Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

31/01/2024

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 Minister for Social Justice and Chief Whip

Welcome to this Plenary meeting. The first item on our agenda this afternoon will be questions to the Minister for Social Justice and Chief Whip, and the first question is from Mark Isherwood. 

Equality Act 2010

1. How does the Welsh Government ensure that the Equality Act 2010 is implemented to benefit disabled people in Wales? OQ60590

Thank you for your question. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is the UK-wide statutory body whose role it is to promote and enforce human rights and non-discrimination laws with a focus on the non-devolved Equality Act 2010. It works independently and operates across England, Scotland and Wales, where each administration is also subject to the Act.

Thank you. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has very limited resource to enforce or take legal action on individual cases. But the Equality Act states that direct discrimination occurs when people with protected characteristics, including disability, are treated less favourably than others. 

The National Deaf Children's Society Cymru has warned that falling numbers of teachers of the deaf, and other issues with the Welsh Government's additional learning needs reforms, is hindering deaf pupils. I raised this with you in responding to your 5 December statement on the International Day of Disabled People, but your reply didn't address this.

When I raised this with the education Minister, he highlighted the investment over the past three years to support postgraduate training for local authority-based teachers of learners with sensory impairment. The National Deaf Children's Society therefore spoke to the services on the ground, which told them that this is being used to keep the level of teachers of the deaf workforce the same, as opposed to expanding it, although one in five have left the profession since 2011. They were also told that some of the funding was more targeted at additional learning needs co-ordinators and school staff to help build deaf awareness rather then extend provision, which has not provided the scope to fully grow the profession nor support deaf children in Wales. 

So, what measurable action do you propose to address this, where deafness is not a learning difficulty, but deaf children are being disabled by the continuing inequity in outcome, and where the gap between deaf children and their hearing peers risks becoming even wider in breach of the Equality Act?

Thank you, Mark Isherwood, and I do agree with you—it's universally recognised that the Equality and Human Rights Commission is heavily underfunded and that it doesn't have the resources to fully enforce the protections offered by the Equality Act. 

But, clearly, we have our responsibilities, and this is very much across Government, as you would recognise, in terms of the role and responsibilities of the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language, particularly in response to the important questions you've raised. There are ongoing discussions and scrutiny about the needs of deaf children in education and additional learning needs. So, I will make sure that I take this back to the disability rights taskforce's children and young people's work stream—this is under way. As you know, the disability rights taskforce, which I co-chair, is responding to 'Locked out: liberating disabled people's lives and rights in Wales beyond COVID-19' report, very much based on the understanding of the social model of disability and co-produced with disabled people, including children and young people. So, I will take this back to the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language, but also to that work stream.

Digital Inclusion

2. What action is the Welsh Government taking to improve digital inclusion in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OQ60612

Thank you for your question. Tackling digital exclusion is a social justice and equalities priority, and we are committed to ensuring citizens are digitally confident to make informed decisions on how they use and engage with digital means, and our latest roll-out has provided access to full fibre broadband to 1,409 premises in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. 

Thank you, Minister, and I'm grateful for your commitment that digital inclusion is a social justice issue, because digital inclusion involves proficient and equitable access to, and use of, information and communication technologies that enable participation in modern, social and economic life—basically, the ability to use a computer for day-to-day tasks. Now, the digital world spans across virtually all industries and remits, including the likes of education, health and social services. Yet, one industry where digital inclusion is becoming more important, and possibly under the radar, is within the agricultural industry. Now, the sustainable farming scheme and future farm support will rely heavily on farmers collecting and inputting data into websites, including mapping. Now, the average age of a Welsh farmer is around 59 years of age, but, knowing age is no barrier to learning, what engagement have you had, as Minister, with the rural affairs Minister, and, most importantly, with the sector itself, to ensure that our farmers have access to training and skills so that they can use with ease the necessary digital agricultural platforms to run their business and maintain their livelihoods? Diolch, Llywydd.

13:35

Thank you for raising that really important point about the needs of farmers in terms of digital inclusion in the agricultural industry, as you say, in terms of the profile. Just looking at the statistics, 93 per cent of adults in Wales are now using the internet, compared to just 66 per cent in 2010. But there is an age profile, and it is about skills, isn't it, and it's about access to skills as well. So, this is being addressed by the 'Digital strategy for Wales', and that's a programme for government commitment. It makes clear that, for people who can't, or decide not to, participate digitally, we have to find ways in which to access them, to increase their skills. And I just have to say that, since July 2019, our digital inclusion in health programme, for example, has supported 18,216 people in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire with motivation and basic digital skills needed to use the internet effectively. And we now are developing a minimum digital living standard for Wales. But this has to ensure that we do reach out to business and industry—the agriculture industry. I will discuss this with the Minister for rural affairs, recognising of course that Farming Connect, and all those engaged in the sustainable farming scheme and the implementation and delivery of it, will be up to speed on all of this. And I know we can report back to you on the developments, particularly in relation to supporting the farming community with digital skills.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople. The Welsh Conservatives' spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.

Diolch, Llywydd. 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. Last week, you launched the Welsh Government's benefits charter, telling us it aims to increase take-up of Welsh benefits, enabling more people in Wales to take up their entitlement, and identify and remove the barriers that prevent people from claiming their entitlements. However, the Welsh Local Government Association then issued a press release that made clear that, far from being the launch of a Welsh benefits system, local authorities had only agreed to work with the Welsh Government to take action towards developing a consistent Welsh benefits system. So, just as the Children's Commissioner for Wales stated in the context of your child poverty strategy, the lack of detail on actions, timescales and deliverables again means that there is no way of holding the Welsh Government to account. Questioning you on the child poverty strategy here last week, I therefore asked what is your timescale for the introduction of a Welsh benefits system, and what targets will be in place to measure progress. You failed to answer. Will you do so now?

Thank you very much. I'm really glad, Mark Isherwood, that you've drawn attention to our Welsh benefits charter, which I'm very proud that I launched last Monday. I launched it in Blaenavon resource centre. In fact, the designated Member, Siân Gwenllian, was alongside me, because this is all part of our work to explore the devolution of benefits. It's about developing a Welsh benefits system, and a Welsh benefits charter is part of that. I'm sure you will have seen the charter. All 22 local authorities signed up to this. I met with the partnership council, with the Minister for Finance and Local Government, and all the leaders, in November, and they all have signed up and endorsed it. But, as you say, it's about putting the charter into practice, so there's going to be an independent external reference group, which will be chaired by Fran Targett, who is a very significant figure in the third sector. But the charter outcomes are here in the document: to increase take-up of Welsh benefits; help maximise household incomes; contribute to tackling poverty in Wales; awareness of benefit entitlement, which is key, obviously, to the delivery of the child poverty strategy; commitments on income maximisation and welfare benefit take-up; reduction in the need for emergency aid; take-up measured by the number of people supported via Welsh Government benefit schemes. So, again, you will hear much more about this when I make an oral statement about this on 20 February.

13:40

Diolch. This was first raised with us almost a decade ago by the sector in committee, and in this Chamber by me and others. And you still haven't told me what timescale you're working to for the introduction of a Welsh benefits system, and whether you will have any targets in place to measure progress.

The Bevan Foundation states that it's eager to ensure that the Welsh Government delivers on its commitment to establish a Welsh benefits system in the round. How do you, therefore, respond to their statement that, although the current arrangements are based on collaboration and partnership, as participation is therefore voluntary, there's a risk that some bodies do not participate at all, while others do their own thing, and to their calls on the Welsh Government—including to put participation on a firmer footing by requiring local authorities to align their administration of a council tax reduction scheme with other devolved schemes that they administer—to set out a clear route-map to bring other means-tested grants and allowances into the system, beyond the original idea of seven different schemes brought into a common framework, and to reimburse local authorities and, potentially, others in due course, for additional costs, starting with the council tax reduction scheme, where there is expected to be the largest increase in take-up?

Well, I can say that you'll hear much more about this on 20 February, and I think, Llywydd, you will want me not to say much more today, because that will be the oral statement. 

But can I just say that this Welsh benefits charter is very much based on not only the work of the Bevan Foundation, which produced a very good report, 'Making the case for a Welsh Benefits System—people’s experiences', and we've drawn directly from that report, but also—and John Griffiths, of course, chaired, and, I think, you sat on—the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee that did this important work that led us to develop the charter. One of the key points about the charter, which is reflected in the work of the Bevan Foundation, is that this is the development of a coherent Welsh benefits system to be at the heart of a compassionate, joined-up and person-centred system, where a person only has to tell their story once to access all their entitlements. And that is what the leader of Torfaen council, Councillor Anthony Hunt—on behalf of all leaders—said that they are committed to, that compassionate, joined-up, person-centred system, which we certainly do not have, I would say, in the UK social security system, which still turns to sanctions, causing great hardship and grief to the people who experience that.

But this charter is based on respect for fundamental human rights and equality. And one approach is the council tax reduction scheme—yes, we need a great deal more take-up of that scheme—but also, eligibility for free school meals, the schools essentials grant, education maintenance allowance. Those are all the benefits that we, with local government, will ensure can be taken up in one application, one contact, accessing their entitlements—one story.

Thank you. Well, I hope, although you've still failed to address the points, that you can at least confirm that there will be targets and timescales, even if you have to wait for your statement before you can share the detail with us. And, as you indicate, the Bevan Foundation have been raising this for years, as have multiple other organisations, and this was captured in the evidence to the committee in that inquiry that I was party to. 

The Welsh benefits charter states that the Welsh Government and local authorities, and other delivery partners, key stakeholders and people accessing benefits will work in partnership to design an inclusive system. During evidence taking for the 2019 Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee inquiry into 'Benefits in Wales: options for better delivery', witnesses including Community Housing Cymru called for better integration between job centres and locally delivered services, including data sharing between the Department for Work and Pensions and local authorities. However, the Welsh benefits charter only refers to,

'continuing to work with the Department for Work and Pensions...to raise awareness and promote the take-up of non-devolved benefits in Wales',

without any reference to a collaborative role for local Jobcentre Plus offices, which are already established to administer non-devolved welfare benefits, and which, working with local authorities, can become a single point of contact for devolved benefits also. This is what the sector called for nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one years ago. So, what, if any, discussions have you had with the UK Department for Work and Pensions regarding the role that Jobcentre Plus can play in an integrated Welsh benefits system, working collaboratively with local authorities across Wales?

13:45

I think there clearly have been moves towards joining up a Welsh benefits system for many years, but they've tended to be fragmented and piecemeal, with no strategic lead. We are responding to this with the creation of a coherent Welsh benefits system. It would be good if you could actually welcome the launch by 22 local authorities and the Welsh Government for this Welsh benefits charter. I haven't heard that yet from you. And I have to say, I wonder if you will go back to your colleagues in Westminster and, indeed, make representations. When the Welsh Affairs Committee actually did a really important piece of work about what the impact of the social security system—UK social security system—had on people in Wales—.

We know that the benefit levels are too low—people are in poverty across the UK because of the low levels of UK benefits. The inequities and ill-advised use of sanctions, which are still being used, and the DWP obviously underlining and endorsing that—. So, let's just look at what we're trying to do in Wales. But of course we work, where we can, not just with Jobcentre Plus—and we all work with our local jobcentres—to ensure that there is a take-up not just of our benefits, but of very important benefits like pension credit. And that's where I am working closely with the DWP Minister to ensure that we can get that data sharing, so local authorities can encourage citizens to take up pension credit, which is an important, non-devolved benefit. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Citizens Advice Cymru has just published their 2023 review dashboard highlights, which show that they are continuing to help unprecedented numbers of people in crisis. By the end of the year, they'd referred 21,000 people to foodbanks or other charitable support for the first time, almost double the number of 2021. And after another year of record high energy prices and decreasing levels of Government support, this winter they've helped more people with energy debt than ever before. They're seeing some of the highest numbers of people seeking help with arrears on council tax debt, water debt and rent arrears, and the level of that debt has increased.

One of the only recommendations of the Government's expert group on the cost-of-living crisis that has seen any action is that on bringing together Welsh financial support into that streamlined and automatic system we all want to see that would help alleviate poverty. And as we've heard, you launched last week the Welsh benefits charter, as that first step towards the Welsh benefits system, which Plaid Cymru has long backed and is actively working towards through the co-operation agreement. I share the concerns that it's not on a statutory footing.

But the report of the expert group also draws attention to the fact that simplifying the way Welsh benefits are delivered must go hand in hand with an increase in the eligibility thresholds and value of payments, stating that the eligibility thresholds for free school meals for older pupils, school essentials grants, education maintenance allowances have been frozen for several years, and that a household then has to be very much poorer to be eligible for these schemes than four years ago. So, does the Welsh Government accept the need to address this and review and align the different eligibility thresholds, as part of the implementation arrangements for the Welsh benefits charter? 

Well, I'm very grateful again for the work that we've done together, as part of the co-operation agreement, to take us forward to the point where not only did we launch the Welsh benefits charter last week, and, in fact, in Torfaen, but my colleague the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership visited Ynys Môn, and saw the great work on the front line there. And the designated Member and I are also going west to meet other authorities, just to see ways in which they are delivering on the delivery of the charter and what that commitment actually means.

Now, clearly, in terms of our response to the cost-of-living crisis expert group, as I said in my written statement last week, we are taking immediate action in response to many of the recommendations—the Welsh benefits charter being just one response to that. But also, I think, continuing the roll-out of free school meals in all primary schools, as part of the co-operation agreement, is a clear indication of priorities. But this is, in terms of our draft budget—. The £1.3 billion hole in it, as a result of the UK Government's atrocious settlement for us—. We are in a very difficult place financially, as you know. I think it's really excellent that we've been able to increase the education maintenance allowance from £30 to £40. That's really important to the young people I met last week in Cardiff and Vale College in Dumballs Road, just down the road—young people who are actually now accessing hospitality, catering and building maintenance and doing their A-levels, and who are able to access the education maintenance allowance. But constrained finances, as a result of the UK Government and 13 years of austerity and £1.3 billion out of our budget means that this is about priorities. Now, I'm very proud of the fact that we have been able to safeguard our discretionary assistance fund, and that helps. We have safeguarded, also, the funding that we're putting into our Fuel Bank Foundation and into our single advice fund, so that people can take up those benefits.

13:50

Diolch. The expert group also highlighted, of course, the effect of the cost-of-living crisis on older people in Wales. Around one in five older people in Wales live in poverty, and many more have been badly affected by the crisis. A report published yesterday by the Older People's Commissioner for Wales found that a significant number of older people in Wales, including a third of people aged 75 plus, find themselves digitally excluded and increasingly facing barriers when trying to access the information and support that is available. This is concerning, of course, not only because it affects access to support and entitlements, but it also increases costs for older people. Home insurance, for example, can cost up to 46 per cent more when purchased offline. The experience shared in the report paints a picture of a stark digital divide exacerbating the effect of the cost-of-living crisis on older people. The commissioner says that action must be taken to tackle this exclusion as a matter of urgency, and that's been echoed by Age Cymru. In light of this, it's therefore disappointing that there's a reduction of £500,000 in the draft budget for digital inclusion, compared to the indicative budget for 2024-25. This will mean reducing activity aimed at improving digital skills and access. So, could the Minister outline what assessment has been made of this cut and its effect on digital exclusion and poverty amongst older people?

Thank you very much. A really important question. It follows on from the question from Mark Isherwood in terms of the take-up of benefits and the take-up of those benefits that aren't devolved, like pension credit, and that is an area where the older people's commissioner has led a campaign, which we have engaged with, to increase the take-up. In fact, she was meeting with the First Minister only last week and, again, they were talking about ways in which we can reach out to older people to take up that campaign. And I think our Welsh benefits charter, the linking up of the system, the Welsh benefits system that we're developing, isn't going to be exclusively about our benefits, which of course we want to extend and increase when we get the budget to do so, but also about ensuring that people can take up pension credit. It makes such a significant difference to the lives of older people. So, we have a sub-group—as part of our Advicelink Cymru funding 'Claim what's yours' campaign, we've got a sub-group specifically tasked with increasing the take-up of pension credit.

Public Services for Veterans

3. How is the Welsh Government supporting veterans to access public services? OQ60622

The Welsh Government is fully committed to the armed forces covenant and supporting servicepeople, veterans and their families in accessing public services. This includes the work of our armed forces liaison officers at the local level and through our support for veteran-specific NHS services.

Thank you, Minister. I think we can all be very proud here that, across the UK, we have the Armed Forces Act 2006, and we know that this monumental piece of legislation enshrines many of the principles championed by the armed forces covenant, such as placing a legal duty on public bodies to take into account ex-service personnel status. This sort of legislation is necessary, as we know veterans are more likely to report health conditions that limit daily tasks when compared to the general public, as a result of their time in active service, and this is one among many of the reasons why the armed forces covenant lays out that veterans should be entitled to priority treatment for conditions related to their service.

However, Minister, a constituent reached out to me and this highlighted how there may be some serious discrepancies in how this Act is applied across public bodies. The constituent has been faced with a 100-week wait to receive necessary health treatment for an injury sustained during active service. It has put enormous strain on himself, his family and partner, who are undertaking caring duties for him. So, Minister, in light of this, how does the Government monitor that public bodies don't just pay lip service to the covenant, but deliver on its expectations?

13:55

I thank Peter Fox for his question. I know that you're a passionate and committed advocate in this area, not least because of your own personal connections to the armed forces community here in Wales. Whilst I can't comment on individual cases, but more broadly on the support that's there and the mechanisms in place and how we can make sure that they are being followed as effectively and as efficiently as they should be. So, you're right to point out the armed forces covenant has two principles at the core of that: those who have served should face no disadvantage compared with other citizens in the provision of public services, and also that special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially those who have given the most, such as the injured.

The armed forces due regard duty has been a legal requirement since November 2022, and that applies in Wales to local authorities, health boards and schools, and that means to have due regard to that armed forces covenant as part of that, and the organisations need to consciously consider the unique responsibilities and sacrifices made by members of the armed forces. I'm aware there is work across Wales, where local health boards and authorities are implementing positive changes, such as how they identify the armed forces people in accessing services for veterans and in some of their policies to improve awareness of issues that those in the armed forces may encounter. Whilst I can't intervene in individual cases, it's something that I can take back, just to make sure that that due regard duty has been embedded as effectively as it can be in all those bodies that are subject to it now.

Prepayment Meters

4. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of prepayment meters on fuel poverty? OQ60608

Thank you for the question. Many of the 200,000 Welsh householders on prepayment meters are on the lowest incomes and are at risk of self-disconnecting as they struggle to make ends meet. We're here to help with emergency funds, support on income maximisation and free energy efficiency measures.

Diolch, Gweinidog. The forced installation of prepayment meters into the homes of people who are struggling to stay warm enough to live is a scandal. The fact that Ofgem is allowing energy companies to keep doing this is proof, I'm afraid, that we have a regulator that works for the benefit of companies and not customers. Last year Citizens Advice Cymru dealt with record numbers of people who couldn't afford to top up their prepayment meters and who were disconnected repeatedly. Let's not lose sight of the fact that when we talk about disconnecting a person, that means throwing them to the wolves, cutting off their heating, creating a situation, knowingly, that could lead to their death. So, what discussions have you had with Ofgem, with energy suppliers and the UK Government about ensuring better protections for people on low incomes so that they can afford to adequately heat their homes and keep the lights on? Do you agree with me that the fact that the forced installation of prepayment meters is still allowed shows that we have an energy market and a regulator that have failed?

I agree wholeheartedly with those points that you've made, Delyth Jewell. I've repeatedly called for a ban on the involuntary installation of prepayment meters. It removes the ability of households to spread the cost of their energy needs evenly over a 12-month period and has led, as we know, to some householders self-disconnecting. I think, earlier on, your colleague Sioned Williams referred to a Citizens Advice report. Citizens Advice is suggesting that more than 2 million people will have their gas and electricity cut off this winter because they cannot afford to top up their prepayment meter, and 800,000 people went for more than 24 hours without gas and electricity last year because they couldn't afford that top-up.

But I have met with the new Ofgem chair in December, and made it clear that Welsh Government expect Ofgem to ensure rules are working. Now, these rules, again, from Ofgem—energy suppliers must follow new rules before a prepayment meter can be installed involuntarily. Those rules are intended to ensure that, when energy suppliers act in a fair and responsible way, they will only use them as a last resort, but we already hear that energy suppliers are planning to restart forced installation. Let's name them. Three suppliers, EDF, Octopus and Scottish Power, provided evidence, they say, and assurances that they've met Ofgem's conditions, but they're restarting involuntary installations. We remain very concerned about this, because we need to ensure that we support those households in energy debt, and we're certainly doing that with our support through the Fuel Bank Foundation voucher scheme.

14:00

This is an important question that Delyth Jewell raises this afternoon, following the rather disgraceful behaviour of certain energy companies coming to public attention in 2022 with many prepayment meters being forcefully installed in people's homes, leaving them without heat and energy when credit runs out. Energy prices are still stratospheric, and, with the backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis, those struggling should not suffer the additional stress of a forced installation of prepayment meters. I welcome the UK Government's action to curb the behaviour of, predominantly, British Gas, Scottish Power and Ovo, who were responsible for 70 per cent of the forced installations taking place in 2022. The UK Government's action included a five-point plan to tackle bad behaviour by energy suppliers, and calling on suppliers to stop the practice of forced prepayment switching, and the UK Government removing the premium paid by those using PPMs.

We should also welcome the UK Government support, such as the £400 grant for energy bills, and the energy price guarantee and other specific funding for low-income households, which goes some way to alleviating fuel poverty. I do have some trepidation, however, in condemning prepayment meters entirely. There are 200,000 people in Wales with a prepayment meter; for some of those people, it may work for them and their needs. But I would like the Minister to outline what the Welsh Government is doing to ensure that those on the lowest income receive a level of support with regard to their energy costs and to ensure that energy companies in Wales abide by their voluntary commitment to the UK Government's code of conduct. Thank you.

Thank you for that question. I'm glad you recognise the desperately difficult situation that people on prepayment meters find themselves in. It is very important for households in energy debt to contact their energy suppliers, and I meet regularly with energy suppliers. If they can contact them as soon as possible, they can agree an affordable repayment plan, and, of course, that would avoid the point of involuntary prepayment—forced installation—meters being fitted.

But there are a great many issues for the reasons why people are in this position. I only have to go back to the Citizens Advice report that we've just been talking about, because the fact is that people have not got enough money to live on, and, last week, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that 6 million people in the UK are in poverty and would have to have their incomes doubled in order to get out of that hardship. So, I hope you would join us in saying to the UK Government that universal credit levels are too low—£35 per week short for a single person, £65 per week short for a couple—and recognise that half of those in debt to their energy suppliers are turning off heating, 3 million living in households where they have skipped meals, cut back on food spending, or sold or pawned possessions in the last year to save money. And we've seen those pawnshops in our high streets, haven't we? And we hope that they will turn to our credit unions, which we're funding, and also to our Fuel Bank Foundation. And I must say, we've allocated nearly £4.5 million since June 2022 to fund the Fuel Bank Foundation national fuel voucher and heat fund scheme. We've got 116 referral partners, and the number of fuel vouchers issued since the project began is 46,189. But isn't it terrible that now they're piloting people having heated throws, rather than heating their homes? This is a shocking situation, but it needs a wholescale reform of our UK social security levels of benefits.

The action from the UK Government last year was far too little, far too late, quite frankly, and the current protections from Ofgem do not go far enough. Llywydd, I look forward to Ofgem directly responding to the recommendations made by this Senedd's Petitions Committee and the inquiry we undertook last year. I endorse the comments from Delyth Jewell and the Minister's response, and I'm pleased to see Gareth Davies taking this important issue up as well. Minister, my team met with the Enforcement Conduct Board this morning. I know you've met them too. They discussed the need for—. Where the use of enforcement agents by energy suppliers is necessary, there is a need for more protection for the public. There's a need for an independent complaints mechanism and for proper standards. We all witnessed what happened when energy suppliers like British Gas used unregulated debt collectors and bailiffs when they forced their way illegally into people's homes last year. I wonder if you would use your office, Minister, to call on the suppliers that you've mentioned today and all energy suppliers in the United Kingdom to sign up to only using enforcement agencies that have been registered with the ECB, something that local authorities in Wales have already done.

14:05

Thank you very much, Jack Sargeant, and can we thank you again for the report that the Petitions Committee—a cross-party committee—produced on this issue and for the work that you've done in championing this cause, with the evidence that you have gathered together and presented to us on a regular basis? I am meeting with the Enforcement Conduct Board in a couple of weeks' time precisely to raise these issues. It's interesting, when the Enforcement Conduct Board—. Many colleagues here have actually met with them and they've had events in the Senedd. When we've engaged with them, with the Welsh Local Government Association, they have agreed—. In fact, there was a programme about this last week, about the appalling behaviour of bailiffs, actually, in England, in terms of people in arrears for council tax, and they were actually praising Wales, Welsh local authorities, for taking on board the accredited agency guide from the Enforcement Conduct Board. So, I will be raising this to find out. We know Welsh Water Dŵr Cymru has taken this on board in terms of that work.

But can I just say that, also, there are some issues that I would like to share today—one issue that I'll share, Llywydd. We remain very concerned that any prepayment customer clear of debt wishing to move off prepayment will be required to pass a credit check. I've raised this with the new chair of Ofgem. It's a barrier to the prepayment meter being replaced, and this must be changed and addressed. It's unfair, it's iniquitous, and it just, again, shows how they're driving prepayment meter customers into greater depths of poverty.

The Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales

5. What consideration has the Minister given to the impact of the recommendations of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales on social justice? OQ60594

Diolch yn fawr, Huw Irranca. The constitution commission's report sets out a compelling cross-party assessment of the flaws in the current devolution settlement that deserves careful consideration. The First Minister yesterday made a statement about this important report to the Senedd.

Indeed. Thank you for that response, Minister, and I noticed in their analysis of this, including the work with citizens in Wales, as well as experts, and building on the Thomas commission, of course, they not only concurred with what has previously been said about the devolution of youth justice and probation, as is laid out, indeed, in the Brown report, but they go further, and they say that there is a compelling case. In fact, there were only two pieces of evidence they saw against the case for the devolution of policing and criminal justice, and those were from the Secretary of State for Wales and Lord Bellamy. Those were the only two. They say it, but they don't say, 'Go at this hell for leather.' What they do say is that

'the England and Wales justice system faces major challenges of funding and leadership and in tackling these Wales will always be a relatively low priority for the UK Government. With devolution, there would be scope for innovation and reform, building on the expertise of the justice workforce and national and local stakeholders such as local authorities and health boards.'

And

'devolution could be achieved without major disruption, through a programme of work led jointly by the UK and Welsh governments'.

So, systematic, planned, considered, working its way through the devolution of these matters. Would she agree with that analysis, and would she undertake, whatever the results of the general election, to make those representations to the UK Government to work jointly on the devolution of these critical matters for social justice?

Thank you very much, Huw Irranca-Davies. I agree with you and recognise that key recommendation on justice and policing by the independent commission. It takes me back to a written statement that I and the Counsel General produced on 14 November, and perhaps we could recirculate that and share it. It is about the work that we're doing to pursue the devolution of justice and policing because it's a commitment in the Welsh Government's programme for government for 2021-26. It follows the unanimous recommendation from the Commission on Justice in Wales, the Thomas commission, which reported in 2019, and devolution of policing specifically was a recommendation from the Commission on Devolution in Wales, the Silk commission—cross-party, established by the UK Government—which reported in 2014. As we said in that statement, our ultimate objective is to pursue devolution of justice and policing in its entirety. We do recognise the phased approach is preferable. So, that is where we do respond to and we welcome, as the First Minister did yesterday, very positively, the Gordon Brown commission. And, of course, the devolution of youth justice and probation, we're not making the case for it; we're preparing for it. We're preparing for it. And we're preparing for it, indeed, with our colleagues in the co-operation agreement. We see this as a step towards devolution of justice. But it is important that, on the record, again, we have shown in that written statement that we are undertaking the research to prepare for the devolution of policing in Wales as well.

14:10

A very interesting answer there, considering the UK Labour Party doesn't agree with very much of what was said there at all about the devolution of justice and policing. Nevertheless, you can't promote social justice without dealing with child poverty. Earlier this month, the Centre for Cities looked at child poverty and found that the city with the biggest increase in child poverty in the United Kingdom was Swansea. If you didn't think that was damning enough of the work of the Welsh Government to tackle child poverty, it gets worse when you see that, of all the cities in the UK, not only was Swansea first, Newport was second and Cardiff was third. And now we've seen the Welsh Government launch a child poverty strategy without a single target or timeline to hold them accountable. This constitutional talking shop won't do a thing to tackle child poverty in Wales. Instead, it costs £1.5 million and counting—money that could have been spent on improving the life chances of young people in Wales. So, when can we expect firm action from this Welsh Labour Government to tackle child poverty, instead of wasting money on vanity projects like this?

Well, I do wonder whether you would agree to devolve social security to Wales. Because, without the devolution of powers, the powers that actually impact on poverty, and social security is key to that—. And, in fact, it's not just the Equality and Human Rights Commission that shows that UK Government welfare reform since—[Interruption.] Are you listening? Llywydd? Shows that UK Government welfare reforms—. Since 2010, we've endured 13 years of austerity, but don't forget those horrendous welfare reforms since 2010 and increasing housing costs have had the most significant impact on levels of child poverty amongst working households. And it's not just—. I'm not saying that, the Equality and Human Rights Commission is saying it, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, UNICEF, are saying it is the cut in welfare benefits for children that is deepening and widening the poverty—not just, of course, in Wales, which we are tackling, with our child poverty strategy. So, yes, we have got to be held accountable for what we're responsible for, but please join us in recognising that it is the UK Government who are responsible for those key levers.

Child Poverty in Mid and West Wales

6. How is the Welsh Government tackling child poverty in Mid and West Wales? OQ60599

Thank you very much for your question.

Just getting excited with my response to the last question—a serious response to the last question, and this follows on very well to your question, Cefin Campbell. Our child poverty strategy outlines our long-term ambition and vision for delivering for children living in poverty in Wales. I have mentioned the Welsh benefits charter; it confirms the collective commitment to improve access to financial support and has been endorsed by all 22 local authorities, including in Mid and West Wales.

Diolch yn fawr iawn. Minister, last week, you published your strategy on tackling child poverty, and I noted with particular interest this observation, and I quote:

'Rural communities can face particular challenges associated with distance from key services, limited job opportunities and low incomes, higher costs of living...public transport availability, social isolation, and restricted housing stock.'

Now, that's quite a list, and I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment, insofar as it goes, but I must admit that the rest of the strategy is unclear about what this means in terms of tackling child poverty in rural areas. The strategy, for example, doesn't offer any specific initiatives that could be used to tackle this particular policy challenge that rural poverty represents. As we know, and we've heard this already this afternoon, the strategy doesn't include targets at all, which we believe is a fundamental weakness. The old adage that what can't be measured cannot be improved is as true of child poverty as other Government policies. So, specifically, can I ask you, Minister, whether any rural-proofing was done during the period of developing the strategy, and can you commit to setting targets to tackle rural poverty?

14:15

Diolch yn fawr, Cefin Campbell. A really important point about how the child poverty strategy was developed in terms of consultation, a consultation that not only included the End Child Poverty Network players, the child poverty sector, but also Young Wales and the young people we engaged with across the whole of Wales, including those from rural communities, and young people with protected characteristics as well. I think all of the objectives, the five objectives, are relevant to rural communities: reducing costs, maximising the incomes of families, creating pathways out of poverty, child and family well-being. You've read the strategy. You can see that it is a strategy that covers all aspects of a child's life and their family well-being.

I think it is important, in terms of the delivery of the strategy, that we see this in the context of what we can do with our powers. It's very much a cross-Government document, as you can see, from education and employment to, obviously, social justice taking the lead, and health and social security. On those welfare benefits that we are responsible for, yes, clearly, we need to ensure that we do have that adequate take-up. I think, in terms of targets, it's useful to know, as you're aware, that we've committed to producing a framework to monitor and report on outcomes, and this is what we need. What is the impact of our work, what we're responsible for? We're not responsible for benefits, which is a key lever, or main tax powers.

We're engaging independent academic expertise from Professor Rod Hick of Cardiff University. I know he's going to come and meet with the committee, and he's certainly going to be meeting with our End Child Poverty Network reference group. He is taking into account the well-being of Wales national indicators, which we are all signed up to—those milestones in our well-being of future generations. Of course, we will share with him the importance of looking at this from a rural dimension. But I would say there's a difference when setting a target for the delivery of an individual service. An outcome, the impact, making this real change, depends on multiple services, and a whole range of economic and social factors, and the biggest impact is from benefits and social security, which are with the UK Government. So, yes, we have those targets for individual services and programmes, and, for example, advice services—a whole fleet of indicators—but it is actually the drive of the activity, and the impact of the activity that you see in that strategy, that you can monitor to see in terms of the positive impact we have, particularly in rural communities.

Minister, in England, all working parents of two-year-olds will receive 15 hours per week of free childcare from April of this year. Minister, can you confirm that this will be the case in Wales, and if not, why not?

We will see whether that is delivered. I can see that there are questions being raised in terms of the capacity of the workforce, a workforce that, of course, we are rebuilding as a result of our investment here in Wales. And of course it's the Deputy Minister for Social Services's responsibility, but it is important that we reflect on what we are doing in Wales in terms of childcare. So far, our childcare offer is the most ambitious across the UK, but I think our investment in Flying Start—and I think that again is a really important investment that we share in our co-operation agreement—that is the proof of what we are doing. Despite 13 years of austerity and the slashing of Sure Start years ago in England, we have continued to invest in Flying Start.

And can I just say that Flying Start actually reaches the most disadvantaged children, the very children that we are supporting through our child poverty strategy? And that's just revenue and capital. The expansion of that, I hope, you will have seen, Russell, in your constituency, as I know the Deputy Minister and, I think, the designated Member saw in Wrexham last week, the impact of our investment in Flying Start. And that provides free childcare, which, of course, in our agreement, is going to roll out to all two-year-olds in Wales.

14:20

Good afternoon, Minister. Last week, we also discussed our report, 'Calling time on child poverty', and indeed the week before, when we reported on it. And I'm grateful to you for your commitment to some of the key recommendations. But the one that you rejected outright, recommendation 6, is the one that I wanted to focus on, particularly with regard to Cefin Campbell's question around rural child poverty. We've called, and that's recommendation 6, for a dedicated Minister for babies, children and young people. Your response is that child poverty, and indeed poverty, is a responsibility across all the ministerial portfolios. So, could I ask you: to what level do you anticipate that the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales will be able to prioritise rural poverty? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Diolch yn fawr. I did struggle over that recommendation, because I could understand where it came from; I could understand the evidence from my colleagues, not just on the Equality and Social Justice Committee, but the Children, Young People and Education Committee. Actually, it reminds me of the discussions that we had yesterday. Yes, if we had a big enough Senedd, with a Government that could actually meet all of the specific needs that we know need to be addressed, and I feel it's another big case in point for our Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill, which, of course, got through its general principles yesterday. But it is up to the next First Minister in terms of portfolio arrangements. I would say that the child poverty strategy went to the Cabinet at least twice. It went in its draft form, it went in its final form. The whole Cabinet had to sign up to it. And I think the points that have been made by you, Jane Dodds, and Cefin Campbell today about the rural dimension are really important, and I will be discussing those with the Minister for rural affairs as we implement now the child poverty strategy.

Smoking amongst Pregnant Women in Arfon

7. What assessment has the Minister made of the link between poverty and the high level of smoking amongst pregnant women in Arfon? OQ60597

We know that people living in our least well-off communities are more likely to smoke than those living in the most affluent areas. The impact of tobacco use, particularly during pregnancy, is a key component of the deep-rooted health inequalities that the Welsh Government is tackling.

Thank you very much for that response. In Gwynedd, 16.5 per cent of the population are smokers, one of the highest percentages in Wales. This figure includes pregnant women. Across Wales, one in 10 pregnant women smokes, putting at risk their own health as well as the health of their babies, and there is increasing evidence available that shows that the link between poverty and high levels of smoking among pregnant women is a real factor. So, does the pilot scheme that seeks to support pregnant women to give up tobacco, which is operational in Denbighshire in the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board area, actually address the link between poverty and smoking among pregnant women? And what lessons can be learned so far from this important pilot?

Thank you very much for your supplementary question. I agree that it's important to help people to cease smoking.

You referenced the Betsi Cadwaladr pilots—that's the targeted smoking cessation support offered to pregnant people in Wales. They've implemented the 'Help me quit for baby' service model, which I understand offers specialist, bespoke and flexible support for smokers, and has taken in the wider, perhaps living and environmental, concerns as well. It not only offers pregnant people, but others in the household, the chance to get help from their own personal stop-smoking adviser every week, plus free stop-smoking medicines worth up to £250, and home visits are also offered to help increase access to 'Help me quit' services.

I know you focused on the pilot in a particular area, but in the area of Arfon, I know that there are two specialist advisers who provide support for pregnant people and others in the household who smoke. The incentive schemes also have a pilot to target pregnant people from less affluent areas, and young, pregnant smokers who are less likely to quit. I'm more than happy to liaise with my colleague the Deputy Minister for health, and to provide a further update on the progress of that pilot and actually how those lessons can be applied elsewhere in the community, right across north Wales.

14:25
'The Anti-racist Wales Action Plan'

8. Will the Minister provide an update on the implementation of the Anti-racist Wales Action Plan? OQ60619

Thank you for that question. The 'Anti-racist Wales Action Plan' is vital for achieving our goal of becoming an anti-racist nation by 2030. We are committed to transparency and openly sharing progress against the plan, and our first annual report was published on 1 December 2023.

Minister, I think we need to see a step change in Wales in terms of tackling racism, and in order to do that we need the delivery of public services to move on markedly in understanding the issues around racism and delivering for our diverse communities, and we need organisations to show a good example. I'd like to cite two that I'm aware of locally in Newport East, Minister, and one is Llanwern High School, which has been cited by Estyn as doing some really good work around refugees and asylum seekers, and has some very good policies and activities around diversity in general, and the other is Muslim Doctors Cymru, which did some really good work during the pandemic in reaching out to communities around vaccination and accessing healthcare services more generally, and is now continuing that work. Just the other week, they held a session with a number of health professionals in a mosque in Newport East, reaching out into the community to people who, perhaps, wouldn't otherwise access those important tests and services.

Diolch yn fawr, John Griffiths, for drawing attention again to those two examples of delivery of the 'Anti-racist Wales Action Plan', in a school and in a community organisation in Newport, because as you say, we need a step change in the delivery of public services.

I think, just in terms of looking quickly at health, because every Minister, every department—. You'll see from the annual report what's being achieved. In the health sector, we've got the workforce race equality standard for Wales, and that's going to identify and measure progress in the NHS and social care workforce on race equality across primary, secondary and social care. And also, just in terms of education, I believe that the education Minister launched the new curriculum for the mandatory learning of anti-racist heritage and history in Wales at Llanwern school, and the pioneering work of the diversity and anti-racist professional learning project. So, I think it is now being embedded into public services and, although, clearly, we have a long way to go, it is as a result of those examples.

Can I just again praise that community for the work in the mosque, because it was Muslim Doctors Cymru who actually did a great deal of work during the pandemic in terms of raising awareness and tackling myths about vaccination? The Muslim doctors, I think, played a big part in Newport, as well as the rest of Wales.

2. Questions to the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution

The next item is questions to the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution. The first question is from Jack Sargeant. 

The Post Office Horizon Scandal

1. What assessment has the Counsel General made of the number of Welsh residents impacted by the Post Office Horizon scandal? OQ60616

14:30

Thank you for the question. Not even the Post Office can identify the number of people impacted by the Horizon scandal. Across the entire United Kingdom, even beyond, some former sub-postmasters are only now realising that they may have been the victim of one of the most widespread miscarriages of justice and failures of the legal system that the United Kingdom has ever known.

I thank the Counsel General for his answer. If the Llywydd will let me place on record an update from Neil Hudgell from Hudgell Solicitors. He's the solicitor who has supported a number of sub-postmasters in overturning their criminal convictions in the High Court in London. Presiding Officer, he says that close to 450 new requests for legal support have come forward since the ITV drama. These include 52 people with convictions and potentially hundreds who are undercompensated. As the Counsel General said in his first answer, the Post Office don’t know what the extent of this miscarriage of justice really is. We know that there are Welsh residents included in the figures I’ve just quoted from Hudgell Solicitors, and we know there are likely to be a lot more individuals and groups that have yet to come forward. Can I ask the Counsel General what conversations he’s had with ministerial colleagues in the Welsh Government about the importance of supporting Welsh residents who are victims of this deep, deep miscarriage of justice?

Can I thank you for the question and also thank you for continuing to monitor and raise this particular issue? It is, in many ways, not just about the Horizon issue; it is also about how this managed to happen within our legal system.

As the First Minister reported some time back, I actually wrote to the Lord Chancellor generally on this back in September 2021. About six months later, I received a reply from the Minister for small business, Paul Scully—that was in February 2022. I know that questions have also gone, on a number of occasions, to the Deputy Minister as well, and, indeed, to others. Can I say that this is a matter that we are all aware of? And can I say also that I raised it only last week when I was in Scotland at the second meeting of the justice inter-ministerial group, where there were reports on the situation in Scotland as well as in England from Lord Bellamy, the under-secretary for justice? That is something that is going to continue.

You've raised in the past on this the issue of the duty of candour, which I think is fundamental. There is the issue of compensation, which is fundamental. I do not understand why that cannot be dealt with by the inquiry, but it is being excluded from that. There is the issue of the revocation of the convictions, and, sadly, I think I recognise that there probably has to be legislation to revoke. It is really an incredibly difficult position to be in where Government has to legislate in respect of decisions of the courts and the justice system, and it is an intrusion that we need to be very, very wary of. I think the position that most of us have taken, and most of the law officers have taken as well, is that this is such an extraordinary and exceptional situation that it has to happen. There is also the issue of the use of private prosecutions, and we've seen other issues to do with the warrants of execution, which you've raised before.

Can I say one other thing that's really important as well? We are now becoming aware of certain Welsh citizens, and indeed people from around the UK, in respect of the system before Horizon. There was a Mr Lewis from Ebbw Vale, a former auditor within the Post Office. He pled guilty to five charges, including theft and false accounting, and had a 12-month probation order. Another individual, a Mrs Roberts from Wirral, who kept the books for her sub-postmaster husband, refused to plead guilty for something she said she hadn't done when losses of £46,000 were discovered. This is the Capture system that has emerged. And I think that it's very, very important that that is also dealt with, because this is a sort of Pandora's box that seems to go back further and raises all sorts of other issues—more modern issues in respect of artificial intelligence and the use of technology.

But can I also say that I have written to Kevin Hollinrake, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Enterprise, Markets and Small Business? I've raised the issue of the Welsh case and the Capture system. I've suggested that this is a matter that clearly links in with the issues that the inquiry is considering, and asked to ensure that the remit of that inquiry would also allow this to happen. But this is a further area that needs to be investigated.

14:35
The Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales

2. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales's recommendations on the devolution of energy policy? OQ60602

Thank you. The devolution settlement in relation to energy is indeed complex, and the conclusions and recommendations of the independent commission’s report demand thoughtful and considered attention. So, we will be considering the report in the coming weeks.

Thank you very much for your response. May I ask you specifically to outline for us the Welsh Government's plans to implement what the commission has suggested on the devolution of energy? To be clear, the commission has called for the establishment of an expert group to provide urgent advice on how the devolution settlement can be amended and to create a better connection between Governments, to facilitate the restructuring of the energy sector. According to the commission, this is vital to prepare for innovation in terms of technology, to ensure that Wales can reach its net-zero target and to facilitate the production of local energy. I also note that the commission has recommended devolving the Crown Estate, and the commission has suggested that this advisory group on energy could provide advice on options to achieve this. So, can I ask exactly when we can expect to see the establishment of this advisory group, what the timetable is, what its remit will be, and when, specifically, we can expect to see movement on the devolution of the Crown Estate?

Thank you for the question. You do raise a very important issue with regard to energy, and, indeed, legislation that has been going through the UK Parliament in respect of energy, which impacts on Wales, and of course you will have seen the legislative consent memoranda in respect of that. It is important to recognise that we've just had the commission report; it does need very careful thought and consideration. There will be a very detailed debate in the Senedd on a date in the not-too-distant future. I know that is being planned, in order to give people time to consider carefully that.

I note also that what the commission say in respect of energy, of course, is they recognise that they've only really been able to scratch the surface of it, but they make a number of important points. They say that energy generation and distribution is an area where the binary—devolved or reserved—nature does not sit easily with the practical realities of delivery, and I think that's something that we probably all agree with across all political parties. They also say that some of the current reservations seem outdated and lacking strategic rationale, such as local heating systems and energy efficiency. And I think that is something that is probably uncontroversial. They also say the role of the regulator in relation to energy is crucial, but that, in fact, we have no formal role within that. And again, I think that is particularly important.

What they do recommend is the establishment, as you say, of a review of the inter-governmental relations that exist, and also in relation to the Crown Estate, which is totally interlinked with this. And they ask for an expert group. Well, I'm sure the issue of expert advice, assistance, and so on, in the whole energy area is something that will be very, very carefully considered, and also considered by the Minister for Climate Change in how to take this forward. I'm not in a position to give you those specific answers, but those are clearly ones that will be considered by the Minister and by the Welsh Government, and will certainly feature, I think importantly, in future discussions.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

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

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, the First Minister said in his statement yesterday to the Senedd on the report of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, and I quote, that he wants to continue to:

'Work for a new and successful United Kingdom, based on a far-reaching federalism.'

He said that in his 2021 manifesto pledge. The report by the commission, of course, makes multiple references to federalism as an option for the future of Wales, and it talks openly about the challenges associated with federalism, noting that only 6 per cent of the people consulted supported that view as an option for the future. So, in light of the report, does the Welsh Government still consider that pushing for federalism within the UK is a viable option?

14:40

One of the difficulties with the terms—whether it's devolution, whether it's independence, whether it's federalism—is that it's very much open to pejorative interpretation as to what they mean. Quite often, I find that, when different terms are used, people are quite often talking about the same thing. So, we do have a difficulty in these debates with what is a common language.

I actually believe that the long-term constitutional structure is going to be best served by a form of federalist structure. You have to interpret what that might actually mean. Gordon Brown, in his report, basically sets out a number of principles. He talks about subsidiarity, that is that decision making should be taken as close to people as possible, and it is only those areas where there is common dependency that are the subject of broad cross-governmental and parliamentary structures and so on. That is a form of federalism. Subsidiarity is probably something we would all agree with, but what does it mean in terms of what that democratic structure might actually mean?

What I think is important in what the report has done is that it's set a framework for discussion in terms of what we need—which I think we do genuinely need in Wales, and, of course, in England, where devolution is becoming more of an issue—which is a discussion, really, on how that future will develop, how those relationships should develop, and also, how power should be exercised across the UK, particularly within the global environment we're in. So, I think it is a very valid basis for discussion. 

In terms of setting a silver-bullet blueprint, the commission doesn't do that, but it does set, I think, an evidential base and a framework within which discussion on reforms can take place. 

I'm grateful for the response. Of course, I can appreciate the attraction to federalism that many people in this Chamber have expressed, and that which has been expressed, of course, in the constitution commission's report. But it doesn't address the fact that it does appear to be a deeply unpopular suggestion and way forward for the future of the constitution of the United Kingdom.

Because we're talking about the constitution of the United Kingdom, as I said initially at the outset of this constitution commission, it did seem rather strange that Wales was going it alone in order to try to develop a conversation, within Wales, and across the UK, about the future of the UK. Because, of course, we had a unilateral report commissioned by the Welsh Government, rather than something commissioned by all the nations and constituent parts of the United Kingdom, which I feel would have been a much better and more appropriate way forward, particularly given that one of the criticisms in the report is the lack of joint working between the various Governments across the United Kingdom. 

So, can I ask you this? What conversations does the Welsh Government now intend to take forward with other devolved Governments in the UK, and with the UK Government, regardless of which colour of rosette the Prime Minister might wear at the next general election? Because we're never going to achieve any progress on these matters unless there is a UK-wide conversation that now takes place. So, how are you trying to bring people to the table to have that conversation?

Can I thank you? I think you raise some very important issues, and I think you raise them in a very constructive way. It is an important part of this sort of debate to ask how you actually make change. There was, I think, a very well-known economist and philosopher who said that we know what we might want to change, but the question is how do you actually make change happen. 

One of the ways forward, which I think is something that does need to happen—it had been on the agenda, it's been discussed, it's been around—is that there does need to be a UK-wide debate, a UK-wide convention. Some time back, when I was on the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, we pushed very hard and went back with evidence—through the Llywydd's Committee, and through the inter-parliamentary forum that existed—that there needs to be a UK convention. And I say that because, for example, when the 2014 Scottish independence referendum took place, one of the great difficulties was the question of what is the purpose of the UK.

It has come together historically through a whole series of reasons and historic events, but, as we are now, and as we are an entity that is outside of the European Union, the questions are, 'Well what is our purpose? What should be the structure? What should be the principles on which we are based?' And I think that is a very valid discussion that does need to happen, and I think it's a discussion that may well be recognised across political parties. When that 2014 independence referendum took place, I think there was a genuine struggle to actually say, 'Well, what is the purpose? What should the relationships be? What is it that people are going to buy into? What are the principles of equality?' We know there clearly many of them. One of them is—. The Barnett formula, for all its faults, is a redistributive mechanism. It is about redistribution of wealth and, to a certain degree, equality around the UK, the welfare state and aspects of that and tax raising, to that extent, are as well. So, those are matters that we get raised with the Interministerial Standing Committee through the inter-governmental forums that exist.

At the moment, we are in an environment where there is very little reluctance for there to be any movement, but I'm convinced that if there is a change of government in the near future, on the basis of Gordon Brown's report, that debate will increase. On the issue of England, because we talk about Wales and Scotland, and, of course, important events taking place in Northern Ireland now—very important events—it is equally important that the country that consists of 85 per cent of the population of the UK has largely been slightly extraneous from that debate. But, of course, you've seen it growing in places like Manchester, Liverpool, in terms of London, and it is very valid—how is power best exercised, how can it bring us as close as possible to people, what should be the governmental structures and inter-governmental structures, and, perhaps, coming to the very first point I made, how can we develop, actually, a common language that is not pejorative, that doesn't make all sorts of presumptions, but is based on things that we probably all agree on, and that is how we make our democracy work better and how we bring decision making closer to people. 

14:45

Well, clearly, there are discussions that need to take place as soon as possible, particularly in relation to some of the immediate recommendations in the report, especially, for example, on issues of financial flexibility for the Welsh Government, which is something that we have expressed our support for on all sides of this Chamber in the past.

Can I just turn to the constitutional commission's budget? So, obviously, undertaking this exercise has cost the taxpayer about £1.5 million to the time of the report being published. That's not an insignificant sum when you consider the opportunity cost of investing that money, perhaps, in our public services at this particular time, given the struggles that many of them are facing. But I noticed, in the budget for the forthcoming financial year, there's another £1 million that has been allocated to the constitutional commission even though it's finished its work. I just wonder why the Welsh Government is allocating a further £1 million to the commission, given that its work has finished and given that that will be from April next year to April 2025. Why is that sum in your budget?

Well, can I say that the budget for the commission, having given the commission independence and a fairly broad remit in terms of how it was to go about its work and engagement, had to be one that had provision to enable that to actually happen? Now we actually have the report, and we have the end scale of that particular budget, I think there is a very valid debate now in terms of—. What is really important in this debate is that the work that has taken place is not something that comes to an end, 'Here's the report', and so on; it is actually a living document that works in terms of a debate, and, of course, an important part of it—. One of the things that Gordon Brown's report said was that he was effectively deferring to the fact that we had this commission, but, then, when it had made its recommendation, there was an important and very constructive dialogue.

So, there may well be, and I would hope there is, certainly, in my view, a continuing engagement with elements of the commission, not in terms of the scale at which it is, but in terms of what the role will be in the development of that debate, how that debate might develop with the post-general-election government and so on. Whether all that £1 million is needed or not would be a matter first to consider as to what we think might be the way of carrying forward those recommendations and some of that work and that ongoing engagement. And I think this is really the start of a process. It provides a basis for that engagement and that particular debate. But it is past that particular milestone, so there will need to be a review in terms of what the remainder of that budget is, what of it is needed and what the precise terms and functions might be of how that is carried forward. I'm not in a position to say now, but I think that is some very important consideration that will need to take place, and I think the question you raised is a very valid one. It'll be very valid when, I think, within the weeks ahead, we have the full debate in this Chamber on that.

14:50

Thank you, Llywydd. Has the Counsel General seen the results of the survey of MSs and MPs by ITV Wales, which shows that, amongst those who responded, 76 per cent said they had felt unsafe as a result of the abuse that they have received, and 31 per cent have considered leaving public life altogether as a result. I was, this morning, at an event on abuse in politics, hosted by the Minister for Finance and Local Government, and what was clear, based on the discussion there, was that that picture is also reflected within local government in Wales. Two of the ideas that were proposed in order to respond to this terrible situation were that we gave someone the job centrally of monitoring the level of abuse that is being experienced across Wales, so we can benchmark it on an annual basis, and that we also have a central point of advice and support for elected representatives at all levels, in terms of how they can respond to abuse, given the current legal framework.

I haven't seen the survey, but it's not something, in your talking about it, that causes me any surprise, because I doubt whether there's a single Member in here, and across all parties, who has not experienced severe abuse. I've had quite a bit of it recently—individuals telling me that, on the Senedd reform, I belong in a padded cell. That is probably the milder and more moderate form of some of the abuse that has taken place and the language that is experienced.

There are different aspects to it. The first thing is you're absolutely right—I think there's an awful lot of people who would like to serve in public office, at whatever level, who've chosen not to because they do not want to expose themselves and their families to the sort of abuse that comes particularly through social media. I think social media is a major challenge. Like all things, it has considerable benefits in terms of communication and exchanges of information, but also, certainly—and we've seen this within the political environment internationally as well, not just locally—the potential for threat and intimidation. There are laws, of course, that provide for criminality in certain aspects of that, but I do agree very much with what you say—I think there is a need for considerable thought within our democratic process about how we do, I suppose, maintain certain principles in terms of online abuse. Legislation, of course, has gone through the UK Parliament, but, of course, much of it is subject to how those who own and control the social media networks actually operate. And we know that, even within that, there are clear vested interests, and I put that as diplomatically as I can.

In the elections Bill, which is coming forward in this Senedd, we've strengthened the issue of undue influence, and so on, within that. But I do agree, when we talk about our democratic health in the round, that the issue of people's ability to participate and to protect people, and also to protect the civil rights of people to participate and to speak freely within that, is absolutely vital. I think what you are raising is something I can't give you an answer to, other than I think it is a fundamentally important issue for the future that we have to tackle, we have to address and we have to engage with across all governments.

14:55

Women in politics suffer this abuse disproportionately, and, 12 years ago, Bolivia became the first country in the world to create a specific offence of abuse against women in politics, and that's been copied in four Latin American countries. We couldn't introduce that law because of the reservation around equal opportunities, but we could strengthen general provisions to prevent abuse in politics, which would then benefit women and those other groups—ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+ and others—that suffer this abuse. We could, for example, take the new offence of intimidating elected representatives and apply it not just during election periods but permanently or continuously. We could add to that offence by not making the sanction limited to disqualification from standing in elections, but actually having a criminal sanction involving fines and imprisonment. We could take the long-standing offence of making a false statement about somebody's personal conduct or character, and also extend that beyond election periods and apply it to political conduct—for instance, claiming that somebody voted one way when, actually, they didn't. That's not illegal currently, and that is something that is the source of abuse. Would the Counsel General look at all these ideas, and also look across the world—the Oireachtas in Ireland is about to produce its own report on safe participation in public life—would he look at all of these ideas, give them consideration and report back to the Senedd if he saw merit in implementing any of these ideas here in Wales?

Can I say I think the point you raise is fundamentally important? It is certainly something that goes to a trope that I've been continually mentioning, and that is democratic health. I think there is a need for an ongoing debate on our democratic health. Some of that comes with some of the legislation that we are bringing, but I am happy to look at exploring ways in which this can be developed within the Senedd and can be looked at within the Senedd—whether it is the most appropriate at a Senedd level, a Senedd committee, et cetera, that then actually seeks evidence from Ministers but other bodies, et cetera, that explores that. Maybe that would be the way in which we start that process. 

I have to say, there are real concerns I have in terms of how we might be able to do things in terms of our competence, and I think our competence restrictions in terms of the online issue and other areas all begin to emerge and make this a very difficult area. Also, this is very much a cross-governmental issue and one of the issues—. Perhaps we can look forward to see how that might be raised. I think it has been raised at some of the inter-governmental meetings in a general way, and I'll happily look to explore that and perhaps come back to you—I'll happily write to you—about where we are on some of those issues, and perhaps explore what might be a way forward in terms of that. One of my portfolio responsibilities, obviously, is the constitution. I think that embraces the issue of democratic health within the confines of our devolved settlement, so I'll happily be prepared to look at that. 

The Hillsborough Law Now Campaign

3. What discussions has the Counsel General had with the UK Government regarding the Hillsborough Law Now campaign? OQ60615

Again, can I thank you for raising this? I have raised the objectives of the Hillsborough Law Now campaign with the UK Government on many occasions, most recently at last week’s Inter-ministerial Group for Justice in the context of the case for a statutory duty of candour.

I thank the Counsel General for his answer and also for his long-standing commitment to fighting for justice for ordinary working people, and I again thank him for supporting the premise of a Hillsborough law now and the campaign to achieve that. As you say, Counsel General, a Hillsborough law would place a new legal duty of candour on public authorities and officials to tell the truth and to proactively co-operate with official investigations and inquiries. With that in mind, can I ask the Counsel General what assessment he has made of how a Hillsborough law will not only end the familiar pattern of cover-ups and concealment, but will also save public money in doing so?

Can I just thank you again for keeping this issue on the radar, because it's a very important one? It's an issue that features also in the UK Government's Victims and Prisoners Bill, and, of course, one of the ways that that Bill is seeking to address some of the Hillsborough issues is by the creation of independent advocates. There are issues around that that we have discussed at inter-ministerial level that caused concerns, particularly in terms of the devolution settlement. There are conversations that are ongoing with regard to that Bill and legislative consent. I think even what is contained within that does not actually deal with the Hillsborough law and the issues that are raised there. I think I said when this was raised before that one of the most straightforward ways of actually resolving this is actually by making legal aid available to victims.

Just to say, whilst I’m very pleased to see today the result of the Law Society’s judicial review of the UK Government in respect of legal aid, I’m just going to mention this part of the judgment, because although it relates to the rates of legal aid and the impact that has, this, I think, is pretty fundamental in terms of what is happening with our justice system, which is creaking and is basically beginning to crack and come into disrepute:

'The court observed that it had been presented with an "impressive, compelling body of evidence" which showed "the system is slowly coming apart at the seams". "Unless there are significant injections of funding in the relatively near future, any prediction along the lines that the system will arrive in due course at the point of collapse is not overly pessimistic." '

That is a pretty damning statement coming from a senior court. They went on to say that 1,400 duty solicitors have left since 2017, and

'We’re already seeing that there simply aren’t enough solicitors to represent suspects in police stations'..."The imbalance between the defence and the prosecution will continue to grow and public trust in the criminal justice system will continue to fail." '

That relates back to the earlier question of Horizon, but it also equally relates to the Hillsborough issue and the issue that I’ve raised a number of times, and that is about access to justice.

15:00

I have agreed that questions 4, 5 and 6 should be grouped. To ask question 4, therefore, John Griffiths.

Devolution of Policing

4. What is the Welsh Government’s current position on the devolution of policing to Wales? OQ60614

5. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Welsh Government on the devolution of policing and justice? OQ60593

6. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to ensure the devolution of justice and policing? OQ60588

Thank you for the question. As the Llywydd has outlined, questions 4, 5 and 6 are being grouped.

The Welsh Government’s position is clear. We continue to support the devolution of policing and justice to Wales, as supported recently by the constitutional commission. We will shortly be publishing our 'Delivering Justice for Wales' progress report with further details. 

Paul Davies took the Chair.

Counsel General, we do not have a criminal justice system fit for purpose in England and Wales, and I think the case is very well made for devolution, and I know that you would agree with that. At the moment, people are unnecessarily criminalised. We have overcrowded prisons where rehabilitation is not possible to the extent that it should take place. This then leads to more reoffending than would otherwise happen. We know lots of people there have mental health issues, alcohol and drug addiction, poor literacy and numeracy skills and generally low skills. It’s regressive and it’s counter-productive, and we badly need a more enlightened approach along the lines of social justice and improving quality of life for our communities that Welsh Government is committed to.

The Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales has made the appropriate recommendation, so I just wonder what you could tell us in terms of your assessment of the preparedness in Wales for that devolution, and what are the most immediate next steps that need to take place?

I think one of the difficulties there has been when we talk about the devolution of policing is that we've got to understand the interrelationship between policing, how policing has changed over the years, its interaction with youth offending, with social communities, with socioeconomic issues, and so on. That development has actually been really, really important, and to devolve youth justice and to devolve probation also leads you to say there is an illogic in not then also devolving policing. Policing is devolved, of course, in Northern Ireland, as it is in Scotland. There are devolutions of policing in Manchester and again in London. So, I've never understood why it is that the logic of all the devolved functions we have aren't in keeping, or considered to be in keeping with the devolution of policing.

We, of course, do have in Wales four police and crime commissioners. They are a reserved matter. But when the four elected police and crime commissioners all come together and say that policing needs to be devolved, and recognise the importance of the interrelations and work that is going on with devolved functions, I think it's important that people sit up and listen to that very carefully, if you really want to see policing and the justice work more consistently and more effectively.

Can I just say that the step we have taken forward on this—? I was in Scotland for three days looking at the tribunal system, but also at the youth justice system, and there are some very interesting developments there, which I'll perhaps talk about on another occasion. But the relationship there with policing, and the understanding of how policing works, has led us, really, to the joint statement the Minister for Social Justice referred to a while back. That is in respect of the research that's being carried out, which we have commissioned with the retired Chief Constable Carl Foulkes, who's leading a review of policing, the opportunities from the devolution of policing, the practicalities of it. Because I think the onus is on us now to actually make the very, very clear case by showing, 'This is what would be different, this is what would be better.' Of course, there are inter-governmental issues across the UK in terms of specialist aspects of policing—none of those should change—but I think there is a very, very strong case there. We are working to actually present that, and there will be further debate on this when the conclusions of the research work that's being carried out are available and we can debate them in the Senedd. 

15:05

John Griffiths explained eloquently why we need to see the devolution of justice and policing just now. Ten days ago, on 21 January, the Counsel General posted a message on X saying:

'Those opposed to the devolution of justice have still not put forward any evidence based argument claiming merely "isnʼt it great, aren't we wonderful, the world thinks we are fantastic!» Delusional!'

End quote. And I agree completely with the Counsel General in his remarks. The next day, the most senior Labour MP in Wales, Jo Stevens, went on the BBC and said that an incoming Labour Government will not be looking at devolution of policing and justice. So, does the Counsel General believe that Keir Starmer's Labour Party is deluded? 

Well, can I say, firstly, that the social media clip you refer to was very much in response to a clip that came from the Rt Hon Robert Buckland, former Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Justice? The reason I did that was because the tone of what was being said was, 'Look at our justice system. We are so respected throughout the world. We are almost the cornerstone of justice et cetera. Who would really want to undermine that and then to devolve justice, because everything is as it is?' And my immediate response to that is, 'No, it isn't.' Our justice system is becoming a laughing stock around the world. Our legal aid system is far worse than in many other countries of the world. We are exposed to an onslaught of miscarriages of justice: senior individual cases, to the issues that we've discussed, with warrants of execution, to the issues we've had with the Horizon scandal, which goes on and on. We have a justice system with backlogs, and the legal aid system means that the majority of the population never have access to the justice system. We now have a Government that is passing unlawful legislation and that is talking about legislating to break international conventions. So, that's what I thought was actually delusional. Anyone who still believes that old mantra we had 20, 30 years ago of the mother of parliaments and the justice system we've given to the world—we have parts of the world that have now more effective justice systems than we have.

Can I say, in terms of policing—? Well, look, the first thing is that the Gordon Brown report was very clear that the starting point in terms of change was youth justice and probation. The issue of policing is one that we will continue to explore. We will continue to put evidence together. We will continue to engage for changes that I believe are inevitable. These are not things that will happen overnight, but I'm convinced that we will get there and that we will actually achieve the devolution of those areas—not because it's a battleground between whether Westminster controls it or whether we do, it's because it's better for the people of Wales. It's better for our communities, it's a better way. If I thought it would actually not work and it would be worse, then I'd say, 'No, leave it alone.' But I don't believe that, and the more I get involved in the youth justice system and in the justice aspects and in sentencing and so on, the more I actually realise that, the way that these are all integrated, it makes no sense, when you have so many devolved functions that really make up a big chunk of the justice system, to keep them separate.

15:10

I agree with everything you've said. And, indeed, we are an anomaly in the world because we are, surely, the only nation that has our own legislature, that makes legislation, but doesn't have a system to administer its own justice system and its own legislation. We've had so many reports now that have suggested that policing should be devolved along with justice. What urgent discussions have you either had with the Westminster Government or are in your diary since the publication of the report of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, and when do you think it would be reasonable to expect Wales to get these crucial powers?

And finally, do you agree with me that this isn't just an issue for constitutional anoraks when we talk about the devolution of justice and the administration of justice? Those powers could improve the life standards of so many people and ensure greater fairness in our nation.

Thank you for your question. Of course, I understand that when you head towards a general election, when you start looking at the major issues, you want to identify what are the most immediately important issues that are there. And, of course, there are priority, broad umbrella issues and so on. I do not think that it is the case that justice is something that is not vital. I think it is of vital importance. And it's of vital importance when we look at our current justice system, which in the last 14 years—. We have increased our prison population from 45,000 to 90,000 and we're now looking to invest another £400 million to put yet more people in prison. You ask where is the limit? If that isn't an indication that the justice system is failing and that something is massively wrong, then we really need to go back to basics to look at the facts. 

We start raising these things in the Inter-ministerial Group for Justice and, of course, they will come about through other discussions. I will be chairing the Interministerial Standing Committee later in February. This is one of the issues that I will be reporting on there. It is a discussion that needs to take place, for all the reasons we had in that very long contribution I made earlier on, which I could see the Llywydd glaring at me over. [Laughter.]

The Principle of Legislative Consent

7. What consideration has the Welsh Government given to the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales’s finding on the principle of legislative consent? OQ60627

The principle of legislative consent lies at the heart of the devolution settlements and the Welsh Government has long argued that the Sewel convention is in need of reform. We are considering the commission’s thoughtful recommendations on this.

The commission's report, of course, stresses the pressing need to reform the Sewel convention and put it on a statutory footing, so that Westminster is no longer able to ride roughshod over our devolution settlement and legislate in devolved areas against the express will of this Senedd. I'd ask, please, for a little more clarity on how the Welsh Government is pursuing implementation of this recommendation and for the Counsel General to outline a road map to delivering this with urgency. There is, of course, a further principle of consent dealt with in the report and here I'm quoting directly from it:

'The starting point for any consideration of constitutional options should be the principle that the UK is a voluntary union of nations.... Therefore, the people of Wales should have the right to determine the constitutional future of their nation.'

Does the Counsel General therefore agree with me that this means that the right to decide on the constitutional future of Wales—that is the right to hold a referendum on Wales's constitutional status—should be devolved to Wales, and if so, will he outline what steps he will take to secure this?

Well, can I say, just taking that last point first, I think that any party that obtains a mandate for those reforms and those changes is entitled to see them put to the people? That has always been the case, in terms of my opinion. I think it's also the position that the First Minister has presented, and that must be right, in terms of our democratic system. 

Turning to Sewel, of course, Sewel I've always described as being almost like the engine oil in a car engine—all of the different components that make up the four nations, the oil that enables them all to work together. Of course, the breach of Sewel begins to cause that process to seize, and that's where we are heading towards at the moment, with all the breaches of Sewel that have taken place.

I have to say that I'm very impressed with the contribution that Gordon Brown made in his report. I'm very pleased at the references to it within the independent commission's report, which recognises, I think, things that we have been saying consistently all along—and not just us, actually: inter-parliamentary forums of all political parties have actually been saying the same thing.

Can I also say that I was very pleased, in that same interview that you referred to, with what Jo Stevens said about Sewel, in terms of when she talked about the strengthening of devolution? She said, that, 'Well, it means that, for example, the Sewel convention, which means that what we have seen from Conservative Governments, where they ride roughshod over the devolution settlement—the internal markets Act—legislating on things that are the responsibility of the Welsh Government and the Senedd, you won't see that from the UK Labour Government. You'll see better inter-governmental relations. You'll see professional working, collaboration, trust and respect—and respecting not just the situation now, but in the future.'

Now, I think that that is a very important statement. I think that it leads on to the fact that we need to look at how we consolidate Sewel, possibly in line with the recommendations from the Gordon Brown report, but in other ways. That is its status. Now, of course, we used to have the Ponsonby convention on treaties. I'm sorry to sound like a bit of a legal nerd now. But, of course, that was converted into legislation to ensure that Parliament had an opportunity to actually scrutinise, and I think that we do need to head in the longer term into something that puts it on a solid and justiciable constitutional basis. 

15:15
The Mental Health Act 1983

8. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Welsh Government on the impact of the Mental Health Act 1983 on Welsh patients using services in other UK nations? OQ60624

Well, thank you very much for the question. The Mental Health Act 1983 is the key legislation relating to mental health care and treatment. High-quality mental health services for all in Wales is a priority. We aim to provide care close to home wherever possible and to reduce the need for in-patient care through continued investment and community services.

Thank you for that response, Counsel General. It has been brought to my attention that it is fairly common practice for patients, once sectioned under the Mental Health Act, to be transferred to a facility anywhere in the United Kingdom for clinical mental health treatment. This means that a patient from Anglesey, for example, could be transferred to a treatment facility in Cornwall, with no right to request a transfer somewhere closer to home.

As far as I'm aware, there is more leeway with regards to Scotland after amendments to the Mental Health Act in 2007, but Wales and England are treated almost as a single entity. This can, of course, cause further stress and anguish amongst patients who have been sectioned and transferred to England, potentially hundreds of miles away from friends and family. Some patients' families may not have the means or facility to travel these distances to see their loved ones, and the anguish caused by being in an alien environment so far away from family will not help attempts to remedy their mental illness.

A constituent of mine finds themselves in this exact predicament, where they are being housed in a treatment facility in England, and they wish to be repatriated to Wales. Can the Counsel General please outline what advice you have given or could give to the health Minister regarding how much discretion Welsh Ministers have under the Mental Health Act when taking into consideration the preferences of patients who have been sectioned, namely their preference to be placed into a treatment facility that is a reasonable distance from their home and in Wales? 

Can I thank you for that supplementary question? Can I thank you also for the dedication and attention you've given to this issue of mental health? Of course, I'm aware that you have the ballot to introduce a Senedd Bill relating to mental health. You've been given leave to introduce that. So, it's very much welcome and we recognise that commitment that you've given in that.

Can I say that most of the points you raised probably do need to be addressed to the appropriate Minister? But what I can say is that our aim, as Welsh Government, is to ensure that patients receive care as close to home as possible and to reduce the need for in-patient care through continued investment in community mental health services. In the last two years, Welsh Government has allocated £26.5 million to health boards through service improvements and to improve the availability of mental health service provisions. There's also been the establishment of the '111 press 2' service in terms of urgent mental health support and so on. The issues you raised are clearly important. I will ensure that the points you raised are passed over to the appropriate Minister on that, because I think it's appropriate that she responds specifically to that.

15:20
3. Questions to the Senedd Commission

We'll move now to item 3, questions to the Senedd Commission. These questions are to be answered by the Llywydd, and the first question is from James Evans.

The Role of the Senedd

1. What steps does the Commission take to ensure the public are educated about the role of the Senedd? OQ60606

Our communications and engagement strategy sets objectives to raise awareness and increase understanding of the role of the Senedd. Last year, we engaged with 22,000 young people in education sessions and Welsh Youth Parliament events. We also welcomed over 150,000 visitors to the Senedd and engaged with over 6,000 people during our summer shows programme and other events. A major part of our social media strategy involves explaining our work to the public too.

Diolch, Llywydd. One thing that does strike me every time I go out canvassing is, actually, how, sometimes, ill-informed the electorate are about what the Senedd actually does. It's amazing the number of doors I actually knock on that still think the health service is a reserved matter back in Westminster. But it doesn't help when you've got political parties—. I was at a recent by-election in my constituency where they had an election candidate for the Liberal Democrats going around telling everybody in the council how he was going to fix the health service and how he was going to improve the economy of Wales. These things aren't devolved to local councils; I'm talking about national issues. So, I'd like to know what work do the Commission do to actually engage with political parties when they are spreading falsehoods on the doorstep, because that does actually affect what our electorate do understand about the role of what we do here as Members of the Senedd, standing up for our constituents on matters that affect Wales.

I think you raise a really interesting and challenging point there, requiring a great deal of self-discipline on behalf of all political parties and all politicians. How many MPs write to the Minister for Economy here on matters that are devolved to the Minister for Economy or the Minister for health? And equally, how many Senedd Members write to, possibly, a Secretary of State, or even their local council to fix a pothole in a street in Llanrwst, or anywhere? So, yes, I agree that we all need to be upfront, honest and clear with the electorate on who has responsibility for what, and political parties most definitely have a role to play in that. But I suspect that, on this one, more than anything, it starts at our very own doorsteps, at ourselves being really clear with our constituents that, on matters relating to the benefits system, they need to talk to their MP and that, on matters relating to the pothole, they need to speak to their local councillor.

Schools in the Vale of Clwyd

2. What steps is the Commission taking to encourage schools in Vale of Clwyd to visit the Senedd? OQ60626

Educational visits to the Senedd are available to all school and college groups across Wales. Bookings for the following academic year are made available in June and allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. Our travel subsidy provides financial support to those taking part in educational visits who travel from outside a 10-mile radius of the Senedd. We're looking forward to welcoming Ysgol Tremeirchion, Esgob Morgan Primary School and Denbigh High School over the coming months to the Senedd—three schools from your constituency.

Thank you for that response, Llywydd.

I welcome the Senedd Commission's engagement with schools across Wales to speak to Members and learn about the work of the Senedd and to learn, indeed, about devolution in Wales. I'm pleased that pupils from Ysgol Gynradd Pant Pastynog Primary School and Ysgol Tremeirchion from my constituency have today visited the Senedd, which, I'm sure, has been a memorable experience for the children, although, sadly, I wasn't able to meet them, as I'm in the Chamber most of the afternoon. There is a good deal of engagement between schools and Senedd Members virtually, but this, of course, doesn't compare to the real thing. It's much more engaging for school pupils to visit the Senedd in person, be given a tour of the building, watch First Minister's questions, take part in sessions that are put on for school pupils. All of this is a positive thing for the future of devolution, for children to learn and become engaged in Welsh democracy.

In my time here in the Senedd, however, there haven't been many school visits from my constituency. I have heard from schools who have said they have found arranging visits to the UK Parliament an easier process, and the opportunity to do so is better advertised. Of course, I would like pupils in the Vale of Clwyd to be as engaged in Welsh politics as much as UK politics more broadly, and their familiarity with the institution is essential for that. A visit to the Palace of Westminster is bound to leave more of a lasting impression on schoolchildren than a Zoom call with their Senedd Member. I would like to ask, then, Llywydd, what is the Commission doing to ensure that schools are aware of the opportunities available, such as the travel subsidy, that in-person Senedd visits are promoted to schools and the importance of pupils' education about Welsh democratic institutions is stressed. Thanks.

15:25

Well, in my time, when schoolchildren from my constituency have visited here, they have been amazed to see such a modern, fantastic building that they are represented within in Wales, and I think that there's a responsibility both on the Commission, yes, to make sure that the ability to visit the Senedd is known to all schools in Wales, and we make every effort to ensure that, but I'd suggest also that you, as a local Member in your constituency, make sure that your schools are fully involved and engaged and are able to visit here as well. They are as welcome and, hopefully, as interested in their Senedd as any other place in Wales.

4. Topical Questions

We'll move on now to item 4, which is the topical questions. The first question is to be answered by the Minister for Economy, and is to be asked by Joyce Watson. Joyce Watson.

Gilestone Farm

1. Will the Minister provide an update on developments regarding Gilestone Farm following the Written Statement issued on 29 January 2024? TQ969

Since the written statement of 29 January 2024, my officials have met with Talybont-on-Usk Community Council to discuss the findings of the osprey conservation report. The community council are supportive of engaging on future plans for the site, which we will ensure continue to align with the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.

I thank you for that answer, Minister. I suppose I should start by declaring my registered interest as a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, because I'm delighted about the ospreys. As a regular visitor of the Dyfi osprey project, I've watched it grow into a world-leading wildlife business, attracting huge numbers of visitors and international interest, so there are economic opportunities here that are worth exploring. The site itself remains a valuable asset, and I'd welcome an update on the next steps that you plan to pursue, particularly in terms of helping young people to build careers locally. Of course, Green Man remains the standout success, a great advert for Wales's cultural offer, and it should be championed by all MSs.

But, on the subject of registering interests, and following up a point I made here last year, I note that the leader of the Welsh Conservative group has now tabled 90 written questions on this matter, far more than he's tabled on issues like steel, or issues like manufacturing. Some of those questions included reference to a declared interest, but many didn't. He also declared an interest when submitting questions, while failing to do the same when raising the matter verbally over the same time period. So, I hope that the Member can clarify his interest and why he failed to declare it when challenging the First Minister on this issue in the Chamber. Do you agree with me, Minister, that, given the public interest and the debate around Gilestone Farm, it's vital that there is transparency on all these matters?

Thank you for the question. Ninety written questions is an extraordinary amount to devote to a single topic. I think it is important that all Members are clear about where they have an interest and, if they haven't done so, that they declare it promptly. It's a matter, of course, for the chair and the authorities responsible for the Senedd procedures, and I don't want to draw myself into acting as if I'm the person making that determination, but members of the public will have their own view, I'm sure, about the matter the Member has raised.

I think transparency is important and transparency is what we're trying to do around Gilestone Farm. And I'm really pleased you mentioned Green Man, and I hope that Members across this Chamber do take up the point that Joyce Watson made. Green Man is a tremendous advert for Wales. It's a highly successful brand. It sells out within hours. And I still want to see businesses like that succeed in mid Wales, to provide economic opportunities and an economic future for young people within Powys and mid Wales, and we will carry on working with them.

It's great of you to remind us, of course, that you're a member of the RSPB, and this is the first time for more than 200 years that the ospreys have nested this far south in Wales. When we became aware of the matter at the end of summer 2023, we immediately took steps to try and commission a report and that leads us to where we are now. But I'm sure that, whilst the leader of the opposition isn't here, he will have heard the points you will have made and will want to take his own steps to deal with the matter.

15:30

Minister, I'd like to thank you for your statement that you made the other day, but I hate to say that there's a bit of, 'I told you so', about all of this. A lot of people in my community are very angry about the situation that we actually find ourselves in. 

The basic due diligence of Welsh Government has to be questioned over this purchase. A basic desktop exercise on Gilestone Farm would have told Welsh Government officials all they needed to know. I don't lay all the blame at your door, Minister, because you are advised on what you have to do. Yes, you make the ultimate decision, but a basic search of that farm would have told you that there were issues with it from the start.

The community raised concerns from the start about biodiversity and species on the site. They were ignored. So, what I would like to know from you, Minister, is: how are we going to be in a situation where public money—£4.25 million of public money—is not going to be wasted again? I've talked to land agents locally who said that the site is worth considerably less now than what the Welsh Government paid for it, so I'd be interested to know your views on that and what you think the site is actually worth now.

You mentioned in your statement as well that you're going to be engaging with partners about the future of the site. I wonder if you can explain to us today who those partners are and what the Welsh Government intend to do with it, because I would like to know, as a local Member. And if you could keep me fully involved in this process going forward, I think it would help with the communication with the local community, it would help with the communication with me, and we can actually find a use for this farm other than what you wanted to use it for. 

And I do want to share these points: the Green Man festival is a great asset for Wales; it is a great asset for Wales and it brings a lot of revenue into my constituency, but I would strongly advise the Welsh Government that, before you put your hand in your pocket again to look to secure a long-term site for its future, you should do some basic due diligence, like I mentioned earlier, so that you don't go wasting any more taxpayers' money.

There are several points in response. The first is that public money hasn't been wasted. We acquired an asset at slightly under market value. We have a commercial tenancy—a commercial farm business tenancy on the site. So, the site is in use. And, indeed, we are looking at the longer term future for Green Man, which, as I say, is a fantastic cultural and economic asset for mid Wales. We need more businesses like Green Man, not fewer. And I think it is right that the mission of this Government, and indeed the mid Wales growth deal, is to create more economic opportunities by supporting businesses like Green Man to grow.

I take on board the point the Member raised about anger, and that's been one of my real concerns about the whole progress of this issue. Much of that anger has turned to abuse in a generally disgraceful way, and the Member himself has talked about abuse in politics in this Chamber. Some of that anger has enabled abuse with very little to hold it back, apart from members on the community council and some people within this Chamber trying to be on the right side of a robust, but decent debate. It has caused some people to take a pause from their life in public service. And I think the Member should reflect on how he looks to communicate with his own constituents and the way in which he stays on the right side of this. I have seen correspondence from the Member's constituents claiming that I have made statements that I have not, which have come from him. And I've had a conversation with him outside this Chamber. His conduct is a matter for him, but he should understand that I will not forget the way he has conducted himself, and I hope for better from him in the future. [Interruption.]

And when it comes to the suitability of the site, of course, the ospreys were not there in August. There was no issue about a lack of due diligence around the site. People are entitled to disagree, as of course they are, but there was no sight of the ospreys. As I say, it's the first time in more than 200 years that they have nested this far south—that in itself is a success story. And actually, that in itself also is part of the issue about the ospreys being seen as an asset. [Interruption.] The osprey conservation society themselves think that the nesting of the ospreys could increase the value of the land—[Interruption.]

15:35

I want to hear what the Minister has to say on this. Minister.

Thank you. With the potential for eco-tourism and conservation being a potential advantage, in addition to the farm business tenancy. So, we will carry on working with Talybont-on-Usk Community Council, with Powys County Council, who are wholly supportive of the objects of Green Man and want to see them carry on within Powys and expand within Powys. And I will deal with all Members, including the constituency Member, in a manner that is full of respect, and yet at the same time not being afraid to be robust where there is disagreement or conduct that I do not think should be allowed to pass without comment.

Can I just put on the record that I also welcome the historic discovery of the ospreys, which is something that is exciting and something to be welcomed? However, there's no hiding the fact that significant questions continue to be asked about the purchase of Gilestone Farm by Welsh Government. And long before any ospreys landed, this farm was mired in controversy.

To say it had a troubled history is an understatement. Indeed, as James Evans has already alluded to, any simple Google search on this farm would have shown that, in the last 15 years before its purchase by Welsh Government, it had been the subject of major planning rows, judicial reviews, appeal court action, planning inquiries, even leading to national park resignations, and the previous owners forced to leave the farm. Arguably, few farms in Wales have been the subject of such arduous and contentious local and legal disputes. Were I to buy a farm in rural Wales, given the chequered history of this farm, that would have rung alarm bells in my mind.

So, Minister, I just wanted to ask you one question, in two parts. Given the controversial nature of the history of this farm, what level of due diligence did you carry out before sanctioning the £4.25 million of public money? And was this based on a rigorous business case?

So, we had an outline business case about the proposals from Green Man. It's in line with the objectives of the mid Wales growth deal. I looked at the opportunities at the end of that year, with the ability to use capital and whether it could further secure the Green Man business and its expansion. Audit Wales have been through this, and there's been no criticism of the propriety of the asset, or indeed about the fact that the Welsh Government had the powers to acquire the property, or indeed when we took on more professional independent advice to guide the purchase process, or indeed the value that went into it.

I'm very keen that we carry on supporting businesses, and that will require the Government to intervene in the market, and it will require the Government to take risk at various points in time. Otherwise, we have a future for mid Wales that I do not think any of us would want to sign up to. We need to use the assets that mid Wales has in a way that is genuinely sustainable, for our environment and for communities, which need work and an opportunity to access work, which is why we'll carry on working with businesses like Green Man for exactly that future.

I thank the Minister. We'll move on now to the next topical question, which is to be answered by the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution, and is to be asked by Alun Davies. Alun Davies.

The Agreement to Restore Devolved Government in Northern Ireland

2. Will the Counsel General make a statement on the implications for Wales of the agreement to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland? TQ974

Thank you for the question. Can I say that I'm sure we all welcome any restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland, if all parties agree? But the UK Government has only just provided the details of the agreement. We will need to ensure that the financial, operational and constitutional implications for Wales are properly considered and addressed by the UK Government.

15:40

I think we will all, in all parts of the Chamber, welcome this week's agreement to restore devolved Government in Northern Ireland. I suspect that many of us will appreciate that the people of Northern Ireland have suffered enough as a consequence of the DUP campaigning against the consequences of a Brexit they themselves had argued for. 

I don't expect that the Counsel General has had the opportunity to fully digest the command paper that was published about two hours ago, but in that paper, 'Safeguarding the Union', the UK Government outlines all the different provisions that have now been agreed with the DUP for the restoration of devolved Government. We all knew that Brexit would undermine the integrity and the union of the United Kingdom, and we recognised and welcomed the Windsor agreement, which was an important step in the United Kingdom Government recognising how it had misled the people of Northern Ireland, and had acted with bad faith towards our colleagues in the EU. And the Windsor agreement has enabled the UK Government to move away from the crisis that we've been in for the last number of years.

But there will be some significant consequences for Wales as a consequence of this agreement. We have already heard whispers of the financial arrangements that are being put in place for the new Northern Irish Government. We also know that the United Kingdom Government unilaterally changed the principles of funding under which they take decisions to fund the different parts of the United Kingdom. It was, prior to this change, essential for the United Kingdom Government to publicise and provide transparent rationale for the funding of all devolved administrations. They have recently changed that to enable themselves to make payments in addition to the Barnett formula to individual parts of the United Kingdom. We need to understand what the new needs-based formula is for Northern Ireland, and how it will affect the ongoing funding of Northern Ireland, because there are many of us here who have been arguing for a needs-based formula for the funding of Welsh public services as well. And it is not right that the Welsh public be short-changed again by a United Kingdom Government that doesn't give a damn about the people of this country.

We also need to understand how the divergence, or non-divergence from the EU, in goods and the single market provisions, will have an impact on trade within the Great Britain market, because there will be consequences if there is no divergence from EU rules for Northern Ireland, if we want to ensure streamlined trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, for rules and regulations in Great Britain. We also need to understand the operation of common frameworks from now on, because we have agreed a series of common frameworks with the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Government. That will also need to be understood. 

I don't want to try the patience of the acting Chair any further, so I would ask the Welsh Government, in answering this question, if they could undertake to make a statement, or hold a debate in Government time, when appropriate, so that we can all have an informed discussion and debate and understanding of the consequences for Wales of this agreement. 

You're right. It is very disappointing that on something that clearly does have significant constitutional consequences for Wales there has been no engagement with us on that. We clearly have very specific interests in the matters that are being discussed. I listened to the debate on this on the radio this morning, and, of course, the devil is in the detail, and, of course, no-one knew what the detail was actually going to be.

But, clearly, there are significant issues in respect of the internal market. Can I say that, as the Minister for Economy's here, I have no doubt that he'll be paying very close attention to this? He will, no doubt, want to look at the implications that has, the implication it has for ports, the implications it has for the economy and internal market and so on.

But, in terms of what I can say on the constitutional situation, well, of course, the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 is something that undermines the common frameworks and the arrangements that are in place. It is clearly very important constitutionally—certainly, for inter-governmental relations—that there may well be elected representatives again in Northern Ireland that are participating in that inter-governmental structure. I notice, also, that one of the proposals is the creation of a UK east-west council, but I see it's described in terms of Northern Ireland and Great Britain. I wonder where the Welsh voice will be in that, because, clearly, that would be a matter that is of some considerable importance to us.

I think there are clearly going to be financial issues that are important. The Barnett formula is part of our constitutional make-up. I'm very pleased to see the talk about the establishment of a needs-based formula. How long have we been arguing for a needs-based formula for Wales? So, all I should really say, I think, at this stage, on those points that you have specifically raised, is that it is of important consequence to Wales, it is important for the constitutional relationship, the economic relationship. The devil will be in the detail and there will be a need to look very, very carefully at all the issues that you have quite rightly raised today. 

15:45

I think it is important that this question has been tabled today. But, I have to say, I'm disappointed by the tone of both the Counsel General and, indeed, the Member for Blaenau Gwent in referring to it. This is a good day; it's a good day for devolution, particularly for people in Northern Ireland, who have been crying out for the restoration of the devolved Government and, indeed, Stormont. I think we need to take our hats off, frankly, to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson for coming up with an agreement, against the will of many people in his own party and in the unionist community, and taking that brave and courageous decision in order to get this deal done. And, of course, we should pay tribute as well to Rishi Sunak for the work that he has personally invested in getting this deal arranged. We know that there was a huge leap forward with the Windsor framework. We know that the EU backs this deal as well.

I've taken a look at the command paper. Like you, Minister, I haven't had time to digest it in detail, but it is very clear that, within these new arrangements, Wales will have a voice. You mentioned, Counsel General, the east-west council. It talks about that being made up of representatives from all of the constituent parts and Governments of the UK. That is right and proper, and I hope that Wales will play its full part. The other important aspect of its work will be Intertrade UK, the new body that will be set up in order to protect our UK internal market. And we mustn't forget that there were never any complaints in this Chamber about the EU single market and us having to apply certain rules to our goods and services in order that they could get into the EU single market. So, I don't see why there's such a huge anti-internal market debate going on in here today. I appreciate that there will be implications for our ports, I appreciate there will be implications for trade, and that's why it is important that an east-west council is established with a Welsh voice in it, and that the Intertrade UK body also has key Welsh businesses participating in it.

There's one thing that it doesn't mention in the command paper, and I do think that this is a deficiency in it, which I hope the Counsel General would be able to take up with the UK Government. I think there's a need for an east-west assembly to hold that east-west council to account. In the same way that we have this apparatus with the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which does the work of holding the British-Irish Council to account, we need a similar organisation and structure to do that work as well. So, can I ask you, Counsel General, what will you do to make sure that that is a feature of the new working arrangements, so that we can really support the work that has been done to bring this new development to the table today, which, as I say, is good news, especially for Northern Ireland, but also for the union of the United Kingdom?

Thank you for those comments. I'm sorry if it came over as though I was being a bit dour on it. I think it's always difficult when a very important step takes place that clearly has implications and there hasn't been that engagement, and some engagement that there clearly could have been. But you're right; it is a very good day.

I remember visiting Northern Ireland on a number of occasions in the 1970s, and, again, more recently. The transition and the importance of getting those democratic institutions back in place is important. It's important to the whole of the UK; it’s important to all the different peoples and nations of the UK. We notice the absence of being able to participate in the inter-governmental relations that we have, and, indeed, the conclusion to some of the issues with regard to the common frameworks.

You raised the point, exactly right, in terms of a Welsh voice, and of course, we have to be clear what a Welsh voice must be—a Welsh voice that is clearly related to those areas that are devolved, so it must have a proper respectful constitutional structure to that. But these are all matters that clearly need to be considered very, very carefully. I’ve started looking at the paper that came through literally two hours ago. It certainly has a lot of framework objectives within it, so, as I say, it is going to be in the precise details of that.

I do look forward very much, for example, to the next Inter-Ministerial Group for Justice that we will have Northern Ireland. We have, of course, the Northern Ireland legal representatives there, but they can only participate in actually indicating facts and consequences, not able in terms of the policies, the reform policies, and common arrangements and so on.

You raise an interesting point in terms of the issue of an east-west assembly, and I’m sure those are issues the Minister for Economy, and I’m sure other Ministers, will be looking into very closely and considering all the issues that are being raised today.

15:50

I’m grateful to the Member for Blaenau Gwent for tabling this topical question today, as we did; it’s important that we have an opportunity to discuss this. Can I start by saying that I also welcome on behalf of Plaid Cymru the news that the Democratic Unionist Party did agree to a deal to restore power sharing in Northern Ireland? I would say, though, that its spurning of dual access to both the EU and UK markets has been a little hard to stomach over recent months, given that that’s the kind of position that we would give our right arm for here in Wales.

I do, nonetheless, though, of course, look forward to seeing the appointment of a new Northern Ireland Executive in due course, and I should add also that the imminent appointment of a Sinn Féin First Minister does mark an era-defining shift in the politics of these islands. The restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland is a moment to be celebrated, and I wish our friend Michelle O’Neill all the very best in her role.

But the terms of the deal by which the restoration has been secured do raise questions for us in Wales, and while we will need to scrutinise the deal further, there are some immediate questions that I do wish to put to the Minister this afternoon. Do we have any steer at this point in time on what the terms of the deal might actually mean in practice for the operation of the Windsor framework, and what will be the implications on key trade regulations and goods checks, for which the Welsh Government, of course, has responsibility?

The Minister has made it clear that he agrees with me that, given the possible impact on areas of devolved competence, the Welsh Government should really have had greater inputs around negotiating this deal, around engagement with the deal. I wonder if there are ideas on how we move forward from this to make sure that lessons are learnt from that.

And finally, does the Minister agree that the £3 billion financial package that underpins the deal clearly appears to offer Northern Ireland a more preferential funding settlement than we have here in Wales? When will we know what consequentials this package will have for Wales, and what is the Welsh Government doing in practical terms to try to secure that?

Thank you for those points. I suppose the reality is that we will know more about those financial consequences when we know more about the detail. I know there is already some work that has been going on. It’s very clear that some of that sum that is made up relates to past pay deals, past consequentials that have already been received around the UK, but were unable to be implemented within Northern Ireland. So, it’s not clear whether all that's really happening is the backlog of all those is being accumulated together in order to make up for the past couple of years.

On the internal market Act, of course, we want to know how that works. In actual fact, I think we want to see it abolished, and to return back to the common frameworks that have really been pushed to one side as a consequence of that particular Act.

In terms of what the implications are for the Windsor agreement—. Well, can I just say firstly that I think you're absolutely right? What Northern Ireland has now managed to negotiate is all the benefits of being in the EU, which we have lost, as well as having any benefits there are in terms of the UK internal market. In fact, it seems to me almost that what has happened is that Brexit has almost been dissolved for the purpose of the Northern Ireland arrangements, and it is obviously very, very good news economically for Northern Ireland on that. There will obviously be considerations that I know other Ministers will be considering in terms of the issues in terms of trade, cross-border arrangements, and so on, and I'm sure there will be statements from the Minister for Economy and, no doubt, from the First Minister in due course around this and the consequences.

Beyond that, I'm afraid there's probably very little more that I can say. As I say, this document here, which we've only just seen, is very much a framework document; the devil will be in the detail. But we do need to consider very carefully what that detail is and its implications for Wales. But just to repeat, perhaps, the starting point, this is a very, very good day and we should all welcome it for Northern Ireland. 

15:55

I thank the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution.

5. 90-second Statements

We'll move on, now, to item 5, which is the 90-second statements. Jayne Bryant. 

We're in the middle of Independent Venue Week, and Newport is proud to be home to a thriving independent music scene. A real success story is Le Pub, showing how a co-operative approach can go from strength to strength, and it's an exciting time for the new women-led Corn Exchange venue. Yet too many grass-roots music venues across the UK have closed in recent years. More venues would have been lost without meaningful support and funding from organisations like the Music Venue Trust. Last week, I was glad to be able to host Music Venue Trust's annual report launch, their first ever event here in the Senedd. The report highlights that nearly 1.3 million people attended events at grass-roots music venues in Wales last year, contributing over £24 million to the Welsh economy. Bands, venues, sound engineers, photographers and record labels all rely on grass-roots venues, and our communities will thrive if we recognise their value to society. This week is a reminder that it's not too late to act to make sure our grass-roots music venues not only survive but thrive. 

6. Motion under Standing Order 26.17(iii) in relation to the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill

We'll move on now to item 6, which is a motion under Standing Order 26.17 in relation to the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill. I call on a member of the Business Committee to move the motion. Heledd Fychan. 

Motion NDM8466 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 26.17(iii), agrees that Stage 2 proceedings of the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill be considered by a Committee of the Whole Senedd.

Motion moved.

Thank you very much. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? There is no objection. Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

7. Motion to amend Standing Orders—Limited review of Consolidation Bill procedures

We'll move on now to item 7, which is a motion to amend Standing Orders—limited review of consolidation Bill procedures. I once again call on a member of the Business Committee to move the motion formally. Heledd Fychan. 

Motion NDM8472 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 33.2:

1. Considers the report of the Business Committee, ‘Amending Standing Orders: Limited review of Consolidation Bill procedures’, laid in the Table Office on 24 January 2024.

2. Approves the proposal to amend Standing Order 26C, as set out in Annex A of the Business Committee’s report.

Motion moved.

The proposal is to amend Standing Orders. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

8. Debate on a Member's Legislative Proposal: A Bill to establish structured oversight of NHS managers

That takes us on to item 8 on our agenda, which is the debate on a Member's legislative proposal: a Bill to establish structured oversight of NHS managers. I call on Mabon ap Gwynfor to move the motion. 

Motion NDM8434 Mabon ap Gwynfor

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes a proposal for a Bill to establish structured oversight of NHS managers, in the form of a regulatory body.

2. Notes that the purpose of the Bill would be to:

a) establish a professional regulatory body for NHS Wales to define the professional standards expected of NHS Wales managers and be a place of recourse for those who feel that those standards have not been met by any one individual NHS Wales manager, and which would have the power to warn, sanction or strike off any NHS Wales manager from its maintained register;

b) define what an NHS Wales manager is and maintain a register of NHS Wales managers; and

c) require all NHS managers to be registered with the professional regulatory body.

Motion moved.

I formally move the motion. The NHS is one of the great successes of the last century in terms of public services. Ensuring free medical services universally has made all of our lives better and safer. Naturally, the NHS is a huge organisation and requires staff with all sorts of expertise and different skills. From cleaners through to consultant doctors and everything in between, there is a huge variety of people working in our health service, and they are held to the highest standards, as they should be. However, the same cannot be said about the managers who make the decisions that can have a huge impact on the operation of this service that saves lives every day. 

For decades, we have seen the commitment of professional healthcare workers—doctors, nurses, therapists and many other staff—who are fully committed to safeguarding public health. However, their efforts are often hampered by a system that isn't accountable enough at a management level. It's about time that we secured the needed change, namely the establishment of a regulatory body for NHS managers, similar to the General Medical Council for doctors or the Education Workforce Council for teachers.

Different professions work within robust regulatory frameworks. The Solicitors Regulation Authority ensures morality and competence among solicitors, gaining the public's trust. The General Medical Council maintains the highest standards of practice, safeguarding patients and professionalism. Likewise, the Education Workforce Council promotes quality education, promoting the well-being of pupils and teachers. These organisations improve professional standards, give the public confidence and have nurtured an ethical standard within the relevant areas. So, we can see that there is a crucial link in this accountability chain that isn't covered, namely managers overseeing these professionals and steering our healthcare organisations.

Consider the case of Betsi Cadwaladr, twice plunged into special measures due to systemic failings, or the tragic events at Cwm Taf, where warnings of inadequate maternity care went unheeded, leading to the avoidable loss of precious lives. These are not isolated incidents, they are stark reminders that our current system, lacking proper oversight of management, allows for a culture of silence and impunity to fester, ultimately compromising the safety and well-being of patients.

Why should teachers, lawyers and doctors be held to rigorous ethical codes and disciplinary processes, while those entrusted with the helm of our healthcare system operate in a regulatory vacuum? The answer is clear: it's simply unacceptable. We need a system that instils confidence in patients and the public, knowing that their concerns will be heard and acted upon. We need a system that ensures accountability and protects the whistleblowers who expose wrongdoing, preventing future tragedies.

This is why I propose the establishment of a dedicated regulatory body for NHS managers akin to the GMC or EWC. This body would not be a punitive arm, but a vital safeguard for patients, staff and the NHS itself. Imagine a framework that sets out clear ethical standards and a robust code of conduct for all NHS managers; establishes an independent, transparent system for handling complaints and investigations; empowers a board with the strength and independence to hold managers accountable for failures; provides fair and just disciplinary processes to ensure appropriate sanctions for misconduct; and promotes a culture of learning and improvement, fostering continuous professional development.

This isn't an attack on individual managers, but a call for stronger, more resilient NHS. By bringing management under the same rigorous standards as other healthcare professionals, we elevate the entire system, we protect patients from harm, empower staff to voice concerns and build a culture of trust and respect.

We need a dedicated independent body with the teeth to hold managers accountable and the sensitivity to foster a culture of improvement. This isn't about creating administrative burdens or stifling innovation, it's about ensuring that every decision, every action prioritises the safety and well-being of patients. It's about building an NHS where staff are empowered to speak up, where concerns are addressed swiftly and effectively, and where failures are met with accountability and learning. It's about creating a legacy of true accountability in the NHS. A legacy worthy of the trust we place in it. A legacy where every life, every story, every whisper of concern is heard and acted upon. A legacy where the health and well-being of our citizens is the paramount concern, not bureaucracy or personal gain.

Can you imagine a surgeon operating without oversight? A nurse dispensing medication unchecked or a therapist offering treatment unscrutinised? These scenarios are unthinkable. In the healthcare realm, rigorous professional regulation safeguards both patients and professionals, yet a crucial link remains missing—NHS managers. The individuals guiding these very professionals and shaping the culture of hospitals and clinics operate largely in a regulatory vacuum.

This discrepancy is stark and problematic. Doctors, nurses and allied health workers are held accountable, rightfully, to the highest standards, ensuring adherence to ethical codes and competencies. This safeguards patients, fosters professional development, and builds public confidence. But NHS managers, wielding immense influence over resource allocation, staffing decisions and service delivery, lack a similar regulatory framework. Now is the time for genuine, robust regulation of NHS managers. Let's show today that we are united in our commitment to patient safety, staff empowerment, and a truly healthy NHS for all, and build a system where every decision, every action, reflects the values of candour, honesty, integrity and, most importantly, the fundamental right to health and dignity. Diolch.

16:05

I'd like to thank Mabon ap Gwynfor for bringing forward this Member's legislative proposal today. As a lifelong advocate for our beloved NHS in Wales, along with my Welsh Conservative colleagues on these benches, we are a firm believer in the NHS's boundless potential, but the potential thrives when only nurtured by accountability, excellence and a shared commitment to serving the people who depend on it the most. That's why I and my group fully support this proposal, as this was included in our Welsh Conservative manifesto, so it's lovely to see that the Member has been reading our manifesto and actually picking up the best bits from it and wanting to bring it into fruition.

To establish a dedicated regulatory body for NHS managers in Wales—this isn't a mere bureaucratic exercise, it's a transformative step towards a brighter, more accountable future for our healthcare system here in Wales. For too long, whispers of concern have lingered around NHS management, decisions have been made behind closed doors, and frustrations met with silence. Questions about competence sometimes remain unanswered. This isn't a system that inspires confidence, nor does it empower those who have the most at stake: patients, staff and the communities that they serve. We as Welsh Conservatives—and I know the Member does now—believe in a different path, one informed by clear standards, fair accountability, and a renewed trust, a path paved by the establishment of that dedicated regulatory body wielding the power to define and uphold professional excellence, not through nebulous expectations but through a concrete framework outlining what it really, truly means to be an NHS manager here in Wales, someone who champions patient care, fosters collaboration and embraces transparency and openness in the system. We believe it also will provide that platform, as I said earlier, for accountability, not through self-assessments and not through platitudes, but through a fair and independent body empowered to investigate grievances and issue sanctions and ensure that poor performance has no place in our NHS here in Wales.

We can rebuild trust brick by brick, not through blind faith, but through a system that empowers our patients and staff to participate, to have their voices heard, and to know that their concerns matter, and also the concerns of whistleblowers who work within our NHS who want to inform people of poor management practices. An independent body would allow that to happen and give whistleblowers the confidence to come forward and raise those concerns.

This proposal is about building a culture of improvement, a leadership landscape where every decision is actioned and held to the highest standards. But it's about equipping our managers with the framework they need to excel, knowing they have the support and the accountability to lead with confidence in our health boards and in our hospital settings. Some may argue: does this undermine trust in our managers in the NHS? I think absolutely not. It strengthens it. It shows that we have value in their role, that we believe in their potential, and that we are invested in their success. By establishing clear expectations and providing a fair system for feedback and accountability, we empower managers to lead with confidence, knowing they have the support and the framework around them to make those decisions that they need to do.

I'm coming very close. This is not a political issue, I don't think—this is a human one. It's about ensuring that every patient in every corner of Wales receives the best possible care. It's about standing up for our dedicated staff who pour their hearts and souls into the NHS, and they deserve a system that values them in return. I know the Minister may—.  I'm coming very close to finishing now, Deputy Presiding—

16:10

Yes, I will. I know the Minister may worry about costs, but I know my group and I'm sure the Member in charge of this would like to sit down with the Minister to discuss how we can fund this, because I really do believe this can make a clear difference and improve the management levels within our NHS here in Wales.

I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services, Eluned Morgan.

Thank you very much, temporary Presiding Officer. 

I welcome the opportunity to respond to this debate, and thank Mabon ap Gwynfor for tabling the motion. The overarching objective of professional regulation is to protect the public. It's a statutory system, independent of Government. Any framework that introduces new statutory regulation for NHS workers must first and foremost support and improve public protection. It must command the confidence of anyone raising concerns and, in particular, the public. At the heart of any consideration to regulate a new profession is ensuring that statutory regulation provides the most effective and proportionate means of delivering further public protection. Members will be aware that the regulation of health professionals is reserved to the United Kingdom Government, and the current regulatory system is broadly UK-wide. There are clear benefits to a UK framework, ensuring consistent education and professional standards and enabling the ongoing mobility of the health professional workforce between UK nations.

Now, the terrible events at the Countess of Chester and the conviction of Lucy Letby rightly shone a light on the governance and the safety systems within our NHS organisations, and we're going to consider, very carefully, the recommendations and findings of Lady Justice Thirlwall when these become available.

The regulation of NHS managers is an issue that has been raised and considered very seriously by the Welsh Government previously. We found that there would be significant practical barriers to regulating NHS managers in Wales only, and establishing a system for Wales alone would require a substantial mechanism and the creation of a Welsh regulatory body at significant cost. NHS managers come from a range of different professional backgrounds, and issues such as the balance of responsibility between the employer and any regulator would require careful consideration. Some NHS managers are already subject to professional regulation, through bodies such as the General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council. So, any new system would need to take into account the issue of dual regulation and seek to avoid duplication of effort and purpose. An individual suspended or struck off the register of a Wales-only regulatory body for managers may not be prevented from working elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It's the Welsh Government's view that any new regulatory framework for NHS managers would be best taken forward on a four-country basis, consistent with the existing arrangements for doctors, nurses, allied health professions and other healthcare professionals.

Excellent and compassionate leadership, instilling the right culture within NHS Wales, is critical to delivering the best health outcomes for the people of Wales, and it was really good to have a really thorough conversation around this issue with the board of Betsi Cadwaladr this morning. NHS managers and leaders play a vital role in creating the right conditions to enable their organisations to thrive and deliver the most effective services.

In the health service in Wales, we have developed a method of selecting and appointing senior leaders in accordance with good practice. This ensures that we have open and transparent recruitment processes, and robust selection criteria for senior roles. Candidates must have to complete checks before appointment successfully, and there is a process for regulating and managing performance after appointment. It is the responsibility of employers to ensure that robust measures are in place in terms of appointment processes. In addition, managers in the NHS in Wales are accountable to a code of conduct that outlines the core standards that all managers in the service are meant to adhere to. We're still focusing on developing a culture of excellent leadership across the health service, and also, as part of the workforce strategy for health and care, we are developing a culture of compassionate leadership and supporting talent and succession planning. Last October, the Welsh Government published a whistleblowing framework for the health service.

I'm sure Members will be very pleased to hear that that framework about raising your voice set out very clearly the role and the system for whistleblowers in the NHS.

This outlines the responsibilities of executive teams and senior leaders, further developing a culture where raising one's voice is supported in a safe environment. We will need to consider and review carefully any legislative proposals for a Bill of the Senedd on regulating managers within the NHS. We will have to be clear, in terms of the legislative competence of the Senedd, that this does not come under the matter of regulating professional healthcare workers, which has been reserved. As usual with a Member's legislative proposal, the Government will abstain in the vote on the proposal today. Thank you.

16:15

I now call on Mabon ap Gwynfor to reply to the debate.

Thank you very much, acting Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you to everyone who has participated in this debate. It's worth noting the valuable contribution of Helen Mary Jones, a former Member of this Senedd. Many of you will be aware of the work that she did on this issue some years ago. I'm also very grateful to James Evans for his contribution on behalf of the Conservatives.

You're quite right that it is something that you've been promoting, but it's something that a number of people have been promoting. I know the British Medical Association are in support of this motion as well. It has cross-party support, which is good to see and understand.

Now, the Minister did refer to that professional regulation is there in order to protect the public; that is exactly what we're looking to establish here. I understand that the Minister does have concerns around that it might be reserved to the UK Government, but there might be opportunities in Wales, albeit difficult, to set up a regulatory body. I'm ever the optimist, therefore, there's hope; there's no reason why we can't do this, so I would urge people to consider that, that it is not impossible, it is something that we could look at. There is an issue around funding; it's not going to happen overnight. So, let's look at the principle of establishing this initially, and Members here should consider supporting this in principle, if nothing else.

Finally, I'd like to just share with you a quote from Dr Bill Kirkup. Many of you will be aware of Dr Bill Kirkup. He said in a programme on Monday night, in Panorama, he said:

'There is a widespread culture in the NHS that if you're being criticised then the right thing to do is circle your wagons, manage your reputation.

'The first stage of that is usually to do with denial and deflection, and it's masking the problems.'

That's sadly true for too many people, and we've heard recently about issues in Abertawe Swansea Bay Health Board around maternity units there as well, with the Channon family saying that they were concerned that there was a cover-up. So, in order to avoid that, in order to strengthen and give managers the support that they need, that's why we need to see a regulatory body set up here in Wales, so that we can see an improvement not just in culture, but in raising the standards and fostering trust amongst the patients. So, I would ask everybody to consider supporting this motion today. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

The proposal is to note the proposal. Does any Member object? [Objection.] Yes, there is objection. Therefore, I will defer voting under this item until voting time. 

Voting deferred until voting time.

9. Debate on petitions P-06-1359 and P-06-1362 concerning support for childcare costs

We'll move on now to item 9, which is a debate on petitions P-06-1359 and P-06-1362 concerning support for childcare costs. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion—Jack Sargeant.

Motion NDM8467 Jack Sargeant

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the following the petitions concerning support for childcare costs:

a) petition P-06-1359 'Offer Welsh working parents the same financial support for childcare as England', which received 10,820 signatures; and

b) petition P-06-1362 'Match the new childcare offer in England of 15 hours for 2 year old's from April 2024', which received 407 signatures.

Motion moved.

Thank you very much, acting Presiding Officer. On behalf of the Petitions Committee, thank you for the opportunity to submit this important debate.

Can I also extend my thanks to members of the Business Committee for enabling us to schedule this debate during the period when the Welsh Government is finalising their budget? I see the Minister for finance is with us here today. Presiding Officer, it's because, at their heart, the petitions that we are debating today are about the choices that we make here in Cymru on behalf of the people of Cymru about how we spend their money.

Llywydd, we are debating two petitions today that touch on two very similar issues. Petition P-06-1359, 'Offer Welsh working parents the same financial support for childcare as England' reads, and I quote:

'In England from April 24 all working parents of 2 year olds get 15 hours free childcare. From September 24 this will be extended to parents of 9 months old +. From September 25 the free hours will be extended to 30.

'In comparison Wales will take until September 25 to provide 12.5 hours to all 2 year olds. With no plan in place for 9 months + or increasing the hours to 15 or 30.

'We’re in a cost of living crisis where the Welsh Gov have the ability to support working parents but aren’t.'

Presiding Officer, this petition was submitted by Jade Richards, with a total of 10,820 signatures, and Jade is here in the Senedd today.

The other petition, P-06-1362, 'Match the new childcare offer in England of 15 hours for 2 year old's from April 2024' was submitted by Madelaine Hallam, with 407 signatures, and I'm sure, Presiding Officer, you can see why we've joined both these petitions together for debate today. But these petitions alone aren't the only contributions to the debate around childcare in Wales. In November 2023, Oxfam published some work done on behalf of the Make Care Fair coalition. That work was clear: the current system does some things well but isn't the answer. They said, Presiding Officer, and I quote:

'While considerable strides have been made in childcare provision and early education in Wales, the persisting challenge of ensuring straightforward, equitable access to high-quality and affordable childcare remains a pressing concern.'

They say that childcare costs are, and, again, I quote,

'forcing Welsh parents into poverty and putting them off having more children.'

And that's why we're here today, Presiding Officer. It's also why the Equality and Social Justice Committee launched its follow-up inquiry into childcare at the beginning of the year. In their original report at the end of January 2022, the committee called for changes to the way the Welsh Government provided its childcare offer to working parents. The report, 'Minding the future: The childcare barrier facing working parents' analysed the current system, as it was then, and concluded that parents in Wales faced an array of barriers to accessing the care that they're entitled to. I'm pleased to see that work is being revisited to see what progress has been made and what barriers remain, and I see the Chair of the committee in front of us today, who perhaps may enlighten us some more.

Presiding Officer, this is an issue where the Welsh Government has been active. It's an area explicitly mentioned in the partnership agreement that sets out the priorities of this Welsh Government, and that document says, and I quote:

'We share an ambition to provide good quality early childhood education and care to all children in Wales. Significant capital and revenue resources will be devoted to this ambition during the period of this agreement, focusing on two year olds.'

But there's a lot of confusion, Presiding Officer, about what's on offer here in Wales and what's on offer in England. Parents need that clarity and they deserve it. Anyone who has followed the debate in England about childcare can see that there is scepticism that the UK Government's pronouncements can be delivered, but what is also clear, Presiding Officer, is that there's a significant number of people in Wales, people who signed these two petitions, who are unhappy with the current offer and roll-out here.

Many of us across the Chamber will have conversations with constituents who really need support and feel frustrated by the speed of change. This will include people who just live a street away from neighbours who are receiving support through Flying Start, yet they receive no support at all. And it could be perfectly plausible and possible that parents not receiving support could be under more financial pressure than those around the corner. And, Presiding Officer, the petitioners have said to me they are not against the premise of Flying Start and the idea of Flying Start, but they do question how it's delivered in practice.

And it's examples like these, and others, that have been raised directly by the petitioner to the Minister that need a response. I hope that the debate today provides the opportunity for the Minister to provide the clarity parents deserve and need, to see the progress that the Welsh Government has made on delivering their current promise in the partnership agreement and the next steps on that journey. I hope too it clarifies for parents what is and what isn't available to them, why the priorities of the Welsh Government are what the priorities are, and the spending choices that follow from that and if they are different to England, and, if so, why. 

A direct question from the petitioner just some half an hour ago, Presiding Officer, to the Minister, if I may, was: 'The money that the Welsh Government have received from the UK Government's announcement and from that offer that they have made in England, can I ask you, Minister, what has that been spent on directly?' That was the question from the petitioner I've just met upstairs. 

Presiding Officer, I look forward to this debate. I look forward to the Minister's response. This is a real issue of great concern for parents up and down the country of Wales. I hope we do provide some clarity in this debate today. Diolch.  

16:25

I would like to thank my committee Chair, Jack Sargeant, for opening and the petitioners for raising such an important petition topic. As we all know, childcare is one of the, if not the biggest financial drain on family and household budgets. Many families are ultimately faced with the prospect that childcare costs are not covered by the net income of one of the parents or guardians, and therefore they're economically forced to give up work to provide care for the children. Whilst this is sustainable for some families where one member is a high earner, for many families this will have long-term implications, particularly with the cost of living as it is, and this can so easily push a family into long-term poverty. 

Moreover, we're ultimately losing trained and economically active people from the workforce, not only in the short term but potentially in the longer term as well. Those leaving their jobs to look after children because they cannot afford nursery fees can find it extremely difficult to re-enter the workforce several years later, and they face the prospect of returning to entry-level positions because of the gap in their employment history. This point is very important because it disproportionately affects women. I recognise that there are ever-increasing numbers of stay-at-home dads. However, women still take on the majority of childcare duties, and this has a big impact on their finances. Not only are they more dependent on the sole earner but they also lose out on pension contributions, and this has a big impact in retirement, more so if the couple are unmarried and split up; the rights to claim pension contributions and other finances are not clearly defined. 

Families that cannot afford childcare or to lose an income from the household also face the prospect of juggling very complicated childcare arrangements, using family or friends to cover. This can be particularly hard during the school holidays, which, when you include five INSET days per year, amounts to almost 70 days' holiday, more than twice the average holiday entitlement of an average British worker. Meeting this demand without help from family or expensive childcare is impossible, and for single-parent families it must be a constant worry and concern. It is therefore imperative that the childcare provisions we have are the best that we can offer. 

I fully support this petition because it is clear to me that having up to 30 hours of free childcare from the age of nine months available to all families is going to dramatically help them, not only with their finances, but also to manage the new responsibilities that they now have. It is going to help mums and dads stay in employment, and, for many women, after their maternity leave they will be able to afford to pick their careers back up and keep up with their pension contributions. 

Acting Llywydd, in this Chamber we talk a lot about future generations and well-being, but what could be more helpful to the health and well-being of families than helping them to meet their childcare needs? Wales has around 30 per cent of children living in poverty and it's the only nation in the UK where child poverty rates are increasing. Surely it is common sense to help struggling families to stay in work and to help them to be able to afford not to rely on state aid. The UK Government proposals will trigger £180 million-worth of consequential funding in Wales for this, and I see no reason why we cannot offer the same system for up to 30 hours of free childcare for nine-month-olds and older here. We need to be a nation that shows that we support families and is tuned into their needs. For too long, we have had a system where having children is so detrimental to families that it either ends up pushing them into poverty or financial difficulty, or they decide to delay or not have any at all.

Finally, acting Llywydd, I want to highlight one last point.