Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

27/02/2024

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

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

1. Questions to the First Minister

Good afternoon and welcome to this afternoon's Plenary session. The first item will be questions to the First Minister, and the first question today is from Gareth Davies. 

Waiting Times at Glan Clwyd Hospital

1. Will the First Minister make a statement on patient waiting times at Glan Clwyd Hospital? OQ60734

I thank Gareth Davies, Llywydd, for that question. Waiting times for some patients at Glan Clwyd Hospital are not where they need to be, especially in the emergency department. Extra investment by the Welsh Government and a fresh focus by the new board will help front-line staff to bring about improvement.

Thank you very much for your response, First Minister. It's promising to see, despite your response, that waiting times have slowly started to move in the right direction in some ways in the past two months, particularly against cancer targets. But improvement is very slow in emergency departments, where waiting times are an acute issue in the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board. Glan Clwyd Hospital is the worst-performing accident and emergency department for waiting times in Wales, and is within the worst-performing health board. Sixty-eight per cent of A&E patients in Wales are seen within four hours, but, at Glan Glwyd Hospital, only 45 per cent of patients are discharged, transferred or admitted within four hours. Patients waiting more than 12 hours are up 10 per cent on January last year. Residents of north Wales simply shouldn't have to put up with this. This month, a patient, Mr Taylor, arrived at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd with chest pains and, following a triage, was left in a corridor for six hours in a wheelchair. Whilst noting that the staff were excellent, they were overwhelmed and he was left in tears, sadly. We cannot allow waiting time of this length to become the new norm, First Minister. So, can you outline what road map the Welsh Government has in place to bring down waiting times at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd so that people do not have to experience the same as the gentleman, Mr Taylor, who had to wait six hours in a corridor? Thank you.

Well, I thank Gareth Davies, Llywydd, for the acknowledgement he made at the start of his question about those areas that have improved at Glan Clwyd. But I agree with him that the performance at the emergency department has not been satisfactory, and that there are further things that have to be done to make sure that the investment that the Welsh Government has provided to emergency care at the hospital pays dividends in the service that is provided to patients.

I think I remember being at the hospital with the Member's colleague, Darren Millar, getting on for 10 years ago now, when very significant investment had been made to remodel the emergency department. We were shown around it. It was explained to us how this would make a difference to flow through the department and so on, and there's further investment that the Welsh Government is providing. The Minister met on 22 February with the health board, and with local authorities, to ask them what more can be done to move people out of the hospital who do not need to be there, in order to improve flow through the department. Now, while there is a lot of extra work that needs to be done, there are things that have happened already that are making a difference—1,200 patients a month, on average, are now getting a service through the urgent primary care centres in north Wales. And, at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd itself, the same-day emergency care service is seeing hundreds and hundreds of patients each month, most of whom—the good news is—don't need to be admitted further into the hospital. So, there are services that are supporting that emergency department. I do expect the new board to focus on how improvement for patient experience can be brought about. 

Treherbert Line Transformation

2. Will the First Minister provide an update on the progress made as part of the Treherbert line transformation? OQ60736

Well, thanks to Buffy Williams for drawing attention to the very good news that Transport for Wales has reopened the Treherbert line this week. The investment has moved the line from being a Victorian, nineteenth-century part of our infrastructure to the twenty-first century, showing what a £1 billion investment in the core Valleys lines can achieve where responsibility for the rail network is devolved.

Unlike Rishi Sunak taking credit for the electrified north Wales main line, backed by £1 billion nobody's seen, the Treherbert line transformation in Rhondda is making real progress with real financial backing. Electrification, infrastructure, station upgrades and dualling the line in parts over the last nine months mean that residents can once again use trains while the last phase of works is conducted. We will soon have greener, more reliable trains travelling to and from Cardiff four times an hour, opening more opportunities for education, employment and, of course, social occasions. But I want all Rhondda residents to benefit, and that includes the Fach. So, following my earlier meetings with the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, will the First Minister bring together TfW, Stagecoach, Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council and the Welsh Government to discuss the reintroduction of train buses for residents in Rhondda Fach? And will he join me in thanking Rhondda residents for their patience while work has taken place over the last nine months?

13:35

Thanks to Buffy Williams for those further points, Llywydd. I saw that the Prime Minister had claimed that the Conservative Government had electrified the north Wales line; I was on the line two days before, and it certainly hadn't happened then. And it's exactly that sort of claim that led Sir Robert Chote, who is the person responsible for standards in statistics and claims by Government, to write again last week, to criticise the UK Government for making extravagant claims well in advance of the facts. The Treherbert line has actually happened. It is an example of where investment has made a difference, rather than an empty promise that nobody at all believes will ever come to fruition.

I want to add my voice to what the Member said, though, in thanking people in the Rhondda and along that line for the patience that they have shown. Transport for Wales has delivered the improvements within the time frame that they set out, but it has been a huge feat of engineering, and the Member herself, I know, has been very helpful indeed in making sure that substitute services have been put in place in a way that are genuinely usable for that local population. The line will make a huge difference in that twenty-first century metro that we are creating here. I'm very glad that Transport for Wales will continue to offer half-price travel on the Treherbert line, through the Rhondda rail card. And, as Buffy Williams said, Llywydd, the next step is new trains, and that's been the story of Transport for Wales since the autumn of last year. There were real difficulties in the early autumn, when trains that were expected hadn't arrived and weren't in service. But the story since then has been new trains on lines in all parts of Wales, with more to follow—they'll be on that Treherbert line—and they'll be making a real difference, not only for people in the Rhondda Fawr, but through the new Porth transport hub, in the way that Buffy Williams said, making a real difference for people who live along the Rhondda Fach as well.

First Minister, it is without doubt that the upgrading of the Treherbert line, while substantially improving connectivity for residents, has nonetheless come at a huge expense to the communities that live there. Sadly, businesses along the line have seen massive falls in trade, and I've even been contacted by residents who have lost their jobs due to the disruption. And whilst the line is now open, we still have—[Interruption.]

I can't hear Joel James now, and I suspect the First Minister can't either. So, if we can hear Joel James in some silence.

Thank you, Llywydd. It's very rude to interrupt, I must admit.

Whilst the line is now open, we have to be mindful that the work still hasn't been completed, as there's ongoing electrification and major infrastructure work that needs to be carried out at Ynyswen station. First Minister, I'm aware that, to compensate for the immense disruption that has been caused, Transport for Wales, as you have highlighted, have offered a paltry 50 per cent off rail fares for only three months, which I and many residents feel is somewhat miserly given the impact that this upgrade has had on communities over the last year. With this in mind, First Minister, do you agree with me that Transport for Wales should actually put forward a more substantial compensation scheme that not only lasts longer than 12 weeks, but reflects more fully the impact on the lives of residents and businesses that work has caused? Thank you.

It is an inescapable fact that, if you are investing on this scale and you are bringing about a transformation in rail infrastructure, it has an impact in the lives of those local communities. But the benefits to those local communities will be felt for decades and decades to come. Now, I'm aware of the fact that impacting the lives of local people deserves some recompense by the train operator. In my own constituency, in the village of Radyr, there has been enormous disruption as part of the electrification of the line, but the local community council and local community organisations have worked with Transport for Wales, recognising what this investment will do in the future and seeing some compensatory actions in the short run. So, I commend Transport for Wales for the approach that it has taken, and then it is for local community interests to negotiate with Transport for Wales where there are things that can be done to recognise the disruption that that investment will have created.

13:40
Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

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

Thank you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, thank you for your letter this morning in relation to my request that you look into the donations that the economy Minister has received—£200,000. Some political parties in Wales don't run their entire operation on that. But I want to find out from you, if possible, please, First Minister, because you indicated you weren't going to launch an investigation, if you did use the normal benchmarks to test your decision against, given that, obviously, there is a leadership contest under way at the moment, and it has been implied by others that you were loath to get involved in arbitrating on any matters that might pertain to the outcome of that leadership contest. And, in light of the additional information that has come to light, as of yesterday, about other developments that this business owner has an interest in, would you reopen your consideration, if you didn't use those benchmarks to make that final decision about not launching an inquiry, into this significant donation that the economy Minister has received?

Well, Llywydd, I want to make it clear to Members that I followed the absolutely normal procedures of investigation. I don't say to the Member that I am not having an investigation. I asked for an investigation and the investigation advised me that there was no breach of the ministerial code. So, there has been an investigation and the answer was provided to me in unambiguous terms. Again, for the record, let me make it absolutely clear to people who know nothing about what has gone on, I have not received a single message from anybody about that investigation. Nobody has asked me to accelerate it, nobody has asked me to avoid it. I haven't had a single piece of correspondence. I dealt with it as I would have dealt with any other letter that I would have received under the code. If anybody wants any further matters to be investigated, they should write to me, they should set out what they think needs to be investigated and it will be done absolutely by the book. 

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. Last week, in relation to the challenges that obviously the sustainable farming scheme is inflicting on the farming community and the comments that you have put to that challenge, you have highlighted how farmers should not be in a position to determine how that money is spent. I have never heard a farmer say that they don't expect strings to come with the new sustainable farming scheme that the Welsh Government is devising, and it is important that, obviously, they do have an ability to influence the outcome of the consultation, which many farmers are doing and the Minister has highlighted. But do you regret trying to indicate in your comments that farmers resented the fact that they were having to actually apply under certain rules for this scheme in the future, because, as I said, as I understand it and the farmers that I've spoken to, they want to work in co-operation with the Welsh Government, they want to develop a scheme that is positive for agriculture and positive for the environment, and the quote that you gave last week was inaccurate?

Well, Llywydd, I think today is a day for conciliation across Wales, and it's a day to lower the temperature of the debate that has gone on around the future of farming. And I'm not going to follow the leader of the opposition into an accusatory and blame-ascribing approach to the debate. I was very pleased indeed yesterday to meet, with my colleague Lesley Griffiths, with five members of the farming community. I thought they acquitted themselves extremely well in the meeting that we had—constructive in their proposals, engaged in the future of their industry. That is the sort of conversation that we want to see here in Wales. The Government has been in a seven-year conversation. The current consultation will end on 7 March; the conversation will not end there because we will want to continue to be closely engaged with those who have contributed to the consultation in, together, finding a successful future for farming and rural Wales.

13:45

I agree entirely with you, First Minister, that the heat needs to be taken out of the discussion at the moment, but it is a fact that the comment that you said last week—not up to farmers to decide how subsidies are spent—that was really trying to push farmers to the edge by saying that they were taking—[Interruption.] I can hear the Deputy Minister for transport trying to intervene. If you'd like to stand up, Deputy Minister, because we've got a debate— 

No, you're on your feet, Andrew R.T. Davies. Can you come to your question and can we hear it in some silence from all benches, please?

We're talking about lowering the heat, but the Member for Blaenau Gwent last week, on Sunday, called farmers in a picture 'cranks'. That is not the language that surely should be used on Twitter. 

Can you confirm, First Minister, that the Government—

I'll take the—. Can I ask for some pause? I'll take points of order, if there are any, at the end of the questions. Andrew R.T. Davies, if you can continue your question.  

Gladly. Can you confirm to me, First Minister, from the meeting that you held yesterday and the meeting that I and other Members of this Parliament had with those farmers from west Wales, that there will continue to be that positive engagement to reshape the sustainable farming scheme so that we do have a scheme that emerges after the consultation that, in fairness to the rural affairs Minister, today, in her comments in the paper, says that farming and food production is a critical and important component of that scheme, and food security will be an element that will have a significant weighting in the way the scheme emerges?

Well, Llywydd, sustainable food production has always been the first objective of the sustainable farming scheme in Wales—that has been repeated time and again by the Minister—alongside the other public goods that public investment will release in that farming community. The dialogue that has gone on for seven years—and yesterday's meeting was part of that dialogue—will of course continue, because, when you have a consultation, you will inevitably, as has always been the case, want to pursue the points that are made, look at alternative suggestions that might be released as part of that consultation, and farmers, the people we met yesterday and others who think like them, can be assured that the Welsh Government will want that dialogue to continue. 

Thank you very much, Llywydd. The message that we have increasingly been hearing from rural Wales over the past few days and weeks and the message that will be heard very clearly here in Cardiff Bay tomorrow, is that enough is enough, and I agree with that. I met with representatives of farmers again yesterday. Their demands and those of the unions and hundreds and thousands of individuals in my community and communities across Wales are very reasonable. They are facing one challenge upon another, continuous change and demands upon them that actually threaten the viability of their farms. They want to deliver environmental objectives, but that has to happen in a way that works with agriculture, not against it. 

Now, quite simply, the Welsh family farm needs the Welsh Government to be a champion for them, and, at the moment, that's not how it feels to people. Now, does the First Minister agree with me that we are at a crossroads in terms of rural Wales and the agricultural community and now is the moment, now is the time, for a change of direction? Because listening is one thing—and the Government regularly says that they are listening—but there needs to be action now. 

Well, Llywydd, I recognise the fact, of course, that there are many things changing in the world of agriculture, and that's difficult for people and people feel that it is difficult to find a way to deal with all of the issues that they're currently facing. That's why we spoke to those people yesterday, and that's why the Minister has said a number of things today, following that conversation, to acknowledge everything that was raised in that meeting. 

Llywydd, the Minister has today made a number of points in response to those that were raised with us. The Minister has issued letters today to appoint members of the TB advisory group, and has said to the members of that group that the very first thing we will ask them to do will be to come forward with fresh proposals to deal with on-farm slaughter of cattle who have contracted TB. That was a very important point that was raised by people who've experienced that directly themselves, and we've made a significant step forward in that today.

We talked yesterday about agricultural pollution. I had to make it clear to the people we met that, in five of the six most affected rivers in Wales, agricultural pollution is the single biggest contributor to the state of those rivers, and we cannot look the other way from that. But we have promised a review of agricultural pollution regulations. The Minister has committed today to appointing an independent chair to lead that review, and the preparatory work of that will now begin. So, there's a review to be had and we know that farmers will want to contribute to that.

As far as the sustainable farming scheme itself is concerned, we discussed yesterday with those farmers who came into Cathays Park ideas about how we can simplify some of the data that they will be asked to provide, how we can make that data more valuable to them, so that they can make profits out of the data that they provide. We talked about how we can find other ways in which carbon can be sequestered on farms. There is a series of very practical and constructive ideas that we will purse. We'll do that in a dialogue, and that's the way in which we will find a way forward together.

13:50

I'm grateful for that response and, certainly, we would welcome an early review of nitrate vulnerable zones, as we've been calling for, and we welcome the changes on TB, which is something that comes a day before our debate here in the Senedd. But we are looking for a more fundamental shift in the Welsh Government's attitude.

I want to turn to the Agriculture (Wales) Act 2023, which was passed unanimously by us as a Senedd last year. That Act commits the Government to make the well-being of the language and economy of rural Wales a central consideration in any future funding arrangements. Would the First Minister agree with me that any plans that anticipate seeing thousands of agricultural jobs from rural areas lost would have a far-reaching impact on communities and the Welsh language, and that could be contrary to the requirements of that agriculture Act?

Well, the Act was passed on the floor of the Senedd unanimously. Every party here at the Senedd had supported that Bill. The Government, in partnership with Plaid Cymru, of course, were responsible for the Bill in the first instance. Of course we stand behind everything contained in that Bill. And one of the other things that the Minister told the group of farmers that we met yesterday is, 'Of course we are going to create an economic analysis of the scheme following the consultation.' Once the final details are received from the consultation, we'll have to look again at the scheme's impact on the lives of people in rural areas. So, everything that the leader of Plaid Cymru has asked for we have already said, and we are content to restate those points again today to give confidence to those people in rural Wales that their voice will be listened to and will have a practical impact on the scheme for the future.

My argument here is that there is a question of legality, and I would encourage the Welsh Government to seek legal advice, as we have done as a party, as to whether the current policies are contrary to the requirements of the agriculture Act.

Llywydd, it has emerged, in recent days, that a Cabinet colleague of the First Minister, running to be his successor, has accepted a six-figure donation from a company that is seeking approval from Welsh Government to build a solar farm. To say that doesn't look good is an understatement. Now, the First Minister says that he is satisfied that there hasn't been a breach of the ministerial code, but what does he think is the way to gauge whether his colleague showed good judgment here, and would returning the donation be a good start?

13:55

Well, that would be a matter for the electorate in the election for a successor as leader of the Welsh Labour Party. There are thousands and thousands of people able to take part in that debate. They will have heard the debate; they will make their minds up. That is the way in which this matter is best resolved. 

The Rural Economy in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

3. How is the Welsh Government supporting the rural economy in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OQ60730

Llywydd, we provide a range of schemes that help farmers to improve efficiency, tackle the climate and nature emergencies, and to diversify. Additionally, farmers receive £238 million through the basic payment scheme, which we have maintained in next year's budget despite severe pressures that have necessitated many cuts to other services.

Diolch, Prif Weinidog. Can I thank you and the rural affairs Minister for taking the time to meet with the organisers of the Carmarthen mart meeting yesterday? It was a pleasure to be able to join Andrew R.T. Davies in meeting with them too, following the meeting with yourselves.

Now, farming underpins the rural economy, yet I have sensed the growing frustration and anger in rural Wales for some time. On too many occasions, I've acted as a signpost for farmers in distress, but not only farmers—families who I consider friends. Because of this rise in temperature, I asked the rural affairs Minister to pause the consultation to take the heat out of the situation. I think, had that request been listened to, then we may not have been seeing the protests that are planned for the steps of the Senedd tomorrow.

I agree with you, First Minister, in your answer to Andrew R.T. Davies: it is time for the temperature to be lowered in this debate, and I don't want farmers protesting, and I know farmers certainly don't want to be protesting. Can I condemn all and any abuse that you, Cabinet colleagues, or any Members of this Chamber have received in acting their role, and any members of the public as well, many of whom, sadly, have had to deal with threats to their life? But my question, First Minister, is, and in response to your answer to Andrew R.T. Davies, if you've had time to reflect, and, if so, what would you consider your Government would have done differently in order to ease tensions with farmers, given the current temperature? Diolch, Llywydd.

Well, Llywydd, I've heard the calls for a pause in the consultation. I don't think that is a sensible course of action, because there are only days left of the consultation, and, as colleagues around the Chamber will know, many, many organisations plan on making their contribution to a consultation in the final days. As of yesterday, at least, the National Farmers Union hadn't made its contribution to the consultation, so I think the orderly course of action is to allow the consultation to come to its end in the way that was planned to make sure that everybody who was planning to make their voices known through it has that opportunity to do so, and then we will take the time that is needed to consider every single one of those responses, to look for those many constructive ideas about how the scheme can be improved and how we can work together to create that successful future for farming in Wales.

The Welsh Government has demonstrated through the final budget that was published earlier today our commitment to that basic payment scheme. That is a really big decision in a period in which £1.3 billion is having to be taken out of everything else that we do. We want that money to be invested in a way that provides that successful future for farming and ensures that the sector makes its contribution to the greatest challenge facing any one of us in Wales, and particularly those who make their living on the land, the impact of climate change, and, by working together, there will be a way, I feel confident, to bring that about.

Health Inequalities

4. What interventions is the Welsh Government prioritising to reduce the impact of health inequalities in Wales? OQ60723

Llywydd, health inequalities are the product of wider and widening inequalities across the United Kingdom. Actions in Wales include improving air quality, accessing employment, reducing smoking rates and tackling obesity.

Diolch, First Minister. I know that taking action to reduce the impact of the inverse care law has been a personal priority for you during your political career. I recently met with some of the practitioners and professionals involved in the Welsh Government-supported Deep End Wales scheme. With the project having been running for a little over 12 months now, what key findings has Welsh Government drawn from the initial phase of the project, and how are these being embedded within wider governmental policy?

14:00

Well, Llywydd, I thank Vikki Howells for that. She is right, that dealing with the inverse care law has been a preoccupation of successive Labour Governments here in the Senedd, from the very outset. Many of us here were friends of Julian Tudor Hart, who coined that phrase as long ago as 1971. I vividly remember being with Julian in those campaigns to establish this Senedd, in which he placed such a great deal of faith, that it would enable us to make greater inroads into the problems that he had identified. And the history of our effort to address the inverse care law has been there from the start: the work that my colleague Jane Hutt did with Professor Peter Townsend, the world's leading expert on how you could tackle health inequalities; the work of Dr Brian Gibbons, a health Minister here, who was Julian Tudor Hart's successor in Glyncorrwg—famous in public health, famous in the history of public health, that practice there.

So, the latest manifestations, the things that are going on in the Member's own constituency, the Deep End Wales project, the project that we are funding together with the Royal College of General Practitioners, to help develop primary care solutions to those deep-seated inequalities. 'What have we learnt?', the Member says. Well, I think the first thing we learn is that health inequalities are simply a product of wider inequalities. They don't exist separately; they are the product of all the other things that shape people's lives in that unfair way. And then, if you are going to tackle them through the health service, it has to be a health service and not an illness service. It has to be a service that helps people to do the things in their own lives that will make a difference to their own long-term health prospects.

And that, just to give that one example that I started with, Llywydd, the success we have had here in Wales in reducing the prevalence of smoking. In 2010, 23 per cent of the population of Wales recorded themselves as smoking. Today, that's 13 per cent—a 10 per cent drop over that decade. And there are Valley communities where that figure is even lower: so, in Blaenau Gwent, it's 12 per cent; in Caerphilly, it's 11 per cent. Those are huge gains in tackling that inverse care law to which Vikki Howells referred.

Thank you for your answer, First Minister. Cancer patients in Wales, of course, face unacceptable health inequalities. I know, from the work that the cross-party group on cancer has done, it recommends tackling risk factors, like smoking, as you've alluded to now, and obesity as well, and also introducing lung screening would help in terms of catching cancer and making it easier to have treatment all the quicker. Now, at the same time as the cross-party group reported, I noticed that Cancer Research UK also said:

'We can only succeed in our mission of beating cancer if everyone affected by the disease has the same chances.'

Now, we have recently seen some statistics that, in Wales, you barely have a 50:50 chance of receiving cancer treatment on time. So, I wonder what progress the Welsh Government has made in addressing some of the recommendations from the cross-party group on cancer, and also, more broadly, in addressing cancer inequalities generally across Wales.

Well, Llywydd, the first thing to say is that, in the last calendar year, 2023, the largest number of people ever were referred for cancer treatment in Wales. And what we've learnt, isn't it, is that you've got to get people into the system early in order to be able to identify those people who need treatment. Of every 100 people who are referred into the cancer system, 95 of them will learn that they didn't have cancer, and that's fantastic, isn't it? But, in order to catch the 5 per cent early, you need to have the mouth of the funnel as wide as it can be, and more people were referred into the system last year than ever before, and that means primary care is really doing its job. And then, last year, more people than ever started definitive treatment for cancer here in Wales than in any other year in the entire history of the national health service.

Now, of course, when you've got even more people coming in, even though you have more people starting, the percentage can look different, but the numbers tell you that the system in Wales is capturing more people at the start of the cancer journey and treating more people who need to embark on the journey. Is there more to do? Well, there's always more to do, and lung screening is going to be an important part of the future of cancer services here in Wales. We've committed to doing it. There are things happening already to help us to find a path to that. We know that lung cancer sufferers are amongst the least likely to have good outcomes, but there again, Llywydd, one-year survival rates and five-year survival rates in Wales have improved over the last 10 years.

So, I think the Member made a series of very important points, and the significance of the journey ahead of us is real. But it will be built upon some very significant foundations of success.   

14:05

Good afternoon, First Minister. Just to go back to Julian Tudor Hart, who spent decades of his life in the deprived communities of south Wales and saw at first hand the level of poverty. I just really wanted to think about child poverty in particular here in Wales, which has remained stubbornly high at around 28 per cent. As you'll know, the Equality and Social Justice Committee completed a report calling time on child poverty. Just to remind ourselves of some of the statistics in there: the child mortality rate in Wales is 70 per cent higher for children in the most deprived groups than the least deprived children. And children living in poverty are four times more likely to develop a mental health problem by the age of 11. Therefore, we know very clearly and it's been brought up to date the links between child poverty and health inequality in our children's population. 

I'm encouraged to see the child poverty strategy being developed, and hopefully there'll be some targets within that, which I know many of us have called for. And I just wondered whether the Welsh Government might consider a target looking at health inequality and poverty, and how we can link the two together and make sure we've got clear targets to address that. Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llywydd.

Llywydd, Jane Dodds makes important points, echoing some of the things that were said earlier. Child health inequality is rooted in the broader inequality that children face from the start of their lives, and see it in many, many aspects of their lives. The Government is committed, of course, to addressing the impact of those factors in the lives of those children who live in our most deprived communities. Let me make this one point. You know how controversial the Welsh Government's policy of 20 mph has been in some places, yet we know that children from deprived communities are more likely to suffer in accidents than children in any other part of the population. The word 'accident' is misleading because it implies that, somehow, these things happen at random. They don't. Children in our least well-off communities are more likely to suffer in an accident, including accidents on their streets involving motor vehicles, and the impact of our policy, which will save people's lives, will have a bigger impact on the lives of poor children than any other part of the population.

Abuse and Violence Against Staff in Schools

5. How is the Welsh Government supporting schools facing increasing instances of abuse and violence against staff? OQ60725

Llywydd, there is a duty on local authorities and schools to ensure schools are a safe environment for all. Recognising the impact that poor behaviour can have on the well-being of staff, we continue to fund Education Support's well-being service. That service provides free advice and support for schools across Wales.

Thank you for your answer, First Minister. There are various challenges in education that have been amplified and intensified as a result of the COVID pandemic, and one is the sharp increase in the abuse of teachers and teaching assistants. Attacks have become more frequent, including in primary schools. Do you agree that we must respect our teachers and not tolerate violence or abuse against them?

14:10

I absolutely associate myself with what Ken Skates has just said, Llywydd. There is no tolerance at all by this Government of the abuse of public servants going about the service that they provide to the community, and that is certainly true of teachers and others in the classroom. Condemnation by itself is never sufficient, though, is it? What we have to do is we have to look at the causes of those difficulties and we have to provide help to those who face them in the jobs that they do, and that’s the work that the Minister for education has embarked upon. There’s a toolkit for senior leaders in the education service being prepared to help them to find ways of de-escalating those difficulties, to try to find a way of managing the tensions that arise in the lives of children, that spill over into the classroom, to find a way of managing those things by recognising the root causes of them and finding effective ways of helping.

These are troubled times, Llywydd, aren’t they, in so many aspects of public life? We see the spillover of that in our education service in terms of attendance and in terms of behaviour. The approach of the Welsh Government will be to try to assist those who have to respond to it every day, but to do it in a way that recognises that there are causes that lie behind those individual outbreaks of unacceptable behaviour, and our aim should be to try to find ways of putting those things right and putting those young people on a track to a successful future for themselves.

First Minister, firstly can I say I'm very glad to hear a Labour Member actually recognise this as a very real problem, which it is, and yourself, First Minister, because it is a massive problem throughout our schools? Last year, my staff and I uncovered that there were 5,000 incidents of violence in classrooms over the past five years, but this is only the tip of the iceberg, with Wales having no reporting standard, which obviously means there are thousands of incidents that have gone unreported. I’ve persistently questioned the education Minister on this issue, asking for immediate action, and once again he has failed to act until recently.

First Minister, I have come up with a five-point plan to help solve the issue. One, host a national summit on violence and bad behaviour in the classroom. Two, issue new guidance for teachers and school leaders, including a reporting standard and a requirement to report, including improved data. Reform of the exclusion procedure, so that pupils who are excluded go on to receive the support they need, as you’ve just referred to. And ensure extra funding for meaningful interventions to support victims as well as the perpetrators of violence, and to create a national helpline to support teachers and staff who would otherwise be afraid to report cases of violence.

First Minister, we have seen teachers once again striking on the issue in my region and across Wales, so when is this Government actually going to get a grip of this issue, perhaps by adopting my five-point plan? Because violence and bad behaviour are getting worse, and it is a problem not going away.

Llywydd, I agree with the very last thing the Member said. It's not a problem that is amenable to slogans such as 'getting a grip of it'. Look right across our public services. Look at what police are telling us about the levels of violence that they face in their jobs. Look at what NHS staff tell us in primary care and in emergency departments about physical assaults on them as they go about trying to help people with the medical conditions that they face. Look at what shop workers tell us about the abuse that they face at the hands of customers coming in to buy goods. What we see happening in our schools is serious, undoubtedly, but it's not isolated to the classroom. 

I've seen the Member's five-point plan and I thought there were some sensible ideas in it, and I know the Minister will have seen it as well, and some of those points are reflected already in the actions that the Minister is taking. This is a problem that isn't going away. We need to find a way of addressing it in which we harness the efforts of all of those of us who wish to see an improvement, and not regard it as somehow a competition between one party's plan and another party's plan. The Minister has already demonstrated his willingness to work with others on this agenda, and I'm sure he'll be very keen to do so when those opportunities come in the future.

14:15
Gas-fired Power Plants in Arfon

6. Will the First Minister make a statement on plans to create gas-fired power plants in Arfon? OQ60727

Thank you for the question, Llywydd. Any planning application for a gas-fired power plant in Arfon will be considered against our energy and planning policies. We will also take account of key elements of sustainable development, as they are outlined in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.

Many people in Arfon are very much concerned about a planning application in the pipeline that would lead to the construction of a gas-fired power plant in Caernarfon. The Welsh Government will have to decide on that application, so I thought it was polite to draw your attention to the opposition expressed locally. The intention is to construct a gas-fired power station on the site of an old quarry in the town, a site that's been used as a brickworks previously, and, more recently, by the contractor constructing the new road in Arfon.

I don't have to mention the need to shift away from a dependency on fossil fuels to generate energy—that argument is well known. The specific concern is about a gas-fired power plant in an old quarry, in an enclosed cauldron that has leisure facilities, a hospital and hundreds of homes nearby, in the exact place where poisonous gasses would be released. What assessment has the Government made as to whether the plans to construct a gas-fired power plant on this site, or in any other part of Arfon, or, indeed, anywhere else in Wales, is in keeping with the well-being of future generations Act?

Thank you very much to Siân Gwenllian for those important additional points. I've already read the concerns of people in her constituency on the developments that others want to take forward. I know that Siân Gwenllian will understand that I cannot discuss the details of any planning application because of possible ministerial involvement in that process. What I can do is to repeat this afternoon the policies that we have as a Welsh Government—clear policies on these issues. These were set out by the Minister for Climate Change last year. I'm happy to repeat what she said in a letter that she sent to people in this area.

Here is the policy context that the Welsh Government brings to those issues that Siân Gwenllian has highlighted. This is what the Minister said: 'Where the Welsh Government is called to decide on future proposals to build unabated power generation in Wales, it is the intention of Welsh Ministers to maintain a strong presumption against new fossil fuelled power plant, nor to replace our current fleet of plant with alternatives that may themselves be the source of greenhouse gas emissions. This presumption will also have the effect of discouraging local decision makers from consenting new small-scale fossil fuel plant.

Renewable Energy in Mid and West Wales

7. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's renewable energy priorities for Mid and West Wales? OQ60757

Meeting our energy needs in full from renewable sources is our key priority. We wish to achieve this in the shortest feasible period. In doing so, we will maximise the potential for renewable energy to retain wealth and value in mid and west Wales.

Thank you very much for that response. You will be aware that, in order to deliver the potential of developing renewable energy, we will need to develop the national grid, which continues to be entirely inadequate in rural Wales. In Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion there is currently concern in a number of communities about plans to erect a network of pylons from the Teifi to the Tywi valleys, following previous proposals for running pylons through the Tywi valley up to south Powys. I know that you can't comment on any specific applications, but we already know that the Government's policy is to underground cabling wherever possible. This is good practice in nations such as Germany, Denmark and so on, where cable ploughing is possible, which can bury over a kilometre of cables per day, which is far less damaging to the environment and is more cost-effective in terms of transmitting energy. So, can I ask you, First Minister, could this cable ploughing be the default process rather than an option in areas of outstanding beauty, or even across the whole of Wales?

14:20

Thank you very much to Cefin Campbell for those questions. I can agree with what he said to begin with. Creating a pathway to a future where the grid will be able to do what we want the grid to do is crucial for us in Wales in the context of renewable energy. We've done a great deal of work as a Government to assist and facilitate that process, but there is a great deal of work still to do. The UK Government will have to be a part of that work. As Cefin Campbell said, we have a policy already. I have read what the Minister for Climate Change said to the Member on 8 February 2023. Julie James said clearly:

'The policy is that electricity transmission cables should be placed underground where possible, not just in designated landscapes, but where possible.'

I have also read what has been done in other nations to create new ways of putting electricity lines underground. I know that the Minister is aware of those developments too, and she's considering whether there are new possibilities for us to implement our policy. 

A Sustainable Future for the Music Sector

8. What is the Welsh Government's strategy for securing a sustainable future for the music sector? OQ60760

Creative Wales focuses on the commercial music sector, providing support for infrastructure from grass-roots venues through to artist support. They work with others to agree annual priorities, alongside organisations like the Arts Council of Wales and UK-wide music industry bodies in developing joint initiatives.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. Grass-roots music venues are the lifeblood of many communities across Wales. Indeed, the culture committee's creative industries report was debated just a few weeks ago here on the floor of the Senedd. Responding to that debate, the Deputy Minister for arts and sport said to the Senedd, and I quote, that:

'We're proud that not one music venue in Wales has been lost, unlike in other parts of the UK.'

That comment came just one week after the Music Venue Trust presented their annual report, which said that 10 venues had actually closed across Wales. But the Music Venue Trust is even more concerned about the future of the industry, and in particular the severe impact that the recently announced cuts to business rates relief will have on the sector. They told me that gross profits for the entire sector were £119,000 in 2023, but the proposed rate relief cut alone is thought to have cost them £127,000, putting them £8,000 in the red overnight. They believe that as many as a further 16 music venues in Wales are likely to close as a direct result of the Welsh Government's decision—certainly not the zero that the Deputy Minister complacently claimed. So, First Minister, will you commit to reviewing the impact that this decision will have on the future of music venues across Wales? Because once they're gone, they're gone for good. 

First of all, as ever, these matters turn on definitions. In the report of the Music Venue Trust that claimed that there was a reduction in music venues in Wales, one that they identified was a pub, another was a bed and breakfast with karaoke, and another was a sports bar. Yes, music had happened at those venues, but whether you count them as music venues primarily is a very different thing, and that's what the Minister was reflecting in her answer. In fact, 16 new venues have opened in Wales recently, over the last 12 months, expanding their live music offering or increasing their capacity.

Let me be clear with the Member: this is not a cut to business relief. These are venues that had no relief at all prior to COVID unless they met the conditions in the main business rate relief scheme. There was a special scheme introduced during COVID, a time-limited scheme. It has been extended for another year, which means that those venues in Wales will receive rate relief that they would not have done in other circumstances.

We are not able to operate at the same level as last year because of all the other many things that Members across this Chamber have asked the Welsh Government to protect. So, we have protected these industries. That time-limited scheme continues, and, as a result, we can see that there are positive things happening in that industry, as well as the inevitable challenges.  

14:25
Eating Disorder Services

9. What work has Welsh Government done to improve eating disorder services? OQ60737

We have provided funding for health boards to continue to improve and expand eating disorder services. We have also identified dedicated resources in the new NHS executive to focus on mental health. That includes a national clinical lead for eating disorders to galvanise further improvements.

Thank you very much. This week is the beginning of Eating Disorder Awareness Week—a time for all of us across this Chamber to come together and talk about the work that is being done, but also the work that is left to do for those impacted across Wales. I am pleased to see the statement put out by the Welsh Government and our Deputy Minister Lynne Neagle on Monday regarding the work that has been undertaken in the past year, and their plans for the coming year. This includes the introduction of the first episode rapid early intervention for eating disorders, which is targeted at 16 to 25-year-olds, the demographic where eating disorders are most common.

This week also matters to me, not only because it marks a year since the reformation of the cross-party group on eating disorders, with the fantastic Beat Eating Disorders serving as secretariat, but also as it reminds me of the speech that I gave in this Chamber almost two years ago regarding my own experience with an eating disorder. During that speech, I called for, among other things, a residential eating disorder unit for Wales, in Wales, and for the people of Wales. Such a unit would mean that people across Wales would not be split up from their families to access the support that they need. Therefore, First Minister, would you be able to provide an update on what discussions the Welsh Government have had regarding a future residential eating disorder unit in Wales?

I thank Sarah Murphy for that. I recall the contribution that she made in the Chamber when she was a very new Member of the Senedd. It was a powerful contribution then, and I thank her for raising these matters again this afternoon.

In the interim—the two years that have elapsed since she made that first speech—the Welsh Health Specialised Services Committee has improved access to dedicated adult eating disorder beds here in Wales. The additional capacity means that there are eight residential beds available in Wales today, with the potential to commission support for up to 15 further people if that is needed. The result is that the vast majority of people who need specialist in-patient care now receive that care here in Wales.

There's a debate to be had—it happens within the clinical community as well—as to whether that dispersed model is preferable in a country like Wales, where a single residential centre always throws up issues of accessibility, given the nature of Welsh topography. But the Welsh Health Specialised Services Committee intends to publish its strategy for specialist mental health services very shortly, in the next few weeks, and that will help to resolve the debate—not the debate about whether we need residential provision, in the way that Sarah Murphy has argued, but the best way in which that can be effectively provided, given the nature of Welsh geography and accessibility issues. 

14:30

Diolch i'r Prif Weinidog. During questions, many Members called for the heat to be taken out of the farming debate today and tomorrow, and I agree. Farmers are not cranks, and neither have I heard any Member call them such. In his tweet on Sunday—and I have reviewed it on my phone—Alun Davies did not call farmers 'cranks', but, in my view, called the climate conspiracy group in The Observer headline 'cranks'. Now, I want us all to be very careful with words and accusations over the next 24 hours and beyond, and I ask that of those of you who write the tweets, as well as those of you who interpret them. 

2. Business Statement and Announcement

We move on now to the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd, Lesley Griffiths, to make that statement. 

Member
Lesley Griffiths 14:30:47
Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

Diolch, Llywydd. There are several changes to today's agenda. A motion to suspend Standing Orders has been added to the agenda, to enable the debate on budget flexibilities and the operation of the UK funding framework to proceed on the basis of a revised motion tabled yesterday. This debate, and the debate on the legislative consent motion on the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill will take place immediately after the business statement. 

Finally, the statements on creating a smoke-free generation and tackling youth vaping and second homes and affordability have been postponed. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically. 

Trefnydd, can I call for a statement from the Minister for education on the proposed changes to the school year, please? We know that the proposed changes to the school year by the Welsh Government are opposed by parents, teachers, education unions, tourism operators, and even the Royal Welsh Show. But to add to this opposition, I've recently been contacted by faith community leaders with concerns over plans to ditch the Easter break. As you will be aware—and all Members in this Chamber, I hope, are aware—Easter is the central festival in the Christian faith. So, to suggest that it has little or no significance to schools or young people, or society across Wales, is unacceptable. Now, I appreciate that Good Friday and Easter Monday are still protected in the school year, because these are public holidays, but the wider Easter period is also a very significant period for many people in Wales who observe the Christian faith.

Now, we've heard a lot of discussion in recent weeks and months, quite rightly so, about problems with antisemitism and Islamophobia, and I think that many people regard this decision by the Welsh Government to pursue a discussion on this matter as anti-Christian. So, can we have a statement, as soon as possible, in order to have a wider discussion on this issue, because it is a matter of concern for many tens of thousands of people who observe the Christian faith? 

Well, as the Member is aware, the consultation is now closed. I have not seen the consultation responses as yet, but I would imagine it's a much more mixed picture than the one that the Member portrays. Of course the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language will make a statement when those consultation responses have been assessed. 

Trefnydd, you'll be aware that there have been protestors outside of the Senedd today from our cultural institutions, obviously opposing the cuts that are being proposed. One of the things that they have highlighted, of course, has been the risks to the national collections, both because of the condition of the buildings, but also from the loss of expertise. I know I've raised this a number of times with you, asking for a statement from the Deputy Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism on this matter. I still haven't had those reassurances in terms of the national collections, and I wonder, can we please have that statement, because all of us are concerned? They're the nation's national collections—they don't belong to those national institutions—and we have a duty to ensure that they are safeguarded for future generations. 

Thank you. I was aware of the protest outside the Senedd today, and I know the Deputy Minister also was, and she has been having conversations with stakeholders around the issue that you raised. I will certainly ask her to bring forward a written statement. 

Trefnydd, as we progress plans to meet our net-zero targets, it's important that we give those who will responsible for implementation and delivery as much information and detail as possible, so that they can plan properly and recruit the necessary people needed to deliver them. With this in mind, can we please have a statement from the Government on the timescales they have for implementing a seagrass restoration scheme, and on the funding programme they intend to provide to help introduce this scheme, as committed to in the programme for government and the biodiversity deep-dive exercise?

As you know, the UK has lost around 92 per cent of its seagrass meadows, and the Welsh Government knows all too well how restoring seagrass around Wales can have a tremendous impact, not only on reducing coastal erosion, but on improving marine diversity and storing carbon. Trefnydd, Wales has some of the world's leading seagrass scientists, and through the work of organisations such as the Project Seagrass and WWF Cymru, there are large numbers of dedicated volunteers who are prepared to help in collecting and planting seagrasses. However, I feel that they have been left in a position of limbo, and any clarity from the Welsh Government, in terms of a statement, would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

14:35

Thank you. I think the Member raises a really important point. It's not that long ago I had a school down from my constituency, who came and gave a petition to the Minister for Climate Change around the restoration of seagrass, and I was quite surprised to hear how long it does take to restore it. I know the Minister for Climate Change is considering it in the round, following the biodiversity deep-dive.

Trefnydd, next month is Endometriosis Action Month. Last week I had the pleasure of meeting campaigner Georgia Jefferies, who lives on Deeside, and campaigns for better services for women with endometriosis. Georgia rightly identified the need for specialist-trained endometriosis nurses across Wales, and for all services to be readily available for those patients. I'm obviously keen for those improvements to be made, as I'm sure my colleagues on the Petitions Committee are, after the work we've done on this. Please can I ask for a statement from the Welsh Government, updating Members on endometriosis services during the awareness month in March? Diolch.

Thank you. It's really good that you've highlighted that next month will be the month to raise awareness around endometriosis. Obviously, it's a matter for each individual health board to ensure that they provide services for women suffering with endometriosis.

I'd like an urgent statement, please, relating to Ffos-y-fran in Merthyr. The company in charge of the site said that they would stop extracting coal last November, after illegally mining for more than a year. Now, I've been informed that coal mining was still going on as recently as last week, but this morning I was told that the site was quiet—there are no train wagons. Now, is this a temporary hiatus or a permanent end to the insult? I would call on the Welsh Government to issue an immediate stop notice on the removal of any coal from the site, or indeed the sale of any further coal from Ffos-y-fran.

And finally, I've raised concerns on many occasions in the Senedd about what's going to happen once the company leaves. Only £15 million is set aside in an account that could be used for restoration work, and that is vastly below what will be needed. I understand that the local authority will consider a renewed application for that restoration project. I would plead with the Government to call in any application that will do less than what the residents of Merthyr Tydfil were promised in 2007, and it is a plea, Minister. This situation rumbles on month after month, and campaigners and residents need reassurance that someone will finally do what's right here. So, please could a statement address this, and could I have an urgent meeting with the Government to discuss the situation?

Well, if you want a meeting, I suggest that you write directly to the Minister for Climate Change, whose portfolio this sits in, and, again, perhaps write to the local authority regarding the quiet period that you referred to. I know that the Minister is also in discussions with the local authority, to ensure that appropriate remediation takes place.

I call for an oral Welsh Government statement on eating disorders. As we heard at the end of First Minister's questions, 26 February to 3 March is Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2024. This year the focus is on avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder, or ARFID, a condition characterised by the person avoiding certain foods, or types of food, having restricted intake in terms of overall amount eaten, or both.

I took part in the debate on eating disorders here during Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2022. In that debate, there were calls for the Welsh Government to publish a service model or framework, with timescales, for achieving the vision of the 2018 eating disorders service review, so that everyone affected can access effective help quickly. I highlighted the then recently published Beat report, which found that progress towards early intervention, evidence-based treatment and support for families had varied widely across Wales. It's therefore disappointing that, two years on from that debate, we still do not have such a model or framework for Wales. Treating eating disorders is critical in ensuring that patients make a full and sustained recovery and prevent the need for patients requiring in-patient treatment. And therefore, it's concerning also that, two years on from the debate, we still don't have a national plan with timescales to improve local eating disorders services. I call for a Welsh Government statement—oral statement—on this accordingly. 

14:40

Thank you. Well, we do continue to invest in our eating disorders services, and a new team and clinical lead for eating disorders is helping to ensure that really positive changes are being driven to eating disorders care, with very much a focus on early intervention, and we do continue to provide funding for a range of easy access support, including the Beat helpline. 

I'm inspired by Darren Millar to make a contribution, because I hadn't really planned to make a contribution on the business statement. But I just want to provide an alternative view, because I know that Darren Millar is a committed Christian, which I absolutely respect, but I want to share an alternative view as to whether school terms and holidays should avoid or disregard the celebration of Easter. As a school governor in a Church in Wales school, I'm aware that many Christian schools prefer religious events to be collectively celebrated in their school, as far as possible, and many deliberately hold on to their pupils until the day before the public holiday when they are duty-bound to release them. So, I think we have to have a more nuanced approach to celebrations of important religious and cultural events, including, for example, this Friday's Dewi Sant celebrations. So, I think we shouldn't be carving up the school year around one particular religious celebration. I think we have to look at the much wider issues, and I hope that the education Minister will bear this in mind and take it into account. 

Thank you. Well, the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language is in his place and will have heard your contribution, and, as I say, when the consultation responses—. I'm not aware how many there have been, for instance, but normally it's a big process to go through all the responses to make sure that everybody's view is taken into account, and the Minister will then update Members. 

Trefnydd, I'd like to call for a statement from the Minister for health regarding funding for the all-Wales inherited and metabolic diseases service, including SWAN, the syndromes without a name, team within that. There appears to be some uncertainty over whether they'll be funded in the future, which means they are currently reluctant to begin any treatment pathways for those impacted. And I have a constituent with a child who is affected by paediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome—PANS—and paediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections—PANDAS—and this uncertainty is hugely stressful for them at this difficult time. In my view, the SWAN team need to be clear about the future of Welsh Government funding to keep up their great work and refer individuals for development treatment. So, a statement or response on this issue from the Minister for health would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

Thank you. Well, as I say, it is a matter for health boards to ensure that any disease or illness—that services are provided within the health board or, if they have an arrangement, that a patient could go to another health board, and that includes the disease to which you refer. 

Can I ask for statement on the building of new council houses? I believe in the importance of council house building to meet the serious demand we have for housing. Can the statement include those already built or being built, and the number planned for 2024-25 and 2025-26, and Welsh Government support for the building of new council houses? 

I'm asking for a second statement on financial transactions capital. I would like this to include how much has been received by the Welsh Government, how much has been spent, how much has been paid back to the Treasury, how much has been recycled into new projects and an evaluation of the success of those projects the money has gone into. 

Well, with regard to your second request around financial transactions capital, you do ask for some very specific points. I think it would be better to write to the Minister for Finance and Local Government with those questions. Around the building of new council housing, you will know that the Welsh Government has a very ambitious target in relation to social housing. We make absolutely no apology for that ambitious target. In the first four years of this Senedd term, we've now allocated a record £1.2 billion to social housing and we've provided local authorities with access to the social housing grant, and that really does support their ambitions as well to deliver more affordable homes in Wales.

Diolch. Business Minister, I, too, would like to reiterate calls for a statement from the education Minister about the proposed changes to school holidays. The prioritisation of these plans by the Government is, quite frankly, an insult to all, considering the myriad of more pressing issues facing education in Wales. Education unions are against change, farming unions are against change, and tourism operators, faith groups. So, I think it's only right that the education Minister comes to the Chamber and addresses these concerns, this serious backlash, by dropping these ludicrous plans at a time when education in Wales is in crisis. And now the consultation is closed, can I reiterate calls for a statement as soon as possible in this Chamber? Thank you.

14:45

I don't have anything further to add to my answers to the two previous Members who asked me the same question.

3. Debate: Budget flexibilities and the operation of the UK funding framework
Motion to suspend Standing Orders

So, we need a motion to suspend Standing Orders to allow the debate on budget flexibility and the operation of the UK funding framework. Could I call on the Minister for Finance and Local Government to move the motion formally?

Motion NNDM8498 Lesley Griffiths

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Orders 33.6 and 33.8:

Suspends Standing Order 12.20(i) and 12.22(i) to allow NNDM8497 to be considered in Plenary on Tuesday 27 February 2024.

Motion moved.

I formally move. 

The motion has been moved formally. Does any Member object to the motion to suspend Standing Orders? No. Therefore, that motion is agreed. 

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

4. Debate: Budget flexibilities and the operation of the UK funding framework

The following amendments have been selected: amendments 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, in the name of Heledd Fychan.

That enables us to hold the debate on budget flexibilities and the operation of the UK funding framework. The Minister for Finance and Local Government, therefore, to move the motion—Rebecca Evans.

Motion NNDM8497 Lesley Griffiths, Darren Millar, Jane Dodds, Heledd Fychan

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Recognises that the Welsh Government's fiscal levers are limited.

2. Believes that the budgetary flexibilities available to the Welsh Government are insufficient.

3. Notes the need for greater predictability and certainty of the Welsh Government’s funding arrangements to support its budget planning and that of partner organisations.

4. Acknowledges that the Welsh Government Reserve and borrowing limits are the same as when they were set in 2016.

5. Calls upon the UK Government to provide greater fiscal flexibilities for the Welsh Government, in the interests of effective budget management, including immediately:

a) addressing the impact of inflation on borrowing and reserve limits since 2016;

b) subjecting borrowing and overall reserve limits to annual review; and

c) abolishing reserve draw-down limits.

Motion moved.

Today I'm pleased that we've been able to reach consensus across the Senedd to jointly table a motion calling on the UK Government to provide greater fiscal flexibility for the Welsh Government in the interests of effective budget management and delivering better outcomes for the people of Wales. We're living in extraordinary times, with the impacts of the EU exit, the COVID-19 pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis and persistently high inflation having created unprecedented challenges for our public services, our economy and our communities. The Welsh Government has responded swiftly and decisively to these challenges, but we have faced significant constraints and uncertainty in managing our budget due to the lack of adequate fiscal levers at our disposal.

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

The current UK financial arrangements do not offer the predictability and the funding certainty required to support our budget planning and that of our partner organisations, including local authorities. This includes the timings of UK Government announcements, which fail to recognise the impact on our budgets and the scrutiny provided by the Senedd. Unlike the UK Government, we cannot borrow to fund day-to-day spending. We rely on the Barnett consequentials that flow from UK Government decisions, which often come with little or no notice. We frequently see significant changes to our budget late in the financial year, where funding allocations must be used quickly or cuts absorbed. We also face rigid limits on our ability to carry forward or draw down funds from our reserves, which hamper our ability to plan and respond to changing circumstances. 

To illustrate these points, it's worth me setting out for the Senedd our experience this year. With indications from the UK Government to expect very little additional funding, last summer we carried out an extensive reprioritisation of our budgets. We were forced to make some unpalatable decisions with real impacts for public services and jobs, which we now find could have been avoided. Our final figures for the supplementary estimates were confirmed on 7 February, which is already unacceptably late, coming just weeks before the end of the financial year, to only be then informed that these contained material errors, and subsequently we were presented with new figures on 13 February.

The scale of the additional funding, whilst welcome, is not insignificant. At £231 million, it represents around two thirds of our reserve capacity. Had I not already planned to maximise our draw-down from reserves this year, the restrictions on our reserve—we can only hold £350 million in aggregate—would have meant us surrendering some of this additional funding, funding rightly due to Wales, back to HM Treasury. Given the limited time to utilise this funding, and recognising the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has provided some modest flexibility in which to carry forward a small proportion of this funding, £185 million will be carried forward to next year in the Wales reserve.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the UK funding arrangements that this situation can arise. These challenges illustrate the need for improvements to ensure the fiscal structures of the United Kingdom work effectively and support devolved Governments in the efficient economic and effective administration of resources to secure value for public money. To avoid such situations in future, we should seek to establish a principle that funding confirmed after a UK autumn fiscal event can be managed across financial years, in addition to any carry-forward permitted under reserve arrangements. This would ensure the effective deployment of funding given late in the financial year and would, essentially, formalise the ad hoc arrangements that we have with HM Treasury at present.

In addition, we're also seeking to develop a process that enables the Welsh Government to make capital-to-resource switches in the same way as Whitehall departments are able to but which respects the scrutiny role of the Senedd. Today's motion sets out two specific flexibilities that should be immediately provided to the Welsh Government. The first is to review our borrowing and overall reserve limits annually so that they are indexed to inflation to reflect the growth in our budget and the increased volatility and risk that we face. These limits were set in 2016 and have not been updated since then, despite the significant changes in our fiscal landscape. This means that, in 2024-25, our reserve and borrowing limits will be worth 23 per cent—almost a quarter—less in real terms than when they were introduced in 2018-19. This reduces our ability to respond to emerging pressures.

The second flexibility is to permanently abolish our reserve draw-down limit, which restricts us to accessing only £125 million of resource and £50 million of capital from our reserves in any given year. At present, we can reflect additional flexibility in exceptional circumstances. The former Chief Secretary to the Treasury agreed to waive the limit on our access to our reserve for the current financial year, but that is a temporary measure. This limit prevents us from accessing our own savings when we need them the most and goes against the principle of effective budget management. Removing this limit would give us more control over the timing and the pace of our spending and enable us to smooth out peaks and troughs in our budget. These changes are modest and reasonable and have been endorsed by leading experts and stakeholders, including the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Institute of Welsh Affairs and the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales.

We have repeatedly called on the UK Government to provide us with these additional flexibilities. They were provided to the Scottish Government last August, and they should apply equally here in Wales. The recent increases agreed to Northern Ireland's annual capital borrowing limit are also far more generous than our own. Yet, our general capital settlement here in Wales in 2024-25 is worth up to 9 per cent less in real terms than expected at the time of the spending review in 2021. These flexibilities are about ensuring that we have the tools and the autonomy to use the money we have in the best possible way in line with the needs and the priorities of the people we serve. It's vital that there is a fair approach so as not to disadvantage one part of the UK compared to the other.

This motion is not about asking for more money from the United Kingdom Government; it's about recognising the challenges that the Welsh Government faces due to the limited fiscal levers that we have at our disposal, and it's about providing us with the tools that we need to offer greater predictability and certainty to support our budget planning and that of our partners. It's about fairness for the people of Wales, who deserve the best possible public services and support in these difficult times. This is not a political issue; it's a practical issue, and I'd like to thank Members of the Senedd from all parties for their support on this issue, and I hope that our collective voice will advance its cause with the UK Government to provide the fiscal flexibility that Wales needs. Thank you.

14:50

I have selected the five amendments to the motion. I call on Adam Price to move amendments 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, tabled in the name of Heledd Fychan.

Amendment 1—Heledd Fychan

Add as new point after point 4 and renumber accordingly:

Regrets that Westminster's lack of fair funding and fiscal flexibility has led to billions of money owed from HS2 funding and the inability to invest in local energy production using Crown Estate funds.

Amendment 2—Heledd Fychan

Add as new sub-point at the end of point 5:

replacing the Barnett Formula in order to remedy the inequity across Wales's current fiscal and funding settlement with a new system that moves away from ad-hoc funding of our public services and towards a framework that provides consistent, transparent and fair funding for Wales;

Amendment 3—Heledd Fychan

Add as new sub-point at the end of point 5:

increasing capital borrowing limits;

Amendment 4—Heledd Fychan

Add as new point at end of motion:

Calls upon the Welsh Government and the Senedd to jointly explore new ways of analysing the flexibility and fiscal frameworks of the Welsh Government, and their impacts on Wales, for example by establishing a Parliamentary Budget Office.

Amendment 5—Heledd Fychan

Add as new point at end of motion:

Calls upon the Welsh Government to formally request powers to set specific income tax bands for Wales.

Amendments 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 moved.

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. I move the amendments in the name of Heledd Fychan.

The Minister referred to political consensus and, certainly, we echo many of the remarks that she made and are reflected in the core motion, but I think it is a matter of regret that there was no attempt, certainly until very late in the day, to involve us in discussions in shaping the motion, and, indeed, our suggestions for amendments were not accepted, which is why they are presented as amendments to this text, because we would've like that consensus to have gone much further. Our amendments revisit some familiar territory of areas of deep financial injustice in terms of the current position in relation to the operation of the Barnett formula, which we would like to see revised. We'd like to see those capital borrowing limits, and, indeed, general borrowing limits increased even further, and we'd like to see greater flexibility in terms of our ability to set income tax bands.

The Scottish fiscal agreement, of course, has now been revised, or that revision will be operational from next year, and the revision was completed last year. Among other things, it, for example, indexed to inflation their resource borrowing limit. It did the same for their capital borrowing limit, it abolished their reserve draw-down limits and it also indexed it's overall reserve limit. These are many of the things that, actually, the Minister has referred to now, and, indeed, I think the Minister has already said that many of the revisions that the Scottish Government have achieved through their revised agreement, the Welsh Government would like to see applied in the Welsh case.

Now, the Scottish fiscal agreement had specific provisions about a review mechanism, or review timing, rather, in it, and it explicitly said that there would be a review following the Westminster and the Scottish Parliament elections, respectively, of 2020 and 2021. That's what happened, leading to the review being finalised last year. The Welsh fiscal agreement didn't have an explicit date in terms of those review arrangements. What it said was that the agreement would be subject to periodic review and that the first review would take place before the end of the block grant funding transitional period. My understanding of the block grant transitional funding period—but I'd be grateful if the Minister could provide some illumination on this rather opaque matter—is that there is a transitional period when, if Welsh spending per head is above the floor of 115 per cent, a different Barnett consequential is applied of 105 per cent. I'm looking to the Minister to give me some encouragement here, but my understanding is that, until that comes to an end, until we are, therefore, below 115 per cent and the transitional Barnett consequential doesn't apply, we're still in the transitional period, which means that the periodic review provision doesn't kick in. My understanding is that, in this, you will have assessed, probably, for this new spending review period, whether we're still in that transitional funding period. So, we're not going to get a periodic review for many, many years into the future, but the agreement has provision in it for the Welsh Government to request a review, and so my question, quite simply, to the Minister is have we requested that review, because everything that she has said and everything in this motion suggests to us that we absolutely need this review, and we need it as soon as possible.

Finally, there is an amendment there that refers to the creation of a parliamentary budget office. Most Parliaments in the world have something like an independent fiscal institution—a parliamentary budget office, that enables Parliament to do its work in holding the Government to account in fiscal matters. Ireland just created one five years ago and it's got a staff of about 14. That gives you a sense of, Finance Committee, probably about three and a half working full time, and maybe five or six all told. I think that we need, as an institution, a parliamentary budget office to bring us up to best practice around the world, and we would appreciate cross-party support on that basis.

14:55

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'd like to say a few words as Chair of the Finance Committee, as this debate relates to a number of points of interest to us, which, hopefully, reflect the broad consensus of opinion around these issues, as expressed in the cross-party motion that is before us today. In my time as Chair, the committee has made several recommendations relating to the matters outlined in the motion, either directly to the Treasury or in support of the Minister in her dealings with Treasury counterparts.

Our concerns are broadly related to the following areas. Firstly, there seems to be a general lack of understanding and awareness within the Treasury of matters affecting devolved institutions. This can be seen by the scant regard given to devolved budgetary processes by the UK Government when setting dates of physical events. In particular, the committee believes that the Treasury could do more to ensure that the dates of its autumn and spring statements take devolved budgetary processes into account. That’s why we included a recommendation to this effect in our recent report on the draft budget for 2024-25, and have written to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to express similar views.

Secondly, as has already been mentioned, the lack of transparency and flexibility in the way that the Treasury deals with funding decisions relating to devolved matters is concerning. The committee has long called for improvements in the way that information is shared and communicated between Governments on funding calculations. Most recently, we have recommended that the Minister continues to press the Treasury for earlier and better engagement with the Welsh Government regarding significant funding announcements, with the aim of providing greater clarity on the Welsh Government’s funding position earlier in the year. The Minister will be giving evidence to the committee this Thursday on the second supplementary budget, and we’ll be interested in hearing whether these issues persist.

Thirdly, we support the views expressed in this motion to press the UK Government for maximum flexibility within the fiscal framework, enabling discretion for the Welsh Government to manage its budgets and deal with the acute pressures it faces. This includes removing the annual Wales reserve draw-down limit and increasing the size of both borrowing limits and the Wales reserve at least in line with inflation. These are relatively simple steps to take but would make a world of difference to the fiscal levers at the Welsh Government’s disposal.

And finally, I would like to mention the lack of engagement between Whitehall departments and the Senedd on funding matters and the effect that this has in the context of accountability. This is something we have seen with our own eyes since the beginning of the sixth Senedd.

Despite repeated attempts, a string of Chief Secretaries to the Treasury have refused invitations to meet with the committee, both formally and informally. We find this situation regrettable, but we are hopeful that the newest incumbent will be more amenable to our requests. Nor are these issues constrained to the Senedd alone; as Members may be aware already, my committee, along with our counterpart committees in the Scottish Parliament—and now, hopefully, in the Northern Ireland Assembly—has established an inter-parliamentary finance committee forum, with the aim of providing a collective voice on these issues of common concern. As a committee, we've also agreed to delve deeper into this matter, and that's why we are currently conducting an inquiry into fiscal inter-governmental relations. We hope to publish a report by early autumn, and I look forward to sharing our findings and recommendations with Members in the Chamber later this year.

Dirprwy Lywydd, if I may just say a couple of words as the Plaid spokesperson on finance and local government, based on the issues we've listed, I’m particularly heartened that there is cross-party recognition today that the current fiscal framework for Wales is simply not fit for purpose. If we want devolution to come of age and realise its potential, we must come together as one to demand a better and fairer deal for Wales, and I sincerely hope that the UK leaders of both major parties will listen intently to what their representatives here in the Senedd are telling them loud and clear. It's for this reason that we will be supporting the main motion that is before us today, but, in line with our vision for a more ambitious and prosperous Wales, we do believe that we can and should go further, which is reflected in our amendments, as outlined by Adam Price.

Thank you for bringing this debate and this motion today, Minister. I look forward to working with you on these issues over the coming months and years. Diolch.

15:00

I welcome the Minister's opening statement and this collaborative approach and, obviously, we will be supporting the motion. I want to begin by recognising the fact that the Welsh Government has limited fiscal levers and that the budgetary flexibility available to the Wales Government is insufficient. In order for the Wales Government to effectively implement fiscal policies, it needs greater flexibility—a fact we can all agree on.

It is important that the Welsh Government has greater predictability and certainty regarding its spending and funding arrangements to support its budget planning. As we all know, the Welsh Government's reserve and borrowing limits, as we've heard, were set in 2016 and haven't changed. Obviously, the global economic outlook has changed drastically since then and, despite record amounts of funding from the UK Conservative Government, the Welsh Government's budgets lack flexibility. I think it's safe to say that the system needs an annual review built into it to ensure that any Welsh Government has the borrowing powers that reflect the economic environment.

The current system needs a reform. There is a need for greater fiscal flexibility for the Government in Wales in the interests of effective budget management, and to abolish the reserve draw-down limits currently in place. It seems peculiar also that local authorities have more flexibility when it comes to borrowing and reserves than the Welsh Government does—a fact I hope that UK Government will look at and amend. The Welsh Government is responsible for far more powers, we know, and far more people, than any individual local authority, so as such ought to have that greater flexibility.

While I disagree with many of Labour and Plaid's fiscal policy directions and the vast amounts of money wasted on various pet projects, this is a matter that transcends political parties and the Welsh Government should have more fiscal flexibilities, regardless of the party in power. Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd.

15:05

The Welsh Government is calling for the indexing of the Welsh Government's borrowing and overall reserve limits to inflation. On the use of reserves and adding underspend to reserves, can I follow on from where Peter Fox left off? There's no fiscal reason to limit the movement into and out of Welsh reserves; the money has already gone to the Welsh Government. As far as the Treasury should be concerned, if it is spent or saved should not matter, as it has already been given to the Welsh Government. Every council in Wales, including community councils, can move money into and out of reserves with no external control. The Welsh Government cannot. Does that make sense to anybody? Because it certainly makes no sense to me whatsoever. Why is adding money to reserves a bad thing? Why is taking money out of reserves a bad thing? This is just the way that people—. Going back to some of the Conservatives' view, that's the way people run their own budgets, by putting money into their savings and taking money out of their savings. In terms of future budgetary management, adding money into reserves is a good thing. Hopefully, someone in the Conservatives can explain why movement into and out of reserves must be controlled.

On borrowing limits, again, it does not make sense to me. The Government can use the mutual investment model—a very expensive way of paying for capital expenditure—to pay for capital projects. Previously, the private finance initiative was allowed, which, again, was an extremely expensive way of funding capital projects. The mutual investment model is PFI without the janitorial services.

Councils can borrow prudently, which means that, as long as the section 151 officer approves it, they can borrow. In Wales, there's not been the debt mountain created by gambling on the property market as has happened in England. A total of 192 local authorities in England—I'll repeat that: 192 local authorities in England—have debts exceeding twice their spending power. Forty-five local authorities have debt ratios exceeding 11 times their spending power. So, control is necessary. There should have been control on what local authorities did in England because they've left themselves in a very serious financial position, and, as we've seen in England, a number of them have, effectively, gone bankrupt.

Whilst the Welsh Government asking for it to be indexed would be progress and reduce the amount of very expensive mutual investment model borrowing that Government uses, there's another way of controlling capital expenditure between the gambling of the English local authorities and the straitjacket that the Welsh Government works under. I suggest that any expenditure above the current cap would need the approval of the Office for Budget Responsibility or a similar organisation. Responsible borrowing would then be able to be made.

These rules should also apply to Scotland and Northern Ireland. We need a consistent devolution settlement. I think that's one thing that we really do need to all agree on, that it has to have some level of consistency between Wales, England and Northern Ireland and the large English cities as well, most of which have got populations in excess of Wales.

I regret that the Welsh Government is dependent on UK Government decisions on timing, and support the need for greater predictability and certainty of the Welsh Government's funding arrangements to support its budget planning, Finance Committee scrutiny, which, along with the Chair of finance, I think is very important, and certainty for partner organisations, not only local authorities but third sector organisations as well. Often, the Westminster Government have additional funding for hospitals, but say there are no consequentials for Wales because of the way it is being funded. I'm asking the Welsh Government, in collaboration with Scotland and Northern Ireland, to agree an appeals mechanism, outside the Treasury, regarding additional moneys to be paid or not paid to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. If the Treasury acts as judge and jury, you're never going to win.

A quick reminder that the Barnett formula indicates the minimum amount that Wales can have, and, as we have seen several times in Northern Ireland, including recently, additional money can be provided over the Barnett formula if the Westminster Government wants to. The apparently arbitrary decisions on what are England-and-Wales projects, such as HS2, which does not come into Wales but is treated as an England-and-Wales project, should not happen, and, if we had an appeals procedure, it wouldn't happen. No rational person would see HS2 as an England-and-Wales project. It's an England project. In fact, if I was up in Leeds, I would say it was a Birmingham to London project, not a project for the north of England either. So, it is important that these things are dealt with.

There also needs to be a way of appealing decisions such as this to a body outside the Treasury. You cannot have the Treasury making the decision: 'Oh, you don't like our decision—well, appeal'—'Thank you for your appeal; we've decided our decision is the decision we want to make.' That's a very strange and wrong way of doing it.

And finally, we haven't got time today, but I think we really do need a debate on the Barnett formula in here and what replaces the Barnett formula, because I'm not convinced that anything coming in after the Barnett formula will necessarily be better.

15:10

As demonstrated by the text of this cross-party motion, Wales is not in a position to deal effectively with the challenges facing us—challenges that are unprecedented in the history of devolution. As Adam Price outlined in his contribution, all too often we are the forgotten nation in Westminster, and we do not have the powers and flexibility necessary to manage our budgets.

Last year, the Welsh Government asked permission from Westminster to be allowed to dip into its capital funding for the running of the health service. This simply should not be the case. It's ineffective, it adds layers of bureaucracy, and hinders Welsh Government's ability to respond to events. Mike Hedges is very consistent. He regularly raises this ridiculous situation in which local authorities and indeed community councils can take money out of their reserves in a way Welsh Government cannot. I'm glad today to hear that Peter Fox agrees that this situation is ridiculous. It doesn't make any sense, it's inefficient, and it shows a lack of respect for the Welsh Government, and, indeed, our Senedd.

In contrast to the hindrance on the Welsh Government to dip into its reserves, contrast the lack of delay, that no delay happened, when the Treasury decided to claw back the £155 million of unspent pandemic funds. I have been unable to ascertain where the £155 million ended up, but what is clear is that this Senedd had no say in the matter at all. Yet again, we see these rules impacting Wales disproportionately. Scotland have very similar rules in regard to unspent funds, but the amount they can carry forward is vastly higher than what we have here in Wales. In contrast to us, Scotland didn't have to pay back a single penny to the Treasury for their unspent pandemic funds. The Holtham commission recommended that we receive a 115 per cent needs-based factor for our version of the Barnett formula. This has been rejected by the UK Government, as we haven't reached a relative block grant per head of 115 per cent. As of 2021, our funding per head sits at 120 per cent, which is why it is so bizarre and makes no sense that our needs-based factor has remained at 105 per cent since 2018. These values need to be changed, or Wales will continue to receive an unfair share of funding.

We see clearly here the challenges that we face as a nation. In the first instance, securing adequate funding is proving impossible. As Mike Hedges said, entirely rightly, we need to abolish the Barnett formula. And the Treasury also has the right to claw back any funding that we receive as it wishes.

To ensure fairness for our people and the nation, we need to abolish the restrictions on the use of our capital budgets. We must reform the Barnett formula, which is well past its use-by date. And we must ensure that we in Wales are able to develop flexible fiscal policies that can respond effectively to events. Thank you very much.

15:15

I'm grateful to the Minister for introducing this debate. I'm also grateful to both Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservative for embracing this consensus. I think there has been a consensus at different times over the past few years on different elements of these matters, but this is the first time that I can remember that all three parties represented here have come together with an agreed position. Whilst welcoming the consensus, I'm also going to ask Peter Fox to move a little further in that consensus and think perhaps a little more radically about the sorts of challenges facing Wales.

One of the things that comes up time and time again, and has come up throughout my time in this place, is the fiscal calendar. Throughout all that time, no matter who has been in Government in the United Kingdom, what we've seen are decisions taken by the Treasury that suit the Treasury. And what we haven't seen are decisions being taken by the Treasury that are relevant to all parts of the United Kingdom. And we do need to agree with the Treasury that there will be a fiscal calendar for all parts of the United Kingdom, and that fiscal calendar is one that all Governments buy into and agree that they will stick to.

But we've also seen significant changes to the way the Treasury manages the finances of the United Kingdom. And this is the crux of my argument today. I think, if we had this debate in the UK House of Commons, you'd find Ministers who'd sat in different departments of state in Whitehall agreeing with our analysis of the Treasury. I don't think the Treasury is uniquely targeting Wales or Scotland or Northern Ireland. I think the Treasury is a bully in London as well, and I think most people recognise that. I think we need to look hard at how the financial structures of the United Kingdom actually function for the whole of the United Kingdom, and not simply for civil servants who happen to be sitting in the Treasury today.

The Northern Irish agreement, which was published last month, I think, demonstrates that there can be a way forward, because hidden within the command paper 'Safeguarding the Union' was a commitment to change the basis of funding for Northern Ireland. Without any discussion, any debate, we will move to a needs-based formula. Now, I'd be interested if the Minister has heard anything about what that actually means in reality or whether the Treasury's made any statement on that. If she could address that in replying to the debate, I'd be grateful. But the fact that the Treasury can make a decision of that nature, that fundamental nature, without any debate and discussion, demonstrates that it has too much power. That's what it demonstrates. And that that power can be used in an arbitrary way.

We have an inter-governmental relations agreement that establishes structures to resolve disputes between the Governments of the United Kingdom, and, as Mike Hedges has very eloquently described, it doesn't work. Because when you do have these disagreements, and we can use HS2 as an example that is on our minds today—. When Labour were in Government, exactly the same thing happened with the Olympics, so let's not pretend that this is simply a Conservative issue. This is an issue of the governance of the United Kingdom; it goes beyond political parties.

It is impossible to have a debate and a discussion and a disagreement with the Treasury if the Treasury is the judge and jury, and that simply does not work, and it works for none of us. So, we need to have an independent element to the management of these structures, and what strikes me as being an interesting example, and it's very difficult just to take a structure out of a different country and plonk it down in ours, but the Australian Commonwealth Grants Commission has operated independently of Government for 90 years. It's been changed and it's been through several reforms in that time, but what it does, at its heart, of course, it redistributes the goods tax in and across Australia. But what is important is its independence.

Now, the Conservative Government, George Osborne as Chancellor, introduced the Office for Budget Responsibility, and I welcome that, because what it provides is independent oversight and it provides independent challenge to the Treasury, and what I believe we should be looking at is an independent UK body that is a UK body in the sense that it represents the interests of Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not a part of the UK Government, which ensures that all parts of the UK are treated fairly, that we have a funding formula that's agreed by all parts of the United Kingdom, we have a financial framework and structure that is agreed by all parts of the United Kingdom, and that that financial framework and structure is delivered through impartial advice and independent oversight. When we reach that point, we will have a financial structure that I hope drives equality across the United Kingdom.

I'll finish on this point, Deputy Presiding Officer: had the Treasury been uniquely successful over the decades in delivering a United Kingdom where fairness and equality are a part of the lives of everybody, then we'd have no room for complaint, but the reality is that the United Kingdom is the least equal country in Europe. We cannot allow that system that created those inequalities to continue; we need change. This is a good start, but we need radical and fundamental change.

15:20

I very much welcome this debate and thank the Minister for bringing it to the Senedd today. As the Minister knows, like the Welsh Government, I've long been calling for Wales to be granted further borrowing powers, including full access to prudential borrowing without arbitrary caps. Whether it's fixing the housing crisis, building a health service fit for an ageing population, investing in world-class transport, or, on a global scale, tackling the climate and nature emergencies, Wales faces mounting challenges, but Wales is almost uniquely disadvantaged in its ability to meet these changes because of the severe limitations placed on our ability as a nation to borrow or invest.

Most national governments have access to a variation of prudential borrowing, whereas here in Wales we're limited to just £1 billion per Senedd term, and such is the extent of the problem that the Welsh Government has been forced to turn to mutual investment models, as Mike said earlier, as an option of last resort, relying on profit-driven private companies to build schools, roads or hospitals, because we aren't allowed to borrow it ourselves. It's absolutely clear that this financial settlement doesn't suit Wales, but it does very much suit the Tory Government in Westminster, as was demonstrated so painfully during the pandemic, where the UK Government funnelled hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money into the bank accounts of private companies like Serco. The Welsh Government chose instead to invest in our local authorities to carry out testing and tracing, with far better results and far better value for money.

Limiting Welsh borrowing powers locks in long-term reliance on neoliberal economics. It prevents Wales from borrowing to invest in successful state-owned public services and infrastructure. In so doing, too often it prevents the possibility of Wales showing that there is a better way, and like in the pandemic, it does not suit the Westminster Government to be shown up by a progressive and compassionate Government in Wales. The word 'investment' is rightly mentioned in the motion in front of us today. Fundamentally, this is a debate about investment in our nation and its future. Borrowing for long-term infrastructure projects in health, education, public transport and housing is about putting in place the building blocks for a more prosperous society. A resident of north Wales who has access to state-of-the-art education facilities, who can rely on a proactive health service built on prevention before cure, and who can go home from work to a well-insulated and affordable council house is a resident of Wales who lives a longer, healthier and happier life. It's because of this that investments in health, education, public transport and housing often act as economic multipliers, returning more money to the taxpayer in the long term than they initially cost. Not only is it good policy, but it's good economics.

Of course, after 14 years of austerity politics forced on the people of Wales from Westminster, after 14 years of shrinking real-term budgets, and after more than 14 years of restrictions on our nation's ability to borrow, it can often seem that governing is all about the present, but governing should be about the future, just as much as about the present. To govern properly is to ensure that coming generations are able to live in a much better, more prosperous and resilient country than the one that we inhabit today. Here in Wales, we understand that; we recognise our duty to carry out that mission of leaving behind a better country than the one we inherited, and that is why, even hopefully with the much-needed change of Government in Westminster, we must continue to make these calls. Because, as the elected representatives of the people of Wales, we should be given the full powers to rise to the challenge of building the country our society deserves. Diolch.

15:25

I call on the Minister for Finance and Local Government to reply to the debate. Rebecca Evans.

Thank you very much. Thank you to all colleagues for their contributions in the debate this afternoon. And, as Alun Davies set out, the timing of UK Government fiscal events and spending announcements can have big impacts for the democratic process here in Wales. Just this morning, I published the Welsh Government's final budget for 2024-25, ahead of the vote that we'll have in the Senedd next Tuesday, but within a day of that vote on the Welsh Government's taxation and spending plans for 2024-25, the UK Government will publish its budget, meaning that our settlement is again likely to change and our budget will need to be updated. And that really illustrates the level of uncertainty that we face here in Wales and the reliance of our budgets on those decisions made by the UK Government.

I would like to take this chance to thank the Finance Committee for its ongoing support in raising this particular issue with the UK Government as well. And I would like to thank Plaid Cymru for the amendments they've tabled to the motion today. There's certainly a lot in there that we as Welsh Government would agree with, for example, we agree that there is a strong case for significantly increasing our capital borrowing limits, and we agree that Wales is owed substantial funding as a result of the incorrect classification of HS2. We also agree that the Barnett formula should be replaced. In fact, we set out proposals in 'Reforming our Union' for a new principles-based approach to UK funding and fiscal networks, enshrined within a new fiscal agreement, overseen and operated by a body independent of the UK Government, and where the Barnett formula would be replaced with a new relative needs-based system. The approach to Northern Ireland and the needs-based system there takes account of the Holtham work, which has informed our situation here in Wales. So, it's welcome that they at least accept the validity of that, but, certainly, it doesn't get close to delivering what we would imagine in terms of that kind of relative needs-based system. However, the aim of the debate today, of course, is about being united and sending that shared message to the UK Government, that Wales deserves those reasonable and simple changes to the existing fiscal arrangements that would make a significant positive impact on our ability to plan and budget more effectively.

The motion has been jointly tabled, and I know that, in that spirit, it wouldn't be fair for us to vote in favour of amendments to it. I know that we could've all created different motions, with different emphases or different clauses or different steps for the future. I certainly know that we would support an amendment, such as that that Mike Hedges was describing, in terms of an appeals or arbitration system for the future, and the prudential borrowing idea that Carolyn Thomas was talking about as well. But I think the fact that we've got some common ground here is pretty momentous; it's something that we should welcome, and when we can agree and work together, I really want to be able to do that. So, I'm very grateful to Members for their support for the motion and believing that achieving consensus on this important issue can improve our chances of advancing the cause with the UK Government. Thank you.

The proposal is to agree amendment 1. Does any Member object? [Objection.] There are objections, and I will therefore defer voting under this item until voting time.

Voting deferred until voting time.

5. Legislative Consent Motion on the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill

Item 5 this afternoon is the legislative consent motion on the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, and I call on the Minister for Finance and Local Government to move the motion. Rebecca Evans.

Motion NDM8490 Rebecca Evans

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 29.6, agrees that provisions in the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, in so far as they fall within the legislative competence of the Senedd, should be considered by the UK Parliament.

Motion moved.

I move the motion. I'm grateful for the work of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee on this matter, and for the report that they published. I'm pleased that the committee agreed with the position the Government set out in its legislative consent memorandum.

I have a number of concerns regarding the implications of the Economic Activities of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, firstly, because it alters the executive competence of the Welsh Ministers by stopping them from making their own judgments and procurement decisions based on the conduct of foreign states, and, secondly, because of the unpredictability of Henry VIII powers, which afford the opportunity for the Secretary of State to make future regulations that could have profound implications for Wales and future legislation passed by this Senedd. Thirdly, the Bill encroaches on article 10 of the European convention on human rights, which sets out the right to freedom of expression.

We cannot consent to a Bill that seeks to lawfully prevent our public bodies and democratic institutions from expressing an opinion on overseas matters. The Welsh Government strongly opposes what is essentially a gagging order, which can only be seen as harmful to democracy. Furthermore, I believe the Bill is completely unnecessary, as we already have protections in place within the World Trade Organization agreement on Government procurement, and enshrined in the 2015 public contracts regulations, which require fair and equal treatment of overseas bidders where a relevant trade agreement applies. 

The UK can already set sanctions for trade without the need for this legislation—for example, the sanctions placed on Russia when they declared war on Ukraine. I also think it's important for me to address the reason why the UK Government felt the need for this Bill to ban public bodies from carrying out their own boycotts, divestment and sanctions campaigns against foreign countries. I want to be clear that the Welsh Government, in rejecting this Bill, does so entirely for the reason that we do not agree with the significant impact it would have on the freedom of public bodies and democratic institutions across the whole of Wales—a freedom to decide not to purchase from, or procure from, or invest in, organisations involved in human rights abuse, abuse of workers' rights, the destruction of our planet, or any other harmful and illegal acts.

We must remember that we're here today also to discuss this Bill's implication for devolution, specifically the executive competence of the Welsh Ministers. I call upon all Members of this Senedd to withhold their consent to this encroachment upon the responsibilities of this Senedd and the functions of Welsh Ministers with respect to devolved areas of responsibility. UK Ministers are not democratically accountable for the freedoms our public bodies currently enjoy, or for their economic and political influence. We cannot, and should not, consent to this, not when many of our devolved public services and democratic institutions are captured by this Bill. I call upon all Senedd Members to withhold their consent, and I call upon the UK Government to take note of this debate and the strong feelings expressed, and to act accordingly. 

15:30

I call the Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, Huw Irranca-Davies. 

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. My thanks, as always, to my committee colleagues for their consideration of this matter, and also our expert and very diligent clerks and advisers. 

We laid our report on this, on the Welsh Government’s memorandum in respect of the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, on 22 November 2023. As the Minister has outlined today again, the Bill intends to prevent public bodies, when making decisions about procurement and investments, from considering a country or territory of origin or other territorial considerations in a way that indicates political or moral disapproval of a foreign state.

We came to three conclusions within our report, and the Minister has touched on some of them already. Firstly, we agreed with the Welsh Government’s assessment that all the clauses and Schedules listed in the memorandum fall within a purpose within the legislative competence of the Senedd, as described in Standing Order 29, and, therefore, they do require the consent of the Senedd.

Our second and third conclusions express concern in relation to the Bill’s compatibility with the European convention on human rights, and with international law, and they highlight the potential constitutional implications of this for the Senedd. The Minister has raised the issue that there remain questions regarding the Bill’s compatibility with convention rights and international law. In the memorandum, she has referred to widespread criticism of this Bill amongst the legal and academic community, in relation to the way it has been drafted and how it is intended to operate in practice. Although the Minister did not elaborate on this information in the memorandum specifically, as a committee we are aware of concerns brought to the attention of other sister committees across the UK, including the House of Commons public Bill committee, by those international organisations and public law practitioners that support the Minister’s concerns. We, therefore, as a committee share the concerns of the Minister about the compatibility of this Bill with convention rights and with international law.

Dirprwy Lywydd, as you'll be aware, the devolution settlement requires Welsh Ministers to comply with both international obligations and convention rights. The Welsh Government’s ministerial code also places specific duties on the Welsh Ministers to comply with international law and treaty obligations. In light of the widespread concern regarding the Bill’s compatibility with those convention rights and with international law, our report reiterated the position that we have expressed in relation to previous Bills subject to this legislative consent process, namely that a decision by the Senedd to consent to this Bill could contribute to a breach of international law and would mean the Senedd acting incompatibly with international obligations. As we have previously highlighted, this would be in contrast to the spirit of the devolution settlement. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

15:35

The economic activity of public bodies Bill, which obliges public bodies to comply with the foreign policy outlook of the UK Government and imposes legal restrictions on the ability to make ethical investments abroad is an affront to the basic democratic right to freedom of speech. Alongside the new Public Order Bill, which places disproportionate barriers on the right to peaceful protest, this typifies the Tory Party's disturbing lurch towards authoritarianism over recent years. As the former Secretary of State for Wales Peter Hain mentioned, if these powers had been available to the UK Government of the day back in the 1980s, public institutions would have been barred from protesting against the Governments of apartheid South Africa, which, of course, were backed by the Thatcher administration. Moreover, the fact that the motivation for introducing this Bill is purely to clamp down on the activities of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign sets a dangerous precedent of the law being bent to suit a particular ideological agenda.

It is also yet another clear example of Tory cancel culture in action. Instead of focusing on clearing up the colossal mess they've made in Government, they seek to shut down criticism of their abysmal record, both domestically and abroad. It is vital, therefore, that, here in Wales, we stand up for the right to freedom of speech, and oppose this Draconian legislation that does not command the democratic consent of the Welsh people. Regardless of the UK Government's attempt to stifle public debate on this issue, we will continue our solidarity with the innocent population of Gaza, who are being brutalised daily by the actions of the far-right Netanyahu administration. We of course also extend our sympathy to all groups around the world currently facing injustice, discrimination and persecution. Diolch yn fawr.

Thank you to colleagues for speaking in this debate, and particularly to the LJC committee for its diligent work on this particular matter. I did have the opportunity to meet with the relevant UK Government Minister to set out that we don't accept that the executive competence of the Welsh Ministers should be altered in regard to procurement and investment decisions. It's not clear what the UK Government was even intending to do by seeking to make those restrictions.

The particular restrictions on freedom of speech are a huge concern. It's difficult to see how the UK Government could think this is a good thing—not just for public bodies, but also for the individuals who would be found to be personally responsible for any breaches. This also brings the Bill's compliance with international law into question. It does encroach on those human rights, and  the Welsh Government and Members of this Chamber have a responsibility to protect and defend these rights. The devolution settlement requires Welsh Ministers to comply with both international obligations and the rights contained in the European convention on human rights. Also, as we've heard, the Welsh Government's own ministerial code places specific duties on Welsh Ministers to comply with international law and treaty obligations.

Our partners in the trade union movement are also very strongly opposed to the Bill, and there are particular concerns over the Bill's impact on international law obligations expressed by the Trades Union Congress. Unison is also opposed to the Bill, believing it to be unnecessary, undermining ethical procurement and placing huge limitations on freedom of expression. We do share those concerns, and those of other unions that have expressed a view on this as well.

Our contracting authorities are rightly very focused on local issues and local residents. However, we should also remember that issues happening abroad also have repercussions for us here in Wales. The freedom to choose how and where a Welsh public contracting authority engages in procurement is positive, and ensures that we are being globally responsible, which is a key goal set out in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.

To conclude, we can't consent to this Bill. It's ill-conceived, with no evidence for its necessity. It does present a threat to freedom of expression and the ability of public bodies and democratic institutions to spend, invest and trade ethically, in line with international law and human rights. I ask Members to withhold consent to the Bill.  

15:40

The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] Yes, there are objections. I will therefore defer voting under this item until voting time. 

Voting deferred until voting time.

Item 6 is next. 

It appears the Minister is not here at the moment, so I'm going to have to suspend the session for five minutes to make sure the Minister is in the Chamber to give his statement.

Plenary was suspended at 15:40.

The Senedd reconvened at 15:44, with the Deputy Presiding Officer in the Chair.

6. Statement by the Minister for Economy: Policy Statement on Apprenticeships

Item 6 is a statement by the Minister for Economy: a policy statement on apprenticeships. I call on the Minister for Economy, Vaughan Gething. 

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. The world of work is changing. Even in the last five years, the economic and social environment has changed significantly. Over the next two decades, there will be further change and the core competencies of a wide range of jobs will need to be more directly relevant to the requirements of a low-carbon economy. The majority of the workforce in 2050 is already in work. Our task is to help invest in their skills to make sure that they align with the needs of the economy of the future. We will invest to provide opportunities for people to build a career throughout their lives, particularly young people supported by our young person’s guarantee. We need to ensure that our system is fit for the future, able to drive recovery and growth and support communities.

Dirprwy Lywydd, in our policy statement on apprenticeships, we have developed a strategic framework for the future of the apprenticeship programme. There is a focus on addressing the challenges that both individuals and employers face due to the impact of the pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis and economic changes. Those economic changes, of course, include the UK going into recession recently, but also newer opportunities for the economy that are yet to come. We will be working closely with the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research to deliver against this statement, ensuring that we maximise opportunities for the people of Wales.

The statement sets out three objectives and related actions, all of which align with our refreshed economic mission and support our employability and skills plan. We know that cross-Government action across a range of policy areas is critical to ensure that we strengthen our economy in a way that builds upon the principles of well-being and makes Wales a great place to live and work.

Under the first objective, we want to strengthen the apprenticeship offer in strategically important sectors, such as transport, health and housing, so that we can build resilience to the changing economic environment. Increasingly, there is a need for a different mix of skills and qualifications. As employers adapt their businesses to meet the opportunities of digitalisation, artificial intelligence and sustainability, our apprenticeship frameworks and pathways need to change as well. 

Together we can work towards our climate goals and drive net-zero growth for sectors including manufacturing, digital, transport, energy and the circular economy. There are opportunities for an even greater join-up between education and training systems, where apprenticeships can work alongside other skills and education programmes to provide improved access and progression. Further education, higher education and independent training providers will also need to explore opportunities for collaboration to support vertical progression across apprenticeships.

Under our second objective, our aim is to plug skills gaps and boost productivity. Changes in technology and the ability to automate some work tasks will place an increasing requirement for the retraining and upskilling of the workforce. Automation and artificial intelligence will impact all occupations. Demand for re-skilling is likely to be complex and affect all skill levels. To meet these challenges, we need to continue to align our delivery model to economic needs. That includes facilitating collaboration between providers and removing duplication and wasteful competition. For example, we are already co-ordinating our skills programmes to deliver our net-zero skills action plan, both meeting industry demand and securing better apprenticeship outcomes. The role of the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol has been expanded to provide targeted support for the further education and apprenticeship sectors. The coleg will continue to identify sectors where new frameworks or additional capacity for Welsh-medium and bilingual apprenticeships should be developed. 

The third objective aims to tackle economic inequality. This is about improving labour market outcomes for disadvantaged groups of people. We want people from all backgrounds to thrive and grow by accessing good employment or education opportunities. This means equipping those people with skills and removing barriers to access for employment opportunities. We will work to increase diversity in apprenticeships and promote social mobility as an investment in economic success and lasting, sustainable growth.

The labour market too often fails to provide accessible opportunities for disabled workers, excluding people from employment and the benefits it brings to individuals and wider society, as well as compounding the impact of the cost-of-living crisis. The Welsh Government continues to invest in an incentive scheme to encourage employers to recruit disabled people, as well as supporting the expansion of the shared apprenticeship programme to, for example, support people with complex learning disabilities. This objective supports the delivery of the employability and skills plan, which prioritises resources for those furthest from the labour market. 

Lastly, the 2024-25 budget round has presented the most painful budget choices for Wales in the devolution era. Overall, our budget is worth £1.3 billion less in real terms than when it was set in 2021. That loss of spending power is more than the entire budget for Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board last year. It is a staggering amount to have to make up for. The Minister for Finance and Local Government has set out the damaging impact of the wholly unacceptable way that changes to UK Government spending plans are shared with devolved Governments at the eleventh hour. In practice, it means that devolved nations have less certainty compared to Whitehall departments. This Senedd, and partners across Wales, should not be forced to endure a level of uncertainty that is entirely preventable and wholly unjustifiable. Sadly, that is the unavoidable reality of the current UK Treasury’s conduct. 

In preparing the final budget, we have demonstrated our commitment to making young people and their skills a top priority in tough times. That is why we created the young person's guarantee in 2021, and it is the reason that I committed to use any increases to my budget to support the quality apprenticeships that we are proud to fund. I'm delighted to confirm today that I will be restoring £5.25 million to the apprenticeship budget, using extra funds to reverse the planned reduction and taking our investment in apprenticeships to over £143 million a year.

However, the loss of former European funding means there will still be an impact on the apprenticeship contract size compared to the current year that we're in.  This is made even worse by the UK Government’s decision to specifically prevent local authorities from using the shared prosperity fund to support Wales-wide programmes like apprenticeships, exactly as I warned while the shared prosperity fund was being designed. My officials will continue their close work with the network to plan delivery to maximise the use of the funding available to us.

This decision recognises the importance of apprenticeships to our long-term aims of prevention, supporting efforts to tackle poverty, wider improved longer term outcomes, and supporting economic growth. It demonstrates the priority that we attach to working people and their skills in order to build a stronger, fairer and greener economic future. That is why additional funds have been dedicated to apprenticeships the moment that budgets have made that possible, and this Government will go on prioritising this investment in the face of our major financial pressures.

I'm very happy to answer questions from Members, Dirprwy Lywydd. 

15:50

Now, three weeks ago, the Minister promised lots of positivity in today's statement, but in reality this statement is straight out of the Alastair Campbell school of spin. Of course, I'm pleased that further funding has been made available to the sector, but the reality is that the sector will still receive a significant cut to its budget. Indeed, rather than a cut of £17.5 million, the sector is now facing a cut of £12.25 million, and he goes on to say in his statement that there will still be an impact on contract size. That's hardly positive, is it? And before the Minister asks me where I would find this extra funding, I say to him: give me direct access to his department's books, and I'll find the funding he's looking for. Now, it's vital that apprenticeships can be delivered sustainably over the coming years, and it's clear that this funding won't even provide a short-term fix. And so perhaps the Minister can tell us how providers can be expected to deliver their programmes over the medium and longer term. 

As Members are all aware, labour and skills shortages continue to hold back economic growth in Wales, and as today's statement states, the system needs to be fit for the future and be able to drive recovery and growth as well as supporting communities. I'm concerned that the Minister's policy statement on apprenticeships—all three bullet points—is meaningless if the sector doesn't have sufficient funding through the medium and longer term. 

In terms of the policy objectives, the Minister's first bullet point is to strengthen the apprenticeship offer in strategically important sectors, such as transport, health and housing. I agree that strategically important sectors need to be better supported, and I've long called for the Minister to do more to promote the value of apprenticeships in areas like renewable energy, where there will be significant opportunities coming our way. The Minister's policy statement tells us the Government will be defining labour market-relevant skills for the green transition. Perhaps he can tell us how that work is taking place, and how that definition is to be incorporated into apprenticeship frameworks. The policy statement refers to the role of regional skills partnerships in this area, and perhaps the Minister can tell us more about the role that they will play in providing intelligence and driving change at a regional level, so that provision is better aligned to economic growth areas.

Now, today’s statement states that under the second objective, the Welsh Government’s aim is to plug skills gaps and boost productivity. There of course needs to be improved collaboration between the further education and higher education sectors, and more work to consolidate degree apprenticeships by expanding into new sectors. In last year’s evaluation of the degree apprenticeships programme, two thirds of employers reported that participation in the programme was increasing rates of productivity amongst degree apprentices, and there have understandably been calls for an increase in the range of degree apprenticeships available, and an expansion in the level of degree apprenticeships. And so I hope the Minister can tell whether this is something that is likely to take place, and if so, what new actions can we expect to see in relation to degree apprenticeships in the next few years? Perhaps he can also tell us how the Welsh Government is facilitating more collaboration between the further education and higher education sectors too.

Now, the third and final objective aims to tackle economic inequality. The Welsh Government’s economic mission already states that the Government will target resources where they are most needed, with help for those furthest from the labour market. And in that case, apprenticeships are exactly where the Welsh Government should be investing its resources. We know that in quarter 4 of 2022-23, around 64 per cent of all apprenticeship learning programmes started were by female learners, and the number of learners starting an apprenticeship with a disability and/or learning difficulty is increasing. So there is a huge socioeconomic duty on the Government to ensure that these learners aren’t left behind. Now, today’s statement tells us a bit more about that work, but I’d be interested to learn more about how the Welsh Government is specifically supporting apprenticeships amongst under-represented groups.

Dirprwy Lywydd, of course, the Minister has yet again spent some time talking about the UK Government’s financial management, which is remarkable considering the Welsh Government’s track record in wasting taxpayers’ money over the last 25 years. Budgets are of course tight, but if the Welsh Government wanted to prioritise this, then it could have, and rather than blaming Westminster, the Minister should be taking some responsibility for that.

So, in closing, Dirprwy Lywydd, today’s statement is a disappointing attempt to paper over the cracks, and I look forward to discussing the Minister’s three bullet point objectives with apprenticeship providers and hearing their views on the Welsh Government’s work in this area over the next few months.

15:55

I thank the Member for his comments and questions. When it comes to the budget envelope that we have, it's an undeniable reality: we have £1.3 billion less in our standard budget in real-terms spending power, which is more than the entire budget of Cwm Taf Morgannwg health board last year. Now, that's a fact, not an opinion, and it's fine for the Conservative Member to claim that this has got nothing to do with his party, whilst our budgets have gone down in real terms, and then to demand at the end, as he did, that more money is found in this area and virtually every other. If you remember the draft budget debate we had—[Interruption.]

Hold on, Minister, for a second. From both sides, I would like to hear the Minister's response to the questions raised by the Conservative spokesperson. 

If you remember the draft budget debate we had, virtually every Conservative speaker demanded extra spending in every area across the Welsh Government's budget line: in the third sector, in museums, in apprenticeships, in health, in education and local government. And as the Member knows—and I know Paul Davies can do basic arithmetic—if you increase the spend in all those areas, you don't have a balanced budget. The idea that there is £1.3 billion of waste and inefficiency simply to squeeze out is something the Member knows very well simply isn't true. And when the Member is saying that, actually, we should simply be able to make up the money that has been lost in EU funds, which have been thieved from us by his Tory mates in Whitehall, I think he should go and have a word with the Chair of the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee, because he would tell Paul Davies that actually there are very real challenges in the loss of that money and the deliberate redesign of programmes to exclude programmes like apprenticeships from the way that those funds have been designed. I can happily send him the report that the Chair has authored and introduced in this Chamber, if he would prefer. His contribution was a pretty depressing failure yet again to stand up for Wales and the basics of what our budget should look like, rather than demanding that all of the problems created by Conservative management of public finances be visited upon this Government.

I'm very proud to say that we are proud to promote apprenticeships and we'll continue to do so in every area, including when it comes to renewable power. And actually, the county that the Member currently represents at least a part of has a bright future in this, as the Member has regularly pointed out in this Chamber. I've enjoyed going to see people in Pembrokeshire, in the college and beyond; I look forward to more. If we get the right investment choices made in ports, we can unlock even more investment in that sector and many more—that should be something that it shouldn't be too hard to agree. In fact, I met more apprentices today when I visited William Hare in the Islwyn constituency, and I was very proud to meet them, alongside their GMB steward, in understanding how that business works with the union and the local college to bring more apprentices in, and its journey to growing its company—more examples that we need and, actually, a good example of an employer that is already meeting and surpassing the 5 per cent challenge of making sure there's a consistent and constant renewal of their new intake of apprentices.

I look forward to regional skills partnerships looking again at what they need to do, both to engage with businesses and, indeed, providers, in understanding the current needs of their local and regional economy, and how we make sure that fits into what we're doing, not just with the regions, but also nationally as well. There'll be more work to do to make sure that our current mix of all the intelligence and information actually meets what businesses are then telling us they need. I think there's more work we can do—and the statement sets this out—between skills partnerships and others. Some of that information is ultra local; some of it, I think, comes back to the national picture as well.

We will continue to make progress on degree apprenticeships. I see that Dr David is in the Chamber with us. He may well mention this, if he has the chance to, but we've already started the rail degree apprenticeship; it's in motion. And I have met Unite members at General Electric and Airbus, for example, where, because they start off through an apprenticeship in the workplace, they often end up having degree-level qualifications as a direct result of investment not just by this Government, but by the employer themselves, in recognising the value they get in having a more productive workforce and a more profitable business.

And we are looking to make deliberate choices to continue to expand the diversity of our apprenticeship workforce. I'm glad that the Member picked this up in his contribution. We've made some progress, but there's a lot more to do. Again, where I was visiting today, seeing some of the welding taking place—it was fascinating, not just seeing the light, but understanding the work that's been done there for HS2 and, indeed, work that's been done for Hinkley as well—actually there was a handful of women in the workforce. The work itself isn't something that doesn't suit women workers. There's a challenge for them to get the workforce they need, and they recognise that as a business. I am pleased that they are just one example of businesses that want to engage in schools and local colleges, with men and women, and actually to make sure they have the widest possible range of workers coming into their businesses.

But we have made deliberate choices, for example, as I set out in the statement, on incentives for disabled people to undertake apprenticeships, to make sure that the apprentice route is a real route through, and work-based learning can provide real opportunities for a worthwhile career that recognises the strengths of those people. And I'll come back to this point of recognising the strengths that people have, because, in the wider field of disability, including learning disabilities, people often see the difference and what that person may not be able to do compared to others, rather than seeing what they can do. And in a number of areas where there are opportunities to reskill and to learn, people, for example, across the autistic spectrum, are able to do things that many other people can't, and it's a real strength and a power and a positive. In cyber, and a whole range of digital areas, they're looking for people to deliberately go into those areas because they recognise that they have a real value to that company and where they want to go in terms of growth. And actually, that will be a really transformative thing for that person, to have really good work where who they are is recognised as a real positive, and people want them to walk through the door, come in and join part of a team and help to make it successful. I think the approach we're taking is deliberately about doing exactly that: to recognise where people are, to help build on the strengths they have, to allow them to become the person they could and should be. That will help our economy and the wider country. I am proud of the approach we're taking. This statement sets out what more we will do around that, and I look forward to the support of all Members in doing so.

16:00

I'll start with the big news: I welcome the reversal of cuts; it's a step in the right direction. But, though it is a step in the right direction, there's no denying that the future of apprenticeships is still in a precarious place, and we shouldn't lose sight of that.

One thing that has been clear during this budget process has been the lack of clear communication between the Government and the sector and a lot of anxiety this caused. This goes back to 2022. At the start of 2022, the Government committed to replace European funding from reserves. What happened there? Before this budget the sector was told to expect a 3 per cent cut, then it turned out to be a 24 per cent cut, and now this reversal—as welcome as it is, the uncertainty hasn't been good for the sector and its long-term planning.

Now, what I'm keen to see is work across Government and the Senedd, to which, of course, the Minister referred in his statement, to be fair, along with, of course, the sector, to map out our approach and strategy to apprenticeships. What are we going to do with apprenticeship pathways? How are we going to deal with the levy? Where do we go post structural funds? In essence, what will be the priority for the apprenticeship budget going forward?

You have, of course, set out your three objectives. There's nothing to disagree with in terms of their principles, but that's what they are at the moment, supplemented with a lot of management speak, if we're going to be honest—no clear actions. What we wanted and needed to see here was some meat on the bones.

Now, the Government commissioned a report by Hefin David, and I will say that this does look like a bit of a rehash of his work, but Hefin's report had clear actions set out, a lot of positive and constructive stuff—section 4 being of significance, I think, actually, to this debate. For example, the pathway to degree apprenticeships: how do we structure that? How do we look at those higher apprenticeships and develop those? How do we expand the offer? We, of course, mentioned the rail centre of excellence, but we do need to expand further on our offer. So what is, actually, now happening with Hefin's report?

Dirprwy Lywydd, we need to get this right. Let's remember that a loss of apprenticeship places, which will still, of course, happen, can't be reversed in the next financial year. It will take years to recover. So, we really need to be on our A-game from here on in, so I would welcome further detail from the Minister of where we go from here.

16:05

I thank the Member for his questions. As ever, I think he's not as positive as I would be about the future. And I think it's unnecessarily so as well. There is a positive future for apprenticeships here in Wales. We're investing £143 million of the Welsh Government's budget directly in the apprenticeship programme. It means we'll move from 10,000 extra starts next year to about 13,000 extra starts. We will still expect—. Over the life of this Senedd, rather. Ten thousand extra starts before the £5.25 million, up to 113,000 extra starts over the whole of the term. That's a 13 per cent increase on the last Senedd term. That hardly speaks to a Government that is not investing in the future of apprenticeships; exactly the opposite. 

We will, of course, want to do more. And if we had more resources and the certainty over the resources that the Member is demanding from me—if we had that certainty—we could do more, of course. The best way to do that, of course, is to make sure that there are Labour representatives in 10 and 11 Downing Street to give us the certainty and the size and the scale of the resource that we want, to deliver on the pledge to see the return of former EU funds, where the control was taken back and rested with Tory Ministers in Whitehall. I want to see the pledge delivered that I've secured to make sure those funds and the powers return here to Wales for this Government to exercise, and for this Senedd to scrutinise the choices that we then make. 

And when it comes to the opportunities we've set out, I'm delighted to see Hefin David's influence recognised in this report in the second contribution. It's about the fact that, when you ask for someone to undertake a piece of work to give you challenge, criticism and opportunity, it then is supposed to actually have an influence on what you're doing, and not simply sit on a shelf. So, actually, it's a positive that we've asked for the work and now you can see it coming through the statement. And our challenge is—. In the statement, what we're doing is we're setting out our high-level objectives for that delivery, so that the commission can actually go ahead with the work we have set them, and the fact that this Senedd has passed the Bill to create the commission, to actually make sure that goes into delivering. All of the stakeholders need to work around this statement to make sure it's real. That's the providers, it's the businesses and it's people who we want to help reskill in the future as well.

And there have been a range of people who have been engaged in the conversation about this statement, who welcome the fact that we've made this progress today. And so, those business stakeholders, the providers—they recognise why we're doing this and I do think, as we go through, looking at our net-zero opportunities and the range of skills opportunities we have, you'll see apprenticeships that really are designed and fit for purpose. The policy statement is exactly that: it's a policy statement with priorities, and you'll see the delivery that comes alongside it. Today was never going to be about having a specific delivery plan across a range of individual sectors around them, but the money that we're able to put back into the apprenticeship budget will make a difference. It will mean more starts next year still. It'll still be part of what we do to contribute to the future. I remain convinced that apprenticeships and wider workplace learning are essential to our economic future, in making sure that we have the right skills to meet the economy that is being created around us and by us as well.

I know that Hefin David is getting a lot of name mentions today, but I was in his constituency earlier today. I chose to go on a day when he couldn't be there, but there we are; we won't get too deep into that. [Laughter.] It was actually about a business that has a high level of research and development within it, and they're looking to move from being a research and development business into the potential for manufacture. I think that's really exciting, because that's a business that started off with grant support from the Welsh Government in 2010—so, before I was elected—and you're now seeing, over more than a decade, that it's a business that is now ready to move into different areas, with more support from this Government, and, indeed, some grants it has won from the UK Government.

But it's the environment that we are looking to create, where apprenticeships are part of what that company has needed to go where it needs to, and, as it moves to increase its headcount in the future, there'll be more apprenticeships there, not fewer. They understand the direction we're seeking to take, and I think that they're again a really good example of where apprenticeships have real value in productive businesses in the future that we're looking to create here in Wales, and not simply buy from other parts of the world.

16:10

Minister, can I thank you for today's statement? As you know, I'm passionate about the apprenticeship opportunities in Wales because of the apprenticeship opportunities I had when I served my apprenticeship some years ago. Businesses in north-east Wales rely on quality apprenticeship programmes to keep on growing and to keep playing the vital role that they do in terms of building more homes, retrofitting existing homes, and achieving net zero in a range of sectors in Wales.

Can I ask the Minister what assurances he can give to companies like M.A. Cooper Projects Ltd, an electrical and mechanical contracting business in Deeside, which I will be visiting in the coming weeks? In the correspondence that I have had from them, it's clear to me that they want to see that support for their current and future apprentices is in place and that the long-term prospects for a career for thousands of young people are protected across Cymru. Diolch.

Thank you very much for the question. I hadn't appreciated that the Member had been an apprentice in a former life; I've learned something. [Laughter.] But it is important, and I think that it's part of the diversity that we get in the Senedd, with different experiences. I had a particular working life before coming here, and I think that it's a real strength that you've got someone who is a time-served apprentice and has been an engineer in real life before coming here. That sort of different sense of perspective is really welcome and important.

When you do visit your constituency business in Deeside, I think that it is important to point out that this statement sets out that apprentices are a key part of the future in growing the economy in virtually every sector. Whether you're an electrical or mechanical constructor, or whether, indeed, in the construction sector, which I know you take a deep interest in as well, we're only going to get there, to have the outcomes that we want in terms of the quality of products that we want, the quality of build that we want, and actually the jobs that we want people to have here, if we're going to carry on investing in the workforce. That's a partnership between the Government and what we're prepared to do, between providers who deliver, and, of course, business themselves, who need to carry on investing in their workforce. Overall, businesses need to do more to invest in the future of their workforce. This funding is about unlocking some of that and seeing the longer term advantages in improving the skills of your workforce, and it almost always leads to a more productive and profitable business as a result.

And actually that's the right thing to do for workers as well, to have greater security in their workplace, to make sure that work doesn't disappear to another part of the world. We'll only be able to do that by competing on skills, rather than on lowering wages as well. So, I wish the Member well in his visit, and no doubt we'll carry on talking about what the future can bring.

Minister, thank you for your statement. Although, obviously, it's welcome that you've now had a rethink, and, of course, we're pleased to see that some of the cuts have been reversed, overall, Minister, however you dress it up—and you do attempt to dress it up very well—you have broken your manifesto commitment, and the apprenticeship funding cut is still happening. This has naturally led to the outcry of the education sector, and will only serve to harm the future prospects of the people of Wales.

Improving skills is meant to be at the heart of the Welsh Government's economic strategy, and you have just rehearsed the arguments why it's vital to do so. Yet, as a result of this funding cut, the sector is forecast thousands fewer apprenticeships starting next year, even with today's announcement. These brutal cuts are on top of the £17.5 million already cut from apprenticeships by this Labour Government, all whilst England are expanding their offer, far ahead of us in variety and choice, truly adapting to the modern world and its new asks. The rest of the UK have found the money, they have prioritised apprenticeships, and with more money going into apprenticeships across the border and the rest of the UK, and them prioritising it more than here, how are we going to attract more people to Wales and keep people in Wales, when we are clearly the poor relation in the UK in terms of apprenticeships? Are you really happy, Minister, with Wales's apprenticeship offer under your watch and the breaking of your Government's manifesto commitment?

16:15

Well, thank you for the comment. I'm glad the Member thinks I'm well dressed. But actually, when it comes to what we're looking to do in this area, it is undeniably the case that we have seen cuts to apprenticeship funding here in Wales as a direct result of choices made by the Government she supports. When the apprenticeship levy was introduced, there was an £8 million to £9 million cut in the funding available to Wales to fund apprenticeships. And when you look at—[Interruption.]

The Member must allow the Minister to respond to the questions she has put to him without actually trying to put other questions to him.

When you look at comparative funding, actually, we still do much better than England across the border. I'm confused about why the Member can think that black is really white on this issue. The truth is that taking money out in the apprenticeship levy and re-giving it back to companies in England, as they do, does not amount to increased money being spent on apprenticeships in England. Our record in terms of the number of apprentices we have, in terms of the completion rates and the value is still considerably and objectively better than across the border, and it does not matter how much doublespeak the Member comes up with.

I do agree, though, that it is always difficult when manifesto promises are broken. I agree with her, there are brutal budget cuts: £1.3 billion of budget cuts that this Senedd is now having to contend with in passing a budget. [Interruption.] Well over £1 billion of cuts from former EU funds that have been kept in England for Whitehall to decide, rather than money that could and should have been spent here. And if you think again about manifesto pledges that have been broken, there have been two successive Conservative manifestos that promised that every single penny that was coming out from the European Union would be replaced here in Wales and every other part of the UK that had previously had access to those funds. [Interruption.] It is simply not the case that that manifesto pledge has even come close to being kept. So, when the Member talks about manifesto promises not being kept, when she talks about brutal budget cuts, when she wants to see who is responsible for those, all she needs to do is invest in a mirror and she'll see who exactly is responsible.

I would say, on the apprenticeship levy, it is a UK Government tax on businesses in Wales that just doesn't return to businesses in Wales in the same way that it returns in England. That is an undisputable fact.

The other thing I'd say is that I'm really grateful to both the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Luke Fletcher, and the Minister for mentioning my report. I'd be far too modest to do so myself, but now that they have—[Laughter.] But now that they have—[Laughter.] I noticed in the report that it says that the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research will be the key body that will offer the opportunity to join up between education and training systems, where apprenticeships can work together with other education programmes to provide smooth access. I mean, that was a key plank of what I was suggesting in my report and I'm glad to see it repeated, but, as Luke Fletcher says, how are we going to do that?

One of the things that I highlighted in my report was the work of the NPTC Group of Colleges and Llanidloes High School, who, although Llanidloes High School has a sixth form, are still working very effectively together to ensure that process through to further education, where pupils want to do it. Therefore, there are some really good examples of best practice in Wales. Can we please see some pilot programmes that take that good practice and apply it elsewhere in Wales, such as in my constituency of Caerphilly? I think there are some real opportunities to expand that good practice across Wales.

Thank you for the two broad points. To start with, it's a matter of fact, not opinion, that the apprenticeship levy is a UK tax on apprenticeships; it takes money out of public services in Wales, where the money can't go back and it looks to redistribute that. It's a wheeze that doesn't actually deliver extra funds into apprenticeships at all, and we don't have access to it properly in Wales, either.

When it comes to your point around CTER and the practical relationships they need to have, and then, actually, the relationships to build on the good practice that already exists, I agree with him. To be fair, it is something that he will not be surprised to hear that the education Minister and myself actually broadly agree on, about how we look at what already works, because some of that is about the breadth of the programme that is available for people post 16, if there is a sixth form established or not, to understand how you still get access to the right support and guidance. What is the right thing for that student? What do they have the ability to do and what are their best prospects for making choices that align with what they want to do and what they're capable of doing, in a really positive way?

There are examples across Cardiff, where there's a mixed system, as well, for example. So, some schools have sixth forms, some don't. The engagement with the local FE college is really important to make sure they get the breadth of opportunity that exists. Some of that is also pre 16, as well, because, for some people, a broader curriculum that an FE college might be able to deliver could be the right thing to do for them as well.

So, I'm keen to take forward one of the central messages from his report, which is how you make sure that the learner is at the centre of the choices, and the system, as far as possible, works to enable that person to make their choices. That must mean thinking about how further education, as well as sixth form, is part of what could happen. So, I am interested in looking at not just what already works, but to see how you can progressively look to roll that out in different parts of the country, because I think that would be good for the individual, it would be good for their community and, actually, good for the country as well, if we want to see genuinely productive workers making choices, who are able to make their own choices through life and, indeed, earn a good living.

16:20

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I welcome the Government statement today, and, indeed, the apprenticeships policy statement that accompanies it as well. Like my colleague Luke Fletcher, as we're co-chairing the cross-party group on apprenticeships that was set up recently, I do welcome the restoration of £5.2 million to the apprenticeship budget, taking it now to £143 million next year. It's still going to be immensely stretching, without any doubt at all, but it is a welcome restoration of that funding.

But can I turn to a part of the actual policy statement, where it says,

'Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis has impacted on programme success rates where there has been fall in people completing'?

This comes on the back, actually, of a Welsh Government analysis late last autumn, I think it was, that looked at apprenticeship outcomes by earnings, which said that learners who earned less were less likely to successfully complete their apprenticeships; the largest drop in success rate was for those who earned less than £15,000; and that low-earning apprentices living in deprived neighbourhoods had lower success rates than low-earning apprentices living in less deprived neighbourhoods. How do we turn this round? And on behalf of Luke, myself and the other members of the cross-party group, would you come to that cross-party group and discuss the policy statement and how we can work together to build that ambitious future for apprenticeships that the Minister has laid out?

I think it's important to recognise the £5.25 million is only possible since we've published the draft budget, and I'm very pleased we're able to restore that money, but there is an overall challenge, because of the cliff edge in European funds. I've never tried to soft-soap that and pretend that isn't happening, but it is still about what we do to maintain the wider system that we have in terms of providers and the breadth of choice that I think Hefin David was pointing to as well, but also how we make sure that their outcomes and completion rates—. We've been very proud of what we've done.

The pandemic's given us particular challenges, but it's only highlighted the reality that, even in previous times, completion rates would differ by socioeconomic group. It's about the support we can practically provide. So, that's not just about travel and subsistence, it is actually about how much people can earn, and that's a conversation with the providers about what they can do in their part of it. For some apprentices, of course, they can only be in college a day a week, so the college part of it may not be the biggest part of their course, so it's actually about what we do with the businesses themselves and the recognition that the more they can do to sustain that person, the more likely they are to have someone who will stay until the end of it, to complete and not to see potentially half of an apprenticeship that is not then completed.

So, I am optimistic about the conversation we have with a number of businesses, but it is, actually, fundamentally, about how we can support businesses to do more to support their learners. Because as the Member will know from scouring the budget lines, there isn't a lot of fat that's been left. In fact, we're still having to make terrible choices in other parts of the budget to make sure there's a budget that balances, and that's very uncomfortable. So, it makes it even more important that our stakeholders understand that what they can do will make a difference to the outcome they want too, which is a highly qualified and skilled workforce who will be loyal to that business.

When it comes to the very kind offer to attend the cross-party group—

Indeed. I may be able to secure the attendance of a different member of the Government depending on the circumstances in coming weeks. But I'll be very happy to make sure we continue to engage properly with the cross-party group, because I actually think a more informed conversation about apprenticeships for decision makers here in the Senedd is actually a good thing, as well as the engagement with a much wider community of businesses as well.

16:25
7. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Mental Health and Well-being: Creating a smoke-free generation and tackling youth vaping
8. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership: LGBTQ+ History Month

Therefore, we move on to item 8, which is the statement by the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership on LGBTQ+ History Month, and I call on the Deputy Minister, Hannah Blythyn.

LGBTQ+ History Month offers us an opportunity to reflect on how far we’ve come in the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights and celebrate the lives of LGBTQ+ people.

We’re here today talking openly about LGBTQ+ rights because of all the people who came before us and the pioneers who have paved the way as part of our all-too-recent history. Just a few months ago, we marked the twentieth anniversary of the repeal of section 28. Until 2003, publishing material and teaching about homosexuality was illegal. The lasting legacy of this is still raw for many, and its effects felt today.

The start of March marks the fortieth anniversary of the miners' strike, a defining moment in our collective history here in Wales and one that politicised many of us. It also brought together two politically polarised communities in common cause in a Welsh mining community, as LGSM—Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners—rallied and raised money in support of miners in Onllwyn in the Dulais valley. 

More recently, we have celebrated landmark moments such as the successful campaign for marriage equality—something that I am proud to have played a small personal part in—as well as an equal age of consent, an end to discrimination in goods and services, and gender recognition in law. However, there is still much more to be done. Progress is never inevitable, and we must still work to make the change we want to see and be.

A year ago, I presented our 'LGBTQ+ Action Plan for Wales' to the Senedd. This plan remains a powerful statement of our determination to secure the inclusive and equal Wales that we all want to see. But we know that words without action are not enough, and since we launched the action plan, we have continued to press ahead with progress.

We know the value of Pride events and the difference they can make to LGBTQ+ communities, so we have expanded our grass-roots Pride fund to support Pride events across Wales, so that more communities can come together. We’ve offered support to many Pride events across the country, including Pride in the Port in Newport, Swansea Pride, North Wales Pride, Glitter Pride by Glitter Cymru, Abergavenny Pride, Hay Pride, Colwyn Bay Pride, Cowbridge Pride, and more.

In addition, Welsh Government supported Mas ar y Maes at the Eisteddfod in August last year, where I joined the designated Member to launch Camp Cymru and, as a committed learner, I delivered my first speech entirely in Welsh.

Working with Plaid Cymru as part of the co-operation agreement, we have also taken steps towards our commitment to see an end to conversion practices. We are expanding support services for survivors of conversion practices across Wales and a working group of experts has provided us with advice and expertise to inform our efforts to consign these practices to history. We are about to complete our research into the experiences of survivors of conversion practices in Wales, which started in May 2023, alongside a campaign to raise awareness around these harmful practices. And our work also continues to embed inclusion in education, from our inclusive curriculum and relationships and sexuality education, to the work we are undertaking on transgender guidance for schools, which will be published for consultation over the next few months.

In June 2023, we published our innovative LGBTQ+ action plan tracker, so that everyone can see how we are progressing with our ambitious and wide-ranging plan. It also provides information on specialist services to support Wales’s LGBTQ+ communities. And whilst we continue rightly to hold ourselves accountable, we are proud of the recognition our work in support of LGBTQ+ equality has received. In April last year, the United Nations independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity recognised the 'LGBTQ+ Action Plan for Wales' in their end-of-mission statement as

‘an example of good practice in human rights policymaking’.

And in November 2023, the Welsh Government was presented with the Trans in the City CEO award for outstanding achievements in supporting trans and non-binary communities.

As we move forward in putting the actions in our LGBTQ+ action plan into practice, we continue to be clear that here in Wales, we stand for unity over division, inclusion rather than exclusion, and hope not hate. The Welsh Government stands together with and within our LGBTQ+ community in Wales. We recommit ourselves to supporting trans and non-binary people and our position remains clear: we believe that trans men are men, trans women are women and non-binary identities are valid.

Dirprwy Lywydd, too often and too many times, we see attempts to deliberately divide, to seek to erase LGBTQ+ identities, normalise discrimination and stir up hatred against us. Sadly, this harmful narrative continues to be pervasive within public and media discourse. The rights of one group should not be pitted against the rights of others and there can be no hierarchy of hate. That's why we're clear that the Welsh Government's commitment to creating a more equal Wales must include everyone—a Wales where everyone is valued, everyone's safety is protected and everyone is free to live as their authentic selves.

We all have the chance and the capability to change history, to forge a fairer future, without leaving anybody behind. I'm grateful to LGBTQ+ communities in Wales who have generously shared their time and their lived experiences with us. I know that that is not always easy, and I know that change can sometimes take time, but our work and the way forward would not be possible without those contributions.

So, this LGBTQ+ History Month and every month, let’s honour the legacy of those who lived through it and those whose lives have been cut far too short by continuing to work together to create the Wales we want to see and to become the most LGBTQ+ friendly nation in Europe. Diolch.

16:30

Thank you for your statement, Deputy Minister. As LGBT+ History Month draws to a close, I would like to thank Schools OUT for establishing this celebration of diversity and creating a dedicated opportunity to share this rich and diverse history of LGBT communities so everyone could learn about the contributions the community makes to society. I use the term 'LGBT community' to respect the wishes of the creator of LGBT+ History Month, who chose not to add a Q for 'queer' as some communities still associate it with a time when 'queer' was used in a negative way.

We celebrate LGBT+ History Month in February to mark this repeal of section 28. I was proud when David Cameron apologised for section 28. This hateful piece of legislation should never have been introduced by my party. But in the 20 years since its repeal, the Conservatives have made huge strides in protecting the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. It was a Conservative Government that implemented the equal marriage Act, we removed the ban on donating blood for gay and bisexual men, and, furthermore, we campaigned for and delivered a royal pardon for Alan Turing for his conviction for homosexuality.

Being lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans is not a crime. It is not a thing to be ashamed of, nor is it a reason for people to physically or verbally abuse you. Homophobia and transphobia have no place in our nation. We can be very proud of the fact that Britain is a global leader in LGBT equality, but we still have much more to do. Deputy Minister, I welcome the support you are giving to Pride events across Wales, particularly Swansea Pride. I hope to see many more events across my region and across the nation.

I note the ongoing work with Plaid Cymru to end conversion practices in Wales. Deputy Minister, what discussions have you had with the UK Government about the steps we can take to ban conversion therapy, whilst, at the same time, allowing the very important work undertaken by the Gender Identity Development Service? Regarding the GID service, there are ongoing issues with the replacement of the services at Tavistock following the Cass review. Perhaps, Deputy Minister, you could provide an update on progress.

I also note your statement that you are hoping to consult on the transgender guidance for schools within the next few months. The Department for Education in England recently released their revised guidance. Deputy Minister, what discussions have you had with UK Government Ministers about their guidance, and has that guidance had any influence on your Government's proposals?

Finally, Deputy Minister, thank you again for your statement, and I look forward to working with you to ensure that Wales becomes the most LGBTQ+ friendly nation in the world. I will continue to fight for the rights of everyone to be who they want to be, to love who they want to love. Diolch yn fawr.

16:35