Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

23/01/2024

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 Plenary meeting. The first item this afternoon will be questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Laura Anne Jones. 

Speech and Language Therapy

1. What assessment has the First Minister made of the number of speech and language therapy training places available in Wales? OQ60571

Llywydd, I thank Laura Anne Jones for that question. Health Education and Improvement Wales develop and submit an annual training plan based on information from partners and engagement with NHS organisations and stakeholders. That plan includes an annual assessment of speech and language training places. Funding for training has risen for nine consecutive years in Wales.

Thank you, First Minister. After questioning the health and social services Deputy Minister on speech and language therapy support recently at committee level, the Deputy Minister stated in her response that there had been an 11 per cent increase in speech and language therapy training places in the past year. I accepted, of course, what was said on face value, but it has since become apparent from the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists that this, perhaps, isn't actually the case. The training places for speech and language therapy have not increased since 2020, and the membership data suggests that we have fewer here in Wales than in other parts of the UK, and that the anticipated increase of 8 per cent in training places for 2024-25 is not now due to go ahead due to budget pressures. Both our higher education institutions and health boards believe that the expansion of the commissioning of places is both possible and necessary. So, First Minister, what urgent action will you be taking to ensure that Wales doesn't fall even further behind in this department, as we all know that, for the services here in Wales, the demand is increasing?

Well, Llywydd, first of all, just to be clear, there has been an 11 per cent increase in training places during this Senedd term. But I acknowledge the point the Member makes about the growth in demand for speech and language therapists, and we know that there are real calls for additional staff, particularly people able to offer speech and language services through the medium of the Welsh language, for example. So, there are genuine capacity issues in terms of the finance that we have, to go on— as we have for nine years in a row—expanding the number of people who are training for work in the Welsh NHS. But it's more than training and money. It's the fact that, to become a speech and language therapist requires an arduous path, with 525 hours of clinical practice required. Two thirds of those hours must be supervised by a registered speech and language therapist, and that means somebody who we urgently need to be providing services direct are spending their time supervising other people. So, it's a tension, isn't it, at the front line. We want more people to be speech and language therapists—it's why we have a whole new course opened at Wrexham Glyndŵr University—but, at the same time, we have to make the very best use of the time of the people we have providing that front-line service. 

And can I just say to the Member as well—I read her exchange with the Minister—that we've also got to attend to those people who are already in the workplace? Eight out of 10 people who will work in the NHS in 10 years' time are the people who are already in work today. So, she makes important points about training new people, but we've also got to find better ways of retaining the staff we already have, investing in their skills as well, and making sure that, through flexible hours, part-time working and job sharing, and support for people in the workforce, we retain the people we've already got. 

First Minister, it is vitally important that we are able to train speech and language therapists in north Wales. As you say, it's really welcome news, First Minister, that my old university, Wrexham, are offering a new degree course in this very field. Can I ask, First Minister, therefore, what steps can the Welsh Government take to encourage as many students as possible to stay in north Wales on completion of their training?

Well, Llywydd, I thank Jack Sargeant for that, and, of course, I completely agree with him about the fact that we have a brand new speech and language therapy course at Wrexham Glyndwr University—its first intake in September 2022. We know that people are more likely to stay and work in places where they train, and, as I said in my original answer to Laura Anne, we know that there is a particular gap in being able to provide speech and language therapy for young children growing up through the medium of the Welsh language, and having a course in north Wales means there will be more opportunities for people whose qualification depends upon supervised practice in the workplace to be able to do just that. There will be many opportunities for those people who go on the Wrexham Glyndŵr University course, and, as I said in my original answer, we must make sure that the workplace continues to be an attractive option for them to use the skills that they will have acquired.

13:35
Local Development Plans

2. What guidance does the Welsh Government issue to local authorities regarding the rationale they must follow in preparing their local development plans? OQ60560

Llywydd, the Welsh Government's development plan manual sets out detailed advice on how to prepare a local development plan. It identifies the key issues to be addressed and the level of evidence required to achieve an adopted LDP.

Thank you, First Minister. As you may be aware, last week, Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council launched their consultation on their revised local development plan for 2022-37, and it made for some interesting reading. Despite recently receiving £8 million-worth of Cardiff capital region funding to regenerate the abandoned brownfield Cwm colliery site, and thus making it viable for house building, they have now determined that it is no longer a strategic site and have instead earmarked greenfield surrounding Llantwit Fardre and Efail Isaf as their preferred new site for residential development. And I have to declare an interest, Llywydd, as I live there. This change in position is bewildering at best, as the council will be well aware that these locations have been previously refused planning permission both by the council and by the Welsh Government for their lack of sustainability, for their high ecological value, and for the fact that they encompass a C2 floodplain, which the First Minister will know is the worst classification. With this in mind, how can the general public have confidence in the local development plan process when RCT council are yet again proposing to build houses on land that has so strenuously been refused in the past both by them and the Welsh Government? Thank you.

Well, Llywydd, I welcome RCT's decision to begin consultation on a replacement LDP preferred strategy. It is very important that local authorities in Wales have local development plans and that those development plans are up to date. There are a series of statutory processes that the local authority will have to go through and several stages of consultation. So, the points that the Member makes are, I'm sure, exactly the sort of points that will be covered during that consultation period. I hear what he says about specific sites, and I know the point that he makes about flooding, because I believe it was a Welsh Government decision to refuse planning permission for part of that site in the past because of flooding concerns. It will be for the council to explain how those concerns can be mitigated.

But I do say this to the Member: I've heard many contributions from Conservative Members in this Chamber criticising the rate of house building here in Wales. I remember a contribution from Janet Finch-Saunders, telling us that it was planning permission delays that were resulting in houses not being built. There was a Conservative Party motion saying that we needed 12,000 new houses to be built every year in Wales. All I'm saying to Members is that, if you have an ambition, you can't deny the means, and it's Nimbyism to say, 'We want this to happen, but it mustn't happen where I live, and it mustn't happen where people who are concerned about it'. So, there's a careful line to be trodden here between legitimate points—and Joel James raised a number of legitimate points—while at the same time recognising that, if the Conservative Party has an ambition, then it also has to will the means as well as the end.

You will be aware that I and a number of my colleagues have raised with you and relevant Ministers regularly issues around the whole LDP process in Wrexham, which came to a head recently. And now that we find that that has come to some sort of resolution, on reflecting on the situation, many of the councillors and residents there are asking me, given that the Welsh Government was aware that Wrexham residents would face large cost risks, impacting services potentially, why the Government did not use your legal powers under section 71 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 to impose the LDP plan, because it would have limited the costs in the case, and, of course, it would have achieved the identical outcome of imposing a local plan against the democratically decided wishes of the local council?

13:40

Well, I think that is a most absurd proposition, Llywydd. Here is a council, in Wrexham, that itself promotes an LDP, puts it through all the processes, has it endorsed by all the different groups that have to comment on an LDP, and, at the very last minute, it attempts not to implement the LDP that it itself has promoted. It's not for the Welsh Government to impose on them their own plan, and it's certainly not for the Welsh Government to bear the costs of doing so. That local authority was taken to the High Court. It said—the local authority said—in front of the High Court that it accepted that its actions had been illegal and had no rationality behind them, and then went on to deny the LDP a second time. People in Wrexham, looking at that very sad story, will know where the responsibility lies, and it doesn't lie here; it lies with those members of the council, and Plaid Cymru members were all part of that, that acted so irresponsibly and admitted as much—admitted as much—directly in the High Court.

First Minister, local authorities are increasingly, and rightly, I think, taking an expansive approach to their replacement local development plans, looking at placemaking, how quality life is achieved through encouraging outdoor activity, green space, active travel, a whole host of child-friendly and engaging children with the great outdoors initiatives. And I think that's absolutely right, but would you agree with me that one of the challenges they also face, First Minister, and with regard to which they need Welsh Government support, is ensuring that new housing is matched by public services? I know in Monmouthshire there's been a lot of new housing in Magor, Undy and Rogiet, but not a commensurate increase in health services and other public services. The Welsh Government has supported a community hub at Magor and Undy, which is very welcome, and there are proposals for a walkway train station at Magor, and this and much else requires Welsh Government support. So, where local authorities are ambitious and progressive, First Minister, would you agree that they do deserve that support from the Welsh Government and, indeed, partner organisations? 

Well, Llywydd, I do agree with John Griffths that there are local authorities in south-east Wales, part of the south-east Wales national growth area, that are ambitious and progressive in wanting to provide housing for their local populations. Llywydd, in my own constituency, Cardiff Council is planning to build houses that are the equivalent of a town the size of Carmarthen within the boundaries of the constituency. And I'm well familiar with the point that the Member makes about the tension between needing to build houses and obtaining the section 106 money that comes with it, while providing the necessary education, health, transport and other facilities that are needed to support house building on that scale. It is a sign of the success of those areas in his constituency that people want to come and live in the Newport East area and that it has a council that is prepared to endorse those ambitions.

But the point that John Griffiths makes is a very important one to people who live locally. Local authorities, when they are bringing forward local development plans, have to be able to demonstrate that, as well as housing, there will be the public services that go alongside them, and that is both health, education and other local authority services. The promise of them in the future is not something to be enough to persuade people to go with the grain of what is needed in south-east Wales. And I agree with what John Griffiths said as well, Llywydd, that local authorities that already have LDPs and are now in the process of revising and updating them will have learnt from that previous process, and we can expect them to approach it in a way that takes account of the points that John Griffiths has made this afternoon.

13:45
Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

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

Thank you, Presiding Officer. On Friday, we heard the devastating news about the closure of the blast furnaces at Port Talbot, First Minister. Nearly 3,000 jobs are going. Obviously, replacement arc furnaces are coming in their place. It is a fact that a transition board has been established, jointly, I understand, with the company and the UK Government, and the Welsh Government have a role, with the Minister for Economy sitting as vice-chairman on that transition board. Can you outline what the aspiration is and the hopes are of the Welsh Government for that transition board to make a real difference in transitioning to the new steel-making capacity at Port Talbot and, importantly, supporting the workforce in that journey?

Well, Llywydd, I agree with the leader of the opposition that it was devastating news for that local economy. It's more than that, though; it's devastating news, I think, for the whole of the United Kingdom, because there will be no indigenous steel-making capacity in the United Kingdom if the company's plans go ahead. So, this Government is not signed up to the company's plan. We believe that there is a credible alternative that would sustain jobs at Port Talbot and would sustain indigenous steel making in the United Kingdom. That is the Syndex plan, which the trade unions have jointly funded to bring about. It was described as a credible plan by the company themselves. I say to the company what I know others have said: I hope they will not make any irreversible decisions, because, with a general election happening this year, there is an alternative future for the steel industry in the United Kingdom, and I want Port Talbot to be part of that. 

First Minister, the question I asked you is dealing with what we have before us now. I can understand you obviously outlining where you think things should go, but ultimately we have before us an announcement from the company that is going to shut, regrettably, the two blast furnaces in Port Talbot. I disagree with that proposal. From the conversations I've had with Tata, I was always under the impression that at least one of those blast furnaces would continue in operation. And I still maintain that that is a feasible objective for the transition to arc furnaces. But we have this transition board. Could you outline what resources the Welsh Government have jointly, with the UK Government, put into the transition board so that it can begin its work as a matter of great importance and, ultimately, have the resources available to it so that the training opportunities and the remodelling that will be required to make sure that steel production does continue at Port Talbot are met in full by the transition board and its remit?

Well, Llywydd, first of all can I welcome what the leader of the opposition has said about his support for the continuation of blast furnace No. 4? I think everybody accepts—the trade unions accept—that blast furnace No. 5 will be decommissioned in relatively short order. But keeping blast furnace No. 4 going while the electric arc capacity can be built up is at the heart of that Syndex plan, and I'm very glad to hear what the leader of the opposition has said. 

In the meantime, there is the transition board. It is attended by the Minister for Economy. I spoke to the Chancellor of the Exchequer back in September, when the £500 million investment was announced. I talked to him then about the transition arrangements. We will be at that table; we will work with the trade unions and other people at Port Talbot to do whatever we can in the meantime. But, for us, we're not going to do it on the basis that we have settled for the company's plan. We think there is a different future, a better future, a credible future for those people who will lose their jobs—and we know there will be fewer jobs in Port Talbot in the future. The transition board will be there to help to fund the training that is necessary, to do the other things that can be done, and the Welsh Government will play our part in that, as we always have. We are a long-term investor in the Tata site, particularly on the training side of things. So, we will be there, we will make our contribution, but we will do it against the background of continuing to advocate and make the case for a different pathway from where Tata is today to where it needs to be in the future.

13:50

I've been quite open this afternoon in saying that I disagree with the company's proposal about shutting blast furnace No. 4. I do believe that there's an ability and a route to keep that blast furnace open, and, indeed, all the conversations I've had over recent years with Tata indicated that that was going to be the journey that they would undertake. I was as surprised as anyone when it came out that they were going to shut both blast furnaces, and, obviously, the job losses that would follow from that while in transition to the arc furnaces. But it is a fact that the company have set their sights on this journey. The UK Government has put £0.5 billion on the table, along with the company's £750 million, to retain steel-making capacity in Port Talbot, thus protecting 17,000 jobs in total in the wider economy. 

I'll try it for the third time, if I may, First Minister. I understand that the Minister has a seat at the table. What I'm trying to understand is: what resource has the Welsh Government put in—and by resource I mean financial resource—in supporting the transition board's journey to make sure those training opportunities and other opportunities can be fully exploited, such as the free-port initiative, to make sure that there are opportunities in Port Talbot for those workers and the workers in the wider south Wales economy? How much money has been put in, First Minister? 

Well, Llywydd, I don't think there's a great deal separating the leader of the opposition and the remarks that the Welsh Government has been making. I invite him, certainly, to put those views with us to his colleagues in the UK Government, because I don't think they are of the same view. I welcomed the £500 million when the Chancellor announced it back in September; I remember welcoming it here on the floor of the Senedd. What we are talking about is a just transition from today to where we all think Tata will need to be. 

I don't have a figure right in front of me, but the Welsh Government has invested in Tata for years and years. I remember agreeing sums of money when I was finance Minister, and they were very much in that training space, making sure that there were opportunities for young people to get the training that they would need at that site, and we will go on playing our part in that way. 

The bigger picture is the one that the leader of the opposition has referred to this afternoon. It is how we sustain steel making in one blast furnace over that period as we move to the electric arc future, and if we can say that jointly to the UK Government I'm sure that argument will carry even more weight. 

Thank you, Llywydd. The Tata announcement on the 2,500 job losses is a tragedy for each of those individuals and their families, for the community of Port Talbot and beyond. It threatens to intensify the economic weaknesses of Wales, and it highlights the insulting attitude of the Westminster Government towards Wales. The lack of willingness of the Conservative Government to recognise the importance of the steel industry for Wales is quite shocking. 

Now, I've spoken to Tata officials today, and I had an opportunity to discuss many aspects of the situation—the need to transition fairly towards decarbonisation, to do everything to save jobs, to invest in the future of the workforce and the site. I'm pleased to hear from the First Minister that he agrees with me that we shouldn't be giving up on the workforce now, that there is still time to bring the different parties together to find an alternative solution, but does he agree with me also that the current UK Government, and, perhaps, a Labour Government in the near future, must give a far clearer commitment of a willingness to invest far, far more than what's on the table from the current Government or what's being pledged by Labour were they to come into power? 

Well, Llywydd, if we are to have fair transition in future, we will need more money on the table to assist that process. The Labour Party—. We have a plan: £3 billion in the future of steel here in the United Kingdom. That's why, when I responded to the initial question from the leader of the opposition, I tried to draw attention to the fact that, of course, it is going to be a very difficult period for local people in Port Talbot, but this is a crisis for the entire UK. It's just not acceptable to depend upon those things that are available globally without having the capacity to produce steel here in the United Kingdom. Funding is available under Labour. That's why it's important that the company, in a year when there will be a general election, hears what is available and what is proposed by the Labour Party and considers that when they make their plans. 

13:55

Thank you for the response. I want to make it clear I don't think £3 billion is near enough, either. It's better than the £0.5 billion that's on the table from the current Government, but the UK Government just isn't investing to help heavy industry prepare for a just transition to a cleaner future like Governments in other European countries do. There are subsidies of €50 billion available to help energy-intensive manufacturers in Germany transition to climate-neutral technologies; €2.6 billion is being invested in one region alone in decarbonising its steel industry with hydrogen. We have to be setting the bar so much higher. 

Now, in a general election year, yes, the steel industry is looking for a signal that a potential future Government would commit in a way that the current Government has not, but, whilst money is of course top of the list in many, many ways, we also need a plan, and it's clear from the Tata announcement that the absence of an industrial strategy by either UK or Welsh Government is costing us dearly. Now, will the First Minister commit to making the creation of an industrial strategy, alongside industry, universities and others, a priority? Because, without a strategy, we're going to remain vulnerable. 

Llywydd, the leader of Plaid Cymru makes a number of important points there. I'll just take a moment, if I could, Llywydd, to rehearse a small bit of the history of this.

Back at the start of July 2022 the Minister for Economy and I came into Cathays Park on a Saturday morning to meet the chair of the Indian board of Tata, and he made to us then a series of points that Rhun ap Iorwerth has echoed this afternoon, about the unfairness of energy costs here in the United Kingdom and of the need for investment in green technologies that would support the steel industry of the future. I was sufficiently concerned about what we heard that day to arrange a call with Michael Gove, and I put a series of the points that had been put to us by the chair of the Tata board to him, because most of what we were talking about were actions that lay in the hands of the UK Government, and negotiations between the company and the UK Government had already been protracted. I wrote to the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on 22 July 2022, setting out all these points for him as well, and he replied to me in mid August saying that these were all points that he recognised, that his Government was committed to supporting high-quality steel making across the United Kingdom, but that decisions about investment in Tata would have to await his successor. Well, it by-passed his immediate successor, and it took from July of 2022 to September of 2023 before there was an actual agreement between the company.

And if we're making these points, I'll just make this point as well, Llywydd, that, on Thursday of last week, when it became clear that the company were to make their announcement on the Friday, I wrote immediately to the Prime Minister asking for a telephone call with him on Friday so that we could jointly discuss how we could best respond to the emerging picture, and by eight o'clock, half-past eight in the morning, on Friday I'd had a reply from the Prime Minister saying that he couldn't find time to meet me or talk to me that day. I do think that is genuinely shocking. It contrasts very much—[Interruption.] It contrasts very much—[Interruption.] I hope you're—. I do hope you're not defending that. I do hope—[Interruption.] No, I think—[Interruption.]

Well, Llywydd, nobody outside this room will hear Members of the Conservative Party shouting at me, but let me make sure that people do know that they're shouting at me to defend the fact that their Prime Minister was unprepared to talk to the First Minister of Wales on that day. That contrasts, for me, very vividly with the actions of his predecessor, Theresa May, on the day that Ford announced that they were leaving Bridgend. My office contacted the office of the Prime Minister that day, and before the end of that day I was in a conversation with the Prime Minister about what we could do together to help people who were affected. That's what I was looking for from the Prime Minister and I am genuinely baffled that he did not feel it was a priority for him to find the small amount of time he would have needed that day to have that conversation. That conversation is necessary because if we are to attend to the points that the leader of Plaid Cymru makes, that will have to be a joint effort between the responsibilities that remain at Westminster and the responsibilities that are devolved to this Senedd.

14:00

It is, of course, shameful, the attitude of UK Government towards industry in Wales as it's responded to this Tata announcement, and I'm not sure what's most disturbing, the refusal of the UK Prime Minister to speak with the Welsh First Minister on the issue or the defence of his actions by the Conservatives here in our national Parliament.

Now, waiting in vain for Westminster to do what's in Wales's best interests isn't confined to the issue of jobs in the steel industry, of course. Last week, the considered view of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales was that the status quo isn't sustainable. But it took all of four days for Labour's most senior Welsh MP to pour cold water on the report and go against the First Minister's official position. A commitment by shadow Welsh Secretary Jo Stevens to only explore the devolution of youth justice and probation goes against the political consensus in this Chamber, and ruling out the devolution of policing and justice before the ink was dry on the report is the most alarming signal yet, perhaps, that Wales's ambition will be held back by Keir Starmer's inner circle.

Now, this is the First Minister's opportunity to distance himself from those comments, reaffirm his support for the recommendations of the Thomas commission and restate his Government's intention to prepare the ground for the devolution of justice. And as I invite him to do so, will he confirm whether it's the First Minister in the Welsh Government or the shadow Secretary of State for Wales in Keir Starmer's team who has the final word on this issue?

I'm very happy to confirm the Welsh Government's support for the policy of the Labour Party here in Wales—unanimously endorsed at our conference in March last year—in favour of the devolution of the criminal justice system as set out in the Thomas commission report—a former chief justice of England and Wales; as endorsed in the Brown report—the report of a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; and as endorsed in the Williams and McAllister report—a former Archbishop of Canterbury. These are hardly a bunch of tearaways suggesting wild ideas for consideration, are they? And they are the policy of the Welsh Government.

The shadow Secretary of State said that we would need to explore how devolution would take place, and of course she is right in that. For me, it is not an exploration of the principle; that is the policy of the Welsh Government. But if, shall we say, the probation service were to be devolved so that it became a responsibility of this Senedd, then there will be a lot to explore to make that happen. We will have to explore the governance arrangements, we will have to explore the financial arrangements, we will have to explore the interface between the probation service in Wales and its counterpart in England. So, there will be a lot to explore, but for me the destination is clear: it is the policy of this Government and has been unambiguously so for many, many months.

20 mph Speed Limits

3. What assessment has the First Minister made of the public response to the Welsh Government's 20 mph review? OQ60581

Llywydd, my assessment is that the public wants roads to be safe and to have speed limits that help to keep them safe. They also expect consistent application of the Welsh Government policy and that’s why our review will cover both the guidance provided to highway authorities and its local implementation.

Thank you for your response, First Minister. Of course, your tenure is soon coming to an end and any review won't be completed in your time as First Minister. And to give you credit, of course, you've stood nobly by this policy in recent years and months, but your two potential successors seem to be all over the shop. We heard from Mr Miles that he would commit to a review of the 20 mph policy within the first week of office, and then a few days later he announced that he is fully committed to 20 mph, which is quite a swift review considering his not being in office yet. And then Mr Gething, who has backed 20 mph all the way, all of a sudden wants a public conversation, and for the public to be front and centre of a review of the policy. Some might perhaps describe that as a cart before the horse. So, First Minister, I would like to know from you: which of the two leadership candidates do you endorse in their approach to this review?

14:05

Well, Llywydd, I endorse the policy of the Welsh Government, as endorsed by both my colleagues. The Deputy Minister for Climate Change has written today—that letter is available—to all Members. It sets out details of the review. It sets out the people who will be involved in the review. It welcomes contributions from the public. Of course we do, because their views on the practical implementation of the policy in the places where they live will be material to the way in which we review the first six months of this policy in practice.

We will do it in the way that we always said that we would do. We will, first of all, gather experience. We will weigh up the evidence. And then, we will do two things. Where the guidance needs to be strengthened or clarified, that is what we will do. And then, we will make sure that local authorities have the assistance that they need to implement that guidance in a way that is consistent across the whole of Wales.

First Minister, I know from my experience as a cabinet member of Flintshire County Council when we did a speed limit review about five years ago, or six years ago maybe, that it took time and there were objections to overcome and anomalies that had to be revisited, as is happening now.

Last week, with thanks to the Minister for Climate Change, I facilitated a meeting between the Welsh Government and Flintshire council, and it was a very useful action in resolving conflict on interpretation of the criteria, in rolling out the exemption criteria going forward, with I think lessons learned on both sides. So, I felt that it was really positive. I later attended a community meeting, and although people raised concerns about 20 mph, there were also others who now want to retain it, and I suggested that they feed into the council's review. First Minister, would you agree with me that positive actions are now being taken in moving forward with this?  

Llywydd, I thank Carolyn Thomas for that. She's right, of course. There are different views among the population, and there certainly are people who have been writing to their local authorities, asking why their street was not included as a 20 mph street when the council implemented the guidance. That is why the sort of meeting to which Carolyn Thomas referred, between the Welsh Government and the local authority, directly in the same room, sharing experiences and perspectives, will mean that the review is both meaningful, well informed, and will produce outcomes that will be shared between all of the parties. 

Local Authority Funding and Vulnerable Groups

4. What steps will the Welsh Government take to ensure that local authority funding cuts don't disproportionately impact vulnerable groups? OQ60582

Llywydd, the draft budget maintains the previously promised uplift in local government funding for 2024-25. That decision reflects this Government’s commitment to front-line services, which disproportionally benefit vulnerable groups.

Thank you, First Minister. However, local authorities across my region are outlining cuts to services provided to those vulnerable groups. It seems that, across all three local authorities, cutbacks are to be made to social services provision, public toilets are to close and, worst of all, cuts to additional learning needs support provision.

First Minister, the reality of your recent budget is that vulnerable children and older people will bear the brunt of the cuts. You are happy to spend millions of pounds on a commission on constitutional reform and increasing the number of politicians, but stand by when the most vulnerable in our society are let down by cuts to local services. Will you now admit that your budget is flawed and revise the local government settlement in order to protect vital services?

Well, Llywydd, as I'm sure the Member must be aware, this has been the most difficult budget in the whole history of devolution, because our budget in real terms is worth £1.3 billion less than when Rishi Sunak himself set it. Back in 2021, he made an assessment of the funding that the Welsh Government needed. We didn't agree with that; we thought that he had underestimated the funds needed, but three years later, we are £1.3 billion short of what he himself had calculated was necessary to support public services here in Wales.

The Member trots out a series of matters that are a handful of millions of pounds when you add them all up together. We will be providing to local authorities in Wales this year a 3.1 per cent uplift, which comes on top of the 7.9 per cent that local authorities had last year, and 9.4 per cent that they had the year before, each of which has been baselined. Local authorities in England, where his party is in charge, cannot believe the extent to which local authorities in Wales have been protected. In an era when there is not enough money for everything that is needed, they too face some very challenging decisions. That is without any doubt. But this Welsh Government, year after year after year, has shown our determination to do whatever we can with the means we have available to support local authorities in the vital work that they carry out.

14:10

First Minister, there's a very popular centre in the middle of Caerphilly that houses a coffee shop, a gallery and public toilets. Coffi Vista is used as a hub by vulnerable groups and the man who runs it, Martin, has a special table set aside for people who are lonely, so that they've got somewhere that's warm and welcoming to sit. The future of the centre is under threat because of cuts to local authority budgets. Now, I realise that councils are facing difficult circumstances and I wonder what support the Welsh Government can give to councils to ensure that community assets remain open. There was a public demonstration of support for the centre in Caerphilly just over a week ago. Hundreds of residents braved the cold to show how important the centre is to them. I think the town mayor, Mike Prew, said it was the largest demonstration in Caerphilly for almost 50 years, since the Sex Pistols played to the town in 1976. So, I'd ask what support could be given to help keep centres like this open and available for the people who rely on them so much.

I thank Delyth Jewell for that small part of Caerphilly history. [Laughter.] You heard me set out the extent to which we have protected and delivered what we said we would for local government in terms of revenue support grant support. On top of that, there are a series of grants that local authorities will receive, and Caerphilly will be a beneficiary of those as well. Just as we are going through the process here in the Senedd of having our budget scrutinised by different committees, so local authorities have published their budgets so that they can gauge the reaction of their local populations and see whether the decisions that they have made need to be fine-tuned to respond to that local concern. I'm quite sure that, in the difficult circumstances that Caerphilly council faces—and that's true of all our local authorities—I'm sure that it will be listening carefully to the views of its local population.

Good afternoon, First Minister. I know that many of us in this Siambr are very committed to the lives of looked-after children and care-experienced children, including yourself and your Cabinet, and therefore, many of us were delighted to see the commitment in the programme for government to eliminate profit from care. Many local authorities are struggling in terms of providing placements for children, but we must remember what our looked-after children say. Youth parliamentarian Rosie Squires said that looked-after children are people and are not there for profits. The concern is that local authorities spend millions of their budgets on placements for looked-after children. Last year, it's estimated that Welsh local authorities spent £200 million on placements for looked-after children. Not only is eliminating profit from care the right thing to do, but I and many others actually believe that it will save money. So, I just wondered if you could give us a continued commitment to eliminating profit from care and a timeline for when we can see action in moving that forward. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Well, Llywydd, I'm very pleased indeed to give that commitment. It's a very important part of our own programme for government to eliminate the pursuit of private profit in services for looked-after children. I'm confident that we will bring a Bill before this Senedd while I am still First Minister to begin the scrutiny process of those proposals.

I do not regret a single penny of the money that is spent in Wales on getting a better future for those children. We owe it to them, more than almost any other children in Wales, because public authorities have become those children's parents. But I want to see that money spent on those children, and not to leak out into private profit taking. The Member will know that the Competition and Markets Authority published two reports last year that criticised the sector for excessive profit taking. I don't think that making profits at the expense of young people, where that money could be invested in services for those young people, is a situation that we would want to see sustained into the future in Wales.

It will provide benefits for local authorities financially, because they'll have that money to invest in services, and, as I see it, to help prevent young people in the future being taken into the care of local authorities where families could be supported through the difficult times that families face. There's no more vulnerable group, to use the term of the original question, than those young people, and we will do better by them in Wales in future.

14:15
The Budget and Inflation

5. What discussions has the First Minister had with the UK Government about restoring the Welsh budget in line with rising inflation in the UK? OQ60575

We have repeatedly pressed the UK Government to increase the Welsh budget in line with inflation. Our budget is worth £1.3 billion less in real terms than when it was set in 2021. The Minister for finance will raise this once again when she meets the Chief Secretary to the Treasury later this week.

Thank you, First Minister. You've reminded us twice this afternoon that the Welsh Government is poorer by £1.3 billion in real terms. Altaf Hussain's previous question, and those from Delyth Jewell and Jane Dodds, demonstrate the impact of these cuts on our services and, more importantly, on people on the ground. It's clear now that Wales is poorer now than if we were still a member of the European Union. The plans of the UK Government of untargeted funding just aren't working. A freedom of information request recently revealed that local government in England had spent at least £27 million just for help preparing bids for levelling-up funding—£27 million for large consultancy companies, taking money that is limited from the public purse. What steps is the First Minister taking to ensure that taxpayers' money in Wales is used effectively? Thank you. 

Paul Davies took the Chair.

I thank Rhys ab Owen for those additional questions. As Rhys ab Owen said, this funding, which had come to Wales in the past, has been drawn back to London, and is now being held by the UK Government. The way that they're using that funding is wasteful. It was funding that sat here in Wales and was held by the Senedd. What I want to see is that funding being repatriated to Wales so that we can use it effectively through a system of partnership with universities, local authorities and private business. We do have a plan, and we've prepared for the future with people in Europe who are specialists in this field. Keir Starmer has pledged that if a Labour Government is elected to Westminster in future, that funding will be coming back to Wales and will be back in the hands of the Senedd for use.

First Minister, we would all agree that we would like to see more money, but unlike in Scotland, your party agreed to a comparable model of funding for Wales with a needs-based Barnett bonus. We know that this gives Wales at least 15 per cent extra funding per head, although we know that, at the moment, it sits higher than that. However, for many years, your Government has not been using this uplift in funding for its intended purpose. When the UK Government have invested in education and health, the Welsh Government have chosen to divert that money elsewhere, to things like the deals with Plaid Cymru. I know time has moved on, but, First Minister, in 2016, you said that the revised fiscal framework would, and I quote, ensure

'fair funding for Wales for the long term'.

You said that it

‘protects our budget from...undue risks that could arise’.

But now we see the Government blame the UK Government for honouring that agreement that you wanted, made and signed. In light of that agreement you signed, First Minister, will you now ensure that you work towards ensuring that Barnett additionality and consequential funding goes fully to its intended devolved area of responsibility?

14:20

The Welsh Government spends more per head of the population on health, more per head of the population on education, more per head of the population on social services than where his party is in charge elsewhere. The argument is not about the fiscal framework; it’s about the amount of money that goes into the fiscal framework in the first place. That’s where we are short-changed by his Government. I’m proud of the revised fiscal framework; I think it has served Wales well. It needs to be revised to bring the figures in it up to the real terms that we see in managing our budget today. But the problem is not with the fiscal framework at all; it is the fact that the framework itself is starved of the resources that are needed to meet the needs of people in Wales.

First Minister, the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, in its report published last week, recommended that the UK Government removes constraints on the Welsh Government’s budget management. Every council in Wales can move money into and out of reserves with no constraints whatsoever and can borrow to its prudential limit. The Welsh Government has neither of those powers. Would you agree with me that this commissioned report is a powerful endorsement of the argument, which the Welsh Government has long been making, that it should be allowed to move money into and out of reserves with no maximum and also to borrow prudentially?

The conclusions of the commission echo the conclusions of the Institute for Fiscal Studies of two years ago, where they made exactly these points, and we have made them repeatedly. My colleague the finance Minister has made them repeatedly in the interactions we have with the UK Government. Scotland has been able to renegotiate the borrowing limits, the ability to carry money forward, the size of the reserve. All of those things are stuck where they were when the fiscal framework was agreed, and those figures are now worth 17 per cent less than when they were originally negotiated. All we have asked for is that they are just updated so that their real value is reflected today. I see that in Northern Ireland, they are being offered flexibilities in managing their budget that go even beyond what has been agreed in Scotland. So, it’s okay for Northern Ireland, it’s okay for Scotland, they do it themselves for England; Wales is the only part of the United Kingdom denied the sensible tools that are needed to manage the money that we have in the best possible way, and it’s high time it was put right.

Junior Doctor Pay

6. What progress has the Welsh Government made towards offering a fair pay restoration to junior doctors? OQ60568

We have committed to the principle of pay restoration for all of our dedicated NHS workforce. Wales and the whole of the UK needs the funding required for restorative pay rises. Our budget this year allows only the offer currently on the table.

Thank you for the answer, First Minister.

Last Monday, as we all know, junior doctors began their 72-hour walkout, and we can expect more to come, as it was confirmed yesterday that strike ballots are now open for consultants and SAS doctors. Plaid Cymru was out on the picket lines with junior doctors last week and the strength of feeling was palpable. Pay erosion of almost a third since 2008 has been compounded by astronomical student debts. I was repeatedly told that it really is becoming less attractive to work and train in Wales because of sub-inflationary pay increases. The pay offer from the Welsh Government is the worst in the UK, and the NHS is facing a recruitment crisis. Before the First Minister asks me to find him more money, my question is this: given the challenges the Government has set out previously, and given the strength of feeling amongst doctors, how does the Government plan to resolve this dispute?

14:25

There's only one way in which disputes are ever resolved, and that's by being around the table. We remain open to discussing with junior doctors and other staff in the NHS a way forward that we could navigate together. That will not be easy, but it wasn't easy when we were negotiating with Agenda for Change staff in Wales earlier this year, where we did reach an agreement. It wasn't easy when we were negotiating with pharmacists, optometrists and dentists in primary care, but we've reached agreement with all of those as well. So, while there are no easy answers—because we absolutely understand the strength of feeling amongst junior doctors, we understand their frustration at seeing the real level of their pay eroded—what we lack is not understanding, nor shared ideas of what needs to be done; what we lack is the money to be able to pursue those ambitions. Being in the same room and continuing to talk is the only way, in the end, in which any dispute of the sort that we saw last week gets settled.

Safe Access to Abortion Clinics

7. What representations will the Welsh Government make to the UK Government regarding the Home Office draft guidance that would allow anti-abortion protestors to approach women attending abortion clinics? OQ60584

Women must be able to access healthcare services without interference or challenge from others. Parliament in the UK voted for 150m safe zones at abortion clinics, to prevent women from being subjected to harassment. That is exactly what now needs to happen.

Thank you, First Minister. Of course, most people throughout Wales and across the United Kingdom support women's right to choose to take on that very difficult lifelong commitment to having a child. Women who attend these clinics are at their most vulnerable making that difficult decision, and it is quite appalling that we are winding back the clock to enable people to be harassed at that most difficult moment. It is seriously disappointing that this draft guidance has already been given to police forces and local authorities despite this vote in the UK Parliament banning this practice. How on earth can we trust the UK Government to obey the wishes of its own Parliament? Is this is not a prime example of why policing and justice need to be devolved to Wales, as described by the Thomas commission, the Gordon Brown report and the Williams-McAllister report?

I see that the Home Secretary James Cleverly said that the guidance was drafted before he became Home Secretary, that he has agreed to meet MPs to discuss their concerns with it, and has given a commitment that all those views will be properly considered ahead of publishing the final version of the guidance. I certainly hope that that will be the case. Because you don't need to take my word for it, or even Jenny Rathbone's word for it; Sir Bernard Jenkin wrote, with a Labour colleague, to the Home Secretary saying that

'The framing of the guidance seems to us to very clearly discount the experiences and reports of women accessing abortion care, and instruct them that they should not feel harassed, alarmed, distressed, or influenced by behaviour which…is having precisely that impact.'

They said that the draft guidance

'would do nothing to address the ongoing issue of anti-abortion harassment outside clinics'.

I think that is clearly a view of Members of Parliament on both sides of the House of Commons; it's certainly my view. I agree with what the Member said that if these decisions were in the hands of this Senedd, we would have acted differently and acted already to put an end to that harassment. It's not too late for the UK Government to listen to Sir Bernard Jenkin and others, and I really hope that they do.

Funding for Local Authorities in Mid and West Wales

8. Will the First Minister make a statement on Welsh Government funding for local authorities in Mid and West Wales? OQ60583

I thank Cefin Campbell for the question. In addition to specific grants, councils in this region will receive funding of over £935 million through the 2024-25 local government settlement.

Thank you very much. Last Friday, I had a meeting with leaders of county councils in the region that I represent. And it's true to say that the atmosphere was quite downhearted, as you'd expect. But one of the most worrying aspects that was raised with me was the teachers' pay settlement, and the way that local authorities are now expected to pay for this. Because when a pay deal was agreed for teachers back in February 2023, the Welsh Government agreed to pay the additional costs for that year, but no commitment was made to continue to cover those costs for the following years. So, the responsibility for paying these salaries has been passed on to local authorities, and the Welsh Local Government Association has made a very strong case to restore this, and they estimate the cost as being around £21 million per annum. So, without this funding, local authorities face a financial black hole, and are having to make cuts elsewhere that will have a direct impact on the education of learners. So, can I ask the First Minister whether you would restore this annual funding for the teachers' pay settlement?

14:30

Well, Llywydd, I hear the points that the Member makes, and, as I said, there are difficult decisions facing local authorities. But just to be clear, we haven't passed on the responsibility to local authorities to pay and employ teachers—they are responsible for doing that. They are in the room when they agree on the level of salaries for teachers, not us. We have helped them in the past. It's harder for us to do that now, but what we're talking about here is things that the local authorities have agreed, and now it's down to them to pay for what they have agreed to do.

2. Business Statement and Announcement

We'll move on now to item 2 on our agenda, which is the business statement and announcement. And I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement—Lesley Griffiths. 

Member
Lesley Griffiths 14:32:22
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Thank you, temporary Presiding Officer. There are three changes to this week's Plenary business. A statement on Tata Steel has been added to today's agenda. As a result, the statement on the economy of the Heads of the Valleys has been postponed. Also withdrawn is a statement on the renewal of the memorandum of understanding with the World Health Organization Europe. This now will be issued as a written statement. 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. 

I would like to call for a statement, please, from the Deputy Minister for Climate Change regarding the blue badge application process. Sadly, the current application process is not working efficiently, and it's particularly difficult for those with a lifelong diagnosis. This has an impact on quality of life for many people in Wales, including many in my constituency. Currently, many people with lifelong conditions are experiencing difficulty reapplying for blue badges, with applications having to be submitted 12 weeks in advance, and the process fraught with delay. This sometimes leads to, as in the case of one constituent, a window in which they are without a blue badge.

Having met late last year with STAND North Wales, I was informed that we are also seeing an increase in people with severely limited mobility, and other comorbidities, having their application turned down. For many, the thought of having to reapply and complete the paperwork so frequently is stressful. Also, people require assistance in the application process, and many have lost faith in the system due to a lack of consistency.

The Deputy Minister has confirmed previously that there is no statutory appeals process, but I believe there should be at least a re-evaluation of this. I would like the Deputy Minister to address the concerns that have been raised, including by the more than 1,500 people who have signed a petition on whether the Welsh Government are committed to reviewing the application process and criteria for those needing a blue badge. 

Can the Deputy Minister look into the possibility of introducing a lifelong blue badge for those who have a lifelong diagnosis, which would take the burden off a lot of people in Wales who live with a disability, and remove a lot of unnecessary administrative work? Thank you. 

Thank you. Well, it is important that people who absolutely need a blue badge are able to access it. I am very well aware of the petition that you refer to, and, obviously, when that petition is closed, and the Petitions Committee has reviewed it and decided if they want it to be brought forward for a debate or not, that will be the time that the Deputy Minister for Climate Change would make a statement. You obviously referred to something specifically now, and I think it might be better—the Deputy Minister for Climate Change is in his place, and has heard you—if you write to the Deputy Minister, and he can respond directly to you.

14:35

May we have a statement from you as the Minister for rural affairs responding to the item that was broadcast on the programme Ffermio on S4C last night? Wyn and Enid Davies from Capel Isaac in Carmarthenshire explained how they have had to cull 180 cattle in the past three years due to TB, although they have a closed herd, of course, and they hadn't been bringing animals onto the farm. It was very powerful to see their heartbreak as they had to cull and slaughter the animals on the farm. They were in tears; I'm sure that many of us who watched the programme were also in tears. And what we have to remember is that Wyn and Enid Davies are just one family amongst hundreds of families who have had to experience this horrific situation.

So, will you review the rules that force people such as Wyn and Enid to cull their stock on their farm, because that obviously intensifies the significant impact on the mental health of those families who do have to go through such a torturous process? Will you also review your Government's failure to tackle TB in wildlife? Will you also explain why the Government refused to put any Government spokespeople forward to contribute to that item last night—not even the chief veterinary officer? That asks questions about accountability, and certainly rubs salt in the wounds of those who have had to face this hellish situation. So, a statement, please, explaining how now, in the face of that item, will you review your current policies, because you do have to accept that the situation as it currently stands, and as was drawn to our attention on Ffermio last night, isn't just unsustainable but is totally, totally unacceptable.

Well, I don't underestimate the distress of a TB breakdown on any farmer or their family, and I absolutely recognise that. You'll be very well aware that I make an annual statement on TB eradication and the delivery plan. I made a statement, I think it was in March last year, so we'll be coming up to the annual statement. I also really think it's important to stress that we are seeing a decline in the number of new herds of TB, so we are making significant progress. There is also going to be a technical advisory group, and one of the things I'm going to ask that group to look at as a matter of urgency is something that the farmers have requested I do, in relation to the slaughter of in-calf cattle on farms. I think it's very important that we work with the industry, because I think that is a particularly stressful time, and, obviously, that was highlighted in the programme last night.

Three things. One is: there is a Holocaust memorial book of commitment upstairs in the Neuadd, which we can all sign in advance of Saturday's Holocaust Memorial Day, which of course is when the Russians liberated Auschwitz. We had a wonderful, wonderful testimony from Eva Clarke today. It was fantastic that the Minister for Social Justice was there to renew her commitment and the Government's commitment to combating antisemitism and making sure that we all continue to remember the Holocaust, even though most of those who were there have sadly passed away.

Secondly, this week is Cervical Cancer Prevention Week. I know Huw Irranca-Davies—my colleague, who normally sits next to me—made a wonderful reminder to us all about the collaboration between schools and the health service, to ensure that young people are taking up the HPV vaccine. I had a meeting with the head of Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust the other week, and our rates are still not high enough to ensure that we eliminate cervical cancer. I note that England has set a target of 2040 to eliminate cervical cancer, through expanding the vaccine programme. My question is when the Welsh Government might be in a position to set a date for our elimination of cervical cancer, because I hope it will be more ambitious than that of the UK Government.

Thirdly, earlier this month a national patient safety alert was sent out by NHS England, regarding a world shortage in the supply of the drug Ozempic, which used to be and still is treatment for those with diabetes. So much of the world's supply has now been diverted to be used as supposedly a miracle weight-loss drug. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of this shortage, as well as the risk that women are putting themselves under by using this drug for weight loss without any medical supervision? And how does the Government intend to ensure that Ozempic gets to those who truly need it? 

14:40

Thank you. And thank you for reminding us that Saturday is the Holocaust Memorial Day and that the book is available for all Members to sign in the Neuadd. 

With regard to improving cervical cancer outcomes, I know the Welsh Government is committed—. Due to the existence of the vaccination that you referred to, it is theoretically possible to largely eradicate cervical cancer over time. I'm not aware of when the Welsh Government is going to bring a target in, but I will certainly ask the Minister if that is something that she's considered, and perhaps she could write to you, if that is the case.

In relation to Ozempic, I think you raise a really important point. There are people, unfortunately, that require it for type 2 diabetes that have now not been able to access it, because it is being advertised and being put online, for instance, and off-label for people to use as a weight-loss drug. I know the Minister for Health and Social Services works closely with the UK Government, who, of course, do have a responsibility for maintaining the supply of medicines here in the UK. But it is really important that the Minister continues to work with them, work with NHS Wales, work with general practitioners, work with pharmacists to make sure that patients who do require it continue to receive it as it's needed. If any patient or any constituent is having difficulty in obtaining supplies of Ozempic, they really should discuss this as a matter of urgency with their doctor. 

Trefnydd, could I request a statement from yourself, as the Minister for rural affairs, on an update on Government actions taken on food policy? We're coming up to eight months since the Food (Wales) Bill fell, and I, alongside sector stakeholders, are eagerly awaiting an update on the commitments made to the Senedd last May. Trefnydd, the Senedd were told that a cross-portfolio document for stakeholders would be published periodically to highlight joined-up Government food policies currently in motion and how they fit with well-being goals. When can we expect the first release of this document? Will we also see well-being indicators and milestones published, as recommended by the Economic, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee? And further commitments also included offering support to join up Welsh food producers with community-level action groups and the public sector. An update on the current support on offer and future initiatives would be welcomed by the food sector, as long-term planning is critical for the food sector. Trefnydd, I think we all agree the food sector in Wales is vital. Let's not merely acknowledge its importance, let's champion it, nurture it and ensure it thrives. I know that stakeholders across Wales will welcome that update. 

Thank you very much. Well, Peter Fox will know from my meetings with him that we are nearly ready to publish the cross-portfolio document to which he refers. I am due to have a meeting with the Minister for Social Justice—I think it's next week now—to finalise the document, and I do hope then to be able to publish it. I think you make a really important point and, again, as you know from our discussions, the future generations commissioner—this is something he is particularly interested in. And I know he's speaking at an event, and I think the Minister for Finance and Local Government is as well, in, actually, my constituency later this month, where public services boards will be having a look at this. Because I think there is so much good work going on right across Wales that we do need to draw it together, so it's not so spread out and scattergun, as, unfortunately, it does seem to be at the moment. 

I know that the Government produces statements it seems every time there's a storm. It might be helpful, given that we've endured another week of significant storms, if, perhaps on an annual basis, a statement regarding the storm impact and storm resilience is produced by the Government. And, Minister, would you take this opportunity to join me in thanking all of those road safety officers and emergency workers who keep roads, railways and communities safe during storms, such as that which we endured over the weekend, which saw the A5 closed for very good reasons?

14:45

Thank you. I think Ken Skates makes a very important point. We've already had two storms this week alone, and we are very grateful as a Government to our emergency services, to Natural Resources Wales, to local authorities and many others who absolutely worked tirelessly during these storms and have just done it over the weekend to make sure that they minimise the impacts on communities, where possible. 

Good afternoon, Trefnydd. I'd like to ask for two statements, if I may, please. One is in relation to a constituent of mine, Fionna Ashman, who operates a small, family-run dog rescue sanctuary, called Lizzie's Barn Sanctuary in sir Gâr, in Carmarthenshire. Last year alone, she saw 43 flood events on her property forcing—wait for it—hazardous boat evacuations of vulnerable dogs. That must pull the heart strings, I'm sure. When I previously wrote to the Minister seeking support to protect the sanctuary, I was informed that NRW, as the risk management authority, has no statutory duty to mitigate flooding. So, I wondered if you might be able to pursue this in order to clarify NRW's responsibility and empower my constituents, particularly those who look after our animals, to push for the actions needed. 

Secondly, I would like to request a statement from the Minister for Economy with regard to Nidec Control Techniques and their plans to cut jobs in Newtown. Last Friday, Control Techniques announced that it was planning cut 98 jobs at its factory in Newtown due to ongoing supply chain issues, and to move production probably towards Asia and North America. With Control Techniques deeply woven, as many of us know, into the fabric of the area, this is a really devastating blow. So, I would welcome a statement from the Minister for Economy about how the Welsh Government can support those employees and work with Control Techniques. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Thank you. Well, in relation to your first question, I'll certainly be happy to speak to the Minister for Climate Change. I am aware of the difficulties that have been faced at Lizzie's Barn Sanctuary, and I'm conscious that the Minister did write to you—I think it was last month—around the very difficult and devastating experiences the owner of Lizzie's Barn Sanctuary has had. And I will then write to the Member. 

In relation to Nidec, the Minister for Economy's officials were informed that they would shortly be making the announcement—a very devastating announcement—of the loss of 98 manufacturing jobs. And the Minister has asked his officials to continue to meet with the company to offer employees support through ReAct, Business Wales and other Welsh Government support that's available to the impacted workers.

Minister, over a week ago, some significantly important broadband infrastructure by Ogi was criminally damaged in an attack in Pembroke Dock, leaving homes and businesses without a broadband connection for a number of days. Now, given that this is a UK legislation issue in terms of the security of this, I'm just wondering if the relevant Minister could make some representations to the UK Government on the need to strengthen the law around the criminal activity and the damage to critical infrastructure such as broadband, given (a) the importance of broadband infrastructure to our day-to-day lives, and, secondly, the speed at which broadband infrastructure has rolled out maybe means that the law hasn't kept pace as to the importance of it. Hopefully, the Welsh Government can make some notes to the UK Government on the need for that.

Thank you. I think you make a very important point about legislation keeping up with technology because, as you say, we know technology does improve and things happen very quickly, and maybe the legislation certainly isn't quite as fast. I would imagine it's for the Minister for Economy—who is in his seat; he has heard—and I will certainly ask him if he's prepared to write to the UK Government regarding security, because clearly this has a massive impact on businesses who need to rely on broadband, as we all do.

Thank you temporary Deputy Presiding Officer—we need a snappier title for you, I suspect.

Trefnydd, I'd like to request a statement from the education Minister regarding progress in dealing with the presence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete in schools. Last week, we saw the BBC reporting that issues with RAAC has led to some children at a school in my region of north Wales never sitting formal exams. With the school in Holyhead, 60 per cent of it was shut in September due to RAAC and, incredibly, 40 per cent of it is still closed today. One pupil was quoted as saying that, at one point, they were doing maths on a hob in catering. That's no way to learn—I'm sure you would agree. So, it's damaging for pupils. They're still not being taught in an adequate learning environment, which will hamper their academic success. In light of this, Trefnydd, I'd welcome a statement from the education Minister to show what action the Welsh Government are taking to ensure that those children can fully get back to school as soon as possible. 

14:50

Thank you. Well, the Minister continues to work very closely with local authorities to assess condition and safety risks, including structural integrity for all buildings within their school estate and to maintain those records. I know, with the specific school that you just referred to, that there is a follow-up meeting scheduled for the end of this month, so I'm assuming it will be this week or next week, between the headteacher and Qualifications Wales and WJEC, to discuss the options and the assessment of the school and learner circumstances. So, I will ask the Minister for education to update Members with a written statement following that meeting.

Thank you, acting Presiding Officer. Can I add to the statement requested by Jane Dodds, please, Trefnydd? Last week, I met, alongside my colleague Craig Williams MP, with Nidec Control Techniques and the officials in Newtown at their site. I was pleased—and I think we were both pleased—that at least there was a commitment to continuing to invest in the Newtown site, and that was demonstrated to us, and so I feel confident for the long-term operations at the site. Now, my colleague Craig Williams has been working with the Department for Work and Pensions to bring forward a taskforce to support those that are affected, but I would be very grateful, Minister, if the economy Minister could bring forward a statement to demonstrate what support the Welsh Government is going to be offering those families affected, and how it will also dovetail any support that is offered from the UK Government.

The Llywydd took the Chair.

Well, I did mention the support that the Minister for Economy is giving from the Welsh Government. He's ensured that his officials have continued to work with Nidec to make sure that the staff who are affected will get support. I mentioned ReAct, for example. So, as I say, the Minister for Economy is ensuring that Welsh Government support is available.

3. Statement by the Minister for Economy: Tata Steel

The next item, therefore, will be the statement by the Minister for Economy on Tata Steel. The Minister to make the statement—Vaughan Gething.

Diolch, Llywydd. The announcement made by Tata Steel UK on 19 January has caused enormous distress and anxiety for thousands of workers, their families and whole communities in Wales, especially in Port Talbot.

The steel industry is part of our nation's story and stands today as a marker of Welsh excellence. In 2024, it represents an economic asset with a global reach that is essential to meeting the demands of a greener and more secure future. Port Talbot boasts a workforce with the expertise, know-how and dedication to deliver the longer, fairer transition for steel that the Welsh and UK economies need. However, the proposals presented last week will not allow the industry to realise that ambitious future in Wales. Instead, it sets out a process that would rapidly see the UK become the only G20 economy to relinquish its virgin steel-making capabilities—all this at a time of rising global conflict and growing trade disruption. From cans to cars to construction, virgin steel is an essential element of the steel that we need today. If implemented in full, the plans would see the UK become more reliant upon imports produced to lower environmental standards and shipped thousands of miles to Wales on diesel-fuelled vessels.
 
Following a deal struck with the UK Government, Tata Steel now intends to close Port Talbot's two blast furnaces and coke ovens in a phased manner. The first blast furnace would close around mid 2024 and the remaining heavy-end assets would wind down to closure in the second half of 2024. Tata has announced that up to 2,800 direct jobs are expected to be lost as part of its proposals. Around 2,500 of those would be affected within the next 18 months. The company expects that a further 300 roles would be lost in two to three years’ time at Llanwern.

Llywydd, this represents an economic loss of historic proportions for Wales within an industry that all of us will become increasingly reliant upon. Rather than providing a bridge to the future that sees us produce cleaner steel, the deal struck by UK Ministers offers a cliff edge and preventable hardship for those workers who are best placed to make the transition work. It is the firm view of this Welsh Government that a better deal could and should be struck to avoid an outcome that is preventable. UK Ministers have failed to set out the case for a £500 million subsidy that results in 2,800 job losses and the loss of virgin steel-making capacity. It is not clear what outcomes were prioritised by Ministers or why this specific level of financial support was chosen.

Llywydd, the UK Government and Tata Steel have the tools between them to secure a longer, fairer transition for a sector that is good for growth and essential to our collective security. It is in all of our interests to secure the best deal for steel, and not simply the cheapest deal. The Prime Minister could realise the need to take job losses of this scale off the table. He could enter into urgent talks with clear red lines based on an assessment of our economic needs and the role that steel must play in meeting them. I have written to successive Secretaries of State for business regarding Tata. I have made it clear that we were prepared to do what we can to support the company in the transition that will take place. Indeed, we have a long history of supporting the business, a fact that is recognised both by the company and, indeed, the workforce. I've also written to the current Secretary of State in the Department of Business and Trade on four occasions since 11 September. I have asked that we meet urgently to discuss the future of Tata Steel UK and the implications of any proposed plans for employees and the wider supply chain. Despite this, the UK Government has refused to allow the Welsh Government to play an active role in the negotiations undertaken with Tata Steel. Llywydd, it's important to place on record that we did refuse to participate in discussions with the UK Government on planning for the closure of the Port Talbot steelworks whilst being excluded from the ongoing negotiations. Following a briefing with Tata in advance of their announcement, the First Minister requested an urgent call with the Prime Minister on Friday to discuss the action that could still be taken to secure a more ambitious future for this important sovereign asset. However, the Prime Minister was not available to take a call, and no subsequent offer has been made to the First Minister's office.

Llywydd, as Tata Steel has stated, any agreement is subject to relevant regulatory approvals, information and consultation processes. The finalisation of detailed terms and conditions has yet to be reached. We urge the company not to make any irreversible choices based on the current level of UK Government support. There is a credible way forward for the business that does not require the planned loss of both blast furnaces and job losses on this eyewatering scale. The company has described itself a sense of ambition for the future. I believe that new possibilities can be unlocked if the policy of the UK Government were changed to allow for this. It is essential that Tata now builds on the dialogue that it has been having with the recognised trades unions to date. I have met with representatives from the three recognised steel trades unions: Community, Unite, and the GMB. I have met them regularly since the agreement reached between Tata Steel and the UK Government on 15 September. I visited Port Talbot to meet with the unions on 19 January, as well as meeting face to face with senior Tata executives. And once more, yesterday, I met and listened to 70 workforce representatives to understand their perspective and understand their view of a better alternative approach that could be pursued for this sector.

The First Minister and I have continued to meet with the company, and I welcome the company's commitment to maintain that dialogue. We have continually stressed the importance of proper consultation and full consideration of alternative options that the trade unions have presented. The company has yet to begin a formal consultation. I urge them to engage with the workforce at each stage to ensure a fair outcome. The Tata Steel transition board was established by the UK Government to provide advice on how to protect and grow the economic environment and to support and mitigate the impact upon the workforce, businesses and communities directly affected by Tata's proposals for a decarbonisation transition. We will continue to participate in the board to support areas of shared priority. 

In addition, we will work closely with key partners such as Jobcentre Plus, Working Wales, local authorities and the trade unions to ensure that any people who do face redundancy as a consequence of these proposals are provided with information, advice and guidance on the support available to them. The Welsh Government's employability and skills programmes, ReAct+ and Communities for Work Plus, can provide support for training and mentoring to those who wish or require this support.

Llywydd, this support would be delivered as a consequence of the wrong deal for steel. The anger, the hurt and the fear that is felt by so many is compounded by the shared and reasonable understanding that this is preventable. There is still an opportunity to secure a better outcome that protects a sovereign asset that is also part of the social and economic fabric of Wales. I remain committed to working with the company, trade unions and the UK Government to prevent the scale of loss that we now risk. Wales and the UK will be better off and more secure if the products of the future that will power us towards a greener future are made here. I will, of course, continue to keep lines of communication open to all parties and keep Members informed. Thank you, Llywydd.

15:00

Can I thank the Minister for his statement this afternoon? I very much agree with the Minister that this is a hugely distressing time for the workers at the Tata Steel plant. Workers and their families will be understandably anxious about what the future holds for them, and it's vitally important that there is support from Governments at all levels at this very difficult time. Anyone who has followed the development since the announcement was made can feel just how precarious this situation is for the site's workers. Now, today's statement refers to Tata's consultation on the job losses it's planning to make across its UK operations, and the company has promised that it will work with unions in the first instance, and, further to his statement today, can the Minister tell us what role the Welsh Government is playing in ensuring that the consultation results in the best possible outcomes for the workforce? 

Now, the company has set out the phased manner in which it plans to close both of its blast furnaces, and it's vital that everything possible is done to support the workers and ensure that they're offered job and training opportunities, particularly for young people. Today's statement tells us that the Welsh Government is working with key partners like Jobcentre Plus and others to ensure people who are facing redundancy have the best possible information, and I'm pleased to hear that programmes, ReAct+ and Communities for Work Plus, are providing support for training. Following on from this, perhaps the Minister could tell us a bit more about some of the action that is being taken, and also tell us whether the Welsh Government has ring-fenced any funding to ensure that the workers can access work or training opportunities. 

It's not just those directly employed by Tata, of course, that will be affected by the company's announcement; this will also have an impact on contractors, local businesses and the wider community. Make no mistake: this announcement will have ripples right across the south Wales corridor. Of course, it affects the local supply chain and the wider region, particularly across a manufacturing sector with ambitious plans for maximising the net-zero opportunities presented around the Celtic free port, so it's vital that the transition board engages with the people, businesses and communities affected by the transition. Whilst we know that the Welsh Government has been working with the unions to support workers, perhaps the Minister could tell us what engagement the Welsh Government has had with local businesses about the impact that this announcement will have on them, and tell us what support is being made available to them too.

Now, we know that the business model for Tata will significantly change as the company's blast furnaces are replaced by an electric arc furnace. Now, as you've heard from the leader of the opposition earlier, he and I believe that a blast furnace should be kept open during the transition period to help protect some of those jobs in the short to medium term, and it's vital we receive a full explanation why this isn't happening.

Today's statement confirms that the Minister has had significant discussions with senior executives, and so perhaps he can confirm that he has asked Tata to keep a blast furnace open in those discussions, and, if so, what response he received. And can he tell us whether the Welsh Government has offered any support to keep blast furnace 4 open, as the transition to greener technology takes place? Of course, the Minister is right to say that the transition should genuinely be a just transition that does not offshore jobs and emissions to other parts of the world.

In addition, the Minister said that other technologies need to be considered, such as direct reduced iron in the short to medium term and hydrogen in the longer term. Of course, in the discussions that the Minister has had with Tata about its plans to produce steel in a greener way, it's vital that all technologies have been considered. Therefore, I'd be grateful if the Minister tells us what support it's offering the company on its decarbonisation journey and clarifies the Welsh Government's position on the use of hydrogen. And more importantly, perhaps the Minister can clarify exactly what he wants to see for the sector, going forward. What is the Welsh Government's long-term plan when it comes to the steel industry?

Today's statement refers to the need to secure a longer, fairer transition for a sector that is good for green growth and essential to our collective security, and there are some big questions for both Governments about what the British steel sector should look like in the future. On the one hand, Governments are supportive of the sector decarbonising and embracing technology to produce greener steel, and, at the same time, it's also trying to protect jobs too. So, perhaps the Minister can tell us how he believes that balance should be struck and what is the Welsh Government's vision for steel production and what discussions has he had with the Secretary of State about how both Governments can work together on this issue.

And so in closing, Llywydd, can I say that my thoughts remain with those affected by Tata's announcement? And I urge Governments to work together to support the workforce and the wider community that will feel the effects of last week for some time to come. Diolch.

15:05

Thank you for the comments and the questions, and I think we need to restate at the outset that we have a series of proposals, not guaranteed outcomes. I've seen far too much commentary that simply accepts that everything that has been announced is going to happen, and yet, actually, we don't yet know the detail of what's being proposed.

I'm trying not to collapse back into being an employment lawyer, but the company needs to file something called an HR1, which sets out the proposals on job losses and the time frames around them. At the moment, there's a broad statement outlining 2,500 direct job cuts around Port Talbot, up to 300 in Llanwern, and gives a rough 18-month time frame. There isn't actually a plan within that; it's setting out the end result of the proposals. To see that plan provided is actually really important for the consultation to be meaningful, and all of us will need to be engaged in and around that. Now, we are interested, and of course the recognised trade unions are interested, in seeing the detail around that plan, what it looks like and whether there is a further conversation we could, should and will have, and I hope that UK Ministers will look at that plan as well.

And I do welcome the contrast in the comments, where both Paul Davies and, to be fair to him, the leader of the opposition in this place, have said that they want to see a future with a blast furnace that remains open and a credible path to doing so. That is not the private and the public view of the Secretary of State for Wales. And if he has an honest disagreement about that, that's fine—people can disagree, of course. What I think is difficult is the attempt by the current Secretary of State for Wales to characterise our disagreement as playing politics with the future, when, actually, we disagree that this is the only choice available. I've also been clear that an alternative, where blast furnace 4 does remain open, would require more investment from the UK Government. I've been really clear about that, so I'm not saying that there is a cost-free option. It's whether or not we collectively think there is value in that, not just in the direct jobs and indirect jobs that would be saved, but the longer term transition and not becoming the only G20 country that cannot make virgin steel, with all of the requirements that a number of our metal sources do have. And when I talk about cans, cars and construction, that is because some grades of construction steel require virgin steel to be part of the mix. Some parts of the automotive industry require virgin steel to be part of the mix to create cars and other vehicles. And as the Member for Llanelli knows, every single tin of Heinz beans is made at Trostre. It requires virgin steel to be part of a mix for that metal. If it doesn't, that has to be imported, whether from the Netherlands or India, and there is an obvious question about longer-term viability if that happens. So, there is real risk in not doing this and what that does for our economic future. 

Now, I hope that when the plan, the detail of the plan, is available, UK Ministers will take the opportunity to look at that again. I would much rather see, before a general election, that there is an opportunity to reconsider and to save these jobs. That would deal with the uncertainty that you mention that families are facing, and it's understandable there's real anger from those families about proposals when the workforce has been adaptable, they've made moves on a whole range of issues, including changing their pensions in the past as well, to make sure the business can survive and have a future.  

But on your broader points around work and training, that will depend on what the need is in terms of the end proposal. Because we have proposals now and they always can change, not just the end result we would like to see, we'll need to see the time frame as well as the end result in proposals for what there is then a training need for. I've already indicated that, if our current budgets don't meet the need that exists, we will look again in my department at how we could move budgets to meet the need. But the Member will know, particularly as I was in front of his committee last week on scrutiny, there is a finite resource available to us. But this is an area where we may need to move matters around, depending on the scale of need. And all of that is dependent on the consultation and the outcomes of it. 

On the transition board work, again, it does depend on how money might be used, as depending on the final deal or the final decision actually reached. I've already made it clear that there is a need to engage with both the health service—if there are to be large-scale redundancies, there's always an additional healthcare need around that as well—with the council, Neath Port Talbot Council, looking at some local development work, but also the broader challenge and opportunity of working with the Swansea bay growth deal, because they're looking at different opportunities in and around the economy. 

There would also definitely be a need for the transition board to recognise and respect the fact that a number of the areas where support will be required and will be delivered are devolved. Actually, in the past, when we've had other challenges around employment, for example, whether it was in Monmouthshire or Blaenau Gwent or Ynys Môn, we've had a practical working relationship between the council, the Welsh Government and, indeed, the Department for Work and Pensions on a local level. So, if there are redundancies, then I would expect us to take a grown-up and mature approach to making sure we help people as well as we can. 

I had a conversation with business groups yesterday both about the direct and indirect impact of the potential job losses, and Professor David Worsley from Swansea University has confirmed that there are at least three additional jobs reliant on every one direct job in the steelworks, and, on some counts, potentially up to five. So, we really are talking about not just 2,800—we're talking about north of 10,000 jobs that are reliant on this decision within the Welsh economy. Part of the challenge is that other work may be available, but steelworkers are very well paid. So, people may find alternative work but not necessarily at the same rate. So, it's both the number of jobs and the quality and the outcomes in those jobs that matters to us. 

We do believe that blast furnace 4 could be kept open with additional support. I also believe it would provide additional value. That is a case that we have continued to make with the company and will carry on doing so. On hydrogen and DRI and other forms of changes to the future of steel making, there is a contrast between the approach being taken in the UK and the approach being taken in the Netherlands, where Tata also have a significant steelworks. There, there is a different conversation, with incentives being discussed to develop a future, including hydrogen steel making as a possibility. So, that different conversation means that there are different outcomes for the future of steel making in the Netherlands.

Now, I think we can have the same ambition and we can have better outcomes here for Welsh steelworkers. It will involve electric arc steel making being part of the future, but I don't accept that the proposals that have been announced thus far are the only way to reach a future for the future of steel making in Wales and the UK, and all of the consequences for the economy of today and, indeed, the future.

15:15

Of course, mine and Plaid Cymru’s solidarity is with the workers, the community of Port Talbot, surrounding communities throughout south-west Wales, from Llanelli right across to Bridgend and beyond, where many members of the workforce and their families live, and of course the trade unions who have worked incredibly hard to avoid the announcement made last week.

The announcement came while Tata Steel Ltd, the parent company of Tata Steel UK, is quite profitable. Tata Steel Ltd made £3 billion in earnings before interest, taxes and depreciation, and £900 million in net profits in 2022-23. Tata Steel Ltd also has reserves of £1.6 billion and paid dividends out to shareholders of £1.4 billion between 2019 and 2023. At the same time, Tata has sites in India and the EU that are already profiting from steel imports into the UK that potentially will now only stand to profit even more from the waning steel industry in the UK.

I think this is important background information for us to remember. Whilst we are told to welcome the £500 million from UK Government, in what situation is £500 million for 2,800 job losses, the loss of capacity to produce primary steel, and the potential to flood the UK market with foreign steel a good deal? There’s an important question that needs to be considered here. Are we comfortable with going down this path laid before us of potentially losing the ability to produce primary steel and, as the Minister has already said, the UK becoming the only member of the G20 unable to do so? There is no net zero, there is no green economy, without steel. Diversification of steel production is key, and putting everything into electric arc furnaces is not the right way forward. We’ve heard about direct reduced iron, we’ve heard about hydrogen already. So, how will Welsh Government proceed with the UK Government on this?

It was shocking but not surprising to learn over the weekend that UK Government, through the Prime Minister, once again has refused to engage constructively with the Welsh Government to protect jobs at Tata. Does the Minister agree with me that this is yet another indication that no UK Government can ultimately be trusted to stand up for Wales, and will he outline the steps he is taking to ensure that the Welsh Government has its rightful seat at the table?

Critically, will the Minister support our calls for the nationalisation of the Tata site in Port Talbot, especially if they choose to continue with their current proposal? Because, simply, we cannot continue on the path of throwing money at private entities, as we have been doing, only for them to then make decisions like this anyway, especially when it comes to strategic resources. Nationalisation is needed as a bridge to securing the long-term viability and diversity of domestic steel production in Wales. Investment is needed in the billions, like we’ve seen in Germany, like we’ve seen in France and Spain. Five-hundred million pounds doesn’t even touch the sides. So, I would hope that a Welsh Labour Minister would stand with us on this.

On what Welsh Government can do immediately, upskilling workers for the green steel sector and wider green economy will be essential. So, would the Minister consider further Plaid Cymru’s proposals for a national skills audit, so that we then have the data to identify those gaps in the green steel industry, in the green economy, and then use that data to decide how we fill them? We know that apprenticeships will also play a key part in this programme of upskilling, so will the Government also agree with calls to look again at the apprenticeship budget? He indicated that he would be willing to do this in an interview on Sunday morning. He indicated again that he would be potentially willing to do this in response to Paul Davies. But would this apply more broadly to the apprenticeship budget?

The reality is that if we don’t get this right, future generations will not thank us for our inaction to preserve the steel industry for them.

Thank you for the comments and questions. I'll start with the final couple of points of detail, because on apprentices, we've already been clear that the big cliff edge has been thrust upon us because of the way that former EU funds have been taken away from us, and the way they've been deliberately designed to ensure they can't be used on a strategic all-Wales programme. I've been very clear that I want to see, when the funds are restored, a reinvestment into a strategic all-Wales programme around apprenticeships.

When it comes, though, to the current budget consultation, it is exactly that: that in making a proposal to spend more in one area we have to be able to find that money from somewhere else. Now, we're going through a scrutiny process. We had some of this conversation last week, before the Tata announcement, when I was in front of the committee chaired by Paul Davies. And again, we will look at any proposals that come from committees, but we have to balance and understand that there are other committees who are looking at subject areas who are also asking for additional spending commitments.

When I was in front of the committee chaired by Delyth Jewell, with Dawn Bowden, we went through some of the challenges in the arm's-length bodies, in the arts and culture field. There are really difficult budget choices being made there and the committee was urging us to find the money to do something different there as well. That's part of the honest challenge we have within the current budget round. We will, of course—because it is a genuine consultation—look at opportunities and avenues to move money around, but we don't have the ability to produce a significant amount of additional money that we don't yet have. So, any serious engagement around that, that looks at what each different committee is doing, will of course get taken seriously by the Government.

On your point around a skills audit, we're committed already to a net-zero skills plan and we're going through a consultation in a range of areas. So, we'll have the information, I think, about the skills needs in different parts of our economy and how to match the needs of workers around that, both with longer term courses like apprenticeships, but also shorter term courses where people need to, whilst in the world of work, continue to uprate and regain skills, as well as the support we provide for people who go through a period of unemployment. As the First Minister pointed out in relation to the NHS earlier, the great majority of the workforce of the future is with us already. In 10 years' time, most of our workforce will be people who are already in work today. So, yes, we need to focus on people coming into the labour market new at an early point in their life, but we also need to think about how we help people in the world of work today.

On your broader points about nationalisation, I think the honest truth is that nationalisation is a red herring. The future and the challenges that our workers face today in the steel industry are not going to be resolved by us running a campaign on nationalisation. We need to be able to either persuade the current UK Government to have a different investment perspective, or we need to be able to persuade a future UK Government to have a different investment perspective that can actually make sure that those blast furnaces are still alive at the end of this calendar year, and a different conversation about what that investment would look like.

Now, I think that's an honest conversation to be had and, actually, on the occasions that I've met shop stewards—I met about 40 shop stewards on the Friday when I was in Port Talbot, and there were about 70 shop stewards and other reps from across three different sites yesterday, when I was in Port Talbot as well—they understand that the campaign for the future is a practical one with the company and with the UK Government, and they also understand that a conversation around nationalisation may look good on a pamphlet, but it won't help to save those workers' jobs in the here and now. And I think we need to be intensely practical about what we are going to do to make sure that the hope is real and founded on the opportunity to invest in the future.

I know you made the point about, 'Can you trust any UK Government?', and I appreciate you're ideologically committed to that perspective and that's fine, you're entitled to be. I think a future UK Labour Government can be trusted. The £3 billion green steel transition fund is one of the significant, headline spending pledges that has been made and it's been made very clear by a number of different UK frontbench colleagues that actually this is a commitment that would be available for the transition that Tata want to undertake. And, actually, the plan that is there to keep a blast furnace alive for a generally just transition, you would not need all of the £3 billion fund to do that. So, actually, I think it is both a credible and an understood to be credible offer to the sector, and I do think that opens the way to a different future, not the one that is currently being discussed today.

But on your starting points about the only G20 economy not to make virgin steel, it's a point we have made in public and in private. I had that as part of a conversation today with Minister Ghani and David T.C. Davies. We think that there is a different future and one where UK security is not compromised. As I said, something as simple as cans, cars and construction all require virgin steel today for elements of them, never mind the opportunities for floating offshore wind. What I want: the steel that goes into those platforms to create that offshore wind, I want it to be made in Wales, with Welsh workers manufacturing that as well. That's an opportunity that we could have if we can save the sector for the future and have a genuinely just transition, that must be a longer one.

15:20

Minister, I'm standing here today representing my town, my communities, who have lived within sight of the steel works for the whole of their lives. In fact, for the whole of my life, I have lived within sight of the steelworks. We are devastated by the news that came last Friday from Tata about the closure, before the end of this year, of the blast furnaces and the heavy end in total, with thousands of jobs going. That puts a lot of people in fear of what their future is like—their families, and the whole community, as to what businesses—. Paul Davies highlighted the supply chain and the contractors that are likely to lose work as a consequence of this as well.

Minister, I agree with everything that you said in your statement, and I echo those comments and thank you very much. I want to thank you personally, and the First Minister, for your continued commitment to steel and the communities that we represent. That commitment is unquestionable. I have to say that I am disappointed that the UK Government's commitment is not the same. What we have seen is a deal that has been brokered that has no consideration of the future process of how we get there. A deal that didn't put commitments on Tata about making sure that the transition was just and fair, and allowed businesses to actually progress to a smooth transition, meaning that people could stay in work, be retrained while in work—not while unemployed, but while in work.

Do you agree with me, therefore, that the UK Government has failed our communities? It has failed those people who, so often, have worked hard to make sure that their lives were able to go on? And will you make sure that the message is clear? The leader of the opposition and Paul Davies can convey this message back to London. This is not the right path for steel making in the UK. They need to revisit their ideas. They need to put commitments to Tata, to say, 'We need primary steel making. We need blast furnace 4 continuing to the end.' I urge Tata to think about it. At the end of this year, there will be a different Government in place, and I hope that they don't make the wrong decision between now and then.

15:25

Thank you, David. I think that David Rees is right, and you don't just need to take my word for it. It could not have been clearer. The shop stewards that I met from all three trade unions are steel workers on that site. I met them on Friday. I met a larger group yesterday as well. There is real anxiety for their communities' future, not just their individual families, and there is real anger. That is both directed at the company—and you can understand, and I think that the company understands, that people will be angry with proposals on that scale—but also at the UK Government.

There were lots of questions being asked about why there weren't commitments on a transition for the length of time that it would take. At the moment, the proposal is that all of those jobs will be lost within 18 months, but the electric arc furnace won't be ready to be switched on during that time. So, actually, you will find a significant period of time, under these proposals, as we understand them, where steel making would not exist and would be recreated in the future. There would have been an opportunity to roll steel that is made in other parts of the world.

Now, it's not difficult to understand why any steel worker who is currently working in Port Talbot, Llanwern or Trostre doesn't think that that's a great future for them. But that's the strategy that has been outlined thus far. And I really do welcome the fact that Paul Davies and Andrew R.T. Davies have been prepared to stand up, not just today but also yesterday as well, and to make clear that they want to see support for an alternative future. The challenge is whether the UK Government will do so. Because people won't forget if this choice goes ahead, and it goes ahead in the proposals that have been made before a general election.

I have been clear in direct conversations with the company, in addition to public statements—and I know that Keir Starmer has as well—not to make an irreversible choice this side of a general election. There would be a different conversation to be had, and a different level of co-investment that could be possible. And the point is that this is part of the UK's sovereign assets. It is part of UK security not to be reliant on competitor economies for imports of metal that we do not have an alternative for as we speak now. That may be possible in the future, but we need to get there.

And it's not just that, but every one of us will know: if you have supply chains that take place for four to five years on imports that take place, it will be very hard to displace those again in the future. I hope that the UK Government will pay attention to what has been said in this Chamber across more than one party, and also, importantly, will listen to real experts about the business of steel making. Because the workforce in Port Talbot have been flexible, adaptable and highly committed, and I think that that loyalty and ability deserves a better hearing than it has had so far.

Thank you for your statement, Minister. While the announcement on Friday was not a shock, it was still a devastating blow for my constituents. Minister, what is your plan for Port Talbot? Your statement is very critical of the deal struck by the UK Government, but contains no alternatives. Do you accept that Tata has wholly rejected the plan put forward by the unions, a plan, I might add, that not even the unions could agree upon? Therefore, if we are to minimise job losses, we need a credible alternative. Minister, your Westminster colleagues, and many colleagues here, talk about Labour's £3 billion plan for green steel, but you have yet to provide details. Can you elaborate, or is this more rhetoric rather than a credible alternative to steel recycling?

15:30

I think there's more to admire in party loyalty than in a grasp of the issues in that contribution. I've been very clear that there is an alternative. The company itself has been clear that it's a credible plan, but it's not affordable. With a different UK Government with a different mindset and a different commitment to co-investment in the future, there is very much a very different conversation to be had that would benefit workers in this sector of the economy, or the thousands of additional jobs that are reliant upon them as well, and, indeed, the sovereign asset that this steel making represents. 

Thank you for the statement, Minister. I want to echo the view that the significant redundancies, made far too swiftly, are unacceptable when there are other viable options available to us. I want to emphasise once again the devastating impact that this is having on the communities and the people I represent in Port Talbot, and across the three counties I represent at the Senedd—Neath Port Talbot, Swansea and Bridgend.

Because, as we've heard, in addition to the thousands who are set to lose their jobs at the site itself, thousands upon thousands more work for companies that are heavily dependent and reliant on the Tata steelworks. So, what practical support will be available to them? Does the Government agree that we need to support local Welsh companies to help to develop and maintain training programmes and upskilling in work that would provide a livelihood and a future for workers if they are made redundant, and to help those small companies to develop, so they can benefit from the opportunities offered by the renewable energy industry?

And finally, for how long will we put up with this, shrugging our shoulders and accepting a situation where we are powerless to protect our workers, our industries, our economy, and our communities from international corporations that fail to see, and couldn’t care less about, the welfare and prosperity of our workers and our nation, and from a Westminster Government that is willing to see Wales getting poorer, losing its people and their skills, and seeing its communities suffering and in decline?

There's certainly no shrugging of shoulders in this Welsh Government about the future for steelworking communities here in Wales, or, indeed, the future of the country as a whole. That is recognised by workers in this sector. They understand that they do, here, have a Government on their side. We look forward to having the ability to work with a Government on their side across the UK, with the financial ability to look at significant co-investment to ensure that we really can equip people for a future on the transition to lower carbon steel production that is essential for the greener economy that we want to have.

On your first point around skills, it really does depend on where we get to at the end of the consultation, when decisions are made, how they're made, and the pace at which decisions are made as well. We will do all we can to make sure that, if there are redundancies, we support people to find alternative careers. I'm also interested in our ability to actually take advantage of opportunities for growth in the future, because I want to see more people in Port Talbot, and right across south Wales, and north Wales, have opportunities to work in a Wales where our economy is growing. And that growth will be partly reliant on steel. It will also be partly reliant on other assets we have.

Earlier today, I visited the KLA expansion site in Newport. Again, much of the economy of the future will depend on the semiconductor products that they will produce. There are opportunities for us. Denuding our own steel sector—if that is a choice that is made by the company and the UK Government, in the manner they set out—will mean those opportunities are harder to realise, and other parts of the world will capitalise on the economic value that could otherwise be created here for the benefit of people in Wales and across Britain. 

I'm very clear about where this Welsh Government is, and I'm certainly not going to throw the towel in, even while others may choose to do so. 

15:35

Minister, in my experience, people readily understand the strategic importance of the steel industry—for defence, for manufacturing, for construction and much else. They know it's an uncertain world, and our competitor countries seem to understand that as well. As you say, we need to find a bridge through somehow to the time when we will have a UK Labour Government that will also understand that and put the necessary investment into that steel industry. As far as I'm concerned, Minister, you know that Llanwern is still a very important part of the local economy in Newport. Some Newport people travel to Port Talbot to work at the moment, but we still have several hundred jobs at the Llanwern site. Obviously, the proposals to relocate the cold mill, even if it is in three years' time, are very concerning for local people. And it is also about the suppliers and the spend in the local economy. So, as always, really, from me, Minister, it's just a plea that, in the overall consideration of the future of the steel industry in Wales and the UK, Llanwern is very much factored into the consideration and decision making. It's part of that strategic approach that we need to see, and that bridge, that just transition that we need to see through to a UK Labour Government that will make that necessary investment in our jobs and our communities.

The point is well made and understood, certainly here. I was concerned not just about the headline job losses at Port Talbot; I've always been concerned about the impact on downstream businesses, especially Trostre and Llanwern. I know that he will be worried about Shotton too. Llanwern, though, is directly affected by the headline proposals that have been made, the 300 job losses—again, they'd be well-paid jobs—lost at a site that has already seen a significant number of jobs shed from that site over the last generation. And it's a point worth making. I see you sat next to your fellow Newport Member, Jayne Bryant; there'll be lots of steelworkers within the city. But equally, I'm in discussions with my deputy ministerial colleague Lynne Neagle, and, indeed, with Hefin David, recognising that, on that site, there are more than 100 steelworkers from Torfaen and more than 150 steelworkers from Caerphilly. This is a significant employer within the region around Llanwern, not simply in the city and county of Newport. So, I'm committed to recognising that impact, and it again reinforces why we need to make clear that we're not throwing in the towel. We don't simply agree, as the Secretary of State for Wales wants us to, that there is no alternative. There is a credible alternative, and it could be affordable with more investment from a UK Government that actually sees the value of steel. Again, it comes back to understanding the price of everything and the value of nothing, and I'm afraid that is what we have in the current UK Government.

Minister, I wanted to first of all acknowledge, obviously, what the town of Port Talbot is going through at the moment. Many workers there locally will be facing a degree of uncertainty. As a regional representative for the area, I know many local people who are employed at Tata Steel, and their families, and the wider community that benefit from it as well, but also the sense of pride, I think, in the town that the town is a steel-making town. I think the town of Port Talbot shows a lot of pride and a lot of passion for the industry.

We've talked a lot about the £500 million support package from the UK Government, but what we haven't talked about enough, in this session at least, is the £100 million fund that the UK Government has also put in place towards the transition board, which I know you're a member of. The leader of the opposition, Andrew R.T. Davies, three times during First Minister's questions pressed the First Minister to try and get an understanding of exactly the contribution the Welsh Government was willing to make towards that transition fund. We've heard that in other European countries, such as Germany, their regional Governments have supported their steel industry directly, but the Welsh Government hasn't put a single penny towards that transition fund—not one penny. Can the Minister explain why he is very quick, I think, during the last couple of weeks to run to a tv camera to give his two pennies' worth, but can't find one penny to support workers in Port Talbot?

I think that contribution will land very poorly with directly affected workers. I don't often say this, but Andrew R.T. Davies understood much more clearly the mood of workers when he recognised that he wants to see a future where the blast furnace stays open. If you look at what we have done, we have supported the company over a number of years in its transition to reskilling its workforce: the apprenticeship programmes that have been run, the value of the wider skills transition that has taken place. The company understand the contribution that we have made alongside them for their future. The transition board knows and understands. Indeed, Michael Gove, who is—. I wouldn't describe us as friends or colleagues, but Michael Gove understood that the Welsh Government have programmes to support workers, whether it's ReAct+ or Communities for Work Plus. What we want to understand is how the transition board can work alongside devolved government intervention to support the workforce if there are redundancies of the scale that are now being proposed. 

I think, actually, if the Member wants to make a constructive contribution to that future, there are plenty of opportunities to do so, because we'll be scrutinised, as this goes through, as we sit in front of committees. Indeed, I'm expecting the committee chaired by Paul Davies will want to talk again to Ministers as proposals come to crystallise, as change starts to take place on any journey to the future, about whether we are equipping and supporting people to seek alternative work if they need to leave the industry. We're not going to throw in the towel and we're not going to get involved in a fairly silly season story that suggests the Welsh Government isn't interested in the future, when, actually, we have plenty of skin in the game for the future of the steel sector and plenty of resource we have put into the steel sector in the past. We will go on doing that to help meet the skills needs for this vital sector of the future of the UK economy. 

15:40

I'd like to share the sentiments expressed by colleagues across the Chamber about the devastating news on Port Talbot and express my solidarity with those workers and families affected by this news, both in the steelworks and also, as has been said by many people, in the upstream and downstream supply chains, including even local shops and pubs in that area that will be affected. It's truly devastating, and I know that many workers who live in my region will be concerned about their future after the news last week.

But in the same way as John expressed a concern about the way that Llanwern factors in to the wider picture, you will, of course, Minister, be aware of the Tata tinplate works in Llanelli, as you've already referred to, which uses steel from Port Talbot to make tinplate for goods packaging. It's been an incredibly important local employer for over 70 years, and it currently employs about 700 people, as well as hundreds of contractor staff. This is in an area where opportunities for work and training have steadily declined over many, many years, and the shadow of previous job losses within heavy industry weighs heavy on this area.

I understand there have been assurances given regarding the short-term future of the plant in Trostre, which is obviously good news for the Llanelli area, but there remains uncertainty locally about the medium and long-term security of jobs there. As such, I'd be grateful for any clarity or insight you can give us about any discussions you've had with Tata and other stakeholders regarding the situation in Llanelli and the potential impact on the plant. 

I've visited Trostre on more than one occasion in the past. Actually, in terms of the current make-up, the Unite full-time officer for steel in Wales, Jason Bartlett, worked at Trostre, and, indeed, whenever I go there, the Community representative, who is also a town councillor, Andrew Bragoli, always has an opinion, and it's a really welcoming place to go. They're really proud of what they do; they recognise the quality in what they do. If they did not, then they would not be the sole supplier for Heinz and others for the products that they have as a marker of quality. There is also a tinning plant in the Netherlands as well. If we don't make virgin steel, if we need to import part of the steel to secure the order book that Trostre has, that may well come from the Netherlands, and there is an understandable risk about how far into the future that steel will be made in the Netherlands to come to Trostre, as opposed to going into the tinplate plant in the Netherlands. So, it is not part of today's announcement, but no one should pretend that the steelworking community in Trostre is not concerned about its future and it understands the medium to longer term risk for itself. The good news is, as I said, that it's a really highly skilled workforce with a really high-quality product. Within the group, that's recognised as well. But this is about the future and not simply about today, which is why I have proactively raised the issue in meetings with the company, and I did so again on Friday. Again, it reinforces why we need a longer and a fairer march to the future in a genuinely just transition, which these proposals do not, in our view, amount to.

15:45

Whilst I think the majority of us in this Siambr can see that the UK Westminster Government has, over decades, just not had a clear plan for our manufacturing business, I really hope that there is a sense of us working together across the Siambr to look at a positive future and an opportunity for us to save the jobs at Port Talbot. I cannot imagine what it must feel like to live in and be a part of that community in Port Talbot at the moment. It must be a devastating blow. This is an unjust transition for those workers. I'm really encouraged by some of the statements from the Welsh Conservatives, from Paul Davies and from Andrew R.T. Davies, and I really hope that we can all be adult in this and work together and look to the future, because this is affecting thousands of not just people but families, and it must be totally beyond anybody's imagination what must be going through their heads. But I guess my request to you is about those workers. Can you just tell us a little bit about what's in place to support them at the moment, particularly around mental health issues, around the stress that they must be suffering and about the questions that they must have? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

So, this has been part of the discussion that we've had at the transition board, where I have raised the issue that, if you're going to have large-scale redundancies, there is always a mental health impact. Often, it can be dealt with at a lower level. So, the health board have been in to present about what they would look to do. I have no reason to think that they won't be looking to remind people that there is an avenue for people to talk. Within a workplace like this, with a high level of trade union density, within a community that understands how commonplace steel making is and what it means to the economy, there are often people to talk to locally. The challenge is that not everyone feels they can do that. We still are not where we need to be within the country at large on having a conversation with people when we don't feel okay from a mental health perspective.

And I really do hope that the message will get through for the support that is available within the community, because this is not what a just transition looks like. There is additional fear and anxiety for the future. I think that is part of what the UK Government should consider in whether it wants to invest more. And they needn't take my word for it about whether this is a just transition, Greenpeace have said that this is not what a just transition looks like. So, there's an opportunity for the UK Government to take a step back and look again at what could be delivered, the value of that work for a period of time into the future, and the transition to a genuinely sustainable lower carbon form of steel making does not mean that we are reliant on imports from competitor economies into the future. 

Minister, as others have said already this afternoon, last week's news was a blow to us all. My community knows first-hand what it's like to lose skilled jobs in the steel sector. In my constituency, at Shotton steelworks, workers are also concerned about what their futures look like. It's the partnership between Port Talbot and Shotton—those two locations; that partnership is key. Can I ask you, Minister, therefore, what conversations you've had about the supply of green steel for the Shotton site, and also about securing the future of the highly skilled workforce at the Shotton site? We know Wales needs a vibrant steel industry in both Port Talbot and Shotton, and elsewhere, as colleagues have said this afternoon, and we must do all we can in this Senedd, and the Welsh Government, to protect the industry for the future. Diolch.

Thank you. Of course, I have visited the Shotton steelworks with the Member. It's a point worth mentioning that the current regional secretary of Unite used to work at Shotton when he was on the tools himself. So, look, it's an area with a long history and, again, you're right, it has gone through significant job losses in the past, and that is still felt today.

When we've had conversations with the company, they have been keen to stress that they don't think that there is any impact on Shotton, but our challenge is, as you go into the medium and longer term, whether the steel that is currently supplied from Port Talbot is going to be made available on a long-term sustainable basis. And some of this also depends on the change that we know is coming as well within a couple of years, because if steel were to be supplied from the Netherlands, at the moment there is no carbon mechanism. In the future, there will be additional costs to moving steel around, in and out of Europe. Now, if we're on the wrong side of that, that has a real impact on the cost of products and future investment choices. So, again, the risk is not so much in the next couple of years, but in the next five to 10 years, and choices made about reinvesting in plants, in the capital required, as well as reinvesting in the skills of a workforce. I think that's why we need to look at this decision not just through the lens of what is happening in Port Talbot—extraordinary as that context is, there is a much bigger lens to look through about the economic future of all steel-making communities and what the UK economy will undoubtedly need in the future that we have planned for us.

15:50

This announcement has been absolutely heartbreaking for the workers and their families and the wider communities in Port Talbot. Minister, the impact of the devastating announcement is going to be felt far beyond Port Talbot as well, because this is a very concerning time for the future of the steel industry in Wales, including Llanwern steelworks in Newport. Steel has been so important to Newport's economy and we do have a long, proud history of the steel industry in Newport. It's already been highlighted today that a further 300 roles could be impacted there in the next two to three years. Whilst Llanwern is in my colleague John Griffiths's constituency, workers, families and businesses across Newport and the wider community are worried about the impact that future job losses would have on our local community.

I'd like to put on record my thanks to you and the First Minister for the work that you've been doing on this consistently. Under Tata's plans that were announced last week, Llanwern would no longer be fed by steel from Port Talbot, instead steel will be produced in blast furnaces abroad and imported on diesel ships, making a real mockery of the argument that this decision is driven by a push towards net zero. Can I ask the Minister to reassure people in Newport that the Welsh Government will continue to work closely with workers and trade unions at Llanwern in the coming months, and again re-emphasise Welsh Government's strong commitment to do all you can to find a credible way forward?

Thank you. I'm really pleased that you've made the point around net zero. The 300 job losses that are being discussed and described for Llanwern in two to three years' time are a real issue for us now. As I said earlier, I know there is a significant number of steelworkers from Llanwern who are in Caerphilly and in Torfaen, as well as in Newport.

The journey to net zero will require us to use steel. We will have to make that steel, create that steel and use it to generate cleaner and greener power, which is also a big economic opportunity for us. The risk, of course, is that you could have floating offshore platforms made in Holland and floated to be deployed off our coast—great news for workers in the Netherlands, terrible news for workers here, where the steel need not be produced in Wales, where the manufacture need not be done in Wales. There is value, of course, in the maintenance and operational support that can only really be delivered close by, but the much greater value is further up in the chain, and that is what we are looking for. It underpins the free-port bid that is being delivered. So, actually, to get to that future, we need steel. The challenge is: will it be steel that is made here, or will it be steel that is made and generated in another part of the world, with all the economic value that goes into that? That's why I say that there isn't just a credible alternative, it's one that really should be afforded because of the much wider value that it will give not just to steel-making communities but to all of us in the future that we really could have.

Minister, I'm very grateful for your statement today and for the complete attention that you're giving this matter right now. It is deeply unsettling for the workers involved. There are many workers travelling today to Westminster to lobby MPs, what would your message be from the Welsh Government to those workers who are travelling to Westminster to lobby Members of Parliament and Ministers?

Now, Port Talbot and the surrounding area really need every opportunity possible, especially in the area of apprenticeships. Is your economic mission designed in such a way as to promote as many opportunities as possible for people who may be facing redundancies and require retraining opportunities and employment opportunities? Minister, will you go on focusing, laser-like, along with the First Minister and your colleagues in Government, on taking this fight forward, because we're in this for the long haul, and you're on the side of the workers? Diolch.

15:55

Thank you for the questions. I'll deal with your point around alternatives, because not only the work around the Swansea bay city deal, looking to grow the economy, but in particular you mentioned the Global Centre of Rail Excellence—. We know that there is an opportunity, if we can find further investment for that site, for a really healthy future where there'll be really high skills. It's a good example of a place-based intervention, investing in a place with a proposition that we are confident will be able to attract other people too. It will involve high-value jobs, university research-led jobs, and, actually, it's a part of the world where, if you don't intervene, the market won't direct investment to that part of the world. It's much the same point that Alun Davies makes about the need to have continued intervention across the Heads of the Valleys, to make sure that we actually bring the market somewhere where it otherwise would not go.

It underpins a choice I've made early in this term about remediating lots of land around Baglan, making sure that the great majority of that land is brought into economic use. It also underpins why we didn't collapse with the current UK Government of the time when there was a real threat to the power station and the possibility that we would have lost the use of a significant amount of the economic assets already there. It was bizarre that we had to take the UK Government to court to make sure that the power supply was maintained in place to make sure that we didn't have a wholly avoidable flood risk that would have destroyed not just economic assets, but a community and at least one primary school that would have been at risk of flooding. So, we've made those deliberate choices to intervene and will carry on doing so.

I think the real message for steelworkers and everyone who understands that there is a real, viable future for steel making here in Wales, is not to throw in the towel, not to collapse into some of the headlines that are generated or the fairly aggressive, 'There is no other future' line being promoted by the Secretary of State for Wales, but to understand there really is a different future available. With different investment, we could have the best deal for steel, not the cheapest deal for steel, and that is what this Government is committed to.

Proposal for an Urgent Debate under Standing Order 12.69: Job losses at Tata Steel, and the future of the steel industry in Wales

In accordance with Standing Order 12.69, I have accepted a request from Luke Fletcher to move a proposal for an urgent debate. I call on Luke Fletcher to move that proposal.

Motion

To propose that the Senedd, under Standing Order 12.69, consider job losses at Tata Steel and the future of the steel industry in Wales as a matter of urgent public importance.

Motion moved.

Thank you, Llywydd, and thank you for the opportunity to call for an urgent debate, not just on the situation in Port Talbot but the future of the steel industry here in Wales too.

Now, of course, I fully recognise that the First Minister received questions from Members on Tata, and that we've just finished a statement from the Minister for Economy on Tata, but I still believe there is a need for us to consider an urgent debate on this issue as well as the future of the Welsh steel industry. It is a matter of urgent public importance. Whilst we've had time for Government to answer questions and be scrutinised on their own actions, given the gravity of the situation, there should be more time allocated through a more appropriate format, where the Senedd as a whole could be afforded the opportunity to discuss ideas and directions for the future of the steel industry on the record.

The issues of job losses on this scale in an industry widely recognised as crucial in our transition to net zero and important for our national security and the debate on where we go from here cannot be made just through asking specific time-limited questions from Members. This is not just a regional issue, by the way, tied only to Port Talbot, as I and other Members have consistently said, this is an issue of national consequence, not just for related industry jobs elsewhere in Wales, but also for our climate and infrastructure sectors and our national security. Now, MPs in Westminster will have the opportunity to discuss these issues in a debate in the Commons today; I believe MSs here in Wales need to be afforded the same opportunity. It's times like these that an opportunity to discuss a way forward as a Senedd is important, and I hope Members will agree to allocate time for an urgent debate tomorrow. Diolch.

We have no objection to the proposal.

Thank you.

The proposal, therefore, is to agree the motion for an urgent debate. Does any Member object? No, there are no objections. And therefore the motion is agreed.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

I will table the debate for tomorrow afternoon following item 5, the 90-second statements.

4. Statement by the Minister for Social Justice and Chief Whip: The Child Poverty Strategy for Wales

Item 4 is next on our agenda this afternoon, a statement by the Minister for Social Justice on the child poverty strategy. The Minister to make the statement—Jane Hutt.

16:00

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Today, we are publishing the child poverty strategy for Wales as a cross-cutting, whole-of-Government policy document that sets out our priorities for meaningful action to tackle child poverty and improve the lived experience of children in Wales. I'm proud to say that the strategy was co-constructed with children, young people and families and the organisations that support them. The final content of the strategy has also been strengthened in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Ending child poverty must be an absolute priority for Governments at all levels. Welsh Ministers are committing to use all the levers we have available to their full extent, and we will take a leadership role in co-ordinating wider action to work towards eradicating child poverty and its impacts here in Wales. So, this is a cross-Government commitment, as will be demonstrated through the Plenary today by statements from the Minister for education and the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership.

Through our consultation on this strategy and our wider engagement work, we've heard about how poverty is impacting children, young people, families and communities across Wales. People also told us about the significant efforts under way in communities, third sector organisations, faith groups and public bodies to tackle the impacts of both the cost-of-living crisis and poverty more broadly.

We've heard clearly that many of the policies and plans we have in place are the right ones, but that, in order to maximise the difference we can make, we need to be more focused on delivery, and we need to be smarter about working together both across Government and with other partners to deliver made-in-Wales solutions. We also need to be clearer about how we will put in place robust monitoring and accountability mechanisms to track progress against key indicators on child poverty.

And I’d like to thank all of those who engaged on the development of the strategy and responded to the consultation, including the Equality and Social Justice Committee for their inquiry on the draft strategy and the valuable feedback that it produced. This strategy sets out an approach to be taken now and into the future, whatever the level of resource or range of powers available to us in Wales. It’s a strategy for the next decade, and it must be adaptable for Governments working in different financial and policy environments.

The publication of the strategy comes at a time when we face the most challenging budget settlement in the history of devolution, but, even in this context, we’re determined to protect those most in need and to target public money where it’s most effective. In my own portfolio, this has meant protecting in full the budgets for the discretionary assistance fund and the single advice fund, and there are examples throughout the draft budget of where Ministers have prioritised children in their decision making.

The child poverty strategy is based on five objectives, each accompanied by a priority for action. There are also a range of specific commitments listed under each objective, which are not intended as an exhaustive list, but as an illustration of a wider programme of work across Government.

Objective 1 is to reduce costs and maximise the income of families, and this must be first and foremost in our approach to tackling poverty and supporting those experiencing poverty. Free school meals, the school essentials grant, updated school uniform guidance, education maintenance allowance increased from £30 to £40, free prescriptions, free period products and our partnership with the Fuel Bank Foundation—all examples of work already under way to deliver on this objective. And there’s also the potential for further innovation through our pilots on basic income and baby bundles.

The creation of a coherent system of Welsh benefits is crucial to this objective, making it more straightforward for people and families to access support. I'm pleased to say we've taken a significant step towards such a system this week with the launch of the Welsh benefits charter, signed by all 22 local authorities in Wales. The charter has been delivered under the terms of the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru. At the launch event for the charter in Blaenavon yesterday, I was joined by the leader of Torfaen council and designated Member Sian Gwenllian, demonstrating the importance of the co-operation agreement in delivering on this important area of work.

We recognise the limits of the devolution settlement when it comes to income maximisation, with social security reserved. Sadly, we have all become used to the UK Government failing people living in poverty in Wales, but we are always prepared to tell them where they have got it wrong, and, Llywydd, we'll stand ready to work together constructively with a UK Government that is serious about supporting those most in need and ending poverty, and we are taking forward our work exploring the devolution of the administration of welfare.

Objective 2 is to create pathways out of poverty so that children and young people and their families have opportunities to realise their potential. Flying Start, the early years integration transformation programme, school holiday provision, the 'Talk With Me: Speech, Language and Communication (SLC) Delivery Plan', are all examples of how we are supporting children in the first 1,000 days of life on a pathway out of poverty. This continues at school and throughout the education system, with our national mission to close the attainment gap and give every child the best possible education, no matter where they come from.

Fair work and an economy that works for all parts of Wales are also crucial to creating pathways out of poverty. Our economic mission, the young person's guarantee, the Social Partnership and Public Procurement (Wales) Act 2023, our expanded childcare offer—all part of a framework to build a more prosperous, greener and more equal economy, where people everywhere are connected with fair work. We'll hear more about these priorities from the Minister for education and the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership this afternoon.

Objective 3 is to support child and family well-being and make sure that work across the Welsh Government delivers for children living in poverty, including those with protected characteristics, so that they can enjoy their rights and have better outcomes. Housing is a key area for delivering on this objective. Members will already be aware of the wide range of work being taken forward by the Minister for Climate Change, for example, through implementing the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016, the White Paper on ending homelessness and the Warm Homes programme. This objective is also about supporting children and families with their mental health, as the Government prepares to consult on a mental health strategy following the independent review of the 'Together for Mental Health' strategy and 'Talk to me 2'.

Llywydd, it is important to recognise the experience of those with protected characteristics and the intersectional dimensions of poverty. Households with a disabled person or people are the most likely to live in poverty. Women are more likely to bear the burden of poverty. Black, Asian and minority ethnicity people often face additional barriers to accessing services. LGBTQ+ young people are at increased risk of homelessness. We must recognise this and ensure that we have a response that meets these different needs.

Objective 4 is to ensure children, young people and their families are treated with dignity and respect by the people and services who interact with and support them, and to challenge the stigma of poverty. So, there is a responsibility across Government and the public sector to ensure every interaction with individuals and families is delivered with compassion and understanding, closely linked to the well-being elements of Objective 3, but also a practical point about removing stigma as a barrier to accessing support.

Objective 5 is to ensure that effective cross-Government working at the national level enables strong collaboration at the regional and local level. This was a strong theme of engagement and consultation on the strategy, and I'm pleased that the Welsh Government is supporting a groundbreaking new example of what can be achieved through combining the efforts of Government, third sector and private sector. Last week, the First Minister and I visited the first multibank to be set up in Wales, Cwtch Mawr, in Swansea. The Welsh Government is proud to be contributing to this initiative, alongside Swansea council, private sector partners and Faith in Families as the third sector delivery lead—just one example of an approach that has great potential for innovation and delivery for those most in need.

Finally, Llywydd, I want to recognise the important feedback we've received about ensuring there are robust ways to measure our action on child poverty so that we can be held accountable. And I can confirm today that not only will we be producing a monitoring and impact framework, but this framework will be independently reviewed by academic expert Professor Rod Hick from Cardiff University. The framework will take account of the well-being of Wales national indicators and will ensure that our efforts are concentrated where they are most effective. Diolch.

16:05

Diolch, Llywydd. Welsh Government data, as you know, shows that 28 per cent of children were living in relative income poverty in Wales in 2022. Loughborough University analysis last summer found that more than one in five children are living in poverty in every local authority in Wales. The Bevan Foundation stated that this shows, quote, 'minimal progress has been made in reducing child poverty over the past decade.'

As stated in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation 'Monitoring poverty and social exclusion in Wales' report, in 2009, even before the recession—that recession—the problem of low income was already rising sharply, to the extent that half of the previous improvement in child poverty had already been lost. In other words, that was before the credit crunch and recession in 2008, when it reached the highest levels of any UK nation at 32 per cent. It is the case, is it not, Minister, that the Welsh Government has been responsible for economic development since 1999. Wales today has the lowest gross domestic product output per head, lowest pay packets and lowest gross disposable income amongst the UK nations, with employment below, and both unemployment and economic inactivity above, the UK level. The recommendations in the November 2022 Auditor General for Wales report, 'Time for change—Poverty in Wales', included to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of grant-funded programmes, noting that:

'All councils are dependent on grants but the short-term nature of grant programmes, overly complex administration, weaknesses in guidance and grant restrictions, and difficulties spending monies mean that funding is not making the impact it could.'

The auditor general's report went on to recommend that the Welsh Government

'provide longer timescales for announcing and receiving bids to enable better resource planning; move away from annual bidding cycles to multi-year allocations; enable funding to be more flexibly spent to avoid an emphasis on quicker projects'

and

'streamline and simplify processes and grant conditions to reduce the administrative burden'.

That report's recommendations also include local strategies, targets and performance reporting for tackling and alleviating poverty. So, what consideration did you and your ministerial colleagues give to the auditor general's recommendations when designing this strategy, and why does it appear that they've not been included?

This Welsh Government strategy does not include any measurable targets, instead using the generic national milestones within the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and a so-called monitoring and impact framework. How do you therefore respond to the statement today by Barnardo's Cymru that it

'continues to be a disappointment that Welsh Government has not listened to numerous recommendations on the need for targets and an action plan attached to the strategy so that progress can be transparently and regularly monitored'?

Any objective person would recognise that they're right, wouldn't they, Minister? Commenting on the draft strategy three months ago, the Children's Commissioner for Wales stated that it lacked ambition, clarity and detail, that the lack of detail on actions, timescales and deliverables means that there was no way of holding the Welsh Government to account, and that it's a list of policy initiatives, which

'doesn't really spell out exactly what, how, when or who will actually deliver against those different policies in order to reduce and eradicate child poverty.'

Anyone who has ever successfully managed projects or strategies would know that she is correct, wouldn't they, Minister? How do you respond to the statement by the children's commissioner this morning that she was deeply disappointed by the new strategy and that

'we will not be able to determine whether public money being spent in Wales is reaching those children whose lives are being so severely affected'?

It is the case, is it not, that the Welsh Government has a number of levers to tackle child poverty under its control, so why hasn't it established real targets and milestones within the strategy, or is this just another case of Welsh Government dodging accountability?

We agree with the strategy's objective of maximising the incomes of families. For many years, service providers and researchers across the sector have been calling for a coherent and integrated Welsh benefits system for all the means-tested benefits the Welsh Government is responsible for, reflected in the recommendations of successive parliamentary committee reports, including one I was party to in 2019. So, why is your Welsh benefits charter, launched yesterday, only about further work to develop a Welsh benefits system, thereby apparently kicking the can down the road once again? What is your timescale for the actual introduction of a Welsh benefits system, and what targets will be in place to measure progress?

Finally, this strategy states that you will:

'Remove barriers to employment and career pathways for disabled people, women, carers and ethnic minority people'.

So, who, what, when, where and how? Diolch yn fawr.

16:10

Well, I have to say, I did start to wonder whether you'd actually read the child poverty strategy, Mark Isherwood, with your opening comments and points—they certainly weren't questions to me about the statement that I made this afternoon and the child poverty strategy that I’ve launched today. I think it's disrespectful to all the people who were engaged in the consultation—our co-construction with children and young people who told us what they wanted, and that is how we’ve responded, in terms of the strategy for tackling child poverty.

Of course, the strategy sets out our ambitions for the longer term, outlines how we'll work across Government, with our partners, to maximise the impact of the levers available to us in the Welsh Government. I've said already there's an ambitious framework to deliver those policies and programmes, doing everything that we can with our powers to tackle child poverty, and working with our partners towards that Wales where we want to eradicate child poverty. Of course that's my ambition, Mark Isherwood—to eradicate child poverty in Wales.

I'm very glad you got to the point, Mark, where you did acknowledge, in the strategy, the most important point that came through, that we need to get money into people's pockets, that we need to maximise income. Of course, this is something that I've been reporting on for some time. I think that's why it was so important that yesterday we launched the Welsh benefits charter. What's really important is that's not just our charter—actually it’s launching a new Welsh benefits system, I believe. It's not just a charter. The charter is about how you deliver a Welsh benefits system. I'm going to do an oral statement later in the month—and I have agreed this with our co-operation agreement partners—on the Welsh benefits charter. We're going to do a lot more about that later this term.

At the heart of that Welsh benefits charter is work to develop a compassionate, person-centered and streamlined Welsh benefits system. When we went yesterday to Blaenavon resource centre, the leader of Torfaen council, on behalf of 22 local authorities, signed up to this charter, telling us how they were going to streamline that access to benefits. So this is a major breakthrough. They'll streamline it by starting with the funding we give to those benefits: council tax reduction scheme—thousands of people don't pay it, but a lot more could claim it; access to free school meals; access to the school essentials grant; access to the education maintenance allowance. These are Welsh benefits that we, with local government colleagues, are going to ensure can be streamlined—one application, not having to go through a whole range of applications, administration, red tape, in order to get those benefits into the pockets of the families who need this most.

I just want to quickly say that the monitoring framework is really important. I've said that in my statement. And actually, under the Children and Families (Wales) Measure 2010—and you were here, Mark, when we took that through—we've a duty to publish a report every three years on progress in achieving our child poverty objectives. We're held to account, of course. The last progress report was published in December 2022. Work on that robust monitoring framework is being taken forward at pace. I've already acknowledged that. But I think it is important that the framework is taking into account national indicators and national milestones we have in place under the well-being of future generations Act. The whole of the Senedd embraces, supports and endorses the well-being of future generations Act. Please let's use it and implement it appropriately.

One of the indicators is a commitment to reduce the poverty gap between people in Wales with certain key and protected characteristics—which mean they're most likely to be in poverty, and I've mentioned that in my statement today: disabled people, black, Asian and minority ethnic people and women—and those without characteristics by 2035, and committing to set a stretching target for 2050. Every year, we report on how we're progressing with those targets, through our 'Well-being of Wales' annual report.

But can I just also say this? I've said in my statement and listened patiently to you for you to acknowledge the role of the UK Government in this. Surely, the Tory spokesperson should acknowledge that its tax and benefits and social security system, which we're not responsible for—although we are developing our Welsh benefits system—are key levers to tackling poverty. We saw, in 10 years of Labour Government, child poverty going down because of the ways in which we used tax and benefits. In thirteen years of austerity, it's gone up. 

Yesterday, you will have seen—[Interruption.] I'm responding to your question. You will have seen the report yesterday that indicates that the social security system is threadbare. And actually, just to say the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which you commented on, states that current estimates show that universal credit levels are £35 per week short for a single person and £65 per week short for a couple. It is the bedroom tax, it's the two-child limit, all of the social security, and the UK Government not recognising their responsibilities. Today I think you will have heard Jeremy Hunt talking about tax cutting. How will he do that? Rishi Sunak says it'll be cuts to benefits. That's what they said in the last two weeks, and today we heard that people on prepayment meters won't be able to feed their meters. It was 800 last year; 2 million are predicted this year.

16:20

After months—no, actually, years—of asking—pleading, actually—Plaid Cymru is glad to see the publication, at last, of a new child poverty strategy. That is welcome. What is also welcome is that this is an improvement on the draft we received last year, which was roundly and rightly criticized as weak and incoherent, and, in the view of the children's commissioner, did not match the gravity of the situation facing children and young people in Wales, a view with which we agreed.

The Equality and Social Justice Committee, of which I'm a member, scrutinised the draft strategy and made recommendations on how to shift the dial on the scandalously high levels of child poverty in Wales. We looked at approaches that work in terms of action and in terms of delivery, because what good is a strategy if you can't see if it's successful or not? Delivery is absolutely key. Experts like Chris Burt, an associate director in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and former head of the Scottish First Minister's policy and delivery unit, and others from Wales and around the world that we took evidence from, all illustrated to us why targets are crucial, and that they work.

While we can all agree on the high-level objectives and priorities set out in the strategy—there's little to argue with—and those objectives and priorities have now been set out more clearly and coherently, with a better regard, yes, to children's rights and mention at last of important key policy areas like health and transport, I am afraid that this strategy is still light on how those objectives will be achieved, what actions will be taken, what outcomes can we expect, who they will help, how many, how quickly, how will they be delivered, who will be responsible for them, who will be held to account. Because why have you not been brave enough to, in the words of the Chair of the Equality and Social Justice Committee, overcome your aversion to setting targets, when we know that targets work? Not targets for the sake of targets; targets that will drive delivery and ensure ownership. Why did you make that decision, Minister?

It's good to see, at least, that you have set a date for a progress report—December 2025—but, as yet, we haven't got the detail of the monitoring framework you've mentioned, so more clarity on that would be welcome. I say 'welcome'—actually, it's absolutely crucial, because how can you know if you're delivering, if this strategy is actually making a difference to the lives of children living in poverty, when there are no clear interim—and that's really crucial, interim—and long-term targets to drive that change? And the last progress report that we had, Minister, in December 2022, was a real cut-and-paste job; it listed actions, not outcomes.

There are lost opportunities here even in terms of the new welcome initiatives. The Welsh benefits charter, although a welcome first step to creating that Welsh benefits system, without a statutory footing doesn't ensure that all those 22 local authorities will prioritise it, ensuring those crucial changes to the overcomplicated processes that will make sure that every £1 of support reaches the families as quickly and easily as possible. So, what assessment has been made of the effect of the acute pressures on local authority budgets, and how that could have an effect on the creation of that seamless and effective income maximisation system?

And then there is the lack of steps to ensure the current policies aren't undermined. In its recently published report on the Welsh benefits system, the Bevan Foundation used the school essentials grant as an example of this. Only requiring schools to have regard to the guidance on school uniform doesn't ensure that the grant goes as far as it could. I'd also like to know, Minister, how the draft budget was influenced by the strategy, because in our committee session yesterday, in our budget scrutiny session with you, the budget lines we saw for things like period dignity and digital inclusion were being cut, while both those things are mentioned as important issues under objective 1. So, could you give examples of how the strategy directly manifests itself in the budget decisions made, like those?

In the same way, we see no mention of some of the measures recommended by the Government's own expert group on the cost-of-living crisis. The strategy notes that 31 per cent of children who lived in a family where there was a disabled person were in relative income poverty, compared with 26 per cent of those in families where no-one was disabled. But there's no consideration of a cost-of-living payment to disabled families, as recommended by the expert group; nothing about a child payment or even preparatory work for instituting one, although the group and the committee had evidence of how that could be central to be making a real dent in those child poverty levels. Similarly, on food poverty, it's noted that a lack of access to affordable healthy food is directly related to health inequalities, but there are no measures to address this, although calls by the expert group for free school meals for all secondary school children from households in receipt of universal credit would be a huge preventative investment. I could go on.

You say, in your introduction, that the Welsh Government is committed to tackling child poverty as an absolute priority, but the strategy doesn't actually evidence that, Minister. Llywydd, we're halfway through a Senedd term. We will not get a progress report until a few months before the next election. I would contend that's not a way to ensure that action is prioritised, funded and delivered. I have no doubt, Minister, that you want to see child poverty eradicated, as do we all here, but we need a clearer road map and signposts to know that we are nearing that goal.

16:25

Diolch yn fawr, Sioned Williams, and thank you for your comments and questions today. I'm glad that you do recognise that some of the key points that were raised in the consultation, and, indeed, in the inquiry by the Equality and Social Justice Committee—and can I say I was also very pleased that the Children, Young People and Education Committee engaged in that as well—are addressed in the strategy.

I do want to go back to just a bit of the history lines about this issue, about how we monitor the action we're taking in terms of tackling child poverty. In fact, in 2015—I appreciate you weren't all here at that time—the child poverty strategy moved towards an approach that did align our ambitions for tackling child poverty with the national indicators under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. You will be aware of it, and I hope you will go back and look at them. If you haven't, if you're not aware of them, the strategy included this set of key indicators to help measure progress in achieving our child poverty objectives. In fact, there are 12 national milestones, 22 national indicators, which help us measure our progress as a nation in improving outcomes for children and their families.

Our approach to the new child poverty strategy builds on this established approach. Every year, you're going to get—. And, indeed, I shall circulate it again, the 'Well-being of Wales' report from last year. It does take account of what impact we've had and what progress we've made on those indicators. So, we do believe that a framework, based on a range of measures, including the national indicators and other data sources—. I've mentioned the intersectional issues, the protected characteristics. We've already got a target; I've given you the dates already: 2035 to 2050. This is going to help us accurately reflect the impact of our approach. This is about what the Government is doing and what it means to people's lives and how it has an impact—whether they get a free school meal, as a result of our co-operation agreement. 

One of the first things that was said to me when I became Minister for Social Justice by the then children's commissioner was, 'Roll out free school meals, increase the take-up of Healthy Start vouchers'—I think that came from the Bevan Foundation. Isn't it good to hear from Lynne Neagle, the Deputy Minister for Mental Health and Well-being, that Wales now has the highest take-up of Healthy Start vouchers? This isn't as a result of targets; this is because of Government action that actually enabled health visitors to have training to ensure that they could help people on the front line, those young mothers, get access to a Healthy Start voucher. The target-based approach risks being oversimplistic, detracts from the evidence of lived-experience poverty, detracts, actually, from good government and ways in which we can deliver on policies.

I'll give you some of the tackling poverty action plan targets, and I'll circulate these again for you to see: by 2016, increase the proportion of three-year-olds receiving Flying Start sessions that have achieved exceeding their developmental milestones by 5 per cent. Fifty-five per cent of children in the Flying Start programme reached or exceeded their developmental milestone at age three. Now, this has been checked. This has been in the children and young people's plan. We're checking this. This is an indicator that shows we're making progress. Another indicator: narrowing the gap in attainment levels between learners aged seven eligible for free school meals. Another indicator: healthy life expectancy at birth, representing the number of years a person can expect to live in good health. Another indicator: to generate £8 million in additional confirmed benefits for individuals per year through advice services. 

So, I'll go to your point about the draft budget. Yes, I did come before scrutiny yesterday in the Equality and Social Justice Committee, and I was very pleased that I could say—and this was a difficult task—£1.3 billion out of our budget as a result of UK Government cuts, as a result of Liz Truss crashing our economy. So, we then are left with having to take very difficult decisions. So, keeping that discretionary assistance fund at its level of £38.5 million was a crucial achievement across Welsh Government, keeping the single advice fund. And yesterday we met Citizens Advice up in Torfaen in Blaenavon who are there four days a week, funded by the Welsh Government, to give the kind of advice that people need to take. I think it is very important, when we look at the work that we have done as a result of the cost-of-living expert committee. And I'm also reporting on that this afternoon. 

It's about publishing the Welsh benefit charter, as I said, endorsed by the Welsh Local Government Association. Indeed, I said yesterday in my written statement that we've appointed Fran Targett to chair an external implementation group with local government, the Welsh Local Government Association, so that they can work to make sure that this is delivered. And it is about a new system of delivering Welsh benefits here today, but also there are many other recommendations that we're reviewing, not only rolling out free school meals as part of the co-operation agreement. Shouldn't we recognise that more than 15 million additional free school meals have been served since the launch? We should be proud of that. That is helping people, with Government, now, and it is actually Government as a result of us working together. But also extending the Nest scheme as we procure the new Warm Homes scheme for April, and calling on the UK Government—. This is important as well—and I know that you would recognise this—that we cannot do this all on our own. Social security is reserved. But we can do what we can do with our levers, and that is our responsibility. And, obviously, I hope that you will then endorse the changes and the important progress that we've made as a result of this consultation. 

16:30

Thank you, Minister, for bringing forward this child poverty strategy for Wales today. I'm speaking today in my capacity as the Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee, and, as you mentioned, in this capacity I was involved in the recent work of the Equality and Social Justice Committee on the draft child poverty strategy, which was debated in Plenary only two weeks ago. Again, I'd like to put on record my thanks to the Chair of that committee for inviting me to their work on that. 

During the debate, most of the contributors referenced the impact that poverty has on children and young people and their families, and I think as we discuss this strategy today, it's important that we remember the significant and pervasive impacts that are being felt across Wales by far too many children and young people and their families every single day. And I know that was why the Equality and Social Justice Committee called for the strategy to include those targets on reducing child poverty, and to be underpinned by a detailed action plan. I was really pleased to hear you say today, and the words that you used, and the determination, that eradicating child poverty must be an absolute priority for all governments. 

As I did two weeks ago, though, I would like to focus my questions on two particular groups who are more likely to be affected by poverty—care-experienced children and disabled children and young people. As a committee, we have spent the last 18 months speaking to those two groups of children and young people to inform our work. I and the rest of the committee have been inspired by their insight, strength and desire to change things for the better for those children and young people who follow in their footsteps. Our work has been better and stronger for being clearly informed by their experiences and their suggestions for change that will have a real and positive impact on children and young people across Wales. With this experience at the forefront of my mind, I want to ask the Minister how you have specifically taken the needs of these two groups into account when developing the strategy.

Finally, the strategy sets out that you have undertaken engagement work, which has included care-experienced young people, disabled and neurodivergent people, and people with additional learning needs. Perhaps you could give us some more detail about this engagement work and how their opinions have shaped and influenced the strategy. Diolch.

16:35

Thank you very much indeed, Jayne Bryant, for your contributions, and indeed in responding to the debate of the important Equality and Social Justice Committee. I think you do focus on key aspects of work in terms of your inquiries. I’ll pick up first of all with our looked-after children improvement, particularly in terms of improving educational outcomes, because this is about the ways in which we can tackle child poverty. And recognising, in fact, that including care-experienced children in that excellent education right is crucial to them in terms of their progress and development. And the fact that we’ve got start-up grant funding for local authorities across Wales to implement a virtual schools model, which you may be aware of, which aims to improve the education experience and outcomes of looked-after children. And of course also—and I’m sure the education Minister will comment on this later on—supporting the looked-after children in education by £5.7 million annually through the pupil development grant for LAC and the regional education consortia administering that grant. But also, I think the school essentials grant is crucial, because that is available for all care-experienced children, regardless of their circumstances, and when I referred to the importance of the Welsh benefits charter, I think that will help us see the way forward with that.

I would also like to just say that the basic income pilot I think is a recognition of the fact that we want this child poverty strategy, and, indeed, something I didn’t respond to Sioned—protecting the basic income pilot was a big decision in our budget, where we had to find 10 per cent of a very small budget line of £139 million. I was determined to protect our basic income pilot for care leavers, who often have suffered a great deal of child poverty. This is giving them a new hope, new prospects and of course the 97 per cent uptake of this groundbreaking scheme—which is being evaluated, and we’re going to hear about that evaluation very shortly—is so important.

I think the work that you’re doing with disabled children and young people is critically important, and I was glad to give evidence to that. Just to say that I hope Members will take the opportunity to look at the document that was issued with this child poverty strategy about the consultation and who we reached out to. And we did commission Children in Wales, Save the Children, Voices from Care, including care-experienced young people, but also community groups, groups of disabled, neurodivergent young people, LGBQT+ young people, young people with experience of homelessness, Traveller, Roma, Gypsy young people, and we gave grants to organisations to reach out to children and young people, and you’ll see we’ve actually—. I hope you will also make use of our children and young people’s version on this in terms of involving people. We also included parents, carers and families, and they came up with very straightforward responses, and it is about the strategy that will help to reduce poverty and help people in poverty. And, of course, they talk about the cost of school uniforms, trips and activities. They say the benefits system can be difficult to use. That's why the child poverty strategy is addressing those issues. So, I look forward to the outcome of your review that I'm sure will form a very important part of the response that we have to widening, of course, all our actions across Government in terms of tackling child poverty.

16:40

Of course, today, Minister, we recognise what is being done, obviously, through the co-operation agreement—the free school meals have been crucially important—and also we recognise the limitations because of inaction by the UK Government. But I think we do need to recognise the voices that have been part of shaping the strategy published today that are also critical of the fact that there are no targets. And I wondered, can you please clarify—questions that our inboxes have been flooded with in terms of the statement today—when the framework will be published and what you expect it to contain that are measurable?

I also note, today, that we've had a written statement following the expert recommendations—things that are within the Welsh Government's control—yet we don't have a response set out to each of the recommendations. This is despite the First Minister saying in the response to me back in November that he had seen such a document. So, can you please clarify when we'll get to know exactly what the Welsh Government response is to each of the proposals made by the expert group, and when will we see that framework so we can measure progress? It's children in our communities that are seeing their situation get worse, despite the things that are being put in place. And it's important we unite and see that progress, so that their futures change for the better.

Thank you, Heledd Fychan. I have said this in answer to more than one Senedd Member today, but we are developing a robust monitoring framework based on the national indicators of the well-being of future generations Act, as I've outlined. I've given you some examples of the targets already laid down in that. I've said that the target-based approach does risk being oversimplistic. It doesn't take into account all those who also have a responsibility for delivering on tackling child poverty—principally the UK Government.

But I think an important update today, having listened to not just the committee but other partners, is that we've appointed this independent academic expert, Professor Rod Hick, to come in and help us to hopefully convince you and convince all of us that the way forward to actually delivering on this child poverty strategy is to show ways in which we can demonstrate the outcomes of all of those objectives and priorities. So, that is work that's not just going to happen with Welsh Government—I want Professor Hicks to come to the committee. I think he's already been once to give evidence, so I think if you can respect the fact that this is now, today, an important announcement—that we want to bring in that independent expertise. We've always said we wanted to do that—to look at ways in which we can create that credible framework—and it will be a framework for monitoring how we are delivering on the child poverty strategy, how we, with our powers and our responsibilities and our commitment, today, are delivering.

Thank you, Minister, for your statement today. It's a point I made during the debate last week on the Equality and Social Justice Committee's report, but I do think it's important that we note that relative child poverty in Wales declined from 2012-13 to 2021-22 in contrast to the UK average. However, I'm sure that we all do agree that the current levels are far too high and that our shared goal is the eradication of child poverty. So, I'm pleased to see this refreshed commitment from Welsh Government to work across Government, using all levers within its control to drive this down further.

I've got two questions for you today: firstly, yesterday's announcement of a Welsh benefits charter, ensuring children and families get the support to which they're entitled, is really welcome and I'm pleased that all 22 local authorities in Wales have signed up in support of it. This is already generating lots of interest in my constituency of Cynon Valley and I appreciate that you plan to make a statement next week. How do you envisage people accessing the support the charter will provide, and what would be the interplay with the reserved social security system?

And, secondly, quickly, I visited the Bwl Baby Bank, which provides families in Ynysybwl and Coed-y-Cwm who are in need due to the cost-of-living crisis with access to essentials such as nappies and formula. Local voluntary initiatives such as this play a key role in ensuring that children and families in our communities receive the support that they need. So, what role do you envisage similar schemes playing in ensuring that your strategy achieves its goals?

16:45

Well, thank you very much, Vikki Howells, and thank you for that recognition that this is a tough challenge, isn't it, in terms of tackling levels of child poverty, which of course are far too high. Reports and statistics are showing that this is across the UK that child poverty levels are too high, and there's plenty of evidence of the reasons for that, which can also directly be laid at the doorstep of the UK Government, in terms of their cuts and an inadequate social security system.

I think that developing our Welsh benefits system is an important step—the charter for Welsh benefits. I will be doing an oral statement on that later this month. All local authorities have signed up to it; so, in your constituency, Rhondda Cynon Taf. Yesterday, in Torfaen, we met with people who are on the front line, the revenue and benefits officers. What's important with Welsh local government is that many are already streamlining their benefits, access to benefits. I've mentioned the key ones: the council tax reduction scheme, access to free school meals eligibility, the school essentials grant, the education maintenance allowance. So, they have committed to work together to ensure that the best practice applies to every local authority in Wales. Citizens Advice, alongside them—. Fran Targett, who used to be director of Citizens Advice in Wales, is leading the external implementation group. So, I'm very happy. I hope to say more in the oral statement in a few weeks' time.

Also, I think that your other, second, point is really important. Because I'm very conscious, with