Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

17/01/2023

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 First Minister

Good afternoon and welcome to this afternoon's Plenary meeting. The first item on our agenda will be questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Samuel Kurtz. 

Renewable Energy Projects

1. How is the Welsh Government supporting renewable energy projects in the Celtic sea? OQ58979

Llywydd, investment in physical infrastructure, and a workforce skilled for the future, are amongst the actions taken by the Welsh Government to support energy technologies in the Celtic sea.

Diolch, Prif Weinidog. And can I begin by welcoming the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society's rural leadership programme group, who are in the public gallery this afternoon?

Prif Weinidog, this evening, I have the immense honour of hosting a cross-party reception in the Neuadd on the Haven Waterway future energy cluster. It brings together the Haven Waterway's major traditional energy companies with new and exciting renewable developers, and the supply chain, to lead in decarbonisation. You'll be aware, Prif Weinidog, that I'm a big advocate for the opportunities presented to Wales from both the Haven Waterway and the Celtic sea, from floating offshore wind to tidal, wave and hydrogen initiatives, and even the progressive Celtic free-port bid. So, it does feel as if we're on the cusp of a green energy revolution in west Wales. So, given the strategic importance of the Haven Waterway and the Celtic sea, what assurances can you give to developers and groups, such as the future energy cluster, that Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales will operate in a timely manner to ensure these opportunities aren't lost? Diolch.

Well, Llywydd, I thank Sam Kurtz for that question, and congratulate him on hosting the future energy cluster event today; I think it's a great event to have here in the Senedd. And I agree with everything that the Member said about the immense possibilities that renewable energy, including floating offshore wind and other projects in the Celtic sea, hold out for his part of Wales, but for Wales as a whole. And, in that, the Welsh Government is absolutely aware of the need to have a consenting regime that is robust, of course, as it must be, but is also streamlined, effective and enabling. I have been in discussions with NRW myself. I know the Minister has a meeting with NRW today to talk about the end-to-end marine licensing review, which the Welsh Government commissioned, carried out independently. The consultants said that there was nothing, fundamentally, that needed to be repaired in the current regime, but that there were ways in which it could be made to work more effectively. 

Developers have their part to play as well in all that. They have responsibilities to submit applications based on early engagement, best available evidence, and where the quality of the application itself doesn't hold up the process. Then, it is for NRW to ensure that they have the necessary resources in place to be able to deal with those applications in a way that respects the very important responsibilities they have as an environmental regulator, but also recognises the huge opportunities that renewable energy provides for Wales, and our contribution that we can make to tackling that great crisis of our time in global warming. 

I do think there's real benefit in thinking in a joined-up way about offshore wind off the west coast of Wales—the Celtic and Irish seas. I think the free-port bidding process offers an opportunity to do that. Now, as you can imagine, I'm confident in the quality of the Holyhead/Ynys Môn north Wales free-port bid for what it can offer in terms of growing that sector, as well as mitigation for post-Brexit losses that affected the port of Holyhead. But would the First Minister agree with me that the best way, perhaps, to ensure the growth of that sector, in a way that benefits the whole of Wales, would be to not only support our bid, but also to ensure a second free port, which could enable Celtic sea and Irish sea developments to work in parallel greater than the sum of their parts? 

Well, Llywydd, I must be careful in what I say, because there is a process and bids are being assessed objectively, as they must be, by civil servants both here in Wales and at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I will just remind Members that the agreement we struck with the UK Government does not rule out there being two free ports here in Wales. One is the expectation, but two is not impossible, and the quality of the bids, and the assessment made of them, will, of course, be pivotal to deciding whether or not we're able to persuade the UK Government to go down that second route. 

13:35

I thank Sam for bringing this question forward, because the potential here in the Celtic sea is, of course, for west Wales, and for the whole of the south Wales seaboard as well, in terms of manufacturing, supply chain, and so on. And we have to have that rigorous consenting regime as well, to make sure this works. But, can I ask you, First Minister—? Learning from the past is important within this. We need the right port infrastructure, and, indeed, it would be great to see two bids going through from Wales as well. We need those local grid connections to actually bring this onshore, but what we've learned from previous iterations is that we need the National Grid to be strengthened as well. So, could I ask you what discussions you're going to have with the UK Government and the regulator about strengthening the market signals that say we must have this investment—Wales deserves its fair share of investment in the grid as well. We can do so much on our own, but we need the UK to step up as well.

Well, Llywydd, I think they're two very important points made there by Huw Irranca-Davies. We do need to learn the lessons of previous renewables. There is still no offshore wind industrial strategy out of the UK Government, despite the fact that we have been calling for one, and others in the industry have been calling for one. We do have concerns that, in the reliance on competitive processes to drive down the cost of projects, that will result in the cheapest supply chain solutions, rather than investing in the long-term value, which is to be had there for Wales by making sure not only that energy is produced in the Celtic sea, but that everything that goes into that has a local supply chain, creating jobs in the process.

As to the grid, I sometimes think, Llywydd, because it is called the National Grid, that people don't realise that this is a private company, listed on the stock market, distributing £1 billion every year in dividends to shareholders. Indeed, it distributed £4.5 billion in 2017 alone, directly into the hands of shareholders, when we know that there is not enough investment going into the vital connections that the grid provides. When I was in Ireland in the autumn, Llywydd, I took part in a round-table discussion with the foreign Minister of the Irish Government and developers interested in the Celtic sea from the Irish perspective as well. I was struck by what a major developer said there—that their greatest fear was that they would bring the energy all the way to the beach and then there would be nothing that you could do with it, because there would be no connection into the grid.

I saw an article just this week by Molly Scott Cato, the Green economist, saying that there are almost 700 renewable energy projects on hold across the United Kingdom, waiting for the National Grid to find them capacity. Well, my own preference would be to bring the National Grid under public control so that it was run in the public interest and where there was no leakage into private profit of the resources of that company. In the meantime, we work with the company and with others here in Wales. We were glad to see, last year, a move towards anticipatory demand in the grid system, glad to see that the latest energy Minister at the UK Government says that improving the grid is his top priority, in all his responsibilities. There is undoubtedly a need for a step change in making sure that the grid is fit not just for today, but for the future, so that when we put the Celtic sea to work, in the way that Sam Kurtz said in his original question, there will be the infrastructure there to take up the energy that will be produced.

Subsidy Control

2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the impact on Wales of the recent transition to the new UK subsidy control regime? OQ58972

Llywydd, the UK subsidy regime is not the regime the Welsh Government would have designed, nor was it one supported by this Senedd. We will work, however, with public authorities to equip staff to understand and utilise the new regime, mitigating its many imperfections.

13:40

Thank you, First Minister. I recently met with a business within my region who are developing technologies that will have a profound impact on helping to reverse the effects of climate change and are in the process of applying for Welsh Government funding, but it seems like the whole process is taking considerable time and much longer than previous applications, which is having a detrimental impact on their forward planning. I'm conscious that you cannot discuss individual applications, but I'm wondering if the delay in the application process is due to a cut in funding, and, in which case, what levels of funding are now available and what will be the ratio of grant to loan in those settlements? Or, if the delay is due to the transition to the new UK subsidy control regime and single-year settlements, what is the Welsh Government doing to smooth the transition to the new system? Thank you.

Llywydd, the new subsidy regime is already in force; it came into force on 5 January. I'm obviously not aware of the details of the individual case that Joel James mentions, but I would not be surprised to find that the new complexities of the subsidy regime are playing their part in any delays because, for the very first time, the system, by introducing intra-UK subsidies within the focus of the law, introduced new legal risks into the subsidy process. Two rival companies on the same high street can, for the first time, ask for a judicial review of every single subsidy that their neighbours may have negotiated. Inevitably, that makes those organisations responsible for providing subsidies more cautious in making those decisions, because the legal risks involved in making any award have been increased by the new subsidy control regime. So, if that does lie near the heart of the delay that Joel James mentioned, it doesn't surprise me, and it is inevitable that those members of staff in public authorities responsible for making those decisions will be having to become familiar with the new regime and, in the early days, are likely to take longer in making those decisions. But, in the longer run, there are new risks in the subsidy control arrangements, and they will be risks that will particularly fall hard on us here in Wales.

That's no surprise, is it, First Minister, that something created by this UK Government will adversely affect Wales? The Scots have learnt this week about the UK Government's disregard for democracy. What we have understood is that we have a chaotic subsidy control regime introduced post Brexit, when the reality of taking back control was not to give control to the people of Wales, to the communities of Wales, to enable the businesses of Wales to flourish, but to take back control to a few Ministers in London, their cronies in the House of Lords and all their party donors. That's the reality of 'take back control', and the people of Wales and Joel's constituents are suffering as a consequence of it.

Alun Davies makes a number of very powerful points there. I should remind Members of the Senedd that, of course, this Senedd denied legislative consent to the UK Bill on 1 March last year, and then the Sewel convention was disregarded and the lack of consent from this Parliament was simply ignored by the UK Government that went ahead and imposed this solution on us anyway. Here are just two ways, Llywydd, in which the new system acts against the interest of Wales. First of all, it removes any sense of assisted areas from the subsidy regime. Indeed, the first draft of the Bill referred to the levelling-up principles of the UK Government. That was abandoned by the time the Bill reached the statute book. So, as my colleague Rebecca Evans said in her letter to the UK Government before our consent motion was debated, the Bill puts Mayfair and Merthyr on exactly the same basis when it comes to providing subsidies. That simply means that those with the deepest pockets will use that advantage to make themselves even more advantaged, while those with the least will end up with the greatest struggle.

And here is just a second example, Llywydd. The UK Government insisted that agriculture and fisheries should be brought within the scope of this Bill. They never were, while we were members of the European Union; they were dealt with separately. We asked the UK Government what the evidence was for bringing agriculture and fisheries within scope. They said to us that it was to be found in the responses to consultation. We asked them where the responses to consultation were to be found. We were told that they hadn't been published. We asked if we could see the responses that justified this inclusion, and we were told that, no, we couldn't. So, here we are. We have a major change, which has, I think, real implications for Welsh agriculture, because the system is based on seven principles, the third of those is that any subsidy must be designed to bring about a change of economic behaviour of the beneficiary. Where single farm payments fit into that, I really do not know. But we can't know, because the whole basis on which the UK Government decided to make this major change was unexplained by them, and the evidence that they pointed to was never made available to us.

13:45
Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

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

Thank you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, last week, regrettably, Wizz Air chose to leave Cardiff Airport. To date, the Welsh Government have invested or made available to the airport £225 million—nearly £0.25 billion. You are the owners of the airport, albeit you have set up an arm's-length company to operate the airport. Do you believe that £225 million is money well spent?

Llywydd, I have always believed that a regional airport is an essential part of the economic infrastructure of any part of the United Kingdom that seeks to support the modern conditions under which the economy must operate. The private sector was unable to do that. It was right that the public purse stepped in. It's an investment in the future of the Welsh economy, and one that this Government was pleased to make.

First Minister, after £0.25 billion, the airport sadly has fewer passengers now than it has had for a very long time. Yes, COVID intervened to obviously affect all airports, but if you take Bristol Airport, it has seen a 22 per cent decline in its passenger numbers but still handles close to 7 million passengers. If you take Birmingham Airport, another competitor, they have seen a 33 per cent decline, and still handle 8.5 million passengers. It is a fact that no airport that I can find has had such a generosity of Government money made available to it—£0.25 billion—and had such poor outcomes achieved. What are the new plans available to make sure that that £225 million is protected, and that, ultimately, you can resurrect the airport, because I think the taxpayer, in fairness, deserves to know is this a bad investment that is going to continue to go wrong, or do you have a long-term plan that can resurrect Cardiff Airport, which, obviously, you acquired back in 2013?

Well, Llywydd, the Welsh Conservative Party has never supported the airport. It has always done its best to talk down its chances of success. They never like to face up to their own responsibilities, Llywydd. Time after time after time on the floor of the Senedd, I have heard Conservative spokespeople here complain about the airport, suggest that it shouldn't have been taken into public ownership, and generally undermine the airport's prospects of success. The Member will know that figures from the Civil Aviation Authority showed that passenger growth at Cardiff Airport had increased by more than 50 per cent in March 2020, the month in which COVID hit us all, and that growth had happened since the Welsh Government purchased Cardiff Airport—strong growth, and a path that the airport was on, clearly, towards future profitability. Indeed, it had made a profit in that year. 

Now, since the pandemic, of course the airport faces a much more difficult future. Demand for air travel has fallen across the world. It has not recovered, and the downturn in the UK economy means that industry experts are now predicting that this coming year will be a year in which air travel recovers more slowly in the United Kingdom than it will elsewhere. But, the rescue and recovery package that we have put in place with the airport, with those who are responsible for its future, is absolutely designed to make Cardiff Airport self-sustainable and profitable for the future. And when I hear Members shout, 'never' to that, that's exactly the sort of remark I meant when I said that, whenever we talk about a successful future for the airport here, Conservative Members intervene to cast doubt on its ability to be a successful part of the Welsh economy. 

13:50

First Minister, it is our job, when £0.25 billion has been spent on a project by the Welsh Government, to ask the questions that deserve the answers. We have brought two blueprints forward for a successful airport: once when it was purchased back in 2013 and in 2019. Most people would say that £225 million deserves some sort of dividend back and some sort of profitable enterprise. To date, the airport, under your ownership, has not turned in a profit. I can hear the Deputy Minister chuntering away there, but instead of chuntering away in this Chamber, he might be better off putting his efforts into trying to turn Cardiff Airport around so that we do have a successful airport. I gave you the figures about Bristol and Birmingham, which are the two closest airports that are rival airports. Cardiff's passenger numbers have dropped by in excess of 50 per cent because of COVID.

What people generally want to know is: do you have a plan to make it profitable and successful, which is what we on this side of the Chamber want to see, or will it require more money, which will be diverted from health, education and the other priorities that the Welsh electorate reasonably expect the Government to spend the money on? So, do you have a plan and can you outline it today to this Chamber—how you're going to turn Cardiff Airport around to get passengers going through the terminal and flights taking off? Because if I look at the accounts on Companies House, I cannot even find the up-to-date accounts because they haven't been filed yet. You're the owners; when are we going to be able to see the accounts, First Minister?

Well, you'll see the accounts in March, when they are always published. They will be published in March 2023. They are published every—. The fact that the Member isn't able to find them is not my problem. [Laughter.] He needs to employ people to do his research for him in that case. I just tell the Chamber this, Llywydd: the airport publishes accounts every year. They will be published in March of this year, and the Member, if he's able to, will be able to locate them as a result. I said in my second answer, Llywydd, that there is a rescue and recovery plan in place. It's published, it's available for Members to see. 

I'll just end with this point to the Member, that, when this Senedd sought the devolution of air passenger duty, something that is available—[Interruption.] You supported it, but your Government didn't support it, did it? Your Government refused that request because of its wish to protect Bristol Airport. If there was a level playing field at the UK Government, then we would see different results.

The leader of Plaid Cymru next to ask questions. Adam Price.

Diolch, Llywydd. With the news of the teachers' strike on 1 February and the failure of the talks with the health unions last week, public sector strikes in Wales are widening and deepening. What's the strategy of the Government, First Minister, to prevent this winter of discontent continuing on into spring and into summer? Is it your policy that you're going to offer the one-off payment that you referred to in the case of the NHS workforce to the teaching workforce, for example? But, even if you are, then would you not accept that that doesn't get to grips with the central point about this public pay dispute, that as far as the public service unions are concerned, it comes after a decade of erosion of real-terms pay? And are you prepared to acknowledge, in the case of both the health and the teaching unions, that the recommendations of the pay review body relate to evidence taken in late 2021, early 2022, before the Russian-Ukraine war when inflation was about 4 per cent? By the time you accepted the recommendations, the cost of living was already nearing 10 per cent, so is there not a case, First Minister, for asking the pay bodies to revisit their work, and for you as a Government to agree to abide by any higher award if they were to do so on that basis?

13:55

Llywydd, first of all, on this, we absolutely recognise the impact that a decade of austerity has had on the pay packets of public sector workers. They are paid less in real terms today than they were 10 years ago, and the impact of inflation has amplified that impact in the lives of families in many parts of Wales. So, of course we understand why people who have never been on strike before feel compelled to take that action.

In the discussions that we had with our trade union colleagues in the health field—and by the way, I don’t accept the leader of Plaid Cymru’s characterisation of those talks as having failed—but in those talks, we put three different aspects on the table for discussion. One of those was how we could act together to re-inject confidence in the pay review process. Now, amongst the ideas that we would be prepared to put on the table would be to see how, in future, trigger points could be built in to the pay review process, so that, if events happened beyond the determination that need to reopen the determination, there would be an agreed path that everybody would understand to make that happen. Whether it is possible to do that retrospectively to the pay review body’s operation for the last financial year, I’m not so sure, but putting new life and new confidence into the process I think is a very important point, and I think the leader of Plaid Cymru’s right to make it.

I would urge him to look at that possibility for this financial year as well. One of the other issues that you did bring to the table, which was welcome, was the role of agency staff. Now, we saw the figures from the Royal College of Physicians that show that the total bill in the last financial year was £260 million. Do you accept the logic of the unions that, offering a significantly higher pay rise would reduce that agency bill? It’s an investment that would pay dividends, whereas at the moment, it’s a perniciously false economy. At the very least, should we not be creating a publicly owned staff agency for the NHS so that we can strip out profit and the exorbitant costs of private sector agencies? The last Labour Government in Westminster did this through the creation of NHS Professionals, a publicly owned national staff bank owned by the Department of Health, which reinvests surpluses back in the NHS. Couldn’t we combine that with the judicious use of milestones for capping and reducing the use of private agencies over time as part of a national workforce plan, which gets to grip with the longer term crisis of retention and recruitment that I referred to?

Llywydd, the first thing I want to do is to pay tribute to the work of agency staff. I’m worried about the tone of some of this debate that suggests that, somehow, agency staff are the problem in the NHS. The NHS absolutely depends upon agency staff. So, I’m not saying that the leader of Plaid Cymru did it, but I do hear in the wider debate some sort of sense that agency staff are somehow to blame, and actually, we depend on agency staff all the time. We wish to depend on fewer agency staff in the future—that is common ground. We put that on the table in the discussions with our health union colleagues last week.

It is not as simple as saying that there is £260 million to be saved; a great deal of that would be paid for people who would be in work on a non-agency basis. There is some increment that you can squeeze out of that sum, and that is an important thing for us to try to do. The bank system is a publicly provided way in which people can work on shifts where they would not normally be employed, and there may be, in the discussions we’ll have with our trade unions colleagues, more that we can do in that area. There will always be a role for agency workers to cover short-term absences, when we know that, sometimes, people will be away for training and other things, and if we didn't have them—if we didn't have them—the system would be under an even greater pressure than it is today.

14:00

But the point is, First Minister, that that agency doesn't have to be within the private sector, does it, it could be within the public sector.

Now, could I turn to another matter that has already been referred to, the UK Government's veto over the gender recognition reform Bill in Scotland? Do you agree with me that this sets a very dangerous precedent, not only in terms of your own Government's aspirations, which we share, to bring forward similar legislation here, but also in terms of devolution more generally and the use of, in our case, section 114, I believe, in the Government of Wales Act 2006? If you do share that view, will you be urging Welsh Labour MPs to vote against the Secretary for State for Scotland's Order when it's debated on the floor of the House of Commons? If that parliamentary procedure is unsuccessful, are you prepared to consider, at least, the Welsh Government intervening in the legal action that the Scottish Government has indicated that they intend bringing at the Supreme Court, because of this wider principle, not just in terms of the rights of the trans community, but also in terms of our democracy here? And, as a matter of principle, given that Sir Keir Starmer has said he disagrees with the application of the new rules to 16 and 17-year-olds—against the views, it has to be said, of the Labour Party in Scotland—can you set out what is the position of the Labour Party here in Wales in relation to that matter?

There are a series of questions there, Llywydd, and I'll try and attend to as many as I can. On the biggest question of all, I do agree with the leader of Plaid Cymru; I think the UK Government's decision to use powers that have never been used in the whole history of devolution is a very dangerous moment, and I agree with the First Minister of Scotland that this could be a very slippery slope indeed. The reason why I say that is because, I'm afraid, we have the precedent of what has happened to the Sewel convention in front of us. The Sewel convention was never breached, not once, by Conservative Governments, as well as Labour Governments, for nearly 20 years. Since the first breach of it, we now see, as the Williams and McAllister commission, in their interim report, said, the breach of Sewel becoming almost normalised. I think, by the end of this year, it will have been breached more than 10 times. Now, that just tells you that, once you've done this once, using it again becomes easier, and the second time leads to the third time very rapidly.

That is why I really regret the UK Government's decision to act in this way, but it's part of a wider pattern, Llywydd, of this UK Government. If you find yourself in a different position to somebody else, instead of sitting down, instead of trying to negotiate, instead of trying to find an agreed way forward, you simply use the force you have to overcome them. If you don't like strikers, then you pass a law to stop people striking. If you don't like protesters, you pass a law that criminalises protesters before they've even done anything at all. And if you don't like an Act passed in another Parliament, you use the force you have in your Parliament to overcome what the other Parliament has done. It's a repeated pattern that you see with this Government, and in this instance it quite certainly throws up enormous constitutional ramifications.

Will we associate ourselves with any Supreme Court case? Well, we've shown a willingness to do that in the past. It's premature for me to say how we might be able to do that, given that there isn't a case yet there, but, as the Member will know, we have previously made sure that Welsh interests were represented in the Supreme Court when there were matters of constitutional significance to Wales at stake, and we would certainly be prepared to do that again.

North Denbighshire Community Hospital

3. Will the First Minister make a statement on the delivery of the north Denbighshire community hospital? OQ58958

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. Successive Welsh Governments have supported the local health board's ambition to take forward plans for a north Denbighshire community hospital. Escalating costs and falling capital budgets mean that the plan has to be considered in the context of health and social care investments across the whole of north Wales. 

Thank you for that response, First Minister. I want to be the first to acknowledge the fact that the Welsh Government has indeed supported this project historically, and I would like to see this project delivered.

I met just last week with the leader of Denbighshire County Council and, as you will know, one of their key priorities is the delivery of this project, not just because of the impact that it will have on nearby Glan Clwyd Hospital, and the communities that it will serve between Abergele and Prestatyn, but also because of the enormous regeneration impact that this project can have in the town of Rhyl, which, again, has been a focus of the Welsh Government in the past. I appreciate that money is tight. I acknowledge fully that the costs of the project have risen. But, given the importance of this project, given the pressure that's currently out there that the NHS is facing, particularly in north Wales and at Glan Clwyd, can I implore the Welsh Government and for you personally to intervene, to take another look at this project, because I think it is important, for the people of north Denbighshire and beyond, that it is delivered? 

14:05

Well, Llywydd, I thank Darren Millar for the way in which he put that question and for his recognition of the context within which decisions about the scheme have to be taken. I'm keen to assure him that the Welsh Government continues to be directly engaged in all of this. The health Minister herself met with the health board and the local authority in the run-up to Christmas. That meeting agreed that two pieces of work needed to be carried out. The health board does need to undertake a prioritisation exercise. There are schemes right across the whole of north Wales, and just as the Member has this afternoon, absolutely in line with his responsibilities, spoken up for his community and his constituency, so we receive similar letters and representations on the part of many other schemes across the whole of north Wales. So, the board must decide where its own priorities lie. And secondly, in that meeting, it was also agreed that the whole scheme should be put in front of the regional partnership board, for them to discuss it as well. 

Now, the Minister's senior officials wrote yesterday to the health board again, and to the local authority, asking them for an update on those two pieces of work. Because, for the Minister to be able to consider the business case again, that can only happen when we have those two very important pieces of contextual information. But I want to provide an assurance to Darren Millar, Llywydd, that the Minister has been directly involved, remains directly involved, and, as soon as we have those replies, she will be able to consider the whole position once again.

I've also been meeting with the leader of Denbighshire and officers and I was shocked now at the cost—due to inflationary pressures, it could be an £82 million capital build. I understand that capital funding has been cut by 11 per cent over the next few years, and that the borrowing limit for Wales has been restricted as well by the UK Government. We do need to do something, as Darren Millar has said, and I know the leader of Denbighshire is also really concerned. I understand it's a complex issue. So, First Minister, do you agree with me that it is also a social care issue, as well as an NHS issue, and that we should look at the borrowing cap from UK Government being lifted, so that we can do more work like this, as it's really needed in Wales for capital projects such as this one? Thank you. 

Well, Llywydd, the Member makes some important points, and it is exactly because of those points, that this is a community hospital where social care will be a very important part of the context within which it works, that the regional partnership board has been asked to consider the project. So, I agree with the point she made there. 

On the borrowing limit points, I would have hoped that this would be something where we might have common cause across the Chamber here. In 2016, we reached an agreement with the UK Government as to how we would take on our fiscal responsibilities. It set out the borrowing limit of the Welsh Government, the operation of the Welsh reserve. Those figures have never been updated. Our budget is 40 per cent larger in cash terms than it was in 2016, but we're managing it with the same limits that were right for 2016. If they were simply uprated in line with inflation, if their real value didn’t change, but their real value was sustained, then that would give us some additional flexibility around borrowing limits and how we manage the Welsh Government’s money in a sensible way. I think that’s all we’re suggesting. It’s what the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggested in their report on the operation of the fiscal framework. I’m quite sure that, in the very long list of things that UK Government has to think about, this is probably not near the top of it, but it’s just a sensible thing that they could do that would make a difference in sensible use of public money.

14:10
Flying Start

4. Will the First Minister provide an update on Welsh Government support for Flying Start? OQ58938

Flying Start is the Welsh Government’s flagship early years programme. It continues to make a real difference to the lives of children in some of our most disadvantaged communities, and we have reaffirmed our commitment to support the programme throughout the term of this Government.

Thank you, First Minister. I’m convinced of the benefits of Flying Start. It stops children starting formal schooling with a developmental age substantially below their actual age. We have seen in England the PM scrapping changes to the childcare system drawn up by his predecessor. In non-homogenous areas, lower super-output areas result in missed pockets of poverty. Does the Government plan a reappraisal, based upon the 2021 census results, with a view to identifying the child poverty being missed?

I completely agree with Mike Hedges, Llywydd, about the fantastic work that has been done by the Flying Start programme, and it's one of the benefits of devolution that we've been able to sustain that programme now for what will soon be 20 years. And of course its expansion forms part of the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru, and we have already seen the fruits of that—2,000 more children already benefitting from Flying Start—and we’ve agreed on the next phase as well, which will come into being from 1 April. Over time, that will see the childcare aspect of Flying Start universally available to all children from the age of two onwards, so there are plans in hand to do much of what Mike Hedges has asked. In the meantime we have Flying Start outreach, which is an ability for local authorities to offer Flying Start help to those families who don’t fall within its geographical boundaries, and it’s always a dilemma of geographically based programmes that there will be people outside those geographies who would equally have benefitted from the service that Flying Start provides. The agreement that we have with Plaid Cymru, the £46 million additional that we will invest as a result, will go a long way to answering the points the Member has made.

First Minister, the Flying Start scheme was introduced back in 2007 as one of the Government’s top priorities for tackling poverty in Wales, but currently Wales has the highest rate of children living in poverty compared to the rest of the nations in the UK. First Minister, this is quite frankly unacceptable and a damning record of 25 years of Labour Government here in Wales. So, what actions are you going to take to make sure that Flying Start is supported properly going forward, and when will we finally see real results and an end to the postcode lottery, particularly for my constituents in Denbighshire?

Well, Llywydd, I still manage to be amazed that a Conservative Member is willing to stand up here and criticise the growth in child poverty when his own Government—his own Government—publishes documents alongside their budget saying that the actions they have taken will lead directly—directly—to thousands and thousands more children across the United Kingdom living in poverty. Does he not feel any sense of shame that he represents a party that takes decisions deliberately, knowingly, that lead to children being in poverty? Here in Wales we do everything we can to mitigate that impact, and it’s right—the hill to reduce child poverty gets steeper with every year of austerity and cuts to public services that his Government introduces. But Flying Start is a flagship programme that has done fantastic work and continues to do fantastic work in many, many families right across Wales. Twenty-seven per cent of children in Wales benefit from it, and as a result of an agreement between my party and Plaid Cymru, even more families will benefit from it in future.

14:15
Rural Poverty

5. Will the First Minister make a statement on efforts to tackle rural poverty in Mid and West Wales? OQ58975

Llywydd, this year we are providing support worth £1.6 billion in programmes that protect disadvantaged households. In particular, we are providing support to rural households that use off-grid energy, investing in community food initiatives and providing warm hubs. This supports people who are struggling with food costs and keeping warm.

Thank you very much. According to the Wales Centre for Public Policy, rural poverty is often hidden under the surface by the comparative wealth of our rural areas, and a culture of self-reliance. As I said in the Plaid Cymru debate on child poverty before the Christmas recess, households across mid and west Wales are more vulnerable to poverty because of a number of factors such as lower than average incomes, lack of access to services and public transport, disproportionate levels of fuel poverty and food poverty, higher rents and a lack of affordable housing.

Now, we know that those who live in rural areas usually spend around 10 to 20 per cent more on everyday services and products, as compared to those who live in urban areas. As a result, deprivation is increasing in our communities, with five out of the six local authorities that have the highest levels of child poverty being located in those rural areas in Wales. Does the First Minister agree with me therefore that rural communities face unique challenges, and is he willing to commit to undertaking further research into this issue to develop a strategy to tackle increasing levels of rural poverty?

Of course, Llywydd, I recognise that there are certain factors that are unique to people living in rural areas, and I can agree with what the Member said: it is sometimes difficult to identify poverty in some of our rural communities. Of course, every part of Wales is facing a challenge at the moment—whether you live in the Valleys, in the centre of Cardiff, there are unique challenges in all parts of Wales. I can tell the Member that a plan will be drawn up. The Minister for Social Justice is currently working on practical steps that we can take to help, particularly in the area of child poverty. 

In the meantime, of course, there are a number of important things that are already in place. Free meals in our schools—that will be of great assistance to children wherever they live in Wales. And certainly within the Member's region, following the launch of the policy back in September of last year, there are 10,000 new pupils that have been captured under that programme, and by the end of April that number will increase to 13,000 children in the region too.

Primary Care

6. What are the Welsh Government's priorities for primary care in Mid and West Wales? OQ58976

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. In the first part of this Senedd term, we are in the process of agreeing new, reformed contracts with all four branches of primary care across Wales. Our priority is to secure maximum value from those contracts for patients, in terms of access, service sustainability and quality of care.

Thank you very much for the response. 

One aspect of primary care that I think most people know that I'm really concerned about is teeth, and particularly the teeth of our children across Wales. I understand that we don't have data about how many children are actually waiting for an NHS dentist. The only health boards that we've been able to get data from, having asked them specifically, were from Powys and from Cardiff. And, in Powys, a staggering 800 children are recorded as needing, and waiting for, NHS dental care. I met with a mother the other day who had had a phone call from her dentist to tell her that her children could no longer access that particular dentist, because they were switching to private care.63

First Minister, we understand many of the pressures that our dentists are under, but surely in this Siambr, we must be worried about the teeth of our children. So, could I ask you: when will we be getting data on the number of children across Wales who are waiting for an NHS dentist? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

14:20

Llywydd, I can't offer the Member an answer to that question, because I think it's actually quite a difficult question to answer, because you are trying to find children who don't do something rather than children who do. In terms of children who do something, then in Powys, since the new contract came to be used by dentists, there have been 1,100 new appointments for children in the last eight months. In the whole of the Member's region, 5,500 new children's appointments have been available in that period, and there is more to come.

So, while we absolutely want to do more, we want to diversify the profession so that there are different ways in which care for our children in the dental field can be provided. When the Minister made her statement on the new contract back in June of last year, we anticipated around 120,000 new appointments in NHS dentistry in Wales; we will exceed that with a quarter of the year still to go. So, while the position remains challenging in many parts of Wales, in the Member's own region, taking Hywel Dda and Powys together, there will be over 13,000 new appointments that weren't available last year that will already have been undertaken this year, with more to come.

Access to GP Surgeries

7. Will the First Minister make a statement on access to GP surgeries in South Wales East? OQ58977

Llywydd, despite the enormous pressures facing the sector, access to GP surgeries has improved in every year since standards were first agreed in 2019. Eighty-nine per cent of practices across Wales now achieve all the standards, and those standards will become mandatory in April of this year.

Diolch, Prif Weinidog. Constituents have contacted me with concern about news that two different surgeries in my region are set to close. The Aber Medical Centre was proposing to close its Bedwas surgery, which would leave patients in Bedwas, Trethomas and Machen going to Abertridwr or Llanbradach, and those wouldn't be straightforward journeys, if you don't have a car, particularly if you're unwell and not feeling up to a lengthy journey. I've also heard that Crickhowell Group Practice have applied to close their branch surgery in Gilwern.

I'm concerned about a worrying pattern here—in Caerphilly, certainly. Penyrheol, Lansbury Park and Gilfach surgeries have closed in recent years; the story seems to be the same over the region. Can you appreciate, Prif Weinidog, why so many people are worried these closures will inevitably lead to upheaval for patients, longer waiting times, and more pressure on GPs? And what is your Government doing, please, to advise health boards about the need to improve and not worsen the patient experience? Because, surely, it's in nobody's interest for so many surgeries to potentially be closing.

Well, Llywydd, change is inevitable in the health service. Some surgeries close, new surgeries open. It's been like that since 1948. There are more directly managed services in Wales now than there were before, and that's a reflection of the changing nature of the profession, as the old model, the principle of a practice-owned model, becomes less attractive to new doctors entering general practice. I would expect Aneurin Bevan health board to deal with any changes sensitively, to make sure that they are in contact with their local patient populations, and to do what needs to be done if there are access issues that emerge as a result. Patterns of access are changing as well, Llywydd. In future, a far higher proportion of consultations will take place remotely, by telephone, or by video call. We can't expect the NHS to be set in aspic—it never has. Change has to be handled sensitively, but change is inevitable, and change actually can make things better, as well as sometimes making things more difficult.

14:25
Digital Poverty

8. How is the Welsh Government tackling digital poverty? OQ58951

Llywydd, tackling digital exclusion is a social justice and inequality priority for Government. Our digital inclusion and health programme, Digital Communities Wales, supports organisations across all communities and sectors to help people maximise the opportunities digital can offer. Over 125,200 people have received support for basic digital skills, motivation and confidence.

Thank you, First Minister. Digital poverty is an issue that I deeply care about. I think the true implications were very much brought into the mainstream during the pandemic, when we relied on all things digital to connect with one another during lockdowns, or used digital appliances to work from home or school. That said, we continue to see its impact now during the cost-of-living crisis, because so much of the support and resources that people need to access are online, and people are being excluded due to the costs because we know that as budgets become tight, broadband is likely to be the thing that gets turned off in homes. At one point, there was this assumption that broadband and digital tech was a luxury, but the reality is that it's a necessity, and for some people they are missing out due to a lack of means.

I know that tackling digital exclusion is a priority for this Government, and I'm pleased to see within the digital strategy for Wales that the Welsh Government is working collaboratively with the Digital Poverty Alliance to end digital poverty by 2030, and in partnership with the Good Things Foundation on the national databank initiative that provides free mobile data, texts and calls to people in need.

I've also been liaising with the Bridgend Association of Voluntary Organisations, and a Welsh broadband company, Ogi, who are delivering high-speed broadband across Porthcawl—[Interruption.]—and Caerphilly to see if there is any scope to provide Wi-Fi at warm banks across Bridgend. So, will the First Minister provide an update on the roll-out of the warm hubs across Bridgend? What assessment has been done to see if we can incorporate having high-speed broadband access into those hubs to create that legacy of access for our communities?

Well, Llywydd, the Cabinet committee on the cost of living heard direct evidence from organisations in the field about the way in which families faced with so many pressures on their budgets often feel that it is the digital spend they make that has to go first, and yet, in an increasingly digital world, that causes them all sorts of other difficulties, so the points the Member makes are very well made and important.

In terms of warm hubs, there are over 300 warm hubs now across Wales, and those are just the ones we know about. I think it has been the most amazing, spontaneous effort that we have seen from so many community groups, sports clubs, faith groups, as well as public bodies, to respond to the needs that people see during this winter.

I do know that in Bridgend all the local authority-sponsored warm spaces do have digital access, and together with the Welsh Local Government Association, we are currently surveying digital connectivity at warm hubs across Wales, so that we are in a better position in the future to make sure that the important points that the Member has made this afternoon can be attended to.

Thank you very much to the First Minister.

A point of order emanating from the questions by Darren Millar.

Diolch, Llywydd. I'd like to raise a point of order, if I may, in relation to comments made by the First Minister during his exchange with the leader of the opposition during First Minister's questions.

The First Minister indicated that the annual accounts for Cardiff International Airport Limited were in the public domain, and published every March. He indicated also that the accounts for the last financial year were already in the public domain. However, as any Member can see by simply clicking onto the Companies House website and looking at the airport's page, this is not the case. The accounts for the year ending 31 March 2022 have not yet been published and, in fact, are overdue. I'm sure the First Minister did not wish to mislead the Senedd during his exchange, and had he been aware of these facts, I'm sure that his comments would have been rather different. 

14:30

Llywydd, of course, I'm absolutely happy to investigate the points the Member has made. I don't make up answers in front of the Senedd; I rely on the information that I'm provided with. The information I had in front of me quite definitely said that the accounts would be lodged with Companies House in March of this year. I'm absolutely happy to look at the point the Member makes, and if the record needs to be corrected, then of course it will be. 

2. Business Statement and Announcement

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

Member
Lesley Griffiths 14:30:53
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch, Llywydd. There are four changes to this week's business. The Minister for Climate Change will make a statement on flooding after the business statement and announcement, and that will be followed by a statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services to update Members on her meeting with the NHS trade unions. To accommodate this, the oral statement on Ukraine has been postponed until next week. Finally, the debate on the legislative consent memorandum on the Social Housing (Regulation) Bill has been postponed until 14 February. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically. 

Minister, could I ask for a statement, please, from the health Minister about the detrimental effect the Welsh Government's failure to recruit a sufficient number of GPs is having on my constituents in Monmouthshire? I know my colleague Delyth Jewell raised this earlier in one of her questions about the GPs that are retiring and leaving their practice, and I completely accept the First Minister's response when he mentioned that healthcare is changing in Wales. But, I would like a statement from the Minister for health about what action she is taking to address the serious shortage of GPs in Wales, which is causing concern, and will potentially cause considerable inconvenience and distress to a lot of elderly and vulnerable people across my region, particularly in the area of Gilwern, who may not be able to access the healthcare they need and deserve. 

And if I can be so bold as to ask for a second statement as well, please. May I ask for a statement from the Minister for health about plans to reduce financial help for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in Wales—towards the cost of their NHS glasses, to be specific? I understand the proposal is to actually lower the current amount of a £39.10 contribution for children and adults on some benefits to be now £22 going forward. The Welsh Government claims the amount was agreed with a group that represents optometrists in Wales. However, Optometry Wales say that, as a negotiating team, they were not in favour of supporting the changes to the voucher system proposed by the Welsh Government. Indeed, in a statement, they say the plans have caused significant concerns, with practitioners worried about the level of support patients on means-tested benefits will have, and be able to access, under the new contract. They go on to say patient choice is likely to be reduced as a result of these changes, and that practices might struggle to offer what they do now within the voucher range. So, could we have a statement from the Minister for health about this reduction in an important patient benefit, and the impact of this policy decision on patients, given the current economic circumstances, and for those also in domiciliary care? Thanks, Minister. 

In relation to your first point around the number of GPs, the Minister for Health and Social Services continues to do a great deal of work in bringing forward more trainee GPs every year. I think you will see that year on year over the past few years that has absolutely been the case. The Minister obviously also works very hard and very closely with our health boards, because it is a matter for the health boards to ensure there are enough GPs for the local population. 

In response to your second request around the voucher system in relation to NHS glasses et cetera, again, the Minister is looking at optometry as a whole; we're looking at new contracts for optometrists. You quoted one person that wasn't in favour; I would imagine the Minister will have looked at all the responses she had and decided on the most appropriate way forward. 

May I ask, Trefnydd, for an oral statement from the Minister for arts and sport on the future of services that are not statutory in the areas of culture and sport? Specifically, we are seeing a number of local authorities consulting on proposed changes as a result of the financial settlement, and I am deeply concerned seeing many museums and sports facilities being proposed among those cuts as they're not statutory services. It would be very beneficial, in the context of the co-operation agreement between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru, and the cultural strategy within that, to have an update in terms of what the Welsh Government is doing to support local authorities who are facing these exceptionally difficult decisions that raise concerns about the future of culture and sport across the country. 

14:35

Thank you. Whilst local authorities, I think in general, would say they had a better settlement than they had anticipated, clearly there are some very difficult choices to be made by our local authorities, and of course, it's always the services that they don't have a statutory responsibility for that are the first to be looked at when it comes to cuts. The Deputy Minister for culture works very closely with the local authorities to see what can be done, but we do appreciate there are very difficult options to be explored. I'm sure the designated Member, which I think is probably Siân Gwenllian, will have a further conversation with the Minister.

I'm asking for a Government statement on basic farm payments. I'm asking for a statement providing an update on the provision of basic farm payments and explaining why the Welsh Government is opposed to the Farmers Union of Wales proposal to cap basic farm payments.

I'm also asking for a statement to provide an update on proposals regarding the remediation of cladding on buildings. I have a constituent who believes the solution is simple, and that it just needs the Welsh Government to implement sections 116 to 125 of the Building Safety Act 2022. He further believes that the problem is being solved in England. I'm requesting an update in the statement on how developers like Bellway are working with residents on developments such as Altamar and the progress being made.

Thank you. The Member will be aware that we are currently looking at bringing forward the sustainable farming scheme, and that there will be a transition from the basic payment scheme to the sustainable farming scheme. One thing we are looking at within the SFS is whether capping payments should be brought in as part of SFS, to ensure that funding is distributed in a fair way. I would not say I was opposed to it at all, but obviously we are now going from the basic payment scheme to SFS. Potential payment options of SFS will be looked at and presented in the final scheme proposals, which won't be until much later this year.

In relation to the cladding on buildings request, you'll be aware that the Minister for Climate Change, who's got responsibility for this, is continuing to work very closely with developers and with leaseholders. My understanding is that formal documentation with the Home Builders Federation has now been shared and further comments are being awaited from developers.

I would like to request a statement from the Minister for Climate Change on actions the Welsh Government are taking to accelerate energy efficiency improvements to Wales's social housing stock. Recently, Friends of the Earth Cymru unveiled their list of the coldest neighbourhoods in Wales. They calculated the energy crisis hotspots using statistics on consumption and fuel price. These results were combined with neighbourhood-level data from the Welsh index of multiple deprivation to identify those areas with above-average energy costs and below-average incomes. This revealed the coldest neighbourhoods where homes were hardest to heat. In my region of South Wales West, we saw three neighbourhoods ranking in the top-10 coldest. Trefnydd, local authorities are spending millions on improvements to social housing, yet homes in these communities remain amongst the hardest to heat in Europe. As Russia's illegal war in Ukraine continues to fuel the energy crisis, and as Wales is plunged into an Arctic freeze, it is therefore an opportune time for the Welsh Government to outline what actions it is taking to improve the energy efficiency of social housing stock in the coldest neighbourhoods in Wales. I therefore request a statement from the Minister for Climate Change as soon as possible. Thank you.

Thank you. I think the Welsh Government has a very good story to tell about the improvements that we've made to a great number of houses within our housing stock. You'll be aware that, here in Wales, we have some very old housing stock, which has certainly required a great deal of refurbishment. What the Minister has is a rolling programme of schemes that she works closely with local authorities on in relation to energy efficiency.

14:40

I'd like to request a statement, please, on women's safety in urban areas after dark. I've raised the point before about the need for adequate lighting near railway stations and bus stops. I'm concerned that a second local authority in my region has decided to switch off street lights overnight. Newport is set to follow Caerphilly in doing this. I've raised before a number of times the worry that's felt by women, by older people, and those less steady on their feet as well, about how walking about in the dark and not being able to do this would impinge on their freedom in the evenings. This decision could, in effect, imprison many groups of people in their homes after a certain time, and there are worries about crime rates as well. Can a statement please reiterate the importance of safeguarding women's safety in our towns and cities, and could it outline what advice is given to local authorities on this issue, please? Diolch.

Thank you. I think you raise a very important point. When you started to ask me that question, you automatically think, as you say, about women and safety, but I think the point you raise about people who may not be as secure on their feet as many of us are also can impose some real concerns. I will certainly ask the Minister for Social Justice to bring forward a written statement, particularly around the guidance that's given to local authorities.

Minister, you'll be aware that, on Friday, the south Wales coroner made a ruling that two nurses who died as a consequence of contracting COVID at work died of an industrial disease. This will clearly have some significant repercussions for the approach of the Welsh Government in dealing with these matters. I've raised issues around public service workers in my own constituency who have had long COVID and have suffered as a consequence of that, and I'd like to ask for a statement from the health Minister on how the Welsh Government will respond to this coroner's ruling.

Also, last week, Minister, I visited Llys yr Efail in Blaina. It's a sheltered housing scheme, and I met several residents there who've been asked to contribute towards the heating costs of communal areas. We know that people are already suffering as a consequence of the Tory cost-of-living crisis, and we are also aware that some of the people who live in sheltered hosing are the more vulnerable parts of our community. Would the Welsh Government be able to look at how any support might be provided from here to ensure that some of our most vulnerable people don't have this issue facing them as a consequence of Conservative Party failure?

Thank you. My initial answer to your first request is that I know the Minister for Health and Social Services is looking with the health board at the detail of the ruling that came forward to understand what broader lessons may need to be learned. It was deeply concerning to hear that report last week in relation to the two nurses.

On your second point around costs facing people who live in sheltered accommodation and being requested to put funding forward towards the cost of heating communal areas, I know the Minister for Climate Change is very aware of these concerns. Obviously, housing associations themselves are under pressures around increasing costs, and extra-care accommodation and older person's housing are also under the same pressures as everybody else. I know the Minister is working closely with them and has made some recent announcements. Obviously, the Welsh Government is absolutely committed to doing all we can to support the people of Wales in these very challenging times.

Good afternoon, Minister. You may recall that, on 15 November, during the business statement, I called for a Welsh Government statement outlining the full economic costings of the introduction of the default 20 mph speed limit in Wales. I requested this on the back of a letter that all councillors in Wales received from the Government outlining that the 20 mph speed limit change would save the public purse around £100 million in the first year. But, what it failed to do was outline the economic cost to Wales of around £4.5 billion, which is from the Welsh Government's own explanatory memorandum. On 15 November, you did state, and I quote:

'I will ask the Deputy Minister for Climate Change to come forward with a written statement on that issue.'

Since then, we have seen numerous news articles, including from the BBC and WalesOnline, outlining the £4.5 billion hit to the economy. So, I wonder, Minister, when we should anticipate seeing this statement that you committed to on 15 November.

I will certainly go back to what I said to you on 15 November and speak to the Deputy Minister to see when he can bring forward that statement.

14:45

May I ask for an urgent statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services about the consultation currently underway by the Welsh Health Specialised Services Committee, even though it's very difficult to find information about the consultation regarding changes proposed to fertility treatment in Wales? I'm concerned, although the consultation is still ongoing, and has been extended, that a very poor decision is about to be made in this regard, that could be damaging and could be a retrograde step in terms of the system we currently have. At the moment, women under 40 can have two full cycles, and the proposal is to reduce that to one, even though NICE recommends three cycles. There would be no support at all for women between 40 and 42 years of age in Wales. There is one cycle currently available. And I'm also aware that there are dangers in terms of additional barriers to single people and same-sex couples too. We are in danger here of closing the door on a number of women at a time when they most need this provision. There's disappointment, there's surprise. The Wales fertility network says that we are in a good place at the moment and that this is very disappointing. We should be seeking ways of helping people on their journey to pregnancy, but these plans certainly are a retrograde step. 

I absolutely agree with you that we should be providing that support to anyone who wants to have a family, and people who particularly have got fertility issues. You mentioned there was a consultation, and I am aware that the Welsh Health Specialised Services Committee are currently reviewing the policy and considering how to strengthen the support provided for a range of women's health conditions more broadly, but that obviously does include the role of wider professionals looking at fertility issues. So, I don't think a statement at the moment—. I think we should await the responses, but I would urge everybody to put forward their views. 

I call for a statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services on Welsh Government support for GP practices to implement the new GP contract in Wales, starting this year. For example, the single consulting room, cramped and crowded workspace and restricted waiting room at Hanmer surgery, near the Shropshire border in north-east Wales, means that their GP is unable to comply with the new regulations. He's been seeking to develop a purpose-built premises, fit for the demands of the twenty-first century and the increasing GP contractual obligations required by Welsh Government since 2012. A nearby site was identified over a decade ago. We know that an investigation into governance and leadership at Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board is currently taking place, and Hanmer surgery patients action group states that the constant changes in personnel within the health board's east area team and primary care senior management has resulted in obfuscation, misinformation and a lack of continuity and information flow on a situation that should have received urgent attention, and that the real issue is the total lack of communication from the health board and the apparent lack of any appreciation of the situation. Promises have been made but never fulfilled, they say—no information from a meeting on 11 November, no monthly updates, as promised in November. There is just no engagement and absolutely no accountability. This is an example, and I call for an urgent statement accordingly, not just on this case but on the wider implications for primary care services in that area.  

Thank you. Well, as you referred in your question, there is a new GP contract coming forward this year, and that's just part of that rolling programme, really, of reform that we have here in Wales of our primary care services. You may be aware that Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board have a new director of primary care, and I would urge you to write to her—Rachel Page—to see, on that specific case, if she can bring that to a favourable conclusion.    

Trefnydd, I'd like to ask for a Government statement this afternoon on the news that senior Denbighshire county councillors have been meeting in private to discuss reductions in care home fees that will take the county's offering to below some other north Wales authorities and affect some of the most vulnerable people in my constituency. The chair of Care Forum Wales, Mario Kreft said, and I quote:

'Instead of hiding behind closed doors, the discussion should take place in an open and transparent way. There is no credible commercial reason why the report about this matter should be considered in private, but it's clear that senior figures on the council, including the leader...want to avoid proper scrutiny by the public of Denbighshire and the press. It's shameful. What have they got to hide?

'All this will be utterly meaningless unless Denbighshire's cabinet reverses this contemptible betrayal of vulnerable people and finally decides to pay fair fees that enable care homes to provide sustainable care and to reward hard-working, dedicated front-line staff with better wages.'

He added,

'If Denbighshire fails to do the right thing this time, the cabinet should resign en bloc and hang their heads in shame because this is discrimination against people with dementia who don't have a voice.'

He went on to say,

'I understand certain individuals have personal political ambitions, but hiding behind a veil of secrecy is totally unacceptable when the likely result is going to put further financial pressure with a stealth tax on loving families.'

Does the Welsh Government agree with Mr Kreft's comment?

14:50

You asked for an urgent statement, and I don't think that would be appropriate. This is a matter for Denbighshire County Council. What I would agree with is that as much transparency as possible, I think, is the way forward for every local authority in Wales when they make decisions.

3. Statement by the Minister for Climate Change: Flooding

The next item is the statement by the Minister for Climate Change on flooding, and I call on the Minister to make her statement—Julie James.

Diolch, Llywydd. Over the past week, Wales has been impacted by continuous heavy rain. In some locations, we have seen over six weeks' rain in the first two weeks of the year. This fell on already saturated ground, increasing surface water run-off and resulting in very high river levels across Wales. Since Wednesday, Natural Resources Wales have issued 50 flood warnings and 95 flood alerts. This is yet more evidence that our weather is becoming increasingly volatile and it is due to climate change. Rainfall events are becoming more severe and intense, and they are occurring more regularly.

Sadly, we have received reports of 84 properties being impacted by flooding, as well as impacts on both rail and road. Flooding is a distressing experience for residents, business owners and communities as a whole, but especially so for householders who have seen their homes flooded. My thoughts, and those of my colleagues, are with all those who have been affected. Under such circumstances, I implore householders to double-check their insurance cover and look into the flood risk to their property. We know that levels of understanding and preparedness vary greatly amongst our communities. It is important that all residents know where to access flood information, such as Natural Resources Wales's 'check your flood risk' web pages, and we continue to work our risk management authorities to increase flood awareness.

But whilst there have been impacts, we should keep in mind that the flooding could have been much worse without the efforts of the emergency services, local authorities, NRW staff, transport agencies, and volunteers. It is sometimes easy to forget, but all of our infrastructure requires people to maintain it and keep it functioning, especially during severe weather. Without their efforts, the impacts to our communities could have been much worse. On behalf of the Government, I want to express my gratitude to all those who helped in the response to the recent event.

But it is important to remember also that risk management authorities don't just respond to floods. They are constantly working to improve our flood risk management infrastructure, investing in new schemes supported by Welsh Government funding, while continuously working to improve our historic assets. They must also deal with the legacy of our mining heritage, such as disused coal tips, in the face of increasing risk from climate change.

During the previous Senedd term, the Welsh Government invested £390 million in flood and coastal erosion risk management. This has helped to reduce the risk of flooding for over 47,000 properties, by creating and managing infrastructure that would have been tested in recent weeks. We will always strive to do more. Our programme for government has a clear and ambitious target: we will provide additional flood protection to over 45,000 homes in Wales. This will not be an easy task, and requires significant investment. As we look to meet this target, I am pleased to confirm that our coastal risk management programme continues to deliver at pace. We have five coastal schemes currently in construction, at Porthcawl, Colwyn Bay, Penrhyn Bay, Aberdyfi and Mumbles. Two further schemes at Rhyl and Prestatyn, totalling £92 million, were awarded their construction funding in December, and we will see a further six schemes approaching construction over the next year, including Cardiff, Aberaeron and Hirael bay.

We don't just invest in large schemes. This year, our small-scale works grant received 90 different applications, totalling £3.8 million. The scheme provides local authorities with funding to address smaller, more discrete flooding problems. We estimate that 3,100 properties will benefit from this grant funding. We are also increasing our investment in natural flood risk management. One of our programme for government commitments was to deliver nature-based solutions in all major river catchments. We are investing more than £3 million through our natural flood management programme, as we look to utilise natural processes to store, slow and infiltrate flood waters to reduce flood risk. We estimate this will benefit around 800 properties, whilst also providing much wider benefits such as improved water quality, wildlife habitats and better land management.

For coal tip safety, we continue to deliver a programme of work in collaboration with our partners. We are committed to introducing new legislation during this Senedd to establish a consistent approach to the management, monitoring and oversight of disused tips throughout Wales. This will help protect communities and ensure people can feel safe and secure in their own homes. We continue to commission the Coal Authority to inspect higher rated disused coal tips. The fifth round of inspections is currently in progress. We have a funding programme in place to support local authorities to carry out any maintenance and capital works that have been identified from the inspection programme. For example, our funding is supporting RCT's tip remediation works on the Tylorstown tip. And last week, Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council also announced it has commenced work to improve the management of surface water drainage at Wattstown national tip.

And we are not complacent. While we constantly invest in new flood schemes, we know we must learn from every flood event. This is because we are constantly seeking to improve our ways of working. The Wales independent flood and coastal erosion committee, chaired by Mr Martin Buckle, has taken forward two separate reviews prescribed by our national strategy for flood and coastal risk management. The first review considered the resource challenges faced by our risk management authorities. The review found that, despite sustained, ongoing investment, the flood risk management sector was experiencing a skills gap. This skills gap was evident in both the public and private sectors. The report includes recommendations on how this issue can be addressed, and I look forward to working with the committee to develop options to address this challenge.

The committee's second review was into the current legislation that underpins our flood risk management policy. The extreme nature of the 2020-21 storms has stepped up the debate around delivery, particularly with regard to roles and responsibilities. I recognise that the legislation around flood risk management is robust, but not perfect. I will continue to work with the committee on any potential improvements that can be made as we seek to address the challenges posed by climate change.

Llywydd, this has been a challenging week for all of the people and organisations who work to keep us safe from flooding, but especially for those householders and businesses who have been impacted. My thoughts are with them at this time. Diolch.

14:55

Diolch, Llywydd, and a happy new year.

Wales, of course, is not alone in being hit very hard as climate change continues to worsen, and that, in effect, causes a lot of the problems that you've mentioned in terms of flooding. Last week alone, on just one evening, a total of 27 flood warnings and 43 flood alerts were issued as downpours flooded fields and closed many of our roads. As Dr Paul Jennings said on Sunday,

'Our roads, railways and settlements are hopelessly inadequate to face the challenges ahead'.

There's no denying there has been considerable investment. Between 2016 and 2021, the Welsh Government invested £390 million in helping to manage flood risk, and this financial year it is true that revenue funding for the flood risk management and water revenue BEL increased by around £12 million, whilst capital funding increased by £21 million. Nonetheless, Andrew Morgan, leader of Rhondda Cynon Taf council, has made it very clear that more sustainable investment is now needed, as responding to flooding incidents is now actually having a direct negative impact on councils' resources. He has made the cost of not having that investment very clear. Over 20 properties were flooded, unfortunately, through culverts being overwhelmed because of the volume of water, because of debris washed off the mountains. So, it goes to show they do still need that investment. Rhondda is a prime example of the situation that we have in Wales that needs turning on its head. Whilst more than £14 million has been spent on infrastructure upgrades in Rhondda Cynon Taf since storm Dennis in 2020, £20 million has been spent just on storm repairs over the same time period. Now, as a climate change committee, we've made this very clear in several reports. The Welsh Government should change its approach to revenue allocation for local authorities and take account of current and projected future flood risk. So, Minister, can you clarify that revenue allocation for local authorities in 2023-24 will be based on both current and a new projected flood risk?

We are now eight months on from the announcement of an independent review of flooding events across Wales during the winter of 2021. Professor Elwen Evans KC has been tasked with establishing key findings, shared concerns, lessons learned, successes and good practice, as well as identifying areas for improvement. So, has Professor Evans indicated by when the review will conclude, and has she given any preliminary recommendations for the Welsh Parliament to consider now? Undoubtedly, there are lessons we can all learn and measures that we must all take some responsibility for. However, we do need to see that review. 

We have hundreds of ordinary watercourses across Wales where riparian owners have absolutely no idea what their own responsibilities are. In fact, in my own constituency, there are sections of riverside land with no identified owners. So, riparian responsibilities are going ignored. There is a risk to overlooking tributaries and streams. But, as we know in Aberconwy, they can actually be the real cause of some devastating flooding. So, what action are you going to take to ensure that all riparian owners are identified and that they know their duties and their duties are upheld?

Finally, as you will be aware, the Welsh Government has spent £4.25 million on Gilestone Farm. My colleague James Evans MS courageously captured first-hand evidence of the site during a storm, which now shows it almost completely under water. So, Minister, can you explain how on earth can it be safe for your Welsh Government to host events there and whether, in your procuring of this—[Interruption.] Sorry, I'm speaking to the Minister, not the Deputy. And whether flood risk was considered at any point before you made such an investment. Diolch, Llywydd.

15:00

Thank you, Janet. So, on the budget issues, I can tell you that the impact of the investments that we have made has been very considerable. So, for example, over the course of the most recent heavy rainfall, the flood defences in Rhondda Cynon Taf, which you referenced, prevented flooding to over 800 properties. The recently completed defence schemes in Park Lane, Aberdare, and Nant y Pentre alone reduced the risk to over 320 properties, and the defences in Rhydyfelin, Abercynon and Mountain Ash provided protection to 133, 123 and 144 properties respectively. The flood gates also helped reduce the risk for properties in Edward Street in Ystrad Mynach and a number of others. We will invest over £71 million in flood and coastal risk management this year, which is the highest annually ever, and the three-year capital budget totals £102 million to allow us to better plan our investment.  

But, the bottom line, Janet, is that if we didn't have to pay for the coal tip safety programme, which is the responsibility of the UK Government, we would have many hundreds of millions of pounds more. So, the best thing you could do for your constituents and the people of Wales is to get the Government at UK level, which is run by your party, to step up to its really serious—really serious—obligations to protect all of the people of the UK from the difficulties of coal tip safety. Those coal tips are a legacy of all our shared industrial past, not of the Welsh devolved Government. It is an outrage that the UK Government does not do that, and I absolutely defy you to tell me that we should move budget from somewhere else when we've got to cover off a programme that the UK Government should quite clearly be paying for. So, I'll take no lessons from you on how to do budgeting, for that or anything else. 

In terms of the inquiries, that's part of our co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru. That is a conversation that is ongoing. Elwen Evans has to be allowed to complete her inquiry as it goes ahead. No doubt, the spokesperson from Plaid Cymru will want to go into that further, Llywydd, so I won't go into that in any greater detail.

Diolch Llywydd. I welcome the statement today from the Minister, and in particular, my thoughts are also with those who were devastated by flooding. For any of us who have seen it first-hand, it is absolutely devastating. And, there are people to whom it has happened time and time again. Last week, there were two properties in my region that were affected twice—on Thursday and Saturday—and it’s just soul destroying. So, I think all of my statements today are made thinking of those people who can’t sleep every time it rains heavily now—that concern. And also for those businesses that can’t have insurance, or residents who simply have been costed out of insurance, despite a flood Re and such schemes.

I would like to ask a number of questions, please, Minister, because as we’ve said, this is an issue that is going to continue to affect communities across Wales because of the climate emergency. This isn’t something that is concerning for the future, but is evidence of climate change and its impact now. And we must do more, I believe, to support those living in at-risk communities.

You referenced the independent review rather than the inquiry. There is a distinction; I fought very hard for an inquiry, but was pleased that we were able to at least secure a review. But I would like clarity, Minister, in terms of how elected representatives will be able to submit evidence in terms of that review. I think it is crucial that work moves forward, and I know communities that have been affected yet again. Some of these that were devastated in 2020 and 2021 will, of course, want to submit more recent evidence, especially when there has been work, but that hasn’t perhaps proved successful.

Secondly, I would like to ask—. Following the devastating flooding of 2020, your predecessor emphasised the need for a national conversation and for greater support to be available for communities to become more resilient. I would like to ask: where is that direct support? Because the experience of communities across Wales that I’ve been speaking to is that it’s very ad hoc, it’s up to them, where you have people who are very proactive or may have expertise in this area, who are able to lead that as volunteers. There are some very effective schemes in place with flood action groups, but perhaps for communities that are more vulnerable and perhaps don’t have that expertise, they feel that they’re being left without that support. And something that was questioned at the time was, yes, we agree that a national conversation is needed, we won’t be able to protect every home and business, unfortunately, but how do we have that national conversation, and who is going to lead that conversation? Because two years on, it hasn’t happened, and I think we urgently need that.

We’ve referenced before as a party the need for a Welsh flood forum as we see a national flood forum in England, a Scottish flood forum in Scotland, and what they do is go into communities to help with setting up things like flood action groups and providing that emergency response on the ground. That includes counselling, support and advice around housing and all sorts of things, because what we are also seeing now in many of the communities affected in 2020 and 2021 are perhaps the impact, because homes weren’t dried out properly; people couldn’t afford it because they didn’t have insurance, and that’s now creating huge health problems in terms of respiratory diseases. So, therefore, there is that need, I think, on the ground for a direct response. So, I would like to know where that national conversation is, who’s going to be leading on that, and how that is going to facilitate, then, that resilience. Because I think just repeating ‘communities need to become more resilient’ doesn’t actually help them in terms of becoming resilient, and I don’t think it will take a lot of funding in terms of that support.

Another point I would like to raise is what you referenced in terms of the skills gap, and this was also emphasised by Audit Wales in their report published before Christmas. Worryingly, it stated in that report that some local authorities aren’t even able to put in bids for the funding that is available, because they don’t have the staff and the expertise to develop those bids. Therefore, Audit Wales emphasised—quite a rare thing to say in the Senedd—that this isn’t a matter that the funding isn’t available; the funding is there, but local authorities aren’t able to apply for the funding because of the skills gap. And worryingly as well, not all local authorities across Wales are able to implement the schemes either, which means that they’re not able to avail of the funding through the co-operation agreement. Therefore, how are we addressing the skills gap you reference here? But, when we will receive an update as a Senedd, and are we assured that Natural Resources Wales have the number of staff to deal with flooding? They mentioned that, after the 2020 floods, at least 70 more staff members were needed. Are we assured that they have those staff in place, and how are we going to ensure that we are doing everything possible to ensure that no-one goes through flooding unnecessarily? Diolch.

15:10

Diolch, Heledd. Just in terms of the review, as was part of the discussion between us, there are a number of different types of review going on. I just referenced the two by the flood and coastal erosion committee, for example. So, Professor Elwen Evans KC's review fits into a pattern of other pieces of work that are going on, so just to reassure that it's not intended to be a catch-all, and I know you know that.

She will be writing out to relevant elected representatives asking them for input at an appropriate time in her review. She's got to be allowed to get on with it, it's independent, obviously, although it's been commissioned jointly between us under the co-operation agreement. I anticipate that that will not be very much longer now, and it's up to her how she does that, though the terms of reference are pretty clear that she has to do that. I would be very surprised indeed if the Rhondda area wasn't a part of that, because that's obviously where much of the flooding has just occurred, and this is a review that we want to learn lessons from, not just from the past, but ongoing. I'm sure that there will be other many-times impacted areas of Wales that she'll want to discuss with elected representatives there. So, I anticipate that happening shortly. I don't have the actual date on me—well, I don't know the actual date, it's up to her, but that was something that she certainly discussed with myself and the designated Member for this purpose, so I'm sure that that's on its way.

What we want to do is learn lessons from those sets of reviews about how things are working on the ground and what improvements there will need to be. We know that there will need to be improvements, we wouldn't be asking for the reviews if we thought everything was tremendous. So, we will be wanting to look at those, digest them and then come forward with a set of improvements. One of the things that we are looking at is this whole flood awareness issue, so, again, I want to pay tribute to the people who've been out in all weathers across Wales from every single responder service, including NRW. I think we forget a little bit that the hard resource that we see in the river, the intervention, requires those people to be out making sure that it works. So, I do want to just make sure that we acknowledge the difficulty of their working conditions.

But also, it's just heartbreaking to have your house flooded, never mind if it's happening twice in three days. We absolutely know that, and that's why we've got this big investment programme, and, again, we've got an agreement in the co-operation agreement to put the coastal risk programme up—sorry, I've suddenly got a frog in my throat, excuse me—and that's very welcome. What is very good to see is that, in the response coming back from the local authorities this time, the properties the had been protected were protected. So, it's not like it didn't work, it's just that it's getting worse, so more properties keep getting into the flooding area. But the ones that were at risk last time and had the flood defences put in were protected, so that's something to be grateful for, although, as we see, climate change is accelerating, so we need to expand the programme.

I don't have any problem at all with the suggestion about looking at flood action groups, only to say that we are just waiting on the review outcomes so that we can go through them, and I'm sure that that will be one of the things that we consider. The skills gap is also something we've been considering, as is the insurance. Vaughan Gething and I met to discuss the issues around insurance, particularly commercial insurance, very recently. I think it might have been yesterday, but my time sense is terrible, it might have been the day before—well, it wouldn't have been the day before, would it, so it was probably Monday or Friday, anyway. We will be approaching the UK Government about putting in place a similar scheme for businesses, although it's more complicated for commercial properties. I don't know why I'm suddenly coughing. [Interruption.] So, I share your concern and want to reassure you that we are doing what you've asked. Sorry.

Thank you for that statement, Minister. In December, the Red Cross launched its new report, 'Every time it rains', which highlighted that more needs to be done to support communities to better prepare for and recover from flooding. The report raises several points, but most concerning for me were the findings that awareness of flood risk among those living in areas that are at risk of flooding is low, as you've mentioned, Minister. Lack of awareness impacts on many households having inadequate flood insurance and leads people to being unaware of the actions that they can take to prepare for a worst-case scenario.

Some communities, like Afon Village in my constituency, have flood volunteer groups, who help alert residents to flood risk, liaise with authorities on blockages in rivers and give out information on what to do with valuables, amongst many other things. We've seen, over the last few years, that flooding and extreme weather events are increasingly becoming the norm, and the emotional and financial cost after a devastating event can be huge, so resources can be better placed in building resilience in the first place. So, what actions are the Welsh Government taking to ensure that those living in areas at risk of flooding in Wales know what to do to prepare for a flood? You've mentioned the review, but what more can be done to promote flood volunteer groups to expand to include more communities that are now at risk?

15:15

Thank you, Jayne. I will be meeting the British Red Cross very shortly to discuss their report with them; we're very interested in the findings. And indeed, we're interested in working with all groups right across Wales who've got something to add to this plan of action, really, because there's no argument with any of us that we need to do this as fast as possible, and we need to employ every single lever we have to make sure that people are as flood aware as they possibly can be, and that, if they are flooded out, they absolutely understand what to do to recover as fast as possible and who to reach out to for support. But that needs to also be happening—. As soon as you know you're in a flood-risk property, you need to be able to understand what needs to happen to get the protection that you require. So, I absolutely agree with you. I'm meeting them shortly to discuss it. I'd be more than happy to discuss that meeting with you once it's happened.

Minister, the floods that have, yet again, devastated people's lives don't just take a toll on carpets and wallpaper. When dirty water is cleaned away, the stains aren't just physical. People are left traumatised, frightened and unsure of what the next heavy rainfall will bring. We've already heard from Jayne Bryant that the red cross's report, 'Every time it rains', talks about the need to increase awareness of flood risks. I do commend the report to you.

I'd like to press you, please, on what psychological support will be offered to people who've been flooded again. I know of at least one street in my region where flooding has been caused by the same reason as in early 2020: a blocked culvert. If the same thing keeps happening, how can these residents trust that their properties will be safe in the future? And finally, what counselling services will be made available in schools in affected areas, please, because particularly very little children can find these incidents really deeply damaging? Thank you. 

Thank you, Delyth. That is absolutely right. I've met myself with many of the families that have been affected, and it's absolutely right that they are very severely impacted. One family told me that their three-year-old was very scared every time it rained even normally because they'd been flooded and she was worried about it. So, it's a real problem.

The first thing to do is to make sure that we manage to get a programme in place that extends the flood protection to properties, so that we can minimise that risk as much as is humanly possible. I will certainly speak to my colleague Jeremy Miles about doing something in the schools in particularly affected areas—I think that's a very good idea, to just discuss exactly how the children feel about it and what can be done. So, I'm certainly very happy to do that. 

We have got the National Infrastructure Commission for Wales—I should have mentioned earlier—also looking at this from the point of view of resilience for infrastructure. But infrastructure includes social infrastructure as well, so I'd be very interested to see what they come up with. We are very aware of the society and community impacts of this. This isn't just, as you say, about carpets and so on, although that can be pretty devastating. It is absolutely about the psychological effect of having your home no longer feel like your home, so we certainly do get that.

I've visited a number of homes that have been flooded and people have kept a small mark on the wall to show where it got to, because it's traumatising for them. So, I completely accept that, Delyth, and I think we really do want to work with our communities to make sure (a) that they're as resilient as possible, and (b) that the recovery process is as fast as is humanly possible. And I've already mentioned that we'll be working with the UK Government to do something about the insurance situation. The Flood Re insurance is available for domestic properties, but, actually, it's got a time limit on it, so we need to make sure that there's another programme in place. And as I said, commercial property currently isn't covered by it, and there's a range of issues around the difficulty of that. But that shouldn't be impossible to overcome, so we've asked for meetings with the insurance sector about how to do that, in conjunction with the UK Government, because, frankly, the market isn't big enough in Wales for us to be able to make any impact, so we'll work with them to make sure that we can get a suitable scheme in place. In the meantime, we've asked our local authorities to assess the damage for local businesses and to work with them to make sure they can recover.

15:20

Minister, over the weekend areas in Newport East saw flooding, such as Llanwern, Langstone and St Julians, which unfortunately is not an uncommon occurrence, and it has become more frequent over the last few years, with many residents and businesses contacting myself and my office. One of the issues, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, Minister, is finding out who is responsible and who is accountable for flooding when it comes to land use and land management, and very often it’s difficult for householders and businesses to achieve that. On the one hand it’s Natural Resources Wales, it’s possibly Welsh Water, possibly Network Rail, local authorities, private development, and I just wonder, Minister, whether there’s anything you’re considering in terms of bringing potential organisations with responsibilities together in those sorts of circumstances to bottom out who is responsible, because it's an ongoing situation, it’s not a one-off, and it needs to be resolved for the future.

One other matter, Minister—you mentioned the use of the natural environment, which I think is excellent and needs to be done to a greater extent. We’ve seen some attempts to manage hard surfaces in urban areas—householders' and others'—is there any more that you’re considering, so that we have fewer of those hard surfaces that allow water to immediately run off, rather than to absorb, hold and slowly release?

Thank you, John. I agree it’s a complex picture, if you like, of who’s responsible for what. But, actually, if you’re a householder who’s experienced flooding, you should contact your local authority, and they should be perfectly capable of putting you through to anyone else, but it will be them for 98 per cent of people. It will only be people who have very specific circumstances who will not be being helped by the local authority in the first instance. So, it definitely is the local authority.

The local authority also needs to contact us—I notice that Newport isn’t on my list, I’m afraid. So, they need to make sure that they’re contacting us as the flood management authority to make sure that they’re taking advantage of Welsh Government assistance as well, and I’ll certainly make sure that we do that the other way round in this instance.

The other thing is to say that we are very keen to make sure that people are as resilient as possible in the run-up, in that they understand where to look for the flood alerts and how to make sure that they know what’s coming. So, obviously, most people access social media for news and TV news and so on. The weather reports were pretty straightforward; unless you were just not looking at anything at all, you would have seen them. But you wouldn’t necessarily have known where to look to see if your particular street was impacted, so I agree with you that we need to do a lot more to make sure that people understand how to get those alerts. We will be working with the local authorities to make sure that we can get an alert system in place for properties that are impacted. It’s a difficulty, because there’s no getting away from the fact that this effect is spreading out.

So, I’m very pleased that the work that we’ve already done in communities that were experiencing flooding has worked, they’re protected, but you can see that climate change is accelerating. These have been extreme weather events, and we all remember that we've had the driest summer we’ve ever had just gone, so this water is impacting on land that has become suddenly saturated. That is a real problem in terms of how the land reacts to that impact of water. We’re really only just understanding ourselves what some of the impacts of that are for some of our land. So, we’ll need to work with our populations to make sure that we’re on top of that, and I’ve already referenced a number of the reviews that are taking place—because we’ve seen it coming, we’ve got the reviews in place, so we need to get those now, the results of those, so that we can work through them.

If you have very specific instances, John, of constituents, do please write in and let me know. There may be specific circumstances that we can address more particularly.

Diolch. I welcome this statement, and also the investment in coastal defence in north Wales, which is significant. Flooding, like rainfall, impacts on our highway infrastructure, roads, bridges and pavements, and we’ve seen what’s happened in north Wales, with landslides in Flintshire, Newbridge and Llanerch Bridge that have cost millions to put right. Heavy rainfall also power washes away highway services, causes potholes and blocked gullies, which are a nightmare for local authorities, as you’ve mentioned, and residents alike. I was disappointed to see that the resilient roads fund, which was £20 million, has now been cut to zero in the draft budget. I saw that £20 million has now gone to local government for decarbonisation, and I'm just wondering if it's the same funding, but being shifted. And also would you consider a slice of the local transport fund being used possibly for local authorities towards resilience? Thank you. 

15:25

I'm not too sure which budget you're referring to there, Carolyn, I'm afraid. So, there's a very specific flood management budget, and it's ring-fenced for flood management for NRW. Local authorities have it as part of the revenue support grant, but they are expected to put a programme in place. So, I'm happy to discuss the specifics with you there. But it's not a mix and match of budgets—it's a very specific budget. 

I just wanted to say—actually, in response to John Griffiths as well as to yourself—there is already in place in Wales the need to actually obtain planning consent to pave over your front garden. This is widely ignored, I have to say, and I'm planning to remind local authorities that that's the case. And I do think we need to have a programme of awareness and alertness for people to understand what happens if they make their front gardens impermeable. Joyce Watson has been talking about this for many years now, but I think it's becoming more and more obvious that people need to understand their own contribution to some of the things that are happening locally to them. If you stop your garden being able to absorb water, that water just pours straight into the gullies, taking with it anything that it's picked up along the way, and it causes the kind of blockages that you're talking about. So, I do think people need to be aware of that. If you want to park a car on your front garden and that's what it's for, there are many permeable surfaces that are perfectly appropriate for that, and allow some kind of biodiversity to thrive as well. It's not necessary to put a hard paving on it. 

But we are working very closely with our local authorities, Carolyn, to understand what the wider impact of the flooding and the extreme weather events that we've had will be. This, unfortunately, is not going to be an isolated incident. We know that last year was the warmest year on record. It's also rapidly becoming the wettest winter on record. So, I'm afraid this is a real measure of the times we live in, and we will have to find ways of becoming much more resilient, both in our relationships and in our response. 

4. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Update on meeting with NHS trade unions

The next item is a statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services, an update on meeting with the NHS trade unions, and I call on the Minister to make the statement—Eluned Morgan. 

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. I'd like to take this opportunity to update Members following my meeting on 12 January with the NHS trade unions. I wrote to the unions on 6 January in advance of the meeting, inviting them to discuss a package of measures aiming to find a way to offer some additional reward to the workforce so they felt able to call off their industrial action. I suggested that the discussion could include a potential package including: on pay, a non-consolidated award funded through this year’s Welsh Government budget; ways in which we can move forward on the issues highlighted in the staff welfare project and reducing agency spend; and ways in which we can work together to restore confidence in the pay review body process.

Hard choices have been required to find the money for the proposed one-off cash payment. We will have to draw on our reserves and reorder spend from across Government if trade unions want to take up this opportunity. If we use this money now to increase pay, it means we can’t use it for other purposes, but we are confident that this is the right thing to do and would put more money into the pockets of NHS workers this winter, many of whom are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis.

The autumn statement was a missed opportunity for the UK Government to give hard-working public sector workers a pay rise in 2022-23, and to prevent widespread disruptive industrial action across the United Kingdom. The 2022-23 'Agenda for Change' pay award, which has been implemented, provided a 7.5 per cent pay rise on average for the lowest-paid staff—those on bands 1 to 4—which make up nearly half of the 'Agenda for Change' workforce. For staff at the top of bands 6 and 7, the award was equivalent to a 4 per cent pay rise. Unfortunately, our financial settlement falls far short of what is needed to provide the consolidated pay awards that the unions have been campaigning for on behalf of their members. So, we're not in a position to increase the consolidated pay award already given.

Last week’s meeting was attended by representatives of the Royal College of Nursing, GMB, Unite, Unison, the British Association of Occupational Therapists, the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, the Society of Radiographers, the Royal College of Midwives and the British Medical Association. I'd like to give thanks to those who attended the meeting. There was a great deal of recognition in that meeting of the position that we find ourselves in in Wales, and an acknowledgement that we are making efforts to end this dispute, unlike the approach being taken in England.

I was realistic in terms of my expectations for that meeting, and whilst the trade unions felt that a one off non-consolidated payment was not enough to stop industrial action, the trade unions agreed to go away, and, as a collective, consider next steps. Whilst I have heard back from the chair of the health trade unions this morning, we agreed, as a collective, to not give a running commentary on the discussions, and I will respect that agreement. I will continue to engage with trade unions.

Unlike the UK Government, we are not responding to the strikes by bringing forward new, draconian laws that would trample over the devolution settlement and restrict workers' rights further.

There are currently strikes planned in the Welsh NHS. The RCN and GMB—the Welsh ambulance service—have already taken industrial action, and the Royal College of Midwives and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy have a mandate for strike action, but have not yet announced dates. Unite—the Welsh ambulance service—will be striking this week and next, on 19 and 23 January. The RCN have now also announced two additional days of strike action on 6 and 7 February. We are committed to working with our trade unions, with a view to ending this industrial action within the means available to us.

We recognise and respect the strength of feeling demonstrated by NHS staff members in these ballots, and through the industrial action taken, but we are committed to working in social partnership with unions to explore a way to resolve the current dispute over pay. I reminded the unions in the meeting that the clock is ticking on this matter. In order to get the money into NHS pay packets this financial year, we must come to an agreement by around the mid to the end of February. Diolch.

15:30

Can I thank you, Minister, for your statement this afternoon? You are in a very difficult position; that's something I would accept. And I appreciate how tough these negotiations are for you, Minister; it's not easy at all. And it is regrettable, as you will agree as well—and as the RCN will agree—it is regrettable that we've got a further announcement of strike action in February. 

You mention in your statement, Minister, ways in which we can work together to restore confidence in the pay review body process. So, can I ask you for your assessment of that? What is your assessment of the pay review body process, please?

You also mentioned payments—the one-off payments—and I appreciate that you said you worked across Government to look where you could find that additional funding. But that won't do anything, I would suggest, to stabilise the workforce, or attract people into the profession, which is a large part of the issues that we're talking about. Or do you think I'm wrong in making that assessment?

You said in your statement, Minister, this afternoon, that,

'Unlike the UK Government, we are not responding to the strikes by bringing forward new, draconian laws that would trample over the devolution settlement and restrict workers' rights further.'

Now, in your oral statement last week, you stated that the impact on capacity as a result of recent industrial action has placed additional pressures on our system. So, you must therefore agree with the International Labour Organization, which the TUC subscribes to, that minimum service levels are a proportionate way of balancing the right to strike with the need to maintain vital services, such as health services.

Minister, the other issue, of course, is taking the pressure off our Welsh NHS, and we've seen how successful surgical hubs are in England. Where they've been introduced, we've seen the two-year wait virtually being eliminated in England, yet, in Wales, we've still got tens of thousands of people waiting for over two years for treatment. Now, I think that, last week, you almost lost your temper with me, Minister, saying, 'Look, you keep banging on about surgical hubs; well, we've got them, they exist.' But the reason I'm asking is because that's your response yourself—you've been saying that for some months to me—'They exist, they exist.' But in freedom of information requests, in a written response to Andrew R.T. Davies at the end of November, just less than eight weeks ago, you responded to him,

'At present, there are no dedicated surgical hubs across Wales.'

So, this is why I keep raising this with you, Minister, because we do get different answers on that point.

And my final question to you, Minister, is, quite simply: do you think you will resolve the pay dispute any time soon?

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

15:35

Thanks very much, Russell, and thanks for your understanding that this is a very tough negotiation and a very difficult time for all of those working in the NHS.

You asked about the confidence in the pay review body process. I think there are things that can change. I'm obviously very keen to hear what the NHS unions think in terms of what could be improved, but one thing that is very clear to me is that, when the pay review body took the temperature of inflation, they took it at the beginning of the year. And that was at a time when inflation was at about 6 per cent or so, and it was just after the war started in Ukraine, so we hadn't seen the impact that early in the year. So, I think there is a really good case to be made for making sure that you can somehow perhaps have some kind of mechanism whereby if it goes above a certain thing, you can revisit. So, I think there is room for us to think around some very practical issues like that.

In terms of stabilising the workforce, you'll be aware that more people work in the NHS today than have ever worked before. We are still recruiting and, tomorrow, I will be issuing a statement in terms of how Health Education and Improvement Wales will be training the future workforce, in terms of what they have planned in the next years.

In terms of the minimum service levels, I think we've got to be absolutely clear what we're talking about here. The people who go into the NHS are not irresponsible people; they are people who are committed to public service, and they are the ones who help to determine what the derogations are. So, you won't see people, irrespective of what's going on in the strikes, walking out of the ITU service, or those areas that are absolutely critical for care. So, effectively, those derogations are the minimum levels of service. But I think it's absolutely right to make sure that people understand that the right to strike is something that has been hard fought for, and something that we as a Labour Party certainly sign up to.

In terms of surgical hubs, I think there is a bit of confusion around this, because the definitions are slightly different. So, you could argue, for example, that Abergele, which is a ring-fenced place, where it's not knocked out by what happens in relation to A&E, is a surgical hub. We haven't labelled it as such, but that, effectively, is what it is. We now have the Vanguard centre in Cardiff, which is a new centre, and is definitely ring-fenced and won't be knocked out by A&E. So, that's my definition of what a surgical hub is. I'm not quite sure what yours is, but that's mine—is it going to be knocked out by things just flowing through the doors, and will it knock out the planned care? And obviously, there's a new facility in Llanelli, which is really up and running, and only just opened. So, we are doing things, and we've got, again, a ring-fenced facility that won't be knocked out by the urgent care that comes through the door.

I think you've got to be really careful here as well, though, Russell, just to understand that it is so much easier if you live in a big city to have two hospitals, where one is A&E and the other one you can have as separate, then it doesn't get knocked out by what comes through the front door. We're already doing that. In Cardiff, we can do it. You've got the Heath, but then you've got Llandough, where they can just get on with things. In Swansea, they've effectively got three hospitals and now they're starting to say, 'Look, I'll tell you what, most of the orthopaedic we'll put into Neath, so we'll keep it away.' There are always going to be complex cases where you're going to need—. For example, if you've got somebody who needs a hip operation, but they've also got a heart problem, you can't do that in a ring-fenced hub because you need somebody who's an expert in hearts quite near. So, the complex cases are always going to have to be in the big hospitals. The problem we have in Wales is that we've got lots—it's not a problem, it's a good thing—we've got lots and lots of hospitals, but because of the geography of the area you can't have more than one. So, if you want more planned care centres, we would have to switch off some of the A&E. That's very difficult when you live in such a spread-out area. In England, because populations tend to live in big cities and big urban centres, it's much easier for them to whip through things with those separations. That is much more difficult in Wales.

15:40

I'll begin in a constructive way with those areas where I agree with the Minister. On non-pay issues, I'm pleased that there's serious focus on staff welfare and that reducing agency costs is a part of what Government sees as the way forward, although I couldn't quite get the First Minister's attitude today, when he seemed to be defending the structures through which agency working currently happens. What we're saying is take the private profit out of it, so that that money can be fed back into the health service. I also very much agree with the Minister in condemning the actions of the UK Government regarding the legislation that's been brought in to limit the right to strike.

But, as much as I agree also with Welsh Government's opinions about the level of public spending from UK Government—we need to see that level increase—Welsh Government cannot hide away from its own responsibilities to resolve the problem that we face currently, which is that we have thousands upon thousands of public workers in the health sector, and elsewhere too now, that are taking industrial action because they feel that they have no other option. They gave opportunities to resolve this sooner.

In terms of the offer of a one-off, non-consolidated payment, it's clear that's not going to be accepted by the unions. The GMB are making it clear that their members would not accept a one-off payment, the RCN are also saying that it's not good enough. In real terms, cuts have been consolidated, real-term cuts in pay have been consolidated and reinforced for a decade and more, and we've got to break that cycle. You know what? This isn't happening at a very good time. Government finances are tight. But the truth is that the finances of our health workers are tight too, and they've been getting tighter and tighter. There was an opportunity in recent years to break that cycle when there was a little bit more flexibility in the system.

A few weeks ago, before Christmas, we were told there was no flexibility at all, no reserves, no unallocated money. We know that's not true, and now we have an admission that there is an offer that can be made. But that offer has to be increased. That is the bottom line. We, as a party, have spelt out how we believe it can be increased, and increased to a point where we believe a deal, hopefully, can be struck. There's a feeling that I'm getting very clearly from the unions that Government isn't negotiating seriously enough. The Minister said today:

'we are making efforts to end this dispute, unlike the approach being taken in England.'

We were here for weeks and weeks, asking Welsh Government to negotiate and they were refusing to negotiate with the unions. Whilst in Scotland, again, strike action has been paused—it was paused initially, put back on the agenda, and now it's been paused again. And here, the Welsh Government was refusing to even negotiate, whilst we were seeing health workers out on the picket lines. We've spelt out how we believe it can be done, but the bottom line is it simply has to be done, and there is a way.

15:45

Thanks very much. First of all, on the issue of agency workers, I think it's really important we put this into a context. So, 65 per cent of what we spend in the NHS is spent directly on staffing, and, of that, about 6 per cent is spent on agency workers. That's too much, and we need to bring it down. But what was clear to me—. I spent a bit of time in Withybush hospital on the weekend. Friday night, I was in Withybush with nurses, looking at what they're doing, and it was really interesting, because 50 per cent of the nurses on duty there—50 per cent—were agency nurses. So, we can take that away, but you'd have to shut the hospital; let's be absolutely clear. The interesting thing for me was that actually most of those agency workers had come from outside of Wales. So we're not talking generally about people who are NHS workers in Wales who go to an expensive agency; these were people who were coming in. I think it's really important that people understand that this is not something that is easy, because I'm not in the business of shutting hospitals, and if we try and go too quickly on this, that's going to be the consequence. I can't be doing that. 

This is a time when we've got 7 per cent of NHS workers off sick, so we have to backfill that. These are not things that you can plan in advance. We didn't know we were going to have flu and COVID and everything else. We can plan to an extent, but actually there's just not enough people who are on bank to fill those spaces. [Interruption.] We have got an agency; it's called the bank. That's what it's called. You need to go and look at how the actual system works. We have banks. So we do use people from banks, but there's not enough of them. And don't talk to me about hiding from our responsibilities. We know that we have choices, and we have made choices.

I'm going to ask you to write these figures down, because it's really important that you understand how difficult it is to get to the amounts of money that you would want to put on the table to get to a consolidated—. Don't forget, this is not a one-off payment. This is not money that you can find this year—. But if you want to increase the pay of NHS workers by 1 per cent, you have to find £55 million, okay? So, in Wales, the number of people who pay the additional rate is 9,000. It's 9,000 people. If you put that up by 1p, you'd make £3 million. That's how much you'd get. So, you're miles away from the £55 million that you would need to get to a 1 per cent increase. So, you look then at the people who earn between £50,000—[Interruption.] Stop moaning; listen to me. If you look at the people who earn between £50,000 and £150,000, and you put their income tax up by 1p, you'd get to £33 million. Again, miles away from the £55 million for 1 per cent. So the only place you've got to go to get anywhere near—anywhere near—the 1 per cent, let alone the 17 per cent that the RCN are asking for, is the basic rate taxpayers. If you raised it by 1p, you'd get to £237 million, so that would be an increase of about 4.5 per cent. Asking the poorest members in Wales, who are up against it at the moment—. That's your approach; that's what you want to do. And, yes, we are making some political decisions, because we think people are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis at the moment. So, I think it's really important that people understand quite how difficult this is, because we have made a political decision, and we are not going to raise income tax for the poorest people in Wales at the moment. 

It's really important also that people understand—. I'm not going to give a running commentary on the discussions, but you will understand that what we get in Wales in terms of increases in health is directly proportionate to what happens in England. What was really interesting is that, in 2008, we'd got to a point where we had met the EU average of the 14—. So, we compared ourselves to the 14 richest parts of the EU, and we'd met the EU average. But, between 2010 and 2019, in Britain, we saw an increase of 15 per cent. In the EU, it rose by 21 per cent. In Germany, it was by 39 per cent. The UK spent £40 billion less on healthcare than the European average. That meant that money didn't come to us, which means we couldn't put up the payments. And the answer is that, actually, austerity is a deliberate policy of the Tory Government over 10 years, and that is why nurses are so frustrated. And we understand that. We understand that. Because it's not today; it's an accumulation of 10 years of austerity, and that is your responsibility.

15:50

I talked to nurses on the picket line, because I wanted to hear their views as well, and they did say to me that it's not just about money, but it's also about work-life pressures as well. Many are doing 12-hour shifts. And there's a lack of flexibility as well, with childcare et cetera. They did also mention agency costs, and it upsets them if they know they're working with somebody who's paid more. They haven't got the experience on that ward as well, because you don't have the same people on the ward that they have, so they have to fill in for them as well.

I was really interested to hear about having a nationally owned bank, not just for nurses—I know you've mentioned it as well, actually, Eluned, before—but for social care workers and for teachers. You know, with austerity, all these strikes that are happening now, it would be really interesting. I'd love to hear more about your going on the night shift at Withybush hospital, because I think it's really interesting hearing the views of the nurses and to hear about what did you learn while you with there.

And this one-off payment—I know it's not what's needed, but, because we've got this current cost-of-living crisis and a lot of newly qualified nurses, that one-off payment would be really welcome. Talking to nurses, they would really welcome that, until we can get something sorted with the UK Government, to ensure that everybody, all these people working in public services, are properly paid and there's an end to austerity. So, I'd like to just hear your views on that, please. Thank you.

Thanks very much, Carolyn. Certainly, we're very aware that it's not just about pay; there are lots of other issues around this, which is why I was really pleased to have been presented with the staff welfare project on Monday, by representatives of the trade union movement, just setting out the kinds of things where they'd really like to see us make some movement. And so, obviously, I'll be looking at that in detail, just to see how much further we can go with that.

On agency costs, we are determined to try and bear down on certainly the most expensive agencies. And, as you say, all of the health boards have their own banks. To what extent we could have a Welsh bank—. I mean, I don't think that's rocket science; it's something we could probably try and move towards.

In terms of the night shift in Withybush, I can't tell you how fascinating it was. It's really important not just to get a sense of it through reading about what the situation is and listening to people. When you actually see the pressure on the ground, when you actually see the number of in particular older people who shouldn't really be in hospital, because they've had their treatment and there are real issues with delayed transfers of care, it really makes a difference and hits home. Some of that information in relation to agency workers I found really very useful. I had no idea we had quite so many people coming in en masse from England, but of course it's a real issue of how we staff, especially hospitals that are perhaps further away from the big centres. So, it's a real challenge and it's not going to be easy to fix.

The other thing is, on the one-off payment, I think it's really important for people to understand, first of all, that this is money where we've asked all around Cabinet for people to slow down their spending this year. If we ask them to, if we get an agreement on this, we'll ask them to slow down spending and maybe push it into next year. So, this is not money that is easy to come by, this is not underspends; this is money that has already been allocated and we're asking a big favour of the rest of the Cabinet. And it's about reserves as well. There's a big risk with going into reserves. We don't know if we're going to get a new COVID variant that is going to bypass our vaccines next year. We would be taking a risk with this. So, this is really high-risk politics, but it's something we're prepared to do because we actually want to stand by our NHS workers. So, this would be a one-off payment, and it's not going to be on the table for very long, because the end of the financial year is coming very, very quickly, and if they want it in their pay packets, we've got to get it in at the start of March, which means that an agreement has to be made before that. So, the clock is ticking here. And, of course, we haven't taken the money away from anybody yet. Obviously, people would be more than happy to hold on to that. We're asking a really, really big favour of people, and taking a risk on reserves. So, we'd have to have a very good reason to be doing that, and obviously this is a negotiation.

15:55
5. Statement by the Minister for Economy: Economic Priorities and UK Government Relations

Item 5 this afternoon is a statement by the Minister for Economy on economic priorities and UK Government relations. I call on the Minister for Economy to make the statement—Vaughan Gething.

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. I come to Plenary this afternoon having earlier on today had the first inter-ministerial group for business and industry meeting of this year. It was the first such meeting since spring last year. The Welsh Government is firmly committed to proper partnership working arrangements with the UK Government and other devolved nations, and we do so in the joint interests of Wales and the wider UK economy. I am cautiously optimistic that, having had discussions about the regularity and the importance of the IMG today, the new UK Government is showing signs of more meaningful engagement on our joint economic priorities. That is what the new Prime Minister indicated that he wanted when he met with the heads of devolved Governments in November last year. The proof, of course, will be in the action that is taken.

It is vital that we work collaboratively, in proper constructive partnership arrangements, to navigate the severe economic challenges we are facing. The UK begins 2023 on the brink of recession. People and businesses across the UK are under intense pressure from the cost-of-living crisis, with inflation expected to remain in double digits over the first half of this year. A toxic combination of Brexit, a lack of public and private investment, and the UK Government's disastrous early autumn mini budget has severely damaged the UK economy. This had led directly to a widespread expectation that living standards will fall, and fall by record amounts, across all parts of the UK. Productivity has been stagnant for more than a decade and the UK Government’s commitment to

'end the geographical inequality which is such a striking feature of the UK'

remains unfulfilled. The continuing but reduced support for high energy costs announced last week will provide some certainty for business after March. However, the new scheme does not protect against energy price volatility or match the higher level of comparative support offered in other European countries.

In Wales, collaboration and partnership are the cornerstone of our approach in Government. Wales has a stable, mature Government and a network of social partners that help us to make the right decisions. That doesn't mean that all decisions, of course, are easy. Together, we have developed a long-standing framework for future-focused inclusive economic growth, underpinned by our groundbreaking Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015; an economic strategy that has been revisited, refreshed and refocused, as we recover and reconstruct our economy in the aftermath of the pandemic; and a mission that has a clear commitment to social value, firmly rooted in a greener economy, with well-being, dignity, and fairness at its centre. 

Our long-term plan remains delivering a prosperous, green economic future for Wales and investing in the skills of the future. Our vision for the Welsh economy is clearly aligned with independent thought leaders, such as the Resolution Foundation, and their proposals for rebooting Britain with a return to inclusive growth. But, all of the UK has needed the UK Government to develop a responsible, coherent economic direction for recovery and growth for some time—a clear plan created in partnership and founded in the economic strengths of each nation. Without it, and with the economic outlook deteriorating, the UK Government must work with us to ensure that there is purposeful public investment to address the current crises and deliver a more productive economy.

Our Government in Wales is clear that, together, the UK is a proud, interwoven union of nations capable of being greater than the sum of our parts. Without proper structured engagement between all UK nations over the last year, there has been a clear void that has brought about incoherent and inconsistent economic approaches in different sectors, led by different UK departments. Some approaches have been more constructive. Together, we have made good progress on free ports, we co-designed the prospectus, including commitments to fair work, and we're co-assessing the applications. Ministers from the Welsh Government and UK Government will together select the successful bid. The approach to investment zones has now moved to a more constructive path. The current UK Government has chosen not to proceed with the previous policy announced in the autumn, as the evidence of the potential benefits from that previous approach from months ago was far from clear, and we agree that a rethink and a more focused approach is required, working with us not around us. The current UK Government now appears to be taking seriously the need to engage on borders policy. That must continue if we are to get the right answer for Wales and Britain.

Some approaches, though, need urgent attention. The UK Government cannot delay action any longer to secure the long-term future of steel. They must deliver on investment that aligns with our commitment in Wales to a green economic future. They hold many of the powers that relate to decarbonising UK steel, and the resources that are needed to help transform our energy-intensive industries. The UK Government must provide clarity on measures that it will use to fund energy efficiency, and the technologies that deliver a low-carbon future. We have repeatedly called on the UK Government to bring industrial energy prices in line with competitors in Europe and to ensure a level playing field for UK steel production.

The semiconductor cluster in Wales is another vitally important contributor to our economy today and in the future. The time taken by the UK Government to reach its decision to revoke the acquisition of Newport Wafer Fab by Nexperia, on national security grounds, has caused great uncertainty to the business and its workforce. The UK Government must set out a clear position for the sector and publish its very long-awaited semiconductor strategy.

The UK Government's choice in designing the shared prosperity fund has disregarded devolution and 20 years' experience delivering EU funds. Wales remains set to lose over £1 billion as manifesto promises are broken on EU replacement funds. Meanwhile, local authorities are still awaiting decisions on bids for round 2 of the levelling-up fund, despite submitting bids at the start of August last year. The UK Government's approach has placed local government in an appalling position. Other sectors, like higher education, further education and the third sector, have been excluded, whilst funds are being re-directed away from the poorest areas of our country at the worst possible time. All of this would have been avoided if the UK Government had not broken its manifesto pledge and respected 20 years of devolution. We could then have managed full replacement funding through our framework for regional investment. Across these developments, and others, such as floating offshore wind or carbon capture utilisation and storage, a continuing and constructive commitment to dialogue by the UK Government is critical. Some of our key strategic infrastructure projects planned right across Wales are dependent on UK Government support. The advanced technology research centre, the National Nuclear Laboratory; project ARTHUR; and the Global Centre of Rail Excellence all demonstrate the strengths of high-value manufacturing in Wales. 

After the deterioration in inter-governmental relations earlier in the year, we have seen some improvements recently. But firm evidence is yet to emerge of a regular, reliable rhythm of engagement and respect for devolution across all policy areas. There will always be clear differences between the priorities and objectives of our respective Governments, because they're rooted in different values, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the anti-strike legislation introduced by the UK Government last week, having previously made a clear commitment to protect and enhance retained employment rights as the UK leaves the European Union.

We do not believe that the right response is for the UK Government to introduce new laws that will have a direct impact on the workforce in devolved public services. We believe that the right response is to work with employers and trade unions in social partnership to resolve disputes collaboratively. But if we can engage constructively on free ports, possibly investment zones, and borders, there is no reason why we shouldn't be able to deliver projects of joint strategic significance. Despite our differences, we should have a shared interest in making choices to improve the economic prospects for Wales in what will be a very challenging year ahead.

16:05

Can I thank the Minister for his statement this afternoon? Now, I agree with the Minister that the UK is beginning 2023 on a very difficult footing, and there is a need for a real focus from him on the Welsh Government's economic policies. I had hoped that we'd hear more from the Government about some of the specific initiatives that the Welsh Government has for tackling some of the challenges facing businesses in Wales, but detail on that front is lacking in today's statement. Nevertheless, I'm pleased to see that today's statement refers to delivering a prosperous, green economic future for Wales, investing in the skills of the future. The Minister knows that I've been calling for a new net-zero skills action plan for a long time now, to make sure that we have the right people and skills available to benefit from green jobs in the future. So, perhaps the Minister could tell us more about how the Government is building a better understanding and evidence base of the future skills needs to support the transition to net zero, and also tell us how he's driving awareness amongst employers to support reskilling and upskilling their workforce.

Today's statement refers to the continuing support for high energy costs that the UK Government announced last week, and I believe that there is room here for the Welsh Government to act to support businesses too. For example, we know that the Development Bank of Wales is developing a scheme that will allow businesses to take on borrowing to fund capital investment that delivers on decarbonisation. Therefore, perhaps there is flexibility here for this scheme to cover businesses needing acute support with energy costs, so that funding can get to businesses as quickly as possible. So, perhaps he could update us on his discussions with the development bank on the support that they can offer Welsh businesses, and tell us when the new green business loan scheme is likely to become operational.

Dirprwy Lywydd, the Minister's statement focuses heavily on inter-governmental relations, and I want to reiterate that, where Governments work together, Wales benefits. Indeed, I want to remind the Minister that the people of Wales are served by both Governments, and it's in the interests of both to work together. Of course, he is right to say that the UK is a proud interwoven union of nations capable of being greater than the sum of its parts, and the partnership with the UK Government on areas like free ports, like city deals, and the future of borders policy, has shown that, when Governments work together, Wales benefits.

There are, of course, genuine concerns over post-EU replacement funds, and I share some of those concerns, as the Minister well knows. But I really don't see how the Minister's statement today goes any way to tell us how he is going to build a more constructive relationship with Westminster, which is essential for the Welsh economy. Now, it's also essential that the Welsh Government prioritises investment in fields like research and innovation, which has huge potential to transform the Welsh economy and put us at the forefront of technological developments. But we are still waiting for an innovation strategy from the Welsh Government, despite repeated calls from the sector. Therefore, perhaps the Minister could take the opportunity to tell us when we will see an innovation strategy from this Government. 

Now, the Minister makes a fair point regarding the long-term future of steel. It is a foundational industry that is the backbone of our manufacturing sector and we need clarity on how a sustainable future will be secured. Therefore, perhaps the Minister could update us on the latest discussions he has had with UK Government Ministers regarding the future of the industry so that we can better understand the level of engagement on this matter. 

The Minister's statement highlights floating offshore wind as an area where dialogue needs to be strengthened, and I'm interested to know more about his views given that, in the discussions that I continue to have with developers, they make it clear that it's the Welsh Government and the resourcing of Natural Resources Wales that are holding up developments here in Wales, especially regarding planning consents. Therefore, perhaps he could take the opportunity to explain exactly what he means in his statement in relation to floating offshore wind, as stakeholders will be at the Senedd later today and next week and will be keen to better understand his views.

In closing, Dirprwy Lywydd, I'd hoped that we'd hear more from the Minister today about the economic priorities of this Government, particularly in light of the report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, which argued that, since devolution, Welsh economic policies have lacked coherence and consistency, and ambitions have not been matched by effective implementation. That report was, in fact, co-authored by a former Welsh Government Minister, and so, today's statement could, and in my opinion should, have been an opportunity to tell Members more about how it will support entrepreneurship and innovation, develop a robust skills pipeline and bring together industry and academia for the benefit of the Welsh economy. Members already know that stronger inter-governmental relations benefit the Welsh economy, and whilst the Minister is right to say that we need clarity from the UK Government in some areas, we also need to see greater clarity from the Welsh Government in many areas too.

16:10

Thank you for the questions. As the Member knows, we're developing our net zero skills plan. There are some statements due to be made by the Office for National Statistics and others later in the spring, but I'm interested in how we are able to close the circle. I have actually had further conversations in the last week about the response from a variety of stakeholders, both providers of skills acquisition, further education and others, but also businesses—and business awareness—themselves, and it varies in different sectors. There's a challenge here about raising awareness of the journey to net zero, and the fact that businesses in all sectors will need to change some of the ways they look to work. It's why there's going to need to be not just an approach on what the policy is, but raising awareness, and how we equip people who will come into the world of work for the first time, or who are near the start of their career, as well as those of us who have been at work for a longer of period of time, and how you equip and re-equip the current generation of people already in work. And you'll see that as we take forward the net zero skills plan, but also the work we'll then do in more detail in different sectors. So, I'll have more to say in the coming months, when we actually launch the plan, and you'll see some of that engagement. And I'm sure that, with your other hat on, not of being the Conservative spokesperson but of being the committee Chair, you'll be interested in some of the engagement. And I look forward to the evidence and the examination that I'm sure the committee will give. 

On the Development Bank of Wales's green business loans, you won't have to wait much longer; I think Luke Fletcher has asked this as well. In the coming weeks, that launch will take place to set out how the development bank will be able to support businesses to both reduce costs to save the bottom line, and to do so on a sustained basis, to decarbonise their production, and the advice function will be part of that scheme as well. So, not much longer to wait. But, that does show that we're using the powers and the ability that we have to make a practical difference. 

And when it comes to inter-governmental relations, it requires the UK Government to be a willing partner in a conversation. The meeting that I had today with a Minister within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the UK Government, a Scottish Government Minister and a civil servant from Northern Ireland was the first one in nine or 10 months. That isn't because we decided not to have the meetings; it was a choice by the UK Government for a variety of reasons for those not to happen. We have always been prepared to engage constructively. It was the same in the meeting that I had earlier this week with Michael Gove on a range of other issues as well. We know that we won't always agree, but we'd much rather have a conversation and to do that at an early enough stage to make a difference. What we have found at various points in the last couple of years is that we have been engaged at a point where we are being told what the decision is, or there is a demand that we agree to a policy and a perspective that we know we will not find agreement on. It's why I pointed out in my statement areas where agreement has been possible, like the fact that we compromised and had agreed a position on free ports, to contrast that with the approach taken on shared prosperity and the shared prosperity fund, for example.

On an innovation strategy, I think I've been as clear as I can be: it's a commitment in the co-operation agreement. We expect to launch that before the end of February, so, again, not much longer to go. When it comes to steel, I welcome what the Members had to say about needing clarity on our future for the sector. That can only come if there is a proper road map from the UK Government on what shared investment looks like and the sort of priorities it wants to set. And that's really important right across the whole sector, not just for the steel sector itself, but then what's going to happen in procurement in a range of other areas where we could and should be having a positive impact from seeing more British-manufactured steel used in a range of products. That would also, I think, require a different approach on infrastructure investment as well.

And when it comes to floating offshore wind, again, an area where steel could and should be used, we have been really clear in our conversations with the Crown Estate. Myself and Julie James, the climate change Minister, have met with the Crown Estate several times, and we've been clear about what we want to see with the future pipeline of leasing rounds, so not just something where there's an opportunity for a period of months and a shorter period of years, but a longer term round of leasing, so you can get longer term investment. And that, I think, would underpin significant investment in port infrastructure in north and south Wales, to allow opportunities to be taken up properly.

And also we've been very clear with the Crown Estate that we want to see a positive advantage and a requirement made in the next leasing round on localised supply chain, and that, actually, the bids would then have to be seen through in practice. There would need to be a contract mechanism to make sure that a bid can't read fantastically well on paper and that something entirely different takes place in reality over the coming years. And I would have thought that the Member and others would be supportive of that, because making sure we generate greater economic value in those supply chains should be a common objective right across the Chamber.

And finally, on your point, you mentioned skills at the end; it's one of the areas we have invested in consistently. We have a good record on investing in skills and apprenticeships through the lifetime of devolution. It's one of the levers we do have and make a difference with. It's also one of the levers where it's harder to do more because of the lack of a proper settlement on post-EU funds. That £1 billion we're going to lose makes a real difference in how we support the economy, how we equip people with skills for today, and for tomorrow, and I really would welcome Welsh Conservatives joining with voices from across the Chamber and wider society and other sectors in calling on the UK Government to revisit what it's done, revisit its broken manifesto promises, and give Wales what it promised it would have, full replacement for former EU structural funds, and that would make a difference to our economic future.

16:15

I thank the Minister for his statement today.

I'll start by agreeing with the Government: it is disgraceful that UK Government would rather attack workers' rights than deal effectively with the economic hardships that are facing those workers.

If I could start with one of those hardships, which is energy, the Minister mentioned that the current UK scheme, whilst providing some support, does nothing to safeguard against energy price volatility. I don't think we'll be able to safeguard against price volatility fully, and in a way that doesn't subsidise shareholders in the private sector, unless we nationalise the energy sector. I hope he would agree on that principle.

Now, the UK Government has decided to significantly reduce support for small businesses through the energy bill relief scheme, which leaves small businesses in Wales facing sky-high energy costs. We have heard already that one in four businesses are considering closing or selling if there is not a replacement energy bill relief scheme. The announcement from the Government on the green business loan scheme is more than welcome and is something that myself, Plaid Cymru, and significant stakeholder groups such as the Federation of Small Businesses and UKHospitality have been calling for, but, additionally, the FSB has been calling for a 'help to green' voucher scheme to be implemented by UK Government, modelled on the 'Help to Grow: Digital' scheme, to help businesses decarbonise. Given the Minister's recent interministerial meetings, would he raise this issue with UK Government and urge them to implement such a scheme to run parallel to a loan scheme here in Wales?

And of course I know the Minister is already raising the issues surrounding steel. Plaid Cymru stands with him in calling on the UK Government to step in and provide the support needed for decarbonisation of the sector. We know steel is vital to decarbonising the economy; we need steel to build renewable forms of producing energy, like the offshore wind the Minister mentioned. That is why it's vital that funding to support steel decarbonisation is forthcoming. Pursuit of decarbonisation, of course, is made harder by the fact that UK steel makers pay 30 per cent more for their electricity than their counterparts in Germany, and up to 70 per cent more than their counterparts in France. I hope the Minister will be able to provide the Chamber with a more detailed statement in relation to his discussions with the UK Government in regard to the steel sector.

Now, we've heard free ports mentioned in the Minister's statement today, as well as in First Minister's questions. I've been clear on my position when it comes to free ports; I don't believe they're the solution to our issues. The Trades Union Congress back in 2020 were saying there's no evidence that free ports create jobs or stimulate growth. I could go on, but the Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted that tax breaks in English free ports will cost £50 million a year. Has the Government made an assessment of the implications here in Wales?

I was also wondering if the Minister could also provide clarity on his role in deciding on which free port goes forward in Wales, as well as what role the Senedd will have in scrutinising the decision. I know it's a joint decision between himself and a UK Government counterpart, but, in the event of disagreement, will he have the final say? But also will Members in this Chamber get a vote on the decision, or even a vote on whether we want free ports at all?

16:20

On the first substantive point that he asked about, I'd be grateful if he'd write to me about the detail of the scheme he's suggesting, rather than looking to give a three-word answer in the Chamber today.

On the challenges of reduced support around energy pricing, it's worth people being reminded that, when the UK Government talk about non-domestic customers, they're not talking about public services. So, public services are not domestic customers, but they're excluded from the support, and that will be a real challenge in budgetary terms for those services and a budgetary challenge that the Welsh Government has to meet as well.

When it comes to the responses from business groups, it's been interesting that they have been mixed. Understandably, small businesses are most concerned about the withdrawal of support. There's a range of energy-intensive businesses of small, medium and larger sizes, and I think we will see real challenges with the reduced level of support available. It's still the case that, in my conversations with businesses and trade union partners, energy costs and inflation are still at the very top of people's concerns in running businesses, then labour and skills, and that goes into some of the points about investing in the future, about actually having people to go into jobs where there are opportunities to grow those businesses, and then we still have the challenge of our trading terms with our European partners. On that, there was some modestly positive progress in conversations around the Northern Ireland protocol on data sharing. I hope there's continued common sense in our arrangements, and not a return to previous methods of communication that appeared to be more designed to worsen conditions than the likelihood of successful trade with partners.

I respect the Member for continuing to talk about free ports and making clear his position. I would, though, gently remind him that the position we have reached is not one that is entirely alien to Plaid Cymru. In the previous leadership contest, the person who currently occupies the position of Plaid Cymru leader, at that point, was talking about having more than one free port and about having a free port as a policy position in that.

Now, what a free port is and isn't can be different, because we previously had free ports in the UK when we were part of the European Union, then the Conservatives got rid of them after a different period of time. What's now being proposed isn't the same as what was originally proposed when Rishi Sunak co-authored or sponsored a policy paper. The prospectus that we've got is clear about including fair work, and that's got to be made clear as part of the—[Inaudible.]—and sustainability, things you might not have expected to have appeared if it had been done by the Conservatives on their own in the UK Government, looking to write that bid prospectus. So, it has been a sharing and a compromise between the two Governments. So, we've come to a position where there's something that we can not just live with, but then want to see the opportunities, because, as I said in response to questions from Paul Davies, there are opportunities to invest in ports in different parts of Wales. I look forward to having the professional advice from not just my officials, but input from UK Government officials as well about the nature of each of the bids that have been submitted, and I will then make a decision jointly with the UK Minister. So, it isn't that someone has a veto over the other, it's that we'll need to find a place to agree, otherwise we can't make a decision. 

The scrutiny for that, I expect that we will—. As you've seen last week, there'll be a statement, there'll be an announcement, and I expect that Members will want to question me both in this Chamber, and potentially in the committee that you're a member of, on what's gone into each of those choices and how we've reached a particular position. So, I fully expect that there will be open and public scrutiny on any choice that is made. I hope that's helpful about setting out the choices that we are making and the fact that we're doing something to try to carry forward opportunities to grow the Welsh economy and not to displace activity, which I know was one of the Member's concerns. 

16:25

We have almost used the time allocated and I have five Members still wishing to speak. So, can all Members please be brief and can the Minister be succinct in his responses?

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Minister, in welcoming the statement today and its very clear focus on social value and social partnership in the economy, can I ask whether Government Ministers will continue to work with those of us—and I draw the attention of the Chamber to my membership of the Co-operative Party and the chairing of the Senedd Co-operative group—those Members who want to see Welsh Government build on its already impressive work on growing the employee-ownership sector of the economy? We thank the Deputy Minister for engaging with us on the Social Partnership and Public Procurement (Wales) Bill, and we do ask how this landmark legislation could more clearly reference employee ownership, but we also ask the Minister whether he will continue to work with us on further ways in which we can grow employee ownership in Wales with non-legislative measures, of course, but also the prospect of groundbreaking legislation here in Wales if a backbencher, perhaps one of the many Co-operative Party backbenchers here in this Chamber, could bring forward a strong and serious proposal during this Senedd term. Would he agree to work with us on that?

I should perhaps note in response that I am also a member of the Co-operative Party. However, in answering the points by the Member, I think it's fair to say this: employee ownership enjoys an important status in the Welsh Government, with a clear programme for government commitment linking our progress to its growth. We believe that the growth of employee-owned businesses will contribute to a stronger, fairer Welsh economy, because they have sustainable development built into their DNA. Despite the rapid growth in the number of employee-owned businesses in recent years, I recognise the ongoing need to celebrate the role that they play. The social partnership and public procurement Bill will contribute to well-being by improving public services through social partnership working, socially responsible public procurement and promoting fair work. We'll now explore ways in which the guidance around the Bill might usefully reference employee-owned businesses. 

Whilst the social partnership and public procurement Bill is not the right vehicle to legislate on employee ownership, I will, of course, work positively with a strong future MS legislative proposal regarding employee ownership. Whilst I can't guarantee that legislation would follow, our commitment to the policy agenda means that we would certainly work with such a proposal. As with our foundational economy approach, and many other ambitious agendas in our programme for government, we believe that progress will be made without legislation, and that is why I do not see a proposal as necessary for action. I'm grateful for the discussions that I and the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership have had with Huw Irranca-Davies to date. We'll now take the opportunity to engage upon how the statutory and non-statutory guidance on procurement and fair work may help to promote the principles of employee ownership within the framework provided by the Bill and in our wider policy.

Can I thank the Minister for his statement, in particular the references to the advanced technology research centre and to the steel industry? But a key component of future economies, both in Wales and across the globe, will be digital infrastructure and digital connectivity. Presiding Officer, I will declare an interest as an unpaid member of the project consortium, 5G project consortium, led by Bangor University. The Minister knows that I don't just want to see north Wales connected, but I want to see north Wales creating and generating the next generation of these technologies. With that in mind, can I ask the Minister what conversations he's had with UK Government counterparts regarding investment in digital infrastructure and the research and development of these types of technologies? 

Yes. Firstly, I have had a number of conversations with counterparts in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in the UK Government. I am expecting to have a ministerial meeting within the next few weeks exactly on the potential to invest further in doing so. I'm pleased that, from a north Wales point of view, but I think in every one of our regional economic frameworks, digital connectivity is recognised as not just a key part of the economy today, but an even bigger part of the way the economy will work in the future. This is definitely part of the agenda I have, and I now have, of course, ministerial leadership for the digital strategy for the Welsh Government.

16:30

Minister, I think the war in Ukraine has clearly illustrated just how unstable and unpredictable the world is that we live within, and many countries now are working very hard to shore up and support their key industries, their strategic industries. I was very pleased that you referred to the steel industry and indeed the semiconductor industry in your statement, because I believe they are strategic industries that very much need support. Locally to me, Minister, as you know, there are examples of the consequences of the lack of a UK Government strategy that’s everything it needs to be to support and foster development. So, with Liberty Steel, we see the recent announcement as an illustration of the difficulties in the steel industry, and with Nexperia, we see the result of UK Government taking a decision and then walking away from that decision, rather than setting out a viable alternative that would deliver the same sort of development and support for jobs that the acquisition by Nexperia would have delivered. So, with regard to both of those examples, Minister, I wonder if you could say something about what Welsh Government is doing in terms of those current situations.

Thank you. I will try and address the issues as promptly as I can, bearing in mind what the Deputy Presiding Officer said. On Liberty Steel, I've had a conversation with Community about the current situation. We will of course support workers who are facing an uncertain time, but also try to understand what the pause announced by the company actually means. It’s still not entirely clear what that is. What is clear, though, is that there is a future for the steel sector. There’s a future for decarbonisation of the way that steel is produced. That requires investment by the industry itself, but also the Government needs to decide how it’s going to do that. We need to decide whether we’re comfortable with hydrogen production for steel as something that’s going to be developed in the Netherlands in Europe, not here in the UK, and I do think the UK Government needs to be really clear: does it see the steel sector as a sovereign capability for a modern economy, as I think we do here in Wales? And if it does, it needs to act in that way to ensure that investment choices are actually made, including things around the production of scrap and retaining more of that scrap metal here in the UK.

On Nexperia, I’ve had a number of direct conversations around this, both with the workforce and indeed with the UK Government, and actually what we’re looking for is an understanding of the longer term strategy needed for Nexperia and the wider sector itself. So, at some point, as I mentioned in my statement, publication of that strategy would be very welcome for everyone, and the investment choices that should be made, but this is definitely a growth area for Wales.

One of the key strategic infrastructure projects that depends on UK Government support is making progress on the recommendations of the Burns commission to strengthen the east-west rail lines between Newport and Cardiff and beyond, which are the backbone of the south-east Wales metro. I appreciate that transport is not in your portfolio, but I’ve yet to see any progress whatsoever on such a strategically important issue, which is essential for attracting new businesses to south-east Wales. Are you able to report any change of tack by the latest UK Government, any glimmer of hope of Government investment in what is their responsibility, for the east-west rail line infrastructure, which is entirely down to the UK Government’s responsibility? Because without it, I can’t see how we’re going to be able to progress economic development as well as integrated transport.

The Member’s right to point out that this is a reserved responsibility and we look for real progress, not just warm words, being made in this area. The Member’s also right that the Deputy Minister for Climate Change leads in this area. I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to the Member directly, but investing in this area shouldn’t just be good for the economy and for transport; actually, if we did it properly, it would also be part of giving the steel sector a future, and how that procurement could and should be run. It’s part of the challenge about rail infrastructure improvements everywhere in the UK, and I want to see that infrastructure improved, and improved with British-manufactured steel supporting more British jobs.

16:35

I'm grateful, Deputy Presiding Officer. I'm grateful to the Minister for his statement this afternoon, although I must say that I find his trust in the United Kingdom Government somewhat touching, and potentially misplaced. We've had a debate earlier today in questions around the way in which the subsidy regime is being managed, and he's quoted himself the betrayal over EU funding. So, I can't see the reasons for that optimism, but we all admire an optimist, and as a Cardiff City FC fan, I'm quite used to it myself.

But let me say this to the Minister: I think sometimes we're in danger of drowning ourselves in process and losing sight of our objectives, and losing sight of our purpose. There are two tests that I will set for the Minister for this statement and the work that comes from it. The first is productivity. Productivity is mentioned almost in passing in this statement, but it's the greatest crisis facing the Welsh economy, and I will want to see investment in improving productivity.

The second test is how it impacts the people I represent in Blaenau Gwent. Too often, Blaenau Gwent is treated as a periphery by the Welsh Government, and we don't see the investment that we require to drive economic growth in the Heads of the Valleys. But, of course, the UK Government doesn't even know where Blaenau Gwent is, and what we're seeing potentially is Blaenau Gwent becoming a periphery of a periphery. So, I want to be reassured that the Government and the Minister will set clear objectives so that the people of Blaenau Gwent can see the consequences of this work, because it is a test of the impact on the people we represent that is the greatest test of all.

I think the Member makes an entirely fair point, as the representative of Blaenau Gwent, as to what will be the impact for his constituency, for the community that he has grown up in and now represents. To be fair, outside the Chamber, Dirprwy Lywydd, the Member makes broadly similar points sometimes a touch more colourfully, but it's part of his role. So, it is part of the test, which is, 'Will it make a difference?', not just for individual projects—we can point to the work we're doing with Thales, for example, but that isn't just founded in Blaenau—but what difference will it make more broadly. So, the work that my colleague the education Minister has seen there about 5G classrooms, and the ability it has to have a much wider, broader and deeper impact. 

On your point about productivity, you're right, of course. Some of the challenges around skills investment, one of the key points, are the adoption of different process improvements, and the difference that that can make in a whole range of sectors; the improvement in leadership and management skills—a key challenge in the Welsh economy; but also the adoption of not just new and leading edge technology solutions, where, actually, a lot of the adoption is about things that are already mature. The pandemic, for example, forced lots of businesses to go into the online world where they hadn't been. Well, actually, there's an opportunity there in operating in a different way. There's also the need to then make sure that you're secure online as well. It's also about understanding simple ways that are adopted and mature in other sectors to make sure you are driving more business and more traffic your way.

I do think, though, that as well as all of those challenges where we understand them—I wouldn't quite put my constructive approach to relations with the UK Government quite the way that the Member would—but there are areas where we see different parts of the UK Government behaving differently. Some are more difficult to deal with than others, and as I mentioned in the statement, the advanced technology centre, for example, that should be based in Jack Sargeant's constituency. Actually, that's a good example of where we can work together, and we want more of that and less of the betrayal that absolutely has happened on the shared prosperity fund, which is something that we'll continue to discuss until the position is resolved. Maybe that will require a change in the UK Government.

6. Statement by the Minister for Social Justice: Update on Ukraine
7. Statement by the Minister for Education and Welsh Language: Sustainable Communities for Learning

We move therefore to item 7: statement by the Minister for Education and Welsh Language on sustainable communities for learning. I call on the Minister, Jeremy Miles. 

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. Last year saw the introduction of a new name for our flagship education infrastructure investment programme, namely the sustainable communities for learning programme. In doing so, we are making a clear statement about our commitments for the environment and future generations. To date, the programme has provided over £1.5 billion-worth of capital investment to support the delivery of 255 school and college projects.

Building on this, our programme for government commits a further £1.5 billion-worth of additional investment for the next phase, to deliver new schools and colleges across Wales. The programme's success reflects the strong collaborative partnership we have with local authorities, the Welsh Local Government Association, CollegesWales and diocesan authorities. It's allowed us to make strategic local decisions on education investment priorities across Wales, whilst providing a platform for the delivery of national priorities at the same time, including the new Curriculum for Wales.

In response to our delivery partners' needs for a more agile programme, I have decided to introduce a rolling programme for delivery. The lessons learned from band A, and the transition into band B, highlighted both the complexity and protracted nature of delivering projects through the previous fixed programme timelines. And, to that end, a rolling programme is being implemented to improve efficiency for both partners and Welsh Government, strengthening one of the programme's key attributes, namely that of projects progressing at pace and based on the priorities of our delivery partners.

School transformation remains a vital outcome of our investment in the programme. As a Government, we are clear that it isn't just about bricks and mortar. Well-designed buildings and pleasant surroundings play a key role in supporting both staff and learners, delivering high standards and aspirations for all.

Delivery partners are expected to submit their new strategic outline programmes at a time to suit their progress through their existing programme—typically above 60 percent of programme value—thereby initiating commencement of their rolling programme. The current five-year strategic outline programmes will therefore be replaced by nine-year strategic outline programmes that will enhance the planning of future investment. Rolling programmes will be submitted to the Welsh Government for review and consideration towards providing a staged commitment and support, with three-year reviews of their programmes to adjust and add further pipeline projects.

Dirprwy Lywydd, the programme is truly cross-cutting and has provided a platform to embed the Welsh language as well as other policies, such as active travel, biodiversity, ICT, community and curriculum, delivering and maximising the value from investments across our education estate and, in doing so, has provided a sustainability model for others to follow.

As one of the first nations to declare a climate emergency and intention to be a low-carbon nation, I have mandated that all new projects supported through the programme would be required to deliver net-zero carbon in operation, plus a 20 per cent reduction of embodied carbon. Twelve months on from this mandate, I am pleased to confirm that 16 projects have been approved and are progressing as net-zero carbon projects. I'd like to commend our delivery partners on taking up the challenge and developing net-zero projects in such a positive way, with all regions across Wales taking up the mantle, from Ysgol y Graig on Ynys Môn in the north, Ysgol Cedewain in Powys, to Ysgol y Deri in the Vale of Glamorgan in the south. 

As well as supporting all regions of Wales, the programme is having a positive impact across all sectors of education. With South Point Primary School being our first net-zero carbon school in Wales, we are now seeing projects for secondary schools, all-through schools, and special schools as well as colleges. Special schools present an additional challenge in achieving net-zero carbon due to specialist equipment, thereby increasing the demand for electricity. However, I can confirm there are currently three special school projects approved to progress towards meeting our net-zero carbon ambition, and lessons learned from these projects will feed into other pipeline projects on our journey to net zero.

Another challenging area, Dirprwy Lywydd, is that of achieving net-zero carbon on refurbishment projects, and I can confirm that our first net-zero refurbishment project will be Pen y Dre High School in Merthyr Tydfil. Pen y Dre will undergo a deep refurbishment of the existing school, stripping the fabric back to the structural frame. The embedded carbon saved by retaining the foundations, the floor slabs and the structural framework can save as much as 48 per cent of carbon alone. We expect a lot to be learnt from this project that will contribute to the programme’s buildings reuse target of 60 per cent.

We need to ensure that sustainability and decarbonisation commitments become embedded in our everyday life. This is especially true for the younger members of our nation. We need to provide effective ways for them to understand the environment that surrounds them, including the buildings that they learn in. I have previously spoken in the Siambr, Dirprwy Lywydd, about my expectation for local authorities and further education institutions and their design teams to work closely with our children, young people and staff so that they have the opportunity to help design their own learning environment. In response, last September I formally announced the launch of the sustainable schools challenge. Building on the programme’s net-zero carbon mandate, applications were invited from local authorities that are able to demonstrate innovative and collaborative design, development, delivery and management of two new schools that could make a positive contribution to the environment, community and surrounding landscape. I am pleased to say today that this challenge has been extremely well received by local authorities, with 17 project bids having been received. Officials are now being supported by external sector representatives in assessing the submissions, and I look forward to announcing the successful projects during the coming weeks.

16:45