Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

10/05/2022

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

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

Statement by the Llywydd

Welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in hybrid format, with some Members in the Senedd Chamber and others joining by 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 set out on your agenda. 

1. Questions to the First Minister

The first item is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Rhys ab Owen. 

The Building Safety Act 2022

1. What discussions has the First Minister had with the UK Government and councils regarding the impact on Welsh residents of the UK Building Safety Act 2022? OQ58004

Llywydd, I thank the Member for that question. Ministers continue to engage directly with the UK Government and others to create a robust building safety regime for Wales. That includes deployment of aspects of the UK Building Safety Act. Those discussions continued at ministerial level last week.

Diolch, Brif Weinidog. A resident from the Spillers and Bakers apartment just up the road asked me to raise this question today. There, many leaseholders have been served with a section 20 notice. They face losing their homes due to costly regulation failures in the past. When will they receive the practical support that they need to bring this nightmare to an end? Diolch yn fawr. 

Well, Llywydd, leasehold protections were taken in the UK Building Safety Act. I have gently to point out to the Member that he, of course, voted against the legislative consent motion that gave those powers to Wales to be able to protect leaseholders. It's not an unfair point to make, to ask for powers to be used when you've opposed taking the powers in the first place. 

The Welsh Government's reform programme continues. The Welsh building safety fund, with its £375 million set aside over three years—far more per head of the population than is the case across our border—had, as Members will know, 248 expressions of interest. Digital surveys have now been carried out on all the buildings for which expressions of interest were received. A 100 of those buildings are identified as requiring further, more intrusive surveys, and they will be completed this summer, so that money can then flow to the people whose buildings need that remediation. 

As to the leaseholder support scheme, the final details of that are being drawn up, and applications from leaseholders able to draw on that particular fund being made available from the Welsh Government will be able to make those applications before the end of this term. 

On 29 March, the Minister for Climate Change stated, and I quote:

'Once the Building Safety Bill receives royal assent the task will be to bring forward the necessary regulations'. 

Well, last month, the Bill received Royal Assent, so I'm sure that you as First Minister are as eager as we are to see these regulations laid as quickly as possible. However, we also want justice for residents who continue to be trapped in what have been described as 'tinderboxes'. Now, thanks to the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, major home builders, accounting for half of new homes, have pledged to fix all unsafe tall buildings that they have had a role in developing. Here in Wales, residents living in homes built by Redrow and other developers are in despair that whilst the UK Government have secured a commitment from the developers in England, you have not yet done so for Wales. So, First Minister, at what point do you start to see that there is an absolute immediate need for you to be far more strong and robust in protecting these very vulnerable tenants? Thank you. 

Llywydd, the Member is right that there is a programme of secondary legislation that will need to flow from the powers that have come to Wales as a result of the UK Act. We believe that 17 separate pieces of legislation will be needed to implement those powers. There'll be related guidance required for each of those pieces of legislation. The first major piece will be brought forward this summer. It will deal with the regulation of building control inspectors and private sector building control approvers. It's a joint piece of work with the UK Government, so the timing of it depends upon final conclusion of discussions with them. But we believe that we will be in a position to start that flow of a major programme of secondary legislation in front of the Senedd with that aspect before the end of this summer.

13:35
Looked-after Children and Care Leavers

2. What is the Welsh Government doing to ensure the voices of looked-after children and care leavers are heard, to enable them to inform policy decisions, such as radical reform of current services? OQ58012

Llywydd, I thank Jack Sargeant for that. Listening to the voice of children is integral to our work and, indeed, is enshrined in legislation passed by this Senedd. This summer, we will bring care-experienced young people together to discuss our radical agenda of reducing care numbers, eliminating profit making in the care system, and delivering our groundbreaking basic income scheme.

I'm grateful to the First Minister for that. And the First Minister will be aware that I'm currently chairing the Petitions Committee evidence sessions on the routine collection and publication of data of how many babies and children return to their care-experienced parents at the end of a parent and child placement. Now, as part of my commitment to engage the committee with the Welsh public, I and my colleague Buffy Williams visited Voices From Care Cymru and met care-experienced parents to hear directly from them. One individual told us about the interaction they had with their social worker, and I quote:

'I had some wine in the kitchen since Christmas. The social worker came in, found it, and poured it down the sink. And they said, "If you carry on like this, you will end up like your mum." I hadn't even opened it yet, they assumed I was a drinker, and I wasn't.'

Llywydd, there are countless examples of how people who have experienced trauma in their lives are being treated differently to how either I or you or the rest of the Members in this Senedd would be spoken to. First Minister, in the programme for government, you are committed to exploring radical reform of current services for care leavers. It is clear from the conversations that I've had that they want to engage in this process. Will you commit to ensuring that young people in care, and care leavers, are fully engaged?

Llywydd, I thank Jack Sargeant for that additional question. And I think it illustrates the importance of the committee that he chairs and the way in which the Petitions Committee is able to bring the direct testimony of people in Wales to bear on the discussions that we have as a Government and in this Chamber. We are already committed to making sure that the voice of young people is heard in the programmes that we are taking forward. We launched our children and young people's plan on 1 March. It was a great pleasure, together with the Minister Julie Morgan to meet with young people whose voices were reflected in that plan. And the oversight board, which is charged with making sure that that plan is put into practice, has two care-experienced young people on that board—one representing young people from north Wales and the other young people here in the south. Our corporate parenting group, which, again, oversees the work that our local authority colleagues are doing, has five young people in a panel, helping to make sure that that work is properly discharged. All of that is testimony to our ongoing determination to make sure that the voice of young people, and particularly care-experienced young people, is heard directly in the development of the services on which they either currently or have in the past relied.

In relation to the specific point that Jack Sargeant raised, Llywydd, we are committed as a Government to making sure that there are parental advocacy services for families who find themselves at risk of being drawn into the care system, so that those sorts of remarks are not made to people who are vulnerable in that way, in a way that they would not be made of other parents. And that parental advocacy service has now been funded, as a result of the budget passed in this Senedd, and will be rolled out over the 12 months that lie ahead, and will be a further example of the way in which we can make sure that the voice of young people, and the voice of those caught up in public systems, is heard and heard powerfully.

I didn't realise I was down for a supplementary. But on your point on the abolition of the profit-making children's services in Wales, it actually makes up 80 per cent of the sector, First Minister. So, with that in mind, are you able to change that policy to make it more reflective of the private sector, which makes up such a fair chunk of the sector in Wales? Thank you. 

13:40

No, Llywydd, I don't intend to change that policy. It is a policy directly influenced by the voices of young people themselves. I commend to the Member the annual report of the children's commissioner, in which young people in the care system described what it is like to be put up for auction on a website so that their care can be provided by the cheapest bid. That is simply not acceptable here in Wales. The services that are provided to our young people need to be provided on the basis of their need, rather than the private profit taking of private companies. I wonder whether the Member has read the Competition and Markets Authority report—two reports—last year, commissioned by his Government in Westminster, both of which report on the excessive profit taking of companies in this field, a fact that was recognised by UK Ministers. We will work over the course of this term to make sure that companies that operate in Wales do so in a way that guarantees any profits they make are reinvested in the service that they provide, rather than being taken out of Wales into the hands of private shareholders. 

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

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

Thank you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, when I was going round Wales over the last couple of weeks, which was far more profitable for you than me as it turned out last Thursday—[Laughter.]—there were many things that were raised with me as I went round Wales, but one of the key themes that came across in all parts of Wales was access to GPs and the ability to get appointments in GP surgeries. And the recent announcement from the Welsh Government over the workforce planning and the money that's going to be made available talks of funding 160 places per year, but, according to the BMA, to meet the demand requirement, we're going to need to be funding close to 200 places to make sure that we're replacing people who are retiring or leaving the workforce or reducing their hours.

Another point that is being made by the BMA is that just over two thirds of doctors here in Wales only work full-time hours, so nearly a third are on part-time hours, and equally we have a higher number of GPs who are over 60—23 per cent of GPs in Wales are currently over 60. That's creating, I hope you will agree with me, real pressure in shaping the service for the future. So, do you agree with me that there is an issue about ramping up the number of training places for GP provision here in Wales, and also making sure that we create a service that is fit for the future and able to be accessed by patients wherever you live in Wales? 

I thank the Member for those important points. He is right to say that we have to train the GP workforce that we need for the future. We have a record number of GP trainees in Wales. We had a period not that long ago when we struggled to fill the number of training places that we had available. Now we're oversubscribed for training places, and that, of course, is being taken into account by the body that plans workforce provision for the health service here in Wales in the future. I hope the Member will have seen the latest number of GPs that we have in Wales, which rose again in the figures published just around Christmas time. Whereas the number of GPs in the English health service has been falling, in Wales we are managing to sustain the number we have and to increase it as well.

The nature of the GP workforce is changing, Llywydd. People are choosing to work part-time hours, and that reflects the nature of people who are being recruited into it. The old patterns—the old patterns—of people buying a stake in a business, thinking of themselves being there for 30 or 40 years, many young people who are becoming GPs don't see their futures in that way, and we have to craft futures for them that means that Wales continues to attract the people that we need. I make one other point, which I make every time this is raised with me: primary care is more than GPs. And while GPs are fundamental, they oversee the system, they have a level of expertise that means that they are responsible for the wider team, the future is at least as much about making sure we have all those other components of the team—the practice nurses, the paramedics, the physiotherapists—all those people that will work alongside GPs to make sure that people in Wales get the primary care service they need.

13:45

Thank you for the answer, First Minister. It is a fact that there are more GPs in Wales, but it is a fact, obviously, that many are part-time, as I said in my opening remarks to you. Nearly a third of the workforce is on a part-time basis when it comes to GP practices. Importantly, as I said to you, I recognise that there's an increased number of GPs being trained, but the actual figures show that the Government is funding training places to about 160 a year, when the actual demand is 200 places. So, what I'm looking for from you today, First Minister, and I'm sure those connected with primary medical care here in Wales will look for as well, is a commitment from the Welsh Government to actually meet the demand that the requirement needs, which is to put another 40 places on the table so that we can get to 200 training places here in Wales to meet what the workforce of 2030 will need to look like in the primary sector. I agree entirely with the remarks you make that the primary sector is broader than just GP practices—pharmacists in particular offer a very, very important role in supporting GPs in the work they do—but it is a fact that, underpinning entry into the NHS, you need a robust and sustainable GP workforce and, as I said, the modelling shows that we need to be training 200 GPs a year rather than the 160 we are at the moment. Will you commit to that?

Llywydd, there's little that I disagree with in what the leader of the opposition has said, and I certainly agree with him about the importance of pharmacists and the part that they play. They're playing a particularly significant part at the moment when there are, for a variety of reasons, shortages of a number of very important medicines that pharmacists have to manage. There are different ways in which you can model the need for GPs in the future. We ask the body that we have set up, Health Education and Improvement Wales, to do that on our behalf. They will take into account the views of the profession, of course, but they will have other sources of evidence available to them. This Labour Government has never failed to fund an expansion in the numbers of GP training places when that is the advice that we have had from those who are in the position to carry out that analysis. If they come to us and they seek a further increase—remember, 160 is a significant increase on the figures that we used to have—if they come to us and make that case, then, of course, that will be very properly considered by us.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. I very much hope that those in the medical fraternity such as the British Medical Association do come and make that powerful case to you, because I detected a commitment to achieve those extra funded places if that case is presented to you. But what we also know in the acute sector, i.e. the hospitals, is that regular data is not provided on vacancy rates. It was welcome that the nurse staffing measure was put in place some time ago that protected certain positions within the hospital settings, but what we do know from the freedom of information replies that organisations have had is that, in some health boards, only 52 per cent of consultant positions are permanent—48 per cent are filled by temporary consultants. That clearly isn't sustainable in developing a workforce to meet the backlog of the pandemic, but also a workforce that is sustainable going forward. Will you commit to making sure that regular data on vacancies within the acute sector, i.e. our hospitals, is published by the Welsh Government so that we can see how much progress the Welsh Government is making in fulfilling the vacancies that are on our hospital sheets at the moment so that ward rounds can be covered and we can make real progress in eating into the waiting lists that have built up through the pandemic?

Llywydd, I'm happy to look at the issue that the Member raises. We publish a great deal of data on the Welsh workforce. If there are gaps in it that can sensibly be filled, then of course I'm happy to look at the point the Member has raised.

First Minister, some might think that it was a curious choice for us to choose to announce the terms of our agreement on strengthening Welsh democracy on the same day as the state opening of that other Parliament on the banks of the Thames. I think it was serendipitous, because it allows us to draw a contrast, doesn't it, with that creaking Westminster system, with all the pomp and ceremony, with elected MPs—I used to be among them—summoned by Black Rod to the unelected House of Lords packed to the rafters with Boris Johnson's cronies. Now, beyond the detail of what we have announced today, isn't what lies at the heart of it a desire to build, here in Wales, a modern democracy, abolishing the unfair first-past-the-post system, a fully gender-balanced, working Parliament committed to making a difference in people's lives, not the gentleman's club-cum-pantomime Parliament of Westminster?

13:50

Well, Llywydd, I do think today is a very significant day in the development of this institution. I brought with me my copy of the Richard commission, and as I was thinking of coming down here this afternoon, I remembered vividly standing alongside the then First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, when he made a telephone call to Lord Richard asking him to chair that commission. And here we are, 20 years beyond its proposal for an expansion in the number of elected Members here in Wales, finally able to bring the capacity of the Senedd to a point where it is able to discharge the responsibilities that fall on the shoulders of people who are elected to be here. And that's the purpose of the reform, isn't it? It's to make sure that decisions that are made here in Wales on behalf of people in Wales are carried out by an institution that's properly equipped to do that.

I've looked back recently, Llywydd, at the many proposals to create a Parliament here in Wales. Not a single one of them, other than the one that got onto the statute book, proposed a number as small as 60. The Kilbrandon report, set up in the 1960s, proposed 100 members for the Welsh parliament that it proposed. You can go back as far as Emlyn Hooson's St David's day government of Wales Bill in 1967 to see a proposal for 88 members of the parliament that was proposed then, and that was a body without many of the responsibilities that have to be exercised here. So, the purpose of the reforms and the fact that we have been able to reach an agreement, after what will by then be 25 years of trying to achieve reform, will be the creation of a parliament here in Wales that reflects the people of Wales in its diversity, and properly equipped to discharge the responsibilities that this Senedd is charged to carry out on behalf of Welsh people.

Of course, the Conservative Party, predictably once again, are saying that the people of Wales don't want any more politicians. They're almost right, of course, because what the people of Wales don't want is any more Tory politicians, as we saw clearly demonstrated on Thursday. You and I, First Minister—[Interruption]. You and I, First Minister—[Interruption]. You and I, First Minister, have a different vision for the constitutional future of Wales. Now, what we are trying to build here, of course, is not a—. What we're trying to build here, of course, is not a stepping stone to any one future for Wales, not a half-way house, but a firm foundation upon which the people of Wales can decide their own future—a futureproofed democracy, ready for more powers fit for the twenty-first century. And isn't that the central question—whether this Senedd should just be a mere symbol of our democracy, or should it be a Parliament with the powers, the time, the skills, the tools and the personnel to do the job that the people of Wales have asked us to do, not just in one referendum, but in two, and in every election that each one of us have stood in in the intervening period?

Llywydd, I too am not surprised at the opposition of the Welsh Conservatives to the further development of democracy here in Wales. All the arguments that I hear deployed are exactly the arguments that they deployed in opposing devolution in the first place. This is an entirely unreconstructed party when it comes to these matters. We don't need to pour salt in open wounds here, I'm sure, but people around the Chamber will know that, on Thursday of last week, in Scotland, 23 per cent of Conservative councillors were lost at the election; in England, 25 per cent of Conservative councillors failed to be re-elected; and in Wales the number went down by 44 per cent. That just has to tell you something. It tells you something about the way in which the continuing reactionary positions taken by the Welsh Conservatives just do not chime with the way in which people in Wales want to see their democracy develop. People want to see a Chamber here that is properly equipped to do the job that we are asked to do. Report after report and commission after commission,have demonstrated that, with its current membership and the level of responsibilities that are discharged here, you cannot do the job in the way that people in Wales have a right to expect it to be done. The reforms that we've agreed on will put that right, and will put it right not just for the next 10 years but I think for the foreseeable future.

13:55

One of the ways to confirm that you're right, of course, is knowing that the Conservative Party disagrees with you, because they've been on the wrong side of history on virtually every major question in 300 years of human progress.

One of the most exciting things about the reform plans is the pledge to legislate to have equality in terms of men and women in our main democratic body. Whilst statutory gender quotas are central to our main proposals published today, and are crucial to delivering our aims, and work for the benefit of everyone in Wales, does the First Minister agree that we should take advantage of the opportunity that the reform provides to present a broader range of steps to ensure that the Senedd is inclusive, including job share by Members and other steps to ensure the representation of people of colour and minority ethnic groups in the Senedd? And beyond the fundamental issues that we have made a statement on today, don't we need to be clear that we are starting the debate for the Senedd, for public life, and for everyone who wants to see Wales improved, so that they can participate in that improvement?

Llywydd, a Bill will come before the Senedd, and there'll be an opportunity for every Member here to try to take the opportunities in the Bill to do more to create a Senedd that reflects the people who live here in Wales. We've succeeded in doing some things over the years, particularly in the Labour Party, but there is more to do. The things that we have agreed today will put that into practice, but there will be more detail to discuss to create a Senedd where those people who haven't been part of the story here over the past decade can then see a Senedd where they can see opportunities for them to stand as candidates, and to stand where we are standing today. That is exciting, I agree. When we were discussing this issue in Llandudno in the Labour conference, people came on-stage to say time and time again that they wanted to take these opportunities to create a future where people of all backgrounds in Wales can look to the Senedd and think, 'Well, I can be there, too.'

I'd be grateful if you could clarify your determination when it comes to the co-operation agreement. I think they were very reasonable points that the leader of Plaid Cymru was raising there, and the First Minister's perfectly entitled to respond to them, but you have determined in a letter that you sent when the co-operation agreement was brought into effect that questions to the First Minister by the leader of Plaid Cymru should steer off the co-operation agreement. As I understand it, the press release that followed the announcement last night specifically referred to the co-operation agreement, and the line of response that the First Minister indicated was reflective of the co-operation agreement. Surely that is a breach of your determination as to how questions should be undertaken at First Minister's questions.

Thank you for raising the point of order, and thank you for suggesting it during the question to alert me to the questions that were being asked by the leader of Plaid Cymru. I consider on reflection that you're correct, and that it did probably go beyond the guidance that I've issued in that case. I'll take it as an exception to the rule today. I won't expect it to be repeated again, but the leader of Plaid Cymru has the right to ask questions of scrutiny of the First Minister that don't lead to it seeming as if it is a platform for policies of that co-operation agreement. I'll live and learn from what's taken place today and we'll reflect on that for the future. I suspect that we will be returning to this matter on a number of occasions over the next few weeks, months, if not years—hopefully not years, possibly, at that point. 

Question 3, Rhun ap Iorwerth. 

14:00
Hepatitis C

3. Will the First Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's target to eliminate hepatitis C in Wales? OQ58030

Llywydd, while resources were necessarily redirected during the pandemic, the actions taken to address street homelessness brought in large numbers of new patients to receive effective treatment. Key initiatives are now restarting in blood-borne virus services.

Thank you for that response. At least 8,000 people in Wales have a chronic hepatitis C infection, but we could eradicate hepatitis C entirely. That's the good news. But, although eradication is possible, and Wales in the past has taken major steps towards eradication by 2030, the reality is that we have now fallen back and we're not on the right tracks to hit that target and there are now targets that are far more ambitious in Scotland and in England. Now, the stance that the Welsh Government has taken on this unfortunately is that it is up to the health boards to develop their own programmes, but this is a national challenge and there are national interests at stake here. Will the First Minister therefore commit to establishing a national fund and a national strategy so that we can face up to this challenge with the full power of Government so that we can achieve this crucial public health goal? 

Well, Llywydd, I can see the benefits of having a national strategy, but there is a national strategy and people working on the national level already. I don't want to see a national fund. If we start having a national fund for hepatitis C, then I can see where that would lead: every group with issues that are important to them—and we know why they're important to them—would want the same thing. A national strategy, yes, of course, but services are provided via the health boards. That's the system that we have here in Wales. We continue to say that we want to reach a point in 2030 where nobody suffers from hepatitis C here in Wales. That is ambitious, and more ambitious, because we have had experience over the past two years that has taken people out of the service. But we are still working with people in this field to try to reach a point in 2030 where we're in the situation that we had outlined in the original strategy. 

First Minister, I heard your previous answer. The previous Health, Social Care and Sport Committee made a specific recommendation around a national campaign and, in response to that, the then Minister accepted that recommendation in principle. But one of the obstacles was that they didn't see the evidence for a national campaign, and the Minister then said they'd need to see that evidence before a national campaign could be brought forward. What kind of evidence would you expect to see to accept that recommendation and agree that a national campaign is the appropriate response?

Llywydd, I'm familiar with the report of the committee, which was of course published in 2019, and its recommendations—I know the Member understands this—have been interrupted by the pandemic. Actually, we have had some very important national evidence as a result of the pandemic, because we've had over 1,000 people who were street homeless back in 2019, when that report was written, who've been brought into accommodation because of the actions taken during the pandemic. And more than 1,000 service users are now benefiting from the new and nationally implemented treatment of Buvidal. At the most recent meeting of the Policing Partnership Board for Wales, we were joined by the Minister of State at the Home Office, Kit Malthouse, who said that Wales was the leading part of the United Kingdom in making sure that Buvidal was prescribed to people in those circumstances, and which will make a genuine difference in the issue of hepatitis C that we're discussing this afternoon. So, we've had, inadvertently and not in the way that the committee anticipated, that national experiment, which shows that it is possible to make inroads into some quite challenging populations, where efforts are co-ordinated and implemented with the sort of determination that we saw by our homelessness services when faced with the impact of a pandemic.

14:05

First Minister, at the Hepatitis C Trust event here at the Senedd last week, I got to talk with Kieren, who is from Porthcawl in my constituency, about the peer support work that he and others are doing across our communities. People like Kieren are making the difference to those vulnerable to diseases like hepatitis C, and he shared his experience of working on the ground. And it really did sadden me to learn that, whilst there is progress for testing and treatment for diseases such as HIV, there is still much stigma around diseases like hepatitis C that is preventing people then from getting tested. The reasons why people may become vulnerable to hepatitis C can often be very complex, but Kieren assured me that, through the peer support, whether it is in hostels or prisons, it is making a difference and mitigating the spread. That really can be eradicated in our lifetime. First Minister, how is the Welsh Government working with organisations such as the Hepatitis C Trust to destigmatise it and ensure that communities who are most vulnerable are provided with the resources to be tested, treated and supported?   

Llywydd, I'm very pleased that the Hepatitis C Trust has extended its programme to Wales and has appointed two workers to work in that peer-led way. Stigma is very much part of the barrier to people coming forward for treatment for hepatitis C, and person-to-person contact from someone who's been through the process and can demonstrate its success is a way in which we can erode that. Here in Cardiff and Vale, the 'Follow Me' scheme, which is another peer-to-peer scheme, is now operating, particularly in homelessness services, and, as it is established, the plan is that it will then train other peer volunteers in other parts of Wales, again as part of that campaign to erode the stigma that is too often associated with the disease and prevents people coming forward for help.

And we do know, Llywydd, that it is possible, as Sarah Murphy said, to make genuine progress in this area. Swansea prison became the first remand prison in the United Kingdom to achieve hep C elimination back in 2019. The same techniques that were used there are now being implemented in north Wales in HMP Berwyn, and funding has been secured to spread that service into Cardiff prison as well. So, we know things that work, and the example that Sarah Murphy provided us with of a person she was talking with is just one of those examples of how we can make progress in this challenging field, but one where we know success can be achieved.  

Wales Coast Path

4. What plans does the Welsh Government have to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the launch of the Wales coast path? OQ57994

Llywydd, in 2012, Wales became the first nation in the world to create a dedicated path around an entire coastline. A year-long programme of events and activities will now celebrate that achievement. I thank the Member for leading the independent review of the Wales coast path, and look forward to publication of his report tomorrow. 

I thank the First Minister very much. Can I take this opportunity to thank the members of that review group, who've done sterling work over the last couple of months, looking at not only the successes and the remarkable undoubted achievements over the last 10 years—words such as 'iconic', 'inspirational', 'emblematic' have been used to describe this landmark achievement from 10 years ago—but looking at the future and how we can use the Wales coast path to help us tackle the climate and the nature emergencies, to promote health and well-being, the physical and mental well-being of the population of Wales, and to look outwardly as a country, both in how we use the great outdoors in Wales, the blue and green outdoors, but also portray ourselves to the world? So, I'm going to be cheeky, and at the risk, First Minister, of repeating an incident that I understand has gone viral from last week between the Swansea and Cardiff football teams and the politics of that, could I ask you, First Minister, what is your favourite part of the Wales coast path?

14:10

Oh dear. Oh dear. You know a hospital pass when it comes your way in Wales, don't you? [Laughter.] Well, first of all, let me say, Llywydd, I've had the advantage of seeing an advance copy of the group's report, so I know some of the things that it will be recommending: how we can build on the path, how we can extend its reach by making sure that there are circular paths that go inland. I was able to answer a question from John Griffiths recently on the floor of the Senedd, Llywydd—and of course John was the Minister responsible for the coastal path—in which we looked at the way in which Newport council is linking the coastal path with inland paths, for example through the Sirhowy valley, and I know that the report draws on that experience to suggest other ways, and particularly the way in which children and young people can be involved in the path, to promote its health and well-being potential.

Llywydd, to choose a part of a path that goes all the way around Wales is guaranteed to offend far more people than it will ever please, so I thank the Member for that opportunity. As it happens, I have been asked this question recently by journalists writing copy for the tenth anniversary, so I'll just repeat what I said there—the safest thing. So, I was on the coastal path at the weekend. I was walking between Pendine in sir Gâr to Amroth in Pembrokeshire. It's probably not one of the best known parts of the path, but it's absolutely beautiful. You can imagine, with the weather at the weekend, it was stunningly beautiful. It's challenging in parts, as the path often is. It has some very steep inclines, up Marros mountain for example, and it has hidden parts of the coast, which, unless you take the coastal path, you'll never see for yourself. If I had to choose just one tiny part of that wonderful achievement for this afternoon, I'd recommend that walk to anybody.

I have no hesitation in saying that my favourite part of the coast path is Pwllderi, where I grew up, where there is a carreg goffa to the poet Dewi Emrys, with the lines:

'And these are the thoughts that come to you / When you sit above Pwllderi.'

My favourite part. But, as someone who grew up with a farm that sees the Pembrokeshire coast path pass through its land, I fully appreciate the importance of developing a good relationship between the landowner and the walkers. And while the Wales coast path celebrates its tenth anniversary, the Pembrokeshire coast national park celebrates its seventieth anniversary, and it's in a position as the nation's only purely coastal national park and has led the way in developing a cohesive and successful relationship between users and those who own the land on the coast path. So, what actions are being taken by the Welsh Government to ensure that similar positive relationships are developed and maintained along the rest of the Wales coast path? Diolch.

It's an important point that the Member makes, Llywydd, and, when the path was in development, there were some challenging small parts of the path where those relationships had to be built up, and sometimes agreements reached. The Welsh Government recognises, of course, that the upkeep of the path is something that has to be constantly attended to. The work of wardens and volunteers in the Pembrokeshire coastal path and in other places is pivotal to that, because, by keeping the path in good order and making sure that, where there are necessary things like fences and protections so that crops or wildlife don't inadvertently find themselves at risk from walkers who stray off the path, all of that, I think, is well understood. We rely on the people who are closest to the path itself to make that happen, and I think one of the strengths of the path over its 10-year history has been the way in which those relationships have developed, and where there are difficulties that have to be attended to, there are well-known ways in which those issues can be brought to attention and a resolution to them found.

14:15
Cass Review

5. What action will the Welsh Government take in light of the Cass review's interim report? OQ58018

Llywydd, the Cass review was commissioned by NHS England for NHS England. It is one source of evidence, amongst others, which can be drawn upon in developing services for trans children and young people in Wales.

Thank you, First Minister. The Cass review's interim report to NHS England, as you highlighted just then, has highlighted several concerning issues. The interim report clearly warrants some real debate and discussion of the same services here in Wales. It highlighted really worrying issues, and I would have thought it would have prompted this Welsh Government to hold a similar inquiry in Wales on the back of those findings. Undoubtedly, there are very similar problems mirrored here in Wales. I know that the lack of reaction to this review by this Welsh Government is something that concerns politicians of all colours across Wales—MSs and MPs. Can you not see the importance, First Minister, of getting this right? The last thing I'm sure any of us want is to put children's lives at risk. So, First Minister, will you commit to a Wales-specific review of services for gender-questioning children and adolescents?

The Welsh Health Specialised Services Committee, which is responsible for the service in Wales, met with Dr Cass in March. As a result, we have a commitment that the review team will work with the Welsh service and providers here, so that we can further define the clinical service model for the future that will be needed in Wales and any identified workforce implications. WHSSC intend to ask for expressions of interest from those in the field for a gender identity development service for Wales, and that will be informed by the Cass review, by the conversations that we will have with Dr Cass, but also by a broader set of evidence that we have here in Wales of the needs of young people in these circumstances, which will allow us not simply to pick up a set of solutions devised for a different jurisdiction, but to develop those services in a way that is sensitive to the landscape of service and the needs of young people here in Wales.

Fire and Rehire

6. What assessment has the First Minister made of the use of fire and rehire by companies in Wales? OQ57993

Fire and rehire is not consistent with Welsh social partnership values. Using the threat of dismissal to diminish employment terms and conditions is an abuse of employer power. We continue to call on the UK Government to legislate to end what the Prime Minister calls a 'completely unacceptable' practice.   

Can I thank the First Minister for that response? Can I ask him to go a stage further and will he condemn the use of fire and rehire, and agree that it has no place in Wales and certainly no place in Welsh public services? Will the Welsh Government refuse to contract with firms that engage in fire and rehire and ask the Welsh Government funded bodies to do likewise?

I certainly do condemn the use of fire and rehire. We supported, as a Welsh Government, the Barry Gardiner private Members' Bill that would have outlawed the practice and made it impossible for it to happen. Unfortunately, the UK Government ordered its Conservative Members of Parliament to oppose the Bill and make sure that it was talked out. Where is the employment Bill in today's Queen's Speech? That was promised in the Queen's Speech of 2019 and you will search in vain for any reference to it in today's Queen's Speech. It would have been an opportunity for the UK Government to do what it says it believes should happen in the fire and rehire context. Have they learnt nothing from the P&O experience, where, once again, the Prime Minister made a series of condemnatory remarks, only to find that there is no action of any sort that has followed? Here in Wales, we are absolutely as one with those MPs—and they weren't just Labour MPs either—in the House of Commons who supported the Barry Gardiner Bill, and who would have seen it onto the statute book so that this 'completely unacceptable' practice, as the Prime Minister calls it, could not take place.

14:20
Renewable Energy

7. Will the First Minister provide an update on the future of renewable energy in Wales? OQ58022

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. That future will see the generation of at least enough renewable energy to fully meet our own energy needs, while also retaining wealth and value here in Wales. Scaled-up renewable energy, together with actions to reduce energy demand, will secure greater energy resilience and support our net-zero targets.

Thank you, First Minister, for the answer, and no questions on the Swans this week from me. But what I will be asking you about is the exciting new plans in Swansea for a new tidal lagoon in my region, and it's an idea reborn by the company DST Innovations, based in Bridgend. As you probably know, Blue Eden would be developed in three phases over 12 years, with plans to start in 2023, with 1,000 jobs making high-tech batteries for energy storage. The £1.7 billion project announced includes a newly designed tidal lagoon and state-of-the-art underwater turbines that generate 320 MW of renewable energy from the 9.5 km structure. And whilst I know there is disappointment that the previous project didn't proceed on cost grounds, this new project has the potential to be very exciting indeed. And unlike the previous project, this one doesn't require taxpayer investment either. So, can I confirm whether the First Minister has met with DST Innovations about the new project, and what steps are his Government undertaking to ensure that this project is delivered?

Well, Llywydd, this project is only alive because of the funding provided by the Welsh Government to allow Swansea city council, which is the lead public body in relation to the Blue Eden project, to go ahead. When the UK Government pulled the plug on the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, despite the Hendry review, which it set up, telling them that it was a no-regrets investment, the fact that there is a scheme at all is only because, at that point, the Welsh Government stepped in and provided the funding to the city council that has allowed them to find that investor, to work with DST and to come up with the new set of proposals. We continue to stay very closely engaged with the city council to support the work that they have carried out. I agree with what the Member said about the potential for this scheme. The great regret is that it didn't go ahead when it was originally proposed, and at a time when energy security is so high on our minds, we would have been within a few short months of that original lagoon now producing energy that could be used here in Wales. It was a proposal that the Hendry review said the UK Government should carry out. [Interruption.] I'm not denying for a moment—. I don't think I've said anything that suggests that the Welsh Conservatives supported the decision to pull the plug on that idea. We all here wish it had gone ahead. That would have been preferable. The fact that we have a successor scheme is because of investment provided from this Chamber and nowhere else, and we, as I say, stay closely in touch with the city council in Swansea, which has been the driving force behind this latest development. 

Audiology Services

8. Will the First Minister provide an update on how the Welsh Government intends to clear the waiting lists for audiology services? OQ58011

Llywydd, the planned care recovery plan, published on 26 April, commits to reducing therapy waiting times to 14 weeks by spring 2024. The waiting list for the first fitting of an adult hearing aid is included in this commitment, and progress against the ambition will form part of the national recovery programme.

Thank you. First Minister, as you are no doubt aware, NHS services in Wales routinely use private GP optometry, pharmacy and dental contractors to deliver primary care, but do not use private audiology contractors to deliver NHS audiology care services, and I'm keen to understand why this is the case. Hearing difficulties affect one in six adults and, sadly, adults who do experience hearing loss have increased risk of losing cognitive function, and can develop dementia or Alzheimer's disease as their condition worsens. Correcting hearing loss with hearing aids not only improves the quality of life for individuals, but can also stop this cognitive decline, which has been shown to help prolong the health and well-being of individuals, and reduce the need for people who go into care homes or access social services.

Worryingly, NHS waiting lists for audiology services in Wales are growing. And in South Wales Central, the most recent statistics show that there are nearly 1,500 people in the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board area waiting for treatment, with just over 800 having waited for over 14 months. With this in mind, will this Government investigate the role that audiology contractors can play in helping to deliver NHS audiology services in Wales or, at a minimum, agree to meet with audiology specialists to discuss possible ways forward? Thank you.

14:25

Llywydd, of course I agree with what the Member said about the importance of audiology and the impact that it has on people's lives. It's a sad fact that during the pandemic, many elderly people, particularly—and audiology services are heavily used by older Welsh citizens—many of those people, because they were shielding during the pandemic, were unable to come forward for their appointments and we are now seeing them coming forward, and that inevitably does mean pressure on the system. The pressure is very unevenly distributed across boards in Wales. The Member is right to point to the growth in numbers in Cardiff and the Vale, but in Swansea bay, for example, the number of people waiting for an audiology appointment in February of this year was only nine people, and that was down from 225 people a year before. So, there are parts of Wales where real progress is being made and there are other parts of Wales where there is genuine pressure on the system.

The way in which this is best resolved, Llywydd, is by the building up of primary care capacity, so that people don't have to go to a hospital for the service that they need, because first-contact practitioner audiologists are able to provide that expert assessment closer to home and make sure that people get the treatment that they need. That service is already in place in some parts of Wales, for example, in Betsi Cadwaladr, and other health boards are undertaking pilots to build up a service of the same sort. It does mean recruiting people directly into the service, but having an audiologist as part of the primary care team, dedicated to that, able to carry out those appointments on a five-day-a-week basis, that is the way in which we think that the future of the service can best be secured.

2. Business Statement and Announcement

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

Diolch, Llywydd. There is one change to today's business. The Minister for Finance and Local Government will make a statement on local government elections. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out in the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.

Can I call, Trefnydd, for a statement from the First Minister on Senedd reform? Members of the Senedd will be aware, from the exchange in First Minister's questions and, indeed, from a press release issued this morning at a quarter past nine, that the First Minister and the leader of Plaid Cymru have, effectively, thwarted the work of the Special Purpose Committee on Senedd Reform that was established by all Members of this Senedd in order to consider the future reform of this Senedd. 

Now, my party, of course, has always opposed an increase in the number of Members of the Senedd, but we have consistently said that we recognise that there's a majority of Members of the Senedd who want to see reform and that there's a mandate to deliver some, and on that basis, we  joined the Senedd reform committee in good faith, in order to play a constructive part in the role and work of that committee, in order that it could make recommendations for the Welsh Government to deliver on. That has been undermined today. The work of the Senedd has been undermined today, and it has been disrespectful in terms of the way that the First Minister and the leader of Plaid Cymru issued that particular press release. I think the people of Wales are owed a statement in this Chamber, where the First Minister and, indeed, the leader of Plaid Cymru can be cross-examined on their proposals for reform in order that we can demonstrate to the people of Wales that we are properly and fully considering them. It's inappropriate for that committee to be strong-armed into a position on the basis of cosy discussions, frankly, in ministerial offices.

Secondly, can I call for a statement on access to diagnostic testing in Wales? I was recently contacted by a constituent who, unfortunately, has just received a diagnosis of prostate cancer. He's waiting for an MRI scan; unfortunately, he can't have that MRI scan in north Wales, and has been referred to Broadgreen Hospital in Liverpool because he has a pacemaker. There's currently no capacity whatsoever for anybody in north Wales with a pacemaker to receive an MRI scan, and, as a result, this gentleman, who knows he's got cancer, who knows he needs this scan in order to determine the treatment ahead, cannot access that scan until the end of June. That is unacceptable; it's a very worrying time for this gentleman and his family. Can I ask what action the Welsh Government is taking to address the need for diagnostic tests of that kind, and call for a statement from the health Minister in order to address the matter? Thank you.

14:30

I think I disagreed with everything that Darren Millar stated around the issue of Senedd reform. Nothing has been thwarted, nothing has been undermined and nothing has been disrespected. 

In relation to your question around diagnostics, I think that is a very good point. Obviously, we can't have every piece of every equipment available in every hospital in Wales, and it's absolutely right that your constituent goes to the best place for that scan. I will speak to the Minister for Health and Social Services, who is in her place, to see if there's anything in the pipeline to bring forward such equipment. 

I'd like to ask for a statement on the importance of democratic engagement. We've just come out of an election, and although they can be fractious, at their best elections are a celebration of community, connections between people, and the chance to change things. Trefnydd, I'm sure that you would join me in paying tribute to everybody who stood for election this past week, congratulating the people who won, but also thanking all those people who didn't get elected, because not winning elections can be bruising, but standing up for what you believe in matters. People should be commended for doing it, and, as a nation, I think we all owe them our thanks. But, Trefnydd, low turnout is still a stubborn problem. Too many people think that their voice doesn't count, particularly because of the first-past-the-post system. So, can we have a statement, please, outlining the importance of democratic engagement, and how that can be conveyed to children in school, to adults as well, so that everybody will feel motivated to get out and vote when we get to the next election?

Thank you. I think you raise a really important point. Democracy absolutely should be celebrated, and I do join with you in thanking everybody, from whichever political party, for putting themselves forward. Personally, I was at my count in my constituency on Friday, and it was really important to say thank you to people for putting themselves forward. Otherwise, indeed, we wouldn't have elections. Low turnout is clearly an issue that we've had to face in many elections. I think the Senedd election is also an area where we've done our very best to try and increase turnout. I think it's absolutely down to every one of us in this Chamber to do all we can to engage with schools, to engage with young people. Of course, one way of increasing that was having 16 and 17-year-olds, and I personally would be be interested to see what number of 16 and 17-year-olds voted last week. 

I'd like the Welsh Government to make a statement in the Chamber on the operational agreement of Rent Smart Wales. I've been dealing with them on matters of constituency casework, and I've found it to be a very frustrating experience. As an organisation, we've found them to be lacking in communication, transparency and any sense of urgency when trying to obtain an update on the outcome of a recent piece of casework regarding a constituent facing potentially unlawful eviction from a privately rented property. We were told that Rent Smart Wales couldn't disclose the outcome of the investigation to us, nor could it take any legal action against a landlord found to be in breach of their responsibilities. We've not been able since then to obtain any information for the constituent's benefit, despite trying our very best and advising the organisation that the constituent potentially faced imminent eviction. It just doesn't seem acceptable, and there doesn't seem to be a route by which we can scrutinise the activity of Rent Smart Wales, which is why I request a statement in this Chamber on their remit. 

Thank you. I'm concerned to hear about the experience you've had with Rent Smart Wales. They're hosted by Cardiff Council, so complaints about them should, in the first instance, be addressed through their complaints procedure, and that's readily available, as you know yourself, on the Rent Smart Wales website. Elected Members of the Senedd, and, obviously, the staff who work for us, can e-mail Rent Smart Wales should they wish to discuss any case with them. The next route then, obviously, would be the public services ombudsman. I appreciate the Minister for Climate Change would not be able to intervene in a specific individual case, but I do think your experience does warrant you writing to her, to see what guidance she needs to look at. If she thinks it's appropriate to bring forward a written statement, I will ask her to do so.

14:35

I call for a statement on medical provision for people in Wales who suffer from ME/CFS—myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome—which can have a devastating impact on functionability and quality of life. This is ME Awareness Week, 9 to 15 May. Now the new National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines for ME have been released, it's essential to move ahead with a clear pathway for people living with ME in Wales. Campaigners in Wales tell me there might be a service for ME within some health boards, but, if there is, they don't know where these services are, who they're run by, and what treatments they're using. They now have the assistance of the medical adviser for the ME Association, who is willing both to work with them to enable people with ME across Wales to obtain the correct medical understanding and support for their condition, and to attend a meeting with the Welsh Government. They add that it's currently very unclear where or how people with ME can obtain treatment for ME in Wales. It is pot luck if one finds a GP who has a good understanding and training regarding the condition, and they have nowhere to send patients on to. I call for a statement accordingly, including, hopefully, a response to the offer of a meeting from the ME Association's medical adviser.

Thank you. I wasn't aware it was ME Awareness Week. We have several 'weeks' and 'months', but I really wasn't aware it was an awareness week for people who suffer from that condition. But I think it's really important that we do have these awareness days, weeks, months, to ensure that people recognise the symptoms and also know where they can go for treatment. Obviously, it's a matter for health boards to ensure that they have the services that are needed for their local population, whatever condition it is.

Just two statements I'd like to ask for today. The first concerns the campaign by Wrexham AFC to secure UK Government funding for the redevelopment of the Racecourse Kop, and also the return of international matches to north Wales. Will the Welsh Government support the campaign for a stadium for the north, and update Members on the Wrexham Gateway project and the many millions of pounds that the Welsh Government has committed to it?

Would it be possible to have a second statement, in regard to Wrexham's bid for city of culture status? Will the Welsh Government, again, reaffirm its unwavering support for the bid, which will be transformational for the county borough if successful?

Thank you. With regard to the Wrexham city of culture 2025 bid, as you're aware, Wrexham is shortlisted, along with three other places in England, to become the city of culture. The Welsh Government has offered its wholehearted support to the Wrexham bid, which is quickly drawing to a close. I think it would be truly transformational for Wrexham—I think it would be a real boost, as we look forward. I know the Deputy Minister is fully behind the bid.

In relation to the petition that was launched yesterday, I thought it was very interesting to see that pressure being brought forward on the UK Government in relation to the levelling-up fund. We've been waiting a long time to see if that funding is coming forward. It's a non-political petition. It's good to see ex-footballers such as Mickey Thomas and John Hartson fully supporting the petition, and I'm sure, when the Deputy Minister has had a chance to look at it, she will be able to offer her support. It's really important, I think, that we get international football back at the Racecourse. And if I can be indulged, it was great to see Wrexham go to the top of the league on Sunday.

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

A statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services is next—an update on COVID-19. I call on the Minister to make that statement. Eluned Morgan.

Thank you, Llywydd. Thank you for the opportunity to bring this debate to the Senedd.

Thanks for the opportunity to provide an update on the current public health situation and the outcome of the latest review of the coronavirus regulations. Community transmission of the BA.2 omicron wave of COVID-19 continues at a very high level across Wales. According to the ONS survey, one in 25 people in Wales have COVID. There are still around 1,064 COVID-related patients in hospital—that's 11 per cent down from last week—although only 78 of these are being actively treated for COVID, with 15 people in critical care with COVID. 

The health and social care system continues to struggle with COVID-19 demands. High levels of staff absence and other pressures continue. We must maintain our efforts to reduce transmission within hospital settings. Limiting visitor numbers to hospitals, maintaining social distancing and rigorous application of infection control procedures all remain important. With this in mind, and on the advice of the chief medical officer and technical advisory cell, Cabinet have made the decision to retain the last remaining legal restriction, that being the requirement for face coverings in indoor public areas of health and social care settings, for a further three weeks. I understand how challenging the past two years have been, in particular for those working in health and social care and for the people that they care for. There's been much hard work and sacrifice, and I applaud the ongoing efforts, as we continue to take steps to keep safe the most vulnerable and the staff working in these high-risk settings.  

As I have said before, vaccination remains the most important measure of defence against COVID, and has successfully weakened the link between the virus and serious illness and hospitalisation. It's never too late to be vaccinated, and we encourage everyone eligible to come forward. There are other steps we can take to protect ourselves and others. We will continue to recommend that face coverings are worn in all crowded or enclosed indoor places, as part of a suite of strengthened guidance and public health advice. These and other measures can work together to help reduce the transmission of coronavirus and to keep us all safe.

We recognise how difficult a time this has been for learners, in particular as we approach examination season. I am pleased to announce that, together with the Minister for Education and Welsh Language, we have agreed an exception to our self-isolation guidance for those people sitting GCSE, AS, A-level and vocational examinations. The aim is to better enable learners to take their exams safely, and to ensure that they're not disadvantaged compared to their peers in England and Scotland, where the guidance is that children and young people should isolate for three days. If they have a negative result, then they can take those exams—if they have two subsequent negative tests. 

In another positive step, 'Public Health Advice for Schools: Coronavirus' was published last week, and this new advice brings schools and education settings in line with other sectors in Wales in terms of public health advice and COVID-19. Additionally, we announced, yesterday, that we have now formally removed the infection control framework for higher and further education institutions, meaning these sectors will also move to using the wider public health guidance followed by businesses, employers and event organisers.

However, it is important that we recognise that COVID-19 has not gone away, and will remain with us globally. As the current wave of infection hopefully subsides, we must prepare for future waves. We can't assume that future variants will be the same as omicron. We could see a more harmful variant in the future. We must also be mindful that the return to more normal population mixing will result in the spread of other seasonal respiratory infections, including flu. 

For the first time, the COVID-19 pandemic raised the aim of near complete information on community cases, hospitalisations and deaths and that these could be reported in real time, as far as possible. It was necessary, as this data was used to inform the restrictions needed to reduce transmission in the community and the predicted impact on the population and our healthcare system.

Under the current COVID stable state, we have stopped identifying all cases through mass community testing and contact tracing. Future surveillance will not be able to rely on such high levels of data. And yet, our surveillance will need to help us to determine whether Wales has moved from a COVID stable state to a COVID urgent state. We'll also need to capture the impact of other respiratory infections, so we're working closely with Public Health Wales to consider proposals for a new surveillance strategy for Wales, with the intention to roll out these developments in advance of winter 2022-23.

Llywydd, the people of Wales have worked tirelessly to protect and support each other through this incredibly difficult time. I have every confidence that, by continuing to take all the small steps to keep ourselves and others safe, we will successfully navigate through this transition period and away from the public health emergency that has dominated our lives to such an extent. Thank you, Llywydd.

14:45

Minister, can I thank you for your statement today, and also thank you for your briefings to the Health and Social Care Committee on a three-weekly basis as well? Can I welcome much of what you said today? The rules on masks in health and social care settings, though, I do think should not be part of emergency law; that should be repealed given the stable situation we are now in. So, can I ask, will you be ensuring that this instead is part of the NHS infection and control guidance rather than be enshrined in law?

When can we expect the regular statements, the three-weekly statements, to come to an end given the situation that we're now in? Do you intend the regular tv conference appearances to come to an end, or are you planning to continue with those on a regular basis? It would be useful to have your understanding on the three-week review cycle, Minister. 

I also see from your technical advisory cell advice that, while COVID infections have dropped significantly, which is of course extremely welcome news, influenza and respiratory infections are increasing. So, how concerned are you that there will be a wave of these infections over the summer period? I appreciate it's over the summer period, which makes it perhaps a little bit easier to handle, but what public messages are you planning to put forward for the coming months in that regard, if you do indeed think that this is a concern?

I notice the focus on education settings, and I very much welcome that you've removed them from the infection and control framework, alongside the Minister for education's announcements last week to lift those final restrictions. What I am concerned about is that some higher and further education institutions are still limiting face-to-face teaching. Last year, complaints against English and Welsh universities reached the highest on record, with nearly half—45 per cent—relating to service issues such as teaching and course delivery. What is the Government doing to monitor business as usual returning to higher and further education settings so students can fully attend face-to-face teaching, which I think is particularly important before the exam season starts?

Finally, Minister, you have decided to publish a separate workforce plan to your planned care recovery plan, but your online NHS workforce gaps remain at present an issue as well, which I know we'll both agree on. I see, for example, Aneurin Bevan health board is closing maternity-led birthing units at both the Royal Gwent and Nevill Hall hospitals until October because of significant pressures as a direct result of staff shortages. So, although the health board has some alternatives in place—I've noted that—and given that the Cwm Taf maternity unit scandal was revealed just three years ago, what immediate monitoring are you putting in place to ensure that safe staffing levels are kept and that patient safety isn't compromised?

I also see that, in the English NHS, thousands of jobs have been created for those who have volunteered at vaccination centres, and I wonder what measures you are taking to replicate that success and what is now happening to the mass vaccination centres. Diolch, Llywydd.

14:50

Diolch yn fawr, Russell. I think it's very clear that guidance is not as strong as enforcement in law, and that's why we have continued, particularly in these very vulnerable settings, to insist on the wearing of face coverings in those settings. And it's obviously not just a requirement of the people working there, but it's also a requirement of people entering those buildings to visit. So, it is much easier for people to police that if they've got the force of law behind them. So, in that sense, the 21-day review continues, because we still have a piece of legislation that is COVID related, and that 21-day review will continue whilst that legal restriction is in place.

You're absolutely right that we are watching very carefully the increase in the numbers of people suffering with flu at the moment. You're quite right in suggesting that, actually, we're probably more worried about that really kicking off in the winter, and what we are doing already, of course, is we're continuing with our programme of communication, 'Help us help you', trying to direct people to the right care at the right place at the right time, and that is already having an impact.

In relation to education, obviously it will be a job for the education Minister to monitor how they get back to normal, just to see to what extent they can be increasing that face-to-face teaching that you set out was very important.

When it comes to workforce planning, I would remind you that we have increased the workforce in Wales by 54 per cent in the past 20 years. We've seen an increase, for example, in the number of GPs from 1,800 to 2,000 in 2021. You mentioned the situation in Aneurin Bevan. We've seen an increase of people just in primary care of 100 over the past two years, and an increase in the number of staff there of 255. So, we're constantly seeing numbers increasing. Part of the problem, of course, at the moment as well is that we've got lots of staff suffering with COVID, so they're off because of COVID, and that puts pressure on the service as well.

Thank you for the statement. I think I have three questions. There are few changes, if truth be told, by now. I'm pleased that the evidence, not so much the testing now, but the ONS evidence and the wastewater evidence—does suggest that the situation is improving. The first question is on schools and colleges, which I think see the greatest changes here given that face coverings are no longer a requirement. Can the Minister tell us how she wants to see ventilation and carbon dioxide monitoring strengthened in order to safeguard pupils?

Secondly, I'm still concerned about long COVID. As the co-chair of the cross-party group on long COVID, I have consistently asked for the development of specialist care for long COVID patients, to secure support, diagnosis and swift treatment. Now, new ONS figures suggest that 438,000 people could have long COVID symptoms from the omicron wave alone. So, it's a situation that is still developing. I've been contacted by parents who are concerned about the absence of treatment specifically for children. In England, the Minister will know that there is a network of long COVID centres, paediatric-focused centres, and what parents are telling me is not only can they not access treatment in specialist centres in Wales, but neither can they get a referral to centres outside of Wales, even if that is what would be best for their children. So, what plans will the Minister develop in order to ensure that children and young people specifically in Wales are given the best possible care for long COVID?

Thirdly and finally—

—I wrote to the First Minister on 27 April, asking him to correct the Record, the Senedd Record, after he said that responsibility for the COVID public inquiry

'has moved into the hands of the independent judge who has been appointed to lead it.'

He was answering a question asked by Heledd Fychan. Now, as somebody who has called consistently for a Wales-only inquiry to ensure that issues are looked at properly from a Welsh perspective—and these are vitally important issues, of course, surrounding the circumstances of thousands of deaths here in Wales—I'm not happy that we're just a part of a UK inquiry that I don't believe can look forensically enough at the situation here in Wales, and, as I've said repeatedly, I'm frustrated that the Labour Welsh Government has been happy to trust Boris Johnson on this, on both the timing of an inquiry and the remit. Now, the reason I called for the Record to be set straight was that full responsibility had not been handed to the independent chair and that the UK Prime Minister still had the responsibility of signing off the terms of reference—the all-important terms of reference of the inquiry. So, as the First Minister has written to me today to say that he is not going to take this opportunity to correct the Record, will the health Minister at least confirm that which is factually correct: that the First Minister was wrong to say that Boris Johnson had no further role or influence on the setting-up of the inquiry, because he had? We need a Welsh inquiry. The Welsh Government won't give us that, but at least be honest with us. 

14:55

Thank you very much. It is good to see that the numbers have come down, as you mentioned, and we know this because of the ONS and wastewater data. It's clear that new guidance has been given to universities and colleges with regard to how to deal with COVID, and, as part of that, of course, there will be a requirement for people to consider how they will ensure there is ventilation and fresh air in their rooms.

In terms of long COVID, you'll be aware that we've focused on this as a Government and, certainly from the evidence that we've received from our programme, people are more or less content with what we have introduced, even though we started a little bit late on this, but by now I think that the situation has improved. I think that there is some work yet to do in terms of children, and what we're talking about here are very small numbers. From what we've seen, very few children are impacted, but, of course, we do have a responsibility to help those children who are affected, and we do agree that there's more work to do on that.

In terms of—

—the COVID public inquiry, you will be aware of our position on this. We've made it clear all along that we are unlikely to see a Welsh public inquiry because we are a system where COVID is more or less integrated with the UK. Many of the decisions that we made were decisions based on analysis and evidence that we had via the UK Government. Certainly, our ability to stop COVID from entering the country was limited because we don't have control of airspace and people coming into the country, and I'm pleased to say that we have made £4.5 million available for health boards to be able to investigate all those people who have lost loved ones who think that they contracted it within hospital settings. So, I can assure you we're not trusting Boris Johnson; we are trusting an independent chair. We will be looking to that independent chair and we'll be making sure that we feed into those terms of reference—a system where the First Minister has made clear right from the beginning that he wanted to make sure that the terms of reference would be something that he also would be able to influence. Diolch yn fawr.

Item 4 is the next item, but the Minister is not here to make her statement. I then propose that if the Minister for health is willing to do so, and I think everybody who wants to contribute to item 5 is in the Chamber, and given that we were in a similar situation last week because the Minister for health wasn't present, perhaps the Minister for health will agree to step in at this point. Once again, I'm going to find myself talking deliberately slowly in order to allow everybody to be prepared for this statement. It's obviously not ideal. I would remind all Ministers that statements are now timetabled for 30 minutes and they need to be in the Chamber ready to make their statement. 

15:00
5. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: The Health and Social Care Outcome Framework

Can I ask the health Minister to make her statement on item 5? 

That statement is the statement on the health and social care outcomes framework. Eluned Morgan. 

Thank you very much, Llywydd, and thank you for speaking so slowly there.

Llywydd, can I thank you for the opportunity to outline the plans of our health and social care outcome framework? Now, in my statement today, I will outline the role and function of the outcome framework, how it's being developed and discuss the proposed next steps.

The Deputy Ministers and I are committed to improving the health and well-being of the people of Wales. We're clear that plans and service delivery across health and social care are focused on doing the right things well and the need to deliver our national sustainability goals.

The development of the outcome framework fulfills our commitment in 'A Healthier Wales' to develop a shared outcome framework based on the quadruple aim, which is improved population health and well-being; better quality and more accessible health and social care services; higher value health and social care; and a motivated and sustainable health and social care workforce. The framework complements the outcomes framework for people who need care and support and for carers who need support, which is part of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014. This framework, together with the public health outcomes framework, will remain and will continue to provide a valuable focus for delivering improved outcomes. The main aim of the new health and social care outcome framework is to measure the impact of health and social care, working together through the lens of our citizens. It prioritises a small number of critical areas that, combined, will improve the outcomes for the whole population of Wales.  

By measuring integrated outcomes, we will shift our emphasis from measuring what the system does to what it achieves for people. It will enable us to demonstrate the effectiveness of our collective actions and help us to answer if we're doing enough of the right things well. It's an opportunity to develop joint plans and accountability, particularly in the context of regional and integrated working. Our current ways of working can lead to fragmented working, which make sense in the context of individual organisations but which are in conflict with each other when looked at from a whole-system perspective.

If we look at our current unscheduled care system, the solutions are wider than ambulance and emergency departments' performance. As demonstrated by the six goals of urgent and emergency care, we need to look across the whole system, including social care, and come up with shared goals and integrated actions. Prevention at all stages needs to be embedded in our actions, supporting individuals to stay healthy, moving from an illness system to a wellness system.

The outcome framework provides the strategic context for the planning and delivery of health and social care services for the future. Its suite of indicators focuses on delivering integrated health and social care services that will make a positive difference to individuals in Wales. The framework has been developed based on three core values: prevention, to support the anticipated health needs to prevent illness and reduce the impact of poor health; equality, improving the lives of all—there is an equitable system that achieves equal health outcomes for all by closing the equality gaps in Wales; individual responsibility, supporting people to manage their own health and well-being, enabling people to be resilient and independent for longer in their own homes and localities—this includes speeding up recovery after treatment and care, and supporting self-management of long-term conditions.

Through a series of workshops and group sessions, we've developed the population-level aspect of the outcomes framework. It sets out the desired outcome for the population, supported by a small set of indicators to measure achievement.

15:05

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

The overarching outcome chosen for the framework is based upon the 'A Healthier Wales' vision, namely all people in Wales enjoying good health and well-being. This is supported by 13 proposed population indicators that, when combined, will help to demonstrate the achievement of the outcome. Five of the 13 outcome indicators are national well-being indicators that are used to monitor progress against the well-being goals. And a further two outcome indicators are closely linked to the national well-being indicators.

While each proposed indicator has been chosen for its relevance to health and social care and the ability to influence, it is important to recognise that other partners are critical to turning the curve or improving the trajectory of the chosen indicator. Examples include helping people who are lonely and keeping families together.

The next stage of development will be to establish integrated actions for each of the indicators. This will enable us to identify what we need to do to achieve the biggest impact. Once the actions are agreed, they will be used to develop performance measures. These performance measures will be used to hold organisations to account for their respective roles in delivering against the population indicators.

It's now time to share the work more widely and to co-produce the details behind each indicator with our partners. We will work with stakeholders to identify the most effective actions to improve delivery and to make a difference to individuals and communities. Over the summer we will be engaging with stakeholders from all parts of Wales to test the chosen indicators to identify the right actions that we need to deliver.

While the indicators are for the whole population, we know from the initial work and the lessons learned from COVID-19 that the impacts are different for different population groups. We are strongly committed to addressing inequality, therefore stakeholder engagement will involve organisations representing key population groups, such as children and young people, older people, black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, and people with learning disabilities. For each indicator, a standard set of enablers will be applied, which will consider key aspects, such as the Welsh language, quality and value, the workforce and digital transformation.

A finalised framework will be published in October to support the NHS Wales planning framework for 2023-24. The finalised health and social care outcomes framework will be used to provide progress reports to the Senedd on how 'A Healthier Wales' is making a difference. Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd.

Thank you very much for your statement today, Minister.

And now the premature statement, and I'm glad that I'm on the ball this afternoon. And I welcome the shift in emphasis from managing systems towards delivering better outcomes for those reliant on our health and care systems, namely every single one of us, and I sincerely hope that this framework will help the shift in focus towards better outcomes for the citizens of Wales and, at the same time, help with integrating health and care and removing the artificial barriers to care that have been allowed to grow. Focusing on the lives of our citizens should always be our top priority but, sadly, Governments at all levels too often lose sight of that fact.

Minister, I appreciate that this is not the end of the process in developing this framework, but there is very little detail on how the framework will operate. So, when will we be able to see the details of the outcome indicators, and what role, if any, will the various UN rights principles play in driving the shift to a citizen-focused, outcomes-based approach?

Minister, while I welcome the emphasis being given to ensuring that this cuts across health and care, I do question why you have chosen to run this framework alongside the framework for people who need care and support, and for carers who indeed need support themselves. Do you not agree that having a single integrated outcomes-focused framework that cuts across health and care would be a better option? And by that same token, why do we also need a public health outcomes framework, or the whole raft of other frameworks that we have? My fear is that, by duplicating responsibilities across the multiple frameworks, we will not see a shift in emphasis towards outcomes. Are we not adding to the systems approaches that we tried to move away from initially?

I also have concerns about how we will be measuring progress against the aims and indicators that will form the final framework. So, Minister, how will progress be monitored on this and what instruments are we indeed going to use to monitor this progress? Will you once again be reliant on the national survey for Wales, and do you think that reliance upon a glorified opinion poll is an adequate way of assessing improvements to the delivery of health and care? Have you had any discussions with Cabinet colleagues about how best to utilise technological improvements to capture a wider range of views and year-round monitoring of outcomes?

Finally, Minister, I note that you'll be engaging with a wide range of stakeholders over the summer, and I hope that includes the most important stakeholders, which are, indeed, the citizens of Wales. I look forward to seeing the framework in greater detail and working with you to deliver a truly integrated care system that is focused on the individual. Thank you.

15:10

Diolch yn fawr. I'm pleased that we're on the same page on this. So, I'm very keen to stop being in a situation where we're just constantly looking at how much money do we put into the system. What we've got to start measuring is what comes out the other end. What difference will it make to the public and to patients? And if we can do that in an efficient and effective way, measuring what matters to people—that's the other thing. It's really important that it's not just constantly trying to make sure that people are—that we're fixing people, but actually missing the point of their lives.

That's really what's fundamental in 'A Healthier Wales'. It's really trying to make a system that really focuses on what matters to people. I can assure you that what we're trying to do here is to avoid duplication. Now, there are lots of things going on here, but this is the kind of umbrella framework underneath which some of the other things will be measured. So, we already have legislation, for example, in the social care Act that we have to comply with, but which will come under this umbrella now, in the sense that we'll need to know where they meet. So, there are responsibilities on social care, for example, to make sure that people are cared for in their own homes, but that can't be dissociated from the fact that, actually, at the moment, people are stuck in hospital, they can't get out of homes—we're going to look at the whole integration of the system. Accident and emergency—there's an issue there.

So, bringing all this together and making sure everybody knows what their responsibility is is going to be crucial, and I can assure you there are going to be lots of different ways of monitoring. So, one of the things I've been doing today is going through in meticulous detail the integrated medium-term plans in each of the health boards. I don't think they've seen anybody go through it quite with the tooth comb that I'm going through it with at the moment. And this is just looking at: what is it that's in your programme? What's not in your programme? I'm going to be absolutely clear about what is missing from those programmes, but also trying to make sure that we've got the emphasis in the right place. On top of that, there will be the chair's letter—the letter that I send to the chair, and I will hold chairs to account on the basis of that. And obviously we have targets as well, which we will be monitoring, and I'm sure, as a committee, you will be wanting to monitor as well. I can assure you we won't be just taking our reports from the Welsh survey. I think it is important that we get under the bonnet a bit more of that, and I'm absolutely determined that we measure progress. But this is about prevention. A lot of it is about prevention and, in the past, I don't think—. Because prevention is a longer term programme, we haven't measured it in quite the same way. I'm absolutely determined to try to get to a place where we're measuring prevention so that we see the shift in focus from all of our services onto that. 

15:15

Thank you, Minister, for this statement. I don't disagree with the wording or the content, and I don't disagree with the aim here. Who would disagree with the aim of trying to create a healthier nation? What concerns me a little is that we could be tied up here talking about what we're trying to deliver but we don't see those robust steps that will take us step by step towards this aim. The Minister is quite right to say:

'Prevention at all stages needs to be embedded in our actions'.

That is so true, but I don't see the signs of the kind of revolution I would like to see. I remember, after a recent statement, I accused the Minister of having missed a nought from the end of a figure that was being spent on preventative measures, and I mean it. We have to aim, ultimately, to spend less on healthcare, and the way of achieving that is that we are a healthier nation because large sums will have been spent on the preventative agenda in all of its forms, but also that there is a change of mindset around the kind of health, care and well-being systems that we're looking for. So, yes, there's no disagreement on the importance of the preventative.

I wouldn't disagree with the second of the three principles: equality. That's crucially important. And in a series of recent interventions, Plaid Cymru has been emphasising the way in which inequalities have been getting worse, rather than improving, here in Wales. And that third principle—in terms of enabling the individual to take responsibility and to make the right decisions—of course that's important, but there are so many people who can't make the right decisions because of the circumstances that they find themselves in, because inequalities lock them into a vicious cycle, if you like. So, we need to identify the blockages. We need to identify what prevents the Government from truly operating in an integrated manner and bringing all of the elements of governance—housing, health, education, socioeconomic issues, all of those—together, and the solutions to those don't exist within a framework of this kind, although the objectives are there. So, the one question is: does the Minister agree with me that it is impossible to improve outcomes unless we eradicate the inequalities that are holding us back as a nation and as a society?

Thank you very much. Well, in response to the final question, whether it's impossible to see a difference being made to outcomes, well no, that's why doing something about inequality is a key part of what we're measuring here. And I'm very eager not to just talk here; what we need are things that are measurable. And I'm determined to ensure that that is possible in the preventative arena, as well as clearing waiting lists and so on. It's so easy to count how many hip operations need to be done. It's much more difficult to say, 'Well, we're going to see fewer children who are obese going to school.' But I do think that it's important that we focus on that aspect, and I think there will be pressure on us to focus almost entirely on clearing these waiting lists, but I think that would be a mistake, because, if we don't do that, the system will just fill up again. So, for me, it's important that we focus on these preventative measures at the same time as clearing those waiting lists.

And with regard to individual responsibility, it sounds good, but, actually, we spent two years telling individuals exactly what to do, exactly where to go, exactly when to leave their homes, exactly whom to meet, how to meet them. So, that shift is going to be quite difficult to achieve, because we've been quite paternalistic over the past two years. Now, we need to get people to take responsibility for their own actions. That doesn't mean that we're going to leave them entirely alone to do that. We acknowledge that some people can do this better than others, but I do think that we have new things to help us with regard to digital measures, for example, where we can help people to help themselves too, and there's no reason why we can't use those new modern measures to assist us with tackling some of these issues.

15:20
4. Statement by the Minister for Climate Change: Welsh Housing Quality Standard 2

The next item today is item 4 on the agenda, a statement by the Minister for Climate Change on the Welsh housing quality standard 2, and I call on the Minister for Climate Change, Julie James, to make the statement. 

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Today, I'm launching the formal consultation for the proposed Welsh housing quality standard 2023. The original WHQS, as it's colloquially known, was introduced in 2002 to boost the quality of social housing in Wales. Together with our social landlord delivery partners, we have invested billions of pounds over two decades to significantly improve and maintain the quality of social homes across Wales through the WHQS, and it has really worked. By the end of 2020, 99 per cent of social housing in Wales met the original WHQS, a standard that is much more demanding than in any of the other home nations. 

WHQS has always been an anti-poverty standard, ensuring high-quality housing to some of our most vulnerable households and communities. Spanning six administrations, WHQS is an example of how Governments can, indeed, take the long view, investing in long-term policies and programmes, with long-term funding models. We've enabled social landlords to confidently invest over the long term in assets and communities, and this has resulted in driving up the standard of social housing in Wales.

Everyone accepts that living in a quality home brings benefits to both the physical and mental well-being of those who live in them. Indeed, the pandemic has fundamentally shifted how people live, how they feel about their homes and what they expect from them. Now is the right time for the standard to be reviewed, acknowledging this shift, as well as the unprecedented cost-of-living crisis facing the people of Wales. And in doing so, we must raise the bar again, going further to ensure social homes meet not just refreshed expectations, but, of course, respond to the climate change emergency by reducing the carbon emissions from social housing.

The proposed standard for WHQS 2023 builds on the excellent achievements of its predecessor. The new standard keeps anti-poverty requirements at its heart, introducing the requirement to provide flooring throughout the home at each new tenancy, improve energy efficiency and minimise exposure to noise, with the aim of putting more money in tenants' pockets and supporting their comfort and well-being. It also introduces water efficiency standards and encourages landlords to consider biodiversity opportunities.

The proposed standard aims to be bold, but ultimately achievable. We aim with our consultation to ensure that the voice of the sector is taken into account in finalising these standards, and getting them just right. I make no apology for proposing what some will see as a bold approach; I'm determined the standards bar should be raised again. In the face of the cost-of-living crisis and climate change emergency, we cannot stand still. We must continue to push progress and set standards to address decarbonisation through a variety of measures in existing social housing. 

The technical elements of the standard have been supported by experts who have looked at what else is happening across the UK and wider afield, and helped to develop a proposed standard that keeps Wales at the front line of decarbonising social housing. The voices of over 900 tenants have been heard to formulate a new standard that reflects their needs, wants and aspirations for their homes. And we have worked very closely with a wide range of stakeholders, listening and taking into account their concerns and challenges during the drafting of the proposed new standard. This collaborative approach has underpinned the development of the WHQS 2023 so far, and will continue to underpin our approach to consulting on and refining the standards moving forward.

The proposed WHQS 2023 standards will be published for consultation from 11 May and will be open for stakeholders to respond for 12 weeks. Our social housing tenants deserve these standards to be the very best we can make them. Meeting our Net Zero Wales targets requires us to make determined progress and I believe these standards will help drive this progress. My firm hope is that these standards will not only be brought to bear for social housing, but that in future other tenures may consider how they too might meet and exceed these expectations, and I encourage views through the consultation on how this standard can work for everyone. Diolch.

15:25

Thank you for the statement, and, Minister, can I just say how nice it is to see you back in this Chamber and how you've been in our thoughts in recent weeks?

Now, I agree with the core principle that houses owned by associations and local authorities have to be in a good, presentable and habitable condition, but I think some might question whether the Welsh housing quality standard has worked to its best ability. The results of the tenants' survey speak volumes: only 53.6 per cent of respondents agreed that their home is in a good condition; only 60.3 per cent agreed that their home met the specific requirements of the household; and 44 per cent had never heard of the Wales housing quality standard. So, I would be grateful if you could outline what measures you will take to ensure that tenants are made aware of these standards, and how they are feeling empowered to seek necessary changes. 

I'm also aware, from some meetings that have been held recently, how sometimes, when tenants are offered the opportunity to have some improvements—it might be new heating or windows, and I know this has come up in our committee, regarding the decarbonisation of properties—that sometimes tenants are a little unwilling themselves to allow contractors to go in. So, I suppose my No.1 question is to ask how you as a Government can perhaps make our tenants more aware of these housing quality standards, and how then we can provide confidence in the tenants to allow these works to be done, because it is going to benefit them.

On the other hand, you would agree with me, I'm sure, Minister, that some tenants are reporting waiting up to 10 years for some repairs to be completed. It's also important to consider whether the WHQS pursues reasonable repairs and replacements. You've referred to flooring, energy efficiency and to minimise exposure to noise. However, evidence from Linc Cymru, ClwydAlyn and Pobl Group has highlighted, for example, that in Wales they have to change a kitchen every 15 years, yet the same kitchens, from the same manufacturers, in England require changing only every 20 years. Bathroom suites are similar, at 25 years in Wales and 30 years in England. Now, the housing associations clearly highlight that Welsh social landlords are being subjected to millions of pounds' worth of costs unnecessarily. So, would you look at that, or respond, to see whether finance can be freed to spend elsewhere in social homes?

Money is a major concern. Social landlords remain committed to delivering low-carbon homes for the good of their tenants, the environment and the planet. However, they have made it clear to the climate change committee that safety matters should take a higher priority than decarbonisation ambitions, if there are limited resources. The Future Generations Commissioner for Wales has published a report that states that the cost to retrofit all social housing to reach an A energy performance certificate rating in Wales will be £5.5 billion. So, this would equate to an average of £24,000 per home. Do you agree with the future generations commissioner's costings, and, if so, will the Welsh Government be delivering this funding that's required? Even Community Housing Cymru has stated that the Wales housing quality standard 2 financing model will need to provide the boards of each social landlord sufficient assurance that the standard is achievable without compromising the other organisation's objectives.

Where works are planned to take place, it is a fact, as I've already mentioned, that social landlords are facing resistance from tenants. According to the social housing decarbonisation fund study, the main drivers of tenant refusal are having rooms unusable during works at 43 per cent; the time work will take, 45 per cent; the noise disruption of the work at 60 per cent, and some just disliking change at 62 per cent. So, whilst I appreciate that the voices of over 900 tenants have been heard, bearing in mind those statistics, how do you, going forward, aim to achieve the goal of ensuring that tenants are no worse off as a result of the decarbonisation work in their homes, and that we can all work together to ensure that we carry out the Wales housing quality standards to a degree where all our tenants can benefit from them? Thank you.

15:30

Well, thank you very much, Janet. You raise a few very interesting points and some points of principle. So, just in terms of the points of principle, we clearly are facing a climate challenge. You will have seen the most recent report saying that we're looking at some of the hottest years ever on record. And, so, this is about making sure that people's homes are fit for that. So, this isn't only about heating them in the winter; it's also about cooling them in the summer, it's making them fit for purpose. We know that the Welsh housing quality standard that we've just brought the housing up to is EPC D, and that's a very considerable improvement on what it was before, but it's clearly nowhere near the standard that we expect to be climate change resilient.

So, one of the first things we're doing is looking at the standard over a pragmatic period of time. Obviously, not everyone's going to be done in the first year, so it's going to take another 10 years to get us there. And it will be for housing associations and councils to plan out how they will get there, what their worst housing is in terms of the most difficult to convert, or the easiest to convert, even, for some of them, and then to plan that out over that time period. Also, we're very aware that we've got programmes like the optimised retrofit programme and the innovative housing programme running, and they're testing technologies for us. So, over the course of that 10 years, there will be technologies available that are not available now, or that technology will get considerably cheaper than it is now, and so on. So, it's very important that the standard has an output rather than a—. I'm not going to say you have to have an air-source heat pump, or you have to have whatever; it's the output. The home has to have this much decarbonisation, it has to have this much energy efficiency and so on. And then how we get there will depend on what kind of house it is. And you'll know that we've been testing out the various kinds of things that work on different kinds of housing using the ORP programme, so we're expecting to learn from all of those things going forward.

It's also why we're consulting with the tenants of course, because you're absolutely right: some people don't like change, some people can't manage without the room being available and so on. We're also looking at, for some people, it will be necessary to decant them out for a while while the home is retrofitted, and that was actually the case for the old Welsh housing quality standard too. So, we had people who had to move elsewhere for three or four months while their home was retrofitted. What we do know is that once people move back in, they're very happy with what they find.

And in terms of things like how often do you change your kitchen, how often do you change your bathroom, again that depends on what you're specifying. So, nobody wants to be throwing things away that are still perfectly serviceable—that's got a carbon footprint as well. But, at the same time, we also want people to have the most efficient and the most effective use of both space and equipment. So, this is all about consultation, isn't it? This is all about each individual housing association, each individual council, consulting properly with its tenants, putting a programme of work to them, and then getting that agreed. We're not going to get 100 per cent buy-in for any of these things; some people just hate the change in their house no matter what benefits it brings them, and we have had examples of that in housing associations over the time. But I think all of those things are doable if people understand what the outcome for them is, and if that outcome is a better home that's both safer and more energy efficient, and more up to date and more modern inside the period that they have, then most people will come along that journey. You're never going to make 100 per cent of the people happy 100 per cent of the time. 

But I'm really proud of how we've got to here. So, learning from those lessons from IHP and ORP, learning from really good housing associations like ClwydAlyn and so on, who've done a lot of work here, we'll be able to roll this out in a way that I think suits the vast majority of our tenants.

May I echo Janet's earlier words and say how good it is to see the Minister back, and that she and her family have been in our thoughts during this recent difficult period?

But thank you to the Minister for today's statement. Of course, setting housing quality standards is laudable, and we have seen improvements in standards for many of our homes. But the fact remains that a high percentage of homes in the public sector continue to be of a low standard. The Minister said at the beginning of her statement that 99 per cent reached the original quality standards set, but almost 55,000 of the public housing stock in Wales are in what is called 'compliant subject to acceptable fails'. This is almost a quarter of the public housing stock. Well, acceptable fails means a number of different things. Very often it means that one can’t afford to bring it up to the necessary standard. So, does the Minister believe that this figure is acceptable?

Recent statistics have also shown that we know, of course, that around 15 per cent of the housing stock is in the private rented sector and around the same number, 16 per cent, is social housing. Of the social housing, 93 per cent of those are homes that are clear of dangers, but in the private sector, it’s only 75 per cent—three quarters—that are clear of dangers. We also know that the performance is a lot worse in terms of energy performance and emissions in the private sector. So, what’s the Minister going to do in order to narrow that gap between the private and public sectors, in order to ensure that all houses in Wales meet these necessary standards?

While steps have been taken to ensure that the public housing stock in Wales is energy efficient, as we’ve heard, the truth is that they’re not even reaching the necessary levels now. Retrofitting continues to be a huge challenge, and although I welcome the fact that you have prioritised decarbonisation, the truth is that the costs in tackling retrofit and decarbonisation are huge. You can’t expect the public housing sector to increase rents in order to pay those retrofitting costs, and, in the current climate, where construction costs are increasing so vastly, it’s going to be very difficult for the sector to decide whether they build new homes or retrofit. So, where will the sector get the additional necessary funding in order to ensure that they meet these heating standards?

Then, in looking at the new consultation that you’re bringing forward, we do have to bear in mind that Wales in 2023 is very different to Wales in 2002. And one of the new necessary things in this age is broadband. So, I would ask whether, during your consultation, you will consider asking a question as to how important it is to have access to broadband and ensure that broadband is available in all homes as part of these housing standards.

Also, society is now coming to appreciate that everyone has a right to a home that is fit for purpose, and everyone has their different needs—some, of course, have health problems, some have conditions such as motor neurone disease, others will be visually impaired, others will have mobility problems, and so on and so forth. So, what work are you doing as a Government to identify the needs of people who have these various different needs and to ensure that this is part of the consideration as we move forward to Welsh housing quality standard 2?

Finally, you will also appreciate that quality of life in a house is not only reliant on bricks and mortar; it’s reliant on the services available too. So, in this consultation on Welsh housing quality standard 2, will you also consider the need to look at access to services in terms of public transport and how easy it is for people to live in those communities where the homes and houses are to be built? Thank you.

15:35

Diolch yn fawr, Mabon. And thank you very much for your comments at the beginning in particular.

You make a whole series of very good points, and one of the reasons we're going out for the consultation is to just tease out some of these things. Just in terms of the acceptable fails that we have already, I'm very keen to look again at what we consider to be an acceptable fail for the new housing quality standard. Some of them are really obvious. So, we have people who are living in flats, apartments, who don't have access to the outside space that's necessary for some of it. Clearly, we can all understand that that's an acceptable fail in terms of that kind of thing. But I'm not keen at all on it being an affordability acceptable fail. Our view is that, if the home is capable of being brought up to the standard, then it's not about how much it costs to get there, it's about how you get the house to that standard over a period of time, and perhaps through a number of iterations of retrofit, taking into account the point that Janet Finch-Saunders made about making sure the tenant is happy with the ongoing work programme. And one of the things that the consultation is doing is asking both tenants and housing associations, councils, to look at how they plan that approach in, so that—. Not all homes will be brought to standard immediately in the first iteration of the retrofit, for example. And then, as you heard me saying, we're also hoping to learn the lessons of the optimised retrofit and the innovative housing programme on the technology that can be brought to bear in particular types of home in order to get them to particular energy efficiency, et cetera, standards.

We're also very keen on things like access to green space. So, even if you are in an apartment, you should still have access to green space outside. We're looking at encouraging all social landlords—councils and housing associations—to ensure access to green space, even if it's not a private garden, nevertheless good access is part of—we all know, as part of the pandemic—is very much part of your well-being in living in that house.

In terms of other services, absolutely, we will look at that, but I'm not sure that we'd want a house to fail the WHQS because the bus service outside it isn't up to scratch, although obviously in a different part of my portfolio we're very keen on improving public services, such as bus services and so on. But I'm certainly prepared to look at what can be done to encourage social landlords to put pressure on service companies to bring other services to bear. Things like access to local amenities, actually right down to shops and leisure facilities, is one of the things that does make housing more acceptable. But this is much more about the fabric of the home, really, and we know, from the analysis we've done of housing association and council tenants satisfaction surveys and other things, that things like noise and flooring and that kind of stuff are very high up on tenants' wish lists, and so that's why it's included in the standard.

The rent equation that you brought up is a very interesting one as well. Every time we do the rent equation for social landlords in Wales we have this terrible dilemma to make it affordable, but to make sure that the rental stream for those landlords is sufficient, both to retrofit their housing and to build the new housing that we need. And the rental stream, of course, is what drives the ability to borrow from the local housing associations, and so it's a very difficult equation, isn't it, about affordability and not affordability.

But there are some political points here to make, I'm afraid, as well. The freezing of the local housing allowance by the current UK Government has been seriously detrimental, not only to the tenants who are stuck in lowering ability to claim benefit in the private rented sector, but actually to the ability of people to afford housing across Wales. So, these political choices are really problematic. I have written several times to the Minister complaining that the hidden cut of the freezing of the local housing allowance is having a very detrimental effect, not only on individuals, but on the ability to plan for housing in general. So, just to make that point. 

In terms of construction costs, in terms of new build, we've already assisted by putting up the way that we manipulate our social housing grant and the way that we get the affordability envelope to look for new build. We've adjusted that to account for construction costs. We will be looking to do that for retrofit as well, but, again, one of the points to be made here is that you pay VAT on refurbishment, whereas you don't pay it on new build. And so one of the things we really, really hope the UK Government will take on board is what a disincentive having VAT on refurbishment is, and how against the whole climate change agenda it is to incentivise knocking something down and building a new one instead of refurbishing an old building, and what a stimulation for the economy it would be to look again at VAT on refurbishments. So, that's something we've also—. Rebecca Evans and I have written a number of times on the nonsense of making refurbishments subject to VAT. So, these things are complex financial equations at all times and that's not helping.

But overall, what we're doing is we're getting the standard right first, and then looking at the time period and the financing model. So, I think, the standard is the most important thing here, but we do have access to finance. We have access to the old what's called MRA, so the major repairs allowance for local authorities, and what's called dowry, which is the local stock voluntary transfer moneys that were paid when our local authorities externalised their housing stock a decade or more ago now, and that money has been kept in the budgets and is still available for the Welsh housing quality standard. That's how we funded the first iteration as well. So, that money is there, Mabon, and we are looking at innovative financing ways of making that go as far as possible as well.

And then, the last thing I just wanted to say was about broadband access. You make a very good point there. It's not just about the infrastructure, though, for broadband, it's about the affordability of the broadband provision. We have been encouraging both local housing associations and local authorities to look at bulk purchasing arrangements or Wi-Fi arrangements and so on. So, it's not just about the fabric of the house allowing the broadband, it's about the affordability of the available broadband package and what it's used for and so on. So, that's certainly in our sights. We still have a large number of white premises dotted around the rural countryside, so one of the things that we can do is use our social housing to bring pressure to bear on making sure those services are improved in that area. So, I definitely have that in my sights as well, although, again, it's not necessarily about the fabric of the house, is it, it's about the availability of the external infrastructure. So, I very much welcome your contribution, and I'm looking forward to the submission you'll make, I'm sure, in response to the consultation.

15:45

I speak as someone who was brought up in a council house. I very warmly welcome this statement. The original Welsh housing quality standard has worked, and has worked very well. It has driven up the quality of social housing in Wales, both council and registered social landlords, or, as I normally call them, housing associations. It goes back to 2002, which is 20 years ago. Are those properties that had new kitchens and bathrooms over 15 years ago now having them replaced or updated?

I believe anti-poverty should be the driving force of all Government policies, and I would like to see more Government discussion of how everything they do is anti-poverty. I think that the reason the party I belong to came into existence was to fight against poverty. Does the Minister accept we're currently creating a two-tier system for rented housing, social housing and privately rented housing? Does the Minister intend bringing in a housing quality standard for privately rented accommodation, some of which is in a much poorer state than council and housing association housing?

Thank you, Mike. I know you share my enthusiasm for social housing. We were brought up not too far away from each other, as it happens, and I've always admired your zeal and enthusiasm for really good social housing. Absolutely, this is an anti-poverty agenda; it's also a decarbonisation agenda. Those things go hand in hand, of course. The more energy efficient you make a house, the less carbon it emits, the less your bill is for energy, and the better the anti-poverty circle that you get out of that. So, I completely agree with that. 

In terms of the PRS, we are implementing the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016, which will help with that, but also we have a range of schemes intended to incentivise private sector landlords to allow us to help them bring their house to standard. As you know, for a landlord that gives their house over to us for a minimum of five years, we will help them bring the house to standard, we will guarantee the social rent for that period, we're able to give better security of tenure to the tenant for that period, the landlord gets the house back in better condition, the housing stock improves—it's a complete win-win situation. The better we can get the knowledge of that out into the private rented sector, the more of those landlords we can encourage to come into that scheme, the better the housing stock will get.

What we don't want to have is saying that the private rented sector has to bring their house up to EPC E, as the UK Government has recently done, without any grants or loans or anything else to do it, because we fear that those landlords will simply come out of the PRS and sell the housing. In particular, with the big multigeneration houses we get in inner city constituencies, such as my own and Jenny Rathbone's, for example, we're very afraid that those landlords would be disincentivised by that. So, what we need is incentive schemes to ensure that people stay in the private rented sector, get a decent return on their capital, but actually are rewarded for giving better homes to their tenants.

Part of that is the renting homes Act agenda—we're in the process of implementing that Act—and part of that is the incentivisation we give to private sector landlords to bring those homes up to standard. And of course, by driving the standard of social housing, we make the contrast, don't we? We give people that choice. And by building more social housing, we give people that choice as well. All of that is designed to put pressure on PRS landlords who perhaps might be considering not bringing the house to standard.

I'd like to thank you, all your predecessor Ministers with housing responsibility, and all the other stakeholders involved in bringing WHQS to all our social housing. That doesn't mean to say there isn't more work to be done. I've still got tenants living in no-fines accommodation that is freezing cold in winter. I do want to take you up on the opportunity you've given us in your final paragraph to consider how we're going to get other tenures up to the standards that we currently have in social housing, because living in a band D or worse private rented property is a guarantee of discomfort, unaffordable heating bills, and, for many, having to choose between heating or eating. In the context of the Tory cost-of-living crisis, we really are looking into the abyss. I don't think we can take the long view, and we definitely can't stand still. We need to act urgently now. We have to remember that it was in 2007 that Gordon Brown introduced the zero-carbon standards for all new housing, which were torn up by George Osborne in 2015—one of the most disastrous measures in the context of the climate emergency. We really do need to know when are we going to get much stronger Part L standards for new housing, because retrofitting is much more complicated and expensive than correcting the greed of private housebuilders who want to build substandard homes. So, it seems to me that—

15:50

—there are opportunities from the zero-rated VAT on insulation that private landlords ought to be incentivised to seize. I'm not looking for grants; I want loans for private landlords so they do the right thing. Ultimately, I want to see sticks for private landlords who don't do the right thing, and I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about that.

I completely agree, Jenny. In terms of the new builds, of course, we will be bringing part L regulation changes through very shortly. We've already changed what's called the DQL for new-build social to carbon passive or carbon neutral, so again, incentivising the industry to build to that. We're also, of course, allowing social landlords to buy off plan for new build, incentivising our builders to build all their houses to that in the hope that they'll be able to sell more of them off plan to the big registered social landlords and councils. That is happening across Wales.

In terms of the stick, implementing the renting homes Act will have some very big effects on making sure that private-sector landlords have to have a home fit for purpose. But I agree with you about incentivising with loans; we are looking to see what we can do to do that. One of the things we're doing is trying to guarantee, as I said, with the leasing schemes—. First of all, we're trying to make sure that all the landlords know about it. We've been using Rent Smart Wales to put communications out. I think it is quite a big carrot to have that income guaranteed to you with no vacancies or whatever for the whole period of the time you bring it across, and of course to have the home brought up to standard. I do want to encourage everyone to get awareness of that out, so when we do encounter tenants in that housing, I always think it's worth asking them whether their landlord is aware of that scheme. Lots of them aren't, so I've been surprised at people not being aware.

In terms of sticks, we are looking to see what can be done in conjunction with the UK Government, actually, about improving some of this. The UK Government has put some quality standards on the PRS, but unfortunately, it does tend to be that you just have to be at EPC E without any of the incentives. As I said, I'm very keen to avoid some of the unintended consequences of that, particularly in the inner cities where some of the biggest, oldest housing stock is. It would be very hard to replace that quickly, for multigenerational families in particular. Yours and my constituencies are particularly replete with housing of that sort.

But I'm keen to have that conversation. I'm meeting the Residential Landlords Association soon; we'll continue that conversation with them. But in the meantime, setting the gold standard, if you like, for housing in Wales with social housing is very much where we're at with this statement. We were told we couldn't do it the first time, and we've done it, so I'm sure I'm going to be told I can't do it this time, and I'm pretty convinced we will be able to do it again. My predecessor in post was Rebecca Evans, actually, and I know she had very long conversations about the inability of us to do it, and we've done it anyway. So, that's where we are, but I'm happy to have individual conversations with you, too, Jenny, about constituency issues.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I welcome the statement. Recently, we discussed at the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee the skills that will be necessary. Mark Bodger from the Construction Industry Training Board Wales said that they would be more than prepared to step in to that space. And of course, we've got the upcoming Net Zero Wales skills plan, and I understand that'll be published sometime this autumn. One of the criteria in that plan is to prevent existing labour-market inequalities being carried through into the new net-zero and digital economies. So, I hope that you will agree with me, Minister, that there is a huge opportunity here, and also, I believe, an obligation, to use the new Welsh housing quality standard to encourage and to support more females and members from ethnic minorities to take up careers in construction. If we look at sites, we're talking about only 2 or 3 per cent being female, and only upwards of 14 per cent if we look at the technical side roles. So, it's a huge untapped market when there are currently shortages in that labour market. Will you, Minister, with your colleagues, look at how to use the Welsh housing quality standard to turn around those numbers into a positive? 

15:55

Thank you very much, Joyce. I know you've been campaigning on this issue for as long as I've known you, so it's nice to see you still coming to the bat, or whatever the sporting analogy is for that. Yes, absolutely; one of the things we were able to do with the first Welsh housing quality standard was overtrain the number of apprentices necessary to make them available into the private sector for that kind of retrofit. We'll be able to do that with this one as well, and build on what we've been doing for both the optimised retrofit programme and the innovative housing programme, which is understand what the tech looks like to retrofit, and then make sure that the dialogue with CITB and others, our FE colleges and so on, is absolutely front and centre of that programme, so that they are changing their apprenticeship training programmes as we are changing the technology. There's no point in churning out gas refitting engineers if what we're saying is, 'You don't want a gas boiler'. So, obviously, there's a retraining issue for existing tradespeople, and there's new entrants into the market.

The last thing to say is that a lot of this retrofit we hope will be done with renewables—Welsh timber for insulation panels and so on. Much of that is done in our new modern methods of construction factories. I've been really struck, when going around those factories, at a much more diverse workforce, because it's not at height, it's not out in all weathers, it's in a factory setting. So, you see many more people with disabilities and many more females in those settings than you do on a typical construction site out in all weathers. I'm hoping that that will be the wedge, if you like, to get those people back into the profession.

The last thing I would say is that, of course, we're very much pushing the point, which I know you have pushed on numerous occasions, that this isn't only about the tradespeople. The opportunities for work in the construction sector for this are all the way through—all the way through the assessors, the quantity surveyors, the architects, the project managers and so on. We'd like to see a lot more diversity in all of those tiers in the construction industry, as well as in crafts. Diolch.

Thank you, Minister. On behalf of all Members, I'm sure we'd like to welcome you back to the Chamber and express our thoughts for your difficulties in recent weeks.

6. Statement by the Minister for Finance and Local Government: Local Government Elections

We move on to item 6, a statement by the Minister for Finance and Local Government on the local government elections. I call on the Minister, Rebecca Evans.

Diolch. On behalf of the Welsh Government, I would like to thank everyone involved in the smooth operation of the local government elections in Wales last week, and every person who stood to represent their community. I'd also like to update the Senedd on the elections and how we will take forward our relationship with local authorities in the coming months.

These were the first local government elections since we extended the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds and qualifying foreign nationals, sharing the opportunity to participate in Welsh democracy and civic life. This represents an important milestone in our ambition for more accessible elections. We also supported pilots for flexible voting at last week's elections, hosted by four local authorities. I am very grateful to the four authorities who stepped forward and agreed to work with us on these pilots: Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Torfaen and Bridgend. This has been a model of co-production. While the authorities were responsible for delivering the pilots, they were supported by the whole electoral community in designing the pilot models and with delivery planning. Early indications show that these have worked well, and we look forward to the Electoral Commission's independent evaluation in the coming months. This will help identify where we can further reduce barriers to participation in elections. Reducing the voting age and extending the franchise to everyone who lives in Wales sends a strong message that we are a Government that supports and encourages diversity in our local democracy. Diversity amongst our local elected representatives is essential to ensuring that everyone's views and needs are represented, and to enriching local decision making.

Increasing diversity in local democracy was a core theme of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021. Provisions including job sharing for executive members and assistants to the executive will come into force for the new local government administrations. We have already enacted the permanent provision in the 2021 Act enabling principal and town and community councils to meet remotely, which supports members who are in full-time employment, have caring responsibilities, or find travelling difficult. And these provisions have been widely used and welcomed.

For the first time for local elections in Wales, we opened an access to elected office fund to support disabled candidates. I am very pleased to say that around 20 candidates have been supported through this fund. We are now exploring how we can extend the fund to support people with other protected characteristics. We have also taken steps to ensure that candidates' and elected members' addresses do not have to be in the public domain. This has been widely welcomed to ensure that candidates, members and their families have some protection from the terrible abuse that has become, unfortunately, too common.

We have worked with and will continue to work closely with the Welsh Local Government Association and One Voice Wales to promote the importance and benefits of being a local councillor. Together we produced a range of materials to support and inform potential candidates. This is another example of how we've worked with local government and is testament to the strong and positive working relationship between Welsh Government and local government. During the COVID-19 pandemic, and more recently as a nation of sanctuary in response to the terrible events in Ukraine, we have seen the importance of that relationship in action, and the strength of jointly developing solutions.

I'm committed to continuing to build on this relationship, and to continuing to work together to face the challenges of the future for the benefit of people in Wales. As testament to this partnership, our newly elected councils turn to their new duties supported by the strongest local government settlement for many years. Because we chose to prioritise local government and health services in the Welsh budget, local authorities were provided £5.1 billion this year in core revenue funding and non-domestic rates to deliver key services—an increase of 9.4 per cent. We're also providing over £1 billion in specific revenue grants and nearly £0.75 billion pounds in specific capital funding.

I know that the risks and impacts of inflation and a stalling economy mean that there are still challenges for our councils, but they can meet those challenges with a firmer financial base, increased certainty from an indicative three-year budget, and the backing of a Government that values and supports public services and local government in particular. I look forward to speaking at the WLGA annual general meeting on 24 June and the WLGA conference in September to discuss our joint priorities for the remainder of this Senedd term. Diolch.

16:00

Can I apologise for being a few moments late? I hadn't clocked the move-around in this afternoon's agenda. Apologies, Minister.

Can I thank you, Minister, also, for bringing forward today's constructive statement on the local government elections, which took place last week? I'd like to join you in thanking all of those who were involved in the smooth operation of last week's election, right from those monitoring officers through to those counters at the counting stations. I'm sure that many Members today in the Chamber also attended those counts last week and have been impressed with the whole overall electoral process, seeing at first-hand the exceptional work and dedication of all those in making the process such a success. I'd also like to join the Minister in thanking all those who stood in last week's elections, including those, of course, who were lucky enough to succeed in representing local communities, but also those who stood and were unsuccessful, sadly. It's really important that we have a range of people standing for election so that democracy can be active, and, of course, candidates putting their heads above the parapet, which is not always an easy thing to do.

As you outlined in your statement, Minister, in last week's election, we saw pilots for the flexible voting taking place across four authorities, and, as you say, early indications show that they have worked well. However, for Caerphilly County Borough Council elections, I understand that around only 180 people took advantage of those early elections over 68 wards. If this is correct, that would indicate that just three people per ward took advantage of this. Initially, to me, this doesn't seem good value for money for the investment required to make that happen. And as you state, you look forward to the Electoral Commission's independent evaluation in the coming months on this, but I'm just wondering whether you'd give us some more insight today on how these pilots went and whether you anticipate that they may be used in future council elections.

Secondly, Minister, in your statement you mentioned that the Welsh Government is taking steps to ensure that candidates and elected members' addresses do not have to be in the public domain. Of course, this is welcome in safeguarding the candidates and councillors, and this is an area we've discussed previously in the Chamber. In addition to this, I welcome your continued work with the WLGA to promote the importance and benefits of being a local councillor. Nevertheless, we did see 74 uncontested seats in last week's elections, which does continue to show that people are worried about putting themselves up for election due to sometimes, frankly, abuse and bullying that faces candidates in elections. So, I'm just wondering what particular action you're planning to take to reduce this abuse and bullying and how you will work with the ombudsman to ensure that their powers are sufficient to deal with tackling this issue as well.

And finally, Minister, something not raised in your statement today is the turnout of last week's elections. As we know, turnout continues to be low at council elections. Some of this could be attributed to people not fully, perhaps, understanding the extensive role that councils and councillors play in delivering our vital services. So, what assessment have you made of the turnout for the elections and what action do you think can be taken to enable more of our citizens in Wales to engage in these really important elections in the future? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

16:05

I thank Sam Rowlands very much for his contribution this afternoon, and, obviously, I would associate myself with his comments about the incredible work that we all witnessed, I think, in the counts that we attended, and the care that the people involved in those counts give to the task in hand is really testament to the importance of local democracy. And again just to say 'thank you' to everybody who stood. As Sam Rowlands says, it is an incredibly brave thing to do, especially in the climate at the moment in terms of the abuse that many people face when they do put their head above the parapet to be chosen as the person to represent their communities, but it is incredibly disappointing if you're unsuccessful. So, just a huge 'thank you' to everybody who at least gave people within communities a choice, which I think is important, and that does speak to that important point about uncontested seats.

We do know that the Electoral Reform Society Cymru research says that there were 74 seats that were uncontested this time; that's 6 per cent. It is a slight reduction on the 92 seats or 7.3 per cent at the 2017 elections, but it is still, I think, too high. It is important that people have that chance to see democracy alive within their communities and have a choice of candidates. So, I think there's work for us to do to continue to enthuse people about the potential of a role of being a councillor, because the work that we're doing with the WLGA and with One Voice Wales, actually, in terms of town and community councils, will be important.

In terms of turnout, obviously turnout is always less than you'd want it to be; you'd want to see as many people as possible turning out in these elections, because I think that, over the last couple of years especially, people have seen the real value of local government and what local government can deliver for them in their communities. So, I think that turnout will always just be there as a challenge for us as politicians, but also for our political parties as well, to see what more we can be doing to energise democracy locally and to enthuse people about becoming involved with that.

In terms of the pilots, I think it is too early to give a real flavour as to the pilots today, because it is very early on, but the Electoral Commission is required by law to evaluate those pilot schemes, and they'll be publishing their report within three months of the election. The early indications are that things ran successfully with no operational issues, but we don't know yet the figures of turnout for the pilots. In Blaenau Gwent the centrally located Ebbw Vale learning zone was used as an advanced voting station for all residents of the county, and that included students of the college, during the week leading to polling day. In Bridgend, the polling stations in certain low-turnout wards were open for advanced voting during the week leading up to polling day, and a new, advanced voting centre was created in a school for registered students at that school. And then in Caerphilly, which was the example referred to, the council offices at Ystrad Mynach were used as an advance voting centre for all residents of the county on the weekend before the polling day. And then in Torfaen the council offices in Pontypool were used as an advance voting centre for all residents of the county on the weekend before polling day as well. So, across those four pilots there were some different things that were tested, and I think it'll be interesting to compare the results of those pilots.

I'm particularly interested in terms of learning from those pilots—did they enthuse people to come out who wouldn't normally vote? Did it make voting easier, or did it just make voting more convenient for people who were already planning to come out and vote? So, that will be an interesting test of those pilots. The Electoral Commission did undertake surveys of people as they were leaving those pilot stations, so we should get quite a rich picture of who attended those stations, and why and what they felt about the experience, which will help us in developing policy for further elections. 

16:10

Thank you very much to the Minister for her statement. The results last week underlined again that the first-past-the-post system isn't working. We've seen an example in Cardiff of Plaid Cymru receiving 17 per cent of the vote and gaining two seats, and the Liberal Democrats receiving 13 per cent of the vote and winning 10 seats. I'm not making a party political point here, because I know that there are other parts of Wales where Plaid Cymru would have lost out if we'd adopted a more proportional system. But would you agree with me, Minister, that it is now time for us to move once and for all from the first-past-the-post system, as we will hopefully see here at the Senedd? I know that there is a way for local authorities to adopt more proportional models, but when one party wins two thirds of seats in the capital, where we are today, there is no incentive there to change the system, is there? So, what are you, as a Government, going to do to be more proactive to make this change happen, rather than just leaving it up to the local authorities to choose? Perhaps, ultimately, some will, some won't, and that would be worse than anything, so I would like to hear your response to that.

I think that the big story from the elections last week is the crisis that has come to the fore in terms of town and community councils. The exceptionally low numbers of candidates, certainly in the area that I live in and know best, has frightened me, truth be told. So few town and community councils had any kind of election, and what we see, of course, is an ever decreasing number being elected uncontested, and they can then co-opt more and more people, which increases the democratic deficit that we want to tackle. So, I don't know whether you intend as a Government to look at this issue specifically. Clearly, we need to look at and analyse some of the figures, but I also want to understand what the reasons are why so few people want to stand for election at the coalface for our communities, and the most important level of representation, it could be argued.

Also, of course, you as a Government have created a status for eligible community councils where two thirds of the council has to be elected to be eligible. So, where does that leave those councils where there are insufficient people putting themselves forward, and what do you think the implications are for that in that regard?

I too welcomed the fact that we don't have to publish the addresses of candidates, but there is a problem that will arise as a result of that, because some candidates do publish their details and some don't, and for those who don't, I'm concerned—what I heard back from constituents was, 'Well, they're trying to hide the fact that they don't live locally.' I'm concerned that those that had valid reasons not to publish their details are tarred by the same brush as those who don't live in the area. So, perhaps we need to ensure that nobody publishes their addresses to prevent this situation, because people might be hiding their addresses deliberately for electoral rather than valid personal reasons

Finally, I'm pleased that the Government is trialling different methods of voting. I'd like to see more of that taking place, certainly, but turnout is still falling in some areas more than I would like to see happen. It does prove to me, the fact that the turnout is still falling, that we need to go much further than what we've seen. I'm sure that the Government intends to do that in time, but hasn't the time now come for us to move towards electronic voting? Those aged between 16 and 17 were allowed to vote for the first time, and I was talking to a large number of them as I was campaigning, and, almost without exception, the question that I was asked was, 'Well, can I do this electronically?', 'Is there an app for doing this?', and, every time, I had to say, 'Well, no. You have to find your way to the ballot box to vote by paper and pencil.' Well, the looks I got back, they said, 'Well, in what age are we living in?' So, what is the Government intending to do to move towards this direction? I can pay my taxes with HMRC via electronic means, so it's not beyond the wit of the Government to move in that direction, and the time has come for us to do exactly that. 

16:15

Thank you to Llyr Gruffydd for those questions. In terms of the method of election and voting, I think today is an important day in terms of the future of the Senedd and the way in which we'll elect future Members of the Senedd, given the agreement that our two parties have come to and the work that will now face this Senedd in terms of scrutiny of a Bill in due course, when that will come forward.

But I know that Llyr Gruffydd's main point was in relation to the impact of first-past-the-post on local government and what will Welsh Government do to make change happen in respect of a move to STV in local authorities, because, as colleagues know, the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 did provide those provisions to allow those principal councils to choose their voting system between first-past-the-post and the STV system. Those provisions are now in effect, but I think this is the point here, that Welsh Government's position is very much that it is for local authorities to choose to make that change. So, Welsh Government won't be making the change happen, but I do think there is a role to ensure that those councillors who will now be potentially grappling with this question have the information that they need to make informed decisions on that, and I did have an interesting discussion with the Electoral Reform Society on exactly that point. So, I think that Welsh Government, if it has a role beyond setting the legislation or bringing forward the legislation that the Senedd has passed, it is more in the space of providing information so that councillors can make the right choice for their local area. I know that is not the response that Llyr Gruffydd would want to hear, but I'd give a straight answer to that one.

And then, in terms of town and community councillors, yes, this is an area where it continues to be disappointing that we don't have full slates of candidates coming forward in all areas, and this is all part of the work that is linked to demonstrating the importance of being a councillor, both in terms of principal councils but also town and community councils, and the incredible impact that, actually, you can have when you have a really, really good town and community council in your area. So, we do need to do more work to understand what puts people off from putting themselves forward. We understand that people are concerned about their other commitments, the time commitment involved in being a town and community councillor. So, there's a lot, I think, that we need to continue to explore there and I'll do so with One Voice Wales as we continue to try and improve the health of our town and community councils right across Wales, looking to those best ones, really, for inspiration as to how we can bring all town and community councils up to that level of ambition that some of them absolutely definitely show.

And then, in terms of the point about candidates' addresses, I think that there are probably further conversations to be had in terms of whether or not we provide that option at all, because that point that Llyr Gruffydd made is an important one in terms of some candidates being criticised for not living locally. It's easier for us as Members of the Senedd, because we can say that we have an address within the Gower constituency, or whatever the constituency, but I don't think that candidates had the option to give the answer that they have an address within the ward. I know that they were able to indicate they were within the county council area. So, there's something, I think, that we can look at there potentially to make improvements in the future.

And then, again, lots to learn on the pilots. I think that, as I say, things seem to have gone smoothly, which is good, and we look forward very much to that Electoral Commission research that will be published and there will be, I'm sure, opportunities for us to discuss that as a Senedd. 

And then, in terms of electronic voting, absolutely, this is something that we're taking particular interest in. I think all Governments across the world are looking to see how we can move to electronic voting. I had the same conversations as Llyr Gruffydd did, I'm sure, in terms of being able to undertake so many other parts of our lives in a virtual way, but then voting itself, even though we try and make it as easy as possible with the pilots, with postal voting and so on, is still very much a traditional activity. So there's definitely a lot to do in terms of modernising and modernisation in that space.

16:20

I'm pleased to say that Labour won more than all other parties combined in England, but the real success for Labour is here in Wales, where the First Minister runs a popular and progressive Government, and nearly half of all Labour gains across the whole of the UK were here in Wales, which is fantastic. I'd like to congratulate all new councillors and hope they enjoy the important role as much as I did over the last 14 years.

This year's supplement from Welsh Government to councils was a good one. However, the next two years will not be as high, and I see that capital funding will be reducing from the UK Government over the next three years, on top of the lack of European funding. With councils being cut to the bone under 10 years of Tory austerity, and mounting pressures on services, I heard this morning a BBC Radio Wales debate following a Sustrans report about the affordability of public transport and the rising cost of living as a real concern. Do you think that it is prudent that councils use this good settlement towards investing in the next two years, and continue to work positively with the Welsh Government during this very difficult time? Thank you.

I thank Carolyn Thomas very much for those remarks and join her in, again, congratulating all councillors who have been elected. I know that Carolyn has a particular perspective, having served herself, so she'll be very familiar with the privilege that it is to be a member, but probably slightly sad to see that part of her life gone, because, when I do speak to councillors who have been standing down at this election, and those who, sadly, weren't re-elected, they do talk about their experience of being a councillor with such warmth, about it being such a privilege having that chance to represent the people you live next to. I think that's just a wonderful thing to do, and it's lovely to have this chance to highlight that in the Chamber this afternoon.

It is the case that the Welsh Government provided a good budget settlement to local government in the most recent budget round. That was very much, I think, recognised by local government themselves. I know now that they are very much focused on using that settlement to make the maximum change within their communities, working very, very closely with Welsh Government, as we've done in the period we've recently passed through. I'm really keen now to use this period ahead to build relationships with new leaders and also to build relationships with new councillors, new cabinet members and so on as we move forward, because I think that, working together, obviously, we can achieve so much more. Carolyn Thomas referred to the cost of living, and obviously I think that's something that I'll be working really closely with local government on, alongside the other big challenges that we face together, such as the climate emergency and the nature emergency, and that very pressing issue in relation to supporting people who are coming from Ukraine to Wales to find sanctuary.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I welcome the Minister's statement. I congratulate all councillors elected at the election, whatever party. I know all of them will do their best for their constituents over the next five years. I also believe that a number of Members here are relieved they will not have to keep on declaring an interest every time an item comes up relating to local government.

I'm sure that, when we see turnout for the 16 and 17-year-olds, it'll be lower than that for the general population. What younger people do not understand—just following on from what Llyr Gruffydd raised—is that they cannot use electronic means of voting, when they can use electronic means of paying for goods. They believe people would be more interested in trying to take their money off them than in trying to take their vote off them. Will the Welsh Government look at electronic voting at future elections?

And whilst I welcome that candidates' addresses do not need to be on the ballot paper, why cannot the first part of the postcode be there, e.g. SA6, CF1, SA2, whatever it is, so people can see that the candidate may not live with an address that they're told of, but they can see they live in their area? The one thing that I've found in elections that people are most interested in is not your politics, but where you live.

I think Mike Hedges is very right in terms of the interest that people have, particularly in local elections, as to where you're from, where you live and so on. So, I think that's another good idea from Mike Hedges that we can explore as we continue to develop this policy, which gives candidates and their families that level of privacy by not having their address revealed to the public, but also I think gives local people that information they desire in terms of understanding whether or not the local candidates are local to their area. So, good ideas this afternoon, which I think we can definitely look forward to exploring further. 

And then the point about 16 and 17-year-olds voting for the first time is really important. We don't yet have the data on the numbers who exercised their right to vote. It'll be interesting seeing the Electoral Commission's data in terms of the pilot projects and whether they had a particular impact on encouraging 16 and 17-year-olds to vote. We have worked really closely with local authorities, with third sector organisations and other partners, including the Electoral Commission, to increase the number of 16 and 17-year-olds on the register. That, in itself, was an issue, if we all recall, back in our own election, that 16 and 17-year-olds hadn't been taking that opportunity to register to vote. We've also provided additional funding to increase capacity in local authority election teams, so that they have the ability there to do more work in terms of engaging young people, and we've also provided third sector organisations with grants to support the innovative, face-to-face work that they're doing with young people and also with the qualifying foreign citizens to support those individuals to access their right to vote. And we've also worked to increase the availability of resources and opportunities for teachers so that they're able to engage with learners in schools through the work of the Association for Citizenship Teaching, and also the Politics Project, which I was really privileged to be involved with and had the opportunity to speak to first-time voters in schools across my own constituency. And I found those conversations to be really, really wonderful in terms of understanding the young people's particular concerns and their hopes and their fears for the future. So, if colleagues have the opportunity to become involved in that, I would recommend it. And then we continue, as I say, to work closely with partners to identify what's worked, how we can build on these foundations that we've laid, but also what barriers continue to exist.  

So, I think that brings my contribution to a close, but, before I do finish, Deputy Presiding Officer, I do want to say thank you to the leaders who I've worked very closely with, and my colleague Julie James has worked very closely with, who have either retired or who were not re-elected. So, Councillor Nigel Daniels in Blaenau Gwent, Councillor Philippa Marsden in Caerphilly, Councillor Emlyn Dole in Carmarthenshire, and also Councillor Rosemarie Harris in Powys, I'd like to say a big thank you for the leadership that they've shown in their communities. It's been a privilege to work with them. And then also Councillor Ellen ap Gwynn in Ceredigion and Councillor Neil Moore, both of whom are retiring this time—Neil Moore in the Vale of Glamorgan—both of whom it has been a privilege to work with. 

16:25
7. The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 (Consequential Amendments) (Job-sharing and Assistants to the Executive) Regulations 2022

Item 7 today, the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 (Consequential Amendments) (Job-sharing and Assistants to the Executive) Regulations 2022, and I call on the Minister for Finance and Local Government to move the motion. 

Motion NDM7995 Lesley Griffiths

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 27.5:

1. Approves that the draft The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 (Consequential Amendments) (Job-sharing and Assistants to the Executive) Regulations 2022 is made in accordance with the draft laid in the Table Office on 29 March 2022.

Motion moved.

I welcome the opportunity to bring forward the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 (Consequential Amendments) (Job-sharing and Assistants to the Executive) Regulations 2022 today. These regulations make provision to ensure the arrangements in respect of job sharing apply as intended when the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 was made. Fundamental to executive job-sharing arrangements is that members who share the same executive office have one vote between them and together count as one member when determining whether a meeting is quorate. These regulations are therefore required to ensure consistency with this principle in relation to democratic services committees, standards committees and governance and audit committees. 

The 2021 Act also makes provision for the appointment of members to assist the executive in carrying out its functions. These assistants are not members of the executive. The Act makes it clear that, for the purposes of allocating the one seat available to the executive on both the governance and audit committee or democratic services committee, one assistant to the executive or one member of the executive may be appointed, not both. These regulations are required to ensure consistency of arrangements in respect of a local authority's standards committee. I ask Members to approve these regulations today. 

16:30

Therefore, the proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? There are no objections, and the motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

The meeting ended at 16:30.