Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

12/10/2022

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 in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

1. Questions to the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language

Good afternoon and welcome to this afternoon's Plenary. The first item on our agenda is questions to the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language, and the first question is from Sarah Murphy. 

School Places

1. How is the Minister working with local authorities to ensure enough school places are available for pupils across Bridgend? OQ58521

Local authorities are responsible for planning school places. They must ensure that there are sufficient schools providing primary and secondary education for pupils in their areas. I am not aware of any local authority that does not have enough school places.

Thank you, Minister, and I appreciate your response to this question. I know from many parents in my constituency and, of course, across Wales, that they want to be able to send their children to good schools, close to their homes. But this has been a slight issue for parents and pupils in my community, so it is really great to hear about the £1.8 million investment from Bridgend County Borough Council schools in housing developments to increase classrooms and pupil capacity, at Bryntirion Comprehensive School, and that there are plans in place to extend the number of places at Coety Primary School, which is situated in a recent housing development. But I just want to highlight, specifically with Coety Primary School, unfortunately when the housing development was developed, and the school is in the centre of it, there just weren't enough places for the pupils, especially as the housing development now has expanded. So, there has been a gap where there were not enough places in that school for the children living directly around it, and that gap has meant that children have had to go further away and also siblings, in some cases, haven't been able to attend the same school. I understand that it can be tricky to predict how many places will be needed in new schools, but what more can be done, really, to allow a bit more flexibility around this when we have new housing and school developments?

Thank you to Sarah Murphy for welcoming the investment, including that which the Welsh Government provides into schools in Bridgend, as elsewhere. It was good to visit Bryntirion Comprehensive School with her recently. She is right to say, of course, that it is important that we make sure that schools and other public services are aligned with developments in housing. Our planning system is key in this in helping us to ensure that, as new housing developments come forward, there is sufficient school capacity available within communities. Authorities should take a strategic and long-term approach towards provision of community facilities, which obviously includes schools, when they are preparing their development plans. Those plans set out how places will change over a 15-year period—how many new houses will be built and where they will be located. And so, as part of that, we would expect for infrastructure, including school provision, to be a crucial consideration when planning those new housing developments. But I recognise that, sometimes, there is a gap between provision and the need arising, perhaps inevitably.

Minister, in 2011, the Welsh Government published a circular called 'Measuring the capacity of schools in Wales', to support local authorities to plan school places, to report on surplus capacity and to set school admission numbers. Now, using data, as my colleague Sarah Murphy has rightly said—we use data to plan our school places—is vital, like birth rates, the number of new-build homes, migration data and new families moving to new areas. So, what is the Minister now doing to ensure that any supporting guidance is fit for purpose to support local authorities in planning school places now and for the future?

I'm content the guidance is sufficient to enable authorities to do that. Bridgend is a local authority that has more primary school places, in both Welsh and English-medium provision, and similarly in secondary provision, than there are pupils on the roll. There will be, as I discussed with Sarah Murphy a moment ago—. We are not, unfortunately, in the position where parents are always able to have the school of their first choice—that's not the system that we run. There's a balancing between that choice and the availability of places locally to that school, but, on a local authority basis, I can assure you that there are sufficient places to meet the demand that arises.

University Students

2. What support is the Government providing to university students across mid and west Wales as the cost-of-living crisis intensifies? OQ58543

13:35

Wales offers the most generous package of support in the UK, and the highest levels of non-repayable grant support being targeted to those most in need. We are working closely with the sector to ensure that they are considering all options to support students impacted by the cost-of-living crisis.

Thank you very much. Perhaps I should be declaring an interest because I have two daughters at university at the moment, and I've had a number of e-mails from students, many of them in the two universities that happen to be located in my region. So, I'm very aware of the increasing pressure on university students as a result of the cost-of-living crisis. Indeed, whilst inflation continues to rise, the package of support provided to students has only increased around 3.5 per cent, which is of course lower than the level of inflation. And according to recent research by the National Union of Students Wales, it was seen that 92 per cent of students are concerned about their ability to manage their finances, with almost half saying that this is having an impact on their mental health. Indeed, in giving evidence to the Children, Young People and Education Committee recently, the president of NUS Wales said that one student in Carmarthen had only £100 left after paying rent and bills during the autumn term. So, bearing this in mind, will you, Minister, ensure that a package of support is available to students that at least keeps pace with inflation?

I thank the Member for that question. Our priority here in Wales is to ensure that students have access to support that allows them to meet their daily living costs, and also that our higher education institutions have access to appropriate and sufficient levels of funding for that. As I've said, we in Wales already have the most generous support package of any part of the UK. It's certainly true that every university provides specific support to students under particular pressure. Some of the pressure on those sources of funding emerges from the fact that students from other parts of the UK aren't getting the same level of support, so there is more demand for those crisis funds in our universities here in Wales. I have written recently to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales to ensure that they can assure me that there is sufficient support available through the universities. In terms of our support through the broader funding system, every student has access to a minimum level of support, which equates to the living wage. I intend to make a statement in the next few weeks as to how that will look for the future. So, there will be more information available to the Member, and other Members, at that point.

Minister, I just want to raise an issue with you that I wanted to just check if you're aware of. A constituent of mine—a Welsh student—applied to an educational provider in England on a professional barrister training course, only to be told by the provider that they weren't willing to access the funding through Student Finance Wales. Now, this isn't an issue of concern—. This isn't a responsibility of the Welsh Government, but I am disappointed that Welsh students—and, from my own investigation, this seems to be the case—are being treated differently to English students if they're applying through Student Finance Wales. It's not an issue that I believe is the responsibility of the Welsh Government or, indeed, Student Finance Wales, but I do wonder whether you are aware of this situation, and is this something you'd be willing to challenge providers in England or, indeed, any other part of the UK, because would you agree with me that it would be entirely wrong for a Welsh student to be penalised? In this case, the parent has had to fund the course and the fees themselves; had the family been in England, that wouldn't have been the case. Are you aware of these issues? I'm very happy to write to you with more details.

I'd be very grateful if the Member could write to me about that specific case, and I will look into that. We have a mechanism, a system, in Wales that enables course providers in any part of the UK to be accredited, as the Member obviously knows, and that isn't based on geography; it's based on objective accreditation and criteria, which then enables a Welsh student to be able to access that provider in any part of the UK and have the support that is available through Student Finance Wales. So, I'm disturbed to hear what the Member has outlined today and I'd be grateful if he would write to me about that.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Laura Anne Jones.

13:40

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, I have always been supportive of the idea that sex education needed to be updated in Wales. It was archaic and needed changing, but in the right way. I find the already apparent failures that we're seeing to get RSE right quite upsetting. If things are not adapted, we will miss an opportunity here to genuinely make better sex education for children and young people across Wales. The good from the much-needed changes that we're seeing in sex education will be lost due to not ensuring age appropriateness of content and language when delivering such important messaging to our children and young people. As I heavily stressed to the former Minister, Kirsty Williams, who has three children of her own, the new content of what was being taught needed to—and she agreed—(a) use vocabulary that can be understood by the child/young person that's being taught, and (b), and most importantly, make sure that the content was not confusing and was age appropriate. We are one month into this new term and the official beginning of the new curriculum RSE being delivered, and it's abundantly clear from parents and teachers alike that some of the teaching materials that have been recommended are concerning to them. And they are most certainly not—a worrying number of materials recommended—age appropriate after all. As a mother to a 12 and three-year-old myself, I'm deeply concerned about what we're hearing—

You are going to have to come to a question now; you have three questions in this session, and you're already 50 per cent over time. 

No, no, no; I don't think you have time. You can read that in your next question within your next minute. Can you come to a question?

Okay. Minister, it's important that everyone be whoever they want to be, and we need to teach understanding and respect for all. But don't you agree with me that what is being taught absolutely needs to be right for that child's age, so they (1) understand the language being used, and (2) are emotionally mature enough to digest the content of it?

Well, I'll begin by saying that being a parent isn't a prerequisite for caring about the well-being of our children in Wales. [Assembly Members: 'Hear, hear.'] and that my priority as Minister, which is shared very widely in this Chamber, is to make sure that our young people are protected and are enabled to live lives that are healthy and safe. We work with the NSPCC in order to make sure that the resources that we've provided, the code and the legislation, meet that standard. There are those who disagree with what we are doing. They need to account for their own motivations, but that is the basis upon which we are introducing the reforms. 

The Member repeats unspecific, generic, broad-based points that she made the last time I was answering questions in this Chamber. As a consequence of the very dangerous implication, I think, that she was making, I wrote to her inviting her to spell out to me any specific examples that she was alluding to in the Chamber and she has not replied. 

Thank you, Minister. I was getting on to that; I'm just about to read you an excerpt from a book that is meant to be for five-year-olds. This book, which was recommended, is called Who are you?, Minister, with one quote from it saying:

'When babies are born, people ask if it's a boy or a girl. Babies can't talk, so grown-ups make a guess by looking at their bodies'

—for five-year-olds. 

This next sentence in the book:

'People can be transgender, queer, non-binary, gender fluid, transgender-neutral, a-gender, gender-neutral, bigender, third gender and two-spirit.'

Now, it is not the content that I'm concerned about, Minister; it's the content in a book for a five-year-old that I am getting at. I am not having a go at the teaching profession, a profession I hold in high regard. It is the materials that are being recommended by this Government for them to teach, that they themselves are concerned about, heads are concerned about, and parents are concerned about. That is what I am doing. And you sent me a letter, as did a member of the union, who's a former Labour staffer, I hasten to had, and I just want to say again on record that I would never dream of attacking a profession that I hold in such high regard. It is the content, Minister. It is my job to hold you to account and to speak up for the parents who are concerned about what is being sent out as advisory to look at for their children. A five-year-old being able to say all those big words, Minister—can you understand?

You are going to have to ask your question, Laura Anne Jones. I don't know what's so difficult about asking a question. Come to your question. 

Thank you, Llywydd. Will you now take immediate action to ensure that local authority, school and youth service education resources are age appropriate, and immediately remove those that aren't, and also those that signpost to Mermaids? Will you commit to reviewing materials that are found to be unnecessary for this age group, and ensure that the materials are led by science, as well as including gender ideology, age appropriateness—

13:45

You've already asked three questions in that series of questions. You are not to ask your third question. You've asked plenty of questions in this session—already four minutes of time spent on it. Can I ask the Minister, please, to respond to any of those questions? 

I'll put it as neutrally as I can. I think the Member does a disservice to the young people of Wales in the way in which she's going about this line of questioning. I'm perfectly prepared to answer questions, as I did last time. I invited her to draw to my attention specific material that she alleged, the last time we spoke, was in use in schools. She has not done that. I would invite her to do that, so that it can be resolved, rather than used simply as a debating point on her behalf. 

Thank you, Llywydd. Minister, the impact of the cost-of-living crisis is as bad, if not worse, than the effects of COVID for some students. That was the view of the vice-chancellor of the University of South Wales, Ben Calvert, as he gave evidence to the Children, Young People, and Education Committee last week. He warned that he was particularly concerned about mature students who were at risk of leaving key courses, such as healthcare and nursing courses, because they couldn't afford the cost of living. Students on such courses also can't work to make additional income, as a result of the fact that they do have to be on work placements as part of their course. The National Union of Students Wales's survey supports this concerning statement, revealing that 28 per cent of students in Wales have less than £50 a month to live on; 92 per cent are concerned about their ability to cope financially; 11 per cent are using food banks; and 89 per cent feel that neither the UK Government nor the Welsh Government are doing enough to support them during this crisis. I note your response to Cefin Campbell to the previous question, and I look forward to hearing your statement on the future of the support package, but is there anything that the Government can do to commit to provide additional grants, either directly or through university hardship funds to help them through this difficult period particularly, to make up for the fact that the student finance package is inadequate as a result of inflation, that some students are excluded from the cost-of-living support— 

 I am going to have to ask the Member to come to a question. 

As I said earlier, this is a very challenging time for students for the reasons that Sioned Williams outlined. Every university in Wales has a hardship fund to ensure that provision is available for those who are in the most challenging circumstances. The size of those funds does vary from institution to institution. I have asked HEFCW to give me an assurance that what is provided by our universities is adequate, that there is adequate access via the universities to financial support during this difficult time. But for future years—next year onwards—I'll be making a statement in due course about the level of support. 

Thank you, Minister. Student rent particularly has increased by 29 per cent in Wales over the past three years, and now takes up almost 60 per cent of the student support package as an average. As a party, we've been calling for urgent and radical cost-of-living measures, such as rent freezes and prohibiting evictions, because this increase will be disastrous for a number of students, having negative impacts on their mental and physical health, and also on their studies, of course. Will the Government listen to the calls of those, such as Orla Tarn, the president of NUS Wales, who has stated that she is in favour of putting a cap on student rent, as happens in Scotland, calling on the Welsh Government to follow the Scottish Government in supporting Welsh students in the same manner?  

I am meeting with the president of NUS Wales in the coming days to discuss that with them, because I heard the evidence given to the committee. As the Member will know, we've looked in detail at what is being provided in Scotland, and it doesn't look on the face of it as generous—. Perhaps, on the face of it, it does seem more generous than it really is. And we're very concerned about what we see happening in Scotland—many people are withdrawing from the private rented sector, which creates more challenges for students and others. But this is one of the things I do intend to discuss with the president of NUS Wales when I meet with them in the coming days. 

Essential Life Skills

3. How is the Minister ensuring that the education system provides young people with essential life skills? OQ58514

The Curriculum for Wales's mandatory four purposes provide the shared vision and aspiration for every child and young person. The purposes, and the integral skills that support them, set high expectations to ensure every learner gains a broad and balanced education, including the skills they need to thrive.

13:50

Thank you, Minister. We all know the importance of young people leaving school with a good education. However, having a good education should be more than just receiving good grades. It should be about giving young people the skills that they need to deal with life. Life skills help people focus on many facets of their lives and are essential in helping them manage stress and to solve the problems they may face throughout their lives. The life skills that I'm referring to include developing effective communication, financial literacy, decision making, time organisation, stress management, as well as more basic skills, such as cooking and sewing. So, Minister, how is the education system in Wales providing young people with the essential life skills required to fully prepare them for the future? Because, as much as it's important for someone to know pi equals 22/7 or 3.14, it's also incredibly vital that young people know early on how to pay a bill, fill out a mortgage form, learn how to invest their money, and how to submit tax returns as well.

The Member will be aware, of course, that our new curriculum in schools has the provision of life skills very much at its heart. We want practitioners to have the agency to be able to develop their curricula to support learners to develop exactly those sorts of life skills. The four purposes that are at the heart of the curriculum are underpinned by a range of 33 characteristics, which comprise a range of different life skills, very much inspired by the report of 2019 by the last Welsh Youth Parliament, which I'm sure she's familiar with, 'Life skills, skills for life.' That was one of the key issues that was raised by the Youth Parliament then. That's been a really important part in our thinking about how we take the curriculum forward. So, I welcome her commitment to this area—it's one that we all share—and we look forward to seeing the curriculum rolling out through our schools, providing the range of life skills, some of which she highlighted in her question.

I'd like to thank Natasha Asghar for tabling this important question. Minister, given what young people have been through with COVID, what they're going to go through with the cost-of-living crisis, it is essential, is it not, that, through the new curriculum, they're able to attain those essential life skills, particularly in financial literacy and mental health awareness. Would you join me in recognising the hard work in the previous Senedd by Bethan Sayed, who really did push very hard the need for young people to develop essential financial skills?

Yes, indeed, and I pay tribute to Ken Skates's work as well in relation to the area of mental health awareness in particular. I absolutely agree with the burden of his question. We know that life skills such as financial literacy, alongside decision making and mental health and emotional well-being, are critical elements of a transformative curriculum. Not everybody, of course, voted for that curriculum when they were given that opportunity. He will know that the guidance sets out developing financial literacy for the study of the number system in mathematics, it's complemented in the health and well-being area through exploration of risk and personal debt and its consequences, and the curriculum brings those areas together. So, whichever part of the curriculum the young person is studying, there's an opportunity to bring those aspects together, to align them, to give them the full suite of skills, including those of mental health awareness and financial literacy, which Ken Skates has just emphasised.

Part of the new curriculum and the core skills we're trying to develop in our young people is also that confidence. It's some real hardcore nitty-gritty things, but it's also confident, creative children who are willing to speak out and engage. You can often tell when you walk into a class and they're chatting away—well behaved, but chatting.

We just had Bryncethin primary up in the gallery today. I asked them, Minister, on this question, 'If I was to ask him something related to this, what would I do?', and the hands just shot up and it was just great to see. So, Minister, I'll give you the question, at the risk of flooring you now. The question that they asked was—from primary school children— how do we build more new, exciting schools in Wales?

Fantastic. Well, one of the opportunities that I hope that Bryncethin and other schools will take up is the sustainable schools challenge fund, which I launched recently, which is an opportunity to build schools on a pilot basis using natural materials—so, wood, stone—and to do that designing them with the young people and staff in schools, as a real curriculum opportunity. I think many of us have been to the first net-zero school in Wales, which is South Point primary in the Vale of Glamorgan, and have seen there the QR codes around the building, which explain the story of the building to the young people as a teaching tool: why is it built in this way? How does it operate? What is its environmental impact? I think that's a real opportunity for us in bringing the curriculum together with questions around the school estate. But a fantastic question from Bryncethin primary.

13:55
Sustainable Schools Challenge

4. What are the Welsh Government's expectations regarding the language category of the two new innovative schools under its sustainable schools challenge? OQ58540

The sustainable schools challenge focuses on sustainability through innovation and collaboration. As proposed projects are anticipated to be within local authorities' identified school investment programme, we expect the key objectives of the sustainable communities for learning programme also to be considered, and of course promoting the Welsh language is one of those.

Thank you, Minister. Certainly, I will be asking you to commit to ensuring that these two schools are Welsh-medium schools or ones that will become Welsh-medium schools. Clearly, it is vitally important. We discussed last week the 'Cymraeg 2050' report and the need for investment in Welsh-medium schools if we are to reach that target of a million Welsh speakers. But, at the same time, bearing in mind that we're facing a climate crisis, one would expect that every new school, not just these two new schools, would have sustainability at their heart. You'll be aware, I'm sure, that plans for a new site for Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Llyn-y-Forwyn in Glynrhedynog have been put forward by Rhondda Cynon Taf council. There is no doubt that the school needs a new building, and these plans are to be very much welcomed. But I must express a concern that the plans have cars as a central component, noting that there will be a specific drop-off point on the site, 30 parking spaces for staff and 40 additional parking spaces allocated for parents during drop-off and pick-up time. Contrast this with 24 bike parking spaces and 12 spaces for scooters. How, therefore, will you ensure that every new school reflects the Government's priorities in terms of the language and sustainability?

Well, I'm very eager that one of the schools that's successful here would be a Welsh-medium school. It depends on the applications made, but that would be my hope, for obvious reasons.

In terms of the challenge that the Member posed in terms of future schools, as she knows, there is a requirement on any new school that's to be partially funded by Welsh Government that they would be net zero in terms of carbon for the future, and that includes high targets in terms of active travel and access to the school. That guidance is already in place; it's in the public domain, and the Member is welcome to have a look, and, if she has any further comments, she's welcome to give them.

Minister, the sustainable schools challenge is aimed at upgrading existing school infrastructure to become more environmentally sustainable, but I'm sure you will be aware of the shocking fire that took place at Manorbier primary school in my constituency on Monday, which has caused massive damage to the school building. Thankfully, no-one was hurt. This is down, in part, to the fantastic leadership of headteacher Mrs Sharon Davies and her staff, making sure all staff and pupils were safe, and I'm sure you'll join me in thanking them for their work in this. But can you outline what support is being made available to Pembrokeshire County Council to ensure that disruption to pupils' learning is at a minimum? And what support is available to them as they repair and rebuild this school? Diolch. 

I did see the incident at Manorbier, and I pay tribute to the work of the school leadership and staff in protecting the young people and making sure that the appropriate arrangements were in place. There are ongoing discussions between the Government and local authorities about what we can do to support them where there are particular examples that arise in addition to the capital arrangements already available to authorities. And I'm sure this will be part of those discussions already under way. 

Relationships and Sexuality Education Code

5. What support is the Government providing to schools in Arfon and the local authority as they introduce the new relationships and sexuality education code? OQ58513

We continue to work closely with Gwynedd Council and the GwE consortium to ensure schools in Arfon are fully supported to implement the RSE framework, including professional learning opportunities and resources. We have published an RSE toolkit on Hwb to support schools to engage with parents and carers about this sensitive issue.

You will be highly aware of the misinformation that's being spread by some in my constituency and beyond, indeed, on this code. This fake news is at risk of undermining the policy and the work of introducing relationships and sexuality education, a policy that we on these benches are entirely supportive of. In the meantime, of course, there is concern that the new materials and resources haven't been arriving in schools in time. We need these resources to support the new code, and this has created something of a vacuum for the spread of this misinformation. I'm pleased to hear that progress is being made there, but I would like an assurance from you this afternoon that there is a definite timetable in place for introducing sufficient amounts of these teaching resources that are required, in addition to what has already been provided. So, can you give us some idea as to when that will happen?

14:00

Well, it is already happening. We are in an ongoing process of providing increasing amounts of resources in this field and on other parts of the curriculum too. The resources that are already available have been published on Hwb, which is available to every school. I don't think that every school chooses to access that, but the resources are available online to everyone. But what might be useful would be for me to write to every Member sharing links to those, so that you as Members, if you wish to do so, can share them with local constituents and residents who contact you, to ensure that we all share the correct information about the curriculum.

I'm afraid to say that this Welsh Labour Government's deliverance of social policy on children and young people in Wales is a classic case of the Government pandering to the woke warriors of this world, unfortunately. [Interruption.] And where you may not like to hear this, Minister, but this is the reality, sadly. Who are the state to dictate to children what's best for them? It's not yours, it's not mine, it's not anyone's business—

Can we just allow the Member to carry on with his question, please? Can we have some quiet?

Thank you, Llywydd. It's not yours, it's not mine, or anyone's business other than the parents. They should be deciding what sort of education their child receives and whether they want to engage with sex education, and not you, Minister. How on earth do you expect children as young as five to even understand or begin to comprehend this sort of information? Parents the length and breadth of Wales are flabbergasted by this Government's barmy implementation of this policy. And looking at some of the names of the books on offer under this policy for children aged five to seven, called Jacob's New DressPink is for BoysOliver Button is a Sissy, and Princess Kevin, to name but a few, is this really the direction we want to be heading in, Minister? And what sort of message is this giving to parents in Wales who are anxious to see their children build their academic rigour rather than their level of wokeness? And finally, to ask a simple question: yes or no, do you have faith in parents that they know best for their children?

The mischaracterisation of the curriculum for political advantage is incredibly disreputable. He is the second Member from his benches to use this opportunity—

The Minister doesn't need any help, I don't think, from his backbenchers on this. I'll allow the Minister to continue in some silence, please.

—to traduce the work that teachers are doing across schools to make sure our young people are safe, healthy and protected. I am committed to that and I'm disappointed to hear that he is not.

St. Monica's Church in Wales Primary School

6. Will the Minister provide an update on the improvement works at St. Monica's Church in Wales Primary School, Cardiff? OQ58538

The local authority has advised that a contractor has been appointed and work commenced onsite during the summer holiday period. [Interruption.] Works are expected to continue into 2023.

Thank you, Minister. I'm grateful for your response. I bring this question before you in addition to our previous correspondence because I simply believe what is happening at St Monica's is nothing short of scandalous, and an issue that Cardiff Council is simply not resolving. [Interruption.] The situation is dire; the reception and year 1—

Sorry to cut across you—it's not your fault, Joel James; it's the fault of backbenchers from the Government's own backbench, and others, continuing the last question in a discussion between them. They can do that outside of the Chamber, please. I want to hear what the Minister and the person asking the question has to say.

Thank you, Llywydd. The situation is dire; the reception and year 1 classes are squeezed into the school hall, which not only has inadequate toilet facilities, but ultimately renders the school hall completely out of action, meaning that the entire school no longer has PE lessons if the weather is bad. The scaffolding around the school, which has been in place for four years without any work being carried out on the site, has reduced the outdoor playground to such an extent that it is only just viable for an emergency evacuation point, and, again, there is no room whatsoever for PE lessons to be undertaken.

Although some work has now started, as you've alluded to, on the auxiliary buildings, Cardiff Council continues to provide no timeline for works on the main school building, and it is deteriorating at an alarming rate. Indeed, on rainy days, water runs down the interior walls, carpets are continuously wet and there's extensive black mould on nearly every wall. I feel so devastated that, in the capital city of this country, children, teachers and their headteacher have to work in such an environment, and they feel powerless to do anything about it. Minister, in the strongest terms possible, I would stress to you the need for your personal intervention in this matter. The Welsh Government cannot simply rely on Cardiff Council to solve it, because they seem incapable of doing so. Therefore, Minister, what assurances will you provide to the children and the teachers at St Monica's school that you will personally deal with this matter? Thank you.

14:05

The health, safety and well-being of learners and staff and the whole school community are obviously of paramount importance. The governing bodies of schools and local authorities are responsible for health and safety in schools and have a duty to ensure the safety of learners and staff at all times. The Member has written to me on two occasions in relation to this, and I've asked Welsh Government officials to request an update on the progress of the project, in response to that. Officials from the authority have been working closely with the school regarding the works. Following consultation and surveys over the summer, works to the early learning and outbuilding area, in particular, have been identified as a priority, and work has started over the summer holiday. Works to the main building and additional remediation works are due to commence during the autumn term. I hope he finds that update helpful, but I would suggest to him that he maintains his contact with Cardiff Council in relation to that particular situation.

Summer 2022 GCSE and A-level Results

7. What assessment has the Minister made of the summer 2022 GCSE and A-level results? OQ58512

Reflecting a transition back to established exam standards, results were awarded broadly at the midway point between 2021 and 2019. Our learners demonstrated immense resilience in their performances and, as a testament to this, a record number of young people from Wales will be going to university this year.

Can I thank you for that answer, Minister? I visited all the secondary schools in Swansea East on GCSE results day, and I visited those that had A-level results on A-level results day. They were happy with the results, but, as the Minister knows, there were problems with some of the questions set. He knows this because I've raised it with him on several occasions. What discussions has the Minister had with Qualifications Wales and the WJEC to ensure that problems with examination questions do not happen again this year?

It's a good question, and I have continuing discussions with both Qualifications Wales and WJEC in relation to some of the issues that arose over the course of the summer exam series. He will remember, of course, that both Qualifications Wales and WJEC wrote to centres in advance of results days explaining what had happened, what their reviews had revealed and the steps that they were taking in order to respond to those, which included altering marking schemes and grade boundaries in relation to papers that were affected. There is some element of this that happens in many years, unfortunately. Of course, I accept that this year, given the heightened anxiety of learners, those challenges will have been more keenly felt by young people. I would want to be very clear, though, in reassuring them that these steps put in place were able to reflect the situations that arose and able to compensate for that in the marking schemes, giving fair outcomes to all learners. But, obviously, as in each of these years, which have been pretty unique in how we've responded to COVID, there are things to learn for future years, and I am confident those lessons will have been learned for future years.

Minister, we know that many educationalists have, for years, called for a focus on the science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. In Swansea this year, maths was the most popular A-level subject and acknowledged as one of the toughest subjects. No fewer than 59.6 per cent achieved A* or A with 85.7 per cent attaining a C grade or above. This is an exceptional result. What can we learn from this success as we seek to inspire young people to pursue the STEM subjects?

Absolutely. We are pleased to see young people taking up STEM subjects and will do everything we can to continue doing that. There has been a challenge in terms of the gender gap of young people taking up STEM subjects, but the work that we have been doing through our partners has helped to address that to some extent. The 'Talented Women for a Successful Wales' report gave us some indications about how best we could try and close the gender gap in STEM, and those actions are actions that the Government is taking forward. But I congratulate everybody who had good results in maths and every other subject this summer. I think it's an incredible testament to their resilience, their creativity, and it's a thing to celebrate.

14:10
Poverty Gap

8. Will the Minister make a statement on specific Welsh Government initiatives to narrow the poverty gap in student attainment following the pandemic? OQ58537

Yes. My statement to the Chamber in March and the speech that I gave to the Bevan Foundation in June set out my intention to tackle the impact of poverty on attainment, and I've put in place a range of measures to realise this objective, from introducing attainment champions to exploring ways to incentivise teachers to work in the most disadvantaged areas.

Thank you very much for that response, Minister. I very much welcome the statement that the Minister made some months ago, and it would be useful to hear an update from the Minister on the progress that's being made, to ensure that children and young people from all backgrounds have an equality of opportunity to progress their education. We all know and we're all aware that children who come from particularly difficult and deprived backgrounds have suffered during the pandemic, and have seen that attainment gap widen. You were very bullish, if you don't mind me saying so, Minister, that you are able to narrow this attainment gap in the future, and I hope that your optimism is well placed. But can you provide us with further updates to ensure that all of us here understand the work that the Welsh Government is doing to narrow the attainment gap, and to ensure that everything is done that's possible to be done to ensure that children that we all represent who come from the most difficult backgrounds have the opportunity that we would all want them to have in achieving their potential?

I couldn't agree more with the Member. Our strategy's called 'High Standards and Aspirations for All', and that's to recognise that every single learner, regardless of their background, is entitled to have a school system that encourages their aspiration and gives them the best possible opportunity at fulfilling their potential.

The range of measures that I set out, both in March and June, support teachers in developing their practice to support disadvantaged learners: some of that is about initial teacher education; some of it is about our new professional learning programmes; some of it is about a focus at a leadership level, on leadership strategies in schools, to support teachers; and some of it is about getting teachers to work in the schools that most need the skills of the best teachers. But there are also a number of interventions specifically to support learners directly: some of that's about reading and oracy, and you will recall me talking about the language and literacy programme for an additional 2,000 young people, which Bangor University's working with us on, to support communication skills and reading skills. But there are some challenging discussions that we will need to have as well around the practice of setting in schools and at which point that is most appropriate. There's a broader discussion, I think, for us to have in relation to that.

The key, I think, in relation to both sets of measures that I set out is that they're a whole-system approach. It's a focus from early years, through to the schools and through further education, higher education and lifelong learning, and that common objective across the system, I think, is the key to making progress in this area. The school system, the education system, cannot do this on its own, but there are certainly things that we can do to contribute to closing the attainment gap. I am planning on bringing forward a statement before the end of this term, updating Members on where we are in relation to each of these initiatives.

The Integrity of GCSE and A-Level Results

9. How does the Welsh Government ensure the integrity of GCSE and A-level results? OQ58539

We are continuously working with Qualifications Wales and WJEC to ensure the integrity of all our results. This includes secure, standardised assessments, detailed quality-assured processes and anonymised and monitored marking processes that are applied consistently across Wales. In addition, transparency is maintained throughout the process via regular stakeholder engagement.

Can I thank the Minister for his reassuring answer? As a global, forward-thinking nation, harnessing and nurturing our children's abilities to compete in a global market is vital if we are to attract families and employment opportunities into Wales. So, the recent consultation launched by Qualifications Wales, which could put less emphasis on traditional exams from 2025, has caused concern amongst some within the profession that this could put children in Wales at a disadvantage compared to their peers in England and further afield. With staff and pupils still having to adjust to the implementation of a new curriculum, along with potential future employers concerned about the integrity of moving further away from exams than our neighbours and others, how is the Minister going to ensure that children in Wales are an equally attractive prospect to employers as their global counterparts would be?

14:15

I don't think that one follows from another. Qualifications Wales is consulting on the role of exams in the future and how qualifications are assessed. I think that it would be wrong of us, having experienced the last two or three years, when there has been a lot of change in our school system around how we approach teaching and assessment, simply to put that to one side without looking at whether there is a case for adjusting the balance in the future, and looking at different ways of examining, by the way.

I think that the important thing at this point is that we lead an ambitious, creative discussion about how we can make sure that young people in the future have access to the best qualifications and are assessed in the most appropriate way, reflecting the principles of the curriculum, that makes sure they continue to be acknowledged internationally, and gives them the best opportunities of any part of the world, not simply—as I think was the inference in his question—comparable to those across our border, but across the globe.

2. Questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services

The next item, therefore, is questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services, and the first question is from Jane Dodds.

Thank you, Llywydd. Good afternoon, Minister. I had a good time in September when I visited a clinic—

Community Dental Services

1. Will the Minister make a statement on the future of community dental services? OQ58536

In August 2022, the chief dental officer published updated guidance on the role of the community dental service. This included the expansion of salaried dental officer posts, to support local communities who have limited or no access to general dental services normally provided by the independent contractor model.

Thank you. I had an excellent time visiting a clinic providing community dental services in Llanelli in September. I'd like to thank everyone who has been working in communities across Wales, particularly during the red period of the pandemic, to ensure that emergency services were available.

In visiting the community dental services in Llanelli, I learned a lot about what they do in meeting the needs of vulnerable people: people who have disabilities, mental health difficulties, and also refugees. But there was a concern around the erosion of community dental services. They were really impacted by the pressure on the general dentistry service, and some of their emergency slots were being filled, actually, from those general dentistry emergencies. This often means that there's no availability for vulnerable patients in need of emergency care. So, I wonder if you would commit to ring-fencing the funding and protecting this provision. I wonder if you would join me on a visit, perhaps to Llanelli in our region, to hear from the wonderful staff in providing the service that they do. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

Thanks very much, and it's very heartening to hear about the work that they are undertaking in those community dental services in Llanelli. The good news is that we have given an additional £2 million worth of recurrent funding since 2022 to improve access, and many of the health boards have used that funding to invest in their community dental services—and that's true, I know, both in Powys and Carmarthenshire, which are in our region. So, they are already using some of that money specifically for what you hoped that they would do.

I guess the other point is that the new dental contract means that we are expecting 112,000 new patient appointments to be possible, and that should free up those slots that you were suggesting are being taken up by people who should really be going elsewhere. So, because of that contractual change, we'll expect more of those community slots to be freed up.

Thank you, Jane Dodds, for raising this question. Yesterday, the First Minister told the Chamber that tens of thousands of new appointments will be made, and that was very welcome. We look forward to where and when these will be made available—when we will start seeing them. I am continuing to receive correspondence from anxious constituents, as we all are here, who are struggling to access NHS dentistry services. Currently just 17 per cent of practices in Monmouthshire are taking on new patients, according to the British Dental Association. Accessing an NHS dentist in Wales as a new patient is currently near impossible, or requires a wait of a couple of years, but if a patient joins a scheme like Denplan, you can almost be seen immediately. Clearly there is something wrong here to allow that to happen. Minister, can you outline today what concrete steps the Welsh Government is taking to help retention and to encourage people to enter the dentist industry? How can you make sure NHS patients aren't disadvantaged by the desire of some dentists to take on more private patients?

14:20

Thanks very much. We are already seeing a difference as a result of that new contract. So, 73,000 new patients have already gained access this year, and as I say, we expect that to reach 112,000 new patients during that financial year. So already it is making a difference. We also have the new dental academy in Bangor, which we hope is going to provide access to between 12,000 and 15,000 patients, and that's going to be open for six days a week.

The point is, although there's a lot of noise in the system about NHS dentists leaving, the reality is that only 14 per cent of the contracts have been handed back. Eighty-nine per cent of the total dental contract value has moved on to the new contract. But you don't lose those from the NHS—you redistribute them. So it's not lost just because they go somewhere else. They're just redistributed. 

We have been recruiting more dentists, and I'm certainly putting a lot of pressure on Health Education and Improvement Wales to make sure that we drive up the number of dental therapists in future, because I do think we have to get to a new model where we're talking about a team approach rather than everything being reliant on the dentist. 

Minister, it's clear that there is a problem in this area. Last Friday I had two e-mails from constituents saying that they were concerned that they couldn't access service for their children. One had been encouraged to go private by the dentist, and the other had been told by their dentist that they would have to wait for their two-year-old child at least two years before they would have an appointment. The dental health of children in Wales is a concern. The evidence shows that we are already behind England in that regard. At the beginning of July last year, you said that dental services would go back to normal once emergency treatments had been dealt with first. When will that happen, Minister?

We are getting to a point now where—. Obviously, we're still in a situation where COVID is a reality. One in 50 people have COVID, so we do have to bear in mind that anywhere where there's an aerosol-generating situation, there's an increased risk of the spread of COVID. So, there is bound to be a slight reduction in the level of activity. 

When it comes to children, we're hoping to look at new models of how we can look at that, and there's a lot of work that I've asked my team to look at where we can perhaps consider innovative ways of addressing the issue of child dentistry. Because I am aware that we need to ensure that people get into the right frame of mind, when it comes to teeth health, at a very early age. So, that work is ongoing, and I hope I'll be able to report to you at some point soon on where we're at with that. 

Acute Emergency Care

2. What is the Welsh Government doing to enhance acute emergency care in hospitals in Brecon and Radnorshire? OQ58529

While I have a role to set the strategic direction for healthcare services in Wales and to hold the NHS to account, it's Powys health board that is responsible for the planning and delivery of services at a local level and for ensuring they meet the needs of the communities that they serve. 

Thank you, Minister. Emergency treatment for acute conditions such as stroke or cardiac arrest is more difficult for those people who live in my constituency in rural areas. With stroke and cardiac events it's the minutes and seconds that make the difference between living and dying, and if you do survive, the time of intervention has a direct result on your recovery. In my constituency people are forced to travel over 45 minutes for care into England or other counties in Wales. I hear repeatedly residents contacting me who are saying they're waiting over seven hours for an ambulance, and they're being told to put their loved ones in a car and drive them to a hospital. These trips are extremely dangerous and distressing for family members. So, Minister, I'd like to know what discussions you have had with Powys Teaching Health Board to ensure timely access to emergency treatments for the residents I have in Brecon and Radnorshire, so that they are not disadvantaged by not having any district hospitals within Powys.

14:25

Thanks very much. You're absolutely right; we've got to make sure that equity is something that prevails across Wales. We have a clinical lead for stroke in Wales, and with the support of the stroke implementation group manager and the national allied health professional lead for stroke, we're developing plans for regional stroke services in Wales. That includes how hyperacute stroke services, now referred to as comprehensive regional stroke centres, will be configured to ensure that equitable access. When it comes to Powys, as part of that process, it's clear that arrangements linking those comprehensive regional stroke centres are going to have to fit in and to slot into what happens in England. I know that the population of Powys will be interested to hear that, and they are in liaison with the services in England to make sure that that plan does actually take into consideration the fact that, actually, people cross the border into England. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, first of all, to ask a question to the Deputy Minister for Mental Health and Well-being. James Evans.

Diolch, Llywydd. Deputy Minister, do you think people who present with a mental health problem should be guaranteed mental health assessment within a month? 

Thank you for that question. Clearly, our aim in Wales is to have a 'no wrong door' service. We have targets in place in Wales for primary mental health services and access to other services. Services are under pressure at the moment and we are taking action to recover performance with health boards. 

Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. Your own UK Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said that a UK Labour Government would guarantee mental health treatment within a month, but your child and adolescent mental health services statistics show that the Government here in Wales is failing. Only 50 per cent of children who are using mental health services get their assessment within a month. In some health boards, three in four children are waiting longer than a month for an assessment, and in Aneurin Bevan, 85 per cent of children are waiting longer than a month for therapeutic intervention. This is just, frankly, unacceptable. So, do you believe that your Government is failing children's mental health in Wales? 

Had the Member been here yesterday and joined us for my statement on our 'Together for Mental Health' strategy, he would have heard me talk in detail about these. Keir Starmer is entitled to set out his policies for the forthcoming Labour Government in England, but it may surprise you to learn that health is devolved in Wales. I absolutely do not accept that we are failing the children of Wales. As you are well aware, the pandemic has had an impact on waiting times. We've seen a significant rise in referrals and a rise in the acuity of children who are coming forward.

We have instituted the delivery unit review of specialist CAMHS. That's due to report this month. In addition to that, we are working, along with the delivery unit, with every health board in Wales to make sure that they recover their CAMHS position. I am awaiting that report from the delivery unit, and the implementation of its recommendations will be key. Again, had you been here yesterday, you would have also heard me describe the whole range of support we are providing at an early intervention and school level, which is designed to prevent problems escalating to specialist CAMHS. 

It's interesting that it also shows that the Labour leader in the UK doesn't believe that the Welsh Government have got any ambition when it comes to health services. That's probably why he's setting his own targets, because he doesn't want to base himself on the failings here. The figures are quite clear that there is a mental health crisis with our children, which is made worse by the Government here not getting on top of it. And no matter how much you stand and say things are difficult, you should be getting on top of this problem.

I also find it unacceptable that nearly 50 children and young people under the age of 18, most of whom were female, were detained under sections 151 and 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 in the last quarter. Do you think that it's acceptable to detain young children? What are this Government's plans to fix this problem, and if you don't think that that is a failure of this Government, what exactly do you think a failure is?

14:30

Well, I think you'll find, James, that there is no section 151 of the Mental Health Act. Obviously, there are protections in place under the law to detain people who are in mental health crisis. We want to see the numbers of young people who are being detained reduced. That's why we're investing all this money in early intervention, prevention, in sanctuary services and in crisis care. But there will always be some people who will need to be detained for their own protection under the Mental Health Act. And we monitor those cases very carefully, and you can see when someone is being detained—by the action that is taken following the detention, with lots of them being referred into secondary services—that those decisions are taken to keep people safe.

On 20 September, the First Minister said that the figures and data of the Wales Air Ambulance Charity are behind the plans to close its two sites in Welshpool and Caernarfon and to move the helicopters to one site. I and other Members have written to him to state that it's the Government figures that are behind the emergency medical retrieval and transfer service figures in the health service, and we've asked him to correct the Record. I'd appreciate it if the Minister could confirm that that has happened today. If it helps, I'll quote the words of the charity itself, stating that the analysis,

'has been conducted by our medical partners, the Emergency Medical Retrieval and Transfer Service (EMRTS)'.

Now, because of uncertainty regarding the exact basis for these data, nor, indeed, what exactly the data are telling us, is the Minister willing to commission an independent review of those data and, specifically, to have the review consider the likely impact of the change on those areas that are hardest to reach by road and that are further from the emergency care centers—places such as the furthest points in Llŷn, north Anglesey and Powys?

Diolch yn fawr. Look, at the moment, we're all working on the basis of a leaked report. So, the important thing is that we let the system and the process work its way through. Now, I know that the chief ambulance service commissioner is acting independently of the air ambulance service and the key thing for us to do, first of all, is to find out, once the report has been published properly, whether this does constitute a change in service, and if it does, then obviously the community health councils will be engaged. And at that point, they will determine whether the proposed changes represent that service change, and if they do, then that will trigger a formal consultation. And it's at that point, of course, that we will then have to look at the data. But let me tell you about the data, because I've looked into this and asked what data has been used: we were assured about the rigour of the comprehensive data modelling. What I am told is that it is difficult for us to publish—

I know. I'm going to come to that, Rhun. It's difficult for us to publish that data, because it could identify patients, and that's what I've been told. That's what I've been told, and I'm very happy to put that in writing to you.

That is absolute nonsense.

My concern is that the most rural areas are going to lose out because the ambulance will go after the patient number targets that can be reached by the helicopter without properly considering the likelihood that those could be reached quite quickly by road anyway in populated areas.

I'd like to draw the Minister's attention to the report, 'Service Evaluation of the Emergency Medical Retrieval & Transfer Service (EMRTS) Cymru', which was published less than a year ago. It notes that,

'Despite the service substantially improving equity overall, there remained residual inequity in provision in the North West, and expansion into this area was to be considered.'

In a written statement in April this year, responding to that report, the Minister was full of praise about—and I quote—'the positive findings' of the report.

Now, I'm sure that the same arguments could be made for Powys, but on this particular issue, how can moving the helicopter further away, moving the road vehicles further away, be an expansion of the EMRTS services in the north-west in particular? It can't be about the expansion of flying hours—that helps everybody; we'd all welcome that. How would closing Caernarfon constitute an expansion of provision in the north-west as a means to tackle residual inequity in provision, or what's changed since your statement in April?

Look, the air ambulance is an independent charity. They're the ones who make these decisions, and they have looked at the efficiency of their services. And you would be the first to say to me, 'Why aren't we getting to people quicker?' [Interruption.] You've asked in the past, 'Why aren't we getting to people quicker?' And they are saying, 'We can get more efficiencies—'[Interruption.] Well, other people have asked, Rhun. And, let's be clear, we need to get to people quicker—that is a problem that we need to address. And the air ambulance is trying to address that very issue. They've looked at the efficiencies, they've provided some data, and they have made that assessment. Now, we haven't engaged in that process yet, because it's still not a formal process. At that point, we will engage with the process, when it becomes formal.

14:35
The '2022 Nursing in Numbers' Report

3. What assessment has the Minister made of the Royal College of Nursing's '2022 Nursing in Numbers' report in relation to north Wales? OQ58531

The RCN’s report outlines the challenges placed on our workforce by the COVID pandemic and a global shortage of nursing staff. I am committed to ensuring that Wales has the right number of nurses and healthcare staff to meet the care needs of our people.

Thank you, Minister, for your initial answer there. And just for the record, just to be clear, my brother and sister are both nurses in the national health service as well.

At the end of last month, Minister, I had the pleasure of attending the Royal College of Nursing's Listen to Nursing event at the Senedd here, sponsored by your party colleague, Buffy Williams. And it was great to meet those nursing staff, who do continue to provide real high-quality care, day after day. During this event, the RCN released their '2022 Nursing in Numbers' report, which showed that, in Wales, there are currently 2,900 nursing vacancies, and in the area that I represent, in north Wales, in Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, there are 650 nursing vacancies up in north Wales at the moment. So, I'm sure, Minister, you'd agree with me, and as you initially outlined, that there is a challenge in recruiting and retaining nurses in Wales. So, in light of this, what further and specific action do you think that you and Welsh Government could carry out to, first of all, recruit more nurses, and, also, to make sure that we're retaining those hard-working nurses that we already have?

Thanks very much. Well, you'll be aware that we're investing record levels in terms of training for the NHS—£262 million just in this financial year. The number of training places for nurses has increased over 69 per cent since 2016—that's 2,396 more nurses that have come on to the system. So, part of the problem is that we've got to actually make sure that we retain people—that's the real challenge as far as I'm concerned. I've asked Health Education and Improvement Wales to work with the RCN to look at what we can do in this space to help retention.

I think it's also worth emphasising that we've recruited an additional 400 international nurses this year. And I was very pleased, on Monday, to meet the health Minister for Kerala in India, who we're going to now be making a partnership with, so that we can recruit directly from Kerala, so that we can have a direct route to qualified, high-quality students. And it was good to hear, actually, that—. Because you always feel quite guilty about taking nurses from a developing country, although India's pretty developed now in many parts, but I think what's important is that we understand what is their motivation. And they were very clear to me that they are happy to train them up, they're happy to send them over. And what happens is that the remittances are sent back to Kerala, and that's why it's in their interest also for us to take on these nurses. So, there are some plans in place, we know that we've got a lot further to go, but this is a global pressure that everybody's really facing.

Communication with Patients

4. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to improve communication with patients within the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board area? OQ58519

The health board is in targeted intervention for communications and engagement. This means that there is direct and focused action by Welsh Government to improve communication within the health board.

Thank you, Minister. I just felt compelled to raise this with you, given that, of late, I'm being approached by many constituents who feel that, either when they or their loved ones are in hospital, they get told very little. More worryingly, of the cases that I've raised recently with the health board, only 68 per cent have been responded to within their target of 21 working days. Now, officials have explained to me that delays occur due to clinicians being unable to answer questions immediately, or it can be that medical notes have got lost or have been difficult to find. In one case, I sent a letter last November, and it was only responded to in September this year because, in the end, it went to the ombudsman. An oncologist has apologised, stating that there were some issues in locating clinical notes for that particular patient. This is not the first time that this has been raised with me; it's happening too frequently. This is wholly unacceptable, Minister.

So, what can you do to ensure that, however busy a ward is, notes are written up at the appropriate time, so that the patients themselves know exactly, or their families, but also, that when complaints go in, we're not left waiting—when we're representing these constituents—months on end because the notes haven't been written up with due diligence, and so, it just holds the complaints process up? Thank you. 

14:40

Thanks. Well, first of all, clinicians should be writing notes; they should be writing notes at the time of treatment. So, there's no excuse for that; that's a requirement. But, in terms of lost notes, I think part of the answer to this is to digitise, which is why I've spent quite a lot of my time trying to make sure that we make sure that we have a far more modern NHS, that we invest in the NHS. And we are investing more per head than England is. So, we're investing about £18 per head compared to £11.50. And that digital transformation programme will make sure that we are in a situation where we can know exactly what's going on, that the systems will speak to each other, and then, we won't have the situation where notes are lost. 

The Capacity of the NHS in North Wales

5. What action is the Government taking to ensure that the capacity of the NHS in north Wales is sufficient to meet demand? OQ58528

Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board is responsible for the provision of safe, sustainable, high-quality healthcare services for its local population, based on the best and most up-to-date clinical evidence and advice. We've also provided additional investment to support them.

We know, of course, that one in eight nursing posts is vacant in north Wales. We also know from the chair of the health board that of the 642 GPs that we have in north Wales, a quarter of them are over 65, and a third of that 642 are expected to retire in the next five years. And we also know that there aren't adequate numbers coming through to fill those posts. Twenty per cent of posts are filled by locum doctors at the moment, before those I mentioned will retire.

Do you therefore accept that one of the historical failings of this Government, and previous Governments, is the failure to sufficiently plan for the future workforce in this sector, and the upshot of that failure, then, is that we have shrinking staffing levels, that it costs more to the public purse to fill those vacant posts, and it puts more pressure and burden on the shoulders of those left behind?

Well, we have been training people, and we have seen 54 per cent more people working in the NHS over the past 20 years. In Betsi now, we see that almost 20,000 people work for the health board, and there are plans to recruit 380 more during the next two years. And the idea there is that the board wants to get local people to take those posts, so they have a plan for that. And what is important therefore is that that planning is done. I had a meeting with the General Medical Council last week. They demonstrated exactly how many people are going to leave because they're going to retire—'retirement', that's the word. 

So, what is important now is that we take all of those figures on board. You know that the Labour Party nationally have said that they are eager to see far more doctors being trained. And certainly, in terms of nurse training, as you heard from the previous question, we are already training far more nurses than we were in the past; more than 69 per cent more than we have in the past. The difficulty is is that we have to retain people in the system; that's where the tension is. And we understand that there has been great deal of pressure on these people over the past two years. 

Minister, you'll know I've raised in the past my concerns about the length of delays at our hospitals—Ysbyty Gwynedd, Ysbyty Glan Clwyd and, of course, Maelor. Now, you'll also know that I believe that community hospitals, and in particular Llandudno district general hospital, have a key role to play in addressing some of these issues. I know that you've been listening, because a bridging service trial has now been undertaken at the Aberconwy ward, an operating theatre has been reintroduced, and a new stroke unit is going to be based there. I'd love a timescale on that, please. But there's more that can be done. Only 43.7 per cent of patients spent less than the four-hour target time at A&E Glan Clwyd, yet at MIU Llandudno the figure is a stomping 97.6 per cent. So there we have it: the MIU is performing exceptionally well. So, Minister, will you look at—? It hasn't got an overnight doctor and things like that, and there are ways where, I think, you could enhance provision in these community hospitals, and, without doubt, that will take the pressure of these larger hospitals, which are really struggling to cope. Thank you. 

14:45

Thanks very much. I'm really pleased to hear that things are going from strength to strength in Llandudno, and, certainly, when I visited there, one of the things I really focused on was what are these people doing there, how long have they been here, what's the plan for these people, and it was clear. I met one man there, I remember, who'd had his leg amputated, but he was in a second floor flat. So, it was clear that he was never going to be able to go home, but they hadn't started working that out until he was coming to the end of his treatment. Well, you could have been working that out weeks before, so it's trying to get people to understand the need to work through those things. As soon as they come in through the door, what is the plan to exit these people? I'm really pleased to hear that that bridging service is working really well. And you're quite right—part of what we need to do now across the whole of Wales is to make sure that people understand that there are alternatives to A&E: that they can go to urgent primary care centres, that they can go to same-day emergency care centres, that they can phone 111, they can go their local pharmacy. All of these things are options that weren't there a few years ago, but we have got a plan, obviously, and we have been trying a campaign, Help Us to Help You, to make sure that people know where they should go to get the right help at the right place at the right time. 

Bowel Cancer

6. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to tackle bowel cancer? OQ58530

We're working to improve bowel cancer outcomes by improving diagnostic pathways, lowering the screening age in line with UK National Screening Committee recommendations, and improving the quality of bowel cancer treatment.

Thank you, Minister. I'm really pleased to see the recent lowering of the bowel cancer screening age to 55, as we know that screening people earlier means cancer can be identified earlier. However, it is also important that treatment can be accessed as speedily as possible. So, I was concerned to note that, in July, just 36 per cent of lower gastrointestinal patients in Cwm Taf Morgannwg started their first treatment within 62 days of being suspected of having cancer. As you will know, that is significantly below the suspected cancer pathway performance target. So, what action is the Welsh Government taking to ensure rapid access to treatment? 

Thanks very much, Vikki. Those figures are clearly too low and unacceptable. That's one of the reasons why today I called a cancer summit meeting—a calling together all of the health boards and the leads for cancer in each of the health boards. One of the issues in particular in relation to lower gastrointestinal cancers is that we've seen, partly as a result of that increased screening, a 38 per cent increase in demand for the service—38 per cent. That's a huge increase, and clearly we didn't have the capacity to cope with that, and that explains why those levels are so low. But we've got to do something about that, and that's why it was heartening to hear this morning that Cwm Taf Morgannwg are going to increase the number of rooms in the mobile units at the treatment centres to carry out these operations, and that they've also confirmed a single optimal pathway, which makes sure that patients are sent directly to tests so that they don't have a long time waiting before they start on their journey to really try and get the support that they need.  

14:50

Minister, we all know that early diagnosis of bowel cancer is vital. It is a fact that nearly everyone who is diagnosed at the earliest stage will survive. Yet, for years, we have failed to detect this illness quickly enough in Wales. We were ranked twenty-fifth out of 29 European countries for our five-year survival rate. With half of bowel cancer patients being diagnosed at a late stage, four years ago, the United Kingdom National Screening Committee recommended that people aged 50 to 74 should be tested. In Wales, people aged between 50 and 55 are not yet being tested and will have to wait years before this age group is treated the same as elsewhere in the UK. This reprehensible performance by Welsh Ministers has put the lives of many people at risk. So, what action are you taking to ensure those between the age of 50 and 55 are supported now, before the screening age is lowered in two years' time? Thank you.

Thank you. I'm glad to see that we've reduced the age at which we're now sending out faecal immunochemical tests to the over-55s, but you're right, we've got to go further, but we've got to do it at the same time as increasing capacity. We are now looking at training more clinicians, so that when that demand—and you've heard that demand, a 38 per cent increase—. That is a huge increase, so you've got to prepare for that. We've got new equipment and new facilities, and I'm sure you will have heard also, at the beginning of the week, about our rapid diagnostic centres that are the first to be rolled out in the United Kingdom, and that should also help as well. So, all of those things will come in, but there's no point expanding until we're ready to support the people when they get the diagnosis. So, we're at that point—we're building the capacity. Certainly, I was heartened to hear this morning that those measures and those steps are being put in place across Wales.

E-cigarettes

7. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to promote e-cigarettes to smokers? OQ58526

Whilst we recognise that e-cigarettes are being used by some of those wanting to quit smoking, the evidence around their long-term impact is still emerging. We intend to look closely at our policy on e-cigarettes in Wales, including for smoking cessation, as part of our new tobacco control delivery plan.

Thank you, Deputy Minister. On Tuesday of last week, in First Minister's questions, the First Minister said that the evidence is that, for most people who use an e-cigarette, it is as well as and not instead of a conventional cigarette—85 per cent in recent studies show a dual use. That is what he said. My office spoke to ASH Wales soon after, and they are not sure where this figure has come from. They also asked their sister organisation, ASH UK, and they also don't seem to know where this figure has come from. The stat seems to contradict the GP survey marks that vaping is most prevalent within the ex-smoker group. Minister, in Wales, the average percentage of smokers is 18 per cent and just 7 per cent for e-cigarettes. Of those using e-cigarettes, 76 per cent use them to quit smoking. So, Minister, don't you think it's time you started recognising e-cigarettes for their benefits and their role in weaning smokers off cigarettes so that we can finally reduce our smoking numbers in Wales?

Thank you to Laura Anne Jones for that. Smoking is, of course, extremely damaging to health, and stopping smoking is the single most important step someone can take to improve their health. We recognise that, for some people, e-cigarettes and other nicotine products are being used to help them to stop smoking, and current evidence suggests they are substantially less harmful than smoking tobacco. We know that around seven in 10 smokers want to quit, and our free NHS service, Help Me Quit, is available to support smokers and, since 2017, has helped over 75,000 smokers. We know that getting NHS support increases smokers' chances of success by up to 300 per cent compared to going it alone. As with other unlicensed nicotine-containing products, Help Me Quit service providers cannot provide access to e-cigarettes until such a time that there are licensed options available for us to consider. In July, we published our new tobacco strategy, 'A smoke-free Wales', where we set out our ambition for Wales to become smoke free by 2030. We have historically had a cautious approach to e-cigarette products in Wales given the evidence on their long-term effects is still developing and their potential appeal to children and young people. We are very clear that e-cigarettes should never be used by children, young people and non-smokers. As part of our tobacco delivery plan, we intend to look closely at our policy position on e-cigarettes in Wales, including their role in tobacco-smoking cessation. Reports of the increase in use of e-cigarettes by children is very concerning. We will also be looking at what more could be done to prevent their use by children and young people.

14:55
COVID-19 Vaccination

8. Will the Minister provide an update on the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccination programme? OQ58516

As of 11 October, a total of 363,000 COVID-19 vaccination boosters have been administered in Wales. The programme is on track for all eligible people to receive an invitation for their booster by 30 November, in line with the commitment given in our winter respiratory vaccination strategy, which was published on 15 July.

Thank you, Minister. That's excellent news. The vaccine, of course, is the most effective way to defend ourselves against COVID, and, in order to live with the virus, it's incumbent on us all to accept the jab when it's available to us. It's also vital that the roll-out of the programme continues in the most efficient and equitable way. Are you confident that people are able to have the vaccine in a consistent time frame across all communities and for each age group in Wales?

Thanks very much. Well, we are talking about trying to get this booster to 1.6 million eligible people in Wales. That's being delivered through 400 vaccination sites, so I think that does give you the coverage that should allow people to take up that opportunity. As I say, our target is to get to a 75 per cent uptake of that cohort, and so far we're on track. So, we're getting to it. I'm slightly concerned that we're not getting the response from health and care workers that I had hoped we'd get, so I would encourage people to try and encourage those health and care workers in particular to take up that opportunity, in addition, of course, to vulnerable people, and to come forward if it's offered. I know that, in Clwyd South, for example, 34 per cent of the people eligible have already had their vaccinations. 

NHS Staffing Levels

9. What assessment has the Welsh Government undertaken of NHS staffing levels in mid and west Wales? OQ58544

Thank you very much. The Hywel Dda University Health Board workforce is now at record levels, but we recognise the workforce challenges in mid and west Wales alongside significant demand pressures on services.

Thank you very much. Last week, as I said, I had the pleasure of meeting with the RCN here in the Senedd to discuss their latest report, and in the evening I had the pleasure of meeting a number of nurses from the mid and west Wales region. I heard about the huge work pressures that they're facing: a lack of staff; insufficient pay; morale being low; and they said that they were exhausted, that they were disheartened because they couldn't do their work as they wished to. There are also strategic problems, such as insufficient planning to retain nurses, insufficient recruitment and planning of support for the workforce, and so on. So, alongside the low wages and challenging working environment, I'm not surprised that so many nurses are leaving the sector. The problem is that, across the Hywel Dda area, there are around 540 registered nurse vacancies. This is amongst the highest in Wales. This health board also has one of the highest levels of nurses employed via agencies. This has increased 46 per cent over the past year and costs close to £29 million. So, bearing all of this in mind, Minister, what steps will you be taking to put together a strategy for retaining more nurses in the profession?

Thank you very much. This is an area that I have asked my officials to focus on. It's difficult to do it, because, as you can imagine, in terms of retention, if you have 1,000 people off sick with COVID, what are you going to do to fill those vacancies? How are you going to take the pressure off those people who have to make up for that sick leave? And if we don't use agency nurses, then the pressures are going to be even greater. Now, I'm very unhappy in terms of how much we spend on agency staff at the moment, and that's why I've asked HEIW to focus on this work and to ensure that we work with the unions, quickly, to ensure that we're in a better position. But, at the end of the day, what's needed is to convince more nurses to remain and to continue with training provision. But I have to say that the staffing levels in Hywel Dda are now at unprecedented levels. Eleven thousand people work for the health board, and, in terms of nurses, there are 136 more than there were three years ago. So, there are more staff. But the demand is increasing constantly, and that's the problem. We have an ageing population and so the pressures are greater. So, it is important that we do that strategic planning for the future workforce.

15:00

Thank you, Llywydd. Minister, during the recent Petitions Committee debate, you said,

'it's simply inaccurate to suggest that extending section 25B to all of those areas would result in giving Wales "the full team of nurses", as the petition puts it, and that's simply because, at the moment, those nurses don't exist.'

What I'm just trying to rectify, myself, and give you an opportunity to expand and clarify, is that the Welsh Government—yourself—claim there are various recruitment strategies, including international recruitment as well, and you talk about record investment in education and training programmes. So, surely, if that is the case, those two don’t really sit with each other. I wonder if you can, perhaps, give some further context to your comments during the Petitions Committee debate.

Okay, so, when you write a law, you've got to comply with the law, and if the law says, 'You've got have x many nurses in a particular ward', you've got to comply with that law. If you can't do that because you don’t have the nurses, you're in breach of the law. So, what's the point of writing a law that you know you can't comply with? And at the moment, it's really difficult for us to comply because we don't have enough nurses.

So, what we need, and I accept that—. We're already doing a lot in terms of workforce recruitment. We're training more than we’ve ever trained before. We're doing international recruitment. But I do think that what we need to do now is to focus on retention, because we're losing people as fast as we’re training them. So, that's the area that I think that we need to focus on. And if we can do that we'll be in a much, much better position. These people are exhausted. They've been working their socks off for two years. So, we do need to give them the support—so, working with the unions and with HEIW to really understand what is the pressure and what more can we do to take the pressure off them—and then we'll be in a position to starting writing laws that we can comply with.

3. Topical Questions
4. 90-second Statements

Item 4 is the 90-second statements. The only statement today is from Heledd Fychan.

Thank you, Llywydd. Bearing in mind that it was World Mental Health Day on 10 October, I would like to take the opportunity today to celebrate one particular group in my region, namely the Metalidads.

The Metalidads, also known as the Fathers of Metal, bring together that holy trinity of fatherhood, mental health and heavy metal and meet twice weekly in the town of Barry to encourage local dads to get out of the house and away from the children and partners in order to form new friendships and get involved in fun activities and initiatives such as beach litter picks, fundraising for local causes, family film clubs, grub and games night, going to gigs and even learning how to French plait their children's hair, ready for when they go to school.  

Using their social media platform, they discuss taboo topics such as depression, trouble conceiving children, child bereavement, autism diagnosis, tackling awkward toddler sleeping patterns and struggles within a marriage as a way of destigmatising serious talking points and to support each other through different lived experiences.  

This year, Metalidads have reached out and engaged with and interviewed multiple globally recognized bands and musicians in heavy metal royalty to normalise the question of 'Are you okay?'

Such groups are so important to support parents, and I'm sure that my fellow Members will agree that we need to support local organisations and initiatives in our communities that offer this kind of support that saves lives. Indeed, I received a very warm welcome by the Metalidads and derived great benefit from meeting them.

To end with a frequently used quote by the Fathers of Metal,

'whether it's whammy bars or weaning, Napalm Death or nappies...it's always good to talk.'

Rock on.

15:05
5. Debate on the Economy, Trade, and Rural Affairs Committee Report: Review of the Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations 2021

Item 5 is the next item, the debate on the Economy, Trade, and Rural Affairs Committee report on the review of the Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations 2021. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion. Paul Davies.

Motion NDM8090 Paul Davies

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the report of the Economy, Trade, and Rural Affairs Committee on its Inquiry: Review of The Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations 2021, which was laid in the Table Office on 8 June 2022.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Llywydd, and I move the motion tabled in my name. Llywydd, it feels like a long time ago that the Senedd unanimously passed a motion for a committee to urgently review the Welsh Government's Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations 2021. And that's because it was.

The Economy, Trade, and Rural Affairs Committee took this task extremely seriously, agreeing to embark on this review at our first meeting. However, as Members will be aware, the committee's report was delayed because of a judicial review into the legality of the regulations, which was out of the committee's hands. That judicial review was important to this debate, not just to explain why the committee's report took so long to produce, but also to highlight just how significant these regulations are.

Whilst all regulations we vote on are important, these agricultural pollution regulations affect things that are core to sustaining life in Wales—food production, our water quality and the wider environment. The Welsh Government believe that the regulations will ultimately reduce pollution in our rivers, avoid pollution swapping and prevent or minimise increased losses of nutrients in the environment. The Minister made it very clear that by taking this approach the regulations deliver against a wide range of Wales's responsibilities and provide a holistic response to environmental challenges related to agricultural production.

Nevertheless, in order to implement these regulations, many farmers will be required to undertake compliance work, which will include significant construction work at a significant cost, and that could threaten their viability. Therefore, it's crucial that these regulations set the right balance between protecting our natural environment and maintaining a workable regulatory system for Welsh farmers.

Now, before I run through the report and its recommendations, I just want to highlight the Welsh Government's response to our report and its relevance to this debate. The Welsh Government's response was due on 14 September, and yet it was eventually laid on 5 October, which was the absolute deadline for inclusion on today's Plenary agenda. This delay severely hampered Members' ability to scrutinise the Government's response, and as such it has an impact on this debate. Therefore, I sincerely hope that in the future all Ministers will reflect on the importance of responding to Senedd committee reports in a timely manner, so that we can have fully informed debates on Senedd committee reports.

Now, the Economy, Trade, and Rural Affairs Committee launched a consultation on the regulations, which ran over the summer of 2021, and a wide range of stakeholders—including anglers, farmers and environmental organisations—responded to the consultation. Members will not be surprised to know that the regulations have proved controversial. In response to our consultation, farmers have referred to them as 'draconian' and 'punitive', and they raised concerns that they will be prohibitively expensive to implement and may push farms out of business.

On the other hand, we received evidence from environmental organisations and anglers who welcomed the regulations, arguing that they are long overdue. They told us that the current system does not deter the worst agricultural polluters, and that action in the form of these regulations went some way to curb the pollution in our rivers. So, as a committee, we were acutely aware that these regulations needed to strike the right balance and were as effective as possible. Once the judicial review had concluded, the committee was able to continue with our inquiry and lay our report. 

Llywydd, it contains 10 recommendations, and, as time is limited this afternoon, I'd like to concentrate on three specific areas: support for implementation, derogations, and concerns around farming by calendar. Firstly, one of the pressing issues raised was the cost to farmers of implementing these regulations, and it was made pretty clear to the committee that farms could be put out of business. Therefore, I was pleased to see a commitment from the Welsh Government of an additional £20 million to help farmers implement these regulations, as was made clear in the written statement that accompanied the Welsh Government's response to the committee's report. I'm also pleased to see a commitment from the Welsh Government to provide the committee with a detailed breakdown of the provisions being made, including direct financial support and additional funding to advisory services. And perhaps in responding to this debate, the Minister will confirm when the committee can expect that information.

Similarly, there needs to be support for public bodies. Natural Resources Wales have estimated that they will require 60 additional staff to deliver the bare minimum, with possibly over 200 staff members needed to deliver the full product of enforcement around these regulations. Of course, a patchy, under-resourced enforcement regime will give us the worst of both worlds, and I was a little concerned to read in the Government's response that the service level agreement for the regulations has not yet been agreed by Natural Resources Wales and the Welsh Government. Surely Natural Resources Wales will need time to recruit and train additional staff, and so it's vital that a service level agreement is put in place as soon as possible. So, I do hope the Minister will give us an update on its development and any further information she has on how long it may take Natural Resources Wales to be in a position to enforce these regulations.

Llywydd, the committee also received some concerns regarding derogations. We were concerned that the withdrawal of the derogation for qualifying grassland farms would put Welsh farmers at a competitive disadvantage, and so we recommended that the Welsh Government reintroduces the derogation that allowed qualifying grassland farms to spread up to 250 kg per hectare of nitrogen. Farming unions warned that the decision not to include the derogation could require destocking on many Welsh farms, with impacts on farm viability, critical mass within the supply chain and employment, and that the lower rate of 170 kg per hectare could lead to the offshoring of production to countries with lower standards. Therefore, I'm pleased to see, in the written statement accompanying the Government's response, that Welsh farms will now be able to apply for a licence to spread a higher amount of nitrogen. And I do hope the Minister will today provide assurances to Welsh farmers that this measure will not result in further bureaucracy for them.

Finally, I want to mention farming by calendar. Part 5 of the Welsh Government's regulations stipulates closed periods, when spreading is prohibited. And whilst there are exceptions for some holding and soil types, the closed period runs from October to January, with some further restrictions running until the end of February. The committee heard strong arguments about the importance of flexibility for farmers in when they spread slurry, and that was really reinforced to us during our committee trip to the Agriculture Research Centre at Gelli Aur in Carmarthenshire. We had already heard great things about their work on slurry processing and the use of technology to determine the best time to spread. During the visit, we were shown equipment that supports an app the centre has been developing. It was an impressive combination of a weather station and sensors that monitor the conditions, where the information gathered is fed into an app that processes the data and gives farmers a red, amber or green status for spreading slurry. We were told that the system was tested during the 2021-22 closed period, and the findings were that the app was showing a green status for spreading through February and March, meaning that the weather and ground conditions meant it was fine to spread slurry. However, almost as soon as the closed period ended, the app flagged the conditions as red, indicating it was not suitable for spreading slurry. Of course, we are all very aware of how unpredictable the weather can be, so it's vital that farmers are allowed to move over to a technology-backed system based on real world, live conditions, not a calendar system based on seasonal averages, as soon as possible.

The committee recommended that the Welsh Government should prioritise any suitable alternative proposals that utilise technology rather than closed periods for spreading, and, whilst I very much welcome the Welsh Government’s openness to new suggestions, I am disappointed their response puts the onus on the farming community rather than the Government proactively pursuing technological alternatives to farming by calendar. Therefore, I hope the Minister will reflect on this and give it further consideration.

Llywydd, the committee's report covers everything from water quality data to enforcement and incorporating the regulations into national minimum standards, and I urge every Member in this Chamber to read our report. We have asked the Welsh Government to review the effectiveness of alternative technological measures, to be fully transparent about the funding support available to farmers, and to provide assurances that there is adequate resourcing and guidance for Natural Resources Wales to monitor and enforce these regulations. As a committee, we intend to keep reviewing these regulations in the months and years ahead to ensure their effectiveness, and so, on that note, Llywydd, I look forward to Members' contributions to this debate. Diolch.

15:10

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this afternoon's debate. The Welsh Government's NVZ policy, the topic of this report, has been a flagship yet controversial policy of this and former Welsh Governments. Therefore, it was only right that this Senedd tasked the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee to urgently review these regulations. I know that the Minister has been keen to stress that these aren't NVZs, but with Parts 2, 3, 4, 5 and 7 of the water resources regulations word for word the same as that of an NVZ policy, then I'm afraid to say that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is indeed a duck.

Focusing on the report itself, I was disappointed to see the Welsh Government reject recommendation 1 of this paper, that

'The Welsh Government should re-introduce the derogation which allowed qualifying grassland farms to spread up to 250 kg/ha of nitrogen.'

Now, I appreciate that this was rejected on the basis that last week's joint statement with Plaid Cymru, as your co-operation partner, superseded recommendation 1, however, the content of that statement does leave the industry and me with several concerns. Despite the narrative that was pushed out, the statement did not offer our agricultural community any change in policy, unlike what recommendation 1 would have delivered. And, once again, the consultation announced on a possible licensing scheme will see the same evidence submitted and the same arguments discussed, so I really hope we don't see the same old outcome delivered. Because nothing, in terms of derogation, has been guaranteed, and let's not forget that a lower derogation limit puts Welsh farmers at a competitive disadvantage against other farmers across the UK, as committee Chair, Paul Davies, outlined earlier.

I also note with interest that the Welsh Government accepted recommendation 3 of the report, that

'The Minister should set out to the Committee her considerations of the impact these Regulations may have on the planning system'.

Despite accepting the proposal, the Welsh Government's response failed to recognise the fact that large numbers of planning applications will have to be submitted and processed in order for farms to meet the Welsh Government's regulations. Indeed, whilst it's the Welsh Government's view that the infrastructure requirements of the regulations do not significantly differ from pre-existing regulatory baselines, your response, Minister, fails to acknowledge that small-scale family farms do not have the existing infrastructure in place to adhere to these regulations. In return, this will mean that new planning applications will have to be submitted for infrastructure, with the potential for these applications to swamp local authorities, many of which already have planning departments under immense stress. Having read your response, I am not confident that you are fully aware of the impact and the way in which these applications will impede local authorities. 

And finally, taking me to recommendation 6, I was disappointed to learn that you have not accepted this proposal in full. The purpose of this recommendation was to illustrate the pressure that a bovine TB breakdown will cause on adhering to your regulations. There has been no clarification as to whether farms with herd breakdowns will be permitted to exceed the 170 kg per hectare nitrate limit. In these circumstances, farms under TB restrictions that are unable to move on cattle could see their stock numbers substantially increase, yet there is no explanation as to whether there has been consideration of this with these regulations. By adhering to TB regulations, by following the letter of the law on cattle movements when on a breakdown, farmers could be inadvertently contravening the water regulations. This can't be an oversight, so I seek some clarity that these farms won't be unfairly punished.

I remember being a young newspaper reporter, many years ago, discussing whether an all-Pembrokeshire or an all-Wales NVZ would be rolled out. Now, some six or seven years later, we are still discussing and debating the finer details of this policy. I hope you reconsider and accept all 10 recommendations submitted by the committee, implementing them in their fullest form. I'd also like to take the opportunity to thank our committee Chair, Paul Davies, all those who gave evidence and the clerking staff. Diolch, Llywydd.

15:15

Thank you to the committee, the Chair and all of the staff, as Sam Kurtz said, for their very thorough work on this inquiry. We must begin by acknowledging that we see far too many cases of water pollution in our waterways, and everyone must take responsibility and play their part—the farmers, yes, but also the water companies, construction companies, and everyone else. But, we must also recognise the role of the agricultural industry in our rural communities, in terms of its valuable contribution to our local economy, its invaluable contribution to culture and community, not to mention its central role, namely producing high-quality, nutritious food.

The first recommendation regarding the derogation goes to the heart of the problem. As the agricultural unions state in their response, the new regulations would have led to the majority of cattle farmers in Wales having to stock fewer cattle, impacting their viability, as well as the viability of related businesses, such as dairy factories and so on.

In the report, we see Aled Jones of the NFU as well as the FUW warning that the new regulations, as they stood, would be hugely damaging, particularly to the small upland farms of Wales. No word of a lie, I saw farmers in my constituency who were telling me that they would be getting rid of all of their cattle from the uplands. For some, this would mean that they would have to give up farming entirely, and for others, it meant stocking more sheep on the hills. Now, the irony with that, of course, is that removing cattle from the uplands and replacing them with sheep would lead to more damage in terms of biodiversity. The RSPB and other bodies argue that cattle are needed to graze our uplands, and this is noted in the report.

But in addition to this, forcing such a change so quickly would do the same to our agricultural communities as Margaret Thatcher did to our mining communities, which is to cause lasting damage almost overnight. That is why the recent joint statement between Plaid Cymru and the Government with regard to pausing the introduction of the next phase and considering the introduction of a licensing system for farmers, to enable them to spread up to 250 kg of nitrogen on their land, is to be warmly welcomed. Not only will this ensure the continuity of the backbone of our rural communities and everything associated with that, economically and culturally, but it will be of significant benefit to biodiversity in Wales, and that is very much to be welcomed too.

The report makes clear that the costs of building the necessary infrastructure are huge, and increasing, and the second recommendation makes it clear that transparency is needed regarding what support is available to farmers. It is clear that the amount initially allocated was nowhere near sufficient, as the evidence given by Gareth Hughes from the FUW noted. It is, therefore, good to see that the Government, in its agreement with Plaid Cymru, has secured an additional £20 million to try to ensure that farmers have the necessary infrastructure and resources. Will this be enough? Perhaps not, but it is much better than what was previously on offer in the previous situation.

Finally, the report refers to the need for farmers to construct or enhance their slurry storage. Now, once again, come to Dwyfor Meirionnydd and I’ll introduce you to farmers who sought planning permission to build new slurry storage facilities, but who found it difficult to obtain planning consent. It is very easy to state on paper that this, that or the other should be done, but it's a very different matter to act on those ambitions in the real world. So, in considering recommendation 3, it is good to see that the Government, again in its agreement with Plaid Cymru, will allow an additional two years to enable this work to progress, and to ensure the just transition that farmers need. Thank you very much.

15:20

I live in my constituency, in Caerphilly, and we have a concentrated area of farms, and around those farms are many houses, and you can imagine that constituents are very concerned about how slurry is dealt with and how these issues are regulated—perhaps more so in farms that are more isolated and less close to communities. Therefore, I think the regulations have been broadly welcomed by residents in Caerphilly, if not by all farms, and I think that's reflected in some of the comments that have been made by Mabon ap Gwynfor and by Sam Kurtz. And of course, it's reasonable to say that one size doesn't fit all, which was the direction of the report that's been produced.

I've got to disagree with the Chair on one point: he said that he was concerned that the Government took time to respond to the committee report. Well, actually, given the importance of these regulations and the importance of the issue to the Senedd as a whole, I think getting these right, getting the response right, and carrying two thirds of the Senedd with us when it comes to the implementation of the regulations is important, and I think that was what was managed in the days leading up to the Government's response. I think, therefore, you can see now that the Government's response should have—I would be surprised if it didn't have—a two-thirds majority of support in the Senedd, despite some of the concerns still expressed by the Conservatives who have spoken so far.

And I'd also say with regard to the regulations, these regulations have been subject to a quadruple set of scrutiny, more than many other regulations we see, so they've seen a Senedd debate, they've seen the committee inquiry, they've seen a judicial review, and the debate today. Those four things have scrutinised these regulations, plus many questions that I and many others have raised in the Chamber throughout the course of the last few years. So, there is certainly a case to be made that the Government have allowed a great deal of scrutiny of these regulations. I would say they've listened. I would say they've listened particularly with regard to recommendation 1, and as Sam Kurtz recognised, recommendation 1 is subject to the agreement now between Plaid Cymru and the Government, and I think that effectively addresses some of those concerns. I think what we're seeing today is a listening Government that is listening to the residents in my constituency who are concerned about agricultural pollution, but also to those farmers who have concerns about the impacts. The money that is now being put towards that, plus the additional consultation, demonstrate that this Government have effectively listened without reducing their commitment to controlling nitrogen pollution.

So, I'd welcome the Government's response on the whole, and I'm glad I was able to take part in the inquiry, because it certainly showed all aspects of this process to me. I would say to the Minister now that she has done a good job in ensuring that we can make progress and protect our environments, our rural environments, from nitrogen pollution.

15:25

May I thank the committee and the committee Chair?

A huge amount of work has been done by the committee, for which we're very grateful, to make the case for a more proportionate response to what is a really serious issue. I haven't spoken to any farmer who doesn't recognise that the water quality needs to be better. Everybody wants to work together on this, a team Wales approach.

I have written to the First Minister to ask for an economic impact assessment. I did this in August, recognising that increased costs form part of farmers' concerns around the future. I'm concerned that the unintended consequences of these regulations will be felt far beyond the individual farm gate, because not enough attention has been paid to the wider impact on our rural communities, or implications for pre- and post-farm-gate supply chains. I was reminded only today that the proposed 170 kg derogation limit would result in a destocking of dairy cattle at 17 per cent—a loss to us of some 330 million litres of milk production. We really do need to work together to ensure that the four-year review period, included in the regulations, looks not just at the impact of the regulations on reducing agricultural pollution, but at the impact of the regulations on the industry itself.

My first question, if I may, Minister, is to understand a little bit more about the proposed licensing scheme and how that sits in relation to recommendation 1 of the report. I have questions, for example, as to how many farm businesses can expect to benefit. Will there be any learning to inform potential changes to the regulations? What are the parameters of that consultation to ensure it's fair, balanced and evidence led, and what are the successful criteria for that consultation? Farmers have repeatedly said that a delay alone is just a sticking plaster, so we do need clarity for farmers around what this licensing scheme actually entails in the long term.

I'd like to also focus on recommendation 2, and the costs of introducing these regulations. The funding package to date falls far below what the Government's own figures are for the upfront cost of around £360 million. The FUW have estimated that the cost could actually be in the region of £450 million, which is a huge difference. The additional £20 million last week can't be put into context without being provided with full detail of financial support to date, and, in the face of ever-growing cost pressures on our farmers, it does sound like a drop in the ocean.

The new technology, as highlighted by Paul Davies, is really interesting, and I am concerned that the new technology coming forward could actually negate the need for new slurry stores to be built. Some farmers will have forked out huge sums only to find that the expenditure wasn't needed, putting huge additional cost pressures on farms. So, there needs to be some alignment between the proposed licensing scheme, the four-year review period and the introduction of alternative measures. To be provocative, my question would be: why can't we wait until the new technology comes into play and see the effect that that has?

We do really need clarity around what additional resources are needed, for example, from NRW, highlighted by the Chair and by others as well. Without that effective regulatory role, these regulations simply punish farmers. Also, I pick up the point from my colleague Mabon ap Gwynfor around the capacity of local authority planning departments. They are massively overstretched. In Ceredigion, I understand that there is one planning officer who is dealing with all of the farmers who are putting in applications for slurry stores at the moment.

We need a team Wales approach. In the light of the announcement made by the Government and Plaid Cymru last week, I'd welcome clarity on whether the deadline for alternative proposals will be extended, and whether the Welsh Government will now revisit the alternative proposals put forward by the sector. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

15:30

Can I start by commending the committee for a fabulous report? But it is a shame that we ever got to having to have this report. I've just listened to Jane Dodds from the Liberal Democrats preach how bad this is for farmers, but if her party had stepped up in the last term of the Senedd and supported farmers, like Plaid Cymru and us on the Conservative benches did, we would never, ever be in this situation. So, I find some of her comments quite hypocritical.

What I do want to talk about to the Minister—and we do welcome some of the announcements that you have made—is around the additional £20 million, and on recommendation 3 about the pressure this is going to put on our planning authorities. I do not believe, and nor do the industry, that this additional £20 million is going to help farmers to cope with these regulations when they come in, with the infrastructure costs, and everything associated with that. I've got a number of friends who are farmers, who say that some of the money that you're making available won't even put the concrete in the ground to allow this to happen.

What I'd like to hear from the Minister—. Yes, additional money is welcomed, but we're going to have to see more investment, because if you're asking farmers yet again to fork out more and more money, it's going to make farm businesses unviable and unsustainable, going forward. I'm sure we don't want to see these regulations driving our farmers from the land, from producing food to keep our public fed and watered. Because if we see our farmers leaving, our rural communities right across our country are going to die. I know that's not something that I want to see, and my colleagues don't want to see here. So, additional funding is welcomed, and I do hope that you put more money available to support the recommendations that you've put forward. Thank you.

I'm going to start by acknowledging and welcoming what was announced by Plaid Cymru and the Government last week—not quite as cynical as some, perhaps. It's not the end of the process, of course, but it does keep the debate alive, and it does mean that there has been a change of attitude. The other choice was that we just let it go and carry on. So, I think we need to acknowledge that great work has been done on these benches to get to this point and to at least provide an opportunity that at least some Welsh farmers will be licensed and that everything will fall into place to ensure that they can spread 250 kg per hectare of nitrates on the land.

The £20 million, of course, is in addition to what's already been committed, but nobody's saying that that's going to pay for everything. But surely, it's better than what was there previously, so don't be so negative and don't be so cynical. But we're not blinded by the fact that there's a lot of work still to be done, and one of the things that I want to refer to also is that there is going to be another look at the regulatory impact assessment. Because we're in a different context—there's the cost-of-living crisis, we know that the costs of inputs in the industry have gone through the roof. The cost of construction, and the inflation in construction, to meet the infrastructure requirement is entirely transformed. And I think it's quite right therefore that that assessment should be looked at again so that it does reflect the new context—Ukraine, food security, and all of those things—that we need to bear in mind.

But there are still serious questions and real concerns that remain, and the Chair, of course, has referred to one of them, namely this adherence to the closed periods. I've raised this with you in the past, Minister; two years and more ago, I referred to the fact that some of the UK's greatest environmentalists said that farming by calendar was counterproductive. And you agreed that you were struggling with that approach, and with justifying that approach, and you acknowledged at the time that it doesn't, as we heard, take account of the fact that there could be days in the open period that could be totally inappropriate for spreading slurry, and days in the closed periods that would be appropriate. But, of course, that's what you've chosen to incorporate in the regulations.

So, in responding to the debate, perhaps you could tell us what persuaded you that that was acceptable. What changed your mind against the views of some of the great UK environmentalists, that looking at a calendar to see whether the circumstances are favourable was better than looking through the window? That's essentially what the regulations say. And your response to that recommendation—it's recommendation 8 if memory serves me—does refer to technology, and that technology is being developed, and that we're approaching a time where we'll be able to adopt a system that is far more real time in nature, and will provide precision. So, the technology is there, and it's almost ready to be rolled out across the country. 

But in your response, you say that you will consider this during the four-year review. Well, does that mean that you will force the sector to invest in infrastructure, to spend millions upon millions of public money—and their own money—and then perhaps, in two years' time, you'll say 'Well, we have technology now, this won't be necessary'? So, you truly to need to reconsider on that point. 

Two more points just before I close. I think that contractors seem to have been forgotten by the Welsh Government in this. They're one of the biggest employers in our rural communities, with most of their work, of course, based on small, family-run farms. The three-month closed period is going to be pretty catastrophic for many of them. When 31 January arrives, they may well have no labour, no equipment to empty all these new big slurry stores, because, of course, they'd have little or no income coming in over the previous months. Some will go out of business. Some will vote with their feet and leave the industry. And if there are fewer contractors, then who on earth is going to be there to empty the bulging slurry stores when the closed period comes to an end on what many of us are now describing as national slurry spreading week? And if there's no-one there to move the slurry, then what happens? Maybe you could tell us how you think farmers can resolve that. I hope the regulatory impact assessment will take full account of the key role that contractors play.

Finally, we've heard a lot about planning; whilst I acknowledge there is a capacity issue, what I would ask you is: what is your message to those farmers who have actually already applied for planning permission to meet the new requirements with bigger slurry stores, but who've had their planning applications refused, not once, not twice, many times, and now find themselves not able to meet your new requirements and not being allowed to adapt in order to meet your new requirements? What's your message to them? Because what I'm hearing is that you are effectively forcing them to shut down the family farm.

15:35

Can I thank the committee for their report, and the Minister for the recent statement as well related to this? I better declare at the outset my role as the salmon champion. But also, I have to say, for the decade that I've been an elected representative, I've also championed the needs and aspirations of small and medium-scale farmers, particularly those who are strongly sustainable in their farming and are strongly pro-environment and environmental gains as well. And many of them, including award-winning farmers, are within my own constituency, which is often described as a former coalfield constituency. It's far more than that; it's a very rural constituency, and has always had farming embedded deep within it long before industry came there. 

We are facing really challenging times for farming, but we're also facing real challenges in terms of nature. We're in a nature crisis and a biodiversity crisis. We've seen recent announcements by the Welsh Government, who recognise that. We're running up to COP15 with the biodiversity announcements. We're looking for the targets to come back, to be bolted down by Julie James, the Minister, and to be translated into action here in Wales. So, that forms the backdrop of where we are. 

It's interesting, the response to this report—the polar response to it. Environmental groups have lined up to say this is really disappointing, this is really sad, this is a delay, and a delay means, once again, we're going to see polluted rivers. Farming Unions—the Farmers Union of Wales, the National Farmers Union, and others—have lined up to say that this is a breathing space. That's an actual quote from one of them—a breathing space, a chance to rethink perhaps, not just with the licensing and so on, but, actually, more fundamentally. That's what they're putting out to their members. So, it leaves me in some confusion, Llywydd, as to actually what we are discussing here, not just on the back of the report, but what the Government has announced. Is this a fundamental rethink? Is it just a temporary pause? Is it some tweaking? Or is it, actually, that in three, four months, five months, we proceed as normal and we do the review, and we're actually going to proceed as has originally been laid out? I don't know. Perhaps the Minister can answer me today, but the challenge and the diversity in those responses has been quite telling. 

There's clearly been a role for this committee report. There has been a challenge within the courts that was unsuccessful. The committee actually had to wait to see what that was before it brought forward its own consideration and have the Minister in front of them. I see that. There's also been the co-operation agreement as well, and I have no doubt, personally, that the co-operation agreement has played into what we're seeing playing out in front of us right at this moment. But my message is as simple as this: we can't carry on, given the uncertainty out there. The points that Llyr just made about investment decisions by farmers are well made, as is the point that Jayne made about exactly the same: are we going to say to ones who've already invested, 'Well, that was a waste of money' because we're now going to have some super-duper technology solution that means that was wasted money?

There may well be technology solutions coming down the line in future. Absolutely. But we cannot discount the investment that some farmers have chosen to make to try and do the right thing, to actually go to their bank managers, and say, 'Can we lever in some funding? I'll need to take out a 20-year loan in order to do it. I'm going to go to some of the Farming Connect support and so on to do this as well, but I'm going to have to take a decision here.' We can't throw them under the bus now; we're going to have to say to them, 'That is money well spent not only for your farm, but for the environment as well'. Farmers will welcome some additional time, there's no doubt, within this, but, I think, we need to be absolutely honest, as this goes forward with the consultation on licencing and so on, what this actually means, whether it's a fundamental rethink of something else. 

One thing I did want to stress was the importance of these new NRW advisers. For too long, we haven't had the right information, the right people standing on site, who understand farming, but also are willing to give the most modern, the most up-to-date thinking in terms of what the best environmental support is. I've got environmentally award-winning farmers in my patch, they know what they're doing, but it's not true of every farmer. When that farmer also has an agronomist saying, 'Let me advise you on this stuff, and, by the way, I'm selling it as well', that's not the way to proceed. So, these NRW advisers, the quantum of them, and the expertise of them, and getting them in place in time, is going to be critical. 

Let me just turn to one point that illustrates this classic thing we were saying about uncertainty here. It relates to a few contributions that have already been made. On recommendation 1—and it is worth just pulling out just a couple of points from here—the Government is unable to accept this recommendation. This is to do with derogation on grassland farms that spread up to 250 kg per hectare and so on. It goes on to say that at no point did derogation in previous regimes enable the application of nutrients above the level of crop need, et cetera. But, then, of course, there's been a statement. I suspect it's come out of the Plaid Cymru co-operation agreement. We need, at some point, to draw a line under all of this. There is a delay; next spring, we need to have absolute certainty, because, frankly, small and medium-scale farmers won't forgive us unless we give real certainty as soon as possible, and neither, frankly, will the environment: the quality of our rivers, the quality of our soil and everything else. We need to decide which way is the way forward, and, then, really get on with it. 

15:40

I have read the report with interest. I've made my views very clear on agricultural pollution many times over many years here in this Chamber. I contrasted the tough, but necessary, action that we've taken in Wales with the regime of negligence in England only last week. That has enabled a proliferation of agricultural pollution in our waterways with devastating environmental consequences. So, while I'm cautious, and I mean extremely cautious, to welcome any watering down of the regulations—because that's what it is—that were introduced last April, I appreciate that politics is the art of the possible, and, in the end, whatever works to protect the environment is the way forward. So, I support the Minister's resolve to find a sustainable solution that works for our farming industry, but achieves those vital ecological ends. And you won't be surprised that I'll be watching that extremely closely and speaking out, if I feel the need. I am frustrated that some farming businesses failed to take necessary steps to comply with the regulations pending that unsuccessful judicial review. The Minister's recent statement implied as much. 

15:45

In a minute.

It's not acceptable, and it does really set a poor precedent. We've heard from Huw Irranca quite clearly that it is the case that most farmers want to comply with and see the advantage of a favourable environmental condition, not only on their farms but in the rivers as well. It is not the intention, we all know that it isn't the intention, of most farmers to pollute. Unfortunately, it has been the case that there have been instances where deliberate pollution has happened and there's been plenty of evidence to that end.

Thank you. I'm grateful to the Member for giving way, and I'd just like to declare an interest as well; it was remiss of me not to do that at the beginning.

But, at the same time, the reason that these businesses have failed to comply in the sense that you're saying is that they're trying to; they're trying their very best to go to local authorities to ask for that planning application, to ask for that planning to be approved so that they can install the infrastructure, the slurry lagoons that are necessary, but they're being turned down by local authorities.

That is probably the case in some instances. I don't accept it's the case in all instances, though, I have to say. And I don't think that businesses should be rewarded for failure to prepare or to comply with legal obligations. However, I do appreciate that the rising costs and global circumstances that were mentioned have added additional pressures. Although, actually, these regulations were well known well ahead of that. 

So, I'd like to know about the £20 million—and I welcome it—to help achieve compliance, but to be reassured that people aren't being double paid—that people who've already been paid to comply aren't getting more money or the same money twice. 

The committee recommends this derogation that we've heard about—the 250 kg per hectare of nitrogen. While that was not accepted, the implementation date for the 170 kg per hectare limit has been put back. I find that extremely disappointing. The Minister has announced a consultation on the 250 kg per hectare licensing scheme until 2050. We should, of course, assess the economic and the environmental impact of the reduced limit, but in my view, 170 should remain the default limit. I support Wales Environment Link's view that alternative ways of managing animal waste should be found, as opposed to reintroducing that higher limit. So, there are other ways. If we don't look at other ways, we're back to exactly where we started again, and agricultural pollution is the most frequent cause of contamination in our waterways. If we fail to deal with that, we fail our farming community and the wider environment. With that in mind, we should all support whatever is available and whatever works for the protection of our environment, which, ultimately, is protecting the future sustainability of all our land and our waterways.

The Minister for rural affairs now to contribute to the debate—Lesley Griffiths.

Member
Lesley Griffiths 15:48:37
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch, Llywydd. I would like to thank the Chair and members of the committee for their work in carrying out this review and drawing up the report and recommendations. And I thank those who've participated in today's debate and I will try to respond to as many points as possible.

The report from the committee raises a series of constructive points with respect to the implementation of the regulations. The report provides recommendations that seek to help us ensure that the regulations and support available to help farmers comply are both well understood and adequate to the scale of the challenge we all face. I've agreed to provide further detail and assurances on funding and in relation to NRW's enforcement role and the arrangements for regulatory review. I've provided further clarification in relation to how we guard against unintended consequences and how they can be applied in a way that safeguards the interest of tenant farmers and those facing TB restrictions. 

The committee has also made recommendations in relation to the work of the Wales land management forum, and I fully support the spirit of those recommendations. I am not able to direct the work of that forum, but with the agreement of its members, I am happy to continue to work with the group in exactly the way that the committee has recommended. The first recommendation of the committee report seeks the introduction of a process to allow farmers to spread higher levels of slurry, providing certain conditions are met. I've been working throughout the summer on ensuring that we find a way of responding positively to this recommendation and, as part of the co-operation agreement, Plaid Cymru has also been closely and actively engaged in this work.

Last week, I published a written statement arising from those discussions with Plaid Cymru, which sets out our intention to make provision for a consultation to take place to examine this proposal, and to bring forward changes to the regulations should it be established that such a scheme is both practical for farmers and protective of the environment on which they, as do all of us, rely. So, just to reassure Jane Dodds, I want to say that I can't pre-empt the consultation. It's a meaningful consultation, so no design has been worked up in the way that you are asking for some assurance, because it would be wrong to have a consultation that wasn't meaningful. Huw Irranca-Davies asked if there was going to be a fundamental rethink—absolutely not. This is just delaying one regulation whilst we look at a licensing scheme, and we will be working with Plaid Cymru to design that scheme and we will be going out to a full consultation. Paul Davies, again talking about the licensing scheme, you mentioned the need to ensure no further bureaucracy, and I go back to what I was saying to Jane Dodds, the consultation will be out there; it will be a 12-week consultation. Please, everybody, put your views forward, because, then, as we make the design of the scheme, obviously, we can ensure that there's less bureaucracy.

It is not possible to accept the committee's recommendation in relation to recommendation 1 in the way it was formulated—a point I think I have explained in detail in my response to the committee's report. However, I do hope that committee will see that this does provide a way of responding positively in the spirit in which I know that the recommendation was intended. 

The Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations—not nitrate vulnerable zones, Sam, you might want to continue discussing NVZs; clearly, you know the difference, I don't—are absolutely critical to delivering on our domestic and international legal obligations. And whilst the regulations focus on nitrates, the actions that they require are also a necessary means of addressing a range of other matters, all of which I know are extremely important to Members right across this Senedd.

Dealing with agricultural pollution is an urgent and necessary priority to mitigate the impact of the climate emergency, because of the greenhouse gasses it contains, as well as the release of emissions as a result of the environmental damage that it causes, and it needs, as Jane Dodds referred to, a team Wales approach. Agricultural pollution is the predominant source of harmful ammonia pollution, which threatens the development of children's lungs and levels of cardiac disease, as well as the conservation of ancient woodlands.

Quite a few Members raised the £20 million. James Evans mentioned it and clearly doesn't think that it's enough. And, as Llyr said, I don't think anybody would say that that would be the first amount of money that we've brought forward; we've brought significant funding forward. But let me just tell you: I don't have a pot of money where I can just find another £20 million, and it's just a pity that the UK Government put the bankers first, rather than our hard-working farmers. Joyce Watson looked for some assurance around farmers not being paid double, and I've always said that we could not give public money to ensure that farmers complied with the regulations that were already there, so I can assure you around that.

Several Members mentioned the new technology, and Cefin Campbell and I went to Gelli Aur to see how that technology was coming forward, and the Welsh Government's been very happy to support that. I hadn't been for about three years, I think, and it was good to see the progress that was being made. But we are still seeing substantiated agricultural pollution incidents every month reaching double figures this year again, and we have to do something now. Agricultural pollution is also a significant source of phosphate pollution, which is currently preventing the development of housing and other key infrastructure that we know is urgently needed to improve the lives of every community in Wales. So, I very much welcome the opportunity in this debate to underline my commitment to action on climate, to clean air, to water quality and to halting and reversing the decline in biodiversity, and I know that farmers—the majority of them—share those things as well. And any decision I make will honour and advance those commitments, and these commitments, let me just remind everybody, are enshrined in law. They are simply a reflection of our moral responsibility to hand on Wales's natural heritage to the next generation in a better state than we found it. 

In discussing our environmental obligations, it is, unfortunately, necessary to highlight that the UK Conservative Government has signalled its intention to repeal all retained EU law, and that includes critical environmental protections. So, I believe that this is a deeply misguided policy that will cause, at best—[Interruption.]. Yes.

15:55

I'm giving the Minister the opportunity to reflect on the comments made this week by the former long-serving agricultural Minister in DEFRA, George Eustice, who himself has laid into—has lain waste to—the proposals that are now coming out of the UK Government, on the back of the work that has been put in, and the work that has been put in with farmers, to actually drive greater levels of environmental stewardship. He now says that that is being thrown out of the window—thrown under the bus—by the UK Government.

I think that we can see why George Eustice is no longer the Secretary of State in DEFRA.

However, this Welsh Labour Government remains committed to upholding and keeping pace with EU environmental standards. I will resist and, where possible, prevent any changes made by the Conservatives in Westminster from undermining those standards, and that includes as they are reflected in the agricultural pollution regulations. While the committee report was published before the UK Government’s policy was announced, I am sure that the committee would agree that no undermining of EU environmental standards should be allowed in Wales.

A couple of Members raised issues around actions that farmers had already taken in relation to the new regulations. I think that it’s fair to say that some farmers have taken action already, and I think that they will have delivered benefits both for their businesses and for the environment. I think that many farmers did make efforts to do so in advance of the prospect of the 2021 regulations, because of the benefits that they could see for their business.

I very much welcome the fact that the committee and other Senedd Members will continue to take an interest in this area. I continue to believe that the best future for Welsh farming is a future in which we keep farmers on the land, supporting them to produce food in a way that is sustainable for the environment and for their business. And in the week that, for the very first time for generations, Welsh lamb is being exported to North America, we can be sure that maintaining high standards will continue to be critical to our success. Am I able to take an intervention?  

Sorry, I just suspected that you were winding up. You haven't addressed the closed periods, which have been raised by about three or four different speakers.

I wasn't winding up, actually. I was just seeing the time. Just in relation to closed periods, if I can answer Llyr: you are quite right, it was something that I really did grapple with for a long time. One of the things that persuaded me was around the crop need and the nutrient applications that need to be made. It's really interesting that not one member, in any of their responses, mentioned crop requirements or crop needs.

So, just to make it shorter: I know that applying slurry—. The crop growth and the nutrient requirements in winter may increase due to soil temperature increases, but one of the factors for me was that sunlight hours don't change very much. So, that was the reason why I was persuaded in the end. That was one of the main reasons, but there were quite a few reasons. But it was something—you are absolutely right—that I did sort of grapple with.

In conclusion, I do remain committed to working with Members of the Senedd, and with all of our Welsh stakeholders, as we continue to bear down on the levels of agricultural pollution that present such a clear threat to the natural environment. Diolch. 

Paul Davies, Chair of the committee, to reply to the debate. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Can I thank Members for contributing to this debate this afternoon? There is no mistaking just how important these regulations are, and how important it is that we set the correct balance between protecting the environment and supporting our farmers to produce the food that our nation needs.

We've heard very insightful and, indeed, passionate contributions this afternoon, and I'm sure that Members will understand that I won't be able to respond to each and every one. But I am grateful to the Member for Caerphilly for raising the timescales that the Welsh has had to respond to our report, and I very much agree with him: it was important that the Government took time to consider our report in detail. The only point that I would make regarding the timescales is that the reporting deadline was breached, because the deadline was on 14 September, and the report was actually laid on 8 June. It would have been, perhaps, helpful if the Government had just kept the committee updated on when it intended to respond to the report, but I am grateful to the Minister that she has also written to me again today on that point.

16:00

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

Now, Members such as the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire and the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd have raised the impact of implementing these regulations on farmers, in particular the financial costs. The committee understands that these regulations will have a huge impact on Welsh farming and that they could seriously threaten the sustainability of many farms. For that reason, we recommended that the Welsh Government set out exactly what support will be made available to farmers to meet the water quality and other various requirements of the regulations. This should, of course, include the amounts, the funding delivery mechanisms and indeed the timescales.

Members such as Jane Dodds and Llyr Gruffydd have also raised the use of technology this afternoon, and, as I said earlier, the committee received strong evidence about the use of technology to facilitate greater flexibility in when farmers could spread slurry. Now, the Minister made it very clear to the committee that the Welsh Government is open to considering alternative measures and technology, and I welcome that commitment. But I hope that, as Llyr Gruffydd said, the Government will look at technological alternatives in the near future, not just in the next few years.

More generally as a committee we look forward to receiving further information on the implementation of these regulations. We are particularly keen to learn more about the preparations for Natural Resources Wales to be in a position to adequately and fairly enforce these regulations. We’re also keen to see a detailed breakdown of support for farmers to comply with these regulations, and we’d also like to receive more information about the Welsh Government’s proposed licensing system for farms that need to use higher nitrogen. I know that the Minister said that this consultation will now take place, and I look forward to that consultation.

As I said in opening this debate, I believe stepping away from farming by calendar and introducing a technology-based approach to spreading is vital for Welsh farming. I’ve heard what the Minister has said this afternoon, but I do hope that this is a core feature of the planned review of these regulations, a review that I expect committee members will also be keen to be involved in.

Dirprwy Lywydd, I’d like to finish this debate by thanking everyone who gave evidence to the committee. The only way of ensuring these regulations strike the right balance is by rooting them in evidence, and that’s the same for the committee’s report. I believe our report and the recommendations in it are based on a high level of good quality evidence. Therefore, in closing, can I thank Members and the Minister for their contributions today, and say that the committee looks forward to being updated on the progress of the implementation of our recommendations in due course? Diolch yn fawr iawn.