Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

23/11/2021

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 13:29 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

Statement by the Llywydd

Good afternoon and welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I need to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in a hybrid format, with some Members in the Senedd Chamber and others joining via video-conference. All Members participating in proceedings of the Senedd, wherever they may be, will be treated equally. A Plenary meeting held using video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and these are noted on the agenda.  

13:30
1. Questions to the First Minister

The first item this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Janet Finch-Saunders. 

Public Transport

1. What action is the Welsh Government taking to improve public transport in Aberconwy? OQ57229

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. The provision of new rail rolling stock and the instigation of new, innovative demand-response Fflecsi bus services are amongst the actions being taken to improve public transport in the Member’s constituency.

Diolch. First Minister, in a climate crisis, we need to be empowering our residents to use public transport. Now, whilst we have seen some progress in reaching rural communities through the Conwy valley Fflecsi bus service as you mentioned, the reality is though that some communities in the Conwy valley are cut off from the coast at night. The last train leaves at 16:07 and the last bus at 18:34, and there are constituents now having to face the dilemma of paying high, costly taxi fees. There's also an even greater chance now that tourists are driving themselves to Snowdonia National Park, and we're all working on initiatives there to try and cut down on the use of private cars, rather using public transport. So, our railway line is one of the best short-term solutions. 

Would you, First Minister, work with Transport for Wales to see if evening services could be scheduled between Llandudno and Blaenau Ffestiniog, and, also, would you look to amend the north Wales metro programme so to include a direct rail service between Blaenau Ffestiniog and Manchester Airport, that would really go some way to solving some of the public transport issues we have in Aberconwy? Diolch. 

Well, I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd, and for the constructive suggestions that she's put forward. I know that my colleague Lesley Griffiths, as Minister for north Wales, is meeting with Transport for Wales tomorrow on transport issues in the north, and will be able to take up some of the points that the Member has made. The Welsh Government continues, Llywydd, to invest in the north Wales metro—£9.2 million originally secured for this financial year, and a further £9.3 million-worth of funding to local authorities and TfW announced since then. I know that the Member was recently able to attend an event at the Llandudno hub, and that will help to host the Conwy valley community rail partnership, another important development in her constituency.

And, Llywydd, on Friday of last week, I was able to meet the Taoiseach at City Hall here in Cardiff, where we were able to look together at a series of electric recycling collection vehicles, 13 of them destined for Conwy council, not public transport, I know, but public vehicles reducing emissions, as Janet Finch-Saunders suggested. And Transport for Wales has commissioned a 100 per cent zero emissions, electric battery, accessible minibus service, and that will be used for those councils who are part of the Fflecsi scheme, building on some of the ideas that the Member outlined earlier. 

As you know, First Minister, Dolgarrog pipe bridge, connecting the local community to the train station, has been closed to walkers and local users due to significant safety concerns, including the deterioration of the timber deck boards and the need for additional measures to safeguard the water mains supply to over 3,000 homes in north Wales. Thanks to Welsh Government funding, the popular walking route at Dolgarrog in Aberconwy is to reopen with upgraded facilities, which will improve access to the local train station. Please could the First Minister provide an update on this much welcomed improvement being made to the area? Thank you. 

I thank the Member for that. The Welsh Government will provide funding of nearly £0.75 million to fund Conwy County Borough Council's contribution to refurbishing the bridge and to provide for a significant upgrade in its facilities. As we have heard, it is a very popular local amenity and has had to be closed in recent times. Not only will it assist those people who just want to be walking and enjoying the fantastic amenities of that part of Wales, but it will also allow for easier access between the village and its railway station, as well, then, as wider local tourist attractions in the area. So, I'm very pleased indeed to see a solution to the problems that have been experienced there, and very glad that the Welsh Government is able to make our contribution to doing so.

13:35
Alternative Protein Technology

2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the role of alternative protein technology in achieving net zero? OQ57224

Llywydd, Wales needs a sustainable agricultural sector and food chains that work towards achieving net zero. Developing new technologies and creating alternative protein sources will contribute towards further reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions.

Thank you, First Minister. As you know, the land used globally to grow crops for Welsh consumption is equivalent to 40 per cent of the size of Wales, and one of the largest crops grown overseas for Welsh consumption is soy bean, which is used primarily by the Welsh poultry industry. As such, for Wales to change its farming practices so it doesn't contribute to deforestation overseas, we would need to be less reliant on soy animal feed from abroad. One of the ways in which this could be achieved is through the use of alternative protein, such as fly larvae, which extensive trials have shown to be more than a viable alternative to using soy to feed our poultry. Alternative protein, such as this, provides both climate solutions and opportunities for economic growth here in Wales and the UK, and research from the Farm Animal Investment Risk and Return investor network has found that alternative protein sources could make up to 64 per cent of the global protein market by 2050. First Minister, in your workings together to reach the Net Zero Wales plan 2021-25, there is no reference whatsoever to alternative proteins, which strongly indicates that you have either dismissed it outright, or have not even considered alternative proteins as a way of tackling the issues of imported animal feeds from deforested areas. Can you explain the reasons why this Government has chosen not to include alternative proteins as part of your reach net zero plan? Thank you.

Well, Llywydd, the Member was doing very well until the final part of his question, because he was making a series of very important points and pointing to opportunities that there are for us here in Wales. The need to develop alternative protein sources is necessary here in Wales, but is absolutely necessary around the globe. And here in Wales, we have active interests in plant-based alternatives, microbial alternatives, insect-based alternatives, lab-grown meat, cellular agriculture. All of those issues, Llywydd, were being discussed at Aberystwyth—the AberInnovation campus—when you and I were both there for its formal opening on 21 October. The biofermentation technology being developed at the centre is part of the future food centre, which is there in that part of Wales—there because of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences and all the work that it has done over many years to promote alternatives in this sector.

The possibilities for Wales are particularly important, because our own agriculture has huge natural advantages, our climate provides for an abundant growth in grass and, therefore, for non-intensive, sustainable livestock farming. We can continue with that and have the confidence of knowing that those alternative protein technologies can be developed here in Wales alongside and in support of our existing agriculture. That's why it is such an exciting proposition for us in Wales. I agree with everything the Member said, up until his rather mean-spirited final contribution. The truth is, I'm sure, that there's a genuinely shared interest, across the Chamber, in making sure that we grasp these opportunities and put them to work for Wales.

Prif Weinidog, last night, I watched with my one-year-old daughter an episode of Peppa Pig, the cartoon that inspired the Prime Minister after a visit to a theme park. I'm not so much of a fan as the Prime Minister, but Peppa did have some wise words in last night's episode. [Laughter.] She said, 'There are two types of balloons in the world: balloons that go up and balloons that go down', and, if it's true about balloons, it's also true about political parties isn't it, Prime Minister. And I'd like to—

—congratulate you and Adam Price—

—on reaching the higher ground, the higher common ground, and I hope other parties will follow that, but I am sure others will try and pull it down later on in this session. 

The commitment to try and achieve net zero by 2035 is such an important part of the co-operation agreement between our parties, and technology will play a key role in doing that. You said in your written statement today that to reach net zero will require new thinking, research and innovation. In the nineteenth century, we led the way with the industrial revolution, and, rather than berate hard-working civil servants for not conceiving a cartoon pig, how can we all work together to achieve net zero by 2035 and make sure, by using that technology, that this time round it's not only in the hands of a few rich millionaires but is shared between the people of Wales? Diolch yn fawr. 

13:40

Thank you very much to Rhys for that question and for being in the vanguard in this field. 

I shared a platform with the Prime Minister at COP26. He devoted his address in a way which, I could not help but feel, left 40 international leaders in front of us slightly baffled on the importance of better mannered cows in addressing climate change. So, he clearly has a long-standing interest in the contribution of farmyard animals to political debate. [Laughter.] The importance, however, of the point that the Member makes is this: technologies are changing, as in the area identified in the original question. New possibilities will emerge. We want Wales always to be at the forefront and at the cutting edge of efforts made to achieve net-zero carbon. If we are able to bring forward the date from 2050, which is where the CCC tells us currently, with what we know today, is the possibility for Wales, of course we want to do that. And the work that will now go on against the new date will tell us where those new opportunities lie and whether it is possible to go even further and faster than we have been able up until now. 

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from party leaders and, on behalf of the Welsh Conservatives, Darren Millar. 

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, I know that you would like us to focus today's First Minister's question time on your party's deal with the Welsh nationalists, but I don't want to focus on what many people on my side of the Chamber regard as a sideshow. I want to focus on issues that really matter to the people of Wales. So, I want to ask you about mental health. First Minister, last week saw the publication of a report on mental health services in north Wales. It made for very difficult reading. The Holden report, which was suppressed by the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board for almost eight years, exposed a culture of bullying, intimidation, staff shortages, patient neglect, all at the Hergest unit in Ysbyty Gwynedd. Can you tell me, First Minister, what lessons has the Welsh Government learnt from that report?

Well, as the Member said, Llywydd, the report is eight years old, and many lessons have been learnt since then. I was myself heartened to see that the Healthcare Inspectorate Wales report on the Hergest unit in 2018 found evidence that the unit then provided safe care, and that when HIW undertook a quality check at the unit in May of this year, it once again confirmed that considerable progress had been made in bringing that unit to a more acceptable level of care and provision for citizens in that part of Wales. So, those are the lessons that have been learnt over that eight-year period—that, with a proper focus and commitment from those concerned, even very difficult experiences can be overcome and a path to improvement set out.  

13:45

I'm surprised by your answer, First Minister. I didn't ask you what lessons the health board had learned, I asked you what lessons you had learned—the Welsh Government had learned. You were the health Minister at the time that these problems were festering in north Wales. Alarm bells were ringing, staff were complaining, patients were being neglected, some were being harmed, and I, along with other elected representatives who were Members of the Senedd at that time, were expressing concerns in correspondence to you. But it took you two years—two very long years—and a further damning report into institutional abuse and neglect in mental health services, this time at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd's Tawel Fan ward, before you finally got around to placing the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board into special measures. But of course it was too little, too late for those patients who in the meantime had come to harm and for their loved ones. Do you, as the health Minister at that particular time, accept any responsibility whatsoever for the harm that was suffered by patients? And what action is now being taken to hold those people who were responsible for the failings identified by Holden to account for what went wrong?

Well, Llywydd, I take full responsibility for everything that I did and decided when I was health Minister, in the many, many questions that I was asked on the floor of this Senedd and answered at the time. I visited the Hergest unit while I was the health Minister, partly in response to the correspondence that I was receiving about it. I found a beleaguered but very committed staff, determined every day to try to make a difference in the lives of those people whose illness required in-patient mental health attention. Those people were determined, despite all the criticism, to come into work every day to do their best, and that's what I think happens every day, ever since, by those people who provide those services in north Wales. The Member, as ever, has never a good word to say for anybody who works for the health service—[Interruption.] Well, I haven't heard a good word said yet. We'll see if he can manage one now. Those people deserve support from people in this Chamber, not asking what we are going to do to conduct some sort of retrospective trawl to see who can be held to blame. My belief is that, with the new management of the health service in north Wales—. And I had an opportunity, Llywydd, yesterday to discuss with the chair of the health board, the new chief executive and the person in charge of mental health services the plans they have to go on building on the improvements that they have been able to bring about. Many further improvements are necessary, all of that recognised by the people responsible on the ground, but looking ahead to build from that, to make sure that the services provided to people in north Wales are of a quality and a standard and of a consistency that they would wish to see.

First Minister, I am very disappointed by your response. I have not denigrated in any way the people on the front lines of our health service who are delivering high-quality care under great pressure day in, day out. What I'm asking you is: will you accept some responsibility for what happened in north Wales to its mental health services, given that you were the health Minister at the time? Where's the accountability, where's the apology to those individuals who suffered as a result of that delay in action? You evaded responsibility then and you're now trying to do the same, not just in relation to mental health services in north Wales, but also of course in relation to your decisions around the pandemic.

So, can I ask you a slightly different question? Will you and your coalition partners in Plaid Cymru learn the lessons from the past? Will you stop the dithering and will you listen to the calls of grieving families that are echoing in my ears, and no doubt echoing in yours, and take now swift action—not delayed action—to commission a Wales-specific COVID inquiry as soon as possible to learn the lessons from this pandemic and to make sure they're not repeated in the future?

Well, Llywydd, amongst his more offensive remarks, the Member did manage to squeeze a sentence out to recognise the high quality of care provided for his constituents in north Wales. I discussed the whole business of an inquiry with Michael Gove, the Minister responsible for this matter in the UK Government last week. I received further assurances from him of the commitment of the Conservative UK Government to an inquiry that will provide the answers that Welsh families need. He told me that he was well aware of the actions of the Welsh Conservative party in attempting to undermine the agreement that I have reached with the Prime Minister. It continues yet again here today. He may not be prepared to trust what I am told by his party members in Government in Westminster; until I see evidence that they are not prepared to do what they tell me every time I discuss it with them—[Interruption.] Every time I discuss it with them, they tell me they are determined to provide an inquiry that will provide the answers that people who speak to me and to him—. I will believe them until I see evidence that what they're saying to me is not true. He has had no trust in what they say to me from the outset.

13:50

Diolch, Llywydd. I thought Darren Millar was remarkably reticent today about the co-operation agreement. Maybe, I don't know, he's regretting some of his attack lines overnight. But they said—and you said—that the agreement does nothing to help the people of Wales: tell that to the 200,000 children that will now receive free school meals as a result of that; tell that to the extra thousands of children that will receive free childcare. They say it does nothing for the NHS and yet, at its heart is the creation of a national care service that will make the single biggest contribution imaginable to solving the long-term challenges of the health service. We pledge together to feed our children and care for our elderly, and all they can come up with is their usual negativity. I'm not surprised The Daily Telegraph doesn't like radical action on second homes, but when they and the Tories line up against Wales, isn't that the surest sign that we must be doing something right?

Well, Llywydd, by the end of this Senedd term, it'll be 25 years in the wilderness for the Welsh Conservative Party, and as we've heard overnight and heard again today, they work very hard to deserve that position. I'll just point out—they won't like it again; I can see them shaking their heads from here—straight after the election, we had a debate here on the floor of the Senedd; much was said about the need to work together on issues on which we agreed. I wrote immediately after that to the leader of the Welsh Conservative Party here and I wrote to the leader of Plaid Cymru. I received a reply from the leader of Plaid Cymru; I received nothing at all from the leader of the Welsh Conservatives.FootnoteLink That's why they've never been anywhere near Government in this place, because they simply lack the maturity—the capacity, even—ever to be part of Government here. They're in the wilderness because it's where they deserve to be.

As we say in the foreword to our agreement, the people of Wales in voting to create our democracy also wanted a new kind of politics. Now maybe we can forgive, and indeed pity, the Conservatives for being trapped in their Westminster mindset; many of them after all would rather be there than here. They see the world in binary opposites; we try and draw upon the great Welsh tradition of co-operation. I referred to Robert Owen in my remarks yesterday, talking about a Wales built through the co-operation of all to the benefit of each. Out of that tradition we have created a new model, a bespoke agreement between one party in Government and one party in opposition, which nobody could have foreseen. But it is part of that desire for a new politics that built this institution and most people in Wales will welcome it because they don't want politicians who play Westminster parlour games; they want their elected representatives to work together to come up with solutions to our many problems. Isn't that, after all, the entire point of democracy?

Llywydd, Adam Price is absolutely right to point to the way in which, ever since devolution, it has been possible to create agreements between progressive parties here; parties with ideas, parties with a willingness to take on the responsibility of being in Government. The very first summer that I worked in the then Assembly, Llywydd, the summer of the year 2000, every week I met with the head of staff of the Liberal Democrat party here, and we fashioned an agreement that that autumn led to the first cross-party Government here in Wales. We thought at the time that we were doing something very strange and unusual, and indeed I remember going with the then First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, to meetings of the Labour Party in which the strangeness and the unusual thing that he had done was fully borne in on him.

Since then, in successive Senedd terms, we have shown that here in Wales we are able to do things differently, that we are able to fashion a different sort of politics, in the way that Adam Price has said. The agreement that his party and mine have struck is different to any previous form of agreement, but that is because we were prepared to do the difficult thing, which is to find the creativity, to find the imagination, and to find the area for agreement between us. As a result, we will be able to achieve things in this Senedd for people right across Wales that might not have been possible otherwise. I think that will be welcomed. I think people outside the Senedd do expect us to work together when we can, on the things for which we have agreement, and they will see the practical fruits of that over the next three years.

13:55

Whatever the views of one on the content of the agreement, there are no two ways that this is a radical agreement that will deliver on some of the things that campaigners have been fighting for over decades, such as managing the housing market. But surely nobody could disagree that our citizens should be able to access correct information to hold us all to account, and it's clear to everyone that that isn't happening as it should at the moment. Now, to look at the London-based media that, to be fair, actually took the trouble of reporting on this development in Welsh politics yesterday, the ignorance was striking. One report referred to 15 Plaid Cymru Members of the Senedd and another mentioned that Plaid Cymru was the third party within Welsh Government. Shouldn't everyone be able to unite behind the opportunity provided by the agreement to close that democratic deficit and to create a media landscape in Wales that serves the needs of our people and empowers them to participate in our democracy?

I agree with Adam Price because the democratic deficit is clear for everyone to see when they read what the press in London has said about almost everything that goes on here in Wales, and they did the same yesterday as well. At the end of the day, Llywydd, as we both mentioned yesterday, it will be in the hands of the people of Wales to make those decisions after the agreement. If the people of Wales can see what we're doing, the innovative things and ambitious things that we're trying to do, I'm sure that that will be appreciated. But it's in their hands at the end of the day.

Violence Against Women and Girls

3. What is the Welsh Government doing to address violence against women and girls? OQ57258

I thank Joyce Watson for that, Llywydd. We are strengthening our violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence strategy to include violence and abuse in public and in the workplace, as well as in the home. A public consultation on the strategy will be launched next month. This is a societal problem that requires a societal response.

Thank you, First Minister. I know your Government continues to prioritise this issue, and in Jane Hutt we have a Minister for Social Justice who is a tireless champion for victims and survivors. But, unfortunately, the political determination to get on top of male violence against women and girls is too often undermined by the failures in the criminal justice system. The latest Office for National Statistics figures for England and Wales are a stark reminder of that: rape cases up 10 per cent from last year to June, while the number of cases resulting in a charge is at a record low. Of course, the legislation and many of the funding cuts behind these figures are non-devolved, but as we approach White Ribbon Day on Thursday, and the 16 days of activism that will follow, will you discuss with police forces and crime commissioners the urgent need to prioritise women and girls' safety?

14:00

I thank Joyce Watson for that, Llywydd. Can I begin just by paying tribute to everything that she does throughout the year, and around the White Ribbon period as well, to highlight the issues that she has referred to again today? She's absolutely right that the points she raises are very important ones to the Welsh Government and very vigorously taken forward by the Minister for Social Justice. She meets very regularly with chief constables and with the police and crime commissioners. The lead police and crime commissioner at the moment, Llywydd, is the Dyfed-Powys police and crime commissioner, Dafydd Llywelyn. I know that the Minister met him last week and is due to meet him again on 16 December. The Policing Partnership Board for Wales will meet on 2 December. That will be an opportunity for us to continue the dialogue that we have established with our police forces. They're not devolved, as Joyce Watson said, but we have managed to create a set of institutional arrangements that make sure that the issues that are of concern to people in Wales are discussed there regularly, directly with police interests themselves, but with other partners as well in the local authorities, in the health service. We will be raising the issues that the Member has identified today again in that forum, and I want to say, Llywydd, for the record, that in our experience we get a very committed response from our partners and our police partners here in Wales. 

This is an exceptionally important topic, especially this week ahead of White Ribbon Day, and I'd like to put on record my thanks to Joyce Watson for all her work in raising awareness of this important issue. We welcome the fact that, now, harassment has been included in the Live Fear Free campaign, but for those who reach out and escape violent situations for good, many will have to rebuild their lives from scratch, and support can often fall short, especially if victims have to flee the area where they've lived. Minister, what additional support will the Welsh Government commit to providing to victims who have had to flee domestic violence, especially when they've had to leave their entire support network behind?

I thank Laura Anne Jones for those important points, Llywydd. She's absolutely right; the impact of domestic abuse is awful in anybody's life, but for people who have to uproot themselves from their own homes, and sometimes from their own communities, then the impact is all the greater. We will go on as a Welsh Government investing in the budgets we provide in this area. We've included an additional £2.5 million in non-recurrent funding this year, partly to help those services deal with the impact of the pandemic, where we know some of the points that the Member just made have been exacerbated—where people haven't had access to outside interests and organisations to whom they might have brought their plight to those people's attention. We're absolutely committed to the agenda and to funding it and look forward to working with others in this Chamber on it in the 12 months ahead.

First Minister, as we've heard, this week marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Every year we mark this day, and yet every year more women die because of male violence, and every day women modify their behaviour to avoid being attacked or killed. It sounds extreme, but that is an everyday calculation that countless women make. You recently supported a Plaid Cymru amendment calling for a Government strategy on preventing sexual assault and harassment. Could you tell us more about that strategy, please, and, importantly, how it will make life safer for women and girls, since 97 per cent of women between 18 and 24 have already experienced harassment in their lives? Four out of five women experience workplace harassment, and at least nine women are suspected to have had their lives taken by male violence in the last year in Wales. If we're talking about eliminating male violence against women, First Minister, it seems we do still have a very steep hill to climb.

Those are dreadful figures that Delyth Jewell has just read out for us, and I absolutely agree with her that this is not a problem to be solved by victims. It is not for women to modify their behaviour in order to reach a solution; it is for men, in the way that they behave, and the way we bring up our children, especially boys, to be part of that solution. Later this week, my colleague the Minister for Social Justice will issue a statement on the annual progress report on violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence services here in Wales. We are looking to the report of the Law Commission, which is expected shortly, on recommended changes to hate crime legislation. We need to see a commitment to legislate from the UK Government when that commission report is available. That will help us to frame the strategy that Delyth Jewell referred to. That is being worked on actively by our officials and with our partners, our fantastic advisers in this field, to do the very best we can in Wales.  

14:05

Good afternoon, First Minister. I just really want to add as well my thanks to Joyce Watson, particularly for the candlelit vigil last night to mark White Ribbon Day. Thank you very much, Joyce, for organising that. It was an incredibly moving experience, and I'm sure those of us who were there felt it was something that was very important to us all. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

First Minister, over the summer I visited a number of providers in the region that Joyce Watson and I cover, Mid and West Wales, and also I've spoken with Welsh Women's Aid, and I'd like to thank those who spoke with me so openly about their services. One of the issues that I just wanted to pick up was about sustainability of funding for those providers and those services. Many talked to me about the short-term measures and funding that were in place, which causes significant problems in trying to plan services. I'm sure we'd all agree that many of them have provided an excellent service, particularly over the pandemic. So, I just wonder if you could give us a response around sustainability and more long-term funding, please. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

Thank you to the Member for the question, Llywydd. 

I absolutely do agree with her about the fantastic work that is done by third sector organisations, their partners in local government, and the work that is done by GPs as part of the IRIS project in identifying victims of domestic abuse. This is hard work, Llywydd. These are really difficult areas where people are often frightened to speak up, and the work that is done by people at the front line is absolutely commendable. As the Member will know, we have had to go through a series of years where the UK Government has only declared a one-year budget, pushing back the date of the three-year comprehensive spending review time and again. When we only know how much money we have one year at a time, inevitably, that means that we have to provide funding on that short-term basis to the partners that depend upon the budget decisions we make here. We have a three-year CSR and the ability now to plan ahead. That is really important not just to the Welsh Government itself, but very much to our partners out there in the third sector and in local authorities. Our aim when we lay our draft budget in December will be to pass on whatever certainty we now have to them as well. 

Transport Infrastructure in Blaenau Gwent

5. Will the First Minister make a statement on investment in transport infrastructure in Blaenau Gwent? OQ57256

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. Completion of the £1 billion dualling of the A465 and major investment in rail infrastructure in Blaenau Gwent demonstrate the strength of the Welsh Government’s commitment to the Member’s constituents, even as the UK Government refuses to fund its own responsibilities.

First Minister, the people of northern England discovered last week what we in Wales have known for some years—that you can't trust Tory promises when it comes to investment in infrastructure and trains and the future of connectivity in our communities. The people of England discovered last night in the House of Commons that this is a Government in London for London, that doesn't care about any part of the UK outside of London. First Minister, will the Welsh Government continue to support the investment in the Ebbw valley line? We know it is the responsibility of the UK Government, but they have refused, time and time again, to invest a single penny in their responsibilities to develop that line. It is the Welsh Government that's reopened that line, it is the Welsh Government that's invested in developing the line, it's the Welsh Government that's invested in the infrastructure of that line, it's the Welsh Government that's invested in the rolling stock on that line, because we have learnt in Blaenau Gwent that you can't trust a word that Boris Johnson and the Tories tell us.

14:10

That is a view, Llywydd, shared by Robbie Moore, the Conservative MP for Keighley since 2019, who said that as a result of the announcement, his constituents had been completely short-changed. The announcement as far as the north of England is concerned, Llywydd, not only strips money away from that part of England, far away from London, as Alun Davies said, but it strips powers away from them as well. We are very used to this way of the current Conservative Government behaving. Andy Burnham said:

'Not only did we lose out on infrastructure, we got silenced as well'

and that the only formal structure in the British mechanism of Government that allows the north to come together with one voice has now been removed. Here in Wales we do go on doing things very differently, Llywydd. I'm very glad to see that there will be a new service on the Ebbw Vale line from Monday 13 December, an hourly service between Crosskeys and Newport, and the £70 million that the Welsh Government was able to provide to Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council will mean that the physical infrastructure will be put in place to make sure that those additional rail services run between Ebbw Vale and Newport as well.

Despite the cuts to people in the north of England announced last week, Llywydd, there is still a commitment of £98 billion to an England-only project, a shameless refusal by the Conservative Government in London to provide any consequential to us in Wales, a nonsensical claim that a hub in Crewe—[Interruption.] I made the mistake, Llywydd, of pausing for a moment in case the Member was saying something sensible. I should have known better, and I'll remember that next time. Listen to this, Llywydd; listen to it again: £98 billion—billion—being spent in England and not a penny in a consequential for Wales, and a nonsensical—a nonsensical—claim by his colleagues that a hub at Crewe and a hub in the midlands is somehow being put together for the benefit of Wales.

Members here will be familiar with these figures, because we've had to remind our colleagues there of them before: 40 per cent of the rail network in England is electrified, 25 per cent of the network in Scotland is electrified, and as a result of the actions of that Member's Government, 2 per cent of it is electrified in Wales. And as a result of this week's decisions, that figure in England will go up to 75 per cent—75 per cent for England and 2 per cent for Wales. That's what you get with a Conservative Government.

First Minister, in the summer it was announced that more than £3 million-worth of improvements were set to be made on the road network of Blaenau Gwent. Local government funding was to be combined with an additional sum of Welsh Government funding to bring the total investment to over £3 million to improve the conditions of the roads in Blaenau Gwent, improvements that were described, and I quote, as 'critical' for local communities, businesses and visitors to the borough.

I tabled a written question to the Deputy Minister for Climate Change asking for a list of the roads that are being reviewed as a result of the road-building freeze, but he said that he was unable to provide the information before the roads review panel makes its initial report. In view of the Deputy Minister's inability to respond, can you advise if these much-needed road improvements will indeed go ahead in my region of South Wales East, within Blaenau Gwent itself? Thank you, First Minister.

14:15

Llywydd, I was doing my best to follow the question. As I understand it, the Minister has said to the Member that if she wants to get a better answer, she needs to ask a better question. I'll read the record of what's been said this afternoon, Llywydd, and if there is anything further that I can provide to the answer, then, of course, I'm happy to do that.

Since my election, I've conducted many street surgeries, and a pattern that you often see at these surgeries, when my team are out in Blaenau Gwent, is transportation to the Grange hospital. I know it can take up to 45 minutes to travel from the Grange to Tredegar, for example, as I've done it myself, but if you rely on public transport, it can be a much harder and much more time-consuming journey. Depending on where you live in Blaenau Gwent and what time of day it is, it can take up to four different buses and more than two hours just to go one way. I know in other parts of South Wales East it can be even worse than this. First Minister, do you agree that connectivity to the Grange hospital is not what it should be, and if so, what plans do you have to make this hospital more accessible to the people it serves?

Well, Llywydd, I'm very well aware of the issue of bus links to the Grange hospital, having had extensive discussions about it with my colleague, Alun Davies and with my ministerial colleague, Lynne Neagle in the past as well. The Welsh Government is working actively with Transport for Wales and the local authorities to introduce a new bus link to the hospital that will go from Pontypool, Newbridge, Blackwood, Ystrad Mynach and Nelson. The plan is for it to be introduced early in 2022 and to operate it on a basis that will allow us to learn the lessons from that introduction and then to see what else might be necessary to make sure that there are good and reliable public transport links to the Grange.

Mental Health Services in North Wales

6. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board about mental health services in North Wales? OQ57254

Llywydd, in addition to ministerial oversight, there is regular engagement between Welsh Government officials and the health board as part of the targeted intervention that surrounds the provision of mental health services in north Wales.

Thank you, First Minister, for your response. I'd also like to take a moment just to point to the damning Holden report that came out last week, which my colleague, Darren Millar has raised with you earlier today, because it is such a significant report for my residents who I represent in north Wales. And, First Minister, this report is shocking. It does seem to point to a pattern of behaviour that stretches back many years. And as already highlighted, it was your Government that oversaw the significant failings of mental health services at this health board, and it's the same health board that you surprised many by taking it out of special measures just a few months before the elections in May.

Mental health is a key flagship policy of your Government's programme—indeed, in coalition with Plaid Cymru—for government, and yet, this report has shown that patients have come to harm and been neglected under the Welsh Government's watch. So, First Minister, how will you rebuild people's trust, especially the residents I serve in north Wales, for them to believe that you take mental health seriously? 

Llywydd, I agree that it is important to make sure that there is proper trust between people who use services and the provision of those services in north Wales and elsewhere. In my discussion with the chair and chief executive of the board yesterday, they set out some of the achievements that are there in mental health services in north Wales: the national award for Llanfairfechan's learning disability service and the fact that they are achieving their waiting time targets for psychological therapies in north Wales. And then they pointed to the challenges that the board faces as well; challenges in its estate, and the Welsh Government is currently working with the board on proposals for new investment at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd in the physical estate for mental health services there; looking at recruitment where the board has had some success recently in bolstering its consultant psychiatry provision; developing new models, for example, with consultant therapists; joint work with community mental health services to move intervention more towards prevention than dealing with the consequences of mental ill health; and a recruitment campaign in January to bring more people into that service.

The Chair said to me that the board were completely appraised. Independent members had a comprehensive grasp of mental health services and challenges, and the new chief executive said to me that she had a relentless focus on improvement in mental health across BCU. Those things, I think, will help to rebuild and re-establish trust, and I believe that the board and its executives are fully committed to that journey. 

14:20
Unpaid Carers

7. How will the Welsh Government support unpaid carers this winter? OQ57259

Llywydd, in recognition of the increased pressure caused by the pandemic, we have allocated additional funding of £10 million to support unpaid carers of all ages in this financial year, including £5.5 million allocated to local authorities to provide a range of support to unpaid carers over this winter.

Diolch, Prif Weinidog. In a recently published report, Carers UK found that 36 per cent of carers in Wales said that they were struggling to make ends meet; 34 per cent wrote that their mental health was bad or very bad; and 36 per cent reported that they are often, or always, lonely. Very sadly, they also found that carers rated their overall satisfaction with life at an average of just 4 out of 10. Behind every statistic there's a person who is caring for a loved one.

Carers are absolutely invaluable. I know that there are support services in place, but many services have been, and still are being, disrupted by the pandemic. This Thursday marks Carers Rights Day. Following the last 19 months, carers need our support now more than ever. What is the Welsh Government doing to restore disrupted care services, and how is the Welsh Government ensuring that all carers are aware of the support available?

Llywydd, I agree with everything that Jayne Bryant said about the invaluable service that unpaid carers provide in Wales, and the impact of the pandemic, both on them directly and on their ability to access services. Nonetheless, I think that partners right across Wales, and from all party political persuasions, are working very hard to make sure that those services are restored.

The Welsh Government recently provided £3 million to local authorities to help them with their respite care services. So, just to give you some examples—and my colleague Julie Morgan will say more about this, Llywydd, in a statement later this week—. In Gwynedd, in the north, the council there is using its share of that money to improve and to extend the range of respite care services that it provides. In Swansea, they have developed a rapid response respite at home service.

In Monmouth, 1,400 unpaid and young carers have taken advantage of a new scheme set up by the local authority to allow access to small-scale activities for people who spend so much of their time looking after others. I think that you can see there that there is both imagination and determination among our partners to restore those services, and to do it in a way that meets the needs of people who have offered so much.

Of course, Jayne Bryant is right, Llywydd, that knowing your rights as a carer is very important. I'm glad that, once again this year, the Welsh Government will help to fund and take part in the national carers' rights information campaign. It's a partnership with Carers Wales and the Carers Trust here in Wales. We have got some evidence, Llywydd, of some success in those efforts.

The Welsh Government made available £1.25 million in a carers' support fund to help with the particular impact of the pandemic. That fund was available between October of last year and the end of March of this year. Some 6,000 carers were able to draw down funding from that new funding stream, and 2,500 of them had never previously been in receipt of any form of support. That gives me some confidence that the efforts that are being made to make sure that the services that are available are known to the people who need them—that some success is being achieved in that.

14:25
The Holden Report

8. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board following the publication of the Holden report? OQ57257

Thank you very much to the Member, Llywydd. The decision to publish the full Holden report was a matter for the health board and the Information Commissioner’s Office. We continue to seek assurance regarding the implementation of the recommendations in the Holden report as part of our regular engagement with the health board.

Thank you for that response. You said that it was a matter for the board. Well, your health Minister, who was Deputy Minister for mental health at the time, confirmed to me a year ago that she had read the Holden report. Now, that was 12 months ago, when the board was still in special measures, and still under the direct management of your Government. So, why then didn't you insist that the report was published when you ran the health board, because, of course, you did that for five of the eight long years that the people of north Wales had to wait for it to see the light of day?

Well, as I explained, Llywydd, it wasn't a matter for the Government to make that legal decision to publish the document. It was the responsibility of the board to make those decisions. That's why it's the board that has been in contact with the Information Commissioner's Office and has come to the conclusion with the office and with the tribunal that has been looking into the decisions made by the board to publish the report now. It was their responsibility, and it's they who are responsible for the decisions that they have made.

Thank you, First Minister. A point of order emerging from questions. Darren Millar.

Diolch, Llywydd. I want to give the opportunity for the First Minister to correct the Record, if that’s possible. During First Minister’s question time he referred to some correspondence with the leader of the Welsh Conservative group, Andrew R.T. Davies, regarding a willingness to co-operate on areas of common interest. That particular letter was sent to the leader of the opposition on 18 May, and within 24 hours a response was issued from his office offering to meet with the First Minister. Meeting dates were put in the diary, but subsequently cancelled by the First Minister’s office, and the last message received from the First Minister’s office was that there would be contact to rearrange. I would like to give the opportunity for the First Minister to withdraw the allegation that was made earlier on, and correct the Record.

I’m sure that the First Minister isn’t in a position to look at the correspondence at this point, but I’m sure that this can be looked at at a later point, and that correspondence can be made to ensure that the Record is correct, or corrected if needs be.

Thank you for that.

2. Business Statement and Announcement

We'll move on to the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd, Lesley Griffiths.

Diolch, Llywydd. I’ve added two statements to today’s agenda. These are second homes and affordability by the Minister for Climate Change, and the Welsh language communities housing plan by the Minister for Education and Welsh Language. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.

I call for a debate in Welsh Government time on the Holden report. Ahead of last Thursday’s publication of this report, exposing serious and extensive problems with patient safety on the Hergest mental health unit in Bangor, a health expert involved in the appeal sent me his observations on the report and its appendix, stating, up until now, the health board was protesting that the main text of the Holden report and its appendix, completed in December 2013 and containing extracts from the damning statements of 40 whistleblowers, must remain hidden from public view in order to safeguard the confidentiality of the whistleblowers. The decision to withhold evidence of neglect on such spurious grounds was deliberate and wilful. He further states that the whistleblowers complained about the behaviour of three senior managers, including acts of bullying and conduct that put the care of patients at serious risk. He asks how then was it possible that in 2014 the most senior of these managers was allowed to make reports to the health board and its quality committee that concealed his own part in the Holden process. Has the health board now satisfied itself that the senior officials responsible for this mess, and for keeping it under wraps for so long, have now all been removed from any responsibility for the care of vulnerable mental health patients? 

Responding to September's short debate on the Holden report, the health Minister said it was important to note that a summary report was published in 2015, including the Holden recommendations. It's therefore important to note that, when the health board's acting chief executive presented the summary report to the Senedd's Public Accounts Committee in November 2015, it was very brief and did not describe the 31 concerns listed by staff.

And last week, a Public Services Ombudsman for Wales report also revealed that the health board had made a fulsome apology to the son of a lady who received treatment on the Hergest ward—people's hero, David Graves—for the failings identified and injustice caused to him and his family—the hell that poor man's been put through by public bodies in Wales. I call for a debate in Welsh Government time accordingly. 

14:30

Thank you. As a Government, we very much welcome the publication of the full Holden report and we endorse the recommendations of the recent Public Services Ombudsman for Wales review into the care of a patient treated at the Hergest unit in 2013. We note that Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board has accepted all the recommendations and will ensure that these are implemented at pace.

The health board is in targeted intervention for its mental health services. That does retain significant Welsh Government oversight. It means there are very clear and agreed actions in place to ensure the service continues to improve. 

We of course acknowledge that the delay in publishing the report will have been difficult for the individuals affected and their families, and we're very pleased the health board has decided that, in the interests of openness and transparency, future reports of this nature will be made public. As you heard the First Minister say in his answers, it was a matter for Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board when the report was published. 

The Minister has announced a substantial package of strategic support for Betsi Cadwaladr UHB, including £12 million a year to support implementation of its mental health strategy, and to build capacity and capability in the organisation to be able to deliver the transformation that's required. 

Trefnydd, it's been two years this week since the Senedd discussed Lynne Neagle's Member debate on pancreatic cancer. My grandmother passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2005, so I'm one of too many people who know the brutal reality of this disease, which is both the quickest-killing cancer, and one with one of the lowest survival rates. Recently, I and Members attended a cross-party meeting with Pancreatic Cancer UK to discuss their current priorities as part of Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. They told us that they want to see pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy rolled out more widely within the Welsh NHS, since they say the science proves it's an effective treatment that can improve patients' quality of life and give them the strength to undergo life-saving treatment, but that it's currently not being prescribed to 40 per cent of Welsh patients. 

I'd like a Welsh Government statement, please, about pancreatic cancer that responds to this point specifically, but also that updates Members more generally on progress since the Welsh Government's commitment two years ago to take action to improve survival rates of this devastating cancer. 

Thank you. And, as you say, it certainly is one of the most devastating cancers that we have. I'm not aware of the drug to which you refer, but the Minister does have questions that you're able to table this week and I would urge you to do that. 

Minister, over the last few months, we've seen the complete collapse of UK policy towards the European Union, and the collapse of many of the agreements made in the withdrawal agreement last year. The consequence of that may well be that article 16 is activated. This could cause enormous damage to the Welsh economy and to Welsh society. I'd be grateful therefore if the Welsh Government could make a statement on any contingency planning that is taking place in the Welsh Government with regard to ensuring that Wales is protected from any triggering of article 16. 

On a wider point, I'd like to ask for another statement from the Welsh Government on the damage that Brexit is doing to this country. We've seen trade agreements reached with Australia and New Zealand that could cause extraordinary damage to the agriculture industry. We've seen a shortage of drivers, which has affected all parts of our economy. We've seen price increases that are leading to a real crisis for many families up and down the country. We are seeing the Welsh economy put under greater stress than at any time in recent history, as a consequence of a failed Brexit con. It is incumbent on the Welsh Government to ensure that people in Wales understand this damage and that we in this Chamber have an opportunity to discuss how we can address the damage that Brexit is doing in Wales. So, it would be a useful exercise, I think, if the Welsh Government were to commit to making regular statements to this Chamber on the damage that Brexit is doing to Wales.

14:35

I can assure the Member, and all Members, that the Welsh Government is doing all it can to protect the people of Wales from the devastating, I think, impact of leaving the European Union. And certainly, the issues that you raised around trade and logistics are topics that we discuss at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs inter-ministerial group. The next one I will be chairing, and I'll certainly be very pleased to update Members in relation to the specific points about trade and also logistics, because, clearly, that is having a devastating impact. Who would think of having ballet dancers as a protected job and not having butchers? And we are seeing, unfortunately, a decrease in the number of butchers that we have available here.

In relation to your points around constitutional issues, the Counsel General I know is looking at these issues with the UK Government. Again, he has questions tomorrow; there may be an opportunity to raise with him if he has any further information.

Trefnydd, as you may have seen, despite council and community opposition, developers have finally secured permission to demolish the historic Roath Park pub along City Road in Cardiff, following the trend that has seen the gradual destruction of Cardiff's historic fabric. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident, and campaigners are fighting right across the country to preserve buildings that are significant to them and their communities, but that haven't met the requirements set out by Cadw as having historic or architectural significance.

One such example is Cowbridge Girls' School in the Vale of Glamorgan, which was the first purpose-built secondary school for girls in Wales, and the first to have, I understand, a purpose-built science laboratory for girls' education in the entire United Kingdom. Regrettably, despite local, national and even significant academic opposition to these proposals, Cadw has refused to provide listed building consent, a decision that has been supported by the Welsh Minister. I believe that local residents should have the power to stop the demolition and destruction of buildings that they believe contribute to the character of their area, contribute to their health and well-being and which maintain a tangible link to the traditions and cultures of their community. With this in mind, will the Minister allow a debate on the issue to discuss what possible changes to planning legislation can be made that would give local authorities greater power to stop the destruction of buildings of local importance within their communities and also allow residents a greater say in how their area is developed? Thank you.

Thank you. The Member refers to two very specific issues, which I'm not aware of, and obviously those decisions have been taken. On a more general point, I think it is very important that planning information, and also the way that Cadw do list buildings, is transparent, and I will ask the Minister—the Deputy Minister, sorry—if there is anything further that she's able to give you in order that you're able to advise your constituents.

I'd just like to refer you to my Member's interests as a member of Powys County Council. Trefnydd, could we have a statement from the Minister responsible for planning regarding the delivery of local development plans? My colleague Janet Finch-Saunders and I met with a number of local authorities last week to discuss the new Natural Resources Wales phosphate guidance. And a number of those authorities are really concerned about the delivery of their local development plans because of the constraints this is putting on the delivery of social homes. The Welsh Government do have ambitious targets about delivery of social and affordable homes across Wales, and local authorities are concerned that this guidance is going to really hinder the delivery of those properties. So can we please have a statement from the Welsh Government on how you intend to tackle this problem? Thank you.

Well, I think the guidance provided by NRW is very clear. As you say, we do have affordable homes targets, social homes targets, and it's very important that the planning information and the technical advice notes are there to assist. So, I don't think really that it's necessary to have a further debate in Welsh Government time.

14:40

Thank you, business Minister. Of course, I welcomed your assurance last week that you and your Government have been liaising with the UK Council for Internet Safety, after it came to light that teachers were facing abuse on social media platforms such as TikTok. However, the situation has escalated, and teachers are continuing to be uploaded to the social media platform, and it's now being reported that some of these videos have hashtags such as 'paedo', others have extremely derogatory language, and some have included teachers' faces superimposed onto pornographic images. Minister, this is causing a lot of distress for teachers who have been targeted, and the teachers' union NASUWT have examples of teachers taking time off work due to stress, and even leaving the profession altogether now. I would welcome a detailed statement, please, on this matter, and what exact action has been taken, and what exact guidance has been issued to teachers, schools and local authorities on this matter, and for the Minister to outline in detail what discussions they've had with the other UK Governments, as well as the UK Council for Internet Safety. I believe this is something that the whole of the Senedd now needs to be aware of, given the severity of the problems and the impact it's now having on teaching careers and well-being and our children's education. Thank you. 

Thank you. Well, I think we discussed last week how completely unacceptable this sort of behaviour is, and it's incredibly disappointing that our teachers are being targeted with abuse on social media. I updated, I think last week, that we have asked TikTok to remove any instances of inappropriate or offensive content immediately, and we have provided guidance on harmful viral challenges to support teachers in dealing with any instances. The Minister has pledged to continue to work with the UK Council for Internet Safety, and also the UK Safer Internet Centre, so that we can have a co-ordinated approach, and I know he is looking at what can be done on a four-nation basis across the UK also. 

I, first, would like to request two statements. But, in the first instance, I want to echo the points made by my colleague James Evans. I was present at the meeting; I think it was Friday. And I was amazed by the number of council leaders, planning officers, who attended the meeting and raised their concerns about the lack of—the stop to—building that's going ahead. And I know the coalition deal that you've done with Plaid Cymru—all the emphasis on second homes—but yet we have thousands of homes in Wales now that are unable to go ahead in planning. Young people simply cannot get on the ladder; we need more housing. It's true that the special areas of conservation management oversight group, a planning sub-group and an NRW project group with several work streams have been formed, but it has been made very clear to me that this is not working for our councils across Wales. So, will you arrange for the Minister to make an urgent oral statement outlining what steps she's going to take? 

Secondly, the Minister knows that I'm opposed to the NHS COVID pass, but I accept that the majority voted in favour and that is democracy. The Older People's Commissioner for Wales, however, has highlighted that only 40 per cent of over-75s in Wales use the internet, compared to 71 per cent of 65 to 74-year-olds. It's essential that all residents have the ability to request a paper COVID pass, and, Minister—and the First Minister is here as well listening to this—I am receiving a lot—. We do have an older population in Aberconwy, and people are phoning quite distressed about the lack of ability to obtain a COVID pass so that they can go to a show or a theatre in our Venue Cymru. The phone lines are not always working—

—and I don't want to do the Trefnydd's job for her, but we do have a statement and regulations on COVID passes later on this afternoon. So, you're asking for a statement that's about to be called, if you— 

Right. A final quick point: the calls are costing between 2p and 40p per minute, and this is unacceptable. So, could we have a statement on that, and maybe include it—

Yes, yes. I will make sure that the statement happens this afternoon. The health Minister will be here to answer questions on COVID this afternoon.  

And you can ask it again, Janet Finch-Saunders, if you want, to the Minister.

Thank you. I don't think there's anything further to add, but I do agree with you that everybody should be able to get a paper pass. 

In relation to the coalition deal you refer to, I presume you mean the co-operation agreement. You know, I absolutely agree with you—planning should be an enabler. It's really important that happens, and you'll be aware that planning has been updated. So, I really do not, as I said to James Evans, see the need for an urgent statement.

14:45
3. Statement by the First Minister: British-Irish Council Summit Wales

The next item, therefore, is the statement by the First Minister on the British-Irish Council summit in Wales. Therefore, the First Minister to make his statement—Mark Drakeford.

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. On 19 November, Friday last, Wales hosted the thirty-sixth summit of the British-Irish Council at St Fagans National Museum of History in Cardiff. The Minister for Education and the Welsh Language and I represented the Welsh Government. We were joined by representatives of all BIC member administrations either in person or via our videoconferencing systems. I welcomed leaders from the UK, Ireland, which was represented by both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. I also held bilateral meetings with Michael Gove, who led the UK delegation, Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, and the Northern Ireland Executive delegation—Ministers Deirdre Hargey and Gary Middleton—as well as the newly appointed Deputy Chief Minister of the Isle of Man, Jane Poole-Wilson.

The summit took place at a particularly crucial moment for the member administrations of the British-Irish Council, in the context of recovery from the pandemic, continuing discussions between the UK and the EU, and the need for Governments to work together to take action against climate change, following COP26 in Glasgow. Our collective discussions, Dirprwy Lywydd, provided a valuable opportunity to consider latest political developments, to share experiences on tackling common challenges, and to identify ways though which we can harness the combined experience and energy of the Governments to the benefit of all the people across the islands represented. In particular, at an early-morning meeting on Friday before the main summit plenary event, we discussed ways of accelerating the collective contributions that members of the BIC could make in pursuit of the COP26 agenda. The discussion focused on the importance of citizen and community engagement in a just transition to net zero, and work is planned to share research and consider further engagement with coastal, post-industrial and rural communities in this agenda.

The formal plenary provided an opportunity to explore different perspectives on the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol and the state of relations between the constituent members of the council and the European Union. In relation to the current position on the negotiations between the UK Government and the EU, I took the opportunity to reinforce the Welsh Government's view of the importance of making progress and resolving issues through dialogue rather than unilateral action or ultimatum.

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

Diprwy Lywydd, each summit focuses on a particular strand within the work of the council. The Cardiff summit took as its theme support for minority, indigenous and lesser used languages, with specific reference to early years and childcare policy. In leading this item, we were able to draw on the pioneering work in Wales on early years language education.

In keeping with this theme of the summit, and in line with the way we work in Wales as a bilingual nation, the plenary discussions were conducted on a multilingual basis. For the first time at a summit of the BIC, there was simultaneous interpretation from Welsh, Irish and Gaelic into English, which enabled delegations from Wales, Scotland, and Ireland to make contributions to the discussions using their own languages. I was also delighted that contributions in Manx, Jèrriais, and Guernésiais also featured during our conversations, which further demonstrated the rich linguistic diversity across these islands.

Dirprwy Lywydd, we also noted progress made in the implementation of proposals agreed at the thirty-fifth BIC summit in Northern Ireland in June of this year, and particularly the scope for the newly established senior officials group to support the future work of the council. The plenary also endorsed the work of the ministerial group held earlier in the year, which focused on sustainable transport arrangements, particularly in the context of climate change. A joint communiqué was issued after the summit was over.

I'd like to take this opportunity, Dirprwy Lywydd, to put on record my thanks to David Anderson, director general of Amgueddfa Cymru, National Museum Wales, and the team at St Fagans for being such excellent hosts. Holding the event at the museum provided an opportunity to demonstrate the rich cultural history of Wales in a unique and memorable location, and that was widely appreciated by the visiting delegations. The summit agreed that it will meet again in the summer of 2022, and this time on the island of Guernsey.

14:50

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer, and thank you, First Minister, for your statement. I think it's very welcome that you're making an oral statement to the Chamber following the summit in Wales, because, of course, usually, we tend to receive written statements only in respect of these important relationships. So, I do welcome that, and I would put on record a request, if I may, for this to be a more regular feature following British-Irish Council summits in the future. I'm also pleased to hear that the summit took place, of course, in St Fagans, something that I like to showcase visitors to Wales whenever they visit this part of the world. It truly is one of the most incredible museums, I think, in the whole of Europe, and it's always a delight to be able to see the expressions on people's faces as they learn about Wales, our culture and our history as they go around that tremendous place.

First Minister, you referred to a number of issues in your statement. Obviously, the protocol will have been something of an important issue for members of the summit to consider, and I am pleased that it does appear that is there a different mood music around the protocol at the moment, and there appears to be a great deal of willingness both on the European Commission side and the UK Government side to wanting to secure an agreement without triggering article 16. That, of course, is in everybody's interest, and I am pleased to see that that does appear now to be the case. Would you agree with me that that mood music was rather different at this particular summit than from previous discussions with Governments, both in London and Dublin, and what are your hopes and anticipations for the timescale for an agreement? 

You made reference as well, of course, to the work that the British-Irish Council has done in terms of highlighting the issue of minority languages. As you will know, I have been a long-standing member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and one of our work streams in that assembly has been around minority languages, and the world-leading work that we have done here in Wales has been something that we have always liked to share and encourage other people in the various BIPA jurisdictions to adopt. So, I'm very pleased that the British-Irish Council has also been discussing this important issue. And I wonder whether you can tell us what consideration the British-Irish Council and the hosts of each summit give to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly's agenda when considering what topics to include in the themes that are discussed at each meeting.

I noted with interest that you referred to the impact of the pandemic as well, of course, and the vaccination programme in your statement. That is also a subject of a current British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly inquiry—in fact, it's the European affairs committee of that British-Irish assembly, which I must declare an interest in as the chair of that committee. We are undertaking an inquiry into the roll-out of vaccinations across Europe and in the different BIPA jurisdictions at present, and I think it would be useful for the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly to share its findings with, obviously, all of the Governments in the different BIPA jurisdictions to see whether that has anything useful to add to the discussions that might take place. 

I do welcome this statement. I hope that we can continue to have oral statements in the future on these important topics, and perhaps there will be some way in which parties across the Senedd can work together to feed some of these work streams into the wider parliamentary business of the Senedd in the future in order that we can capitalise on the good work that's been done by BIPA, the British-Irish Council and others in terms of forging these important relationships across the whole of the British isles.

14:55

Dirprwy Lywydd, I thank Darren Millar for that contribution. I was very keen to make an oral statement today both because this particular summit was held here in Wales and because of the significance of the items that were on the agenda, and I've heard what the Member has said about oral statements in future, were the British-Irish Council to be engaged on matters that clearly would be of interest here.

I share everything he said about St Fagans, in my own constituency, of course. This wasn't the first British-Irish Council to be held in St Fagans. The first one was held in 2002, and because I am as old as the hills, Dirprwy Lywydd, I was there at that one as well. Bertie Ahern was the Taoiseach—[Interruption.]—I should be; I may well be, indeed. [Laughter.] In those days, because the British-Irish Council had not long been in existence because of the Good Friday agreement, it was attended by the Prime Minister as well, and Darren Millar is absolutely right, Llywydd—you can see the impression that the museum makes on people who are visiting it for the first time, and that was very evident on Thursday and Friday last week.

I agree with what Darren Millar said, Dirprwy Lywydd—there was a different mood music. I'd met the German ambassador here in Cardiff early in the day on Thursday, and he reported the same impression from the Commission, and the contributions by Michael Gove at the plenary sessions particularly, I thought, were designed to assist in that different mood music to help to move forward the prospects of securing an agreement. Quite certainly, everybody who spoke—apart from the UK Government, who, for understandable reasons, I think, didn't comment on this issue, but I think every other contribution—emphasised, as the Member has, that it is in everybody's interests to avoid the triggering of article 16.

I thank Darren Millar for what he said about the parliamentary assembly's work. Personally, and on behalf of the Welsh Government, I have argued that there ought to be a closer synergy between the work of the council and the work of the assembly and that we ought to think about, every now and then, getting together where there is a common piece of work going on. That's not been a view necessarily supported by all members of the council, but my own view is that a great deal of work goes on in both forums, it often is of common interest, and certainly the COVID impact was discussed in a very lively way on Thursday and Friday, because, of course, the Republic of Ireland has recently had to introduce fresh measures, the Executive in Northern Ireland was in the middle of making its decisions, and, by now, we may have heard of conclusions in Scotland as well. So, I'm very happy to go on working on that idea that we should make more of the synergies that could be created between the work of the ministerial group and the parliamentary group when we're both engaged on common concerns.

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. In your written statement in response to the previous summit, I think you mentioned that the UK Prime Minister had not attended, and he didn't attend again. In fact, I don't think he's ever attended, and I don't think Theresa May attended and neither did David Cameron. You have to go back to Gordon Brown in 2007, I think. I know this because I was reading—. He attended in Belfast at that time and I know this because it's included in Ieuan Wyn Jones's new book, and he was representing the Welsh Government at that summit whilst Rhodri Morgan was recovering from illness. And Gordon Brown only turned up because Ian Paisley and Micheál Martin had threatened to cancel the whole thing if he hadn't done so. So, why do you think that UK Prime Ministers are so unwilling to attend the summit? Isn't it important? Whilst every other Government, as a rule, sends their First Ministers, and in this case the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, doesn't it at least show some disrespect, if truth be told, to the other Governments that the UK Government isn't represented in the same way?

Micheál Martin, the Taoiseach, has put forward some ideas in relation to the council and strengthening the council. I'm wondering whether he shares some of the ideas you have mentioned now, your ideas on reforming the relationship with the parliamentary assembly. There is a different constitutional status to the various members of the council, isn't there? You have the Republic, of course, as an independent nation; you have Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland with their own devolved parliaments; and then you have the Crown dependencies too, which have a status somewhere in between—quite interestingly, outwith the European Union but within the customs union, outside the UK but espousing British identity. That's interesting in the context of the discussions that will come up through the constitutional commission. I wonder whether you had an opportunity during the conversations at the periphery, which can be the most interesting during these sessions, to discuss the constitutional commission and the lessons that can be learned from that range of constitutional models that might be relevant to us.

Finally, minority languages was one of the themes discussed. Was there any discussion at all on the pledge by the UK Government to introduce legislation on the Irish language in Northern Ireland following the political crisis in Stormont some years ago? There has been a pledge to legislate before the end of the year, but there are only a few weeks remaining of this year. So, was there anything to report in terms of progress to that end?

15:00

Thank you very much to Adam Price. I have been three or four times to these summits, and every time the absence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is raised. I can see, a decade ago, when the system after the Good Friday agreement was running quite smoothly and we were all still within the European Union—I can see that there was a case for the Prime Minister not attending. But, in the Brexit context and in the context of everything that has happened post Brexit, the case for the Prime Minister to be there and to discuss with the partners who are so important within that agreement—well, that case is strengthened, I think, and several people expressed disappointment that Mr Johnson wasn't there. There was an opportunity to be there and speak to the other people present.

There was an interesting discussion with the Taoiseach and others about how we can strengthen the council, and there are a number of ideas. I referred to the new group of senior officials. We're going to ask them to do some work on how we can strengthen, on the one hand, the council and also reform how the council operates, so that we can derive everything from the opportunity when people travel from all over to come together. It was very interesting of course to hear from the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey. They have very interesting points of view. For example, the Chief Minister of Jersey had a great deal to say about fisheries and how that is part of the discussions with the European Union.

There wasn't a great deal of mention made in the plenary about legislation with regard to Northern Ireland and the Irish language, but that happened on the periphery of the summit. There were many people talking about the importance on the one hand and sensitivity on the other hand of this whole topic, and what the UK Government has promised to do and, at present, hasn't delivered on.

15:05

Like others, I welcome the oral statement this afternoon. I welcome the opportunity to debate and discuss the issues that have arisen, both from the meetings last week but also the wider issues of relationships in these islands. Like others who have spoken this afternoon, I also agree that the council is a good opportunity for us not just to root and deepen peace in the islands of the British isles, but also to learn from each other. And, certainly, as a past participant myself, I can certainly say that I learned a great deal from colleague Ministers in other administrations. But, you also met, First Minister, last week, at an extraordinarily difficult time in relations between these islands. I think that anyone who followed the debate and the discussion around the Northern Ireland protocol has seen nothing in the last year of its operation that was either unexpected, not predicted or in any way surprising. And the failure of UK policy in this field is a profoundly troubling matter for us all.

But, in terms of the place of Northern Ireland, of course, it does have a direct effect on the politics and policy of this place, because if we agree common frameworks that include the territory of Northern Ireland, and if Northern Ireland is following mainstream European regulations, then it is difficult to see how a common framework that includes Northern Ireland can vary itself from— 

—European norms. Therefore, First Minister, my question is: how do you see the operation of common frameworks, if there is a determination in UK policy—and we saw Lord Frost saying this again—that they want there to be a major turn away from EU regulations, because that will have a direct impact on the way that common frameworks operate here in Wales?

Well, I thank Alun Davies for that, Dirprwy Lywydd. He's absolutely right to point to the fact that the discussions about the future of the protocol have a direct impact on us here in Wales. I do very much regret the fact that the UK Government—Lord Frost being their agent in this matter—refused our request to be in the room when these discussions were taking place. Our only purpose in being there would have been to ensure that essential Welsh interests were known to those who were making the decisions. We weren't expecting to be decision makers. We thought we had a constructive part to play in making sure that those who did make decisions were well informed about the impact of the protocol on Welsh ports, for example, which I did discuss extensively with the Taoiseach and with Mr Gove.

Common frameworks work, Dirprwy Lywydd, has gone on quietly and in the background, more slowly than we would have wished, but making progress. And I'm still optimistic that we may be in a position to publish a series of those common frameworks for external scrutiny before too long. The context within which that work is carried out, however, has undoubtedly been made more challenging by the atmosphere that has, up until more recently, surrounded these discussions.

15:10

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. You say in your statement today that dialogue, not unilateral actions or ultimatums, is important, and of course that will be true in terms of not invoking article 16 to hide behind the mess that has somehow been created by a bad deal. I'm really concerned about the ports of Milford Haven, Fishguard and Pembroke Dock—all valued employers in my region. I notice on camera that the Taoiseach said that already they've seen reduced activity in those ports, and we've all read reports about sea traffic evading and bypassing the Welsh ports. If we add in free ports as well, the sustainability and the viability of these ports start to come into question, and will be ultimately severely challenged. So, I want to know, First Minister, what conversations you had, raising those issues that I've just raised with Michael Gove at the British-Irish Council.

Dirprwy Lywydd, I thank Joyce Watson for that very important question, which is absolutely relevant to the part of Wales that she represents. I did have an opportunity to discuss these issues, both with Mr Gove but also with the Taoiseach as well. The danger for Wales, Dirprwy Lywydd, is that we are being squeezed in both directions. People in the Republic are making plans to transport goods directly to the continent of Europe, bypassing all the new complexities that they have to face if they bring goods into Welsh ports, because we're no longer members of the single market or the customs union. And at the other side, there is evidence of goods being imported into the United Kingdom going north on the island of Ireland, and then coming across from Northern Ireland into ports in England and Scotland; again, in order to avoid the complexities that leaving the European Union has created.

The Taoiseach was very clear with me that, in the view of his Government, the land bridge remains the quickest, the safest, the most efficient, economically beneficial route to transport goods between Ireland and the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union. But for that land bridge to be effective again, we need a stable agreement, because people are going to have to have complexity, but they need complexity that they can get to grips with, understand, and then operate. The danger is—and this is where I think we have to be as vigilant as we can—that when people invest time and money and energy in establishing alternatives, even if they were meant to be short-term alternatives, if you're not careful those things become permanent. Even though they are not as efficient, even though they take longer, even though they're more expensive, if you've put a lot of your time and energy into establishing them, you may decide that it's just easier to stick with them, and if that were the case, then that would certainly be to the detriment of ports here in Wales.

First Minister, the pandemic and COP too have shown the need for closer working between Governments across the globe. The British-Irish Council summit, hosted by the Welsh Government at our iconic St Fagans National Museum of History, was a unique opportunity for Wales to show the value of how we are all stronger working co-operatively together.

First Minister, did you have an opportunity during your bilateral meeting with Michael Gove, who led the UK delegation, to raise also the grave concerns of the communities of Islwyn that we are being and will be potentially short-changed by the UK Tory Government? The confidence of the people of Islwyn is not helped when the Prime Minister addressing the Confederation of British Industry recently descended into total incoherence before asking the assembled audience if anyone had been to Peppa Pig World. First Minister, how can we and the Welsh Government ensure better clarity and transparency with the UK Government's funding of Welsh communities following the UK leaving the European Union, and how can the Welsh Government continue to drive systemic co-operation from a Tory Government seemingly intent on dilution of devolution?

15:15

I thank Rhianon Passmore for that, Dirprwy Lywydd. The bilateral meetings that are possible around an event like the BIC are very valuable. I did have such a meeting with Mr Gove. My aim in those meetings is that where I think we can work on things together, I want to emphasise those things, and I want to make progress on positive ground. We did that on a number of issues, the UK inquiry into the COVID experience being one of them. But I cannot leave a meeting of that sort without being as clear as I could be, and I don't think I could have been more direct with the Secretary of State in making it clear to him that the way that Wales has lost out in funding, in decision making, in those things that were promised to Wales as a result of leaving the European Union, and the operation of the internal market Act to achieve all of that, is the single most difficult challenge facing the United Kingdom today, because it poisons relationships. Until the UK Government is prepared to take a different approach to those matters, that will always be there in the background, despite the efforts that Michael Gove himself—I'm happy to acknowledge that—and we, where we can, try to make on areas where more common ground is possible. 

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Dirprwy Lywydd. I appreciate the comments about the discussions that were had around the port of Holyhead, and you're quite right that there's squeezing from both sides, with the increased traffic directly to the continent, but also there's the Northern Ireland link. Can you give me an assurance that you will press the UK Government to not in any way allow Liverpool ports, ports on the Mersey, to be given prominence over Holyhead? I remember as far back as the development of the TEN-T transport network, where Holyhead was seen as lower priority than the ports on the Mersey at that time. Now we're coming to a point where that really means something, and we need those assurances for the port of Holyhead.

I'm absolutely happy to give that assurance, Dirprwy Lywydd. I did directly raise with the UK Government not simply ports in Pembrokeshire, but particularly the impact on Holyhead given its significance as a port to the whole of the United Kingdom in the BIC context, and Welsh Ministers lose no opportunity to make sure that we return to this issue with UK Ministers whenever we have that chance, and to press them to go beyond the sort of assurances we have had up until now, which is that all this is just teething trouble, that it will all settle down, and that provided we all just keep crossing our fingers, it'll all be all right. Well, I'm afraid, as every week goes by, that view of the world becomes a little harder to sustain, and we really need to move UK Ministers beyond that, to think about what actions they can take, and we are prepared to take as well, to make sure that the real advantages that there are of trading through those Welsh ports are secured for the future. 

4. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Update on COVID-19

The next item is the statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services, an update on COVID-19. I call on the Minister, Eluned Morgan.

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd, for the opportunity to provide Members with the latest information about the public health situation and the outcome of last week’s review of the coronavirus regulations.

Since my last update three weeks ago, there has been a reduction in overall rates of infection in Wales. They have fallen back from very high levels that we saw at the end of October, thanks to the hard work of everyone across Wales. However, we aren’t out of the woods yet. Cases remain high across Wales at around 500 cases per 100,000 people, people are continuing to be admitted to hospital with COVID-19 and, very sadly, the latest data shows that over 250 deaths have been registered involving the virus in Wales in the past three weeks.

Our healthcare system is under intense pressure at the moment from the combination of pandemic and winter pressures; from a spike in emergency demands while also trying to catch up with the treatment and operations that were postponed earlier in the pandemic. Our NHS and care staff are doing a fantastic job under extraordinary circumstances. I want to thank them for everything that they do every day. They continue to play a crucial role in our response to the pandemic, whilst also caring for those who need help.

Wales will remain at alert level zero for the next three weeks. There'll be no further changes to the suite of protections that we have in place. We will not be extending the use of the COVID pass any further at this time. But, we will continue to keep it as an option to help keep hospitality businesses open and trading through the winter months and the busy Christmas period.

We will continue to work with the sector. Our aim is to keep Wales open and to keep Wales safe. Cases may have fallen back from the record high rates we saw just a few weeks ago, but the pandemic is far from over. A fourth wave is sweeping across Europe and many countries are introducing new restrictions to control the spread of coronavirus. Austria started a 20-day full lockdown yesterday, and will make COVID vaccinations compulsory from February. Germany is considering following suit after introducing new restrictions for unvaccinated people in many areas. Slovakia introduced a lockdown for the unvaccinated yesterday. The Czech Government is limiting access to a range of services, and the Netherlands has a partial lockdown in place.

Closer to home, the Republic of Ireland has introduced new protections following a surge of cases. These include a midnight curfew for hospitality, working from home and an extension of its COVID pass to theatres and cinemas. In Northern Ireland, a COVID pass will be introduced for hospitality, nightclubs, events, cinemas and theatres, and the Executive is considering further restrictions to reduce rising cases. In Scotland, the Government is deciding whether to extend its vaccine passport to indoor cinemas and theatres. I believe that they have decided that they won't be doing that at this stage.

Dirprwy Lywydd, vaccination is our best defence against this awful virus, especially when combined with all the other measures we can take to protect ourselves. We continue to encourage everyone who is eligible to take up the offer of vaccination and the booster. We are implementing the latest advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to offer a second dose of the vaccine to young people between the ages of 16 and 17 years. And we will also be extending the booster programme to people aged 40 to 49.

Our vaccination programme is now offering first doses to everyone aged 12 and over on the principle that no one is left behind, second doses for everyone eligible, including young people between the ages of 16 and 17, a third primary dose to people who are severely immunosuppressed, and booster doses for eligible groups, including people between the ages of 40 and 49. To date, 90 per cent of eligible adults have had a first dose of the vaccine and 82 per cent have had a second dose. More than 725,000 booster doses have been given so far, with 71 per cent of all front-line healthcare staff, three quarters of people over 80, and 78 per cent of eligible care home residents having received the booster.

Dirprwy Lywydd, the signs from the continent are not good. A new wave of coronavirus is once again sweeping across Europe, and countries all around us are tightening their restrictions. None of us wants to see restrictions back in place in Wales at Christmas, but neither do we want to see people falling ill with COVID at Christmas. This three-week cycle is vital. We need everyone’s help and support to keep the virus under control as we start looking ahead and planning for Christmas.

We will continue to do everything we can through our fantastic vaccination and booster programme; regular testing in schools and putting other protective measures in place to keep the virus out of schools; using the COVID pass in certain settings; self-isolating if someone we live with has COVID-19; and taking all the simple steps that keep us all safe, such as regular hand washing, wearing face masks, and keeping social distance wherever possible. 

The decline in rates since the last review is very positive, but there's still more we need to do. Let’s work together and let's keep Wales safe. Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd.

15:25

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Can I first of all thank the Minister for the advance copy of the statement, which was greatly appreciated? I share in your pleasure that we're seeing those rates of COVID lower in Wales. That is positive news, albeit from a very, very high case rate, and of course I share your concern as well about the level of those that are sadly dying from COVID.

I wonder if I can firstly ask, Minister, some questions around vaccine passports. The most alarming part, to me, of your statement today was that you are keeping it as an option to introduce COVID passes for the hospitality sector. This is particularly, I think, concerning. In your statement, Minister, you say that you'll continue to work with the sector, so what are they telling you? What are the hospitality sector telling you in regard to the introduction of COVID passes for their sector, and what are their asks, as well? Previously, when I have raised the issue about additional cost, the answer back, the reply, has been, 'Well, if you're going into a theatre or a cinema, then you have to show documentation so there shouldn't be any additional work in that regard.' This is different for the hospitality sector. If you're a cafe or a restaurant or some elements of the other parts of the hospitality sector, you will require additional staff, potentially, to be on the door, and of course there is an issue at the moment in terms of attracting staff to come and work in the hospitality sector, let alone the cost that is attached to it. As this option is remaining on the table, can you outline what discussions you're having with the economy Minister and the finance Minister in regard to additional financial support for the hospitality sector, should you extend COVID passes in this regard? I certainly hope you won't, for all the reasons that I've previously outlined.

In regard to evidence, you referred in your statement today to the case rates in parts of Europe, in some of the continental countries of Europe. Case rates are increasing at an alarming rate. Some of those countries, of course, have had COVID passes for some time, so the data should be there if the evidence is there. I appreciate that in Wales there's time for the vaccine passport to bed in, and that data may not yet be available, but I think it is particularly crucial to have that evidence as soon as possible in regard to the effectiveness of COVID passes, particularly since a number of studies have shown that people who are double vaccinated are just as likely to pass on COVID as unvaccinated people. So, it's all the more crucial that we have the evidence that demonstrates the support for COVID passes, if you believe that is the appropriate way forward, which I, of course, don't.

Minister, if I can ask about mandatory vaccinations, in your statement you correctly, of course, point out that there was, in Austria, a full lockdown yesterday, and they will make vaccinations compulsory from February, and other countries are considering the same as well. I am entirely opposed to vaccinations being compulsory. I think that is the Welsh Government's position and that is your position as well. I'd be grateful if you could confirm that is the position or not. I certainly agree with you that vaccination is our best defence against the awful virus, and I think that we should all be encouraging everyone to take up the vaccination in that regard, but your thoughts on mandatory vaccination would be appreciated. 

Walk-in vaccination centres for booster jabs—I think this is the appropriate way forward, particularly as we go to those lower age groups. You yourself say you want to encourage people to be vaccinated. I agree with that. To do that, I think we need walk-in centres, particularly as we go to those lower age groups, because those lower age groups are going to be in a working environment, and we need to make it as easy as possible for people to have those booster jabs. Now, previously, you have said that you don't support this approach, that it's a free-for-all. Do you still hold that position? I'd be grateful if you could outline which health boards across Wales are considering or have introduced walk-in centres because I think there is a disparity about what is happening across Wales. So, in the context of your view that you have got concern that they are a free-for-all, and also, that some health boards are operating walk-in centres and others aren't, your views in that regard would be appreciated.

And, finally, I'm sure as you have, I have deep concerns, of course, about the state of the current NHS in Wales. Last month, we saw the worst ever A&E waiting times, the worst ever ambulance response times, the longest treatment waiting lists on record—nearly 9,500 people waiting more than 12 hours for emergency treatment. That's 2,000 more people in Wales than the whole of England, and considering England is 16 times bigger, that's a concerning position. We've got one in four patients that are waiting over a year for treatment compared to one in 19 in England. So, the staff, as you say, are doing a fantastic job, health Minister, and what they need, of course, is support to do their job. So, I'm highly concerned, as you are—

15:30

I'm getting to my last question, Deputy Presiding Officer. In regard to the A&E waiting times and many waiting up to 36 hours, can you please give us details about your plan to support our fantastic NHS staff in terms of bringing down those waiting times, and the additional beds that are needed to stop the backlog that we've seen to the extent we have in terms of ambulances waiting outside A&E in hospitals?

Well, diolch yn fawr Russell. I must say, in terms of the vaccine passport, we will, like everything else, keep all the options on the table. I think it would be irresponsible for us, particularly when we see the rates on the continent go through the roof, not to keep everything on the table. So, that option will continue to be on the table. We continue our discussions with the sector. It is true that we're having mixed messages, if I'm honest, from the sector. Some clearly are less enthusiastic about the prospect of vaccine passports, but many, many others are saying, 'Look, if this is what it will take to keep us open over Christmas, then we'll welcome it.' So, they prefer the security of knowing what the situation is likely to be, and keeping it open is really what they are really focused on. 

I think, in terms of the continent, it's clear that the delta variant is hitting them much later than it hit us. So, we know that there's a 70 per cent advantage of the delta variant over the alpha variant, which is why it is really becoming far more transmissible now on the continent. And there's plenty of evidence to demonstrate that indoor places, where lots of people congregate, we are more likely to see the spread of the virus. So, there's plenty of evidence to support that case. And, so, that's what we're keeping our eye on.

We don't have any plans for compulsory vaccinations. We're very proud of the fact that the Welsh public have responded really positively to the vaccination programme. We've got 91 per cent of people over the age of 16 who've had the first vaccination; 86 per cent of people over 16 have had the second dose. And I think we've got to bear this in mind constantly. When we keep on worrying about the situation in relation to a COVID pass—86 per cent of the public have had their vaccination, both vaccinations. It's the minority that's making a lot of noise here, and I do think that we need to be very careful that we're listening not just to the voices of the minority, but we are protecting the majority who've come with us on this journey, who see it and understand their responsibility to their fellow human beings. And I think it's really important that we don't lose sight of that. 

The vaccination plan in Wales, in terms of the booster, it's not a free for all, no; we are doing a very comprehensive programme where we're calling people in an order, where we're following the same order as we did with the first vaccination. Obviously, with Pfizer it's more complicated because people have to wait for 15 minutes after they've had their vaccination. So, it is a more sophisticated and more difficult programme. And, obviously, we have lots of different vaccination programmes that we're undertaking at the same time here. It's a very, very complex mix that we're trying to service at the moment. 

And, of course, we're more than aware of the pressure on the NHS at the moment, and that's why we do have, in particular, when it comes to emergency services—we've put an extra £25 million into emergency care. We are developing these urgent primary care centres; we're completing the 111 call centres; we are developing more same-day emergency care centres to avoid admission into hospitals; and we're implementing far more discharge to assess. So, all of those things are being undertaken with our six goals programme, and, of course, on top of that, we've brought the army in to help us out with the ambulance service, and we are really focused on the fragility of our care service. 

15:35

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer, and thank you for the statement. The situation is still very serious obviously, although I am pleased to see figures reducing somewhat, in terms of numbers, and in terms of the positivity rate too. But this afternoon, I'm thinking particularly about Ffion Parry, a 10-year-old girl from Amlwch, in my constituency, who's been gravely ill in Alder Hey hospital, after her body responded very badly to this virus. And I want to wish her and her family well. And that is why we are taking this virus seriously, and that's why each and every one of us, in all parties in this place, need to be considered in our response to it. 

Yes, I understand the frustrations of people that we are still facing some restrictions that are having an impact on our daily lives. But I'm sure I'm speaking on behalf of every politician and everyone who makes laws and regulations, that we look forward to scrapping those laws and regulations as soon as possible, but we aren't at that point as of yet.

A few issues I wanted to raise—. First of all, a lack of consistency in terms of the provision of the booster. I'm grateful to the Minister for saying earlier that an official will look at the situation in my constituency—in Holyhead and Amlwch—where far lower numbers have had the booster in those areas. But I would like an assurance about the steps being taken to ensure consistency in the provision of the booster across Wales. 

Secondly, vaccination, of course, is our greatest protection, we know that. But I am still concerned that there is a lack of action on some of the other fundamentals that could keep us safe. And, when I see pictures or hear reports about trains that are full to overflowing and people not wearing masks as they travel to rugby matches, then, clearly there is still a lack of enforcement. And I would like to know what steps the Government is taking to seek to tackle those problems, and in schools too. It's an issue I've raised time and time again: what's going to be done, as we go deeper into the winter months, to strengthen ventilation policies and open windows in schools to keep pupils and staff safe?

If I can turn to COVID passes, we've discussed the difficulties that some people have had in getting through to that central helpline to ask for a paper pass. And I appreciate the written statement made in the letter by the Minister, this morning, stating that there will be greater capacity in the system. I'm looking forward to hearing that that is working, because if a COVID pass is a sensible step in principle, it does have to work on a practical level too.

But one very specific point: there are concerns from people who support the principle as to how it's operating on a practical level. I've mentioned to the Minister already one cinema, where there was great frustration about having to turn people away—grandparents there with their grandchildren, who couldn't get in, because they had failed to get their paper pass. They had their proof of vaccination, and they wanted to use that to come in. But it wasn't possible to allow that, because they didn't have the official pass. Now, the cinema was asking whether there was another way of using that proof of vaccination along with an ID, for example. Now, I know that one could have a lateral flow test, and that would avoid the need for waiting for the COVID pass. But, it is clear that there is a lack of understanding still; it's clear that people and many institutions need more help in order to ensure that they can keep things tight, as they want to do. So, can I ask what additional support the Government and the Minister can offer to that cinema and to other institutions across Wales, who do want to support this and to work with the policy, but are having some difficulty on occasion?

15:40

Thank you very much. I am very sorry to hear about Ffion's situation, and we all think about her and wish her all the best. And I think that's a very important point to make: none of us know how we will respond when we catch coronavirus, and that's why it's so important that we do have the vaccine if we're offered it. So, I am very pleased to see that so many people have taken up the opportunity to have the vaccine. Other than those who are already physically weak and those who have previous medical conditions, a vast percentage of the 58 people in critical care in our hospitals are those who haven't been vaccinated. I do think we need to think about our responsibility as individuals to think about the pressure on our hospitals at the moment. And when 10 per cent of the beds in our hospitals are tied up with COVID, I do think we have to ask questions of everyone who doesn't take up the opportunity to be vaccinated to ask, 'Where does your responsibility lie to us who, perhaps, need to use the NHS for other things as well?'

In terms of enforcement, it is important that we do ensure that if we do introduce these new rules, enforcement is undertaken. And that is why we have constant discussions with the police, with, for example, those people who are responsible for trains and buses and with local government as well, and that happens very regularly. You will have seen that someone in Swansea didn't want to use passes for a cinema; it is worth saying that I have had a response from Ben in Snowcat Cinema, and what he told me was that, since we introduced the COVID pass—

—since we've introduced the COVID pass, in his cinema, he has seen the sales go through the roof; that, actually, people are far more comfortable about going to the cinema now, they feel safer and they're asking, 'Can we keep those measures once you take them away—? If you're going to dismantle them, we would like to continue to enforce them'. And I think it's really important that people hear that message; that, actually, the public are responding really positively and they're saying, 'I feel safer. Your establishment is one that I am going to go to.'

I'm very aware of the capacity in the system in terms of the telephone service if people are unable to download the pass. That's why we're putting far more resources into that and making sure that the number of phone lines, for example, are increased. So, all of that work is happening. And, of course, as you say, it is possible for people to use the lateral flow test if that is unavailable to them. So, I hope that that's been helpful. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

I thank you for your statement, Minister. I speak to an awful lot of people and get an awful lot of e-mails, like everybody else here, and it is the case that people do support those restrictions that we currently have and those ones that we are operating. And I've also had messages where people now feel able to go out and enjoy their lives a little bit more because of those COVID passes, where they were extremely nervous to do so before. But on the other hand, of course, I do understand that people don't support them; that they want all restrictions to come to an end. However, the figures tell us the reality of the spread of this infection and this virus, and we only have to look around in Europe to see exactly what is happening.

So, in terms of asking you a question, you do hint—and you've done it again today—that it may be possible that we have to expand the COVID passes into other areas where they are currently not used. When would you make that decision? What would be the trigger point at which you'd have to decide?

15:45

Thanks very much, Joyce. I think, actually, that one of the things that it might be worth us all considering is using different language around this. We keep on talking about restrictions. Well, I think that it's important that we start to talk about protections, because that's what we are putting in place—protections. We're trying to protect the public here from coronavirus. So, that's certainly something that I'm going to try and use in my discussions in future.

Certainly, in relation to the COVID pass and any possible expansion, of course that will be done in the context of the 21-day review that we undertake every three weeks. The trigger for that will be, as always, the potential and the possibility of the NHS being overwhelmed as we go into the winter period. So, that's always the trigger for us: can the NHS cope?

Frankly, we still haven't really seen the flu really come at us with the kind of force that we were expecting. We're still waiting for that, and it's possible that it will come. But we will keep an eye on things. About 10 per cent of our hospital beds at the moment are filled with COVID patients. Now, that's quite a lot of people. Obviously, we need to keep an eye on that situation, but it's also about keeping an eye on the broader NHS. That's an important situation. Diolch.

Thank you for your statement, Minister, and for providing a briefing to Members of the health committee at lunchtime today. As in previous updates, I want to focus my questions on the care sector, as those living in care homes and their families have been deeply affected by the pandemic. Thankfully, a successful UK vaccination programme has meant that care home visits can once again take place.

Minister, how will your Government ensure that care home residents will remain able to be visited by, and able to visit, their loved ones? What steps are you taking to accelerate the booster vaccine programme for care home staff and residents? Some care homes across the UK are now asking for proof of vaccination for care home visitors. Is this something that the Welsh Government is considering introducing?

Finally, Minister, alongside COVID—and you've touched on it briefly in your answer to Joyce Watson—is the flu. Flu will be a big threat to those in care this winter. Will you publish flu vaccination rates for care home staff and residents, as well as outline the steps that you are taking to boost vaccination rates? Thank you very much.

Thanks, Gareth. Like you, I'm keeping a very close eye on the care sector, as is my colleague Julie Morgan—very concerned about the relationship between care homes and hospitals and the flow through that is crucial to keep the whole system moving. We do have very clear guidelines when it comes to visiting care homes. So, all of those are set out, and you will find that information on our website. That includes the fact that visitors do need to take a lateral flow test before they visit a care home. So, that facility is already in place.

About 77 per cent of care home residents have already received their booster vaccination. I was very pleased that we hit our proposed timetable, which was to offer all those care home residents the booster by 1 November. We did hit that milestone, so I was very pleased to see that. I can find you the flu vaccination rates for care home residents, but obviously that is one of the first places that we go in terms of getting the flu vaccine rolled out. But I will say this, and that is that we are not seeing the same uptake by the public in general across Wales when it comes to flu vaccination as we did last year. I would encourage people to take up that opportunity, because we genuinely don't know what's ahead of us, and we all need to take all of our protections seriously.

Diolch. Thank you very much indeed. What hope can you give to the constituents who have contacted me saying that they have had one vaccination in England and one in Wales, and, despite being passed from pillar to post for weeks, they still can't get their COVID pass because they can't show that they've had both vaccinations? And what hope can you give to the growing number of constituents who have contacted me telling me that they've been told that the booster vaccination in Wales will not be included on their COVID pass for overseas travel, despite France and other EU states saying that people from the UK will have to demonstrate that they’ve had the booster vaccination either to enter the country or to access restaurants and hospitality venues?

15:50

Thank you very much. Well, in terms of the vaccination in England and Wales, that surprises me that it’s such a problem because, actually, we’re sharing the data together. So, if you can write to me about that specific case, I’ll be more than happy to take that up. The COVID pass is a shared system, so we’re doing that together with England.

When it comes to overseas travel and the booster, we were only told, I think it was, last week that England would be updating it. They didn’t give us the opportunity to request that we did it at the same time prior to that. Once they told us, we said, ‘For goodness sake, let us have that opportunity.’ So, they will be giving us that opportunity. I’m hoping that, by the end of next week, that will be in place, so they should be able to show on their COVID pass that they’ve had the booster as well.

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you for giving me an opportunity to correct the record. It was just with regard to the business statement earlier. As you know, I’m a councillor, and I forgot to mention that when I spoke. Thank you.

Well, it's on the record now. Thank you very much.

We will now suspend proceedings to allow changeovers in the Siambr. I'd like remind Members, if they are leaving the Siambr, to please do so promptly. The bell will be rung two minutes before proceedings restart. And finally, any Members who arrive after a changeover should wait until the bell rings before entering the Siambr.

Plenary was suspended at 15:52.

16:00

The Senedd reconvened at 16:02, with the Llywydd in the Chair.

5. Statement by the Minister for Climate Change: Second Homes and Affordability

That brings us to item 5, a statement by the Minister for Climate Change on second homes and affordability. I call on the Minister to make the statement. Julie James. 

Diolch, Llywydd. This Government has a strong, proud record in building affordable housing. Our programme for government reflects our continuing commitment to this with our ambitious target of delivering 20,000 low-carbon social homes for rent this term. But, for some people living in some parts of Wales, an affordable home is beyond their reach because of a combination of rising house prices and a disproportionate number of second homes and short-term holiday lets.

We want young people to have a realistic prospect of buying or renting affordable homes in the places they have grown up, so they can live and work in their local communities. High numbers of second and holiday homes in one area can threaten the Welsh language in its heartlands and affect the sustainability of some rural areas. We are a welcoming nation and tourism is a major part of our economy, bringing jobs and income to many parts of Wales, but we also don’t want ghost villages in seasonal holiday spots—places where no-one is at home during the winter months.

These are complex issues and there are no quick fixes. What may be right for one community may not work for another. We also need to avoid unintended consequences. Certainly, we need to take communities and the people living there with us if we are to find and implement effective responses. And, in a context where commentators point to a lack of robust evidence about what works, we have to forge our own Welsh way, developing our own evidence and our own solutions. I think we all acknowledge there is no one silver bullet here, and we will need to bring forward a range of actions.

In July, I set out the Government’s three-pronged approach: addressing issues of affordability; using our regulatory framework to better manage additional second homes and short-term holiday lets; and, using national and local taxation to ensure second home owners make a fairer contribution.

Our consultation on local taxes for second homes and self-catering accommodation has just closed. Almost 1,000 people responded to the consultation, which shows the strength of feeling and the range of views. We are working through these and will respond with the next steps to ensure a fair financial contribution is made, which reflects social justice.

In his excellent report, 'Second homes: Developing new policies in Wales', Dr Simon Brooks recommended we pilot changes to planning law as a means of addressing excess numbers of second homes in specific local communities. Over the summer, we've been working with Gwynedd Council, and I would just like to put on record my thanks to the council for the constructive and positive way they have engaged with us. Starting in January, we will run a phased pilot to test a number of interventions in Dwyfor, in Gwynedd. This will be the first time we have intervened in the market to support local people to live in their local communities in this way. Dwyfor is one of our Welsh-speaking heartlands. It's an area where second homes range from around one in five to almost half of the available stock.

The first phase of the pilot will include a range of practical support to help people access affordable housing, and will link to our existing and new interventions in a way that really makes a difference. We have already started work on preliminary actions, so we can start delivering with our partners as soon as possible. I will say more about these after the finance Minister has published the draft budget next month, but we are keen to look at shared equity schemes, rental solutions and what we can do with empty homes.

In phase two, we will look at the planning system itself. We know that the planning system plays a key role in supporting our efforts to manage additional second homes and short-term holiday lets. The evidence suggests issues around second homes are usually localised rather than nationwide. Planning law, though, applies across the whole of Wales. So, today, I am launching a consultation on changes that would enable local planning authorities to switch on the need for planning permission to change from a primary home to a secondary home or a short-term holiday let.

We are proposing changes to the use classes Order, which would, if implemented, create specific use classes for primary, secondary and short-term holiday residences. Alongside this, the consultation seeks views on proposals to amend the general permitted development Order. These would make movement between these classes permitted development. Individual planning authorities would then be able to decide whether they wished to remove the permitted development rights through what's called an article 4 direction. If implemented, this would mean that planning permission would be needed to move homes between the different uses of primary, secondary homes and short-term holiday lets in the areas where the local authorities had decided that was what they wished to do. We will also ask about possible changes to 'Planning Policy Wales', referencing any changes.

We are not prejudging the outcomes of this consultation or the local consultations on article 4 directions. It is very important to hear and take account of all voices, and we and our partners must and will do that. If there is broad support for these changes, we will be able to change legislation and evaluate the impact. I anticipate that that can begin to happen from next summer. If Gwynedd Council and Snowdonia National Park decide, after consultation and on the basis of their evidence, to use their powers in Dwyfor, we will include the impact of this within the pilot.

We are currently working with a contractor on the feasibility and shape of a statutory licensing or registration scheme for all holiday accommodation, including short-term lets. As part of this work, we will engage with local partners with a view to establishing a voluntary scheme in the pilot area, to draw lessons to inform the operation of a statutory scheme. While Dwyfor will be the focus of the pilot, an independent evaluation will include ongoing action learning, so that other areas can engage, influence and learn from the pilot. We want to know the combined effect of the actions we take as part of our three-pronged approach.

One of the things we already do know is that there are too many homes sitting empty and idle. To help address this, the Welsh Government will grant aid Gwynedd Council £2 million for the purchase of empty homes for social rent. At least £1 million of this must be spent in the Dwyfor pilot. A further £1 million each will be available to Anglesey, Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire councils for the same purpose. The funding will help us assess the impact this has in communities in need of social homes and where Welsh is a community language.

I have today set out the next steps to address the complex issue of second homes to ensure people can live and work in their local areas. There are no easy answers here and I look forward to working with Gwynedd Council through the Dwyfor pilot, but also with Plaid Cymru, to develop these measures further, as part of the co-operation agreement that the First Minister announced yesterday. We are committed to finding solutions that will make a real and lasting difference. We will continue to explore everything that can be done and develop the best possible policy approaches. I look forward to your support in this. Diolch.

16:05

Thank you, Minister, for bringing this statement to the Chamber today. Before I begin, I would like to refer Members and members of the public to my own register of interests as regards property ownership.

Now, yesterday, we all heard that the Welsh Government announced their coalition deal with Plaid Cymru. Many of us who've been here some time now believe that that was very heavy on rhetoric but light on detail. Just one day later, how surprising it is to find that the Welsh Government has now announced that it will grant £2 million in aid to Plaid Cymru-led Gwynedd Council for the purchase of empty homes for social rent. Minister, whilst it's really good that you're providing £1 million for other local authorities, Wales does have 22 local authorities, and I do think that, once again, this should not be party politically motivated.

I have many misgivings about the statement made today, as it is important that the Welsh Government does not intervene in the market in a manner that has too much of an impact. The Welsh Government needs to be supporting people to buy houses, rather than lowering house prices inadvertently. Therefore, increasing premiums is not the answer, neither is the possibility of enabling local planning authorities to switch on the need for planning permission to change from a primary home to a secondary home or short-term holiday let.

During the cross-party group on housing last week, Shelter Cymru officials present agreed that the tackling of second homes will not solve the issue of housing affordability. The simple fact here is that we need to be building more homes—well, rather, you as a Government need to be building more homes. Around 7,400 new homes are needed annually to meet the demand in Wales, and whilst every electoral term comes, or Senedd term comes, we get promises of what's going to happen, but it doesn't happen. In 2019 registrations of new homes were down by 12 per cent. This is incredibly disappointing given that there are 67,000 households currently on housing waiting lists in Wales, and some of those, a large number, are in the constituency of Aberconwy.

So, Minister, will you confirm what other progress has been made to convert empty public sector land into sites ready for development? You know in the groups that we've had cross-party, you are fully aware that I have pointed this out, that our public bodies have lots and lots of land available, and, in fact, buildings available that would make safe and comfortable homes for those wishing to get on the housing ladder. I haven't seen anything like that coming forward, but have heard the rhetoric by Plaid Cymru many times about how second homes and holiday lets are so bad for us that I feel you're going down that road a bit too quickly.

It was highlighted to me only last week that as many as 10,000 homes—1,000 of these affordable—cannot now be progressed due to Natural Resources Wales guidance on phosphorus. I asked for a statement, in the business statement earlier, from you and James Evans my colleague did also, because we met with leaders, we met with cabinet members, and we met with planning officers of many councils across Wales last week, and they were all saying the same thing: you're asking for more houses to be built, but you're stopping them with these planning regulations on phosphorus. So, you need to plunge this block by either asking NRW to suspend its guidance or through implementing exceptions and phosphate-stripping capability in our drainage systems.

Affordability needs to be addressed by removing the cap on aspiration by cutting land transaction tax. So, whilst I welcome the announcement from the Minister for finance that new legislation will allow taxpayers to claim a refund of the higher rates of LTT where they are replacing their main residence, so as to make Wales their home and economically contribute to our communities, will you be able to confirm the timeline for bringing forward such legislation?

And we do need to confront the issue of empty properties, and, as I say, some of your initiatives are good, but this has got to be done on a far more fair and balanced proportionality. There were 25,725 long-term empty properties in Wales, and four years later—shockingly—this figure has only reduced by 24. The National Residential Landlords Association have proposed removing the second home land transaction tax premium and separating buy-to-let properties from second homes—because, again, I would ask you to tell us today, Minister, what you consider to be a second home—as they are defined in current discourse, encouraging landlords to help address the empty property issue.

As a representative said during my recent round-table, held in conjunction with Propertymark, 'Why are we not incentivising the renovation of empty space above empty shops?' I've heard that for 11 years: 'We're going to bring back all those empty office spaces above shops in our high streets.' I don't know of too many where that has happened. As regards empty shops and taking those shops back, in some instances, if you knock buildings down, you get your value added tax back; if you renovate, you do not. Will you commit to working with UK Government to review this specific situation as a means to help encourage the renovation of affordable central properties and rejuvenate our high street?

To conclude, I look forward to your responses to these most pressing questions and hope that they will give pause for thought over your policy's direction of travel. We want to work with you, Minister. We believe there is an issue, there aren't enough homes in Wales, but there has to be a far more balanced and proportionate response, and this should not be part of any coalition deal with another political party.

16:15

I think I detected four questions in that rather long speech, so I'll—[Interruption.] I think there were four, I think I'm right in saying, which considering the length of the speech is quite something. But, there we are.

The first one was about land for house building. Janet Finch-Saunders, because she's part of the cross-party working group, will know perfectly well that we have been working with local authorities right across Wales on their local development plans to identify housing land that is identified in the LDP to understand why it isn't brought forward for housing and to make sure that we've removed all the barriers for that. She would do well to discuss with Propertymark and others how much land banking there is in the private sector across Wales and why the release of housing is so slow, and whether that has any effect on the current house prices, because I think she'd be quite surprised by some of the answers.

The idea that the solution to house building is to remove pollution controls on floodplains is quite extraordinary. I cannot understand at all how the Conservatives can, on the one hand, say that they agree that there's a climate emergency and on the other hand say that we should build on floodplains with phosphate problems. So, I'm not going to even dignify that with an answer, because it's quite obvious what the answer is. Of course we can't build on floodplains where there's a danger of flooding or pollution. So, we have to find other land or we have to find flood defence capability to make sure that that land is available. And I've got absolutely no problem with NRW's guidance on the subject.

The empty homes figures are interesting. They include houses that are, of course, up for sale. She knows that as well from the cross-party group. We have been working very hard to make sure that we have proper figures on empty homes, and we have a number of initiatives in that regard, as she will also know. So, for a very long time now, we have been offering grant aid to people to bring the empty homes back into beneficial use, either for their own use, if they live in them for five years, or to give them to us as social rented homes, where that's suitable.

On VAT, again, Janet Finch-Saunders does not seem to understand that she's a member of a Conservative Party that has not removed VAT on refurbishing homes, or renovation or reuse. Perhaps she would like to address that to her own Government, who have absolutely refused to do so despite their own declaration of a climate emergency.

And the last thing I would say is that, if she honestly thinks there isn't a problem with second homes, then I suggest she gets out more, because in most parts of Wales there most certainly is.

For the record, I have a home where I have a long-term tenant in situ in Aberystwyth. 

Thank you very much for the statement, Minister. There are generations of people who have been campaigning to encourage governments to take action on this crisis, a crisis that's been facing some of our communities over decades. Back at the beginning of the 1980s, my predecessor in Dwyfor, Dafydd Wigley, put forward ideas to tackle the issue of second homes in Westminster, but he was ignored then. We also have to acknowledge the role of Gwynedd Council—and Plaid Cymru leads that council—as they have already done much of the work around this area, and I thank them for their leadership in this area.

The fact that we are seeing concrete steps here to tackle this issue of second homes and affordability in some of Wales's communities is to be welcomed. There is some sadness that it's taken so long, of course, with many communities having seen huge depopulation over decades because of the failure of government after government to take the issue seriously and to take action. But, better late than never, and this range of policies does provide some hope. It's also important that the consultation is staged in a balanced and fair way and the right process and timetable followed fully. We can't prejudice the outcome; every voice has to be heard. We can't, either, risk harming any opportunities we have to take action on any possible solutions. The agreement between Plaid Cymru and the Government that we've heard mention of today already on these specific issues does show that it's possible to work a different kind of politics in Wales. This shows the value of devolution and that it's possible to find solutions in Wales to those problems facing us here in Wales.

We must also recognise that the broader housing crisis is having an impact on communities across Wales. The affordability of homes and rental costs means that many can't pay for a roof above their heads, and I look forward to working with the Government on finding solutions to these problems, too, as we work on that White Paper. Of course, the challenge is therefore huge, but with the political will, the vision, strong policies and sufficient financial resources to deliver these objectives, there is hope for a better future for Wales's communities. 

So, to conclude, I do want to ask a few questions of the Minister, if I may. What assurance and what solutions can we provide to other communities, those outwith the pilot areas, and convince them that they won't be left behind? There will be many concerned about the length of these pilots and the relatively small amounts of money provided at the moment, so how quickly can we expect these other areas to be included in the Government's response once the pilot has been implemented and once we've learnt lessons from this programme, so that every area can see benefits as soon as possible? And is there a commitment to increase the financial commitment on the basis of a successful pilot?

And finally, whilst the White Paper is on the way, as well as talk about rental costs and house prices—and that's certainly to be welcomed—I'd like to ask what urgent steps will be put in place in order to respond to the unsustainable growth in the gap between house prices, rental prices and salaries, which prevent many people from keeping a roof over their heads. Thank you, Llywydd.

16:20

Thank you, Mabon. In terms of whether we can roll the pilot out, we've got to get to the pilot first. One of the things that we will be doing is putting an evaluation contract in place so that we can get the data from that pilot as rapidly as is humanly possible so that we can evaluate what we're seeing from the pilot, the effect it's having, and what we will need to do to adjust it, if anything. Obviously, that data is essential for other communities who are looking on to see whether they want to take part in similar pilots, so I would anticipate that we would get the data coming in pretty swiftly—house price data, occupancy data and so on—and we will be able to use that data to assist other areas to do it.

Assuming the planning consultation allows the use class Order to be changed and any subsequent article for consultation done by a local authority comes out that they would like to do this, there's nothing to stop them doing it. What we're doing in the pilot area is assisting the council to go a little bit faster with that with some additional resource so we can get the information from the pilot. So, we're not putting any barriers in the way of councils doing it; we are assisting Gwynedd, who have been extremely helpful and co-operative in this, and it's been a pleasure to work with them over very many months now in coming to this point, to go a bit faster so that we can get that data in. So, the message there is that it's possible elsewhere, but we're going to assist in a particular area of need.

In terms of all the other provisions, we are of course forging ahead with our building of the 20,000 zero-carbon or low-carbon social homes. We are in conversation with councils in the areas with high levels of second homes to identify land in order to do that and to make sure that our RSLs and stock-owning councils are stepping up to that. I'm really pleased that that's going very well, despite the fact that we have major global supply chain cost increases. So, we've been able to help with that for our SME builders right across Wales to make sure that they stay in business, and to assist with additional moneys into the social housing grant to assist with the supply price inflation issues, which are affecting, as I'm sure every Member of the Senedd knows, all building work, right across the Chamber. 

The last bit was just around what we're doing to make sure that the rented accommodation market recovers in areas of high tourism and second homes. One of the things we're wanting to see in the pilot is whether the registration of holiday lets on the same basis or similar to the Rent Smart Wales arrangements will have an effect on whether people choose to stay in the long-term rented sector or they still want to go across to the holiday lets. So, one of the points of the pilot is to pilot whether we can have an influence on whether people make that decision or not, in order to increase the supply of long-term rented accommodation in large numbers in the particularly beautiful parts of Wales.

I very much welcome the statement by the Minister. If we had a surfeit of housing, then second home ownership would not be a problem, but unfortunately, we have a shortage of accommodation across Wales and in certain parts of Wales, a massive shortage. I find it morally wrong that some people have two or more houses and others are either homeless, living in very poor quality housing or living in accommodation that is totally inadequate for the numbers living in it.

Does the Minister agree that the large-scale building of council housing has to be part of any housing solution? We know that the only time we had house building and demand in equilibrium was during the time that large-scale council housing was built in the 1950s and 1960s.

Short-term holiday lets is a growing problem, even in Swansea East. I will again ask that properties for short-term rent are controlled via the planning system; it just happens and it causes huge problems to the neighbours. I agree that the testing of something in one area is a brilliant idea, and I hope that other Ministers will learn from that so that we can test things before we implement them across the whole of Wales.

Finally, can I again ask that housing is excluded from small business rate relief? That is one of the things that distorts the market, and allows people to make lots of money by not paying any council tax and not paying any small business rates. I think we need to make sure that housing is for people, not for profit.

16:25

Thank you, Mike. I completely agree with you about the large-scale social house building. That's why we've got the 20,000 social homes for rent in this Senedd term. Councils have only recently, of course, been removed from the Conservative cap on the housing revenue accounts, and they've done remarkable things since then in stepping up their house building, having to reconstitute much of their skills and talent base that they'd lost in the 40 years since Thatcher took the right away from them. I'm really pleased with the success that they've had in doing that, and we are certainly working with the 11 stock-holding councils to ramp that up right across Wales in conjunction with registered social landlord partners as well.

In terms of the short-term rents, one of the things that we are very determined to do is implement the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016. The renting homes Act changes the relationship between landlords and tenants and will really help in the short-term rental section. It will give landlords certainty of income and better tools to make sure that their good tenants stay in place. And it will give tenants better tools to use against the rogue landlords that we have very few of in Wales, but where we do encounter them, we do need to deal with it. I'm very pleased that we will be able to do that, and we're on course to implement that as we go.

Of course, the business rate exemption point is part of the consultation that is now complete. We are just analysing the 1,000-odd responses that we got from that, and we'll be able to come back to the Senedd with the outcome of that as soon as we've been able to analyse those responses.

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. As a member of the Local Government and Housing Committee, one of the things that has struck me the most is the lack of any reliable and quantifiable evidence on what is actually happening in communities that appear to be affected by second home ownership, despite the fact that this Government is looking to change planning policy in this country to deal with it. I recognise that, in some places, there is an acute issue with housing, but without proper investigation it is only ever going to be speculative as to what are the causes of the housing problem. Your own research document, 'Research on second homes: evidence review summary', published in July this year, which no doubt has helped inform your statement, has very few references to any evidence collected in Wales whatsoever, with most of the evidence used coming from a wider European perspective, even as far as Turkey. Furthermore, the report states that

'the literature does not enable us to either delineate or quantify the impact of second homes in Wales with precision in order to fully understand the breadth of impacts. Evaluating and addressing the impact of second homes on housing markets and communities therefore remains largely a matter of judgement'.

Can the Minister therefore clarify if this Government has plans to collect any relevant data about the actual impact of second homes in Wales in order to guide their policy rather than simply collect evidence that just assesses the impact of the second home proposals you've just announced? Thank you.

The very short answer to that is 'yes, we do'. We are collecting a range of evidence already, and of course we'll be evaluating the pilot. I understand the evidence report that he's citing, but I think the evidence of our own eyes is just there for all to see. The house price boom that we're currently experiencing right across the UK and the very, very heated market in Wales is pricing people out of the market as we speak. You've only got to look at the local newspapers to see the increase in house prices and the speed with which the houses are being sold, sometimes to people who haven't even seen them. That's not being sold to people who want to live in those houses, that's being sold as an investment. One of the problems with the UK housing market is that it's not just a home, it is an investment, and that really does confuse the figures that we're looking at. So, the empty property figures that Janet Finch-Saunders mentioned, for example, include houses up for sale. So, it's very difficult to do that, but we are very determined to improve the data, and of course I just answered in response to Mabon that we will be evaluating the pilot very carefully, with a contract put in place to do just that.

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd, and yes, I will be speaking in my capacity as Chair of the Local Government and Housing Committee today. I thank the Minister for her statement. Our committee will be looking at housing in the round over the course of this Senedd term—the availability of affordable, good quality housing that meets the climate change challenges. Our first work stream is, however, on second homes—a subset, really, of that overall picture—and we recently launched a public consultation as part of this inquiry, which will be open until mid January. We hope to receive a wide range of responses in order to gather evidence, and we hope that will come from a spectrum of different perspectives so that we hear all points of view on these very important matters. 

I do think the Minister's statement today is very timely as we begin our inquiry. One of the main strands of our work will be to examine the recommendations of Dr Simon Brooks in his report, and we will also look, of course, at the Welsh Government's response to those recommendations. Part of that governmental response was to take forward the pilots and, obviously, to evaluate them in due course. I wonder, Minister, if you could say a little bit more about that exercise and what were the criteria used to decide on the pilot area. Obviously, the extent of the issues in that particular part of Wales is very important, but I wonder if you could add to that with any other criteria that were used. And also, if you could say anything about the extent of community interest in becoming pilot areas. It would be good to know what the extent of that interest was. 

It's very topical, of course, this issue, and it's had quite a deal of media attention in recent months and, indeed, over quite a long period of time. And I think now particularly in light of the pandemic and its potential impact in terms of increasing people's ability to work from home, and appreciation of the environment and a desire to live in attractive coastal and rural areas, I wonder if the Minister agrees that that's an added dimension at the moment that needs to be factored into consideration of these issues. 

We haven't yet received enough evidence to draw any conclusions, but we do know this is a very complex issue. As Joel said, we've heard that more research and data are needed in order to fully understand the scale of the issue, and we'll continue to explore that through our work. We're also eager to better understand where the balance lies between the economic benefits of second homes and at what point you reach what I think is often described as a tipping point, where potential economic benefits are outweighed by social harm.   

So, we will continue our inquiry into the new year when we'll be inviting stakeholders with a range of views to present their evidence, and we'll also be inviting you, Minister, to give formal evidence to the inquiry before we consider our conclusions and issue a report. Diolch yn fawr.  

16:30

Thank you very much, John Griffiths. I'm really looking forward to working with the committee on this, so I'll be delighted to come and give evidence to the committee on their inquiry. This is a big issue right across Wales, actually. Some areas, though, have a real hotspot for it. The pilot was chosen because we had been in conversation with Gwynedd Council for some considerable time before hitting on a pilot about the problems in Gwynedd. Gwynedd has one of the highest levels of second homes, as in people who aren't using them for their primary residence, in Wales, and it's a concern that the council had expressed to me in my previous role as the Minister for Housing and Local Government on a number of occasions. So, we were able to work well with Gwynedd Council, who were able to work with their community to make sure that the community wished to have the pilot. So, that's how the pilot came to be. We were also very keen to pilot it in an area with a high level of second houses and holiday lets, and in a Welsh-speaking area, for obvious reasons, because some of the concerns are around what happens to the Welsh language if you have a large number of people who don't live all the time in the community.    

I'd just like to make the point, though, that you have absolutely hit on, that during the pandemic, people became aware that they could work from pretty much anywhere as long as they had a decent broadband connection, and are moving out of the cities. My own personal point of view is that Wales is a welcoming nation. If you want to come and make your home in Wales and integrate with the local community and put your kids in the local school, you are very welcome. That is a completely different thing to saying that what you want to do is to have a lovely house on a coastal path somewhere, overlooking a beautiful sea, that you're going to come to three weekends a year. That is a very different kettle of fish altogether. Expanding our communities because people want to come and live and work and be in them is one thing. Emptying them out, or hollowing them out, because we have a large number of houses that are largely empty, is quite another. 

We know that we want sustainable communities. Sustainable communities are communities that can sustain things like shops and pubs and community facilities. If there aren't enough people in the community to do that, then the whole community has that tipping point that you mentioned. So, the pilot is there to see whether the interventions that we are suggesting will make a difference to that, whether the people of Dwyfor are happy with the interventions or have other things to suggest, and the data coming back from it will be invaluable. It's an action learning contract that we're letting for the data from the pilot. So, I'll be delighted to be able to share that with Members of the Senedd and with the committee, John, as the data starts to come in, so we have a dynamic set of data that we can share.

16:35

Thank you, Minister, for your statement today. I'd also like to welcome the comments you just made there to the Chairman of the committee and thank you for your ongoing communication, as a member of the Local Government and Housing Committee, as well. In line with your statement, Minister, I agree with you that we need to understand the issues fully, in line with the comments from Joel James there as well, gathering the evidence so that we can get a full picture of some of the challenges, but also, as you pointed out a moment ago in one of your responses, remembering the acute challenge, perhaps, that this can be in some communities, which are vastly different from one community to the other, even just a couple of miles apart from each other. You acknowledge in your statement, and I'll quote, the

'need to avoid unintended consequences'

with any measures that may be implemented on this issue. As you will know, a huge concern that I have with the second homes discussion at times is the tone of the debate and the possibly damaging effect it could have on our tourism sector in Wales. As you will be aware, it is a vitally important sector in my region of North Wales, where it supports tens of thousands of jobs and contributes around £3.5 billion a year to the economy. So, Minister, what work will you undertake, with the Minister for Economy, to ensure that Wales continues to be seen as an open and welcoming country? Yes, for those 11 million overnight domestic visitors, for the 87 million day visitors, and for the 1 million international visitors that we welcome year on year, who come to Wales, spending their money, supporting our jobs for local people, and seeing the exceptional attractions that our country has to offer. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Yes, absolutely, Sam Rowlands. I completely agree with that. Wales is indeed a welcoming country, and one that is very proud of its tourism offer and the welcome we keep in the hillsides, to quote the famous song. So, absolutely. This isn't about not welcoming people who are coming on holiday to spend their money with us and spend their time with us and share their life and experiences with us—of course it isn't—but those tourists want to come to vibrant communities. They don't want to come to shell towns where there are no shops and no pub, nothing, because it can't sustain itself through the winter months when there's nobody there. People want to go to a vibrant community. When I go as a tourist to different parts of Wales, I want to see a vibrant community there. I don't want to see a hollowed-out shell with just nothing but holiday lets. So, this is all about the right level and the sustainability. Frankly, I think it's essential to the tourist offer. You don't want to go to what's effectively a holiday park; you want to go to a vibrant town or village or wherever you're going, and you want to see the way that the locals live their lives, because that's part of the experience of the tourist offer.

So, this is all about the balance. It's about making sure that people can grow up, live, and expect to carry on living in the community that they've grown up in and feel part of, and then welcome the visitors in numbers, because of course that will be very much part of their economic offer. So, it's all about the balance, and as I said, I also make the distinction between people who are moving to Wales and making their home here, who are very welcome, and people who are just using it very occasionally for one or two weekends, who really do have a very bad effect on the economy, because that house would otherwise be supporting a family or a tourist offer that would be in use all the time and would therefore bring economic benefit to the area.

Thank you for your statement, Minister, and I welcome the action being taken by the Welsh Government. The lack of affordable housing across the UK is an issue acutely felt by younger generations. Many are unable to get a mortgage and feel trapped within the private rented sector, paying off the landlord's mortgage instead of being allowed to pay off their own. Often, tenants can be paying far more in rental payments than they would be in mortgage repayments and yet they are told that they cannot afford a mortgage. 

What steps will the Minister take to encourage banks and building societies, particularly community banks such as Banc Cambria, to take the historic rental payments of tenants into account when offering mortgages? And will the Welsh Government introduce rent controls to help those struggling within the existing private rental sector? Diolch.

16:40