minister, yesterday you made it clear that the intention is that examinations should proceed this year, and I was pleased to see you recognising the disquiet of learners and staff, and the problems that they've faced in our schools and colleges over the past two years. You encouraged all students in exam years to speak to their schools and colleges about what additional support and flexibility could be available this year. But this is still very ambiguous, and places the burden back on the learners to try and seek support, rather than that support being offered to them. Clearly, we don't know what will happen in terms of coronavirus, although the signs so far are encouraging. If there was further interference with education, including high absence levels in terms of staff and learners, what contingency plans are in place in case examinations cannot take place?

Well, in terms of the advice to students and pupils in my statement yesterday, a letter has been issued to headteachers yesterday, explaining, or reminding them, where all the resources available are, in order to support pupils in examination years. I was also just encouraging pupils to have those conversations too, but the support will be provided through the school. That's already known, and has been emphasised once again in a letter to headteachers. So, I hope that will be practically useful in our schools.

In terms of the broader plans for examinations, Qualifications Wales has already stated what the contingency plans are. They're available on their website. So, what I wanted to do yesterday was to ensure that people understood that the Government was continuing to say that we will have examinations this summer, unless, as you say, it is impossible in terms of logistics to stage those examinations, but I don't expect that to be the case.

I think it's important that we look at this summer's examinations in a particular context. They are being specifically tailored for the circumstances, taking into account the disruption that there has been. The grading will be different, to take that into account; the content of the examinations will be reduced, in order to take account of that disruption.

What's very important, I think, is that we commit to ensure that we support continuity for pupils at GCSE level; whatever their options are, we want to support them. There is a budget, which I announced before Christmas, encouraging schools and colleges to have individual conversations with pupils in those years, so that they know what the range of options are that are appropriate to their personal circumstances. And we also want to ensure that those studying A-level, for example, have the same opportunities as are available in any other part of the UK. That's a competitive scenario, if you like, if you look at university places—if that's their intended route. So, it's important that we ensure that they have a fair opportunity, and the changes to examinations in Wales have, I think, gone further than any other part of the UK because of the way we structure examinations in Wales. So, I very much hope that that will be of some comfort to students too. 

14:40

Thank you, Minister. I would like to declare, before asking the next question, that I am a Rhondda Cynon Taf councillor.

I'd like to turn now to the issue of additional learning needs, and Welsh-medium provision particularly. I warmly welcome the £18 million in addition that you announced earlier this month for providing further support for children and young people with additional learning needs who have been affected by the pandemic, and to help educational settings as learners start to the move to the new additional learning needs system. 

However, although funding is available, and local authorities do have to provide support in the language of choice in the Act, there is a severe shortage of qualified Welsh-medium teachers to meet the need. In the region I represent, for example, I was recently told that there isn't a single specialist additional learning needs class in Rhondda Cynon Taf through the medium of Welsh, while there are more than 40 in English. Even in the current consultation, there is only one secondary class that the council intends to establish for the whole county. 

So, I would like to ask what the Welsh Government is doing on a practical level to ensure that the additional learning needs necessary through the medium of Welsh is guaranteed for those who require it, wherever they live in Wales?

Well, the Member raises a very important point. As well as providing a legal basis for these reforms, we need to ensure that the resources are available on the ground in order to meet the demand and to prepare and provide the services required, and that that is an element that will require training for our teachers in providing those services. 

We're in a process at the moment of enhancing the resources available to teachers for personal training, and also to meet the requirements of the legislation more broadly. There's been a great deal of work happening in terms of professional training in this area for teachers who can teach through the medium of Welsh and provide broader services through the medium of Welsh. And I would want to ensure that those resources are all available, as they are in English, in Welsh too. But, certainly, this is an area that's very important to us, and I will ensure that we do everything we can to meet the need, not only in English but also in Welsh. 

Free School Meals

3. Will the Government provide an update on plans to deliver free school meals to primary school pupils? OQ57510

Yes, I issued a written statement on 17 December, outlining the activities and priorities associated with the roll-out of free schools meals to primary school pupils, reflecting the agreement reached with Plaid Cymru in the co-operation agreement. Our absolute focus now is on working with our partners to increase the capacity of schools to deliver this extended provision.

Diolch, Weinidog. One of the main parts of the co-operation agreement was the free-school-meals policy, which will benefit so many families. I'm proud that Plaid Cymru has helped to bring this to fruition from September of this year. This policy has major and positive implications for local supply chains and combating child poverty. It will also entail a capital cost to ensure that all primary schools can accommodate the extra demand of preparing and serving additional school meals. Minister, are you able to confirm that the capital funds are in place to equip school canteens, and that everything is on track to facilitate this flagship policy of the co-operation agreement?

We've already provided an initial package of funding, which isn't the larger package that he's describing, to local authorities, to begin the planning work for the roll-out of the new level of entitlement, which, as he obviously knows, is a very significant extension of the existing eligibility, and that will enable local authorities to work with us in the coming months. 

Some of that work is around working with their own partners, the supply partners, and others that he's alluded to in his question, but also to audit the workforce, to audit the existing infrastructure, and what more then needs to be put in place in particular schools in order to deliver the extended provision, and, generally, to work out the practical implications related to changes in the free-school-meals eligibility. We would all like that to be in place at the very earliest moment, but there are, as his question implies, a set of practical things that need to happen in order for that to be rolled out smoothly. As he knows, some of that work will be done between now and September, enabling the first tranche to be rolled out then, and there'll be ongoing work obviously for schools to make sure that the capacity is there in the system to deliver the next tranche the following year, but that work is already under way. We'll be working with local authorities over the coming weeks to map out what that means on the ground in terms of extra capacity, extra arrangements in relation to workforce and infrastructure. 

14:45

Minister, I recently met with members of the Farmers Union of Wales at Monmouthshire livestock market. During the meeting, concerns were raised about the Welsh Government's plans to extend free school meals to all primary school pupils in view of the Deputy Minister for Climate Change's statement that we should eat less meat. The president of NFU Cymru, John Davies, said that the high sustainability values of Welsh red meat and dairy means that consumers can continue to enjoy these products knowing that they are not impacting the environment. So, can I ask, Minister, what discussions have you had with ministerial colleagues to ensure that school meals have high nutritional value, with the priority being given to locally sourced good-quality produce from Welsh farms? Thank you.  

Well, actually, many of our local authorities already have arrangements in place to procure local produce in the way that she underlines, and her question is so important for many of our food producers, and we want to build on these practices across Wales. So, where schools and local authorities are able to establish cost-effective procurement arrangements with local food producers, I would absolutely encourage them to do so. I think the benefits of doing so are obvious to us all, aren't they. We all will share that priority. I think instilling healthy eating habits and attitudes at a young age really will bring the biggest benefits. Food preferences formed when we're young actually cover the rest of our journey through life, and I think offering a healthy school meal to all primary-age children free of charge will remove the stigma, which is sometimes associated with receiving free school meals, and I think that, alongside the ability to deliver even more locally sourced food in our schools, is a fantastic opportunity. 

I speak as someone who has long supported free school meals in state primary schools, not just to support local farmers, but, more importantly to me, to improve the health of children and improve educational attainment. Hungry children do not perform very well. But my question is: what is the estimated capital spend necessary to increase capacity of school kitchens and dining halls? And what is the estimated number of additional kitchen staff that will be needed? I know this won't all happen in one year, but, if you hope to do it over the next four years, how much are you talking about? 

That is the work that's currently under way with local authorities to map out the need both in relation to infrastructure and also in relation to workforce, and that will enable us then to crystallise those numbers. But that work is already under way, and we've provided a budget to our local authority partners to support them in working with us to do that. 

Further Education

4. Will the Minister provide an update on financial support for further education? OQ57521

Yes, certainly. The 2022-23 budget sees post-16 funding at its highest level for some time and represents the largest increase, actually, in recent years, and it recognises, effectively, the increased numbers staying in post-16 education, continued post-16 renew and reform funding, and ensures that learners are offered the best possible support following the impact of the pandemic.

Minister, further education continues to provide top-quality education and training across Wales and, I think, provides good value for public funding. Together with Jayne Bryant, I recently met with Coleg Gwent to discuss their plans to relocate their Newport city campus to the city centre, where it would be alongside the University of South Wales campus, allowing for good co-operation and progression, and it would also place education and training in the very heart of the city centre, and, I think, make everyone aware of the possibilities and the opportunities available at what would be a state-of-the-art campus. So, it would be very good for local learners, very good for local employers. So, I just wonder, Minister, if you could continue to work closely with Coleg Gwent to bring this important project to fruition, given all the benefits that it would deliver.

14:50

I thank John Griffiths for that. Coleg Gwent is a very, very good example of what I was saying about how important further education is, and the contribution that colleges like Coleg Gwent make to our education landscape and to meeting our broader economic needs is absolutely indispensable. He was suggesting in his question that there'll be discussions with universities around collaboration, and he will know that the legislation that we're currently taking through the Senedd in relation to post-16 education generally is intended to remove some of the obstacles, if you like, to collaboration in all sorts of different ways, between HE and FE, between FE and other kinds of providers, so that we can encourage our institutions to collaborate as they choose with other organisations in the best interests of our learners.

Minister, the number of FE teachers has fallen by over 2 per cent between 2020 and 2021. Minister, with the new moneys announced, which are welcomed, what strategy do you have in place to reverse this trend?

We want to make sure that the workforce is able to meet the needs of our learners, as do all our colleges. The funding—[Inaudible.]—this year, as I say, has enabled us to restore, perhaps, some of the more challenging budgets that we've seen in the past. It reflects the increasing demand for further education, which we will all welcome, and of course enables provision to be made in relation to the workforce so that those demands are met. I'm very keen to make sure that we are able to meet the needs of our learners in the post-16 landscape in a variety of ways, and I hope that the budget settlement will support further education colleges in doing that. 

Question 5, Janet Finch-Saunders.

I think we're struggling to hear you. Yes, carry on, now.

What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of the pandemic on the attainment gap?

Sorry, Minister. Sorry, Llywydd. I wasn't aware of that one.

All right, okay. It's on the agenda and tabled in your name.

Question 5 [OQ57493] not asked.

We'll move to question 6, Joel James. Right, I don't think I see Joel James here. So, Joel James's question can't be asked. Yes, I can see you now, Joel James. I don't know what happened there.

I couldn't unmute myself, sorry, and then I realised my camera was off. Sorry.

Inclusivity

6. How will the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021 improve inclusivity for all learners? OQ57519

The Act ensures the four purposes of the new curriculum become the shared vision and aspiration for every child and young person. In fulfilling these purposes, we set high expectations for all, ensuring each learner gains a broad and balanced education regardless of any barriers to learning they face.

Thank you. As you're aware, and as you have explained, the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021 is the legislation that sets out the legal framework for the new curriculum, and on the surface it has very inclusive aims, stating for example in section 28 that:

'The adopted curriculum must be implemented in a way that—

'(a) enables each pupil to develop in the ways described in the four purposes,

'(b) secures teaching and learning that offers appropriate progression for each pupil,

'(c) is suitable for each pupil's age, ability and aptitude,

'(d) takes account of each pupil's additional learning needs (if any), and

'(e) secures broad and balanced teaching and learning for each pupil.'

In the first part of the Act, it refers to each learner and states that learner needs will be accounted for within the curriculum. However, the legislation then goes on to state that, for children with additional learning needs, these sections, 27 to 30, disapply in relation to them. As a result, the legislation that sets out to apply to all learners, and specifically mentions ALN, is then subsequently disapplied or modified for learners with ALN, with the potential to become exclusionary and betray a deficit value for these learners. With this in mind, can the Minister explain why those with additional learning needs have sections 27 to 30 outlining how the legislation applies to every other learner disapplied to them? Thank you.

14:55

He has the advantage of presumably having the legislation in front of him with specific sections. But the legislation, obviously, is designed very much to work hand in hand with the additional learning needs legislation, and so the two Acts come together to provide access to the curriculum, and I think the focus on the four purposes and progression that underpin the idea of the curriculum offers that additional flexibility to be able to meet the needs of all individual learners. We've worked with a wide range of partners from all sectors of education, obviously including a network of ALN experts, to develop a curriculum framework that we are confident is fully inclusive and allows all learners, including those with additional learning needs, to participate, to enjoy their learning and to progress towards the four purposes.

Well, I haven't got the Act in front of me either, but I'm absolutely of the view that this is a great opportunity for all learners—the new curriculum as well as the additional learning needs Act. I just wanted to ask you what plans you have to co-locate all special schools on mainstream school sites in the future so that people with ALN, who come in all shapes and sizes, can benefit from the additional resources you get in mainstream schools, particularly in the secondary sector, and enable those who've got particular needs to have the full benefit of a rounded education in line with their capabilities and abilities.

I thank Jenny Rathbone for that very important supplementary. I think it is very important for us, whenever we can, to be able to co-locate and make sure that all learners have access to the widest range of experiences and resources and facilities. She will know that, through the school building programme, the college building programme, twenty-first century schools, which is now renamed sustainable communities for learning, opportunities do rise from time to time to be able to provide for, for example, specific additional learning needs facilities within the campus, alongside mainstream provision. So, there are opportunities that we are keen to take for the reasons that she outlines in her question.

The Welsh Language in Cardiff

7. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to make the Welsh language as accessible as possible in Cardiff? OQ57508

The menter iaith and the Urdd are active within the capital, offering opportunities to use, celebrate and enjoy the Welsh language. I'm looking forward to see Tafwyl returning to the castle in June. This is all important to support the growth of Welsh-medium education and so that everyone can see Welsh as a living language.

Thank you very much. As a son of the capital city, it's been wonderful to see the growth in the use of the Welsh language and to hear the Welsh language around me as I walk the streets of the capital. As you said, one of the highlights of the social calendar in Cardiff is the Tafwyl festival, and it was a great loss that it wasn't staged during the first year of the pandemic. It was wonderful to have it back last year, and I'm looking forward to its return this year too. It attracts thousands every year. I remember it when it was held in the car park of the Mochyn Du; it now meets in the castle and has become a major festival. But, with that success, with the 39,000 people who attend Tafwyl, there are additional costs attached to that, and we regularly hear in this Senedd about costs increasing in general. Menter Caerdydd believe that the cost of staging Tafwyl this year will be some 20 per cent higher than the figure for 2019. Menter Caerdydd has to secure that funding through bidding annually for various different grants, and that in itself creates uncertainty. The fact that access to Tafwyl is free of charge makes it so accessible, with many non-Welsh-speaking parents and residents and people from ethnic minority communities in Cardiff attending the festival. So, what plans does the Government have to ensure that Tafwyl continues to be accessible and continues to be appropriately funded? Thank you.

I'd like to thank Rhys ab Owen for that specific pitch for further funding for Tafwyl. We provide over £200,000 per annum to menter iaith Caerdydd and menter Bro Morgannwg to enable them to provide a range of projects, activities and events in Cardiff for families, children, young people and the whole community, and that's to be celebrated. It's wonderful that they're doing that work and that we're seeing the positive impact of that in the language's development in the capital city. As I said, I look forward to seeing Tafwyl returning to the castle, not to the Mochyn Du car park, as he reminded us it started in. It's a very important contribution not only to the Welsh language in the capital city, but also more broadly than that. 

15:00
The Attainment Gap

8. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of the pandemic on the attainment gap? OQ57489

We plan to publish a strategy to tackle the impact of poverty on educational attainment in the coming months. The Curriculum for Wales is central to our aspirations for learners' attainment, which we know has been adversely affected by COVID. The renew and reform plan, at this stage, has been supported in this financial year by £232 million in response to the pandemic itself.

Minister, pupils in schools have not been impacted equally in this pandemic. The hundreds of millions of pounds you have allocated to make schools COVID-secure has made a real difference, but there are still specific groups of pupils who have been disadvantaged more than others. We've seen an unprecedented demand for child and adolescent mental health services and school-based services with year 11 and post-16 pupils. Pupils eligible for free school meals and pupils with additional learning needs have found the return to school more difficult than their peers. Pupils living in high levels of social deprivation have seen their learning disproportionately impacted, from a lack of IT equipment to higher levels of teacher and pupil absence. I understand that these are difficult problems to address. How will the Welsh Government ensure we don't continue to see the attainment gap widen as a result of the pandemic, and how will you work with Qualifications Wales and the WJEC to ensure pupils sitting exams this year are on a level playing field?

Well, just to echo the point that the Member is making, I share a very clear personal commitment to making sure we do everything that we can to close the attainment gap. We have made progress in the past, but, as she said in her question, the experience of COVID in our schools and colleges will have not been felt equally by all our learners, and so it's incumbent on all of us to do whatever we can to support learners who need the most support to close that gap. We've recognised for some time that that was likely to be the issue, was likely to be the outcome, and, indeed, evidence tells us now that that is very likely to be what's happened. The funding that we've made available has been weighted specifically towards schools, reflecting, in the context of this question, the number of pupils who are from disadvantaged backgrounds so that that funding is balanced in that way, to provide extra support.

She will know that the—. She mentioned the digital challenge in her question. She will know that we have provided quite a significant increase in the availability of not just computer equipment but also the connectivity that is essential to be able to deliver that. Again, families living in disadvantage have found that a struggle and so we've been very keen to make sure that the work we do reflects that. The Education Policy Institute, in comparing the work of the four Governments across the UK, not only has said that in Wales we've invested more in our pupils, but that we've done that in a way that is more progressive and reflects better the needs of pupils that are disadvantaged or vulnerable.

In relation to examinations and her question, I am working with Qualifications Wales. I have been working with them and the WJEC. My next meeting with them is next week, to discuss what further we can do to specifically support learners through the assessment process, and reflecting, as she says in her question, the fact that not everyone has had the same experience over the last two years. The grade boundaries will reflect the disruption that we've seen in our schools, but I want to make sure, in addition to that, that there's also, for example, a fair and accessible appeals process that goes with our examination results to make sure that those issues can be taken into account.

15:05
3. Topical Questions
4. 90-second Statements

Therefore the next item is the 90-second statements, and the first of those comes from Sioned Williams.

Thank you, Llywydd. Monday of this week was the International Day of Education, a day that celebrates the role of education in terms of promoting peace and development worldwide. The International Day of Education this year takes place once again during the COVID-19 pandemic and, as Plaid Cymru's spokesperson on post-16 education, I'd like to take this opportunity to congratulate the sector in Wales for continuing to collaborate at an international level despite the challenges that the pandemic has posed. ColegauCymru CollegesWales, for example, is supporting further education colleges, such as Neath Port Talbot College in my region, to integrate international activities and partnerships into the daily lives of learners and staff, and the international learning exchange programme for Wales places a firm emphasis on the value of international exchange programmes in the further education sector as well as in higher education and on providing opportunities that broaden horizons and change lives here and worldwide.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we must ensure that people of all ages can improve their opportunities through upskilling or retraining and changing course. Our further education sector and community education are experts on this, and need to be fully supported to achieve these aims.

As well as COVID, too many nations are also facing war, famine and poverty—problems in which western nations, such as the UK, have often played a part. As we mark International Day of Education therefore, we should challenge ourselves and the leaders of the world's powers to ensure that the best possible environment for education—an environment that promotes peace and social justice—is nurtured and developed. Thank you.

Thank you, Llywydd. Yesterday, as noted by many of my fellow Members, the nation celebrated the Urdd's centenary. And we heard, through our Llywydd's excellent singing, that, as part of the celebrations, people of all ages were part of the Urdd's successful attempt to break two world records by singing 'Hei Mistar Urdd'.

For me, the challenge summed up perfectly the Urdd's great strength, namely the organisation's role in promoting the Welsh language as a living, fun language that belongs to everyone, something that is just as relevant and important today as it was when the organisation was established back in 1922 by Sir Ifan ab Owen Edwards. As he noted in an issue of Cymru'r Plant in 1922,

'Now in many villages, and almost every town in Wales, children play through the medium of English, they read English books, and they forget that they are Welsh.'

The organisation's aim, therefore, was to safeguard the Welsh language in a world where English was increasingly dominating the lives of children in Wales. Over the decades that followed, the organisation went from strength to strength, leading to the establishment of the Urdd Eisteddfod, the residential centres in Llangrannog, Glan Llyn and now Cardiff, as well as a whole host of activities such as sports clubs, volunteering opportunities and humanitarian work. More recently, the Urdd played a prominent role in supporting refugees from Afghanistan, as well as ensuring access to the Urdd for all by offering membership for £1 to young people in receipt of free school meals.

As the organisation evolves, millions of children and young people in Wales have benefited from its work. And because of this evolution, the organisation is as important and relevant today as it was in 1922. We wish the Urdd every success for the next 100 years.

Thank you. As we celebrate 100 years of the Urdd, I want to read a short extract from Urdd Gobaith Cymru Treuddyn, celebrating 100 years. Just over 100 years ago, Ifan ab Owen Edwards, from near Bala, wrote passionately about the plight of the Welsh language and culture. He was concerned that many children were reading and playing in English. They were forgetting they were Welsh, and so he proposed the establishment of new organisation for young people aimed at keeping the language alive and making young people aware of their responsibilities to it. Ifan invited readers of Cymru'r Plant, a monthly magazine he produced for children, to join his new movement, Urdd Gobaith Cymru, and the response exceeded expectations. By the end of 1922, the names of 720 new members had appeared in the magazine, with hundreds more waiting to join.

It was a girl who became the first general—remember, this reflected the style of the times, just after the first world war. She was Marian Williams, and did not, as one would expect, come from the heart of Welsh Wales, but from a farm, Fferm y Llan, in Treuddyn, Flintshire. Marian made history by organising her enlisted members into a group that met regularly once a week, and so, without any pressure, or even any suggestion from the founder, the first Urdd branch, or adran, came into being.

Sixteen-year-old Marian was a talented musician and writer who loved to write dramas for children. She was passionate about the movement and cycled round many houses recruiting members. She kept them busy practising songs, dances and recitations. She also wrote plays for them to perform. Thank you. 

15:10

Well done, Marian, and all Urdd members throughout the years.

5. Motion under Standing Order 10.5 to appoint the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales

The next item, therefore, is the motion under Standing Order 10.5 to appoint the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, and I call on the Chair of the Finance Committee to move the motion—Peredur Owen Griffiths. 

Motion NDM7893 Peredur Owen Griffiths

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Expresses its gratitude for the contribution of Nick Bennett during his term of office as Public Services Ombudsman for Wales.

2. In accordance with Standing Order 10.5, and acting under paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 to the Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Act 2019, nominates Michelle Morris for appointment by Her Majesty as Public Services Ombudsman for Wales for a term of seven years to commence on 1 April 2022.

Motion moved.

Thank you very much, Llywydd. As Members will be aware, the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales is a Crown appointment made on the nomination of the Senedd under Schedule 1 to the Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Act 2019. The Finance Committee, as the committee with delegated responsibility for overseeing arrangements relating to the ombudsman, has been fully involved throughout the process of recruiting a new ombudsman, full details of which are outlined in the committee’s report.

I'm glad to say that the recruitment process attracted many excellent candidates and it gives me great pleasure to move this motion today, on behalf of the Finance Committee, to nominate the preferred candidate, Michelle Morris, to Her Majesty for appointment as the next Public Services Ombudsman for Wales.

I would also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the current ombudsman, Nick Bennett. Nick was due to complete his term of office on 31 July 2021, but was appointed to continue in the role in an acting capacity for a further eight months until 31 January this year. I'd like to thank Nick for his valuable contribution during his time as ombudsman, and for continuing in the role in an acting capacity, in particular, for his work in pursuing the development of the Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Act 2019, which provides the ombudsman with own-initiative powers to investigate complaints and for setting up model complaints. This will undoubtedly provide a lasting legacy.

It is also worth noting that this will be the first ombudsman appointment made since the 2019 Act came into force. I would like to thank our predecessor Finance Committee in the fifth Senedd, which includes Members of the current Senedd, for bringing it forward and ensuring its successful passage. It is an example of the Senedd leading the way in taking a distinct 'made in Wales' approach to improving services and something, as a committee and a legislature, we should be rightly proud of.

As outlined in the committee’s report, it is vital that the committee’s selection process meets the expectations of the people of Wales in terms of robustness and transparency. It's also vital that the process is conducted in a way that removes it from any suggestion of political interference. As such, we ensured that two party groups were represented on the appointment panel. I was joined by my fellow Finance Committee member and member of the Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee, Rhianon Passmore. We were also joined by the Chief Executive and Clerk to the Senedd, Manon Antoniazzi, and Peter Tyndall, the Ombudsman, Information Commissioner and Commissioner for Environmental Information of Ireland.

Following the interviews and the selection of Michelle Morris as the preferred candidate, Michelle attended a public pre-nomination hearing of the cross-party Finance Committee on 16 December 2021.

The committee firmly believes that a pre-nomination hearing ensures open and transparent scrutiny of the candidate identified as the most suitable from the recruitment process. It also provides the committee, and ultimately the Senedd, with additional confidence that the preferred candidate is suitable for nomination to Her Majesty for appointment.

During the pre-nomination hearing, members of the committee were keen to question the preferred candidate on her previous experience and aspirations for driving forward the ombudsman’s work in Wales. The committee concluded unanimously that Michelle is the preferred candidate for this post.

I therefore ask the Senedd to agree the motion to nominate Michelle Morris to Her Majesty for appointment as the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales. Diolch yn fawr. 

15:15

I thank the Chair of the Finance Committee for moving the motion. Nobody has declared an interest in contributing to this debate. I take it, therefore, that the Chair does not wish to respond with any closing remarks. So, I will ask the question whether the motion should be agreed. Does any Member object? I don't see any objection, therefore the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36. May I wish every success to the new ombudsman in her work as the motion goes forward?

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

6. Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv): Public transport in rural areas

The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the names of Alun Davies, Hefin David, Jack Sargeant, Rhys ab Owen and supported by Carolyn Thomas.

The next item, therefore, is the Member debate under Standing Order 11.21 on public transport in rural areas, and I call on James Evans to move the motion. James Evans.

Motion NDM7880 James Evans, Jack Sargeant, Samuel Kurtz, Natasha Asghar, Rhys ab Owen, Carolyn Thomas, Mabon ap Gwynfor

Supported by Paul Davies, Peter Fox

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes that 101 million bus journeys were undertaken in Wales in 2018-19, compared to 129 million in 2004-05.

2. Further notes that 23 per cent of people in Wales do not have access to a car or van.

3. Recognises that public transport is essential in rural Wales to prevent isolation and loneliness.

4. Calls on the Welsh Government to:

a) provide sustainable long-term funding for local authorities to enhance rural bus services;

b) ensure rural councils receive a fair share of future investment for public transport and active travel schemes;

c) guarantee the National Bus Strategy for Wales considers the unique challenges of public transport in rural Wales.

d) prioritise investing in zero-emissions public transport vehicles in rural areas.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Llywydd, and I'd like to move the motion in the names of my co-submitters and myself.

This debate is an issue that all MSs know all too well about. We are contacted by residents in our constituencies all the time who are having issues with accessing local transport and ask us what we can do to improve the services. I was overwhelmed to get wide-ranging, cross-party support for this motion, as I think it shows the maturity of this Parliament that we can all work together for the common good of the people of Wales. I was disappointed to see an amendment to this motion, and I'll touch on that later on. I hope today that we can share some ideas together to move forward to improve lives and improve public transport in Wales. 

Living in rural Wales, as I and many others do, really is a blessing. It's a place untouched by much of modern society, and it is a landscape that people from all over the world come to admire. From the beautiful Brecon Beacons and Elan valley in my constituency to the coast of Pembrokeshire, up to the mountains of Snowdonia and along the shores of the picturesque north Wales coast, our nation is overwhelmingly rural, and politicians of all colours must remember that those living rurally have vastly different needs from those who dwell in more urbanised areas.

The National Federation of Women's Institutes has a campaign called 'Get on Board' to raise awareness of the importance of local bus services. They commissioned a report to explore the impacts of the significant reductions in local bus services that we have seen in recent years. Findings show that around one in five of their survey respondents living in rural areas have access to a frequent, reliable bus service; 25 per cent of respondents said that cuts to bus services have made them feel more isolated; and 19 per cent said their mental health had been negatively affected. Cuts to rural bus services have also meant a decrease in being able to connect to other modes of public transport and, as a result, 72 per cent said that their dependency on using a car and a reliance on family and friends has increased, and this has been at a cost to our fragile climate. 

In 2004-05, 129 million bus journeys were undertaken in Wales, compared with only 101 million in 2018-19. This shows a significant drop in the people using public transport. This could be for a number of reasons: a reduction in the quality of the service, more access to cars and private transport, and sometimes a reluctance to wait for public transport. It could be for a number of reasons. But people who rely on public services as their sole mode of transport deserve a strong, well-funded, regular service. Approximately 80 per cent of bus users do not have access to a car, and 23 per cent of those people in Wales do not have access to a car or van. So, reliable public transport is vital.

Communities like Trecastle in the west of my constituency have seen their bus service reduce to a taxi service pre COVID and now no service at all, and that's on a Welsh Government trunk road. I met with Women's Institute members in Whitton, who saw their bus service cease in 2015, following the closure of a local school. They all now find themselves stranded in rural isolation, reliant on friends and neighbours for lifts to the nearest town for shopping and the usual things from the shops.

The data is clear: we all know that socialising and having access to meet with people keeps our mental health strong and prevents isolation and loneliness. The people in those communities deserve to have a guaranteed service that is sustainable for the long term, and funding for local authorities should be a top priority for Welsh Government in public transport. I know this area well as I was previously a cabinet member in the most rural council in Wales. And, if funding could be guaranteed in the long term, it would give the council and the people accessing those services a real sense of security and help them plan for the long term, and help us on the route to net zero.

We're also seeing the modernisation of public transport across the United Kingdom. Zero-emission vehicles are being rolled out across various areas of public sector transport. This move is vital to ensuring Wales plays its part in tackling climate change, and ensuring Wales continues to have clean air for our citizens across the nation.

I noted that my colleague Alun Davies and others have tabled an amendment to this motion, and I do think it's a shame, as it's making this motion overly political when there is no need for it to be so. They're blaming Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Government for the deregulation of bus services way back in 1986, which was almost 40 years ago. If deregulation was so awful, why did the Labour Governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown not reverse these decisions between 1997 and 2009? And I hope that the people who have put the amendment forward can answer that when they make their contributions.

To conclude, I look forward to hearing the debate from across the Chamber today. This is a very important topic that needs to come above party politics, because it's vital we improve public transport for all of the people right across Wales. Diolch.  

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

15:20

I have selected the amendment to the motion, and I call on Alun Davies to move amendment 1, tabled in his name and those of Hefin David, Jack Sargeant and Rhys ab Owen. Alun Davies. 

Amendment 1—Alun Davies, Hefin David, Jack Sargeant, Rhys ab Owen

Supported by Carolyn Thomas

Add as new point at end of motion:

Recognises the damage done by the privatisation of bus services in the 1980s and calls upon the Welsh Government to bring forward legislation to re-regulate bus services as a matter of urgency in this Senedd.

Amendment 1 moved.

I'm grateful to you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I'm grateful to the Member for Brecon and Radnor for putting forward the debate this afternoon, although I have to say to him that there are two areas that I take issue with in his introduction. The motion itself is one where I think most of us, and many of us, will agree, but there's no point—and as a Conservative, of course, you will agree with me—in pouring money into a public service that isn't working. We need reform, as well as more money. At the moment, there are many hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money supporting bus services across the whole of Wales, and the one thing we all agree on is that that money, if we doubled it, still wouldn't be sufficient and wouldn't be working. 

When I represented Mid and West Wales, one of the things I found was that people, wherever they lived in that region, wanted the same things, not different things. Somebody in rural Wales doesn't want a different public service environment to somebody who lives in the centre of Cardiff. What happens all too often is that they don't get the right services. People, what we found time and time again—. A fantastic introduction to this place when I was first elected was an inquiry we did on deprivation in rural Wales, and what we found, exactly as the Member has said for B and R, was that there were issues with public transport that meant that they weren't able to access public services in all sorts of different ways, but people wanted those same services, the services that I speak to people about today in Blaenau Gwent. And to try to create conflict between people in different parts of the country I don't think is the right way to deal with these things. What we need to do is agree the services that people want to see delivered, whether they live in the smallest village in Powys or in the centre of our capital city. We have to deliver those services, and it's how you deliver those services that is actually the crucial point at question here, not the services themselves.

And what Thatcher did in 1986 was to break the link between what the Member himself has described as vital public services and the people who use those services, because what happened with privatisation—. It didn't happen in London, of course, and that's the really key issue: if this was such an important policy and such a breakthrough in public policy, then surely London would have experienced the same as elsewhere, but they didn't do it in London because they knew that it wouldn't work, and it hasn't worked since then. We've seen the disruption and the decline in services as a consequence of that.

So, what we need to do is to fund local authorities properly, and I think this is one area of policy  where the corporate joint committees could work very well, actually, with local authorities working together to deliver services across a wider region. I think that could certainly be the case in the part of Wales I represent now in Gwent. But also, I think we need to look at the structure of the industry, because we are putting hundreds of millions of pounds into an industry that isn't working. It is not sensible to continue to fund an industry that isn't working, in a way, and to fund services without reform. And, for me, the re-regulation of buses is absolutely key. The Minister in this area has made commitments time and time again to not only more comprehensive public service offerings, but also multimodal public services. The only way you can achieve that is through public control and public regulation of those services.

So, we need to be able to do that. We need the tools, and I hope that the Welsh Government, in replying to this debate, will say that they are working with local government and with bus operators to ensure that we do have the tools available to us to ensure that the villages represented by the Member in B and R and the towns represented by me have the services that they require, at the times that they need those services, but also it's the quality of the services that are on offer. We all know that, quite often—. And I've seen down in Cardiff recently that there is a whole fleet of new electric buses there. It's fantastic. It's fantastic for the people of Cardiff. I want to see that in Blaenau Gwent, and why can't I see that in Blaenau Gwent? And why shouldn't you have that in Ceredigion or Brecon and Radnor or Conwy? Why shouldn't you have access to the same quality of service in all parts of Wales as you have in the centre of Cardiff? That is surely the ambition Government must have.

And what we should be doing, on this Wednesday afternoon, in bringing forward these debates and scrutinising the Government, is to say: what policy tools are you going to employ in order to achieve that? And there isn't a policy tool available to Government, with the exception of re-regulation, with the exception of public control, that is going to deliver the public services, in particular in rural Wales, that the Member says that he wants to achieve.

So, I will close, Deputy Presiding Officer, but one thing about good, high-quality public services that we all know is that they don't make money for people who don't use them. That means that we need public control of public services to ensure that the quality is available to people and, then, to co-ordinate those public services to deliver the services in all parts of Wales that the Member has described. And I hope that before this Senedd goes into the next election that we will have a bus Act on the statute book that will re-regulate the services and provide the foundation for the sort of high-quality public transport service that we can all be proud of. Thank you.

15:25

I'd like to thank my colleague James Evans for initiating this debate. It's a fact that 85 per cent of land in Wales is used for agriculture, forestry or as common land, and this is the same figure as England. However, whereas 18 per cent of the population in England lives in rural areas, the figure for Wales is 35 per cent. We know that practical and affordable public transport is difficult to provide in rural areas, but in my view I just cannot understand why this is the case in 2022. I spent over 10 years in London, where a bus comes between every five to 10 minutes, and whilst I appreciate in Wales we don't have the same number of residents as in London, I still can't get my head around that in some parts of Wales, particularly rural areas, it's only one bus per hour and in some cases much longer than that. There is no doubt that people living here in Wales are very much car dependent—

At the end, please, Deputy Presiding Officer, if that's okay. There is no doubt that people living here in Wales are very car dependent, as bus services are inadequate, infrequent or non-existent. It is a fact that a lack of a decent transport service undermines the economies of rural areas, which therefore makes it more difficult for people to access jobs and services. It also has environmental consequences, with the high level of car use compared to urban areas causing greater carbon emissions per head. From what I have seen first-hand to what I am hearing from constituents all across south-east Wales, and from the letters I am receiving from other parts of Wales, there has been a spiral of decline in bus services across Wales. The number of local bus journeys has fallen from 100 million a year in 2016-17 to 89 million in 2019-20. Rural bus services have particularly suffered as they carry fewer people per mile operated and are less secure economically. As a result, they are more at risk, whether they are operated commercially or are supported.

Before the pandemic, the Welsh Government's direct support for the bus network was largely focused on the bus services support grant. In 2014, they replaced a bus service operators grant with a bus services support grant, with funding set at £25 million. This fixed pot of £25 million has not changed since then. Why? It's evident that the funding per passenger for bus services in Wales in inadequate, and compares poorly with that provided for rail passengers.

With the decline of rural bus services, community transport schemes have tried to fill the gap. Community transport schemes are significant providers of transport in rural areas, and, there's no denying it, their detailed knowledge of their local market and enthusiasm to service their local communities is invaluable. However, community transport is not able to be self-sustaining in rural areas and requires support. Many operators are small and the sector has little capacity to meet increased demand without investment. Whereas community transport providers often meet specific needs to serve particular groups, they cannot provide a comprehensive rural public transport system.

Wales needs a strategy for rural public transport. Rural areas tend to have older populations and there will be other vulnerable people that have limited or no access to private transport. They cannot be abandoned and left to their own devices. The impact of social isolation on people's health and well-being, as we have seen during the pandemic, is considerable. The rural public transport strategy would start from the basis that all rural areas should have a public transport service that provides access to employment, education, health services, shopping and recreation. Based on this principle, there is an opportunity to rethink the provision of rural bus services, to recognise their importance, and provide all rural dwellers with the opportunity to access services.

The Welsh Government must recognise the importance of rural bus services, and provide the framework and funding necessary for their support. It's been over seven months since the Deputy Minister's road freeze, and we cannot just sit and wait for something to happen. Something needs to happen now to address the public needs, whether that be more co-operation with the London Government, or whether that needs to be something created by the Welsh Government itself. We need a consistent and long-term approach, taking into account the current and future needs, which doesn't just cater for a declining market, but allows public transport to grow and to thrive. Thank you so much. I'll take any questions or interventions now.

15:30

No, I think interventions are no longer asked for by—. The Member has finished her contribution now; you don't ask for interventions at the end of contributions. 

Dirprwy Lywydd, it's absolutely essential that the system is reformed as soon as it possibly can be. I think passengers the length and breadth of Wales have waited far too long for reforms to a broken system to take place, and it is unfortunate that we were unable to pursue those reforms in the previous Senedd term. I very much welcome the motion as amended, if it will be amended by colleagues. I think it's absolutely right and proper that we take this opportunity to debate such an important subject, which is regularly raised by all of our constituents. The ability to be able to get from A to B, whether it's from home to work, whether it's from home to an essential service such as a hospital or a GP surgery, is absolutely vital in maintaining a decent quality of life for people. Many people cannot afford a private vehicle, and an increasing number of people are choosing not to use a private vehicle, for the good of the natural environment. I very much welcome today's debate, Dirprwy Lywydd, and I look forward to hearing more contributions from colleagues across the Chamber.

Thank you to James Evans for putting forward this debate. I'm pleased to see this discussion about public transport continuing, after my debate last week. It's a vitally important issue, for a number of reasons, and it's important to those communities that I represent here in the Senedd. I'd also like to thank the Deputy Minister for his response to my debate last week, and for confirming that the Welsh Government is considering the motion put forward by the Liberal Democrats to introduce free public transport for every young person under the age of 25.

I agree with James that public transport continues to come under pressure. Unless there is properly funded and co-ordinated investment in public transport, communities, particularly rural communities, will be left behind. Since 2009, around a third of subsidised services in Wales have been lost, and we've seen a 22 per cent decline in the number of journeys by bus between 2008 and 2019. Future public transport policy and strategy must get to grips with sustainable funding, cost and accessibility, and financial support for decarbonisation and modal shift.

However, it will only be successful if solutions are designed on a place-by-place and community-by-community basis, and if they look at individual solutions that contribute to an effective public transport network across the whole of Wales. We do need solutions that are developed within rural communities and with rural communities, so that they work for those communities. That may include on-demand bus bookings, the use of small buses to navigate communities, more frequent and good-quality train services. There are plenty of tried-and-tested ideas out there that could help transform rural public transport—those such as the Ring a Link service in rural Ireland, the mobility agency in Italy, and the Bürgerbus in Germany; I'm not sure I've said that properly, and it's not what you think it is.

In order to change the trends we're seeing, local authorities and local travel planning must have the teeth and resources to make public transport reliable and accessible to everyone. As I've said, I've called for free public transport for under-25s, to make sure it is affordable for young people and to encourage further take-up of public transport, and hopefully, set some habits for the long term. I welcome the specific mention that James made of loneliness that is included in the motion. Poor public transport leaves those without a car at a distance from doctors or hospital appointments, work and training, or socialising with friends and family. It has left many, many people of all ages isolated, and particularly for older people, has chipped away at their independence and confidence.

The Campaign for Better Transport shared their reflections with me of a community transport driver who recalled examples of individuals, mostly older people, who hadn't left their homes for weeks or months on end due to a combination of poor weather and poor public transport. Representing the huge rural area of mid and west Wales, as I do now, I also hear similar sad stories, such as those echoed by James Evans. This is a desperate situation for people to be left in and shows how urgent an issue this is. I worry that public transport, and particularly bus policy, isn't being treated with the urgency it needs, and so I hope to see new policy and approaches come forward quickly so that, across all Members of this Senedd, we can work better to support a more effective public transport system. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

15:35

Can I thank colleagues from across the Chamber, and in particular James Evans for bringing forward this important and timely debate? As other Members have said, public transport is essential to prevent isolation and loneliness, as well as ensuring people are able to access the services that they need, especially health services at this time. Encouraging people to use public transport more often is also an important step we must take to tackle the climate change issue.

Yet, in rural constituencies like Monmouth, too often people still struggle to have access to an adequate public transport system that meets their needs. The latter is a particularly important point. It's not just that there needs to be buses for people to use, but they need to be available at the right times and to stop at the locations that people need to go to. For example, Deputy Llywydd, I recently was contacted by a constituent who relied upon a particular bus service to get to hospital appointments at the Grange hospital. This service has been reduced significantly, and does not go directly to the Grange hospital now, meaning people have to catch a connecting service. This example demonstrates how a lack of joined-up approach to rural bus services affects people's lives dramatically. 

I know there are important issues that impact on services, which other Members have referred to today, such as funding, and I'm pleased that Monmouthshire council has committed to protecting bus routes as much as possible in its 2022-23 budget consultation, despite the continued financial pressures it's facing due to the pandemic. However, there are wider structural and practical issues that need to be looked at closely to ensure that people get the services that they expect. 

As I've said previously, I welcome many of the commitments around rural transport services outlined in the Welsh Government's 'Llwybr Newydd' strategy. It would be useful if the Deputy Minister could outline more about how he envisages the new regional transport plans helping to reduce transport inequalities in rural areas. I do also think that it would be useful to have a specific rural transport strategy to support the rural pathway that forms part of 'Llwybr Newydd'. Furthermore, I think constituents in my constituency are still wondering exactly how they will benefit from the south Wales metro scheme and when they will see improvements in bus services that have been outlined in plans for the metro. 

To finish, Deputy Llywydd, I welcome the opportunity to have spoken in today's debate, and I hope all Members will support this motion. Diolch. 

As a Flintshire county councillor representing a rural ward, I know all too well just how important public transport is for communities like mine. Rural bus routes are rarely money makers, but they are a lifeline for many. Whilst highly populated areas tend to have better bus services because that is where they are most lucrative, it is rural communities that do not have access to amenities locally and need the transport. 

Over recent years, we have seen bus companies across the UK collapse or cut routes that they deem no longer commercially viable. One bus operator in Flintshire made 14 changes to their services in one year, so many that the council struggled to keep bus timetables updated, and residents lost confidence with the service, which is why they need to be more regulated. Another pulled out of a core network route, and demanded a subsidy 10 times what had been paid previously. It ended up being unaffordable and terminated. Being a core route, it impacted greatly on many residents. It was difficult for us to understand why it was not commercially viable, as it was busy, and the fact that no other operator put in a bid for services highlighted that there is a lack of operators to create a market. This would be a good opportunity for local authorities to be able to step in with their own service.

Residents have been rightly upset, angry and frustrated when services were cut. They sent in petitions to the council, demanded we attend community meetings, which were very traumatic, but with limited funds and powers we were limited in where we could help. In one instance, we put together a new timetable around the hours best suited to residents to ensure a full bus, but no operator bid for the service. With no buses available, we hired a taxi minibus and a taxi to ensure the residents would not be isolated. Although welcome, it caused issues for a disabled resident, who needed step-on, step-off access, and sometimes there were not enough seats for everyone. We soon discovered minibuses were an issue. Level access transport is so important for people with prams, walking aids, bikes, shopping trolleys, even just worn-out knees and hips. Eventually, an operator stepped in to run a council procured bus, thanks to a Welsh Government grant, which was most welcome. 

At the consultation events we attended, most of the people were 60 plus. The majority did not use the internet, and wanted a scheduled service, not demand responsive; they didn't like change. They were worried about social isolation, not being able to get to medical appointments or able to go shopping. They wanted reliability and stability, which are really important. Some people were in tears, and it was heartbreaking, saying they will have to move to the town. Providing a bus service helps people stay physically and mentally fit and independent in their own homes longer. It was at this point that I submitted a petition not only to the Minister for economy and transport, but also to the Minister for Health and Social Services. It called for the Welsh Government to regulate commercial bus service operators and give powers and funding to local authorities to run services that best suit the need of local people as they know them best. I was pleased to hear that the Government was looking at this. 

Bus routes should be run for people, not for profit. Commercial routes could be grouped to include an element of social value, with contracts fixed for a time to give stability. That is why I'll be supporting today's amendment, which recognises the harm that privatisation has caused to public transport services in this country. We also need to note that public bus transport is hugely complicated and tied up with school transport, which subsidises the rest of the day. In Flintshire, there are 450 transport contracts, and 350 of those are school contracts that are integrated with public transport to make them viable. Twenty-five per cent of the population in Wales are totally dependent on public transport as the only means of transport. We need a far better system, which connects them and all public transport users to the wider communities, with reliability, stability and integrated ticketing to build confidence. Thank you. 

15:40

Good-quality public transport services do have a central role to play in terms of supporting health and well-being, eradicating social isolation and generally building up our communities. But they also have a central role to play in achieving a net-zero 2050. Road transport accounts for 10 per cent of global emissions, and those emissions are rising faster than any other sector. I was actually quite pleased with Alun Davies and his comments today, and wholeheartedly support the initiatives he was talking about in terms of electric buses. 

Now, considerable progress has been made in delivering public transport to rural Aberconwy, thanks to the Fflecsi bus service. I know I've mentioned this before, but it really is a successful model. It's so proven, and I've encouraged the Deputy Minister previously to spread this model across rural Wales, including to the north of Eglwys Fach, so that other isolated communities can benefit from better links to urban hubs. The roll-out would be in line with the mini plan for buses, and in particular the pledge to deliver innovative more flexible bus services, in partnership with local authorities, the commercial and third sectors.

Where there is provision, the Older People's Commissioner for Wales has stated that, due to the availability and reliability of bus services often being scarce, there is now a lack of trust in public transport services. Older people are opting to travel to their health appointments by private vehicles, and this comes at a significant personal expense. And in areas where public transport services are available, a lack of basic facilities such as shelters, seating and timetable information makes travel by our buses an uncomfortable and more difficult experience than it needs to be.

I can vouch for this as I've seen first-hand many residents standing in the rain to catch a bus beside the A470 in Maenan, whilst further to the north in the village of Glan Conwy a bus stop has a digital screen. So, it just shows how there are good models out there but these need to be replicated. I am sure that each Member would be able to provide a list of bus stops with a lack of basic facilities and examples of the contrast between investment in urban and those in our rural areas. 'Llwybr Newydd' has a commitment to invest in bus stations and bus stops, so I would be grateful for some clarity as to how much funding is being invested in improving rural bus stops.

I have spoken previously about the problem we have with the last bus heading from Llandudno to the Conwy valley leaving at 6.40 of an evening, meaning that the two areas are now cut off by public transport for the rest of the night. Having liaised myself with service providers, it has been made clear to me that there is a lack of appetite now by people to work these much-needed late night shifts. So, a clear action plan is needed to support bus companies in recruiting drivers and somehow finding initiatives to encourage staff to work later shifts. This would be in line with the priority in 'Llwybr Newydd' to improve the attractiveness of the industry to more bus drivers.

Finally, in addition to facilitating the movement of locals, public transport has a key role to play in easing the pressure caused to rural areas by the wave of visitors that we thankfully see annually. For example, while Snowdonia is home to over 26,000 people, around 10 million people visit each year. The town of Llandudno, population of around 22,000—that grows to around 60,000 per year. The traffic and parking chaos caused is well documented, but there still remains a lack of common sense by this Welsh Government and Transport for Wales. Despite knowing that these millions make a beeline for our national park annually, you have still not agreed to introduce direct rail services from Holyhead port and Manchester Airport to Blaenau Ffestiniog. That would take the strain, and add to the visitor experience for our visitors. Such actions would enable Snowdonia to have truly international public transport gateways connecting one of the most spectacular areas of rural Wales to the rest of the world.

I do hope that we can start to see some proactive actions taken by the Deputy Minister. So many good ideas have been mentioned here today—

15:45

So, I call on the Deputy Minister now, we've had enough talk, let's please see some actions. Diolch.

I'm very grateful to my good friend from across the Chamber, James Evans, for tabling today's debate, and I genuinely believe bus services are and public transport is part of the wider key pillar of the wider initiative to create the green new deal that we need to see and deliver and act upon here in Wales, and the motion itself is a good motion, but I think anyone with a cursory knowledge of the bus industry would actually recognise that the amendment from my colleague Alun Davies does make the motion so much stronger. And I do find myself, Deputy Presiding Officer, having to vote against a motion I co-tabled and support to actually vote for the amendment, to make the motion stronger and get to the heart of the problem here in Wales. And let's be clear: the amendment is about scrapping the 1985 Transport Act, and it's a piece of deregulation dogma, and it's a piece of deregulation dogma that does belong in the history bin, and it's time we take that action now.

Llywydd, the 1985 Transport Act was the single worst moment for bus services across the United Kingdom, not just in Wales, but across the United Kingdom. And it does still regulate our industry in our country here today, and that's what we're setting out to talk about. And if we look at what the Act sets out to achieve, it sets out to achieve making profit the only reason—the only reason—a bus route should exist. And this means that we plan our bus network almost entirely around profitable routes. Members have suggested that councils do and they can subsidise routes, but this does come from dwindling council budgets and after years, and many years, of austerity, which perhaps we won't go into today. You can very much guess what happened there, and I do look back to that 1985 Act and the time then, and the concept of public good was so offensive to that Government, in my eyes, that they passed this law to outlaw such attempts to deliver public good. It was delivered on complicated mechanisms that we still see today.

And I just want to bring up, Deputy Presiding Officer, the Member who tabled the motion rightly mentioned at the start we should seek to answer some of his questions, and I just wanted to go back: I do blame Margaret Thatcher and he will know I blame Margaret Thatcher for a lot of things, which I can't and don't have the time to go into today. But I tell the Member and I tell Members across the Chamber: I stand by my beliefs and so do many of my constituents. But if we look at the results of so many of her dreadful decisions, but certainly this dreadful decision, the nonsense behind it brought fewer services, poorer pay and conditions for our wonderful drivers, and less money to invest in new buses, buses that we've talked about, zero-emission buses, electric buses, that we all want to see in our communities from Blaenau Gwent to Alyn and Deeside.

So, I do urge Members across the Chamber today who have a genuine interest in bus travel to vote for the amendment. Again, I commend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire for tabling this motion today. But we cannot simply tolerate the situation we find ourselves in, so I do commend the motion, but I do call on Members from across political parties to recognise the importance of the motion, recognise the importance of the amended motion and vote for that amended motion when it comes to voting time later today. Diolch yn fawr.

15:50

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'll start by declaring an interest as a Member of Pembrokeshire County Council and I'd like to thank the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire for granting me the opportunity to speak in this afternoon's debate, as I know it will be of great interest to many of my constituents.

Like many growing up in rural Wales, I was dependent on either infrequent and seasonable public transport, lifts from parents or even cycling come rain or shine to try and get to my part-time job when I was still in school. Therefore, it is little surprise that I took my driving test as soon as possible after turning 17 to give me freedom and independence, and I was fortunate to do so. However, for many of my constituents, the local bus service or the even rarer local train service is a lifeline. Whether it is used for their commute to work, visiting friends and family or just heading to do their shopping, public transport can be a major contributor to a person's well-being and standard of living, as the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire rightly highlighted.

One of the first meetings that I had after my election last May was to discuss the challenge facing businesses in the hospitality sector being able to fill employment gaps. A major takeaway from this meeting was that if a worker was working outside of the normal nine-til-six hours in Tenby, yet commuted from Haverfordwest, they were unable to get back home via bus, as the last service left before it got dark. If you consider the number of jobs servicing the night-time economy and hospitality industry in a town such as Tenby, then you will appreciate how much of a challenge this begins to present. 

Some of the bigger employers such as Bluestone near Narberth have taken to hiring their own transport to help staff travel to and from work, but this is obviously not an option for the majority of small businesses. I would be interested in understanding what conversations the Deputy Minister has had with local authorities, such as Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, to help support the hospitality sector in enabling staff to commute via public transport outside of the more traditional work hours. 

I'd also like to use this opportunity to highlight the train service in south Pembrokeshire. My colleague Natasha Asghar joined me last summer to meet with a group of constituents at Tenby train station. They explained the challenges they faced in travelling up the main line towards east Wales, with concerns raised over the capacity of the trains and the timetabling. The group also highlighted the problems faced in travelling by train between south and mid Pembrokeshire. The simple 20-mile, 30-minute commute by car from Haverfordwest to Tenby on a weekday morning would take two hours and 15 minutes by train, or over an hour and half by bus in the morning. And that is for those who do not require additional journey time to get into Haverfordwest to start with. 

Back in the autumn, plans were announced by the Deputy Minister to improve Wales's public transport infrastructure and connectivity, with news about station improvements at Haverfordwest, Milford Haven and Whitland, as well as a desire to add capacity on the Carmarthen to Milford Haven route. Whilst this is great news for my constituency neighbour Paul Davies, the route between Pembroke Dock and Whitland seems to have been forgotten. My reasoning for focusing on Tenby this afternoon is as its train station is the busiest in Pembrokeshire and is the gateway to one of our crown-jewel seaside resorts. On the same train line is Pembroke Dock, a key location for travellers connecting to and from Ireland, yet these and other smaller stations along the south Pembrokeshire rail route will see no tangible benefits from the extra investment announced by the Deputy Minister.

A Wales-wide interconnected transport system is a vital tool in our fight against climate change, but before encouraging people out of their cars, there must be a public transport network ready and able to deliver for the needs of the people. As I've explained, travelling between north and south Pembrokeshire on public transport is incredibly challenging. It is important to the county's economy that south Pembrokeshire is treated equally to north Pembrokeshire in the development of a west Wales metro. At present, the plans seem to have ignored that Pembrokeshire that exists south of the River Cleddau.

Tomorrow, I host a round-table with local councillors and organisations to take on board their strength of feeling about rail services that are serving their communities. It would be great if, following today's debate, Deputy Minister, I could take back a message from you that the Welsh Government have not forgotten south Pembrokeshire and will provide the support and funding not only to upgrade the facilities, but to also increase the frequency of services using this line. Public transport plays a vital role in connecting our rural communities and reducing our carbon footprint. However, to achieve these goals, the services must be responsive to passengers' needs. Diolch yn fawr.

15:55

I don't think the purpose of an individual's Member's debate should always be to demonstrate unanimity amongst backbenchers across the Chamber, because there are always going to be differences between individuals. I make no apologies to James Evans for supporting the amendment from Alun Davies and, indeed, co-signing it, because it demonstrates a fundamental issue.

All of the examples that have been provided—and I'm looking across the screen now and I can see Conservative Members, I can see a Liberal Democrat, Labour Members—are demonstrating market failure, and the market failure is occurring because the market is unregulated. That is the reason for these issues and that is why that amendment gives the motion political backbone. Listening to Carolyn Thomas, I think this is where you could feel the heartfelt prize of someone who has fought these battles to get bus services in their community, as a cabinet member, to get these bus services up and running. You can see and hear the frustration from Carolyn in trying to get this happening, and that's exactly why I'm supporting this amendment. And I'm deeply offended, James Evans—look at me, James Evans, look up at the computer—I'm deeply offended by what you said when you said that deregulation happened 40 years ago, as if that was some distant time in the distant past. Well, actually, I'm 45 this year and I caught those buses, James Evans; I caught those buses that were run by Rhymney Valley district council. And they were reliable, they went to routes that no longer run now, and they were run by a public service. In 1986, after the Act that Jack Sargeant mentioned, Inter Valley Link was created as an arm's-length company—I know because my dad, as a councillor, was a director on the organisation. And on its own, it would have been successful, but the problem was that you had loads of other entrants into the market that came along and ran cheaper services on the same routes. And in 1990, Inter Valley Link went bust. Now, the reason Inter Valley Link went bust was because of the infiltration of the market by companies that were undercutting it. But do you know what happened next? They stopped running those routes. They stopped running those routes, and we saw all those routes collapse. 

Now, through Welsh Government investment and through public sector investment, we have seen some bridging of those gaps in the market. James, do you want to intervene? Do you want to intervene? Yes. Go ahead.

16:00

Thank you, Hefin. No offence taken. I'm glad you used to use those buses; I wish more people would use public transport to help us reduce the climate crisis. But one question I would ask you: do you then agree that the Labour Government failed then, between 1997 and 2009, in not re-regulating the bus service, and Gordon Brown and Tony Blair both failed in this sphere?

Yes, absolutely, I agree. And I think I'm more offended by the fact that you're younger than me than anything else. Yes, I do think it was a missed opportunity—absolutely, it was. I think that Government between 1997 and 2007 did some fantastic things, but they also didn't do things they could have done, and I think this is one of the things they could have done and they didn't do and should have been done. But the Deputy Minister there today has the opportunity to do it and I know it is his intention to do it. We need that re-regulation.

So, just coming back to the examples, the bus emergency scheme—and I can see Ken Skates there, who established the bus emergency scheme—that saved the bus industry. That saved the bus industry as it currently exists, following the pandemic. Without BES and without BES 2, you would not have a bus industry to build on right now, and that was because of the actions taken by the Welsh Government. So, we can look at our political predecessors and say, 'They should have done this' but that doesn't stop us doing things today and being bold.

So, when you look at the routes that happen—. I'm fed up of negotiating, of begging private sector providers, like Carolyn Thomas said, to provide routes that are non-profitable. I'm fed up of it; I'm constantly doing it. We're looking towards private providers to provide a route to the Royal Gwent from Pontypridd through Nelson and Islwyn and Cwmbran. We are looking to do that. We can do it; we can work hard to achieve it. But what we really need is a publicly provided service to fill in those gaps for us, and I think the re-regulation of bus services would allow that and that is what that Bill needs to do.

So, I say to James Evans, you can't help being younger than me, but you can make up for it by supporting our amendment. And I'd also like to say to Mabon ap Gwynfor, who is the only other non-Conservative, I think, whose signed the amendment—I think he's closing the debate today—[Interruption.] Yes, Rhys, but you supported the amendment. I'd ask Mabon: come and support that amendment too. We object to the motion only in order to vote for that amendment. That's really important, that we get that amendment through, because I think it will make a significant difference. So, we look forward to support across the Chamber. 

Before I call the Deputy Minister, could I remind everyone that, as well as examples from Conservative and Labour Members and Liberal Democrats, there are Plaid Cymru Members also in this debate and I can see them on the screen, to be fair to all?

I call on the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, Lee Waters.

Thank you very much to the Members who've spoken and for bringing this debate. Again, I think we've shown in this Chamber cross-party concern and support for the plight of public transport and a will to improve it. I think that that is a precious thing that we should nurture. No doubt, we will disagree on some of the details and much of the debate has been spent on diagnosing who is to blame for past failures. But I think what we can all agree on is that it is through collective action that we can make things better, and I can assure Members that this Government is determined to do that.

Jane Dodds did say that she was worried that bus policy is not being treated with the urgency it needs, and I can assure her that is not the case. We will be bringing forward a bus White Paper, 'Bus Cymru', in the coming months, and we're taking a bit of time to do it, because we are working genuinely collaboratively with local authorities and with operators to design something that is going to work.

James Evans, in his exchanges with Hefin David, and in his original contribution, posed the question: why didn't the Labour Government of the late 1990s rip up the fragmented system? I think what they did was a genuine attempt to use a partnership approach with operators to develop a different way of doing it. But I think we can say that partnership approach hasn't worked. We can see now in Ma